The reasons why Remain was defeated – a contemporaneous view

7th January 2020

Historians and others pundits will spend many years discussing and disputing why and how Remain lost.

They will have access to documents and private information not available to onlookers at the moment, and so they may be able to provide better explanations than any of us currently can.

That said, there is a certain value in setting out how things looked at the time, as contemporaries can often be aware of many things that a historian can never recapture.

And so this is a brief post setting out the reasons why Remain lost, as they seemed to an observer at the time.

(I will below use Remain(ers) and Leave(rs) as shorthand, and I hope readers can see beyond the shorthand to the substantive points.  If your only objection to what follows is the shorthand, then this really is not the post for you.)


To begin with, my view is that Remain lost rather than Leave won.

After over forty years of membership of the EEC/EU, there should have been a more compelling Remain case made at the 2016 referendum.

And even after the narrow referendum result for Leave, the lack of clue of Leavers about what to do next meant Remain still could have secured a further referendum with a Remain option.

But there were (again, it seems to me) three reasons why Remain still failed.

First, Remainers became accustomed to Leave failures – and so became complacent.

There was mistake and mishap after mistake and mishap by the May and Johnson governments.

It often appeared that Brexit would fail all by itself, just because of the accumulation of pratfalls and folly.

There were even three extensions to the planned departure date, and so it appeared that there would always be another extension.

Second, the focus and efforts of Remainers were too often away from the political battle.

There was crowd-funded court case after court case – some worthwhile (for example the Miller cases) and others far less worthwhile.

There was excellent investigatory journalism, exposing the irregularities of the various Leave campaigns, followed by regulatory and police investigations.

There were also marches and petitions and hashtags.

But none of this led to any political breakthrough.

The majority of MPs remained opposed to a further referendum and, in the 2019 general election, little of the Remain passion was converted into concrete political achievement.

Third, at the crucial political moment – just over two months ago, but now an age  away – the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties enabled a general election which neither party turned out to be in a position to exploit.

Neither party were required to consent to this, but they did.

Until mid-November 2019 it was still plausible that a further referendum could be forced, with the prospect of a Remain victory.

The Labour leader even proposed that in return for a being able to head a government there could be a referendum where Remain would be an option.

But the window of opportunity was closed, and then boarded-up.


It was not inevitable that Remain would lose either the 2016 referendum or the campaign for a further referendum before any departure.

Indeed, the idiocies and antics of Leavers in government provided far more opportunities for Remain than Remainers perhaps deserved.

Yet Remain still lost.

Of course, many Remainers will be quick to blame and accuse others.

And they are right, in that Leavers were and are culpable in many ways.

But both the 2019 general election and the campaign for a further a referendum were there for the taking.

Brexit was not inevitable at any point before the December 2019 general election, and the only reason it is now virtually certain is not because of any genius move by Leavers but because Remain let Leave win.


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79 thoughts on “The reasons why Remain was defeated – a contemporaneous view”

  1. As usual an excellent post.
    Other factors were the abilities of the lead players, the simple message, the underdog factor, the appeal to base instincts, othering the foreigners. All very unpleasant but now a wake up call for their UK.
    Watching how the American Civil War series at the moment on Netflix, I am heartened to think that although the South had the best generals and greater craft the North won. My hope is one day the Remain cause will find a winning voice and we will return.

  2. The failure of Remain in the 2016 referendum may be down to complacency, but the subsequent failure almost inevitably followed from Remain’s actions on 24 June 2016 and immediately after. It was essential that the “result” not be allowed to harden into the “will of the people”. Silly, half-hearted attempts were made by a few stragglers to find minor irregularities, but there was no concerted effort (in which all Remainers should have joined) to point out the referendum had decided nothing, since those supporting what we now call BRINO and those who wanted a no-deal exit were counted together as one despite being mutually exclusive (and further apart than BRINO is from Remain). Joe Johnson’s Vassalage and Chaos resonated briefly, but too little, too late. The overwhelming majority of Remain supporters and MPs felt cowed into accepting the vote as a “result”and into believing that questioning it would endanger their positions: hence 498 voted to trigger A50 in Feb 2017. From that point there was no hope.

    1. I’m actually far more concerned about the illegality of the Referendum, in terms of lies, dodgy money, dodgy foreign money, etc. This has never been properly addressed.

      1. While I share the worry, I don’t think you’ll ever be able to get many voters to agree that this had other than a marginal impact. And after the last GE, arguments about small margins have lost traction.

  3. Sadly I agree with much of this. Something that also needs to be factored in is the extent to which the protection of the Conservative party took priority over the campaign to remain and actions thereafter.

  4. Mr Green,

    All three points are correct, but as usual in things historical, necessary but not sufficient. The “leave” direction was promoted by a well-organized group and relying on friendly media for its propaganda. Probably the first instance in Britain of what Guriev and Treisman call “informational autocracy” ( Journal of Economic Perspectives Fall 2019, Vol 33, No 4 pp 100-127).

  5. [Just to get past it; “2016 General Election”? A typo, surely.]

    1 – I am still at a loss as to the legitimacy of according a referendum, born of the Referendum Enabling ‘Bill’, the possibility of yielding ‘a’ result at all.
    2 – What real use were the Miller court cases?
    The ‘opportunity’ of the UK leaving the EU by Royal Prerogative alone was lost; instead we granted ourselves that same end by a stinking majority vote in Parliament.
    How did this help with anything?

    As I see it; ‘Remain’ was never in the running. Leave/Brexit was the only possible outcome; an end predetermined before the above mentioned ‘Bill’ was tabled.

