Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
A year ago tomorrow, Britain politely ignored its leaders’ advice and instructed them to withdraw from the EU. I remember starting the day in a cheerful mood. In my little Hampshire village, a jeep was parked opposite the polling station with a huge “Vote Leave” trailer. Several local people caught my eye as they voted, smiling and sometimes raising their thumbs. I cast my ballot, feeling as optimistic as I have ever felt about anything in my life, kissed my heavily pregnant wife, took her hand and walked happily out of the church hall and into the long June day.
All the clever-clogs were, at that stage, assuring each other that the result was a dead cert. The bookies’ odds translated into an 82 per cent probability of a Remain vote – a ridiculous figure in any two-horse race, and one that bore no relation to the opinion polls. I knew how good the team at Vote Leave was, and how dedicated: many of them had barely had a Sunday off since Christmas. Our knocking-up operation had begun the previous Saturday, and the reports were positive. I didn’t know which way the result would go; but I knew it would be narrow.
Here is what I wrote on this website on the day of the vote:
“I have no idea which side will win. But one thing that seems clear is that it will be close. The losing side will represent a minority, but a large minority. In a democracy, large minorities can’t be ignored.”
I went on to argue that, whichever side won, it would need to reach a compromise:
“A narrow leave vote is not a mandate for anything precipitate or radical. It is a mandate for a phased repatriation of power, with the agreement, wherever possible, of our European allies. Many of our existing arrangements will remain in place; and those which we want to disapply won’t be scrapped overnight.”
When the result came in, I kept repeating that message on air, on paper and online. But Remainers, perhaps understandably, were in no mood to listen. Looking back, it was my fault for trying to engage too early, when many of the 48 per cent were still in shock. In the weeks immediately after the vote, my conversations tended to go like this:
“Given how close the result was, we should look for a compromise, where we keep some of our existing…”
“Shut the f*** up, you racist liar!”
An unexpected defeat is always unsettling. I suspect many ConservativeHome readers were disoriented when two in five people voted for Jeremy Corbyn. We wondered how we had so misunderstood our own country; and that was following a vote that we had won.
In the days following the referendum, three false assertions became widespread. First, that Leave had won dishonestly. Second, that the country had become more racist. Third, that the 52 per cent had wrecked the economy.
The “liars” complaint is levelled the losers of every vote. Political campaigners are not trying to behave like neutral academics: they are trying to win. Both sides make good and bad arguments; both sides get to rebut each other’s claims.
Remain told us that a Leave vote would trigger a recession in 2016, cost every family more than £4000, cause Scotland to leave the UK and transplant the Calais refugee camp to Kent. In fact, Britain boomed after the vote, support for Scottish separatism plummeted and the Calais jungle was dismantled.
Would Leavers have complained about these claims had Remain won? You betcha. This ridiculous graphic (see right) would have become a popular meme. But, for all our moaning, the result would have stood.
What of the idea that the referendum somehow unleashed xenophobia? The notion that the Leave vote had been “all about immigration” was endlessly repeated in Remain circles and on the BBC. In fact, every opinion poll showed that sovereignty had been the main motivator. Lord Ashcroft, for example, carried out a massive survey on the day, interviewing more than 12,000 people, and found that democratic control was by miles the biggest issue for Leavers (49 per cent of them named it as their main reason for backing Brexit), with immigration a distant second (which was cited by 33 per cent). But opinion polls, for many Remainers, were no match for anecdotes: “Well, one Leaver I spoke to said…”
I tweeted that, if someone told you that the referendum was “all about immigration”, you were almost certainly talking to a Remainer. More than 200 Remainers duly proved my point by responding, in effect: “Of course it was all about immigration, you racist liar!”
