In response to Owen Jones: how we can stop Brexit

In Owen Jones’ latest Guardian column he says that he can’t see how Brexit can be stopped but that he’d like to be persuaded that it can be. So, here’s my attempt to persuade him both that Brexit can be stopped and that the Stop Brexit campaign isn’t the way he portrays it in his column.

First, though, some common ground. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I agree with Owen that arguing about the referendum is not the way to Stop Brexit, and I especially never want to see ‘but it was an advisory referendum’ put forward as an argument in political debate again. People who like using referendums to decide policy issues are not going to be persuaded by that argument because for them ‘advisory referendum’ is as oxymoronic a phrase as ‘advisory election’. The Brexit process was put into action by an act of mass politics and it can only be stopped in the same way, not by either pretending it never happened or hoping a court will somehow reverse it. It will only be stopped by a popular movement against it. That said, while there are still some people on the Stop Brexit side still fighting like it’s 2016, a lot have moved on from there and are looking to the future, not fighting the old battles. By not looking at those fighting on those multiple other fronts, I think Jones does a disservice to the Stop Brexit movement.

This leads me to the first major disagreement I have with Jones’ depiction of the Stop Brexit campaign, that it’s somehow an elitist movement or just a reactionary Establishment clique led by “Tony Blair, Nick Clegg and unelected peers”. I think some of this comes from his experience of campaigns on the left where campaigns are usually more formally organised things with central groups to plan things and approved spokespeople. From my experience, the Stop Brexit movement is a dispersed movement that includes several groups of various degrees of organisation as well as a whole mass of individuals who aren’t formally attached to any group. Blair, Clegg, Adonis etc only speak for themselves, not for anyone else, but it suits certain sections of the pro-Brexit media to spin the idea that they are the official spokesmen for the movement. There are plenty of other people out there who could speak for the pro-European cause, but the media aren’t making any efforts to get out there and find them, preferring instead to drag out their old contacts and re-stage some old fights.

Jones has failed to notice that the Stop Brexit campaign is a lot more than it looks from the media portrayal of it. There are people out there making the positive case, talking to people, organising meetings and leafleting people, it’s just that they’re getting together and doing it off their own backs, not as part of formal movements that report to a committee chaired by Nick Clegg. People are out there trying to shift public opinion, but the biggest block to shifting that opinion is the lack of voices out there to amplify their efforts and speak up for them. Instead, the few journalists and commentators who would normally back a forming mass movement against letting right-wing ideology run free are too busy telling them that they’re nothing more than the establishment fighting for the status quo.

It is the Stop Brexiters who are campaigning against the status quo — the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and all their front benches all publicly support some form of Brexit even if they’re not clear on the details. The assumption of the media is that Brexit is going to happen, and anyone who argues otherwise can expect to be pilloried for daring to express such a radical view and going against the will of the people. There’s a whole range of new, diverse voices out there who aren’t arguing to return to June 22nd 2016 and pretend nothing happened but are making the case for why the UK needs to be committed to a European future and explaining the benefits of EU membership and what we’re about to lose. And yes, like Jones I’d love to press “a big red button to make it all just go away” so we can talk about “low wages, insecure jobs and the housing crisis” as well as so much else but Brexit isn’t going to go away as an issue any time soon. Brexit is the acute condition that we have to deal with first before we can get to any of the chronic ones lingering behind it.

“A Labour-managed Brexit that doesn’t shred our links with the EU and turn Britain into a low-regulation tax haven still seems preferable” if the alternative is the chaotic mess of some North Atlantic rights-free tax haven, in the same way a shit sandwich is preferable to a manure baguette. The positive message Jones wants to see is tied to all the issues he wants to tackle — if you want an economy that supports better wages and more skilled jobs, if you want a Government with the funds and the credit rating to tackle the housing crisis and everything else, then you need to be part of the largest trading bloc on the planet, not sitting hopefully outside it. Yes, there’s a huge problem with the way our political system works and it needs root and branch reform so that people can feel that they’re included and listened to, but to do that sort of reform needs economic stability and a system that hasn’t already surrendered what economic clout it has to corporations demanding tax cuts.

Finally, Jones argues a weirdly defeatist point arguing that if Labour argued to stop Brexit it “would haemorrhage many of the 3 million or so of its voters who backed leave” leading to “a decisive Conservative electoral victory, enabling the party to implement the most true blue of Tory Brexit deals”. This is oddly similar to the sort of anti-Corbyn argument that Jones eagerly denounced (and was proved right to do so) but yes, if Labour just announced ‘we’re against Brexit now’ without any build up it might well lose votes. If, however, it came after a time of them exposing the flaws in the Tory Brexit argument, coupled with voices across the political spectrum talking about the benefits of stopping it altogether, then they could build a narrative and actually lead the people to reject it, rather than just shrugging their shoulders with a ‘well, what can you do?’. There isn’t a a magic unicorn Brexit without economic harm out there, every version of it causes some damage, and Labour could use this opportunity to wipe the Tories out for a generation for putting the country on the path to ruin.

Brexit can be stopped, there’s a whole lot of arguments out there about why it should be stopped and a nascent mass movement that can foster new leaders who’ll make that case, but it needs courage and support from those in positions like Jones to speak up for them, not tell them to sit down and accept that things can’t be changed.

Originally published at on January 4, 2018.

Former academic and politician. Now working out what comes next. @nickjbarlow on Twitter and IG. Support my writing