Breaking News

‘Loud, obsessive, tribal’: the radicalisation of remain | Politics


On 25 October 2017, a pensioner living in the Netherlands created a new hashtag. Hendrik Klaassens was concerned about the rise of Europe’s far right and wanted to bring campaigners together on Twitter. He settled on #FBPE: “Follow Back Pro EU”. Klaassens didn’t specifically have Britain in mind, but within a few days of his tweet, anti-Brexit Twitter accounts started using the hashtag. Before long, they were adding it to their usernames, so that it would appear whenever they tweeted. And in late November, when Mike Galsworthy, an influential anti-Brexit campaigner, posted a widely shared video on Twitter urging his followers to embrace it, #FBPE really took off. It wasn’t a memorable hashtag, but it didn’t need to be. The people consumed by their resistance to Brexit now had their own way to communicate, to find each other in the crowd.

Today, Klaassens estimates that 15,000 people still use the hashtag, most of them in the UK. Their tweets have always see-sawed between defiance and distress, but in the weeks since Boris Johnson became prime minister – as they have become convinced that Britain is in the midst of a rightwing coup – they have grown increasingly despairing.

The #FBPE brigade can appear locked in an arms race to out-remain each other. The descriptions that accompany their profiles are furnished with Brexiter slurs they’ve reappropriated (“remoaner”, “saboteur”), lists of the European countries they’ve lived in, and plainspoken declarations of devotion (“Remain – all the way through like a stick of rock”). They have come under attack from all sides: they are derided by Brexit supporters for being sore losers; mocked, even by many who voted remain, for their fanaticism and earnestness. Yet for this online tribe, #FBPE is more than a badge of solidarity – it has given them an identity.

#FBPE is just one sect in a wider movement that was born the day Britain voted to leave the EU. Before the referendum, it felt as if the only people who really cared about the EU were the ones who wanted to leave it. But a week after Britain voted out, tens of thousands of people massed in Parliament Square. Protesters waved the EU flag, draped themselves in it, painted it on their faces. All the affection for Europe that had been unvoiced during the referendum campaign was suddenly coming out in a rush. Belatedly, a new movement had been born: remainism.

When they’re not soaking up anti-Brexit memes on Twitter, remainists can read The New European, a pro-EU newspaper, and anti-Brexit novels by Ali Smith and Jonathan Coe. They can listen to podcasts like My Parents Voted Brexit and Remainiacs, and if they’re looking for some remain-themed music, they can put on a recent album by The Matthew Herbert Brexit Big Band, which includes samples of Gibraltarian monkeys, a swimmer crossing the Channel and a Ford Fiesta being scrapped.

Before the referendum, many of the people who have become remainists considered themselves immune to the passions of politics. They tended to hover around the centre ground and didn’t strongly identify with any party. They were used to being on the inside, to being listened to. But since 23 June 2016, remainists have found themselves out in the cold. “I just felt everything I believed in was stolen from me,” Angela Ramsall, a prominent anti-Brexit voice, better known on Twitter as @spaceangel1964, told me.

Remainists feel embattled, ignored; they lament what their country has become. They feel that the politicians who are meant to be on their side, and the media organisations that are meant to present facts impartially, have betrayed them. The system that had seemed to function, more or less, has broken down. Steve Deacon, a protester I met on a People’s Vote march earlier this year, was at Glastonbury festival when he heard the referendum result. Before then, he had felt that “the world had been marching forward, and things were getting better incrementally”. But since that day, it no longer seems that way to him.

These are the kinds of sentiments that have come to be associated with leavers – the idea that the country had been going in the wrong direction, that it had become unrecognisable. But after the referendum, they were suddenly being voiced by remainists. “It was just so reminiscent of how radical-right voters would think,” says Rob Ford, a political scientist at the University of Manchester who has researched the rise of Ukip. “And it was remarkable how quickly that mindset descended.”

