by Peter Cook, Rage Against the Brexit Machine
Brexit will unravel of its own contradictions. I believe this will be sooner rather than later. Brexit’s implosion will come from either what I call external socio-economic, political, environmental shocks or “internal combustion”, due to the underlying inherent instability of the Tory party and the self-destructive nature of Brexit, which has already claimed two Prime Ministers and cost £66,000,000,000 in waste.
In this paper I outline a range of strategies that the grassroots and the central Remain movements may pursue in the interim to seriously alter the dynamics of “Brexit addiction”. This will prepare us for whenever we are needed to change the current stasis of our politics. The document has two parts. Firstly, a projection forward on our current state based on probabilities and a little bit of projection on the unknown unknowns. Secondly, a series of pro-active actions that we must take together in order to be agile and prepared for a rocky ride into an uncertain future but the near certainty that Brexit will fail nearly everyone it has seduced.
Short-term Brexit futures
We are already seeing and will undoubtedly see a veritable tsunami of Brexit consequences in the next 11 months. For example:
- Continuing business exits and relocation decisions. As I write, Axminster Carpets have gone to the wall citing Brexit as a major factor. BMW have indicated no new investment in the Mini, an hors d’oeuvre from the automobile industry following the UK’s descent into an impoverished 3rd country. We await decisions from pharmaceutical companies regarding Britain’s importance for drug registrations, agriculture and many other sectors that will either be severely disadvantaged by Brexit or those that have the wherewithal to reposition their centre of gravity. Ryanair have already done this in a pro-active move that others will inevitably follow now that it has been confirmed that full customs checks will be a feature of Brexit Britain.
- Key promises broken. We have already had the soft hint dropped that the Government will continue its policy on austerity with plans to cut public services by 5%, despite Theresa May’s claim that we were out of austerity.
- Dominic Cummings is about to take Occam’s Razor to Central Government. This will undoubtedly unsettle career civil servants, who are now asked to be accountable to a single political master rather than acting impartially. This fundamental change to the psychological contract will have consequences for retention, morale and performance. This is also a change in the democratic “contract” between the people and Parliament.
- Recession. Dr Andrew Sentance is an eminent economist amongst many who have predicted that a recession remains a possibility in the short term. It is certainly evident on the high streets in terms of restricted money supply for all but essentials. Some lifestyle retail outlets on high streets are reporting reductions in turnover of up to 50% since 2019 with a number having gone to the wall.
- Public services at breaking point. The NHS has already declared itself as having significant problems delivering services and we will see further cuts in local Government services as Johnson’s Government attempts to talk up the building of bridges to Ireland etc. whilst squeezing the public purse to pay for the sunny uplands of Brexit.
- Food shortages, especially fresh fruit and vegetables, due to chaos and delays in border checks. Michael Gove recently confirmed that border checks would be a part of Brexit despite the Government denying it on many previous occasions.
- The same issues will apply to the supply of medicines to our NHS. This will selectively affect vulnerable people on complex cocktails of drugs and those with “orphan” conditions and using unlicensed medicines. It is not scaremongering to suggest that a number of unnecessary deaths will occur from Brexit.
- Resurgence of “hardy perennial” Brexit problems e.g. Ireland, Gibraltar, immigration, fish, US food standards, Trump vs EU etc. At the time of writing, it appears that Johnson is willing to throw the fisherman under a trawler in order to strike more important deals on financial services. All of these problems are what academics call “wicked problems” in so far that they are inherently complex, volatile, connected and ambiguous in nature. They have so far been put on a “Brexit carousel” in the withdrawal agreement negotiations. For example, as soon as Ireland shows itself to be inherently difficult, Johnson’s government advisers simply gaslight the situation with another item from the carousel e.g. fish. The fish and chlorinated chickens are about to come home to roost. It is really just a question as to when this happens and at what levels of concentration that will influence a change in public opinion about Brexit.
Mid-term Brexit futures
I have taken as the working assumption that Johnson’s Government are incrementally lulling or even numbing the population into surrender via “Brexit apathy” towards the acceptance of no-deal Brexit, using sweeteners such as bridges, HS2 and other distractions. The latest euphemism in the mix is so so-called “Australian deal”. This, of course, is “No Deal with Vegemite”. The public at large have so far been fooled by these catchy slogans, but it remains uncertain as to how much longer this will prevail. Mitigating factors could be real changes in the everyday life / feelings of optimism that Johnson has pedalled alongside the emergence of a credible opposition. The Government PR machine are also attempting to deflect public attention by replacing Brexit apathy with headline-grabbing projects as HS2, bridges over troubled water and buses. The public are thrown “bone of contentions” to occupy their minds, while Johnson and Co focus on “rich pieces of meat”, which the public will not notice.
