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4. Living together in the wake of Brexit

Pro-European grassroots groups resisting Brexit : (re)building belonging and identity in the UK ?

Marie Aouanes-Perrière
p. 259-295

Résumé

When one thinks of the relationship between the United Kingdom and Europe one imagines an indifferent people as well as unyielding politicians. However, behind this image of a certain incompatibility Brexit has disrupted the lives of millions of people on both sides of the Channel, leaving pro-Europeans with no other choice than to come forward and act. This article will investigate how the 2016 referendum on the European Union has led to the awakening of anti-Brexit activists who campaigned to keep their country in the European Union. Resisting Brexit and rebelling against the political status quo has been like a catharsis for the grassroots who are determined to rediscover what it feels like to be European, leaving the question of the movement’s impact and durability open.

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Texte intégral

Introduction

  • 1 Leslie, E., 2018.

How would you define being European?
iThat’s the most difficult question that you’ve asked me because as I said I couldn’t define what it means to be English or British […] I just think it’s a shared heritage, I mean we’re physically on the same continent, I know we’ve got a little strip of water between us, but we are geographically linked, we do have a shared heritage and shared language roots, and shared culture and I think it’s a sense of belonging - that’s how I feel, a sense of belonging to the UK, I feel a sense of belonging to Europe1.

  • 2 The pact included the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Greens and it was set up by former Con (...)
  • 3 Payne, A. 2019; Chapell, E., 2019.
  • 4 “I mean that’s the good thing that’s come out of that, and we’re all from different backgrounds, di (...)

1The Brexit referendum revealed the social, economic and political crises that Britain has been enduring for decades. Given the prevailing tension and faced with such injustice, remainers decided to set up local grassroots groups to keep the UK in the EU. Not only have the referendum and its consequences challenged the traditional British political landscape but also the essence of the UK itself: a union, running the risk of splitting up with on the one hand the Scottish National Party (SNP) demanding a second referendum on Scottish independence and on the other hand, in order to respect the Belfast Agreement (1998), the Withdrawal Agreement placing checks on the Irish Sea, paradoxically creating a boarder within the UK. The current crisis between the electorate and politics could not be more visible therefore, as it challenges the concepts of identity and belonging amongst pro-Europeans. In the aftermath of the referendum, activists joined forces and came under the same umbrella group: People’s Vote (PV), which campaigned for a final say on the deal London and Brussels would agree on. However, the short-lived Change UK party and the pro-remain pact, “Unite to Remain” (UTR)2 failed to topple the Conservatives despite auspicious results in the 2019 local and European Parliament elections. Tactical voting, which covered 60 seats across England and Wales, did not suffice to counterbalance Labour’s ambiguity on Brexit. Consequently, Boris Johnson won the general election with an 80-seat majority, although some anti-Brexit campaigners did warn UTR against such tactics, as they feared the coalition could have the opposite effect, i.e. giving additional seats to the Tories3. Brexit has undoubtedly brought people together, people who would have never met in other circumstances4, but it has also strengthened their determination to assert themselves as Europeans. Despite the amateurism of the movement, pro-EU activism is palpable through solidarity, voluntary action, friendship, sympathy, collaboration, cooperation, mutual aid, support, commitment and willingness. Being a member of a pro-European group gives them the identity they seem to have lost with Brexit, as the European Union embodies values, beliefs and the security they cannot find in their country anymore. Collective action epitomises an alternative or an extension of politics for remainers who can no longer identify with Labour. Once apolitical, staunch EU supporters took an active part in politics through cross-party grassroots organisations as it appeared to be the only way to undo the referendum. How did the grassroots build a (new) identity through local groups and protest? To what extent did Brexit trigger collective action to keep the UK in Europe? What were their strategies, organisation and tactics? What links did pro-EU activists forge to defend democracy riddled with shams since the EU referendum campaign?

  • 5 My research is based on three phases of fieldwork in the UK (Bristol, Liverpool and London) and on (...)