And so these people, who once dismissed radicals as unreasonable, have themselves become radicalised. They used to pride themselves on their moderation; now, spurred on by rage, they divide the world into enemies and allies. What they are doing is loud, obsessive, tribal, confrontational – politics, in other words.

Three years in, remainists can’t claim any concrete victories, but their fundamental demand – stopping Brexit – is now firmly in the mainstream. They have helped set the new conventional wisdom that Labour faces electoral wipeout if it doesn’t commit to a second referendum; within the party, the pressure for holding another vote looks unstoppable. Only a few months ago, remainists seemed to be ascendant: each protest was bigger than the last, each delay to Brexit bought them more time. But Theresa May’s resignation changed that. Remainists faded into the background over the summer, as the Conservative leadership election sucked up all the oxygen. Now, with Johnson in No 10, the Brexiters are once again on the front foot. As 31 October approaches, the remainists are running out of time – and anything less than staying in Europe will devastate them. “It’s going to be like a bereavement for me,” says Helen Harris-Burland, a campaigner from the Chilterns.

Remainists often describe Brexit as a distraction from the real problems Britain faces – austerity, inequality, a creaking NHS. Yet those problems existed long before the referendum, without galvanising most remainists in the way Brexit has. For many remainists, in fact, it can feel as if everything else is a distraction: what drives them on is their belief that Brexit is the battle of a lifetime. Through a bruising, often disillusioning process, they have acquired a better idea of what matters to them, and how to get it. “It’s been a fault of mine not being involved in politics before,” Harris-Burland says. “Since Brexit, I’ve learned a huge amount about how the country works – and it’s not very favourable.” Europe is the terrain on which this has all taken place. But for remainists, just like leavers, the argument is really about Britain: the country they thought they were living in, and the country they want it to be.


Just as only a fraction of the people who supported Margaret Thatcher could be called Thatcherite, voting remain is not enough to make you a remainist. Remainists are the people who keep bringing the conversation back to Brexit. They point out that the referendum was only ever meant to be advisory, and insist that another one is just around the corner. They go on protests. They have strong opinions about Guy Verhofstadt and Sabine Weyand. They worry about chlorinated chicken. They have acquired detailed knowledge of electoral law and can list the leave campaign’s violations. They light up at any mention of the 2012 Olympics. They wonder what Orwell would have made of all this. They hang the EU flag in their windows. (There is a group of remainists who call themselves EU Flag Mafia, and perform stunts such as hanging dozens of flags from poles in the sea off Southend, like a gang of centrist situationists.)

There are plenty of remainist groups: one, Wooferendum, even mobilises dogs against Brexit. The People’s Vote campaign is the behemoth at the heart of organised remainism – so much so that it has become a kind of byword for resistance to Brexit. Launched last year by Open Britain, the successor to the official remain campaign in 2016, it has brought different, sometimes overlapping remainist organisations together under one roof (literally: they share office space in Westminster’s Millbank Tower). There’s the People’s Vote brand itself, with its own local offshots and national marches; the two big grassroots groups, Britain for Europe and the European Movement, which work side by side. And then there are the specialist organisations that now come under the People’s Vote umbrella – the likes of Our Future Our Choice (Ofoc) and Scientists for EU. If People’s Vote, with its Westminster ties and celebrity supporters, represents the pinnacle of slick establishment remainism, then Sodem (which stands for Stand of Defiance European Movement, and is pronounced “sod ’em”), is more homespun. Somewhere in the middle lies Led By Donkeys, a four-man band who have produced billboards featuring damning quotes from Brexiter politicians (Nigel Farage, May 2016: “in a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way”), earning them a place in the remainist pantheon.

Ask a remainist what motivates them and they’ll talk about the EU: its role in maintaining peace, the importance of countries working together for prosperity. They will smile wistfully as they recount teenage trips to Europe or their time spent studying there. Older remainists will mention fathers who fought in the second world war, to stress that a peaceful, united Europe can never be taken for granted.