    1. Re the Miller case, I would say it served a very important recourse, by not allowing the Government to act without consulting Parliament. I can’t find the email now, but I was a backer of the crowdfunded case and the people running it were explicit that those seeking to reverse Brexit shouldn’t see the case as a way to do it and I accepted that.

  6. Thank you for putting into words my own impression of what happened. It was truly frustrating that ‘the bigger picture’ was never well expressed at national level, leaving the 48% as bystanders to the pathologies of the Tory party. A further problem was that neither Leave nor Remain were the answer to the real question which was (in my opinion, and still is) how to reform the EU so that it better expresses and meets the needs of the various populations of Europe. That will only be achieved ‘from the inside’, and only Remain, however unpalatable in terms of present arrangements, would have provided that opportunity. So now our children and our grandchildren will have to live with the consequences; not good.

  7. Good post.

    I’d like to comment on two things:

    1 – “Until mid-November 2019 it was still plausible that a further referendum could be forced, with the prospect of a Remain victory.”

    Plausible, yes, but not likely. The closest it came was the 280 votes in favour in the round of indicative votes in April 2019. The extra 50-60 MPs required to ensure legislation got through were not showing any sign of coming forward. Once the Johnson deal passed 2nd reading, the chances of the deal passing looked much higher than a majority for a referendum.

    For me, this explains Remain’s enthusiasm for a general election, as it was realistically the only way in which a referendum could be forced.

    2 – “Neither party were required to consent to this, but they did.”

    True but, it is worth noting that, ever since the 2017 general election, Labour had been calling for another one. This made it very difficult for them to say no.

  8. I’m not sure I agree with your premise that “Remain Lost and Leave won”, The ground work for Leaves victory in 2016 and their subsequent ability to weather the war of attrition that followed was laid in the decades prior to the referendum but particularly the years following the GFC. This groundwork involved, in particular, the othering of immigrants (among others) and blaming of EU freedom of movement for the inability of Cameron’s coalition to do anything other than reduce living standards, stagnate wages and properly fund the services many people rely on. Those doing the blaming include not just the politicians who now find themselves in a position of considerable power, but also their propaganda wing in the right leaning parts of the fourth estate (which, for the avoidance of all doubt, represents most of the legacy print media).

    The idea that the referendum and subsequent elections were for remain to lose therefore, in my view, ignores the political landscape of at least the last 10 years. The mistake many of the pundit class is making is that the political discourse we are presently experiencing is somehow like a bolt from the blue that began when the referendum became inevitable in 2015, as opposed to a symptom of the sort of right wing politics we’ve been careering towards for many years.

  9. The big, big picture of why Remain lost is because “you don’t know what you have until you lose it” and “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”.

    Remaining had to deal with the reality it was but Leave could sell a fantasy and that proved difficult to challenge as anything negative was “just your opinion.”

    But the flaw Remain made was to call it a second referendum or even a confirmatory referendum. They should have billed it as a referendum on the type of Brexit (including none of the above) because “we care that you don’t end up with a type of Brexit you didn’t want such as BRINO or No Deal.”

  10. As always clear and concise. Thank you- you are always a pleasure to read- thoughtful with no bombast.

    A political breakthrough might easily have swung it for the country. Politicians were too ‘frit’ to challenge the concept of the ‘will of the people’.

    If the referendum had been on capital punishment it is arguable that the result might have a majority in favour. One wonders what politicians would have done then. Would the ‘will of the people’ have prevailed?

    Those politicians who, in my opinion were brave enough to take a stand, have now ended up being unemployed as others, despite agreeing with them, did not follow them.

    One can only wonder what would have happened if those who believed in remaining had all walked out together. I acknowledge that their livelihoods were at stake but being a politician should mean adhering to what Burke said and not being a delegate but acting in the public interest and not necessarily in the narrower interests of their constituents.

    The lack of political will to compromise among the opposition has been well documented and there is not much else to add.

    Those politicians who did nothing other than walk through the lobbies might need to look long and hard at themselves.

  11. It seems manipulation of voters through social media funded by billionaires (see Carole Cadwalladr’s articles about Cambridge Analytica and more ) also had something to do with it.

    1. Tim, I waited 41 years for my chance to have a say on the European Union (being only 17 when the first Referendum was held, in 1975) and nobody manipulated me. Two World Wars; a deep understanding of community cohesion (which I regard as a universal human need); and a real respect for democracy; were my influences.

  12. Very good post. There will be books and entire university courses run on this in years to come.

    The 2016 Remain campaign was possibly the most inept and tone deaf political campaign in recent history (well, up to that point – arguably the Conservative 2017 campaign was worse).

    Remain should have won – easily – but from the half-hearted damning-with-faint-praise “it’s not what we wanted from the negotiations but its the best we could get” (and the related “the EU is perfect but…”) from Cameron et al, plus the total failure to even try to sell what Cameron had got (which was pretty good), to the hiring of a bankers to help sell the campaign (who cares whether what they said was right or not, letting bankers anywhere near the campaign was politically inept), to the abject failure to begin to explain what the EU is for…

    It was like a slow motion political car crash. The Remain campaign did not deserve to win.

    Then, post-referendum, Remainers spent the next few years heaping insults and scorn on Leave voters. Whatever the justification might be, telling people that they are stupid and racist is never going to win them over to your side. But it went on and on and on – and indeed is still going on – and was brilliantly effective at only one thing – keeping the Leave vote solid.

    Finally Corbyn’s offer of a referendum if Jo Swinson would back his short-term Premiership… which Swinson turned down, putting party and personal ambition ahead of country, snatching potential defeat from the jaws of victory, and making Brexit almost inevitable.