2It will be the aim of this article to respond to these questions on the basis of the field research carried out from September 2017 to October 2019 in the UK and continental Europe amongst pro-European groups and individuals5. First, we will explain how the outcome of the Brexit referendum psychologically impacted EU supporters, thus leading to an identity crisis. We shall also shed light on the reasons why they mobilised only after the referendum results. Secondly, we will explore how the grassroots as well as politicians tried to reassert a European identity through mobilisation and new political formations. Finally, this article will focus on the functioning of the campaign led by both local and national groups and how it might explain their failure to beat the Conservatives in the 2019 general election.

A border across the human heart : the impact of Brexit on pro-Europeans

Lost values – lost people

  • 6 Remigi, E. et al., 2017.
  • 7 “The emotional effect on all of us is clear, we feel betrayed by the government and let down by a p (...)
  • 8 Richard Ashcroft and Mark Bevir explain that the nature of Brexit is plural, that “[c]onflicts over (...)
  • 9 “Anchors of one form of identity – Europeanness – which an individual had assumed signalled the sam (...)

3As suggested above, Brexit triggered an identity crisis amongst British people. The loss of British remainers was twofold: they lost the European identity they had purportedly acquired some forty years before, but they were also deprived of a sense of belonging: as of 31 January 2020, they ceased being citizens of the EU. “Sad, disappointed, worried, angry and betrayed”6– that’s how at least 48% of British citizens, 784,900 Britons living in the EU27 and 2.9 million Europeans who have made the UK their home have been feeling since 23 June 2016. “Disaster” was the word they chose to describe the UK leaving the EU, thereby highlighting the emotional impact triggering a sense of loss and bewilderment7. When adding a European dimension to cultural and national identity, hybrid by essence8, it renders the whole concept of self-identification even more inchoate as, for EU proponents, Europe was an integral part of who they were9:

  • 10 Watts, P., 2017.

I did not “become” an EU citizen. I was born one. It is not a cloak, it is my skin. Those 12 stars have been on my passport for as long as the lion and the unicorn. I was brought up as part of something bigger, a major peace project that, although bureaucratic, represented unity and solidarity. I consider myself a European first, a Brit second10.

  • 11 Amongst British expatriates living in the Bordeaux area (France).
  • 12 Capera, J., 2020.
  • 13 European Semester of Psychology, 2018.
  • 14 According to YouGov’s latest figures, on the five stages of grief only one-third of remainers have (...)
  • 15 “This is a short-term support service offering prospective clients up to six sessions with a qualif (...)
  • 16 “This energy and solidarity of the Remain Fellowship has been a tremendous joy and succour to me, I (...)
  • 17 Remigi, E. and Metz. B., 2020.
  • 18 Remigi, E. et al., 2017, p. 13.
  • 19 May, T. 2016. 

4Whilst waiting for their French passport some admitted feeling “stateless” and even completely rejected their British identity11, feeling ashamed and put off, but particularly at odds and dumbstruck with the UK’s decision to leave the EU. A French expatriate who has lived in the UK for 30 years and who was granted British citizenship in 2020 confessed in an interview: “I have resigned myself to it. It’s made me feel foreign again, it’s made me feel not British again, even though now I’m actually a citizen. It’s been a blessing for me because I’ve a met a lot of people through the campaigning activities that we’ve done, whom I wouldn’t have met otherwise”12.Furthermore, the British Psychological Society, a charity organisation, calculated the impact of Brexit on mental health. On 8 June 2018, Prof. Van Deurzen and Dr. De Cruz interviewed 1,300 remainers and concluded13 that people “feel devastated, angry, depressed, betrayed and ashamed, nearly two years after the referendum”- even identifying the phenomenon as “Brexit depression”14. They decided to set up a free-online platform: the Emotional Support Service for Europeans meant to provide therapeutic sessions to the ones in need15. For some remainers, “the vote has struck at the core of their identity and continues to dominate their everyday experience”, indeed “they feel as if they lost their identity and their human rights” and “working with pro-European groups has been particularly beneficial for many”. Grassroots organisations like the3million have been campaigning to preserve EU citizens’ rights in the UK and being a member of the3million was lifesaving for some Europeans living in Britain. Belonging to an anti-Brexit grassroots group was the only way out for some pro-Europeans - it gave them a purpose- militating was to anti-Brexiteers a remedy against depression16. What’s more, the In Limbo project tells the story of “5 million citizens who have built their lives on their rights to Freedom of Movement and are now at risk of losing everything in the Brexit shambles”17. One of the testimonies particularly struck me when someone from Spain declared: “I, citizen of Europe, my wings clipped, my dreams shattered, my freedom chained, the result of a mad Referendum in which I wasn’t allowed a voice. I feel rather lost, I no longer belong”18. EU citizens felt like they were treated like ‘bargaining chips’ and second-class citizens by the British government – a feeling reinforced when in 2016 former Prime minister Theresa May declared: “But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means”19.