There is an antagonistic strain in remainism that is just as important as this idealism. “Europeanism has always been more anti-Eurosceptic than pro-European,” says Robert Saunders, a historian at Queen Mary University of London. And what fuels remainists, three years into the Brexit process, is anger. They hate the people you’d expect them to hate: Johnson, Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg, “Andrea Loathsome”, to use one of their schoolboyish nicknames. They hate them for their lies, and their “cakeism”, the Johnsonian insistence that we really can have our cake and eat it: that Britain could leave the single market, say, without losing any of the benefits of being part of it. (One remainist podcast is called Cake Watch.)

Get the Guardian’s award-winning long reads sent direct to you every Saturday morning

Most of all, remainists hate the way the Brexiters keep getting away with it. Remainists hated Theresa May by the end; increasingly, they hate Jeremy Corbyn, too. Matt Kelly, the editor of The New European, considers this is a reasonable, pragmatic reaction to the failures of Britain’s ruling class. “If someone’s behaving in an extreme and bizarre manner then I think being pissed off is absolutely the appropriate response,” he says. “The anger comes in waves – and it’s pretty tsunami-esque at the moment.”

Remainists tend to put their faith not in politicians, but in bureaucrats and civil servants. But they make an exception for those MPs, such as Dominic Grieve or Yvette Cooper (even though she doesn’t back a second referendum), who are willing to rebel against the party leadership or reach out to the opposite benches. Remainists wish these kinds of “grownups” – seemingly responsible, competent people, capable of putting the national interest above ambition and petty rivalries – could clean up the mess. This is a vision, however fanciful, of politics without politicking. Once the grownups come to the rescue, it suggests, the rest of us can retreat, safe in the knowledge that everything is under control. Remainists look enviously at Europe, longing for a leader of their own – a Merkel, a Macron, a Tusk – to deliver Britain from Brexit.

Anti-Brexit protesters from Sodem in London, December 2018
Anti-Brexit protesters from Sodem in London, December 2018. Photograph: Imageplotter/Rex/Shutterstock

At the People’s Vote protest in March, that craving was clear: among the protesters, I spotted a woman with a handwritten “En Marche!” sticker on her sleeve. The demonstration was the biggest show of support for remainism yet: somewhere between 300,000 and a million people marched through central London. That morning, I travelled to the protest from Bristol, one of the first places where the seeds of remainism sprouted, on a train chartered by local anti-Brexit groups, which they called “the People’s Vote Express”. One campaigner wandered through the carriages selling EU flags out of an Ikea bag.

Halfway down the train, I started talking to Finbarr O’Halloran, a warm, rosy-cheeked man who was carrying a Led by Donkeys placard. His story was a textbook case of remainist radicalisation. “I’d been fairly apolitical throughout my life, just letting them get on with it as long as the country was run in a reasonably sensible manner,” he told me. “And it’s only the craziness of Brexit that’s made me mad.”

O’Halloran was particularly infuriated by the misinformation, from politicians and the media, that he blamed for Brexit. “Forty years of lying have been done by the mainstream media to the British public,” he said. He wasn’t just thinking of the rightwing press. “Unfortunately, the BBC is no longer a source of truth for what’s going on in the country.” This has become a signature lament for remainists, who accuse the broadcaster of pro-Brexit bias. Andrew Adonis, a Labour peer and anti-Brexit campaigner, has been particularly critical of what he calls the “public disservice broadcaster”. He tweeted in May that “BBC News is so debased and biased, it should be replaced by a new independent news service”.

Remainists are the kind of people who used to rely on the BBC, and defend it against attacks from the left and right. Now they feel it is just one more institution that has failed them. So they have to look elsewhere – and, in many cases, Twitter has filled that void. AC Grayling, a philosopher who has become one of the most outspoken remainists, described to me how he spends half an hour on Twitter first thing each morning, while on his exercise bike or treadmill. “Normally I start off quite slowly,” he said. But as he gets annoyed by the latest Brexit news, he finds himself going faster and faster.

Echo chambers like Twitter are important to remainists, as they are to all recent political movements. By providing a space for like-minded souls to furiously agree with each other and rage at the other side’s idiocy, Twitter has helped remainists forge a common language, a shared story, an unmistakeably clear message – the things a political movement needs in order to take root. That effect is amplified by the rest of the remainist media: opening a copy of the New European provides that same feeling of being somewhere that is deliberately, happily, a bubble. In its first year, the paper readily baited leavers. More recently, though, it has dialled down the vitriol and settled into an exasperated sarcasm – a typical remainist mode.

As you flick through the New European, you eventually leave Brexit behind for something that would have been unthinkable before 2016: the “Eurofile” section, a weekly paean to Europe and its glories. Another section makes for an equally odd sight in a British newspaper: pages of articles by academics, under the heading “Expertise”.

Expertise matters to remainists. They don’t merely admire it – that admiration is an important part of how they define themselves. “A lot of remainers are proud to say that they embrace complexity,” says Ian Dunt, a journalist and presenter of Remainiacs. At the People’s Vote march, a man in a lab coat was handing out flyers on behalf of Scientists for EU: “for those who believe in experts,” he said.

In their hunger for expertise, remainists have gravitated towards lawyers, such as David Allen Green and Jolyon Maugham, who have become celebrities in their corner of Twitter. Allen Green, a solicitor and legal commentator, plays the clear-eyed realist, slightly outside the fray; Maugham, a tax barrister, windmill enthusiast and hardened critic of Jeremy Corbyn, is more of a troublemaker, like a maverick general lobbing grenades and plotting sorties. For remainists, lawyers – and trade experts such as Dmitry Grozoubinski and David Henig – are an antidote to “cakeism”: with their understanding of how the world really works, they are the ones best equipped to lay bare the madness of Brexit.

Behind this solemn reverence for experts lies the belief, or at least the forlorn hope, that if leavers were only forced to confront the facts on Brexit, they would be overwhelmed by the weight of evidence. It’s a view reinforced by listening to James O’Brien’s radio show. Within the remainist ecosystem, O’Brien is simultaneously the star pupil, the most popular kid in class and the playground bully: remainists worship him for the way he shreds leavers’ arguments. As his impatience mounts, he drops his head in his hands – a pose that encapsulates how it feels to be a remainist today. “Can we all agree that it’s time to rename remain and leave?” he tweeted earlier this year. “I suggest right and wrong.”


What is surprising, looking back at the months after the referendum defeat, is how muted the initial remainist response was, once the immediate outpouring of grief had passed. “The grassroots was virtually zero,” says Angela Ramsall. One group that did emerge shortly after the referendum, Bristol for Europe, set up a weekly stall to campaign for another vote. “We got a lot of hostility,” says Eileen Means, one of the group’s founders. “We were told we were like flat earthers.” Activists described to me the loneliness they felt in those early days. “So many people said to me after the advisory referendum, ‘give up, you lost. Get over it,’” says a spokesman, who asked not to be named, from EU Flag Mafia.

At Westminster, too, few MPs gave remainism the time of day. Even politicians who are now ardent remainists were resistant. In December 2016, Chuka Umunna urged campaigners to stop calling for a second referendum. In the absence of leadership from MPs, figures from outside party politics filled the void. Most prominent was Gina Miller, the fund manager who argued that it would be illegal to invoke article 50 without a parliamentary vote, and launched a case that ended up in the high court. Miller signalled to remainists that it was no use sitting around, waiting for the grownups to show up: they would have to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in themselves. By addressing Brexit through the courts, like the other legal challenges that followed, Miller was aligning remainism with the pillars of stability and order: the constitution, the rule of law. It was a way of doing politics that could pose as unpolitical.