    Brexit is happening due to the political incompetence of Remain.

    It looked like a political car crash at the time

  13. Excellent points. For me the critical one was the brief time at the end of the summer when Labour & the other parties could have formed a GNU. Except that Jo Swinson was too quick to reject Corbyn as PM (even if correct in substance), and Corbyn proceeded to scupper it.

    Party politics prevented co-operation. That was also the time I went from “FPTP isn’t great, but it doesn’t matter that much”, to: FPTP is terrible and sets up a system of childish squabbling that must be replaced with some sort (any sort) of proportional system.

    1. Totally agree on the first point. The LDs are never going to form a government on their own, so unless they want to remain a political debating society shouting from the wings but doing nothing (and many seem to find that attractive) they have to be prepared to join coalitions (if there was PR they would have to do that!).

      So to turn down the offer from Corbyn was… beyond stupid. It would have given them pretty much everything they wanted. But no…

      It showed Swinson to be the out-of-depth student politician that the General Election proved her to be.

  14. All true. In the eyes of this outsider, British political leaders were either reluctant Remainers (Cameron, Corbyn, and even, before the referendum, May) or Leavers. Remain’s political case was “EU bad, Brexit worse”. The battle was indeed lost and won at the polls, in 2016 and 2019. Unscheduled elections called, or agreed to, by ostensible Remainers.
    Which begs the question: was Remain’s death wish the manifestation of intractable unease with EU membership?

  15. I’m a remainer, and the only way I can possibly “accept the result” is this:

    Some people say that the default for the UK was to remain in the EU, and a supermajority would have been needed to leave.

    But what if the reverse is true? What if in the long term the default for a country (any country), is to be unattached to any geographical or geopolitical blocks –just by virtue of its being an independent, individual country–, and the only way to “renew” any existing links is for a supermajority to express itself in favour of renewing them?

    And let’s set the bar very low, say a supermajority of 55% (I can’t see how we could set it any lower). Then clearly, unless the campaign had been run to perfection, I can’t see how Remain voters could have defeated Leave voters by 55-45.

    Therefore I have to accept that without even a feeble supermajority to renew the existing links, the UK must leave :-(

  16. Touched on in other comments but the result was also a triumph of party before country. In the referendum, Cameron pulled his punches partly to preserve party unity post-referendum.
    Labour were also cowed by the numbers that voted leave. If they’d opposed calling article 50 prematurely they would at least have sent a signal that it was not the ‘easiest deal’ plus they needed to be more vocal about the economic and therefore social consequences of leaving the CU and SM.
    And all opposition parties were happier fighting each other than the Tory extreme leave.
    Remain and future generations were failed by all political parties.

  17. Looking at it from afar, it was a sad alignment of political players at a critical point in time for the United Kingdom.
    David Cameron, super over confident that Remain would win and not going the extra mile to ensure a compelling case was made prior to the referendum. Then bailing when it did not turn out as he expected.
    Jeremy Corbyn, a maverick often at war with his own colleagues once he had won the leadership of the Labour Party and ambivalent on whether he favoured in or out and yet further complicated by the anti-Semitism issue. Certainly not a man for the time.
    Theresa May, from day one she was unclear with her meaningless slogan, “Brexit means Brexit”. She moved on to a “Red, White and Blue Brexit” – equally meaningless. On the positive side she eventually tried her best and did obtain a deal with the EU, but which the politicians would not support over the Irish issue and where a compromise was necessary.
    Boris Johnson, the buffoning clown and ex-mayor of London and at best slim on the truth. First he was stabbed in the back by his colleague Michael Gove whose lasting mantra was that the experts on these matters knew nothing – far better to trust the politicians! (sic). After May’s departure Johnson was to be resurrected, polished over and supported by the very same individual. Johnson election slogan of “Get Brexit Done” being equally totally meaningless as there are undoubtedly years to go before trade agreements are finally wrapped up – but nevertheless this was all that was necessary for the disillusioned masses that after 3 years of indecision , sick and tired of the Brexit fiasco consuming everything plus Johnson shallow promises of ending the austerity, originally imposed by the very same Conservative Party, by pumping money into the NHS, Education and Policing. The Irish issue now being very conveniently forgotten and with a line to be drawn down the Irish Sea.
    Jo Swinson of the Liberal Democrats, unrealistically talking of becoming prime minister and unable to compromise with Labour when it was necessary, and now without a seat.
    Nowhere was there a politician in sight able to bring home the stark reality that now surely awaits Little Britain outside the EU. Perhaps to become Little England as Scotland and Northern Ireland strive to get back in the EU – the one as an independent country and the other finally uniting with Eire to the south. The colonial days of Empire are long gone; in fact after 1945 the UK has always been at best a second fiddle to the USA. As part of the EU it still wielded a lot of influence, but outside it is likely to be cold and lonely. As Trump has shown, allies are merely to be disregarded, spurned and asked to pull their weight in uneven trade deals. Current promises of quick trade deals will likely turn out to be little more than that … promises!
    Nevertheless, Johnson sees himself as another Churchill, rescuing the UK in its time of need from the devilish EU a.k.a. “our friends and partners” (sic). A comparison with Don Quixote is probably far more apt. Time will tell.

    Sadly, all the politicians have failed the UK.

  18. I think the question is not why Leave won, but why did it not win by a greater margin? I think we should have stayed in the EU, but when I talk to others who voted Remain I find they have many doubts. Some echo what Bernard Kat said in this comment, that they don’t like the EU in its present form but want it reformed. That’s nearly equivalent to saying you don’t want to be in the EU.

