It’s hard to believe that it’s two years since the day of the EU referendum. In that funny way memory has, it simultaneously seems that time has flown and that the pre-referendum world is unimaginably distant: two whole years, but also just two years.
What was then referendum day is in the process of becoming Independence Day (as Boris Johnson proposed, to a roar from the crowd, at that Wembley debate), but we aren’t there yet. The main error committed by Leavers since the ballot was thinking that the battle to escape the EU and take back control had ended on 24th June 2016, when in fact it had just begun.
There are all sorts of ways in which we could look back on that referendum campaign, but reminiscence is less important than securing the result.
With that in mind, here are my three laws for Leavers – rules (or guidelines, I know we don’t like to be bossed around) by which to live, to help finish the job.
At times, Brexit is a frustrating process. We all know that. But never forget how fortunate we are to be even this close to leaving the EU – for years, the very prospect was dismissed as a pipe dream, a fringe concern, and something that would never, ever secure the support of the electorate. And yet, the biggest vote for anything in our country’s democratic history – for any party, any person, any idea – was cast for Leave, two years ago today. That itself is a remarkable achievement, which stands as a tribute to the hard work of many thousands of people who were willing to fight for what they believe in, and to the ambition of the British people. That was democracy in action, free people making history because they chose to do so. There are some who would love us to forget that truth, but it should always be remembered. Be thankful for the achievement that got us this far.
The job is not finished yet. Vast amounts of money and effort have been thrown at trying to overturn or ignore the referendum result. So far, they have failed to produce any notable change in what voters believe – it is telling to see some pro-EU campaigners actually celebrating a poll this week that puts them exactly where they were just before they lost the referendum. Persuading voters is, however, not the primary objective of Continuity Remain. Instead, they seek to use every technical channel available to them to bog down the process of leaving the EU – lawfare, with endless misfounded court cases; dubious House of Lords amendments; remarkably, even travelling to Brussels to try to encourage the EU’s negotiators not to give the UK a reasonable post-Brexit agreement. We cannot take our eyes off the ball, or rest on the laurels of two years ago. Perhaps winning a referendum that both sides promised to honour ought to be sufficient on its own, but in practice it evidently is not. Stay watchful, stay engaged, stay involved until we take back control.
The most important rule of all is how Leavers ought to conduct ourselves through this process. It would be easy – perhaps even temporarily satisfying – to slide into anger and bitterness. Indeed, the steady stream of insults targeted at Leave voters, and the way in which some still seek to frustrate a democratic verdict, might be intended to produce such a response. But remember the history of our movement. When we were self-indulgent, and allowed our message to be dominated by negativity, we lost, lost, and lost again. For long years, the only victory British Eurosceptics could point to was helping to save this country from the Euro, but we were outvoted and outdone on every other battle. There were some who wanted to run the Leave campaign in the same self-indulgent, grievance-based tradition, all fire and fury, ending with the chance to warm their disappointment around the embers of an I-told-you-so defeat. Thank goodness we chose to do otherwise, and instead opted for the positive, optimistic and ambitious approach of Vote Leave: take back control, look to the future, and build a better Britain. That worked, helping Eurosceptics to win over voters in a way the other approach would never have managed. Learn the lesson, and nurture it, as some increasingly bitter Remainers are failing to do. Be happy, walk with a spring in your step and a smile on your face, and believe that we will get there in the end.