Some might immediately dispute my headline. “We got six million people to sign a revoke petition! There were several marches through London attended by hundreds of thousands of people!” All right, but Brexit happened. Sort of. It’s hard not to see a pretty hardcore version of a real Brexit taking place at the end of this year. And really, it all ended in December when the Tories were given a very large parliamentary majority by the British electorate. To reverse quote the Corbynistas, FBPE lost the argument. What went wrong?
There are several ways to approach this question. You could say that Brexit was always destined to win given the 2016 referendum result added to the fact that the leaders of both major parties were pro-Brexit during the period in question. But I don’t think so; everyone knows there was a period where Brexit unquestionably felt in peril. You could say it was ultimately going to fail because of Corbyn’s Euroscepticism – this is a more compelling argument, but not quite the whole truth. As a movement, #FBPE has pretty much completely disintegrated since the general election, whereas Brexit as a social bond, despite it technically having happened in January and the government discouraging use of the term, is continuing to grow.
I have had the opportunity to work with/be interviewed by a few PhD students over the past couple of years doing work on social media and its sociological effects. Apologies in advance, but I have to tread a line here in not giving away too much of someone’s original research that will hopefully earn them a PhD in the near future, so I can only talk in generalities. Basically, one student’s research seemed to be telling her that pro-Brexit accounts are “stickier” than #FBPE ones, as in, if you have a pro-Brexit account that displays the appropriate signifiers – Union flag and/or cross of St George, “no Remoaners”, #Britishindependence, “love Europe, hate the EU” – and you follow a fellow pro-Brexit account, you are much more likely to get a follow back than if you are a #FBPE tweeter and you follow a fellow #FBPE account. And by “much more” I mean possibly between two and three times more likely.
I want to reiterate that I am mentioning this anecdotally as opposed to presenting it as a statistical slam dunk – she may have done more research after we spoke that led her to believe this wasn’t as much the case as her initial findings suggested. I mention it because when I saw her data, it rang intuitively correct. And that is important not just for understanding what happened in December 2019 but for what happens in British politics next.
Those who display a #FBPE hashtag on their Twitter profile are likely to be more discerning about where their information comes from than pro-Brexit accounts are. To turn this around into something pejorative, I suppose you could say FBPE types are more likely to be snooty about this sort of thing; skeptical of voices they are unfamiliar with, whereas because pro-Brexiters are much more doubtful about mainstream news outlets already, they are more open to entrants and unknowns. This is obviously going to have an effect on who follows whom; a pro-Brexit account is much more likely to find a new account that at least on the surface seems culturally helpful or at least not unhelpful worthy of a follow, whereas the FBPE person is going to be more selective as to which accounts it is listening to.
If it is the case that FBPE types are two to three times less likely to follow back their political brethren than pro-Brexit accounts, this tells a lot of the story already. As we’ve all become accustomed in the time of CoVid to talking about R rates, the same principle applies here; if pro-Brexit accounts are following each other at double or even treble the rate, the connectivity of that community will quickly be exponentially greater.
There are loads of reasons that contributed to and might have been a result of this relative lack of social media connectivity in FBPE land. One is that there was a definitive schism in the movement, essentially between pro and anti-Corbynites. This came to a head in the general election, with those who were at least tolerant of Corbyn were urging people to “vote tactically”, while it was clear that the anti-Corbynites were not going to vote Labour just to possibly stop Brexit. There was no such split in the pro-Brexit ranks. While there was briefly a threat in the form of the Brexit Party splitting the vote, Farage couldn’t have done other than he ended up doing, which was essentially standing aside. The ascension of Boris Johnson united the tribe. The schism was only ever a false one anyhow – most Tories didn’t like Theresa May either, so there was never anything like the problems the left had over Corbyn.
Perhaps the centre-left can unite around Starmer. The near-death of the Lib Dems as a national force – and I only add “near” here to be kind – along with the fact that Starmer is pro-European, meaning Labour won’t suffer “revenge of the Remainers” at another election, means there is hope for non-Tory politics. But it will need to be more connected and I think that is some ways off.
I have a new book out now. It’s called “Politics is Murder” and follows the tale of a woman named Charlotte working at a failing think tank who has got ahead in her career in a novel way – she is a serial killer. One day, the police turn up at her door and tell her she is a suspect in a murder – only thing is, it is one she had nothing to do with. The plot takes in Conservative Party conference, a plot against the Foreign Secretary and some gangsters while Charlotte tries to find out who is trying to frame her for a murder she didn’t commit.
Also: there is a subplot around the government trying to built a stupid bridge, which now seems a charming echo of a more innocent time!
It’s available here: