Remainers, 48 percenters, proud Europhiles, gather round and listen to me when I tell you that if we’re going to stop Brexit, then we have to stop refighting the referendum.
There’s lots of people who seem to think there’s a short cut to stopping Brexit by invalidating the referendum. There are several reasons and ways presented for doing this, but it boils down to a simple argument: Because of (spending irregularities/lies on buses/it was only advisory/Russian trolls/insert your favourite argument here) the referendum was wrong, therefore we should all pretend it didn’t happen and stop doing Brexit. Unfortunately for people putting that forward, the possibility of any of those arguments, even in combination, persuading enough people of the desirability of memory holing the referendum is in the same region as Elvis turning out to be the Loch Ness Monster.
It’s not that I don’t understand the appeal of ‘if only’ arguments and the chance to have a do-over of something that you got wrong the first time. If we could just go back a couple of years then we could have a Remain campaign that wasn’t eye-meltingly incompetent, or develop a better way to counter bus-based propaganda, or have better weather on polling day or a million other things that would have absolutely, definitely changed the result. The problem, however, is when a political version l’esprit de l’escalier becomes a substitute for having policy that deals with the present.
The problem with a strategy of invalidating the referendum is that it looks to most people like an attempt to cheat or win on a technicality. It’s not a political win, where you persuade people by the strength of your ideas but a dirty one, where you manage to rig the system to your advantage. Unless you’ve got evidence of widespread and systematic vote fraud/tampering in the referendum (and I’m about as sure as I can be that there wasn’t) invalidation is not going to be a successful strategy. You don’t persuade someone to change their mind by telling them ‘you didn’t know what you were doing when you voted because of (insert nefarious force of your choice here)’ Even in the best circumstances, people are very unwilling to admit they might not be responsible for their own opinions (and we don’t have the budget to give everyone a detailed education in the mechanics of public opinion), so don’t expect them to be grateful someone who didn’t vote the way they did is telling them they’re thick.
Like generals, political campaigners are often only concerned with refighting the last war instead of developing the strategy and tactics they need to win the next one. If you want to stop Brexit, then you have to accept the world we’re in, which is one in which people voted for it in 2016 and aren’t going to be persuaded that something else happened then instead. This isn’t a ‘believe in Brexit and everything will be fine’ argument – I thought it was a bad idea in 2016, and I still do today – but a call to try and win the political battles of today, not the ones of eighteen months ago.
To win those arguments needs a change in the way arguments get phrased. There’s too much of a tendency to frame everything in terms of the referendum, coupled with the underlying assumption that we’re divided into political tribes of Leavers and Remainers. When news comes through it’s all too easy (and I’ve done it myself) to talk about it in terms of ‘see, this is why I was right in the referendum and you were wrong’. It makes us feel good and justified in what we’ve done, but consider how someone on the ‘other side’ might see it. For a start, you’ve drawn a line and made two sides, encouraging them to think of themselves as being on the Leave ‘side’. That means they’re now primed to deal with any news we get that’s not good for our side – we find reasons to dismiss or dispute it, to reinforce our notion of ourselves as being right and being fixed in our opinions. You’re not persuading someone to think about the future, merely to reinforce their view of themselves as someone defined by an action they took in the past.
There aren’t any time machines, memory holes or even obscure legal precedents discovered by some bloke on Facebook that are going to make it so the referendum didn’t happen. The only way to stop Brexit is through votes that are yet to take place. They might be in Parliament, in an election or even at another referendum, but if we want to win those votes then we need to be thinking now about how we persuade people to side with us when they come about. So when you’re sharing news about the Irish border, trade talks, GDP figures or whatever else, talk about what this means for the future of the UK and everyone living here. Don’t tell process stories about the referendum, instead tell meaningful stories about how we can do something different and improve people’s lives. Don’t get into fact-checking arguments on social media with hardcore keyboard warriors who aren’t going to change their minds, because all that’s doing is reinforcing the narrative of two opposing camps which just hardens opinions around the referendum. Don’t repeat their soundbites in the belief you’re correcting them – remember the old adage that if you’re explaining, you’re losing – but develop our own arguments instead. Start with ‘no deal is a bad deal’ and work from there with people who are better at coining pithy phrases than me.
Stop arguing against things and start arguing for things, and give people a reason to rally around the positive instead of just getting angry about things that can’t be changed. Those who want Brexit are happy to rehash the referendum arguments ad infinitum because they won that time. We need to move on and make the arguments that will win the next votes, not imagine we’ve got the power to change the past.