Of all the surprises in the Westminster soap opera that have followed from the British public’s vote to leave the EU, none matches the rise of Europhiles to the forefront of British political life.
During the referendum the remain campaign was, much to the retrospective regret of its chiefs, big on the economics and small on the emotion. England, it was unsaid, does not love the EU. Our marriage was one of convenience – in migration queues, for roaming data fees and for those Britons who wanted to live abroad.
The march of the remoaners on Saturday is, for that reason, something special.
A million people, according to the march organisers, descended upon the usual route in London to express their displeasure at Brexit negotiations and call for another vote to overturn the previous one.
The prevalence of blue and yellow-starred flags, naff renditions of the anthem of Europe and passionate pleas to remain show a pro-EU faction has been stirred by events. In their own way this group is radical, not merely pinching its nose and voting for remain, but actively embracing what it sees as the progressive values of the EU.
Many are not shy about proclaiming their virtue on this front. Naomi Smith, chief operating officer of the pro-EU group Best for Britain, told Blairite podcaster Matt Forde she sees EU membership along the open-closed axis that some have used to explain the West’s political tumult over the past few years.
Further evidence is available online of the Europhile resurgence. At the time of writing some five million signatures adorn a petition to revoke article 50 outright – in effect to cancel Brexit.
“On any sensible view, the fact that after 5 years a significant proportion of UK citizens (5 million petitioners, 1 million protestors) have not been won over to the legitimacy of the referendum mandate – and indeed actively oppose – cannot be a healthy sign,” says David Allen Green, a Financial Times commentator and lawyer.
Quite so. But in fact this weekend’s flurry of Europhile activity is just a culmination of hardline EU sentiment that was awoken by the referendum result.
The stream of lawsuits from pro-remain lawyers and campaigners that aim to stop or hinder Brexit has been a grim feature of recent British politics. Well-connected, rich, credentialed folk have sought to ignore democratic wishes by resorting to arguments over process.
In dismissing the most recent case to this effect at the Court of Appeal, lord justice Gary Hickinbottom cited other judges’ comments on previous cases to illustrate his thoughts: “Judicial review is not, and should not be regarded as, politics by another means.”
Some court cases are undoubtedly political, but the point remains that hardline remainers have used every kind of sophistry to discredit the referendum result. It has been claimed, variously, that the UK has no little history of referendums, that old people’s opinions are unimportant, or that voters were too ignorant or thick to decide whether the EU should govern them.
The Times journalist and former Tory MP Matthew Parris has been refreshingly honest on this point, telling a recent Institute of Economic Affairs event that voters can be “wrong”. What he means by this is that the opinion of the governed can contrast with that of the governors.
Unlike journalist Tessa Mayes at the same event, I am not in favour of handing over all decisions to democracy, even down the setting of central bank rates.
But the EU referendum was more fundamental. Government by consent is a cornerstone of modern Western life. We do not accept that officials should be able to implement policies if we cannot reject such policies at elections.
Even if you think the EU is among humanity’s great achievements, British consent for the project has been lukewarm. You may blame British politicians, journalists and whoever you like for this, but it was readily visible in the referendum, and part of the reason that the remain campaign appealed to Britons’ wallets rather than their hearts.
Those trooping down London’s streets this weekend have every right to love the EU, to think it a bastion of progress and to campaign for us to be integrated into it. But any measure they propose that does not address the fact that Britons rejected the project at the referendum should fail.
More than that, the high-handedness of extremist remoaners has been among the most disgraceful trends in British politics in my lifetime. Decent remain voters deserve better leaders than the likes of Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair, AC Grayling, Gina Miller and Anna Soubry, and the clutch of lawyers trying to bypass democracy.
Whatever our future relations with the EU, the result must be implemented in some fashion. Anything else would be a rejection of democracy.