In the mid-term, and assuming the overall direction of travel is towards No Deal on 31.12.20 we may then see the catastrophic failure of the UK plc. Some vital signs or gamechangers may include:
- A further drop in the pound of anything between 5 and 15% with impact on prices and a probable self-imposed deep recession comparable or even greater than that of 2008.
- Gridlock on Britain’s main arteries to the ports with contagion in surrounding villages and impact on working parents whose children will not be able to reach school.
- The use of toilet roll as currency. The UK is the biggest importer of toilet roll despite what people might think. No shit, Sherlock. It turns out that we also export most of our waste, having spoken with Veolia on the matter of landfill and recycling.
- Chicken drumsticks being traded in alleyways – at the time of writing food retailers have again warned of food shortages under a Brexit deal. No deal will simply exacerbate the problem and, as we have seen with people dialling 999 when Kentucky Fried Chicken ran out, the contagion that this produces itself contributes to further panic.
- Parents having to ask their children to share Pampers.
- Pension losses for UK people living in the EU and consequent squeezes on the triple lock for UK pensioners.
- Real food shortages beyond levels considered inconvenient.
- Significant delays at borders for travellers.
- Carpet bagging by health insurance companies charging for private health replacements for EHIC as we move out of the EU frying pan, into Trump’s fire.
and so on …
It will be the seemingly trivial things that will act as culture carriers through The Sun / Express / Mail etc. However much they bleat about the causes of the above being the “evil EU”, experience is reality for the stereotypical Brexiteer (if that exists) and they will likely not seek answers but look for the easiest person / people to blame. We need to ensure that this is Johnson and the Tories / Brexit party.
At this point, the UK may become brutal or ugly for a while, but there will be nothing like the “hate of the people” to change Government policy on Brexit. Given the actual numbers of leave voters that have come out to Remain marches and on “Brexit Day” 31.01.20, the notion of widespread civil unrest is vastly exaggerated by the Government as a device to silence Remainers. We are also lucky in so far as much of the “angry demographic” are of an age where they are unable or unwilling to “take back control” of their country by violent means.
Depending on when this happens, a number of scenarios are feasible. All would lead to a humiliating defeat of the Government and the bursting of the “Brexit fantasy bubble”. It will however no longer be as simple as sending an apology e-mail and a request to rejoin. Rejoining will at the very least require a purging of the “culture carriers” of the former regime and a levelling down of the hubris and bullshit that has characterised the “English Revolution”.
This will be a very bumpy ride, but I predict we will end up as a Better Britain in a Better Europe for a Better World. Populism’s promises will lay in tatters alongside the key protagonists that pimped them out to a pliable population.
Since the purpose of this paper is to discuss how the Remain movement can remain agile and prepare for events to unfold, I have decided not to outline further scenarios.
I have heard views about whether Remain should do nothing and just wait for the politics to take their destructive course. There are two existential risks associated with this:
- The Remain movement will fragment further and the “learned helplessness” of the nation will lead us to accept Brexit in any form. We will become the passive agents of Brexit. Many Remainers are above 50 years old and have said that they may no longer care enough to campaign in ten years’ time. All that we have built will be destroyed.
- Doing nothing will be read as assent by the Government. They will use it to build their argument that Britain wants Brexit and it will actually assist them in further negotiations with the EU.
What can the remain movement do about this?
Short-Term – until 31.12.20
Hold them to account
Without operating on an “I told you so” basis, Remainers need to operate a “Brexit Watch” approach, dispassionately pointing out the gap between promises and realities as they emerge, both online and in everyday life. In Kent, we have borrowed an approach from local leisure centres which often have a “You said, We did” approach to respond to customer feedback. We have modified the approach to a simple comparison that anyone can understand:
“You (Boris Johnson) promised x. You did y.”
We continue to need to change minds about Brexit. We must do this on a 1 : 1 basis, along the lines that I have personally done through thousands of hours of café culture “Brexorcisms”. We must also operate via continuing street stalls and events where we reach out to Leave voters, albeit with a softer focus, drawing in leave voters and asking them “how’s it going” using a more Socratic style over a campaigning voice.