    Others say they cannot accept greater budget contributions, nor a European Army, nor more power for the Commission. Almost all disapprove of the euro, and many of Schengen. All this shows that most people don’t really want to be in the EU, they were just willing to tolerate it, and that was only because of its apparent economic benefits. A better Leave campaign would have brought this out. (I don’t mean to imply the Remain campaign was well run; I don’t think it was.)

    1. You don’t have to be remotely pro-EU to be opposed both to this Brexit and the manner in which it is being imposed. In no way is that “nearly equivalent to saying you don’t want to be in the EU”.

      Name me any large, evolving organisation, let alone one which brings 28 to 31 nations, and over 500m voters together with a common purpose, which isn’t in need of constant self-reflection and improvement?

      If it isn’t, it damn-well should be.

      You go on to mention concerns about the Euro & Schengen, both irrelevant to the UK, given our soon to be lost, permanent Opt-Outs, and a European Army which simply doesn’t exist, and cannot exist without the unanimous approval member states, which ain’t gonna happen.

  19. The Remain campaign was always sadly deficient. It never focused on the problems of getting trade deals, our lack of trade negotiators. It never explained that for most of the EU countries the proportion of trade they do,with us was too small to have a significant bearing on their attitude to future trade deals with us. Yes, the leave campaign was full of lies, but, sadly, they remain campaign was full of ommitions.

  20. If we had had another Referendum, what is to say that this would not be as corrupt as the first one was, with the same results?

    I may be clutching at straws here, but with Johnson having a large majority, Brexit and its likely failure will be his. He will endeavour to pass the buck, but he can’t blame Corbyn, he can’t blame ‘Remoaner’ MPs.

  21. I think you miss the key point of the Brexit tragedy – to a very large extent, Remain lost because of the self-serving acts of David Cammeron. There was never a public clamour for an EU referendum in the country, but there was a festering sore at the heart of the Tory party which no leader since Thatcher was prepared to take on: Tory Euroscepticism. Rather that deal with this or attack (the now defunct) UKIP head on, Cammeron chose to put the matter to a badly informed public. He neither wanted the referendum nor believed that his coalition partners would allow it to move forward. He did not enfranchise Brits living in the EU and failed to honour a promise on British “votes for life”. He peddled an advisory referendum as binding and allowed it to pass on a single majority vote with no plan needed from the winners other than “leave”. He also thought it reasonable to deny long standing EU citizens resident in the UK any say over their future. The unpopularity of Cammeron as an individual, that of his party after austerity and a “promise” from Johnson that the NHS would see an extra £350 million a week if the decision was to leave are all factors which need to be added to your account.

    Only now does the Chancellor promise to unveil the “huge benefits” of Brexit – few of us on the Remain side of the argument will be holding our breath on this. As for Johnson, he seems to think that removal of VAT from tampon purchases justifies the whole venture!

    I do agree that a major failing of the EU (in all its member states) has been proper outreach and explanation of the European project.

  22. I hope my comments are not deemed irksome, not least because I enjoy David Allen Green’s writings and have done for some years. This blog about Brexit disappoints in so far as it claims to give reasons for Remain’s defeat and Leave’s success but mainly lists assertions. My view is straightforward and borne out by the ‘set in concrete’ poll results throughout the time since the 2016 referendum: there was virtually no alteration of the balance between the two sides.
    Extensive discussion, debate, opinion and prejudice only served to make the entrenched positions assume intellectual rigour rather than the initial gut feelings (although they persisted too). The matter was decided when Cameron, in his historical folly, called the referendum and exited stage left, whistling.

    1. “mainly lists assertions”

      The points I make are set out as reasons – you may disagree with them, but they do not become mere assertions just because you disagree with them!

      1. I don’t particularly disagree with them either. It would be good to have an evidence base, though.

      2. I did not describe them as ‘mere’ assertions. My point is not even that I disagree with them but that the evidence pointing to the conclusions would be valuable in the post mortem discussions that are happening now – especially coming from someone with your perspective.

      3. I can see that you’re not going to publish anything which you perceive as critical. It’s a pity. I thought you might have been more robust. You will be delighted to know that I’m unsubscribing.

  23. Good stuff but your conclusions are too narrow and your focus too short-term. Basically opposition to the EU has been building for years and was given a boost by the financial crisis (particularly the eurozone crisis), the migration crisis and a growing legitimacy crisis as political unification deepened.

    It might surprise you but one of the most interesting accounts of the referendum victory by Leave is by Dominic Cummings. You don’t have to agree with all of it, but he is right about the wider political context and the uselessness of both campaigns.

    On the longer term demographic changes and the shifts within the political parties Matthew Goodwin is spot-on. Remain losing wasn’t pre-ordained, but it shouldn’t be seen as a surprise either.

    1. I agree.

      I would add that Remain had an opportunity after the referendum in 2016 to maintain a degree of control, eg through moving the UK to the EEA or a similar arrangement and then leading negotiations, but instead in effect decided to contest the result and overthrow it. The two elections this year that ripped up the political map are largely a response to that attempt to overthrow the result.

      Also unmentioned is the EU. They clearly had options before and after to accommodate the UK’s separate views, and declined. They appear to have decided that preserving the route to a Federal Superstate even if they ultimately don’t go down that road it was more important than embracing the looser arrangement that would surely have kept the UK in.

      1. Re: The myth of the Federal Superstate

        It astounds me that anyone could possibly imagine any sovereign state, along with their populations, which have fought as long and as hard as some EU Members for their very existence, would meekly subjugate themselves to an organisation which is little more than an over-glorified Civil Service.

