I may have made the odd disparaging remark about Brexiteers during the heat of the referendum campaign, but I have been the perfect gentleman since. Although a Remainer, I have accepted the referendum result with good grace and treated the winners with courtesy and respect. I’ve never called them swivel-eyed, or xenophobic, or racist (or ‘deplorable’, as Hillary Clinton called Donald Trump’s supporters). I regard them as normal human beings.
I don’t even dismiss them as angry working-class rebels, driven by resentment of a heartless ruling elite. They come from every part of society. If there is a class war, it is going on in America, not here. I have American friends who say they have never met a Trump supporter. Here, however, I have constantly bumped into Brexiteers; and I don’t only mean Nikki, my cleaning woman in Northamptonshire, and Gary, the man who mends the television, whose grandchildren have lost school places to Polish immigrants. I also mean plutocrats, art-lovers, opera-goers, and people of refined tastes; colleagues on The Spectator, for example; even members of my own family.
No, the Leavers were a coalition of groups with different grievances. Some raged against immigration, some against bureaucracy, some against loss of freedom; and all of them blamed these ills on the EU. They wanted done with it, and in the referendum they got their way.
It wasn’t an enormous victory — 48 per cent of voters wanted Britain to stay a member — but it was a decisive one nevertheless, and an unexpected one. How exciting it must have been for the Brexiteers to have won, how thrilling to have proved the pollsters wrong! But the extraordinary thing was that they didn’t seem very pleased at all. Instead of rejoicing as victors do, they behaved rather more as if they were the oppressed victims of some hidden injustice. And we, the minority who had lost, were identified as the oppressors. It was all topsy-turvy.
We Remainers were accused, without any evidence, of seeking to defy the people’s will. Almost from the day that Nigel Farage claimed he had got his country back, they suspected us of plotting to give it away again. Oddest of all, they expected us to celebrate our defeat. It wasn’t enough for us to be good losers: we were expected to throw our hats in the air. Because we didn’t do that, we were derided as sulks. They called us ‘Remoaners’.
It’s true that we doubted the wisdom of the new course on which the country was set. I wouldn’t call that moaning, but what if it were? A bit of moaning would have been perfectly understandable in the circumstances. Imagine a football team losing an important match: would its players run about hugging each other? If Andy Murray lost a tennis championship, would he punch the air with exultation?
The perplexing question is why the victorious Leavers aren’t more joyful. Why are they so miserable and chippy? One explanation could be that they doubt that Brexit is going to be a success. Despite Mrs May’s professed confidence to the contrary, they may fear that our divorce from the EU will be acrimonious and end badly. They attack the Remainers for having had no contingency plan for Brexit, but this may only be to cover their embarrassment at having no plan of their own. They don’t look at all confident of sunny times ahead.
Still, they regard such doubts in others as a lack of patriotism, a failure of belief in Britain. To want to debate how to ensure the best outcome of the coming negotiations isn’t a rejection of Brexit; it’s just in the national interest. ‘Brexit means Brexit,’ as the Prime Minister says. There will be no new second referendum, no successful legal challenges of the first one. We will eventually leave the EU. I am sorry about that, but I haven’t been moaning about it. I accept the democratic decision of the majority. But why can’t the victors accept that they have won, and that they are the elite now?