I was heavily active in the 2016 campaign for Britain to remain in the EU. I considered the Remain campaign to embody commitment to liberal-democratic values. Not only did I contrast Remain with the Leave campaign, but also with movements such as Momentum and Scottish Nationalists. I thought that these groups, and their international equivalents, embodied values such as post-truth politics, illiberal majoritarianism and cyber-bullying.
Much water has since passed under the bridge. I don’t regret a moment of the time I spent campaigning in 2016, yet since the referendum parts of the Remain movement, let us call them Remain ultras, have embraced less enlightened ways. There was a good article on this in the New Statesman recently. This piece made general arguments against Remain ultras, yet I write this post to highlight three specific points which concern me:
1/ The behaviour of ultras on social media
Little good comes of activists congregating on social media. In 2016, I knew about this problem; Corbynites and Scottish Nationalists had long been active on Twitter and Facebook and these groups were highly partisan and aggressive towards opponents. In recent years, it has been a shock to see Remain ultras forming such groups. I do not think that ultras have been as bad as the other groups I have mentioned, more on this below, yet certain behaviours have disappointed me.
I think particularly of the FBPE Twitter hashtag. This tag, which stands for ‘Follow Back pro-Europeans’, has come to denote membership of a group which strays into partisanship and aggression too often. As with Corbynites and Scottish Nationalists, FBPErs adopt strident positions on current affairs, which are subsequently shared among members and subject to the ‘echo chamber’ effect of social media. Among FBPErs, it is common to dismiss Brexit voters as moronic and Brexit leaders as evil. Such attitudes are neither likely to help reach a compromise on Brexit nor heal our divided society.
FBPErs also deal in abuse. I am not a fan of Owen Jones, yet the abuse which FBPErs have inflicted on Jones has been disgraceful. When Jones minimized the role of Twitter bots in delivering victory for Leave, the reaction was particularly brutal. Stephen Lloyd, a Liberal Democrat MP who resigned the party whip to vote for the Withdrawal Agreement, has also been subject to vicious treatment.
2/ The tendency of ultras to attack the BBC
For some time, I have considered contempt for the BBC to be the litmus test of populism. I shall not go into reasons why the BBC is internationally excellent, but will merely note that several populists of disparate colours consider the BBC biased. Notwithstanding the possibility of partiality on certain programmes, this implies that the systematic bias which these groups claim is impossible. The obsession that the BBC is against one’s side is symptomatic of inability to appreciate diversity of perspective, which is itself linked with authoritarianism.
Corbynites, Scottish nationalists and Brexiters have long indulged in this. Given that I associated the Remain movement with liberalism, I have been shocked to witness Remain ultras indulge in such complaints. This is nonetheless widespread among ultras, particularly on social media. The prominent Remainer Andrew Adonis has been outspoken, even raising the issue of BBC ‘bias’ in the House of Lords.
3/ The embrace of illiberal politics by ultras
Following my first two points, themselves indicative of illiberalism, Remain ultras have also advocated politics which are decidedly illiberal. Aside from refusal to recognize the result of the 2016 referendum, which I have written about before and is linked with lower respect for democracy among centrists, certain ultras exhibit attitudes which are worryingly illiberal and mirror problems which I had with Brexiters, Corbynites etc. I shall offer two examples from figures representative of the movement.
Firstly, there is the behaviour of Madeleine Kay, a well-known Remain activist who dresses as ‘EU Supergirl’ and has 26k Twitter followers. There are various elements of Kay’s behaviour which could be drawn to attention, but I shall focus on a poster of Kay’s which features leading Brexiters behind bars and, echoing Donald Trump, declares ‘lock them up!’. Kay has used this poster for a while and took it to a campaign outside the Royal Courts this month. I should not have to outline why such a slogan is deeply illiberal. Given the media profile of Kay, it is reasonable to consider her representative of Remain ultras; nor have I noticed many of Kay’s co-campaigners criticize such tactics.
Secondly, there is the behaviour of Andrew Adonis, a figurehead of Remain ultras. There are many issues one might raise, yet Adonis surpassed himself this afternoon. Specifically, Adonis asserted on Twitter that he would not employ any civil servant who had helped implement Brexit. This statement speaks for itself. It is deeply illiberal, evokes Donald Trump/Viktor Orbán and shames the wider movement.
Having said all of this, I do not regard Remain ultras as the equivalent of other groups I have mentioned in this post. Not only are the practices in which ultras engage not performed as intensely as groups such as Corbynites, Brexiters etc., but I regard the core beliefs of Remain ultras, involving openness and internationalism, as far preferable to those of other movements.
The deterioration of sections of the Remain movement nonetheless teaches me important lessons. Aside from the fact that one’s own side is never perfect, it shows that many of the bad behaviours of certain populists are functions of exclusion from the establishment, as opposed to automatic indictments of particular worldviews. We know this because, once the programme of the establishment began to turn against liberal Remainers, many of them adopted the tactics of insurgents. Similar trends are evident in other countries; in Poland, the behaviour of anti-government liberals has also deteriorated. Maybe the Polish case will be the subject of a future post…