Why isn't there momentum for Remain
March 15, 2019 1:57 PM   Subscribe

Why do British citizens continue to support Brexit? Why do MPs continue to support Brexit? Why isn't there growing political momentum for Remain? Why is there no political party or faction taking up the cause to Remain in light of the epic incompetence and dishonesty on the Brexit side?

I'm truly perplexed about British politics. Normally I'd like to think that if one side of an issue fails so spectacularly, there would be politicians and citizens on the other side, ready to point out fault and move the country in the right direction. But, at least from this side of the pond (the US), I'm not hearing powerful voices willing to take up the cause of Remain and make it the foundation of a new government.

Why not?

And how can anyone believe that Brexit could still possibly be good for the UK?

Even from a purely cynical standpoint, you'd think there'd be someone opportunistic enough to try to make hay out of this.
posted by Winnie the Proust to Law & Government (43 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Short answer: because leave Vs remain splits the major parties on both sides and new parties like the nascent TIG do badly in first past the post elections.
posted by crocomancer at 2:17 PM on March 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

Because Democracy. And the country is split just about 50/50.
posted by catspajammies at 2:18 PM on March 15, 2019

Because it's not an option on the table, and lobbying MPs for the impossible would just Bernie the votes on the things that are on the table. There is a path that (probably) gets the UK to a second referendum, which is the only way they can Remain at this point. (Yesterdays vote to extend the Brexit deadline probably brought the odds of a second referendum to 50/50.)

Were a second referendum to emerge, you'd see a groundswell for Remain. A tide, in fact. The stats are already there by a huge margin.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:19 PM on March 15, 2019 [8 favorites]

Oh, and some politicians have wanted a second referendum, it was on one of the amendments they voted on yesterday.
posted by catspajammies at 2:20 PM on March 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

There are plenty of voices calling for us to remain in the EU. There are three main problems though.

One is an image problem: some of the people making those arguments are, to some people, discredited/loathed figures associated with, e.g. Iraq, the 2010 coalition government, or the Harry Potter books.

One is structural: the situation isn't quite as dire as it is in the US, and the the tiny Conservative majority makes the challenge less bad than usual, but it's difficult for third parties to gain significant influence or attract signficant support.

The last is a substance problem. Image aside, it's not clear the second referendum argument has the overwhelming support your question implicitly assumes it must have. Polling is very, very complicated given the lack of concreteness about the options right now, so I can't prove this to you (and anyone who says they are sure about the result of a second referendum is kidding themselves). But here are a couple of illustrative reasons why people who understand the issues and are engaging with good faith might not want, for example, another referendum.

There is a perception that the benefits of EU membership accrue mainly to richer people. As a result a large fraction of the electorate simply doesn't care whether we're in or not.

Even among those who value EU membership, some of those think it is not the most pressing problem the UK faces. They have in mind things like inequality, social services, etc. and generally think a Labour government would do a better job of addressing those concerns. For these people there are (not completely insane, but perhaps risky) tactical arguments that the best thing to do right now is get out of the way of the Conservative government.
posted by caek at 2:20 PM on March 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

. . . or the Harry Potter books.

Say what? Is it that J.K. Rowling has been vocal about being a Remainer, or is there some weird cultural fusion going on that I don't know about? Boarding school => posh people => populist anti-intellectualism?
posted by Countess Elena at 2:25 PM on March 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

Criticism of JK Rowling is not anti-intellectual. It mostly comes from the intellectual/online left and relates to her support of Tony Blair. It's a distraction from this question though, so I'm sorry I mentioned it.
posted by caek at 2:29 PM on March 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

There is also a probably unhelpful degree of respect for due democratic process that comes from having lived in times when that was a thing you could mainly rely on. A lot of people are still very much in the "well, fair's fair" mindset. Personally I think it's a fairly ridiculous attitude to take when the deck has been so stacked and so much is at stake, but it is a fact that political figures have to grapple with.

And please remember the British press. Please remember that a lot of people think that the Daily Mail is a decent newspaper.
posted by howfar at 2:46 PM on March 15, 2019 [20 favorites]

Many people genuinely believe the EU is essentially undemocratic and imposes its will on the UK. They believe that immigration they are opposed to is the fault of the EU. Often they do not think that things can get that much worse for them. They think that the predictions of doom and gloom after leaving are blown out of all proportion. Some think that Theresa May has negotiated poorly in Brussels and that a better deal is possible, and if they realise that the EU have said it is not possible then they are lying.

