Brendan O’Neill

Voting ‘leave’ meant leaving the single market - and most voters knew it

Voting 'leave' meant leaving the single market - and most voters knew it
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The angrier, snootier sections of the Remain camp have done many bad things since 23 June. Some have suggested Brexit should be overthrown. Others have issued terrible libels against Leave voters, branding them ‘low information’ and xenophobic. Witness Nick Clegg in this Guardian video published this week having a good old laugh at Sheffield people who voted for Brexit after apparently falling for the ‘emotionally pungent’ claims of Leave leaders.

But worst of all has been their sly rewriting of history. They’re engaged in a campaign to misremember the referendum, to depict it as a time of lies and idiocy, of racism unleashed. They’ve cranked up the memory holes, sharpened their redacting pens, and set about imposing a kind of collective amnesia, using the tactics of Soviet ‘forgetters’ to rustle up a narrative that says the referendum moment was a mad one. But it wasn’t.

Consider the irate response to Theresa May’s speech. Remainers’ loudest cry is that people didn’t vote to leave the single market, as May now says we will. ‘A reckless exit from the single market was not on the ballot paper,' says Tim Farron. The public didn’t know that legging it from the single market was a possibility, observers insist.

This is untrue; political amnesia. That Leave could, and very likely would, lead to withdrawal from the single market was a central talking point of the referendum. Michael Gove, one of the most senior figures on the Leave side, said it. Out loud. In May. Voting Leave would ideally mean Britain being ‘outside the single market but [having] access to it,' he said. Other Leavers regularly slammed the single market. David Davis laid into the ‘burdens of the single market regulations’. Vote Leave’s campaign bumf was packed with criticisms. ‘[T]he single market does more harm than good,' it said.

Leading Remainers also made it clear that voting Leave would likely entail pulling Britain out of the single market. David Cameron said: ‘What the British public will be voting for is to leave the EU and leave the single market.’ George Osborne echoed him: ‘We would be out of the single market.’ There you go: the two then most powerful men in Britain saying Leave would mean leaving the single market.

Were there disagreements in the Leave camp over the single market? Of course. It was a big, mixed coalition. But Leave was shot through either with doubt or outright hostility towards the single market. It is a myth — dare I say a lie — to say people didn’t know single-market membership would be thrown into question by their voting Leave. They knew this very well. We can deduce that they voted Leave either because they also wanted to leave the single market or because they believed the risk of leaving the single market was a price worth paying for getting out of the EU oligarchy. In fact, a YouGov poll this week shows that 74 percent of Leave voters want a hard Brexit. Among the population more broadly, 39 percent want a hard Brexit and 25 percent a soft Brexit. People didn’t know single-market membership was at risk? An insulting lie.

This is only one of the ways in which the referendum months are misremembered. What is fast becoming the established narrative also tells us people were hoodwinked by loudmouth politicians. Nope. Polls before the referendum showed that a paltry 8 percent of those intending to vote Leave trusted politicians on the issue of the EU, while more than 60 percent said it would be ‘better to rely on ordinary people’ when making up one’s mind. Led astray by demagogic leaders? More mythmaking.

The narrative says Brexit is Farage’s victory. It’s his Britain now, apparently. At the level of basic numbers this doesn’t add up. Ukip got 3.9 million votes at the 2015 General Election; Leave got 17.4 million votes. Those 13.5 million people who oppose the EU but have not voted for Ukip are casually airbrushed away. We’re told newspapers like the Daily Mail warped the masses’ minds with Europhobic nonsense. The Mail has a circulation of just 2.2 million. And 34 percent of its readers voted Remain. There are millions who don’t read these papers and yet who voted Leave. Perhaps — and I know this might sound shocking — they thought for themselves?

The narrative says the referendum was a swirl of racial fears. It wasn’t. Aside from one dodgy Ukip poster, swiftly taken down, the debate was principled, not prejudiced. Lord Ashcroft’s post-referendum poll found only 33 percent of Leave voters gave immigration as their ‘main reason’ for voting out. Subsequent polls show big majorities of Brits, including Leaver Brits, want EU migrants to stay here. A majority of Leave voters, just shy of 50 percent, said they voted on the principle that ‘decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK’. They acted from democratic conviction, not racial panic.

The worst part of the misremembering is its wiping of key players from the historical record. The depiction of Leave as the victory of ‘demagogues’ like Farage scrubs out Gisela Stuart, the coolest voice of Leave, who spoke to millions via TV debates. And Dreda Say Mitchell, the south London novelist who braved Question Time and live debates with Will Self to put the left-wing case for Leave. And Trade Unionists Against the EU, which met and debated with workers and convinced many the EU is a bad thing. These people, good, serious people, muddy the narrative about Brexit being a victory of hard-right blowhards and so they must be forgotten, written out, historically destroyed. The misremembering is as nasty as it is cavalier.

The rash media response to May’s speech is important for what it tells us about how the Brexit Revolt is being recorded. What was a stirring moment of deep reasoning, with vast swathes of the public turning away from politicians and the media to talk to each other, as a good demos does, is being duplicitously recorded as a hysterical episode, a lie-ridden, prejudice-packed pock on British history. This mustn’t stand. The referendum was one of the sanest political moments I can remember, in which citizens took their electoral responsibilities incredibly seriously, vast swathes of them voting from a love of democratic law-making. Don’t let bitter losers bury this brilliant historic moment with lies.