GEORGE RICKS, a 70-year-old former engineer, did not expect to spend his retirement running between houses in a council estate in south Bristol, shoving leaflets through doors. Yet on a sunny Saturday in March, Mr Ricks joined a handful of others to spread the gospel of a People’s Vote on Brexit. For most of his life Mr Ricks was not politically active. But now he has seen the blue-and-yellow light. “You start to feel like a Jehovah’s Witness,” he quips.
Since the referendum in 2016 a Remainer rearguard has emerged. Mr Ricks belongs to Bristol For Europe, one of 200 groups which spend weekends and evenings campaigning against Britain’s departure from the EU. They are found all over the country, from Remainer-choked cities like Bristol to Leave-heavy cities like Hull. As Brexit comes to a crunch, their presence is being felt more than ever. On March 23rd about 400,000 of them arrived in London demanding a do-over on Brexit. A petition supporting the revocation of Article 50, which would stop Brexit in its tracks, has so far attracted 6m signatures. Britain has long had a Eurosceptic fringe. Now it has a well organised and increasingly vocal Europhilic one to match it.
Britain’s radicalised Remainers have been forged in similar circumstances to their ideological foes. Like the Eurosceptics who backed the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the mid-2000s, they are disenfranchised, argues Geoffrey Evans of Oxford University. Losing is an unfamiliar feeling for the well-educated, liberal, relatively well-off British citizens who make up the spine of the Remain vote. Nor are they used to being ignored. Both Labour and the Conservatives, the two biggest parties by far, back Brexit in some form.
A big difference, however, is that, while the Eurosceptic movement grew slowly, the Europhiles have risen faster than a loaf of homemade sourdough bread. Between 2015 and 2018 the proportion of people who identify “very strongly” as European rose from 6% to 12%, finds NatCen Social Research, a pollster. Surveys suggest that before the referendum only one-third of Remainers usually used the term “we” when talking about people who also backed staying in the EU. Now 69% do.
Neither Labour nor the Conservatives yet seem bothered about wooing this new group of voters. Labour activists assume that the harsh logic of first-past-the-post will compel Remainers to opt for Labour, which offers a softer form of Brexit, in the seats that matter. (Evidence from the general election in 2017 supports this theory.) Some on the left of the party are offended that it took Brexit, rather than Iraq or austerity, to rouse formerly apathetic voters. Tories, meanwhile, have been more concerned with snatching the votes of Leave supporters. Both parties have a certain measure of disdain for socially liberal voters throwing a tantrum after experiencing political defeat for the first time.
That stereotype is not totally unfair. Some zealous Remainers happily admit that they did not campaign during the referendum in 2016. The unofficial uniform of Bristol’s leafleteers features casual walking boots and a sturdy rucksack. One member spat out a KitKat when she remembered they were made by Nestlé. Attitudes towards Leave voters swing between respect (“If they say eff off, it’s for a good reason”) and a desire for revenge (“They ought to register Leavers and they ought to pay for the damage”).
Yet according to Rob Ford of Manchester University, dismissing such a large group of voters demonstrates the tendency of political generals to fight the last war. Prior to the Brexit vote, politicos in Westminster overlooked many of those who would go on to vote Leave and they are now overcompensating for that. Rather than learning from their mistake, they risk repeating it by ignoring a new class of trenchant Remainers.
Whether Britain’s Remainiacs secure a People’s Vote or stop Brexit may prove irrelevant. Protest movements often take years to have an effect. In the 1990s and early 2000s Euroscepticism was confined to the fringes of the Conservative Party; UKIP was dismissed as a political pantomime. A 1m-strong march against the Iraq war in 2003 did not stop the conflict, yet one of its leaders, Jeremy Corbyn, went on to bigger things. Brexit has awakened a new class of voters who had spent most of their political lives dozing. “We’re not going to step aside and say, ‘Hey ho, there goes the country,’” says Anthea Simmons from Devon for Europe. Britain’s radicalised Remainers are here to stay.