June 17, 2021   6 mins

On the eve of the final day of campaigning for the Brexit referendum of June 2016, the BBC hosted its Great Debate live from Wembley Arena. Each campaign had three speakers. One side featured a trio of MPs from the establishment parties, all of them over 50, none of them representing a constituency outside the south and middle of England. Their opponents put forward no MPs, choosing instead a much younger, more diverse team that looked a lot more like contemporary Britain.

If you knew nothing else, and you were told that there was a public mood of discontent with the status quo, this line-up of speakers would give you a strong hint about who won the vote two days later. The middle-aged, establishment figures would surely have lost.

Except they didn’t. The three white, middle-aged MPs were Gisela Stuart, Andrea Leadsom and Boris Johnson. Their opponents were Ruth Davidson, Sadiq Khan and the TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady.

It is easy to imagine how pleased the Remain campaign must have been with the composition of their trio: a Scot who is also a lesbian, a military vet and a Tory; a working class Londoner from a British-Pakistani background; and the first woman ever to get to the top of the organised labour movement. The collective image they projected could hardly have been more inclusive or well calibrated to the complex realities of Britain in 2016.

It was also, of course, quite useless. Complexity and variousness did not carry Remain to victory in 2016. These qualities also proved, in the struggle to prevent a very hard Brexit, not only ineffective but arguably counterproductive.

All things being equal, it seems obvious that, in a democracy, a broad alliance is always better than a narrow movement. The problem for Remain is that all things were not equal. When national identity becomes the dominant issue, it rips up the familiar score. Harping on one note becomes much easier than trying to conduct an orchestra with too many instruments.

It is hard to avoid the old (and admittedly cliched) Greek image of the fox that knows many things and the hedgehog that knows one big thing. Remainers were animated by many different things. Leavers were defined by one big thing.

To leave the European Union was to be out. To remain was to be in. But in what exactly? There were far too many answers to that question and most of them were in conflict with each other.

What polity, what place, what imagined community could Nicola Sturgeon and Keir Starmer, Gerry Adams and Dominic Grieve, Caroline Lucas and David Cameron collectively conjure? There was none because there could not be. On almost everything except the desirability of not leaving the EU, Remainers had profoundly different visions of what the UK should be, and indeed sharply conflicting views on whether it should exist at all.

Embodying a persuasive idea of contemporary Britain is actually a very hard thing to do. Is Ruth Davidson the kind of Tory with whom most English conservatives would identify? Do Sadiq Khan’s working-class credentials evoke a sense of solidarity among working class voters in the Midlands? What political weight does the organised labour movement represented by Frances O’Grady really carry any more?

Defining a collective identity is difficult in any country, but much more so in a multi-national kingdom with shifting and uncertain notions of its own past, of its place in the world, of the relationships between its constituent parts, of the politics of social class, and of attitudes to migration and globalisation.

The great irony of Brexit is that it did in fact generate a kind of collective identity for Remainers. But it did so only in reaction to defeat. Remain lost because its only real binding agent was a sense of loss. It had to be beaten before it could discover a collective self. By definition, that was too late.

It is true of course that Leavers didn’t agree with each other about what Brexit really meant. But the crucial difference is that they didn’t have to. For the one big thing that nationalist movements know is not who “we” are. It is who we are not. Leavers had a deep-rooted sense of their Other, their dislike and distrust of the EU. For Remainers, the Other was merely the Leavers. If, as W.B. Yeats claimed, there is “More substance in our enmities / Than in our love”, the Leavers had the great benefit of enmities whose substance had been formed over centuries rather than mere years.

If, like me, you’re Irish, it seemed very funny that Brexiteers were casting England (and it was very much England) as an oppressed nation, a colonised country being given the chance to overthrow its imperial overlords. (The picture on the door of Nigel Farage’s office at the European Parliament was not of himself but of the 19th century Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell.)

I remember laughing out loud when Johnson, in his summing up at the end of that Great Debate, said that “Thursday can be our country’s independence day” — a claim that Farage indeed repeated when the result of the referendum came in. This notion of England as Kenya or Ireland or India at the end of empire seemed too over the top as a performance of victimhood to have much purchase on the minds of voters.

I was wrong. The idea of Brexit as the rising up of a subjugated nation clearly did seem real to many voters. And once that is the case, you are in very different game. Because if you’re Irish you also know that national insurgencies have a great advantage. They capture the idea of freedom as an end in itself — they do not have to say what you will be free to do.

Once you generate the belief that you are in a movement towards independence, you establish a temporal order. First, we become independent. Then we decide what to do with our freedom. There may be various promises about what we aspire to when we have broken away from our oppressor, but they exist in a different time zone, the one that only becomes real after we’ve broken our chains.

Remainers, confused by the innate absurdity of the idea of enslaved Britannia, never quite understood this. They stuck with two assumptions that had ceased to apply once the Leavers had successfully generated the idea of Brexit as a nationalist revolution. One is that it surely must matter deeply that the Brexiteers betrayed their promises. The other is that it also mattered that the Brexiteers had no agreed idea of what form Brexit should take.

Thus, when the Brexiteers very quickly disowned the infamous pledge from the side of the bus — £350 million a week for the NHS — Remainers expected outrage from voters who had been so cynically misled. There was none because the promise was about the afterlife, the time that lies on the far side of the great defining moment of independence. It was always in a different category of reality.

The same, incidentally, goes for all the threats made by the Remain side, even the ones that were (unlike the Project Fear vision of an immediate one-way trip to Hell in a handcart) well founded. They existed, for Leavers, in that nebulous never-never land of the future, another country where they do things differently.

Nor was the Brexit project really weakened by what, in a different kind of political discourse, ought to have doomed it. The deep internal divisions about whether the UK should remain within, or at least be closely aligned with, the EU’s single market, made it look like the Leave cause would implode under the pressure of its own contradictions. It did not seem foolish to believe this as Theresa May’s haplessness turned to a paralysis that shaded into anarchy.

But in fact even this disarray was a kind of strength for the Leave cause. The profound uncertainty about what Brexit would mean in reality allowed it to sustain its character as a gesture, a notion, a one-off act of liberation. It kept it on the plane where it was most inviolable, unsullied by mere detail: reclaimed sovereignty, golden age, sunlit uplands.

Think, by way of contrast, of why the SNP lost the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014. It provided the details: 900 pages on what an independent Scotland would look like. This was a target-rich environment and unionists could see all the weak points at which to aim their fire. The very vagueness of Brexit saved it from this fate. Remainers never knew, until the endgame, what the deal was going to be. They were always chasing a shadow.

What could Remainers have done differently? Well, as we say in Ireland, you wouldn’t start from here. If there was going to be an epic debate about how the peoples of the UK see themselves, you would not start with David Cameron’s glib promise of a referendum on Europe to appease his internal malcontents. You would not begin with a smug assumption that questions of identity could be shooed away with dire warnings about trade.

You would have started with a recognition that, in the wake of the Belfast Agreement of 1998 and the establishment of the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales the following year, ideas of belonging have become deeply unsettled within the UK. You would have engaged in particular with the growing evidence from the turn of the century onwards of an emergent but unformed English nationalism and thought about how it could be expressed, not just as a “not them” but as a positive “us”.

The Leavers were talking, though usually in reactionary and often in absurd ways, about identity. Remainers largely disdained such talk as innately reprehensible. But an identity crisis doesn’t go away if you ignore it. Leave offered some kind of an answer — albeit a very bad one. Remain barely recognised the question.

Fintan O’Toole is a columnist with the Irish Times.