Essentially they voted leave and nothing has proved to them that it is a bad idea. Nothing bad has happened. So they are still in favour of leaving. This includes the general public, public figures and MPs.

Some politicians are perceived as being in favour of Brexit because they expect to make a fortune as a result. Jacob Rees-Mogg is an example of this.

Broadly speaking the split between leave and remain is a about cultural difference IMO. About 2/3 of Tories voted leave, but within the Labour party the split is typified by the differences between metropolitan voters in London who voted remain and 'left behind' voters in the former industrial heartlands who voted leave.

On preview, most sections of the national press have taken an editorial stance against the EU since at least the early 90s.
posted by plonkee at 2:52 PM on March 15, 2019 [8 favorites]

Surely the key issue is that the leaders of the two main political parties are Brexiters (albeit from a different perspective). May may have pretended to be a remainer but she is not. As a result they set the agenda as it is the leaders of the parties who, to a great extent, call the shots on the agenda (though not on the result of the votes), so any ordinary MP who proposes anything without the support of his/her party leader is not likely to succeed (as happened last night).

Secondly, many MPs, even if they are personally remainers, know that they constituents voted Brexit and therefore they feel they have to follow suit.
posted by TheRaven at 3:30 PM on March 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

The British political system has historically had a see-saw effect which keeps the system from wandering too far in either direction, but with both party leaders sitting on the same side of the bloody see-saw, no correction is happening.

I blame the Tories for creating this mess, and Labour (mainly Jeremy Corbyn personally) for not fixing it.
If any sensible Labour MP had been in charge the last couple of years, they would have won the last election by a landslide and then cancelled Brexit.
posted by w0mbat at 4:37 PM on March 15, 2019 [8 favorites]

The parties that are staunchly against Brexit are small (Greens) or tarnished (LibDems).

Labour is in a weird space - Corbyn is pro-Brexit, many of his supporters are against.Part of hte problem is that northern Labour strongholds voted Leave, so there's a reluctance in the party to come out too strongly for Remain, for fear of losing those seats and therefore not winning the next election. (This view has been critiqued, but it's certainly held by at least some people). So Labour are hedging their bets and not coming out for Remain.

Then there's the war between the left and the centrist right of the Labour party (or pro/anti-Corbyn). The anti-Corbyn lot tend to be more centrist and to be pro-Europe, and it seems to me that many on the left are becoming less pro-Europe because they don't like the centrists.

And of course many people still really want to Leave - they're seeing any problems as a result of politicians betraying them, or the EU punishing them. Or they just don't believe that there will be problems when they leave.
posted by Pink Frost at 4:55 PM on March 15, 2019

If you want some perspective into how Leavers think, here's a story.

I asked a rural in-law why Leavers hate EU rules, even though it seems to me that the rules are sensible and the effects are positive. For example, I said, it was the EU that finally banned lead paint in the UK (this was years after lead paint was banned in the USA).
She said "Do you know how much better the old lead paint was? You could paint your house and it would last for years!".
posted by w0mbat at 6:24 PM on March 15, 2019 [21 favorites]

Because no one wants to be ruled by unelected Belgian bureaucrats.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:43 PM on March 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

Don't ever underestimate how insular the UK really is and the astounding ability that English people in particular have to see everything in terms of englishness. The idea that stuff that happens overseas actually affects them or is particularly, like, real? is just not a part of the English psyche. The idea they should interrupt an English political struggle or process to deal with foreigners is just not in their bag of tricks at all. Any politician who stood up and said "wait we need to forget about our pride and look at our place in the larger European picture here" would be totally reviled and possibly involuntarily committed.

I'm not saying this about fussy old retirees either, it's the whole damn country.

This is a country that increasingly sees the solution to the Irish problem as Ireland leaving the EU too. Never mind that there is no benefit to Ireland, it's good for England so why wouldn't they?
posted by fshgrl at 8:24 PM on March 15, 2019 [9 favorites]

Because no one wants to be ruled by unelected Belgian bureaucrats.