“The argument for Brexit has changed. Once it would be the easiest thing in human history and would create an earthly paradise. That argument has looked ever more dubious for some time. Now Brexit must happen despite all the horrors that it brings because … the will of the people … betrayal of democracy … Brexit is going to be less horrible than World War Two according to Ann Widdecombe. There is a hard core of Leavers who will not admit they are wrong, and we should point out their 180-degree changes of argument.”
Don Adamson, Mid Kent activist
We must also work on a one : many basis with communities. For example:
- Organising “coming together” gatherings in “village hall” settings, dealing with emerging Brexit themes on a just in time basis using non-directive, non-partisan expert facilitation. Whilst some Remainers may see the idea of coming together as an inherently weak strategy, we must continue to break outside the bubble. Like it or not, our “customers” are outside of our cosy environment. We will not change minds by clicking the “like” button on our Facebook posts.
- Panel style sessions in the “People’s Question Time” format, with local representatives from both sides of our “divided Britain”, once again expertly facilitated.
- We must “take back control” of national media. This is outside the scope of this document but again, we must not be pompous about the need to get our voice heard in what some would say are “low culture” media. Brexit was won by the publishers of such media.
Successful mindset change requires skill, patience and time. In many cases Remain has operated from a “push” basis, hoping to change someone’s mind in a short street interaction by campaigning and handing out leaflets that proselytise the benefits of something that leave voters don’t actually want. Effective change at the beliefs level requires more of a “pull” basis, using strategies from across the entire spectrum of intervention styles.
We therefore need a cadre of change agents in the Remain movement who are skilled in the art of having these “difficult conversations”. Training in “Defence against the dark Brexit arts” can be arranged on request to develop this capability and capacity within the movement.
Maintain a low level, non-threatening presence. We have a national project that quite literally keeps the flag flying by gently pointing out that “we are still here”. It is called “We are Everywhere”.
“The real reason for Brexit is that rich tax dodgers will benefit rather than those who voted for it. We should keep making that point. What was going to be Singapore on Thames now looks more like Venice on Thames. A once great trading metropolis parading former glories for the tourists.”
Addressing Parliamentary Paralysis
Letter writing campaigns are still relevant, especially as Brexit promises evaporate. In Kent we have activists who have joined Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems and Greens with the specific remit of writing to their MP, calling for improved representation of our interests and seeking action on the shortfalls to the Brexit promises.
Specific campaign sectors
There is a longer list of specific campaign goals that we can pursue in 2020 e.g. EU citizens’ rights. In doing so, it is vitally important that we do them in the context of the whole UK. Too many times, the Remain movement has formed silos with the best of intentions, only to be ignored by the rest of the UK. For example, instead of three or five million, we must recognise that we are 66 million. See our Requiem for Brexit as an example of an “all for one, one for all” approach.
Mid-Term – 2021
If the Brex-shit hits the fan, Remainers will need to be seen as community of leaders to maintain calm and bring people towards the realisation that it is Brexit and Johnson’s Government that has led to the breakdown of the UK. This will call upon the development of a cadre of leaders within the movement who are skilled in the art and discipline of leading teams, communication skills, high level influence and persuasion and who possess a degree of personal resilience.
Remain need to make themselves “match fit” for 2021 by dealing with the long tail of Organisation Development issues around Strategy, Structure, Leadership and Collaboration tactics that lie at the heart of our two defeats. I have detailed this separately below as it is essentially an internal affair rather that outward facing activity. It is nonetheless overdue for attention and vitally important.
The above will be in addition to some of the items mentioned under short term strategy.
Improving Remain’s fitness and agility
As well as what we can do in terms of outward facing activity, this is the first moment since 2016 that Remain will have had time to take stock, learn and improve its organisation so that it is match fit. I work in the area of Organisation Development (OD) and Remain has a suite of chronic “organisational illnesses” at many levels of the so-called OD matrix. Thematically they boil down to four areas:
- Collaboration tactics
The following analogy illustrates the structural problems within the Remain movement:
Imagine the Remain movement as a garden. The garden contains many plants (the grassroots [sic]) and overcrowding is an issue. The Head Gardener is the centre (the so-called Millbank collective and other national groups). The Head Gardener is responsible for grouping plants with similar needs and function together, sometimes culling plants that are not needed due to duplication or at least asking them to co-locate psychologically, temporally or geographically, share nutrients (resources). In some cases, plants that need grouping together (e.g. all street campaigning groups) are in the wrong places in the garden (tulips in the herb garden and so on). The Head Gardener has the opportunity of applying fertiliser (money, support and so on), gently helping similar plants grow together and training or weeding when required.