When Theresa May called a snap general election in April 2017, “it felt like a particularly bleak moment,” says Jolyon Maugham. In response, he came up with the idea of launching Spring, a new party. “I wanted to find a way for those who felt like I did to stand together and say: ‘This is not who we are,’” he said. His plans were big. He would hold a 28-day festival at the football stadium in Maidenhead, May’s constituency. Each day would be dedicated to the national dress and cuisine of a different EU member state. For the finale, Maugham planned to announce that he was standing in Maidenhead as a Spring candidate.

In the end, Maugham decided he didn’t have enough time to go ahead with it. But throughout 2017 it felt as if every remainist was toying with the idea of starting a party. In August, James Chapman, a former aide to George Osborne and David Davis, proposed setting up the Democrats. A couple of months later, Jeremy Cliffe, an Economist journalist, sounded out his Twitter followers to see if they were interested in a possible new anti-Brexit party. Emails of support flooded in: without really intending to, he had launched the Radicals, “pro-tech, pro-Europe, social-liberal” – and, ultimately, short-lived. While Chapman limited his platform to stopping Brexit, Cliffe’s was a fever dream of technocratic renewal: he wanted to scrap VAT, abolish the green belt and introduce Swedish-style social insurance.

Madeleina Kay protesting in Brussels, April 2019
Madeleina Kay protesting in Brussels, April 2019. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

By then, remainism was starting to gather momentum. The election result had given remainists some hope: by depriving the Conservatives of a majority, it left May facing a trickier path to Brexit. And while younger remainists had been a quieter presence until this point, that started to change in October, when a 23-year-old activist arrived at a Brussels press conference dressed as a Brexit-fighting superhero.

Madeleina Kay’s outfit – EU stars encircling the Superman symbol – caused such a stir that she was thrown out of the conference. But she now had a nickname, EU Supergirl, which stuck, even as she went on to dress up as Wonder Woman, a policewoman, and the Queen of Hearts, all in the service of stopping Brexit. Her cult following was boosted by the music videos she posted online: occupying the naffer edges of remainism, they include the kind of love songs or break-up ballads one might hear at an open-mic night, but addressed to the EU (“always thought you were the problem, now I see the problem was me”). Soon after Kay’s arrival on the scene, at the end of 2017, four campaigners in their 20s – among them Femi Oluwole, whose videos and tireless tweeting have made him a remainist celebrity – set up Our Future Our Choice to mobilise students and make the case for why Brexit will hurt young people.

The young occupy a special place in the remainist psyche. On the People’s Vote march, there were protesters who put the names, or even photos, of their grandchildren on placards. At remain meetings I attended over recent months, many attendees backed giving a vote to 16- and 17-year-olds if another referendum takes place. And even elderly remainists delight in pointing out that as many as a million leave voters have died since 2016, believing that this tips the balance in remain’s favour.

Of course, the young symbolise the future of the country – the very future that Brexit threatens. Yet behind these concerns for the future lies a more old-fashioned worldview. It’s leavers who are typically accused of indulging imperial nostalgia, by insisting that Brexit will revive Britain’s bygone greatness. But you can find that same nostalgia in remainists’ fear that leaving the EU will finish off whatever greatness remains. In the words of Michael Heseltine – who, as a Tory grandee who voted Lib Dem in the European elections, represents the Platonic form of a “grownup” – Brexit would mean Britain “voluntarily stepping down from its position of world pre-eminence”.

Some of this same nostalgia seems to inform the familiar lament about how far Britain has fallen, reducing itself to a laughing stock on the world stage. But the real embarrassment for remainists is not how the rest of the world views Britain – it is seeing their own country ruled by politicians who have parted ways with reason and decency. They shudder at every new degradation Britain faces, while also accepting it as the inevitable fulfillment of their warnings. The Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole has described Brexit as a masochistic project but, as leavers are fond of pointing out, remainists have a masochistic streak of their own. The most zealous remainists give the impression of relishing each morsel of bad news – growth slowing, a car plant closing – as if willing on the damage that confirms their worst fears. Like revolutionaries striving to heighten the contradictions, they believe that only then will leave voters see the error of their ways, and the politicians who deceived them get what they deserve.