The idea of surge in bigotry soon acquired a hashtag: #PostRefRacism. Three events were held up as examples of our newly intolerant mood: an attack on a tapas bar; an anti-immigration demonstration in Newcastle; and some graffiti at a Polish community centre. In fact, it turned out that the tapas bar had been burgled; that the idiots in Newcastle had been waving their placards every weekend for over a year; and that – as I can exclusively reveal, having just spoken to its chairman – the “anti-Polish graffiti”, which read “f*** you OMP”, was aimed at a Eurosceptic Polish think-tank, the Ośrodek Myśli Politycznej (Centre for Political Thought), which had just held a meeting at that building.
Similarly, the idea that there had been “a 57 per cent rise in hate crimes” bedded down almost immediately. A moment’s thought should tell us that such a figure is idiotic, bearing no relation to the country we see around us. In fact, the claim came from a police press release which emphasised that it “should not be read as a national increase in hate crime”. What had happened was that, in the immediate aftermath of the vote, a small number of people went on to a website to report hate incidents. Many of them seem to have been letting off steam: some of the complaints, for example, were about Nigel Farage. In total, there were 85 complaints, up from 54 the previous month, when the website had not been so widely advertised. (You can read Mark Wallace’s ConHome take on the figures on this site here.)
In other words, the preposterous statistic, which took on almost canonical force, was based, not on any increase in the number of cases referred for prosecution, but on 31 extra complaints in 96 hours.
Not that anyone cared. In the febrile atmosphere that followed the vote, simply to question the numbers was to be a racist yourself. Or, worse, a cynical enabler of racism. Hand-wringing pundits like Matthew Parris and Nick Cohen raged at me for having supposedly gone along with a bigotry that I didn’t personally share.
I’m still struggling to understand their logic. The Leave campaign was internationalist and optimistic in tone, and worked through organisations representing Britain’s many communities: Muslims for Britain, Bangladeshis for Britain, Africans for Britain and so on. OK, let’s allow that some bigots voted Leave, just as some bigots vote for every political party. What is Matthew and Nick’s point? That those of us who had been making the democratic and economic case against the EU for 20 years should suddenly have dropped it? Seriously? That is a variant of the “Yeah, well Hitler banned hunting!” argument, which most people grow out of in their teens.
Saddest of all, though, was the determination to believe that Britain would become poorer. To be fair, several experts thought there would be an instant crash. A week after the poll, 71 per cent of City economists surveyed by Bloomberg expected a recession in 2016; in fact, Britain grew faster in the six months after the vote than in the six months before it. Another survey, by Reuters, found that the consensus among economists was that unemployment would rise by 9,000 a month in the second half of last year; in fact, it fell by almost exactly that amount.
We all make mistakes, of course. But an awful lot of people seemed to want the news to be as dire as possible. They gleefully repeated and retweeted every prediction of an economic downturn while ignoring all the hard, empirical evidence of an economic upturn. It was as though they wanted to inflict penury on their fellow countrymen so as to be able to say “I told you so”.
That was then. The mood today, I’m glad to say, is better on every measure. Although there are still some irreconcileables, the majority of the 48 per cent, being decent democrats, have accepted the result with good grace. A YouGov poll last month showed that only 22 per cent of us still hanker after a new referendum. We shouldn’t make the mistake of confusing the angriest Twitter teenagers with the majority of people who voted Remain.
A year on, a compromise seems to be taking shape. Britain will take back legal sovereignty, but then replicate some of the existing arrangements through bilateral treaties; domestic laws will mimic many of the single market rules; our borders will be controlled, not closed, and Europeans will continue to work and study here by agreement rather than by right as EU citizens.
Above all, there is a growing consensus that, as Philip Hammond put it in his eminently sensible Mansion House speech, there will need to be interim deal. After nearly 45 years in the EU, we shouldn’t walk out overnight. It would be much wiser to negotiate bridging arrangements to give certainty to businesses on both sides of the Channel.
In that article 12 months ago, I made this forecast:
“Brexit will be a process rather than an event. It will be the moment when Britain starts to pursue a different trajectory, away from political union with the EU and toward a looser arrangement based on trade and co-operation.”
There have been moments when that prediction looked rocky but, a year on, I stand by it.