        We are told, with equal conviction, the EU is simultaneously imploding, but also on an unstoppable path to evolving into a Federal Superstate.

        Schrodinger would have been proud.

        1. This comment goes to the heart of the issue. On the one hand we have folks such as yourself saying that the idea of a superstate is nonsense, and on the other hand we have people like Verhofstadt calling for a superstate. Who to believe? Well, all the evidence is that the superstate train just keeps rolling, and my judgement is that when the crunch came the voices of those who said we would never have a superstate would be over-ruled and the federalists would win.

          1. Building a superstate is very hard. Most states under the Westfalian system became nation states through a bit of violence. Instances? The wars that led to the UK, the US Civil War, the three attempts to create a superstate in Europe (not counting the EU of course): “Project Germany, first failed in 1848 and discarded by Bismarck but nevertheless leading to Imperial Germany; WWI (not really a World War of course) -decided by the US in fact and indirectkly leading to a superstate (USSR) that was short lived) and of course the Third Reich also decided by the US). Not to mention earlier attempts like Napoleon’s of course.

            My point is simply: unless something has replaced warfare and occupation (combined with forms of integrations), a European superstate is unlikely. But structures like the Hanseatic League, medieval Poland-Lithuania and the low touch Asian empires (ancient Persia. the Islamic world in the final quarter of the third decennium, several Indian empires) qwere put together with much less violence thn for instance the American Civil War or WWII in the European theatre. I do not rule out that a different EU than the one sometimes peddled by detractors from the UK may be quite viable and for several decades at least.

          2. Rien

            Nice insight. Although the members of the Hanseatic League were not sovereign nations, but towns and cities, if I remember correctly?

            I would add that federal States like the USA and Australia, tend to form organically, at the beginning of their existence, or in the case of the USA, as a result of revolution.

            In neither of those cases are the individual States, themselves ‘sovereign’, in that no legal means exist for them to leave the Federal structure.

            This was the critical issue which led to the American Civil War.

            In Europe of course, each nation values and guards it’s sovereignty above everything else, and as we cannot fail to notice, can leave the EU, if it so chooses.

          3. With respect, your judgment is based upon an apparent misunderstanding ofthe relationship between the EU and EU member states.

            It’s matters not what “people like Verhofstadt” long for or think.

            It’s neither his gift, nor others in EU institutions, to make the decisions required to get remotely close to a Federalist State, super or otherwise.

            The EU exists only at the behest of its members.

            As much as you’d like to think otherwise, the nation states of the EU are the dog, the EU itself, the tail which wags when the members demand it do so.

            Any such move is can be vetoed by a single member. Vetoes are protected by Treaty and cannot be unilaterally removed.

            There’s no more reason for any nation to surrender their sovereignty than there is for the UK to do so, and despite what Leavers believe, the UK is as sovereign today as it was before we joined the bloc.

    2. I agree. This result was entirely predictable and was predicted. It’s a pity that blinkered factional politics prevented a movement to merge (particularly) Remain forces when Leave managed to do so, successfully.

      1. The events of 1992 should have warned prospective remainers that the root of their problem would be the inability of the UK and her population to participate in true integration. Both EU and UK government should have realised that the UK could not be a long term partner, given institutional structure, history and especially political historical mythology. A pity, but the proverbial bridge too far.

        1. One of the issues I have with the EU is, whereas I believe in the general philosophy, it simply moves too fast.

          Not necessarily an issue when times are good, but in times of downturn, such as that following 2008, it’s an easy target.

          National or even regional identities are important to people. In my experience there’s a perception the EU is either actively trying, or is the unwitting cause of, an erosion of separate identities to be replaced with a generic European identity.

          This may be fine over generations, but not in a single lifetime.

          I don’t think it’s a coincidence the elder UK generation which remembered life before the EEC/EU (rose-tinted spectacles or otherwise) voted in large numbers to leave.

          Had the vote been 15 or 20 years later, very few alive would have recalled a pre-membership UK and voters would have been far more accustomed to ,mutually beneficial inter-dependency with our allies, not hiding behind isolationism or nationalism.

  24. “…the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties enabled a general election which neither party turned out to be in a position to exploit.

    Neither party were required to consent to this, but they did.”

    While this is accurate, I would also say that at that time Mr Johnson had managed to get a deal with the EU and have it pass the 2nd reading in the house, so by sheer momentum and apathy to the whole Brexit process this very likely would have passed soon after. So the options for the opposition parties were to either accept it would pass or to agree to the election as the only other realistic option to get it changed.

    It failed, but they’d all been boxed into a corner by then that there was little choice left.

    Until the PM got the deal things were still far more open to options, but that deal being agreed changed things.

  25. My current view is not that Leave won or Remain lost. Policy development and practice have never been less relevant to the electorate. My experience is that most people on this country prefer the politics and positions associated with ‘Leave’ and are relishing the opportunity to voice these views at last. We live in a country where the majority of people have right of centre views and beliefs and have had for a long time. A bitter pill to swallow for those of us to the left of centre with progressive philosophies. I’m would be happy to be dissuaded from this view.

  26. Unfortunately, we won’t ever know.

    We know about 2016. Leave was radicalised to the extent that it ignored economists, doctors, world leaders etc.

    What we don’t know is the state of the 2017-2019 Parliament. We know they passed BoJo’s second reading. Swinson went on record to say she thought they would pass the third and final reading.

    Now did she mean they would pass it amended ie soft Brexit?

