Leave will probably have to win a second referendum. But even winning again will not secure Brexit if we make the same two mistakes again. By Professor Alan Johnson

The England manager Alf Ramsey famously told the team before extra time in the 1966 World Cup Final, ‘You have won it once, now go out and win it again’. This is the week when it will became clear that the 52 per cent will have to win it again.  This article is not about what a democratic outrage the ‘second referendum’ is, how it will likely poison our politics, open the door to the far-right, and destroy what little trust is left in what the Italian political theorist Norberto Bobbio (along with anybody with political common sense) calls the rules of the game. Instead, I ask why winning one referendum was not enough to secure Brexit. I think there are two broad kinds of reason.

Reason 1: Leave failed to make Brexit a popular national project

Winning a referendum was not enough because we failed to build even a semblance of hegemony i.e. mass, popular and active consent around the project of Brexit.

After the referendum came the failure of the government, the Tory party and the entire Leave campaign, Lexit included, to envision, design and negotiate a Brexit that was able to command parliamentary and public support.

We should have developed a positive and popular vision of the future – an open, generous, civic Brexit – and then agreed negotiating objectives to achieve it, but we failed to do either.

We should have given ourselves the time to do both by refusing to trigger Article 50 until we were ready. And boy, were we not ready. I recall the look on the faces of the civil servants shortly before Referendum Day when someone asked them if they were prepared for a Leave victory.

Stupidly, a government which had never considered a leave vote to be a serious possibility, and so had made no preparations for one, decided to trigger Article 50 when it was still totally unprepared, pitching a bitterly divided country on the precipice of a nasty little culture war into highly complex (but now time-limited) negotiations about nothing less than unraveling 40 years of EU membership and establishing new economic, political and security relationships with the EU and the rest of the world. And all this after a referendum without a threshold and resulting in only a slim 52-48 majority.

No effort was made to heal the bitter divisions that existed within the country and between the nations. We should have tried might and main to bring leavers and remainers together.

We could have been bold. A ‘UK Brexit Convention’ should have been established to organize a national-popular conversation about leaving the EU, to develop a shared vision of our future outside the political institutions of the EU and, on that basis, to outline the broad, achievable negotiating objectives that would have popular support in the future negotiations with the EU.

The imperative should have been to reach out to as many as possible in the 48 per cent who had been rightly disgusted by aspects of the Leave campaign, were in shock at the outcome, and were so fearful of what would happen next that they were reluctant to reconcile themselves to the result.

Leave had won and it was our responsibility to convince and to reassure (however many times we were smeared). Instead, we replied in kind, lashing out at the ‘Remoaners’, pushing many into the arms of a Second Referendum. That was also stupid.

We failed to understand that given the narrowness of Leave’s victory, Brexit would now either become a popular multi-national project marked by a spirit of negotiation and compromise, or it would fail.

We could have tried to learn from how Scotland prepared for devolution, drawing in civil society and building an impressive consensus. We could have decided to involve millions in a conversation about the Brexit they wanted, setting up in popular local assemblies, the peoples ideas and concerns feeding in to extraordinary joint sessions of the parliaments, and so on.

We could have treated the TUC and CBI as valued stakeholders, fully included in the preparations.

Even if such an effort failed, it would have widened the Leave coalition, reassured many and marginalized the ultras.

But the government did the opposite.

It narrowed the circle of participation, treated the home nations as supplicants, and excluded the other parties from the process. It even tried to use Brexit for narrow party advantage, calling a snap election after promising not to. Worse, to provide an excuse for that election, it lied to the public, accusing the other parties of ‘frustrating Brexit’. In fact, the government was getting its way in the Commons on all the key Brexit votes.

The truth was that the polls told May that Corbyn was a Loser, so she decided to shatter the slim chance of a cross-party Brexit in pursuit of a Tory landslide. She blew the slim majority she had. More time wasted. More stupidity.

And then there was Scotland. Here, we should hang our heads in shame. Scotland is a nation. That is worth repeating: Scotland is a nation. The Scottish people voted 6 to 4 to Remain, and this created a huge problem for Leavers whether we realized it or not. (Almost without exception, we didn’t.) To take the Scottish nation out of the EU against its expressed will should have been a matter of real angst for Leavers. (It wasn’t.) At the every least the situation demanded a huge effort to recognise, negotiate and compromise. Instead, Scotland has been treated in a frankly colonial manner, as if it were a rebellious province to be lectured at by the metropolitan power, or a joke to be mocked by baying Tory MPs in the Commons. (Frankly, I am surprised every Scot does not back independence as matter of elementary self-respect, faced with all this.)

To sum up, we did not understand that the first referendum was largely a negative vote against the EU, had only been narrowly won, and was lost in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and so could only be a staging post en route to a new project: building a hegemony behind a new and positive national-popular project of Brexit.

For that we needed the political nous and élan of an Antonio Gramsci but we got the wide-boy chancerdom of Aaron Banks and then a failure of governance of a truly breathtaking kind.


Reason 2: Leave just stopped campaigning after 23 June 2016. EUism just got started. Only one side has been arguing a case for two years. So Leave got monstered.

The second reason Leave will have to win a second referendum is that the Leave campaign folded up on 23 June 2016 after winning the first. We lost the intellectual battle of ideas comprehensively, largely because we fled the field. As a result, we were turned onto monsters by a Remain campaign that went into overdrive after 23 June and set out to frame-up, mock, demonize Brexit and demoralize and monster supporters of Brexit.

The Remainer-Bolsheviks simply refused to accept the outcome of a democratic referendum.

They said ‘Bollocks to Brexit!’ and ‘Bin Brexit!’ and ‘No to Tory Brexit!’ as if leaving the European Union was a Tory government policy like Section 28 or the Poll Tax rather than the outcome of the biggest democratic vote this country has ever held: a vote that was called by Parliament, won by Leave and then endorsed by a General Election in which parties pledged to respect the result and take us out of the European Union won over 80 per cent of the vote.

The Guardian’s Martin Kettle urged Britons not to ‘bend the knee to Brexit’, as if they were mounting a heroic resistance to an occupying army rather than subverting the democratic decision of their own fellow Britons. The point, of course, is that much of the commentariat think the 17.4 million are an invading army, many do not acknowledge such fellowship or feel that they share membership in a political community with the 52 per cent.

After 23 June 2016 the BBC seemed to believe that all good news should be prefaced by the words ‘Despite Brexit’.  The liberal broadsheets ran campaigns, either formal (The Independent) or informal (The Guardian) to overturn the referendum.

The neoliberal and social neoliberal great and good had finally found a mission beyond money-grubbing and ‘what works’. Richard Branson, a man more interested in the Moon than Macclesfield, cheered on a weekly propaganda newspaper devoted to overturning the result, from his hammock in the Caribbean. Alistair Campbell became its Editor-at-Large. He had adamantly opposed giving the British people one vote on the EU Constitution / ‘Lisbon Treaty’ but was now apparently apoplectic that they were not getting two votes on Brexit. (You could drown in the bad faith. Almost without exception, those backing a second ‘Peoples Vote’ vehemently opposed a first Peoples Vote.)

The Labour Party, forever sniffing the electoral air while pretending it had a real-world Brexit policy, eventually crept into line. Remainer No 1 Gina Miller let the cat out of the bag though, telling the Guardian that ‘May’s latest plan does, rather inconveniently, appear to pass the six tests for Brexit that Keir Starmer laid out, crucially, protecting workers’ rights. It is the very sort of Brexit that Corbyn said he would support at the Labour party conference earlier this year.’

Labour promised to renegotiate the deal in double quick time claiming it could secure for the UK a permanent customs union + a say in EU’s own trade deals + the ability to make trade deals of our own + a shiny new ultra-close relationship to the single market that wasn’t membership, you understand, but which would give us total access and the exact same benefits while also – hey presto! – allowing us to ignore the rules on free movement and state support. Labour also promised to remove the Mike Ashley regime at Newcastle United and fund the purchase of a new striker and a creative midfielder in the January window to avoid relegation. Ok, I made the last one up, but it is not any less likely to happen than Labour’s ‘Brexit plan’.

The liberal centre told itself that what had happened on 23 June 2016 was a kind of huge Farageist political belch that they were not obliged to respect. They rarely asked themselves why 52 per cent of Britons had voted to leave the EU. When they did, boy it was an ugly sight. Typical was The Guardian’s Matthew D’Ancona. You are all just ‘bigots’ he raged.

And so, month by month, we allowed the first referendum to be reframed as 17.4 million stupid old racists voting for stupid old racism. Now there is a bidding war. Perhaps it will be won by those who claim that overturning the referendum result is a form of anti-fascism. Or who knows, maybe someone will trump that by proposing to recategorise Brexit as a hate crime.

I fear the 17.4 million leavers have taken all this in: you despise us and that you do not feel that you share membership with us in a political community. (Which begs the question, so why should we share one with you?)

But much of this is our fault.

We stopped pointing out the reasonableness, the democratic temper, and the egalitarian thrust of the profound British scepticism about the entire direction of ‘the EU project’.

When we decided to stay in the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1975 we were staying in an economic area. However, over time, and especially in the last 20 years, the EEC underwent a great transformation into the European Union, a structure-cum-ongoing-project of non-democratic governance and constitutionally enshrined neo-liberalism that blocks radical projects of redistributionist social democracy and is now proving itself a breeding ground for the far-right (the Francoist success in Andalucia this week is only the latest).

