The end of the Brexit wars have left some Remainers feeling redundant. A few are now turning their attention to a new target: the census. The small group of voters who are reluctant to accept the result of the referendum are responding to the question asking 'How would you describe your national identity?', not with 'British', or 'English' but, with the answer, 'European'. As a Remainer, this strikes me as somewhat embarrassing.
For a start, of course, 'European' is not a nationality. But that small point aside, how is this going to convince Brexit voters that their votes were a mistake?
The idea seems to be that if you state your nationality on the census form as ‘European’ as opposed to ‘British’ or ‘English’ or whatever else, this will send a message to the country about how widespread anti-Brexit sentiment really is. If you want a taste of this phenomenon yourself, put the words ‘European’ and ‘census’ into the search function on any of the major social media platforms and watch the naivety unfurl.
While the campaign pushing pro-EU people to do this is visibly silly, there are bigger things at stake here. Besides the fact that it is warping census data, a minor sin all things considered, it is also counter-productive to what these people supposedly want to achieve. If they want the UK to re-join the EU, this isn't the way to go about it.
This stunt appears to be loosely inspired by people answering ‘Jedi’ on census forms many years back when asked for their religion. But coming at a time when the pro-EU community should be wanting people to engage with the realities of Brexit seriously, it risks sidelining the real issues. Instead of scrutinising the flaws in Boris's Brexit plans, those who want Britain back in the EU are playing a parlour game that will only make those who do not sympathise with their cause even more sceptical. If these people want others to really think about the negative effects of leaving the EU, this is a very, very bad way to go about it.
But there is another problem. This stunt has the potential to create a result that will be the precise opposite of what the #FPBE (Follow back, pro-European) crowd are pushing. One Twitter user puts it unintentionally perfectly:
‘I don’t think the census is something that that the government can spin the results of, so it can be a test of pro-European sentiment’.
This is true. But the reality is that it will reveal that wanting to rejoin the EU right now is a minority view. Imagine for a moment if 20 per cent of those completing the census this year, when asked about their nationality, write ‘European’. Such a high percentage is unlikely, of course. But even if one in five people who fill out the census do give that answer, it is hardly likely to send a message that a new referendum held today would deliver anything other than the result given in 2016.
The ‘European’ census campaign also, once again, makes the mistake of conflating pro-EU sentiment with anti-British fervour. It feels like the lessons of the last five years have not been learnt by some. Can someone who voted for Brexit not count themselves, in one sense, as a European? Of course they can. But try telling that to the small minority of people who want to cancel the referendum result.
Within the anti-Brexit movement there has always been a vast misunderstanding around how much people love their country and value their national identity. The widespread expression of wanting to be in the European Union as an explicit rejection of a supposedly racist, horrible Britain played beautifully into the hands of Brexiteers in terms of deciding if and how we left the European Union. It allowed the equation to become: if you love your country, reject EU membership. And the majority of people did.
Unless pro-EU campaigners can figure out how to stop Britain-bashing being a major part of their pitch, they have no hope whatsoever in getting anyone not already on their side to begin considering their arguments. By asking pro-EU people to do something which is a rejection of genuine national identity, it pushes more and more people away from their cause.