Choose your adjective for the last three and a half years. Fevered? Frustrating? Infuriating? Tedious? Or, perhaps, remarkable.
They’ve been remarkable for what’s been going on in Westminster, of course: deadlock in the Chamber, droves of politicians crossing sides, live-action battles with the Supreme Court – and the floods of people rushing home from work to watch it all live. But more remarkable than all of that has been the Remain movement.
It has truly been a mass movement: hundreds of local grassroots groups forming across the UK, thousands of activists, countless street stalls and rallies and leaflets and public meetings, millions marching. Few movements in recent years have achieved the same scale and reach, and in such a short space of time.
To all but the most optimistic, it now seems certain that the movement has not succeeded in its aim of keeping the UK in the European Union. For those who have been part of it, there will be much soul-searching and analysis over the coming weeks and months, and perhaps blame and recrimination from some quarters. The latter are the inevitable price of losing; the former, if used well, will be useful tools to help us build what comes next.
Of course, criticism will not be new to those who have spent the last three and a half years campaigning to remain in the EU. Let’s just hope that criticism doesn’t come from anyone seeking to heap all the blame for the results on 12th December on to Brexit in order to avoid asking the hard questions about those results. Blaming the Remain campaign would be a deliberate and gross over-simplification – and gross over-simplifications are partly responsible for where we are now. It would likely lead to (further?) punishment at the ballot box, too.
From the inside, the Remain movement has been committed, energetic, creative, eclectic in its mix of party loyalties and experience, and, above all, determined. It has not been without its faults, but there will be plenty of time to analyse those.
Those within the movement are painfully aware of what we stand to lose when we leave the EU. But we will lose even more if we do not harness and direct the energy, commitment and re-awakened sense of European identity that it has generated.
Boris Johnson may make lofty announcements like ’let the healing begin’ (hollow-sounding words right now from someone who helped to make the wound and whose actions since have done little more than twist the knife) but healing will have to involve showing some respect to those who did not want to leave the EU. It will involve doing what key parts of our political leadership have largely failed to do since 2016: listening to people who voted Remain.
There are people across the UK who are deeply worried – viscerally worried – about leaving the EU. They are worried about their jobs, the treatment they’ll receive from the NHS, the opportunities their children will have, whether they will be able to stay in the country they call home. Dismiss these people and their fears at your peril and to your shame.
And if Johnson were actually to listen, one thing would become clear: the Remain movement was never only about our EU membership. Few of us were inspired to give up our weekends to stand in the rain and try to persuade unsuspecting shoppers that we needed a People’s Vote because we held a deep-seated passion for the Customs Union.
The people I’ve met in this campaign are motivated by one thing: a vision for a future that is open, fair, tolerant, built on genuine partnership with other countries and, above all, peaceful. This vision and the values that inspire it do not go away when we leave the EU, even if achieving that vision may seem harder.
As for what comes next… Well, after a fever comes rest. This needs to be a time for reflection for those who have fought long and hard. There are undoubtedly some immediate and pressing tasks: resisting any assault on the rights of those from EU27 countries living in the UK, curbing the push to a No Deal exit, shoring up MPs elected on a Remain ticket to fight to limit the damage of Brexit.
Whilst some are ready to launch the campaign to rejoin the EU the day after we leave, for others the path is less clear. I would offer two suggestions to Remain campaigners now.
The first: keep an eye on what emerges from the key campaign organisations and do what you can to influence their next steps. The wiser ones will take time for consideration and consultation.
The second: take some time to reflect on what was at the heart of your decision to get involved in the campaign. What inspired you then? What do you hope for now? What could help to keep the values and vision that motivated you alive?
The answers are likely to be as numerous as the people who have campaigned. They could lead to a movement that scrutinises post-EU legislation every step of the way, to a new swathe of party activists, to a swell in the ranks of campaigners against climate change, to new volunteers on local community projects, to more people consciously going out of their way to make their international neighbours feel welcome. The possibilities are endless, but at the heart of them all will be a commitment to a shared European future, to internationalism and to always looking outwards and to others.
And if even some of these things are part of the legacy of the Remain campaign, then we will certainly not have lost completely.