    In hindsight, that would be the better outcome but… ya know… hindsight.

    And was she even in a position to be know? Did Chuku agree? Did Sturgeon? Did Starmer? Because it’s worth pointing out that the People’s Vote campaign imploded a month and a half prior.

  27. The UK has chosen to leave the EU at a time when it is under severe strain; an expansionist Russia in the East, a war and migration crisis in the South and economic strains connected to the Eurozone. All of these have been exacerbated by an expansion championed by the UK without the evolution of a political framework as proposed by the European Project’s founders.
    The UK joined the then Common Market at a time of great economic difficulty and has as a nation done very well out of it. A large proportion of the population less so.
    The Remain campaign chose to fight the referendum purely on economic advantage. There was no suggestion that membership implied obligations or that voting to leave had a moral component. As such it differed little from the Leave campaign which also relied on arguments that were at their bottom selfish as well as being crude and dubious.
    The result of the referendum was a massive failure of nerve and lack of responsibility. It is no wonder that the party which set out to implement the result has produced so tawdry and compromised a programme so far.

  28. Further thoughts:
    1. The role and influence of the print media generally and the most popular ones above all, not just in the immediate run up to the referendum but in the years leading up to it.
    2. The perseverance of Cash, Redwood, IDS, Lilley etc over years to keep the issue alive. they never accepted the status quo and so there was a ready made organisation to promote Leave.
    3. The depth of the leave belief in the cause whereas as DAG says Remain was never a deeply held belief. only Blair and Major really addressed the Irish issue which proved to be so important.
    4. Trade is 20% of the UK economy but still played a major part in the Remain case. The reality will hit home when falling tax revenues hit the economy.
    There’s more to come and 2020 won’t be a walk in the park.

  29. You write,
    “Of course, many Remainers will be quick to blame and accuse others.

    And they are right, in that Leavers were and are culpable in many ways.”

    That encapsulates, IMV, the difficulty.

    I voted remain; but did so for my own reasons. I was very angry with the campaign to remain (as well as the campaign to leave). It was negative to the point of absurdity and was seen as that – no positive view of the EU was ever produced (so far as I can remember). I have been a candidate for the Conservatives, but have found myself in real difficulty with the current Conservative politics, leadership and policies – particularly the ‘do or die’ concept of leaving the EU.

    ‘Remainers’ and ‘leavers’ have become epithets and insults. They are meaningless. We have to look at what can bind us – and that needs to be done in a way that accepts the very real differences between us.

    The pack of cards was thrown into the air by the result in 2016. It did not land when the 2017 election took place, but they have certainly landed now.

    I agree that the decision to leave the EU is the riskiest and potentially most damaging choice that this country could take, but it is clear that that is the decision that has now been taken. Until we understand and accept the bona fides of those we disagree with we will never come to terms with their view – let alone understand them. Using the word ‘culpable’ for a decision that you strongly disagree with demonstrates, IMV, an unwillingness to come to terms with their view, and so understanding it is potentially impossible.

  30. A good blog. One that may be useful to historians in the future.

    You are correct that “many Remainers will be quick to blame and accuse others”. We will blame other Remainers as well as Leavers.

    It is going to take a long time before I will cease to blame Remainer MPs for letting down Remainers amongst ‘the people’. Many Remainer MPs were negligent in allowing a 52/48 referendum result, from a consultative referendum to be taken as ‘the will of the people’. I heard very few mention either that the result was not mandatory or that the House of Commons represent all of the people, not just those who had voted ‘Leave’. Lack of political will to challenge the legitimacy of a referendum result in a representative democracy set the scene for everything else that followed.

  31. With regards to your blog on why “Remain lost”, it is, of course only skimming the surface, and I can think of very many other contributory factors.

    I’ll expand on just two.

    The first in my view, was the lack of leadership on the Remain side.

    It was clear during the Referendum campaign, Corbyn was not entirely dedicated to the Remain cause. His campaigning had little of the energy & enthusiasm he was to show in the Election campaign of 2017, and he more often than not gave only qualified praise of the EU.

    Following the vote, an issue which should have continued as a cross-party national project, once again retreated behind traditional, confrontational Party lines. That same lack of enthusiasm was then applied to Labour’s role as the official Opposition.

    May’s Government & Leave were allowed, time and time again, to set the narrative, and distort & misrepresent the facts. As often as not, Corbyn either abetted or failed to resist.

    With the Opposition leadership resistant to commit to an unequivocally Remain position, who else could 16m Remainers turn to?

    It became as if only 17m people voted, and only 17m had the right to expect representation or consideration.

    Remember, all this upheaval is happening on the say so of just 1.9% of the population, which is what the difference between the Leave vote & Remain vote represented.

    Any leadership Remain did have, came from ex-politicians or messengers too easily dismissed, despite the substance of their arguments.

    Secondly, Leave benefitted hugely from 40+ years of drip-drip conditioning by certain sections of the media, playing on easily manipulated fears, abetted by successive Governments happy for the EU to take the blame for domestic policy failures.

    These narratives were so cleverly exploited by Leave in 2016, the world where an issue (Europe) IPSO Mori recorded in December 2015, as being the lead concern of just 1% of respondents to their long-term Social Attitudes Survey, seemed a generation away in June 2016.

    It’s also worth asking how many UK voters ever consume media material from outside of the UK?

    UK TV, Radio & printed media is understandably UK-centric, and almost instinctively, ‘us v them’.

    The only way to really gain a wider appreciation of the UK’s place in Europe, is to leave the island behind, and look outside in.

    1. Generally, as a nation we win together and lose together.

      If Brexit evolves into an accidental success, we’ll all benefit.

