BY SAM HOOPER
John Harris has long been about the only writer at the Guardian worth reading, and last week he had some wise words of advice for the organisers and stars of last week’s march in support of the “People’s Vote” on overturning Brexit and remaining in the European Union.
For those who have been living under a rock and therefore missed the incessant publicity of these astroturf, significantly foreign-funded umbrella groups agitating for another vote (termed by activists and unquestioningly sympathetic journalists the “People’s Vote” because presumably the June 2016 vote which they lost turned out not to be a people’s vote) held another one of their big marches in central London last weekend. They clustered in fashionable Park Lane, that bastion of salt-of-the-earth Britishness with which so many potentially wavering regional Leave voters identify, and sauntered down to Parliament Square to hear last season’s political grandees tell them the same comforting bromides that they have been repeating for over two years.
John Harris thinks that maybe – just maybe – this “second time lucky” approach will not bring the windfalls which the organisers are hoping for, which presumably include generating mounting and irresistible public pressure for Brexit to be delayed while a new referendum is organised.
The music, apparently swelling towards a climax that never arrives, sounds like a Coldplay outtake, and most of the faces suggest an entertaining Saturday night in front of the TV. On and on they go: the singer Jamelia, the actor Dominic West, Philip Pullman, Stephen Mangan, Josh Widdicombe, Tracey Ullman, Natascha McElhone, the musician Nitin Sawhney, Gary Lineker, Matt Lucas and good old Dan Snow. Non-famous people seem to be few and far between, with the exception of an unnamed man in front of a football crowd and someone whose caption merely says “a farmer from Scotland”.
Who are these people?
The same crowd of luvvies who believe that their celebrity endows them with some special wisdom and insight into geopolitics which the rest of us desperately need to hear. The same people who actively drove wavering voters into the arms of the 2016 Leave campaign.
Ostensibly, the video is aimed simply at encouraging people to go on the demo, a job it may well be doing reasonably well. But it clearly has a larger reach, and shines light on an increasingly inescapable problem: the failure of the range of forces now pushing against Brexit (from Open Britain, to Scientists for EU and the student campaign FFS (AKA For our Future’s Sake), and Britain for Europe) to do much more than working up their own side, and get anywhere near shifting the balance of opinion in the country.
Slow hand clap.
It took two years, but we finally got there. To be fair, Harris probably knew this all along – but then if more instinctively pro-EU journalists, commentators and campaigners had half of Harris’ self-awareness we likely would not have voted to leave the EU in the first place. More:
To be fair to anti-Brexit campaigners, the contortions of the Labour party and the big trade unions are not helping them. But they should also look at their own failings. First, as evidenced by the video, they cannot seem to break out of the stereotype of remain voters as metropolitan and largely middle class, nor push beyond the impression of the anti-Brexit cause as something led by representatives of some awful ancien regime, commanded by Tony Blair, Nick Clegg and Bob Geldof (with supporting roles for, say, the former minister Andrew Adonis and the philosopher AC Graying, both of whom perhaps ought to tweet less).
Overall, there is still precious little awareness that if you put the people formerly known as the great and the good at the forefront of anti-Brexit campaigning, you run the risk of simply reminding millions of people why they voted to exit the EU in the first place. The problem is arguably symbolised by one fact above all others: that by the end of this month, the two biggest anti-Brexit events to date will have been huge marches in London.
This is why I shake my head every time that Tony Blair decides that the nation needs to hear from him on Brexit one more time – that if only he gives one more stirring speech, contorting his increasingly cadaverous face into those positions of faux-anguish and sincerity which once fooled so many of us – that we will immediately stop, see the error of our ways and hand the car keys back to the same determined kidnappers who drugged and abducted us in the first place, just as we stand on the cusp of escape.
But clearly this is not a lesson which penetrates the minds of the Smartest Guys In The Room, the people who think that their credentials, jobs and lifestyles give them some kind of exclusive divine right to chart Britain’s course. And so, like a one-hit wonder that won’t go away, they keep playing the same tune to an increasingly bored wider audience.
But it need not be like this, says Harris, who proposes ditching the celebrities and failed ex-politicians in favour of being seen “pitching up in the places that voted leave, and finally listening”. Harris signs off with this parting advice:
And perhaps bear in mind the words of the venerable Gina Miller, uttered at the people’s vote march earlier this year. “It’s time we took things back to the streets and the lanes, the towns and the villages, the meadows and the squares of this country,” she said. So why haven’t they done it?
