Brendan O’Neill

Theresa May’s Brexit plan is Remain by another name

Theresa May’s Brexit plan is Remain by another name
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Stop it. Stop saying we can’t be sure why people voted for Brexit. Stop saying it was just a screech of rage against politicians and so must now be tempered and made into sensible policy. Stop saying it’s fine for Theresa May in her Chequers showdown to ‘soften’ Brexit and keep us entangled in a customs union, and even in the European Court of Justice, because we don’t know if people really want to leave these institutions. This is all untrue. We know very well why people voted for Brexit, and we know that what May is offering is a betrayal of what they voted for.

It is testament to the chutzpah of the anti-Brexit lobby that they can say, ‘No one knows what Brexit means or what those 17.4m voters were really asking for’. As if the Brexit vote were not the most pored-over democratic act in modern British history. Not only polls but also extensive surveys have been carried out into why people voted Leave. This, after all, is the vote that shook the establishment to its core, and so, like anthropologists trekking off to study a peculiar tribe, they have devoted a huge amount of time and energy to examining it. And their examinations have all returned very similar results: people voted for Brexit because they want to defend British sovereignty against its dilution by Brussels.

It’s there in the extensive Lord Ashcroft polls carried out immediately after the vote. They found that the top reason people gave for voting Leave was ‘the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK’. Forty-nine per cent said this. The second most popular reason was immigration. Thirty-three percent said they vote Leave because of immigration. And this, too, was couched in terms of sovereignty. Those 33 per cent chose the answer that Leave ‘offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders’. So instantly, shortly after the polling booths closed, we had an insight into why people voted Leave — because they want Britain to have sovereign control over its laws and its borders, things that the ECJ and the Single Market directly grate against.

It’s there in the Centre for Social Investigation’s longitudinal survey of people’s reasons for voting Leave. ‘The two main reasons were... immigration and sovereignty’, the CSI concluded. It found that the highest-ranked reason for voting Leave was ‘for the UK to regain control over EU immigration’, and the second highest-ranked reason, very close behind, was because voters ‘didn’t want the EU to have any role in UK law-making’. That is, they voted for sovereignty. The lowest ranked reason for voting Leave was ‘to teach British politicians lessons’, contradicting, in the words of the CSI, the ‘claim that Brexit was a protest vote’. Can we please stop calling Brexit a yelp of fury by ‘the left behind’? It’s patronising. People knew what they were voting for: sovereignty. 

And it’s there in NatCen Social Research’s extensive breakdown of the vote. It found that the economy, sovereignty and immigration were the key concerns among all voters in the referendum. Among Leave voters it was primarily immigration and sovereignty. Ninety per cent of people who are generally concerned about the diminution of sovereignty voted Leave; 88 per cent of people who are concerned about Britain’s lack of control over immigration voted Leave. ‘Take back control’ wasn’t just a snappy slogan — it is why people voted Leave. 

We know two things for sure about the vote for Brexit, and both of them make the political class uncomfortable: first, that the poorer you are, the more likely it is that you voted Leave; and secondly, that most people voted Leave in order that Britain might assume greater sovereign control over her borders and her law-making. This was a fairly working-class revolt against the dilution of British sovereignty by Brussels and our own politicians who love Brussels. I’m sorry, but it was. And what does Theresa May do, cheered on by ‘Soft Brexiteers’ and some Remainers too? She proposes the continued selling-off of British sovereignty through tying us into a customs arrangement that would limit our sovereign decision-making on trade, and keeping us beholden to certain ECJ rulings, which would limit our ability to make and live by our own laws.

This is a betrayal. A grotesque betrayal. It is a haughty rejection, in euphemistic language, of the great cry made by the 17.4m, which was for the recovery of national sovereignty and democratic authority. The electorate said ‘Britain should have control of its borders and laws’, and May says, ‘Actually let’s leave some of that control with Brussels’. This isn’t Soft Brexit; it is Remain by another name. When will our political leaders realise how serious, how historically serious, it is that they are reneging on the largest democratic act in British history? May should go. Chequers this weekend should be her ending. In her place, we need a leader who recognises the positive, democratic drive behind Brexit, and who is willing to make it a reality. If such a politician exists.