As much as remainists worry about the future, they see themselves on the right side of history. “It is inevitable that pro-EU attitudes will grow,” says AC Grayling. “If we were to leave, it wouldn’t be for very long in historical terms. Maybe five or 10 years.” That makes Brexit a blip – a glitch in the system, destined to be righted. When I asked remainists if they were worried about what might happen if Brexit were stopped – how leave voters could react to the result of the referendum being rejected – no one seemed too concerned. Much as remainists claim to champion complexity, their own optimism is not so different from the kind currently coming out of No 10: it is as if the past three years could be magicked away, Brexit and its supporters bypassed, at little enduring cost.


For much of his career, Andrew Adonis was the kind of politician who felt more comfortable in the background. As a peer, he was even able to become a Labour minister without being elected. But by the end of 2017, he felt that no one was really making the case against Brexit. “Just as the country was in danger of literally going over the cliff, I felt it was my duty to weigh in,” he told me, over coffee at Millbank House in Westminster. So Adonis threw himself into campaigning. (Earlier this year, when he ran unsuccessfully for the European parliament, he squandered some of his remainist capital by briefly backing Labour’s plans to carry out Brexit.)

On a bright Thursday evening in April, I saw Adonis speak at a Lambeth for Europe event in south London. Lambeth voted remain by a bigger margin than any other area in the UK, and Adonis drew a rapt crowd of a hundred-odd people. Wearing a brown suit and a turquoise shirt, Adonis resembled a 1970s university lecturer (he worked briefly as an academic), and there was something teacherly in the way he addressed the audience. Amid figures on Britain’s trade with the EU, and references to the intricacies of the withdrawal agreement, he explained why all proposals – apart from a second referendum – were, ultimately, doomed.

Adonis defines remainism as a revolt of the middle class – and that is why he believes that, in the end, Brexit won’t happen. “The English middle class, deeply alarmed, will be heard and will win,” he told me. “That’s my whole experience of politics.” Remainism is seen, not entirely unfairly, as an unusually middle-class protest movement, but remainists have attempted to flip that perception by branding Brexiters, or at least the politicians who speak on their behalf, as the true elite. Tweeting about Nigel Farage in March, Alastair Campbell wrote, “Dulwich College. City trader. MEP. Billionaire friends with private jets.”

In a moment of crowd-pleasing populism during his talk, Adonis proposed banning anyone who had been to Eton from holding public office. Coming from a man who sits in the House of Lords, this rhetoric can feel a little hollow, but it certainly played well with the audience. Adonis peppered his talk with references to “Nigel” and “Jacob”, knowing that merely mentioning those names was enough to fire up his crowd. “Whenever Boris or Jacob Rees-Mogg make one of their speeches, we get another flush of people,” Eileen Means, from Bristol for Europe, told me.

An anti-Brexit protester with a placard of Jacob Rees-Mogg, London, January 2019
An anti-Brexit protester with a placard of Jacob Rees-Mogg, London, January 2019. Photograph: Matthew Chattle/Barcroft Images

When it comes to regular leave voters, remainists often express a mixture of sympathy and pity, explaining that people were duped. They quote James O’Brien: “Contempt for the conmen. Compassion for the conned.” A couple of days after the Adonis talk, I went to Nottingham for a meeting of anti-Brexit campaigners from across the East Midlands, a region where almost 59% of voters backed leave. Over three hours, as everyone crowded into the meeting room of an art gallery, the speakers reported back from their respective counties. Few of them were cheery. “My experience has been that there’s been little change in people’s views,” said the founder of the Nottinghamshire branch of the European Movement, an elderly man in a navy blazer. There was a yearning, in the room, for finding the right language with which to communicate with leavers. A woman asked what to do when someone cited sovereignty as a reason for leaving the EU, no matter the economic costs. “I don’t understand it,” she said.