That was the great transformation we were right to try and detach ourselves from.

But we stopped saying that. Instead we allowed the Remainers to use the government’s divisions and all-round incompetence to recast the EU in a new and rose-tinted light as ‘the good deal we already have’.

It is hard to put a label on the first expression of this great transformation, i.e. the weird new form of non-democratic governance that the EU is. (I am a Professor of Democratic Theory and Practice and I cannot tell you what the f*** it is.)

But what became clear was that the great transformation was being wrought – just as the founders planned it, by the way – by increments and by a series of inter-governmental treaties that the peoples were almost never allowed to express their view about.

On the few occasions when the elites failed to prevent the people from voting they rejected the great transformation every time. But those popular votes were ignored and the people told to vote again until they Got It Right. As the former EU Chief Manuel Barroso (since hired by Goldman Sachs) put it: ‘They must go on voting until they get it right.’

Millions of ordinary Britons came to understand that a kind of one-way ratchet effect was in operation, creating a uniquely distant, entirely opaque, wholly technocratic (for example, anyone could see the European ‘Parliament’ was a Potemkin Parliament), and dangerously non-democratic form of governance.

They knew this was an elite-led project happening above their heads and beyond their say. They knew all the main parties were EUist and none would deign to reflect the concerns of almost half the country.

They knew it was an unfinished project but they could see clearly the direction of travel – they only had to listen to what the European leaders were saying (and by the way, are still saying).

And so, after finally being invited to do so in a referendum called by their elected parliament, and after weighing the pros and cons, 52 per cent of the British people decided that while they very much wanted good relations with their European friends and allies, they no longer wanted their own country to be a part of that grand non-democratic EU project, thank you very much.

But since 23 June we stopped telling that story and allowed ourselves to be reduced to wrinklies, thickos and racists.

The second ‘economic‘ part of the great transformation of the European project has been its hijack by forces of neoliberal capitalist globalisation since the 1980s. ‘The EU has turned into a powerful engine of liberalization in the service of deep economic restructuring of social life’ as Wolfgang Streeck put it in the LRB on 14 July 2016. The EU is – as Richard Tuck argued in ‘The Left-wing case for Brexit’ in the US democratic left journal Dissent – ‘a constitutional order tailor-made for the interests of global capitalism.’ Even boosters of the EU project such as Jan-Werner Muller admits that ‘[German Chancellor] Merkel wants for the Euro Zone … rigid rules and legal frameworks beyond the reach of democratic decision-making’ (LRB 9 February 2012: 18).

The EU ‘remains locked in a deflationary logic, alienating all but its upper-middle classes from the project of continued integration’ wrote Susan Watkins in New Left Review. The journalist and writer Paul Mason observed that ‘[the EUs] central bank is committed, by treaty, to favour deflation and stagnation over growth. State aid to stricken industries is prohibited. The austerity we deride in Britain as a political choice is, in fact, written into the EU treaty as a non-negotiable obligation. So are the economic principles of the Thatcher era.’ (Mason then voted to Remain in the EU.)

With his eye on the punishment of Greece, economist Larry Eliot observed that ‘The structural adjustment programmes forced on those countries that have required financial bailouts have involved savage attacks on workers’ rights, including collective bargaining.’ He went on: ‘Brussels has become a honeypot for corporate lobbyists demanding deregulation and the transatlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP).’

The crisis of the eurozone from 2010 even led to the removal of elected governments and their replacement with compliant technocrats by the troika of the EU, the European Central Bank, and the IMF. The markets were kept happy, and the euro was kept intact, but the price was high: as BBC Europe editor, Gavin Hewitt, put it in his valuable book The Lost Continent, democracy was ‘discarded like unwanted clothing.’ (It is worth reading that last sentence again the next time you are tempted to smear Leave voters.)

To sum up, we stopped making the democratic case against the EU. That would not have mattered so much – we were on our way out, after all – if we had elaborated a popular vision of post-Brexit Britain. But we didn’t do that either. The combination of these two failures has proved fatal.


To recap the argument, winning a referendum was not enough to secure Brexit because we failed to envision, design and negotiate a Brexit that was able to command parliamentary and public support. And because only one side – Remain – continued to fight the framing war after the votes were counted.

If those two mistakes are repeated, even winning a second referendum will not secure Brexit.

Not developed here, but implicit throughout, has been the idea that the only Brexit that can succeed now – or, given the shambles of the last two years, more likely, a generation from now, after the EU has cracked up under the weight of its own contradictions, as we used to say – is a multinational, popular, and explicitly civic Brexit that is one part of a radical programme to put British politics back together again by creating a democratic, federal and internationalist UK that is built for the many not the few.