      If it doesn’t, Leavers will will be the bearers of a heavy burden, as it will be their great expectations which will have been dashed, and their responsibility.

      However, I’d rather accept I was wrong, than have reason to say “we told you so”.

    2. Good additions. Just one point, I would say that UK media (and popular TV) is English-language-centric, rather than UK-centric. Hence, a much greater ‘feeling’ that the UK are closer to countries that have English as their native language than our physically closer neighbours.

  32. Another insightful blog post with which I can identify.

    A poorly performing Government faced with an even worse performing opposition leading to political stasis.

    Semi-seriously, I think that the last election outcome was determined by disengaged and bored voters choosing a party led by someone who they thought would be entertaining for a good night out in a pub rather than for their political principles & rhetoric.

  33. An interesting and solid round-up of where we stand at the moment. To add my two penne’th, one of the major turning points was the lack of critical analysis of the 2016 referendum result. From the moment Dimbleby said “That’s it, we’re out” at the end of the BBC’s special programme, the die was cast, and that was what the referendum result meant to the politicians who supported it and the simpleton journalists who couldn’t handle anything more complex. The referendum result only told us one thing: the country was as split as the politicians, but that was drowned out by the “We won, you lost, get over it” brigade, who then proceeded to do everything they could to try and mess up their own narrative until the public got royally pissed off by the whole thing and just wanted it over in the 2019 general election. Essentially, the people who shouted loudest won.

  34. Thank you for this interesting piece. In point 2, you cite the lack of political breakthrough – that all the Remain activity never made it through to Parliament was a huge source of frustration to me (I write as an Europhile). Do you have any insights into why?

  35. Thank you. As a first shot at writing the history this is hard to argue with. Your successors, like your correspondents above, will find many subsidiary reasons, and as historians do will trace the “origins” back down many paths. They may also be able to weigh more easily than we can the international dimensions which have been largely ignored in the UK, both as factors in the respective interests and strategies of EU and UK and as real or imagined influences on the Leave campaign and the subsequent tactics of Brexiters.

    I am pretty sure, too, that they will attach a lot of weight to one factor in which there was a large element of chance, namely the remarkable ineptness of the Opposition in Parliament. Of course Lib Dems and others made mistakes, and they mattered, but in our system it is Her Majesty’s Opposition that counts – and in our system, at least in my lifetime, Oppositions have usually, sooner or later, been able to capitalise on serious division and incompetence within the governing party. This wasn’t just a matter of right or left, unity or disunity, but incompetence of a quite unusual order. How long would either May or Johnson have lasted against party led by a Kinnock or a John Smith, let alone a Wilson or a Blair? And when, in successive general elections have third parties and independents been so ruthlessly squeezed by voters desperate to protect themselves, as they always are, against whichever of the Ugly Sisters they found more repellent? There are, no doubt, weighty reasons why both large parties sank to such depths at the same time , but sheer bad luck was in there.

    1. Hugely flattered to have a comment from you on this “first draft of history” post.

      For those who don’t know, R I Moore is a great historian. His important book on the formation of a persecuting society was on my pre-university reading list thirty years ago – so strange and so wonderful to have a comment from him on a mere blogpost now!

      And he is, of course, right in what he identifies.

      1. Damn :-)

        I knew I should have put ’eminent historian – At least in my lounge’ after my comments on the ineptitude and filibuster of HM’s Opposition, for them to hit the mark.

        Still, it’s wicked to have Mr Moore share the same opinion.

        There are so many facets of the last three or four years that seemed, almost mystically, to come together, like pieces of a blank jigsaw, which nonetheless, clipped together in a way that couldn’t have happened, if any one of the pieces had been missing?

    2. I can only agree with RI Moore’s comments about the ineptness of the Opposition. The cause of this was the narrow and totally misguided focus of the so-called Leader and his hooded crows. All credit to members of the Opposition Front bench, like Keir Starmer, who tried their best to manouevre the Leader into a sensible position – but were unable to overcome his intransigence. Jeremy Corbyn is at least as culpable as David Cameron for the mess we find ourselves in. And Lord knows what is to come.

      1. Starmer and Thornberry manoeuvred Corbyn and the leadership into a plausible position but it was too late and couldn’t be summed up in three words. The failings of the opposition go right back to the election of Corbyn as leader and for that we have to thank the MPs who nominated him as a candidate in 2015 and the Momentum crowd who climbed onto the bandwagon. Perish the thought that we might be heading back again to a Long-Bailey leadership with Burgon as Deputy. If that doesn’t complete the marginalisation of the Labour party then I don’t know what will.
        Consequences that go back to 2010, the election of the wrong Miliband as leader and the failure before that of New Labour to demonstrate that its policies did benefit its key supporters in the North and Midlands, even though the perception and ‘virtual’ reality was that only London was the beneficiary.

        It has also brought home the importance of an opposition to the executive, separate from a faction within the governing party. If anything the ERG has repeated the lesson that no government is safe.

  36. Thanks for this, David, I couldn’t agree with you more. I found the so-called Remain campaign back in 2016 embarrassingly flimsy and silly and, as you say, Remain has never recovered its wits. That being so, do we Remainers deserve to be considered “Europeans”?!

    1. What is a European? Someone born in Europe and its offshore islands? If so, someone whose descendents emigrated to Europe in say the last 5000 years from Central Eurasia or someone whose immediate parents emigrated from the West Indies, West Africa, Pakistan, India or China or the like to settle in Europe and make it their home? What then of the Europeans who emigrated to the Americas, Africa and Australasia and their descendents?