  • 20 “The problem of the crisis of values is accompanied by the problem of European identity. It is diff (...)
  • 21 “European identity constitutes the product of action and experience, as opposed to birthplace, ethn (...)
  • 22 “The criteria and rights can all be changed. The Windrush scandal obviously crystallised our concer (...)
  • 23 “[European] identity is enacted as a cultural trait, as a political device and as a reactive proces (...)

5With a crisis of values comes a crisis of identity20,an identity made formally possible when the Maastricht Treaty introduced European citizenship in 1993. However, to the question: “Have you always felt pro-European?” none of the interviewees mentioned the treaty as a defining moment. Even though interviewees’ definitions of “being European” remain elusive, they revolve around concepts and values (peace, tolerance, shared-heritage, freedom, prosperity, friendship, unity, togetherness, diversity, openness etc.) and are not associated with places or physical institutions. Most of them have always felt pro-European and describe Europe as something intrinsically linked to their lives (family, work, studies, travelling etc.). Indeed, how one sees Europe is idiosyncratic and respondents’ interpretations of Europe come from their personal relationship and interactions with it21. Confusion and uncertainty set in and EU proponents fear that their rights might no longer be protected in case of a no-deal Brexit, some recalling the Windrush scandal, which was everything but reassuring.22 Activists are determined to preserve these rights and are particularly worried about minorities who have been protected so far against discrimination by the Charter of Fundamental Rights hence the cross-cutting identity groups (women, LGBT, ethnic minorities etc.). Despite a majority not participating in the Stronger In campaign, remainers do not want to forfeit European values and loyally defend freedom, Human rights, rule of law, democracy, equality and human dignity23.

The aftermath of the referendum : too little too late ?

  • 24 “… consciousness [refers] to the interpretive frameworks that emerge from a group’s struggle to def (...)
  • 25 Leslie, E., 2018.
  • 26 Nat Cen Social Research, 2016; The film Brexit: the Uncivil War gives one angle of how the Leave ca (...)

6On 12 October 2015 when Britain Stronger In Europe was launched by David Cameron’s Conservative government to promote the UK’s EU membership, the advocacy group preferred a top-down organisation and did not collaborate with local groups. Stronger In decided to fight the battle alone and hamstrung the grassroots who had to wait until after the referendum to start to truly emerge on the political scene. In September 2016 Stronger In became Open Britain (OB) and favoured a ‘soft’ sort of Brexit. The grassroots, who had been campaigning ardently for a second referendum, perceived it as a betrayal. As pointed out, oddly enough, amongst the community the majority of activists did not participate in the Stronger In campaign out of complacency. One may argue that since the 2016 referendum, pro-Europeans have developed a conscience24. Although Eurosceptism has dominated the British political landscape since the 1980s, pro-Europeans, who have always felt that way, reacted only after Brexit happened. It made them aware that they had to resist the status quo and stand up for their rights. Evelyne Leslie, Chair of Stockport for Europe confessed: “if you could turn the clock back, I think a lot of us would really have campaigned much harder… We didn’t know what we were up against”25. Polls predicted a victory for remain whilst the leave camp, led by the political strategist Dominic Cummings26, was gambling on provoking an emotional reaction in Britain. Why did the Stronger In campaign lose its battle against Vote Leave? The pro-EU narrative was just not convincing enough and Brenda Ashton, chair of Liverpool for Europe, explained it perfectly:

  • 27 Ashton, B., 2018.