Even here, in a part of the country where remainers are a minority, there was some bafflement about why people might support Brexit. But other attendees at the meeting told me they hadn’t been surprised by the referendum result. John Bland, who runs the Lincolnshire branch of the European Movement, suggested that places such as Boston – often held up as the emblematic leave-voting town – supported Brexit because they had experienced a rapid rise in immigration without getting the support they needed. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of Boston’s residents who weren’t born in the UK more than quintupled; 75.6% of voters there backed leave, the highest proportion in the country.

Yet as much as remainists insist otherwise, their Brexiter critics still accuse them of looking down on leave supporters. And it’s true that derision does sometimes rise to the surface. On the People’s Vote protest in March, remainists wielded signs that mocked leavers while trumpeting their own superiority: “52% Pride and Prejudice 48% Sense and Sensibility,” read one. But a lot of remainists aren’t actually very interested in leavers. They prefer to look inward, at the 48% rather than the 52%. Surrounded by people who get their jokes, they have finally found a political identity that fits them. That means their priority is mobilising opinion, not changing it. If Brexit has torn the country apart, remainism isn’t yet trying to put it back together.


Brexit is not the kind of fight that can end in a tie or a truce. Whatever happens, at least one side will believe they have lost. And for remainists, any kind of Brexit will feel like defeat. To win, before the clock ticks down, they have to complete the project they began three years ago: convincing enough of the country that Brexit isn’t simply undesirable, but that it can – and should – be stopped.

They have already travelled quite a distance. The rise in support for a second referendum could never have happened without the work of campaigners and groups like People’s Vote. Merely repeating their message isn’t what got them there – what matters is the way they have shouted it. A bolshier form of remainism now prevails, as if Rremainists are trying to match the stridency of the Brexiters. The Rremainist rallying cry “Bollocks to Brexit” is the kind of statement one might expect to hear, in tone if not content, from someone like Farage. Until recently, it would have been hard to imagine the Liberal Democrats co-opting it as their campaign slogan, as they did in the recent European elections. (Compare this to their almost parodically bland slogan at the last general election: “Change Britain’s Future”.)

And it has worked, up to a point. The Lib Dems spent years fruitlessly opposing Brexit, while they languished in the polls. That started to change when they dressed themselves in the clothes of remainism, borrowing its belligerence and fire. They came second in the European election – top in London – and seized the Conservative seat of Brecon and Radnorshire in a byelection earlier this month. And they have benefited, at the same time, from the discrediting of Labour’s Brexit strategy – another remainist victory.

But remainists worry that, as long as their votes are split across several parties, their influence will be limited. The Lib Dems, Greens and Plaid Cymru are now trying to remedy that. Over the next month, they plan to settle on 100 joint anti-Brexit candidates who will run at the next general election. Yet if this suggests they’re willing to put Brexit above party loyalties, there’s a limit to how far they will go. The Lib Dems’ refusal to countenance joining any kind of caretaker government with Corbyn at the helm – even if that could rule out a no-deal Brexit – confirms that remainists are continuing to do politics under the guise of putting politics aside to serve the national interest.

And there are divides within the movement, even on the question that defines it. According to emails leaked to BuzzFeed in July, People’s Vote campaigners are at odds over the group’s stance on Brexit: it demands a second referendum but refuses, for now, to explicitly back remain, however obvious its allegiances may be. Then there are the biggest obstacles of all: the new prime minister, and a Labour leader who still won’t bow to remainist demands.

Where will remainism’s energy go, once Brexit happens, or is somehow thwarted? Rob Ford draws a parallel with Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014. “You had a similarly intense mobilisation, a similarly intense tribal identification with both sides.” Almost five years later, he says, “people are still much more attached to the independence cause on either side than they were before the referendum happened. But the volume dial has gradually got turned down in terms of how important it is.”