      I would suggest it is a state of mind, where do you feel you best belong? Can some politician by declaring a country not to be part of the EU make you any less European? I think not so.

      1. Ah, I knew “European” begged many questions; hence the inverted commas. I’d opt for state of mind plus the benefits of free movement, enrichment of other cultures through immigration, sharing of science and security, protection of the environment, a first class economy, diversity of the arts, discussion rather than enraged argument, a higher court and, of course, good coffee! I appreciate these could all still be reasonably so outside the EU but probably by separating ourselves in a “European” manner rather than a Little Islander manner.

  37. It think that an alternative contemporary view would be that Leave prevailed as it won z’the arguments that counted – to the shock and horror of people like yourself who were simply unable to understand that the rules had changed; « lies » in 2016 you claim, yet a resounding countering of your view as well in 2019.
    Your side was, of course, right, but complacent, you say.
    If only Erich Honecker had not been complacent in 1989.
    It doesn’t even occur to you that a form of mild revolution simply bulldozed you all.
    You’re a clever man, but like most of your side you wear political blinkers that come with simply being a… snob.

  38. Indeed, the GE was a big mistake; in the FT-readers’ comments sections, I argued against it a lot. To no avail.

  39. Only just found this new blog… Was a big fan of JoK, in the days it was very active.

    I afraid I don’t see that you have exhibited any point where Leave could sustainably have been stopped after the referendum. Yes, you point to badly managed situations, but I don’t see any as definitive, such that they would permanently stopped Leave. If Leave looked to have been stopped, the political dynamic was for something like the 2019 election to come along eventually and ensure the referendum was implemented. And sadly those in charge are now implementing it in an extreme way few voters really want, if they understood it.

    So the only incompetence that really mattered in the end was passing a Referendum Act, especially one which said nothing about what happened as a result of it, in contrast to all other such Acts. The best thing was not to have one at all. But if there was to be one, it should have said that with a supermajority, eg 55-45, the government had an obligation to initiate exit, and not otherwise. There was some hope a 52-48 majority might have accepted that a larger majority is needed for such existential change, a common provision in many areas of life.

    After that mistake, the best politically competent parties could have achieved was a cross-party agreement to implement a low-impact exit. But political competence was not in charge in either large party, and such an outcome was implausible with the actual individuals in charge.

  40. In my view there were three critical moments which damned the country to what I genuinely hope is not the disastrous error I believe it to be.

    1) Cameron made the pledge “my government will implement the result in full”. While I don’t blame Leavers for seizing onto this, he had no legal or constitutional right to commit a future Parliament to to such action. It was in direct contradiction of the Referendum Act 2015.
    Of course that pledge went with him on 24th June 2016, but not in the minds of those who understandably wanted to cling on to their ‘victory’.

    2) There was no legal or constitutional obligation for Parliament to take any specific actions following the result. It was left for Parliament to decide, as is the nature of our Representative Democracy.

    There was however, a ‘political obligation’ to act on the result, and this is where Theresa May’s intervention, in my view was unconscionable.

    She not only condoned the mantra of the “the will of the people”, but by claiming the result was “emphatic” & “overwhelming”, she completely misrepresented the nature of the mandate (which wasn’t a Tory mandate, but was treated that way) and worse, set ‘the people’ (the 17m) vs Parliament.

    3) The moment about which we hear so little, yet was so critical, was the moment she ruled out the option of remaining in the EU.

    By default, a ‘political obligation’ to act, became ‘irreversible, no matter the cost, no matter the consequences and no matter the circumstances’.

    I still struggle to understand how she was allowed to get away with this? Not only did it dismiss outright any consideration whatsoever for the wish of almost half of those that voted, I cannot think of any other policy whereby the government has granted itself, or been granted an open-ended license to do whatever it wants, with no possibility of reversing that policy, no limit to the cost, no matter the damage.

    So, we ended up with a poorly conceived, lazily legislated, awkwardly questioned, dishonestly campaigned, possibly compromised, cross-party referendum, misrepresented & manipulated to become an entirely right-wing Tory Brexit, far removed from anything put to voters in 2016.

    1. The answer seems to be; It was going to be ‘Brexit’ long before it was ever ‘Leave’.

      – The very wording of Article 50 points to this: What ‘[UK] Constitutional requirements’ were ever met / accorded with?

      1. A case litigated to the Supreme Court, a dedicated Act of Parliament providing for a specific discretion for a Prime Minister, and an exercise of that discretion.

        That is the answer to the question of what constitutional requirements were complied with (or in my view, non-question).

        1. I don’t doubt you are correct. I am left wondering as to when this happened, given that the entirety of UK Party-Politics fell upon the decision to leave & the ‘will of the people’ on June 24th 2016.

  41. One thing I should have added, is this:

    I am not ‘pro-EU’ by any stretch of the imagination, but since the vote have become vehemently against THIS Brexit entirely due to the actions and attitudes of its protagonists.

    However, I long ago decided it must happen and be allowed to run its course.

    This is the only way anyone will know for sure whether the advice the Electorate gave and the subsequent (in my view) hi-jacking of that slim majority was the right course of action.

    If it’s a great ‘success’ (not forgetting those already harmed) then we’ll all share it and I will be delighted to have been proved wrong.

    If it’s the opposite, deny it as they will, it will be a heavy burden on Leavers, and depending on the circumstances at the time, maybe we’ll reach a consensus (the one that should have been sought after Ref16) on a course of action behind which a significant majority of the population can unite.

    It’s the only way I can see this divided nation remotely coming together again.

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