To lose twice would be worse than careless

Even if we obtain a second referendum on the terms, at the moment we are heading to defeat, or at best another 50:50 result which even if ours was the larger half would be an unconvincing and temporary victory. Michael Romberg, a member of the committee of London4Europe, argues that we are not appealing to “soft Leave” voters; rather, we need to make our arguments on their ground. People have always been willing to make sacrifices for freedom. We need to explain that their idea of freedom is misconceived.

Anne McElvoy wrote an amusing line in The Guardian recently: “Those who desire a second referendum will need to be sure they do not lose twice, which Oscar Wilde might say looked like carelessness, but is perfectly possible.” Her article berates small “L” liberals and Remainers for the strident tones in which we conduct the argument; and forecasts failure.

To be clear, even if we obtain a referendum on the terms, at the moment we are heading to defeat, or at best another 50:50 result which even if ours was the larger half would be an unconvincing and temporary victory.

The present campaigns

Although little visible to ordinary voters the leading approach inside the Remain bubble (Facebook, The New European) is: since Leave voters are wrong, Parliament should reject their “advice” and vote to stay in the EU. Professor A C Grayling is the most eloquent exponent of that line; you can read a rebuttal here. Supporters of this line do not accept that in a democracy we have to persuade others of our views, not ignore them.

The main campaign in the public eye that opposes the current Brexit direction and that could switch to being a Remain campaign – Open Britain, prominent politicians – is focussed on the economy: single market, customs union, we will be poorer, the harms of Brexit. It is a repeat of the joyless, without-hope campaign run by Stronger IN. We all know how well that worked. And it is not even talking to ourselves: or is the EU for you just a free trade area?

Some voices – including alas Vince Cable and Nick Clegg (FT paywall) – express the belief that the EU should and will change its approach, offering a new deal to encourage us to stay in. Well maybe they will – though they have shown precisely zero sign of it so far. But it is hard to believe that they will offer so radical a departure as to satisfy Leave voters. Why would they go much further than the offer to David Cameron? We should not rely on being saved by someone else.

What we should be saying

The small minority for whom Brexit really is about Brexit, about leaving the EU, are irreconcilable. We will not be able to change their minds. Ignore them.

However, we are not appealing either to soft Leave voters (and soft Remain voters). We need to make our arguments on their ground. That much misunderstood Yougov survey – to obtain Brexit 60% of Leave voters would accept economic harm, 40% the loss of a relative’s job – shows that it is not the economy that motivates them. Nor is there any point in telling them they are heartless or foolish. People have always been willing to make sacrifices for freedom. We need to explain that their idea of freedom is misconceived.

First, we must make our arguments on the EU issues that have motivated them. We must explain why pooling sovereignty is good – pollution knows no frontiers and business worries about being undercut by countries with lower standards, so we can obtain higher environmental standards across Europe. Excessive state aid harms an economy and with shared standards we can prevent other countries undercutting our firms and obtain a better economy across Europe. Working together on crime and security benefits everyone, and it needs common rules enforced by a common court.

We must explain again how the EU works – democratically and often by unanimity. It is not an alien imperial power imposed on us – we are part of the decision-making process.

Second, we must glory in freedom of movement under existing rules. There are the opportunities it brings us of course. These apply to all not just the well-off – Auf Wiedersehen, Pet showed Geordie builders in Germany. But we also benefit from the influx of committed adventurous people from cultures that are similar to ours and yet also slightly different. We learn new ideas, new approaches. The Greek doctor who operated on me had also worked at the Charité Hospital in Berlin. So he brought to London the insights from those two slightly different medical environments.

We do need to make substantive changes to ensure that the benefits of the EU are real for Leave voters. For example, Erasmus is available for apprentices and FE students but take-up is negligible. We should make proposals for how the UK government can make sure that more FE students benefit.

Third, we need to address the raft of non-EU issues that motivated Leave voters. For example we should support measures to enable people to “take back control” by real means: proportional representation, more power for local authorities. We should call for more support for education and training. The debt and the deficit need to be cut but now tax increases should bear more of the burden.

Finally, we must make the positive case for the EU. The great European peace project that has helped member states get through 60 years without a war amongst themselves – unprecedented since the days of Pax Romana. The Democracy project that has helped countries transition from communist, fascist, military dictatorships and made Europe safer for all of us. The project to extend individual freedom by allowing us to live, work, study, marry anywhere in this diverse continent.

Without claiming that it is perfect we need to defend the EU against its critics. No, the EU did not cause the Russian annexation of the Crimea – Russia did (or do Leavers think the EU would be justified in going to war with the UK if we sign a trade agreement with the USA?). No, the EU did not cause the troubles in Greece – successive Greek governments failed to modernise their economy and society and then Greece went bust when the world economy fell. No, the EU does not force all member states to become identical – you need only visit a few countries to see how different they are.

Did I mention the economy? No.

  • Michael Romberg is a member of the committee of London4Europe. You can read more from Michael on his Facebook page: Campaign for the Real Referendum – on the Terms of Brexit.