What the Leave group was very good at doing was capturing people’s hearts. I would say heart but it was easy for them to do that because they were appealing to people’s faces and instincts, they were appealing to prejudices, to some sort of sensationalism, to scandal- they were appealing to all the things that is easy to do, easy to say basically whereas we have to appeal to people’s better instincts and that’s difficult27!

  • 28 “My personal discrimination/racism experiences happened mainly at my previous workplace. Just after (...)
  • 29 “Until a year before the Referendum I was considering myself EU citizen. But it started to change. (...)
  • 30 Brexit Brits Abroad; for the purpose of brevity, we will not develop further on Britons living in t (...)

7Regarding the 2.9 million European residents living in the UK, the situation is somewhat similar, although they very much suffer from xenophobia and racism28. They were not allowed a vote in the referendum and if considered illegal, they have to return to their home country which they might not even feel a part of as a lot of them have made the UK their home for decades29. Brits who have lived abroad for more than 15 years, accused of voting with their feet, could not vote in the EU referendum either, they are all disenfranchised, citizens of nowhere, outsiders. To secure British citizens’ rights on the other side of the Channel, grassroots organisations were also set up in Europe showing the large dimension of the movement. Britain for Europe has international groups such as Bremain in Spain and Remain in France Together, which oversee the protection of British nationals’ rights in the EU27. Finally, Brexit Brits Abroad, a research project led by Dr Michaela Benson since 2017, provides information and data about “freedom of movement, citizenship and Brexit in the lives of British citizens resident in the EU27”30. To what extent have anti-Brexit grassroots organisations managed to build a new identity from the Brexit ashes? Four years later, activists of all ages, social and economic backgrounds are still united to rejoin the EU and protect their rights.

Pro-EU activism and British politics : reaffirming European identity ?

The anti-Brexit mobilisation : organisation, structure and identity

  • 31 Making an inventory of all the groups and organisations remains intricate in light of the amateuris (...)
  • 32 “Collective identity is seen as a spur to action because one values the potential gain to the group (...)
  • 33 “If identities play a critical role in mobilizing and sustaining participation, they also help expl (...)
  • 34 “‘Moral shocks’, often the first step toward recruitment into social movements, occur when an unexp (...)
  • 35 “The ‘strength’ of an identity, even a cognitively vague one, comes from its emotional side”, Goodw (...)
  • 36 Ibid.
  • 37 The European Movement UK (EMUK) was established after World War Two but Hilary Arrowsmith who worke (...)

8Since 2016 a myriad of anti-Brexit organisations has emerged, protesting against the referendum results at a local level31. EU identity was not the kernel of the referendum campaign, but it certainly became that of the remain camp. The concept of collective identity is pivotal. Activists lost a part of their identity that they managed to retrieve thanks to Europe32 and resisting Brexit is how pro-Europe activists claimed their common identity. Pro-European groups are non-politically affiliated independent organisations. They are volunteer campaigning groups who enjoy cross-party political support. Rebelling against the political status quo created special bonds between them. Jasper and Polletta explain that collective identity survives through engagement and unity as maintaining a European identity is crucial to the existence of the movement33. Some have always felt pro-European; for others, the victory of the leave vote triggered a “moral shock”34questioning identity therefore which leads us to believe that feeling or being European does not require one to be a member of a pro-EU group but solely a sense of belonging, an identity mostly driven by emotions35. Indeed, the outcome of the Brexit referendum sparked a sort of awakening as they realised what they were actually losing thereby “[t]he prospect of unexpected and sudden changes in one’s surroundings can arouse feelings of dread and anger. The former can paralyze, but the latter can become the basis for mobilization. Activists work hard to create moral outrage and anger and to provide a target against which these can be vented”36. Besides, Jasper associates moral shocks with suddenness like death or an accident, hence a sense of mourning amongst the community. One may argue that the victory of Leave on referendum day served as a spur towards grassroots activism,37 as participants had never been involved in politics before.

