Culture wars have a bad name. Even on the Left, the term can be used to dismiss feminism or antiracism, casting “wokeness” as a hectoring form of political correctness. From its origins, the labor movement was marked by Enlightenment values; socialists have long sought to combine material demands with a broader vision of human emancipation. A “culture war” like the right to divorce asserted women’s personal autonomy and freedom from abusive relationships — not least when combined with workplace rights and the safety net of the welfare state.
There are plenty of commentators who insist that Brexit is a permanent culture war in British society, imposing a new political binary between urban cosmopolitans and what are euphemistically called “left-behind” or “traditional heartland” areas. This is certainly the culture war that Boris Johnson wants to fight. Having won dozens of Leave-voting seats from Labour last month, he insisted on January 24 that “business lobby groups should stop lobbying for unlimited labor from the EU and instead focus on investing and leveling up the existing workforce.”
The question isn’t whether Labour chooses to fight the culture war or not — Johnson’s commanding majority and the government domination of the media agenda will ensure it has to fight it. The question is how it chooses to respond. One obvious answer might be to focus on the hollowness of Johnson’s offer — with sporadic and local promises of investment more than counterbalanced by overall cuts in public spending. Another would be to campaign for Britain to rejoin the European Union, insisting that the voters made a huge mistake but are yet to realize it.
This alternative is not a matter only for the future, post-Brexit. Rather, it’s the debate we’ve already been having for three and a half years. Even when she became prime minister in July 2016, Theresa May mobilized a language of “burning injustices,” the harsher treatment of black people in the criminal justice system, and the worse life chances of state-school students. Johnson has radicalized this rhetoric, while some Labour leadership contenders seem to instead think that the problem was that the pro-Remain middle classes were ignored.
Looking at those who so damned Labour’s compromise position on Brexit after 2016, it’s hard to find signs of contrition. In her final speech to the Brussels parliament, Molly Scott Cato — a Green whose general election run in Stroud helped hand a Labour seat to a Tory hard-Brexiteer — tearfully promised to be back one day. Blair-era Labour figures like Andrew Adonis and PR man Alastair Campbell fulminated that they would be refusing to use the commemorative 50 pence pieces minted for the occasion, with their aggressive message of “Peace, Prosperity, and Friendship With All Nations.”
There are lots of reasons to doubt that this message represents the reality of post-Brexit Britain. With Labour having all but abandoned the fight to shape Brexit last winter, the stage was set for Johnson to impose his deal as the only possible way of fulfilling the 2016 result. Yet striking in the continuity Remain/Rejoin campaign is how little focus is dedicated to the rights of the people Johnson claims to be helping out, or even migrants. Instead, all manner of trivial and symbolic aspects of the EU are venerated as if they were the very underpinning of fair-mindedness and democracy.
Without doubt, a radicalization of Remainer identity has taken place since 2016 — though only among a small minority of those who voted Remain. This is expressed not just in EU flag berets or protest marches with twee pro-European messages, but an intense self-righteousness, and in particular, the insistence that all other political interests must come second to the great issue of the day. Indeed, from the outset, the People’s Vote campaign was mainly directed against those on the Left who refused to treat Brexit as a permanent political dividing line.
Let’s take the case of one of the most prominent critics of Jeremy Corbyn, Chuka Umunna. The then-Labour MP voted to hold the 2016 referendum, to trigger Article 50, and proposed that immigration be tightened in exchange for keeping Britain in the single market. Having quit the party, he voted down membership of the single market and a Labour plan which would have kept Britain closely aligned to the EU while defending migrants and workers’ rights. He derided Labour as unelectable, only to lose his seat as a Liberal Democrat. What principle did all this uphold?
There was more than simple opportunism to such an approach — for it did indeed obey a higher objective, seeking to reclaim the Labour Party for liberal centrism, or, failing that, create a new such force in its place. People’s Vote campaigners, wishing to overturn the 2016 referendum, heaped scorn on the Labour leadership as the single greatest block to their plans. Jeremy Corbyn was a “hard Brexiteer,” we were told. Yet whenever election results were totted up, Labour’s own votes were counted as proof of a “Remainer majority.”
Alas, even if we formally leave the EU, such claims have not died a death. Several departing members of the European Parliament promised that this was au revoir to Brussels but not adieu — we’d meet again, some sunny day. But it’s not just those openly calling for Rejoin. As Labour chooses its next leader, supporters of Keir Starmer, like former journalist Paul Mason, have attempted to reenact the battle of Remain and Leave. Here, Rebecca Long-Bailey is cast as the puppet of “Stalinist Lexiteers” who want to turn Britain into a siege economy — rather than a former Remain voter who recognized that the referendum result would have to be somehow fulfilled.
For Starmer, speaking on Brexit Day, it was time to “move on” from the Remain-Leave divide; he proposed that Labour could still take such measures as restoring freedom of movement for EU citizens, or allowing them to vote in UK general elections. Such fine plans are, alas, no longer in Labour’s gift, following Johnson’s election win. But we might also ask, if we can indeed enact such changes after Brexit, if it really made sense for Starmer to pursue a die-hard campaign for a second referendum, taking personal initiative to insist at Labour Conference 2018 that Remain (i.e. reverting the 2016 vote) also be included on the ballot paper.
There were weaknesses, no doubt, in the rearguard action against the People’s Vote campaign — and in Corbyn’s own leadership. Internally, the Brexit position appeared as a series of fixes designed to keep the most hardcore Remainers on board, preventing the Change UK split led by Umunna et al. in February 2019 developing into a wider loss of MPs. Yet the surprisingly good result in the 2017 general election had also owed to a fudge, which could never have held in the long term. More leadership was needed in insisting that the referendum ought to be fulfilled on democratic grounds alone, above and beyond Labour’s inner factional balance.
Labour’s shift toward a second referendum, starting at the September 2018 party conference, certainly did bring electoral problems — rendering more credible the Liberal Democrats’ claim to be able to pressure a future Labour government. It also served to alienate many of the five million Labour Leave voters; if in 2018 it was still in vogue to insist that we would uphold the 2016 referendum result, this claim had disappeared by the party conference in September 2019. But this muddle wasn’t just evasive or incompetent: it communicated the militant Remain fringe’s own message, that the popular vote could be overturned or ignored.
Johnson will face problems placating all elements of his base: even without knowing the precise economic impacts of Brexit, Britain will surely struggle to balance the pressures of both Trump’s America and the EU in trade talks. Without doubt, Johnson will insist that the compromises he makes and sacrifices we are expected to endure are a matter of delivering the popular will faced with various forms of establishment opposition. The Twitter chorus of Remainer “I-told-you-so” will continue — and have precisely no effect in convincing Leave voters (or even most Remainers) that Campbell or Blair were right all along. The culture war is real, the fight to regain lost Labour seats desperate: but the Remain diehards are bringing a banana to a gunfight.