Unelected German bureaucrats I think you mean. And yeah that's a problem, the EU does not need to turn into Germany or the US with all the millions of rules about cheese and bike insurance. But the UK is HARDLY innocent when it comes to massive legislative nightmares like the Common Agricultural Policy. And it already has has far more restrictive domestic rules than most other EU countries to start with. Guns, hunting, agriculture, corporate law, bank accounts.... Half the time it's English rules spreading outwards to everyone else.

Have you ever tried to open a bank account in England as a foreigner? My god.
posted by fshgrl at 8:28 PM on March 15, 2019 [5 favorites]

This is a country that increasingly sees the solution to the Irish problem as Ireland leaving the EU too. Never mind that there is no benefit to Ireland, it's good for England so why wouldn't they?

You’ve understated the case there, I have seen Brexiters in all seriousness suggest that Ireland should not only leave the EU but also merge with the UK, and then seem baffled that Irish people aren’t biting their hands off.

Of course we could also fix the Calais/Dover problem by re-fighting Agincourt, and I am sure it’s only a matter of time before Boris tries to suggest it.
posted by tinkletown at 9:36 PM on March 15, 2019 [5 favorites]

You’ve understated the case there, I have seen Brexiters in all seriousness suggest that Ireland should not only leave the EU but also merge with the UK, and then seem baffled that Irish people aren’t biting their hands off.

These are the same people who, when faced with the reply that perhaps Scotland and Northern Ireland, who both voted No, should leave and join Ireland in a newly formed Celtic Union, physically sputter with indignation.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:01 PM on March 15, 2019 [8 favorites]

They have already started the Irexit party which has so little support from actual Irish people they nominated a fake person as a political candidate. For reals.

Jacob Rees-Moog is blaming Ireland for Brexit repercussions while simultaneously using the country to make money off his EU clients. All while the British ministers in the north brush off war crimes in northern Ireland as nothing. When a soldier was charged in relation to Bloody Sunday recently "Mr Williamson confirmed the Ministry of Defence would pay Soldier F’s legal costs and added: “The MoD is working [on] a new package of safeguards … The government will urgently reform the system for legacy issues. Our serving and former personnel cannot live in constant fear of prosecution.” This was said DURING the current active border crisis about a soldier charged with war crimes. I mean, come on!

They honestly don't think the rules apply to them. Because for so long they did not.
posted by fshgrl at 10:24 PM on March 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think part of the problem is that the Brexit that people voted for was more of a feeling than a policy. It means something different to different people and therefore is much more valuable as a political lightning rod. It loses all of its power once it becomes policy, but as long as you can No True Scotsman every single Brexit deal that comes along, you can keep the dream alive, because Brexit represents an ideology, not an outcome. It's a lot like Trump's wall in that way, that "plan" has wiggled all over the place, from who would pay for it to what it would be made out of to what it's fundamental purpose is, etc. There is tremendous value in keeping it alive, but in a coma and never actually implementing it and pointing at your enemies and blaming them for keeping us all from the promised land.

Remain, on the other hand, is an unsexy, deterministic policy. It makes good sense in the way that an economics textbook does, it's promise is that nothing changes, or gets better, but at least it won't get worse. While it makes the most sense for the nation by nearly every objective measure, Pandora's box was opened in 2016 when the vague question about how the UK should handle complex economic policy in the hands of an uninformed electorate. I don't call them uninformed derisively, the campaign was literally a this vs that question and after all the silliness that has happened, it still is. The Irish border wasn't on anybody's radar. Even David Cameron was uninformed about the potential outcomes and he put the referendum forward. So now we have a majority opinion for "something different I'm not sure what" vs. "Exactly this forever, hasn't this been fun?" which is not exactly an inspiring platform to rally behind.
posted by pazazygeek at 10:58 PM on March 15, 2019 [34 favorites]

If any sensible Labour MP had been in charge the last couple of years, they would have won the last election by a landslide and then cancelled Brexit.

