Why does the spirit of Remain survive? Because it is about so much more than Brexit

<span>Photograph: Wiktor Szymanowicz/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Wiktor Szymanowicz/REX/Shutterstock

If there had never been a referendum on EU membership, Britain would still be divided between “remainers” and “leavers”. They would just be called something else. Terms coined for a one-off ballot describe differences that were revealed, not invented, by the plebiscite.

Brexit redrew the political map along axes of culture, geography, class, age and educational attainment. City-dwelling professionals who went to university overwhelmingly voted remain; older, manual workers who left school at 16 and live in small towns generally backed leave.

Such cleavages are never exact, but they are resonant enough that most British people can intuit how a compatriot voted in the referendum without having to ask, and are rarely surprised on finding out.

Also not surprising is the endurance of those allegiances seven years after the vote. Brexit was about so much more than technical disentanglement from EU institutions (and so bitterly contested) that legal completion of the divorce couldn’t dissolve the new categories of voter.

A study conducted for UK in a Changing Europe, a research body based at King’s College London, has found that two-thirds of people still identify with their referendum choice. That is down from 75% in the year after the vote, but still high, and Brexit identities are felt more intimately than party loyalty. Sixty-five per cent of leavers and 71% of remainers consider that identity to be “very” or “extremely” important to them. The equivalent figures for Tory and Labour partisans are 34% and 53% respectively.

Of the two labels, remain has proved stickier. That is probably because the losing side feels vindicated by the failure of Brexit to deliver any of its advertised benefits, while the winners have nothing to boast about.

The current panic about immigration is a case in point. This was a policy area where the pledge to “take back control” had the most potency and, by ending freedom of movement within the single market, the most efficient means of implementation.

But even that low-hanging fruit of the Brexit tree rotted in the government’s hands as soon as it was plucked. Ministers are already panicking about an influx of foreigners and fretting that it will drive their supporters towards Reform UK, exactly as they were a decade ago, when it was Ukip cannibalising the Tory vote share and a referendum on Europe seemed like the obvious remedy.

Plenty of people who backed Brexit are naturally disappointed with the way things have turned out, but often they retain confidence that the decision itself was the right one. They blame politicians for screwing the whole thing up. Opinion polls showing leads for pro-European policy positions don’t necessarily indicate traffic across the deeper culture-war trench. (Partly they indicate a higher death rate among older, Eurosceptic voters, while Europhile teens acquire suffrage.)

Leavers may think Brexit is a mess and still be leavers. Remainers can accept that there is no going back – not soon, never on the old terms – and still be remainers. The locus of identity is not which box people checked on polling day, but the extent to which the result was felt as trauma or delight.

Those feelings may over time be dulled by recognition of what is politically available, but grief and exaltation set people on starkly divergent trajectories.

For remainers, the sense of loss is kept raw by the abrasive rub of Conservative campaigns that aggravate cultural divisions over Brexit grievance as a route to electoral rehabilitation.

There is also an international dimension. Only Britain has remainers and leavers, but plenty of other democracies have analogous schisms, tracking similar cultural faultlines, with similar disruptive effects on traditional party-political allegiance. The prospect of Donald Trump returning to the White House next year degrades what fragile confidence his ousting in 2020 instilled in the resilience of the American constitutional order.

Delivered five months apart in 2016, Brexit and Trump were electoral siblings. Not twins. There are enough differences between American and British politics to limit the likeness, but also enough ideological congress across the Atlantic to give the two movements similar genetic profiles.

The radical right in Britain is watching the Trump sequel with relish, wondering if there are lines to crib for their capture of the Conservative party after its defeat at the next election. Keir Starmer may be glad to face an opposition so determined to vacate the political centre ground, but he can also read the cautionary tale in Joe Biden’s struggle to secure a second term.

The American economy is not in bad shape. The incumbent president has a robust record of patriotic public service. His likely rival is a demagogue of proven tyrannical temperament, who incited insurrection, openly despises the rule of law and explicitly threatens political repression if elected. It shouldn’t even be close.

Viewed from the outside, there is something frighteningly brittle about Biden’s candidacy that is inseparable from his age. At 81, he is only four years older than Trump, and not as senescent as Republican propagandists portray him. But in the third decade of the 21st century, his manner feels retro. He is the incarnation of the reassuring old way of doing politics for which liberal opinion is nostalgic. He embodies a constitutional order that would be submerged under a nationalist tide that he could not command into retreat. The word that captures this is not current in the American vocabulary: Biden is the essence of remain.

Related: I’ve got news for those who say Brexit is a disaster: it isn’t. That’s why rejoining is just a pipe dream | Larry Elliott

This isn’t a uniquely anglophone problem. European parliament elections next year look likely to amplify illiberal and xenophobic forces that have already penetrated the political mainstream – and formed governments – across the bloc. In France, supporters of Emmanuel Macron are getting queasy about the vacuum he will leave when his term expires in 2027 and the prospect of it being filled by the far right.

As the Ukraine war drags on, the energy of moral purpose that Russia’s invasion instilled in the European project is dissipating. Stalemate benefits Vladimir Putin, his clients and fellow travellers by proving the limit of western capacity – or will – to reverse territorial aggression.

None of this is predetermined. The success of Donald Tusk’s centre-right Civic Platform in Polish elections in October – in a system skewed to favour chauvinist incumbents – was a tonic to supporters of liberal democracy across the continent. Tusk, a former prime minister and president of the European Council, won an important battle over the character of Poland’s democracy. EU membership was never in question, but in a wider sense this was a victory for a spirit of remain.

Of course that can’t be the right word. Brexit is too rooted in Britain’s national neuroses to provide a lexicon for other countries’ politics.

Yet there is a global taste of anxiety and bewilderment that supporters of Britain’s EU membership have known since 2016 and recognise overseas. There is a solidarity in defence of the rule of law, human rights and political pluralism. But there is also dread that the campaign to protect these principles struggles to break out of nostalgia for the time when the case didn’t even have to be made. And there is the nerve-racking condition of having much more faith in the justice of the cause than confidence in the candidates who represent it. That is the struggle, for want of a better word, to remain.

  • Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist