Throughout the Brexit saga one thing has never changed. The Brexiteers have presented themselves as the tough guys, who will do anything to get their own way regardless of what other people think, while the Remainers have often been happy to be presented as “snowflakes”, as they regard themselves as being more civilized.
As time has gone on, the tough guys have become more defensive, which has only increased their aggression, whilst the Remainers have embarked on a long campaign to overturn the referendum result. Far from being snowflakes, they have shown considerable backbone in continuing to argue their case in the face of ongoing media hostility, and charges that they are not respecting the will of the people.
Indeed, as the consequences of Brexit have become clearer, and the arguments for it increasingly theoretical or fantastical, the calm insistence of the Remainers has turned the tide of public opinion. There is now a real chance they will succeed in keeping the UK in the EU, if not immediately then with only a short break in membership.
Inevitably, the parties in the UK parliament have followed the same trajectory. The Brexiteers of both the hard right and hard left felt after the vote that they had now taken over the Conservative and Labour parties, after years of marginalisation within them, and were the “true voices” of these parties. The traditional third party, the now much-reduced Liberal Democrats, were too scared to support overturning the referendum result despite their enduring strongly pro-EU slant.
Since then, the Tory and Labour Remainers have fought back and voiced increasing disapproval of their Brexiteer leaders. The LibDems are now publicly backing “Exit from Brexit”, as they should have done from Day One, and the other opposition parties have moved from the fringes to the mainstream, their opposition to Brexit seeming to reflect a general mood rather than being a partisan position.
Now the day many thought they would never see has come home to roost—on the 19th of February seven Labour MPs, who oppose both Brexit and their party’s increasingly intolerant leadership, resigned from the party and formed a new organisation called The Independent Group Three Conservatives and another Labourite joined them the following day, all citing similar concerns about their parties being taken over by Brexiteer extremists
As yet, the new group has not formed a new party. Nor will the MPs be resigning and asking their electors to back them again at by-elections. But the emergence of this new grouping has been widely applauded as the culmination of all the hard work the Remainers have put in since the vote.
Finally the politicians themselves are breaking ranks and forming a new group the majority can trust. Already there is talk about the grouping becoming a serious force, which will siphon off enough MPs from other parties, and votes, to transform British politics.
But there is one big problem. The Independent Group has none of the strengths of the Remain movement, and all of its weaknesses.
Far from making the Remain case stronger, the Independent Group will merely expose the major problems at the heart of it. It is likely to undo all the positive work the Remainers have done – and this time they will not be able to say that politicians as a breed are to blame for their own failures to retake control of their country.
You and who’s army?
As the new grouping has been formed by Labour breakaways it has reminded commentators and public alike of the SDP, or Social Democratic Party, formed by four former Labour Cabinet ministers in 1981. This also captured the public imagination for a time, and many of the same slogans were repeated almost word for word – “breaking the mould”, “common sense alternative to extremism”, “pragmatism not politics”.
After the SDP went into alliance with the historic Liberals, and thereby formed the forerunner of the present-day Liberal Democrats, there was also serious talk that it would replace Labour as the main opposition party. The new Alliance consistently performed well in opinion polls, local elections and parliamentary by-elections, and maybe it would have succeeded in replacing Labour, whose old social base was diminishing year on year, had enough of the public been convinced that it could actually do so when it really mattered.
However the SDP had one big problem. Like the Independent Group, it refused to develop policies which actually meant anything, only vague sympathies which most voters held, but had not been considered as important as other factors when election time came round.
Also, though most ordinary SDP members had not previously been members of any party, its MPs were almost all ex-Labour, and like the members of the Independent Group they did not ask their electors to vote for them again under their new colours. This came back to bite them in the 1983 general election, when the Alliance vote increased substantially but almost all those MPs lost their seats, their electors voting for their previous party because the defectors had not established distinct identities of their own.
The BIG year of Alliance breakthrough was supposed to be 1987. Labour was going downhill fast, and the ruling Conservatives were vulnerable on all kinds of issues. A clever Labour campaign then regained most of its lost support, whilst the Alliance, with its two leaders who frequently disagreed on points of emphasis, not only failed to make the expected gains but went backwards, once again because the old allegiances were more important than whether you actually agreed with, or liked, their representatives when push came to shove.
Eventually large numbers of ordinary SDP members drifted back to where they had come from, whilst the leadership largely merged with the Liberals, though not without a chunk of them refusing and creating another split. This is what a group of Cabinet ministers, with established profiles and much pre-existing public sympathy, failed to achieve. But at least they could claim to have moved some degree forward, whilst The Independent Group members are much more likely to drag everything they care about backwards.
Rebels despite their cause
By setting up the new group, the rebel MPs have created a new paradigm: pro-Brexit sympathy versus everything else. They are calling for a second referendum, with an option to remain in the EU. But what happens then?
Is a group of eight former Labour and three former Conservative MPs going to develop a vision of the future which its members can broadly agree on? Will that vision then be distinct enough to change the voting habits of several lifetimes?
Before the Brexit referendum, UKIP was winning seats at local elections as well as European parliament ones, and was a major factor in the Conservatives growing so scared of their own Brexiteers, whom they had once treated with patronising indulgence. No one knew or cared what UKIP would do about things other than EU membership, and issues bound up with it such as immigration, if it ever gained power. But that wasn’t important as long as it was a conduit for public disquiet, a one issue party which tried to pretend that no other issue existed.
Then UKIP won the referendum. That should have been its finest hour. But its vote then collapsed like a pack of cards.
Even in strongly Leave-voting areas, UKIP is now almost invisible as an electoral force. Though its views still attract considerable sympathy, which is no longer so important—there is a new reality in the UK.
UKIP was always a protest, not an identity, a problem the much more successful Liberals and Liberal Democrats have also shared. Identities are more complex than causes. Different aspects of them become important at different times, and when other aspects of the identity are more important than the one people were protesting about, those who share that identity return to it, even if the thing they don’t like is still there.
As long as Remainers stayed within their existing parties, there was always hope that they could bring parliamentary colleagues, and ordinary party members, round to their own opinion. There would always be enough of them to ensure their fight was still on.
Tony Blair changed Labour beyond recognition by endlessly reminding its members what going in a hard left direction was doing to it. The harm Brexiteers are doing to the Conservatives is now being openly talked about, which is most unusual for that party.
Staying within their parties would have given these MPs more chance of stopping Brexit because they would, as members of those parties, have to address a much wider range of issues and take positions on those issues. Eventually these would be cohesive enough to make stopping Brexit part of a broader programme covering everything voters might be interested in. If they were tired of Brexit debate, they would still accept remaining in the EU if it went along with the things which concerned them most, like reducing prices or keeping jobs.
Now the political battle is between pro-Brexit and “anti-extremism”, a concept defined and practiced in very different ways in the Conservative and Labour parties, and all the other concerns people have. This means opposing Brexit has to be the only thing anyone thinks about.
Most voters are sick of tired of Brexit, and just want it to go away, whether that be by leaving the EU or staying in it. Remain has made inroads into Brexit support by highlighting exactly those other issues which concern voters – what has happened to the pound, food prices, jobs and the future – rather than arguing Brexit itself. Now these Remainer MPs are reversing that process, and throwing everything away just when the victory of their cause was more clearly in sight than ever.
No one can moan for ever
The Independent Group is not without merit or hope. It does represent the views of the “none of the abovers”, who have always been a substantial minority of the UK electorate.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party did far better at the last general election than expected because his outsider socialism attracted those voters in the way that previous outsider parties, such as UKIP, the nationalists, the neo-fascists and the Liberals, SDP and Liberal Democrats, once did. If those voters can protest about enough of the same things at the same time, the Independent Group might last longer than the parliamentary careers of its current members.
It may also be able to build serious grassroots support by having its cake and eating it. All its current members have insisted that they naturally belong in their original parties, but have seen them taken over by unnatural elements.
As Brexit looms ever closer, and an acceptable formula for leaving seems as elusive as ever, the threat of the worst scenarios never changing may convince enough other MPs, and a substantial portion of the public, to remain who they are but still bring down their original parties for taking the wrong side on this issue. After all, some members of the two religious communities in Northern Ireland can be described as “Protestant Atheist” or “Catholic Atheist”as they abandon their identities but change their views.
But the group does not have leaders, and maybe never will. Chuka Umunna was a respected Labour moderate, but he was once urged to stand for leader against Corbyn and withdrew due to too many skeletons in his family’s closet. Anna Soubry has made a name for herself as a vocal Tory anti-Brexiteer, and has ministerial experience, but the same feistiness she displays when fighting Brexit doesn’t sit well with electors when more mundane issues are being discussed, and nor will it with her new ex-Labour friends.
This latest fracture in British politics is not a new dawn for the UK or Remain. It is a way of destroying the Remain cause from the top down.
Far from taking the fight to their old parties, these MPs are likely to condemn their new group, and Remain itself, to becoming what British people traditionally describe foreign countries as when they return from a holiday – “a lovely place, but I wouldn’t want to live there.” Remain is still a real cause, but will be never be served by politicians who live in their own bubble, unpricked by even their own self-importance.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.