For remainists, it will be a test of just how radicalised they have become. Three years of resisting Brexit has taught them a fundamental lesson about politics. They now see that they are just another interest group – and if they want something, they have to fight for it themselves. That has been a painful realisation for remainists, but an invigorating one. “I’ve found a sense of moral purpose,” says Jolyon Maugham. “I think a lot of people are experiencing a similar epiphany. We are learning that there are no grownups in the room.” In different parts of the country, I met remainists who had been apolitical before 2016, and were now planning to run for one of the anti-Brexit parties – the Lib Dems, Change UK, Renew.

The question, though, is whether any other cause will stir the same passion in remainists as their current struggle. This is the crux of the leftwing critique of remainism: the charge that remainists are fixated with Brexit at the expense of everything else – and that rather than seeking to transform the country for the better, they just want to turn back the clock to the time before the referendum when they didn’t have to think about politics because it didn’t impinge upon their privileged bubble. Remainists see it differently. Unless Brexit is stopped and economic calamity averted, they argue, Britain won’t have the money to pay for policies like ending austerity. “We care about those things,” Cynthia Potter, an American campaigner who lives in Cardiff, told me. “But Brexit comes first.”

For now, the most committed of remainists have put their lives on hold. Madeleina Kay dropped out of university to focus on campaigning. Maugham has given up most of his legal work. Again and again, campaigners have thought that crunch time was approaching, only for the process to keep dragging on. Brexit hasn’t simply consumed its opponents; it has left them in a purgatorial state, unsure of when they will finally be free.

In June, almost three years to the day after the referendum, I went to Westminster for the daily protest by Sodem. The group began in September 2017, when Steve Bray, a rare-coins dealer from Port Talbot, came to London. “I only thought I’d be here for a couple of weeks, couple of months,” he told me, wearing his trademark blue-and-yellow top hat with “Stop Brexit” written across it. He started standing opposite parliament all day, waving a two-sided flag: the EU on one side, the union jack on the other. He snuck into the background of news broadcasts from Westminster, holding placards or shouting slogans. Before long, he became a kind of cult figure, and a hero to his fellow remainists: a one-man symbol of their collective defiance.

As Bray’s fame grew, people started joining him. One regular protester admitted to me that when she first saw him, she thought he was mad. But she kept coming back: it was a way to feel like she was doing something, to feel less alone. When I visited Sodem, there was a small group of protesters – mostly female, mostly middle-aged. In the kind of scene that has somehow become normal in Brexit Britain, they stand, facing the traffic, while someone periodically roars “Stop Brexit!” Elspeth Williams, who runs the group’s social media, is one of the people who shows up every day. Like other Sodem protesters I spoke to, she came across as gentle, with a hint of steel. She has lived in Spain for 25 years, but since last December she has been back in the UK so she can be part of the protest. She stays nearby in a flat that she rents with Bray and a few other protesters; until recently, they were on the same street as Jacob Rees-Mogg.

I wondered what would happen to these people after Brexit. How might it feel to give so much of yourself to something and still come out on the losing side? Duncan Hodgkins, an army veteran and antiques dealer who now protests with Sodem full time, wasn’t optimistic: he told me he expected Brexit to go ahead. But he didn’t seem disillusioned. He glowed as he described how campaigning against it, his first taste of politics, had enriched him. “I’m so much more than the person I was before I started this,” he said. “I’ve found abilities within me that I didn’t realise I had: being able to communicate with different people, to have an actual opinion and not be scared to give it out.”

At the end of the afternoon, Sodem gathered around the gate to parliament for their daily “shout”. Bray yelled into a metal loudhailer, leading them through a series of slogans – “Bollocks to Boris” and “Stop Brexit”. Afterwards, a protester told me that when she had drawn tarot cards, they showed that Britain would stay in the EU. But it wasn’t certain. “I did that six months ago,” she said. “Energies can change.”

Follow the Long Read on Twitter at @gdnlongread, and sign up to the long read weekly email here.


Source link

No comments