Sat 23 October 2021

Henry Porter on why he remains optimistic that Brexit can be stopped and why giving in to pessimism will never be the answer.

You can see why optimism is in such short supply for those of us who want to Remain.

We have been on the losing side for more than three years, during which we have been unable to slow Brexit’s demonic momentum. A pyrrhic victory against Theresa May gave birth to the most calamitous government in our history; campaigners are exhausted; and the national mood is characterised by a state of dread and helplessness.

Boris Johnson has a line of blustering fake optimism, but even most Brexiters now accept the enormous economic pain their project will inflict on us. No one can remember a time of greater psychic disrepair, or a moment when Britons felt worse about themselves and their country’s future.

But, looking at it coldly, I believe there are reasons to remain positive – the most important of which is that hope and a belief that things can be changed for the better are the essential parts of a true democrat. This is not magical thinking – it is simply a recognition that Brexit is rubbish and unworkable and the first stage of turning it around, as well as addressing the problems that made people vote to hurt themselves and their children in the first place, is to believe both are possible.


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“I have a strange conviction that Brexit will be stopped,” I tweeted the other day. “I hear the BBC for once telling the unvarnished truth about the deadening impact. People talk urgently in bus queues. Cab drivers no longer say ‘let’s just get on with it’. Leavers grow silent. It won’t happen. It can’t.”

I was interested in the reaction, which was sizable. Broadly, there were those who agreed with me that the tide was turning, and those who could hardly bring themselves to express hope, but were glad I was doing so.

In one or two exchanges, I mentioned a speech by the Czech leader Vaclav Havel who came to power at the end of the Velvet Revolution and immediately told his fellow citizens that they had indeed been victims of a long communist tyranny, but that they had also been complicit in their suffering. Remainers must be aware of a kind of narcotic daze because Leavers have been very good at engineering compliance, even among some of the one million who marched and six million who signed the Revoke Article 50 petition.

There are a lot of us and our numbers are growing. And yet, we stand rooted to the spot, our gaze fixed on the headlights of the oncoming truck.

I suppose the real message here is that hope is power, but first – in George Bernard Shaw’s phrase – we have to “to acquiesce in our own survival” by stepping out of the way. That amounts to nothing more than belief in self and the moral and practical right of our cause.

Then comes action. As I was tweeting my ‘do not despair’ replies, I saw the story of a Yorkshire pensioner who was filmed chalking a wall with the words “Brexit is based on lies. Reject it”. She was reported as saying that she did it for her grandchildren. She wrote all you need to know about Brexit in seven words and for precisely the right reason – the future of the younger generations. I recalled a wall in Prague where dissidents used to scrawl their resistance at the dead of night and this lady’s action – harmless because she used chalk – seemed the perfect expression of decent outrage.

We have to stop being so British and, instead, express our horror – in the civilised way of that pensioner – at what is likely to happen to our families, friends, jobs, local communities and services if Brexit goes ahead.

We have a duty of care as citizens and an obligation not to succumb to hopelessness. That means talking to people on the other side, listening and persisting with the message that we need another go at this decision. This is even more important at a time when politicians suggest bypassing Parliament in order to ram through a project that just 26% of the population voted for.

I am still optimistic that this can be stopped, that we can win a pause to think again. But, this will only happen if we think it’s possible and, crucially, find the leadership to channel our hope. 

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