However, instead of acting as Head Gardener, the centre has on occasion tried to grow itself into a giant sunflower, to drown out individual plants (grassroots) and so on. This is not the role of a true leader of a voluntary movement. As a result of literally “letting a thousand flowers bloom”, there is competition, duplication and wasted resources horizontally between Remain groups and enmity between the grass roots and central groups who don’t always understand each other’s roles. The result is that Remain spend quite a bit of their time fighting each other rather than fighting the cause. This is behavioural waste. Whatever we think of leave voters, their organisation was simple and communicated its aims well. If it is true that Remainer are more intelligent that makes them harder to gain cohesion, more akin to herding cats. It requires higher level leadership skills.
The key “symptoms” of the underlying malaises with the movement from the analogy may be summarised:
- Fragmented grass roots activity due to a plethora of leaders, some self-appointed in the verticals and horizontals. Whilst it would be a mistake to have a single lone leader, consideration should be given to the drawing up of a national organisation chart with leaders appointed on the basis of thematic horizontal strategies e.g. street activity, visual arts, press and media, social media and so on.
- Grass roots fiefdoms and silos mean that we have “initiative constipation”. At best this means that campaigns requiring higher visibility get swamped. At worst, competition wipes out worthy local strategies due to political behaviours by some of the less capable leaders.
- Remain started life on Facebook and continues to confuse this as a collaboration platform when it is a social media platform. E-mail is still the most reliable means of reaching everyone and the central Remain movement would do well to move to a more professional comms medium.
- In some cases, Remain groups are still at the forming stage of team development (Form, Storm, Norm, Perform) with consequences for getting things done effectively. For example, I suggested a talent audit within grassroots remain group in 2017 but was ignored in favour of “just getting on with it”. Busy-ness means that important things are outweighed by the urgent things. We no longer have this excuse for not getting Remain match fit.
The good news is that after 3.5 years, we do know more about who’s who, who can do what, who is good and so on in Remain. However, to manage the transformation, some work needs to be done on the organisational issues. I am willing to assist further if needed.
A reformed Remain movement would be characterised by some vital signs of progress:
- Clear campaign themes emerging from the centre. For example :
“Next month our main focus will be x. You can contribute by doing y. Here are some resources to help you. Coming up, in two months … in 3 etc. “
This would enable grassroots groups to plan whilst still allowing them to customise to local geographic circumstances.
- A clear map of the movement so that people can identify with relevant leaders. More a constellation of nodes than an organogram, but nonetheless with some identified leaders for the many different themes that we wish to, all pursue, and which will provide clarity for those who wish to follow.
- A clear central point for the centre to coalesce around. The most obvious point of central co-ordination is the European Movement with its long history beyond the project-based organisations that have sprung up.
- An opt-in e-mail account to integrate the efforts of all Remain activists, whether lone wolves or part of local groups. This would reduce our reliance on the inefficiencies of social media, although that could still be part of our local presence and we do need to maintain our grip on social media, although this is outside the scope of this paper.
- Much better representation in national print, radio and TV media. We must hold our noses and penetrate the media that leave voters read. This requires significant skill and could be the subject of a further paper.
Peter Cook MBA, MRSC C.Chem, NLP Master, FCIPD
For Mid Kent 4 EU and Grassroots for Europe
With contributions by Irina Fridman and Don Adamson
About the author
Peter Cook is a business and organisation consultant with 12 books to his name, acclaimed by people such as Professor Charles Handy, Tom Peters, having won a prize for his work from Sir Richard Branson. Peter wrote a book called “Let’s Talk About BREX .. it”, using popular psychology to turn the tables on Nigel Farage et al. He is leader of Rage Against The Brexit Machine, having written three albums of anti-Brexit protest songs and got one of them to Number one on the Amazon chart. “Brexorcist in Chief” for Mid Kent 4 EU, he gained two black eyes for daring to ask difficult questions of angry leave voters and arrested by Essex Police for driving a Mini Cooper with the words “B*llocks to Brexit” and stood a stuffed cat in the 2019 General Election. For 3.5 years he has acted to dispel the illusions of Brexit. A skilled marketer and press / media expert, he now seeks to turn back the pyrrhic victory of Johnson, assisted by a weak opposition on all sides. Whilst he is too old for Brexit to matter personally, he continues to work on the wicked problem of Brexit for future generations.