Why haven’t they done it yet?
Maybe because people like Gina Miller and the assembled celebrities agitating to subvert Brexit would never sully themselves by holding their big march in Sunderland (61-39) or Boston (75-25). Hell, they won’t even go so far as Birmingham (50.4-49.6). They wouldn’t be caught dead in any of those places. They’re happy to cut schmaltzy little videos exhorting other people to take the “People’s Vote” campaign to those areas, but Patrick Stewart and Bob Geldof aren’t going to check in to the Premier Inn Coventry and dine at Wetherspoon’s after a long day knocking on doors or accosting shoppers outside WH Smith.
And so we have this ludicrous campaign of unhinged celebrity carnival barkers, bleating their hypocritical demand about another referendum yet refusing to take their message beyond its existing metropolitan strongholds. Remember, these people really do consider themselves so smart. So much more educated, so much better informed, so much more aware of every possible relevant factor concerning Brexit, and yet they have made zero attempt to change the disastrous strategy which saw them lose the last round back on June 23, 2016.
I am becoming increasingly convinced that the reason is that for many of them, this is not about leaving the European Union at all. That like so many other social justice causes, this is little more than a convenient vehicle for second-tier celebrities to clamber onto in order to prove their woke, right-on credentials. In short, the People’s Vote campaign is at least 50% a culture war issue. If even half of these celebrities were really motivated purely by the earnest desire to see Britain saved from economic self-harm, they would have been found during the 2017 snap general election protesting Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and cutting urgent YouTube campaign videos warning people not to vote for the party of renationalization and endlessly high taxes. But they didn’t, because allying with the Conservative party makes for bad PR, while hating on the Tories makes you cool and edgy.
Establishment and celebrity Remainers talk the language of economic damage, but at heart they are fighting a culture war. And to these people, Brexit is to be opposed because as Bono never tires of lecturing us, the European Union stands for everything enlightened and noble on this continent, and the nation state (and particularly Britain) stands for everything retrograde, oppressive and embarrassing. I have been watching this establishment-celebrity hissy fit roll on for over two years now, and I am convinced that the great thrust of their motivation is entirely rooted in the culture war.
Were it otherwise, establishment and celebrity Remainers would have used some of their vaunted intellect to learn from their mistakes and change tack. They would have realized that screeching worst case scenarios of economic doom at a population who were not evaluating the decision to leave the EU purely on economic terms had failed once, and would likely fail again. They would have conceded that having the same tedious, back-slapping conversation in which they and other like-minded souls praise one another for being so compassionate, intelligent and not stupid enough to be manipulated by the Russians was not buttering any parsnips among Leave voters. They would have ventured out into places like my hometown of Harlow, Essex and chatted with voters there – that way they could engage and attempt to convert some Leave voters firsthand while remaining within spitting distance of the M25 when they reached their tolerance limit for mingling with parochial Gammons.
But the celebrities and their political puppet-masters didn’t do any of that stuff. Instead, they threw every insult in the book at the other side. They painted the question in stark, good versus evil terms. They put forward air-headed celebrity spokespeople to make pro-EU statements about as emotionally convincing as a Kate Winslet Oscars acceptance speech. They came up with a new, racist word for white male Leave voters: Gammons. They broke out their actuarial tables and publicly looked forward to the death of elderly Brexit voters. And they organised march after insufferable march deep in the heart of Fortress London, the only part of the United Kingdom which most of them know or like.
The campaign for a “People’s Vote” is an exercise in catharsis for ordinary Remainers and an opportunity for virtue-signaling and personal brand-burnishing for the campaign’s celebrity conscripts. It is the least organic political movement in modern British history, and by far the most cynical. Again, most of these people bleating that the British people must be given a say over the terms of our future relationship with the EU never wanted the public to have a say in the first place, and certainly never wanted any public consultation or consensus-building as government after government took us deeper into supranational political union. And now they’re weeping in the streets of London, claiming that another referendum is required in the name of justice and democracy?
Give us a break.
This is a culture war and these people are culture warriors – and rather pathetic, transparent ones at that. They certainly are not genuine tribunes of the people. Go ahead, try to change my mind.