Given that the above would involve (a) ignoring the proportion of pro-leave labour voters and (b) overruling the results of the referendum, binding or not - the above is simplistic to the point of being wishful thinking.
posted by ominous_paws at 11:35 PM on March 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

The Greens and the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalist Party have all campaigned for Remain, but they are small parties.
posted by BinaryApe at 1:49 AM on March 16, 2019

The amount of casual xenophobia in this country is unreal. Brexit plays into that. There is a significant portion of England (and likely the other UK nations to a lesser extent, I have less personal experience there) who genuinely view co-existence with foreigners as an affront. I know, because they tell me this to my face fairly regularly, either forgetting or not realising that I'm an immigrant.
posted by Dysk at 3:15 AM on March 16, 2019 [14 favorites]

Because Brexit isn’t about the concrete realities: It’s a culture war.
posted by pharm at 4:34 AM on March 16, 2019 [12 favorites]

Some Leavers have in retrospect recognised that they hitched their wagon to a culture war instead of the well-intentioned & carefully thought out policy proposal they thought they were signing up to. The rest knew exactly what they were voting for.
posted by pharm at 4:36 AM on March 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

The answer you are looking for is indeed not about politics but about culture. Some bullet points in this regard from an American who lived in the UK for the last 10 years:

-The UK has undergone years of austerity. Schools, transport, health are severely underfunded. Use of food banks is rising. People are rightly angry.

-The media in the UK is horrible. The best-selling newspapers are tabloids which stir up hate. Their headlines are read out every morning on the BBC as if they were serious papers. It is ridiculous. These are papers with celebrity boobs on the front page next to their latest opinion about UK politics.

-The newspapers outright lie. Years of lies about foreigners and especially those foreigners in the EU have had their toll. Euromyths.

-Anti-EU sentiment is so strong that it is there not only on the Right, where you might expect it but also even people on the Left have drank the Kool-Aid. Most people, Left and Right, in continental Europe don't really see the EU as that much of an 'issue' And neither did Britain really have "EU" as an issue until 2016.

-Combine misery with the perfect target of foreigners to blame and you have the ingredients for that age-old recipe: Xenophobia. Nationalism.

-A week before the referendum a pro-EU MP was murdered by someone from the far right. So, yes, MPs are frightened to say outright they are against the "will of the people" and the ones who do suffer outrageous abuse. The newspapers (again) regularly use terms such as 'traitor', 'saboteur', etc. to anyone who tries to speak for Remain. Even judges doing their job have been called 'Enemies of the People'

-Add to all this Britain's fears about their place in the world, translating at times to cartoonish myths about WW2 as well as placing a twisted value in suffering. This aspect of the British psyche is best covered by the Irish journalist Fintan O'Toole.
posted by vacapinta at 5:11 AM on March 16, 2019 [22 favorites]

crocomancer and vacapinta have it nailed: FPTP voting is only effective if there are two axes which pretty directly oppose each other. Brexit adds another dimension to that graph, which the voting system cannot cope with. And English political discourse is entirely consumed by despair and hatred.

I think this is why you do see the mainstream opposition to Brexit being nationalist parties outside England - they present to wide constituency of voters a vision of the future which is better than what we have at the moment, and looks forwards, rather than backwards. English politics only conceives of the future as bad, and therefore that they must go backwards to the past - the only difference between left and right is whether this bullshit imagined golden age was 1948 or 1913.
posted by Vortisaur at 6:07 AM on March 16, 2019 [4 favorites]

Dissecting the Dreams of Brexit Britain, by James Meek.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 6:12 AM on March 16, 2019

Many Brexit supporters, argue that a second referendum would be undemocratic, because it would represent a refusal to accept the results of the first referendum. Prime Minister May has denounced the idea as a "gross betrayal of our democracy."

If a second vote on leave/remain produced a remain result there would be accusations that this is what the establishment wanted all along - like the Treaty of Lisbon in Ireland - they just keep having referendums until they get the "right" result.

Similar anti-democratic arguments have been made in the past that by choosing the timing of the next general election a government can swing the result. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 was intended to remove that possibility. Because of this, Theresa May's snap election in 2017 required a supermajority of two-thirds of the entire membership of the House.

If we applied the same logic to referendums as for General elections then remain would need 66% support rather than the 40% they currently have.

The UK has walked into a political blind cul de sac and we can largely thank the Daily Mail/Piers Morgan and rest of the xenophobic UK tabloids for getting us to this point.
posted by Lanark at 6:17 AM on March 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

Searched the whole thread for “racism.”

Found nothing.

