How Hardcore Remainers Ended Up Sounding Weirdly Like Brexiteers

The people who hate Brexit the most are beginning to resemble its biggest fans.
02 August 2017, 12:25pm
A protest shortly after the referendum result (Photo by Oscar Webb)

Last year, the country was in the grip of insurgent Brexiters, those doomed ideologues with their eccentric plan to reverse history, for whom absolutely everything is always about Europe. The Brexiteers managed to condense everything they hated – job insecurity, financialisation, their constant sense of helplessness, people speaking languages other than English on the street, the existence of a world beyond Britain's damp and gritty shores – into a single word, Leave. Once we're out of the EU, everything will be better.

It was a lie. But among those who wish to stay in the EU – In May, a poll found that 22 percent of the country agree that "the government should ignore the result of the referendum or seek to overturn it" – there are a few whose fervour has taken on an oddly familiar tone.

Hardcore Remainers see the country tipping delicately into an abyss of stupidity, and they want it to stop. They see the Labour Party led by a man who seems to want to cheerfully pitch Britain over the edge, and they say he supported Brexit all along, he was never on our side, he's as bad as the Daily Mail. They see the future slipping through their fingers, propelled by an alien momentum carrying it somewhere they don't like one bit, and they want to take back control: seize power again from the maniacs and ideologues, the deluded and the lied-to, and give it back to the nice sensible experts who deserve to decide what happens next. You can see it in furious conversations, on Twitter and in pub gardens under the sullen miserable English summer: it was only advisory, they lied on those buses, it'll be a disaster, there should be a second referendum, they should just cancel it altogether, it's not too late.

They are not left or right. They are not neoliberals or social democrats. They are Remain. As they look out on a world grinding itself apart, where zombie governments shovel themselves deeper into a mouldering power, where tower blocks blaze up fuelled by class warfare and cynical profiteering, where hundreds of millions of people are living in vast tracts of land that will shortly be as uninhabitable as the moon, there are people whose main political self-identification is still that they don't want Britain to leave the EU.

You can see this tendency, for instance, in the absolute certainty these people have that Brexit will mandate austerity: in refusing to fall in line with the Lib Dems, Corbyn is basically a beardier George Osborne. This is simply not true. Austerity has always been an ideological decision and an instrument of class power. You only have to look as far as Greece, where the population is reeling from the troika bailout regime, to realise that the EU is no bulwark against austerity.

What matters for the future welfare of people in this country – far more than what EU bodies we continue to be a member of or what kind of trade deal we get – is who has power, what they choose to do with it, what classes and constituencies they depend on, and which ones are out there opposing them.

This militant Remainery is, of course, a view that's stiflingly over-represented in the media: just about every week, the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland disgorges another text-sac on why we could still stop it all from happening, and why it has to be done. In the Spectator, Nick Cohen suggests that because they both accept the referendum result, the Labour left and the Tory right may as well merge. Ian Dunt of, Peter Collins of the Economist, and Dorian Lynskey of (of course) the Guardian, are pumping out Remainiacs, a weekly podcast taglined Ho Hey, Let's Stay. Radio 4's Mitch Benn bizarrely insisted that last year's result was just like a vote to re-criminalise homosexuality (basically: "Would you still support this thing if it was something different and worse?").

And then there's my own mum – and maybe yours too – trawling through the papers for more news of reduced-size Toblerones and other Brexit madness. They never stop insisting: we can't let them do it, I don't care who won the referendum, it shouldn't be allowed.

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This is how you know Brexit has won. It has become a totality. It admits no antitheses. It's not just in patterns of speech or thought; Remaining has, in the end, become just another form of sordidly Brexity political nostalgia. Things used to be better, in the old days, except the old days now took place in early 2016. This country was fine before Brexit; we just need to cancel out everything that's happened since then, and we can go back.

Ordinarily I quite like this kind of thing. There's always something strangely beautiful about a defeated cause, the shimmering hologram of a world that could never quite bring itself into being, the possibility that everything could have been entirely different to how it is. But unlike the people who mourned the lost potential of the Paris Commune or the German revolution – those who, with Walter Benjamin, "brush history against the grain" – Remainers don't really stand with the defeated of history. Their buried hope is for the 2016 Remain campaign and nothing more banal, ugly, conceited, or cackhanded is imaginable.

The Remain campaign was terrible. It ignored the suffering of everyone exploited and excluded from the happy modern pro-EU Britain, shouting over them with a fetishistic obsession for the pronouncements of babbling experts and venal billionaires. It happily capitulated to far-right narratives on race and immigration. As I wrote at the time, it seemed deliberately contrived to exclude any kind of left-wing ideas from the debate. It was the campaign for a more respectable form of petty nationalism, one that hated immigrants but loved imported cheese, that still promised misery for the working classes but with added paternalistic fretting.

It wasn't dark money or lies on the sides of buses that really won the referendum for Leave; it was the other side's tightly constructed imaginative horizons. Remain wasn't a noble and glorious lost cause, it was a cruel and heartless status quo, and it's not anything worth identifying with now.

Of course, Brexit is awful too – in many ways, far worse. But what's really bad about Brexit isn't in the mechanics of leaving the EU. What's bad about Brexit is the political energies it unleashed and legitimised. The racism, the reactionary nostalgia, the seeping bitterness, the idea that there can be no liberated future, that freedom means the suffering of others, that progress means putting things back the way they were. And last-stand Remainery isn't any kind of antidote for these poisons. It's just a mirror image of the same thing, blanketing, and triumphant, and monstrous.