Over a pint of Moretti in a favoured haunt of mine in the north-east of England, Frankie confesses he might have made the wrong choice. “We just didn’t know how complicated Brexit was going to be. No one said anything about this Ireland business or paying all that money.” This old friend from one of Britain’s Brexit heartlands had clear reasons for voting to leave the EU: to bring down immigration, deliver more cash to the National Health Service and regain “control”. Now that exiting is proving tougher than promised, does he reckon it is time for a rethink?
“Oh no,” Frankie says, “we still have to get through this.” The first full year of Britain’s Brexit era is coming to an end and it is surprising how little opinions have changed. Many a Christmas lunch will be ruined by family arguments about the country’s trajectory. This has been another chaotic year in politics, but the British public’s stoicism remains intact.
For those of us who follow the minutiae of the Brexit talks, it is often hard to comprehend why more minds are not being swayed. The bravado of leading Leave advocates has morphed into a meek acceptance that a gentler exit will occur on the EU’s terms. The bold slogan that “no deal is better than a bad deal” made its first appearance in January, yet has not survived the year.
The public mood appears to be insulated from the vicissitudes of Westminster and Brussels. According to YouGov, 44 per cent of respondents still think it was right to vote to leave the EU, while 45 per cent say it was wrong. Just over half believe it should happen in some form. Only 16 per cent think another referendum is needed and 15 per cent want Brexit abandoned.
One explanation for this is that the media routinely overestimate how much attention ordinary people pay to the news agenda. Breathless chatter about “ regulatory alignment” and a “Canada plus plus plus” trade deal is meaningless to most. Or unshifting attitudes could be a result of the fact that apocalyptic predictions of economic ruin have not come to pass. Voters feel relieved, concluding, possibly wrongly, that the point of maximum danger has passed.
Another argument is that voters are listening, but do not like to admit they were wrong. We rarely see single-term governments because voters tend to err towards the status quo. Only if their initial choice proves disastrous, or a better alternative is on offer, will they make a U-turn at the next opportunity. Here lies one of the big problems with direct democracy: voters such as Frankie are forced to make hugely consequential choices with little opportunity for reconsidering.
The most likely reason for the steadfast opinions, however, is that the referendum scrambled political identities. Ipsos Mori’s fascinating “Shifting Ground” survey shows how the UK’s political tribes have been reconfigured. Before the referendum, supporters of the Labour party sat on the left side of the economic axis, favouring tax and spend policies. The Conservatives were towards the right, advocating free market economics. On social issues, the Tory tribe flirted with authoritarianism while Labour voters floated towards liberalism. Crucially, there was substantial crossover on all these issues — in the political centre ground.
But Brexit has laid waste to that. The survey shows that the crossover between Leavers and Remainers is much smaller, and that these tribes are more starkly divided on social issues such as the death penalty and the pace of cultural change. Brexit has become a form of identity politics. And healing the divide is going to be difficult.
Some predict that Brexit day in March 2019 will have a cathartic effect. Oliver Letwin, Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron’s policy fixer, tells me that politics will thereafter be about “the future for Britain in a post-Brexit world”.
“Nobody,” he says, “is going to own Brexit or not own Brexit, or be pro-Brexit or anti-Brexit. Brexit will have happened, Brexit will be past history.”
After another Brexity Christmas, let us hope Mr Letwin is right. It is just over a year before Brexit becomes real. It would take a cataclysm to shift opinions before then. Like Frankie, many Britons may feel uncertain about what lies ahead, but real “Bregrets” have yet to emerge.
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