As in the US, a significant if not majority percentage of white Britons are racist and anti-immigrant and will happily suffer economic pain if it means hurting brown people, foreigners, and liberal sensibilities. The British are not more rational or enlightened than Americans, which is the underlying assumption of your question.
posted by spitbull at 6:46 AM on March 16, 2019 [7 favorites]

Here's some recent poll data on Brexit. Despite claims to the contrary, there really is no new support for Remain; it's still ~51% Brexit. The main point of the charts is that people's opinions haven't changed in the intervening years. None of this answers your question, but it does confirm your question is well asked and I wanted to correct some wrong information in other answers here.
posted by Nelson at 8:39 AM on March 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

I don't idealize Britons or assume they are more rational than Americans. But since it's come up, America is a good counterpoint.

Trump got elected in 2016, riding a wave of nationalist racism as well as the confluence of a huge number of independent unlucky factors. In 2018, Americans reacted to this fiasco by giving Democrats control of the House of Representatives. Now, a record number of Democrats are competing in the presidential primary, sensing blood in the water. They see an opportunity to take down an incompetent, corrupt, and irrational leader.

The outline of that story could have been told about any number of countries any number of times. It's how politics generally work. My question was why that wasn't happening in the UK around Brexit. After reading through the answers, I understand better. Thank you all!
posted by Winnie the Proust at 9:41 AM on March 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

The Economist data is behind a paywall, the most recent (11th March 2019) YouGov stats have Leave 32%, Remain 40% Undecided 29%
If none of the 'undecided' actually voted then that would translate into a referendum result of 44% vs 56%
posted by Lanark at 11:14 AM on March 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

The inability of Leavers to apply critical thinking to their position is staggering. A Facebook acquaintance posted a picture of the fruit and veg drawer in his fridge last week. He'd separated it out into "Fruit and veg grown in the EU" (which was a box of strawberries and some tomatoes) and "Fruit and veg grown in the UK and the rest of the world" (which was a big pile of produce).

His purpose was to prove that "We don't really need the EU", and, even when it was pointed out to him by several people, he refused to accept that the only reason all the fruit and veg from outside the EU was able to be imported into the UK was because of trade deals negotiated by the EU.

That kind of thinking is a tiny snapshot of how Leavers feel, and the lies perpetrated by the politicians at the time of the Referendum (£350 million a day which goes to the EU will instead be spent on the NHS - an absolute untruth) have simply served to bolster their position that "the will of the people" must be carried through to its bitter end. It would be political suicide for a massive number of MPs if they were now to support a second referendum.
posted by essexjan at 4:33 PM on March 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

Searched the whole thread for “racism.”

Found nothing.

Mainly because xenophobia is a more relevant word for this. One of the main groups targeted are white people from Eastern Europe. I agree that British society is institutionally racist and that plays into this some, but it’s more straightforward to describe it as xenophobia and better describes what’s happening.
posted by plonkee at 1:46 AM on March 17, 2019 [10 favorites]

British radio show callers suggest invading Ireland to solve the border problem.
posted by fshgrl at 4:11 PM on March 20, 2019

This new UK Parliament petition to cancel Brexit, already has millions of signatures.
posted by w0mbat at 8:48 AM on March 22, 2019

Here's a good thread about the past and ongoing tactical mistakes of the People's Vote campaign, which, for better or worse, is the dominant organization pushing to remain.
posted by caek at 10:41 AM on March 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

Thanks, that's good info on how the remain side is failing to take advantage of the chaos.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 9:16 AM on March 23, 2019

And this is a similar thread from a different perspective. It might be a bit heavy going if you're not steeped in names and events, but it rings very true for me personally.
posted by caek at 12:32 PM on March 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

Excellent, thank you. I don't know if that strategy exists in anyone's mind other than the person who wrote the thread, but it does at least present a possible Labor strategy that makes sense of their prevarications.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 1:50 PM on March 23, 2019

There are two conventional interpretations of Labour's current behaviour. One is "Corbyn personally wants Brexit" and one is more along the lines of what you see in that thread. The first assumes Corbyn has repeatedly lied about his beliefs (and indeed his own vote in the referendum). The second assumes that Labour are playing an extremely risky parliamentary game that requires them to avoid taking a clear and public position on one of the most important issues of the last 50 years. Both seem pretty far fetched to me, but as you say, it's difficult to make sense of Labour tactics without thinking one of those is true. I have no idea which is right, but for me, to promote the former and to focus on any party other than the one in government is to do the Tory Party's work for them, so I'm going with door #2. Wish us luck!
posted by caek at 2:00 PM on March 23, 2019

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