  • 38 “… the actions taken by insurgents and the tactical choices they make represent a critically import (...)
  • 39 The ‘Let us be Heard’ march which took place on 19 October 2019 might have gathered a million anti- (...)
  • 40 “We see two mechanisms for recruitment: through existing organizations and networks, and through mo (...)
  • 41 They consist in home-made cardboard placards on which activists write questions about Brexit and as (...)
  • 42 Andrews, M., 2018.
  • 43 Jasper J.M., Poulsen J. D., 1995.

9All groups are affiliated with a national organisation, thus creating a strong network across the UK. They favour a horizontal hierarchy, yet their amateurism is not bereft of structure. Committee members (chair, co-chair, head of campaigning, digital manager, treasurer etc.) lead the group’s activities and for almost four years tried to mobilise remainers and persuade soft leavers that Brexit had to be stopped. Their objectives were to inform people, support remainers but more importantly to give them the tools to take action38. They organised information meetings, weekly street stalls, local and national marches39, action days, canvassing and also encouraged supporters to lobby their MPs, to write to local media, to sign petitions, to leaflet anti-Brexit messages and to donate money. Mobilizing and recruiting potential members amongst their constituents but also retaining actual members has been a challenge given the volatility of Brexit. How were members recruited40? Weekly street stalls were the opportunity to talk to passers-by, to answer people’s fears and concerns about Brexit and to collect some data. It enabled activists to get an authentic picture of the situation, to orientate the campaign more effectively (short questionnaire or ‘Brexitometers’41) and to report to national groups42. Acting locally is of paramount importance, Snow and Benford “implicitly assume that people are being recruited through personal networks of those who share underlying worldviews”43 echoing what Mike Galsworthy explained to me:

  • 44 Galsworthy, M., 2018; “As an individual begins to see his or her friends and family members engagin (...)

The grassroots are everything. The grassroots are your army. They are the people who fund campaigns, they are the people that provide the visibility on the street, they are the people that have their ear to the ground on their local communities who can feed information upwards. Ultimately, we have seen from polling that people that change opinion do so because of what they’re hearing from their neighbours and their friends and their colleagues not from some smooth-talking politician on the television because that’s distant from them and in a confusing environment people tend to trust the judgement of people like them, you know, it’s identity politics44.

  • 45 “What resonates with people […] is about family, friends, people in your workplace, people you know (...)
  • 46 The extent use of social media did help to rally remainers even though opinions differ on that subj (...)
  • 47 People’s Vote, 2020; The organisation originated in Camden, North London and was launched on 15 Apr (...)
  • 48 Münchau, W., 2019.
  • 49 Smith, M., 2020.
  • 50 Poll based on 1526 people from 2 to 20 January 2020.
  • 51 For the purpose of brevity, I shall not elaborate on this aspect of the pro-EU campaign. I shall on (...)
  • 52 72% of the LGBT community supported People’s Vote, along with Ethnic Minorities for a People’s Vote (...)
  • 53 These groups closed down in 2019 after PV's scandal.

10Indeed, people are more receptive to friends, family or colleagues than the media or mainstream politics45. Four years after the referendum, local groups managed to form a strong movement by being systematic, strategic and consistent thanks to solidarity. Social media46 and tools like Brexitometers helped the campaign to grow and increased its visibility. In 2018, People’s Vote, a grassroots campaign of “more than 700,000 campaign supporters, 20,000 activists, and over a million followers on social media” attempted to coordinate the movement47. PV's impact must not be overlooked, “to its credit, the People’s Vote campaign at least started to nurture a sense of Europeanness among those who attended its marches”48. When referring to YouGov’s latest figures, on 29 January 2020 70% of remainers had not reached acceptance and were still fighting49. Indeed, according to the national campaign group Open Britain 75% of pro-EU activists still wanted to campaign against Brexit in January 202050, which could confirm the hypothesis that despite the crushing victory of the Conservatives, the movement may continue. Pro-Europeans tried to fill in the gap left by Brexit which came to mar the image they had of democracy. The grassroots also campaigned for the preservation of their existing rights such as the freedom to work, travel, settle and study in the EU but also to ensure EU citizens will not be considered as illegal residents. As a result, the pro-European movement revealed the existence of cross-cutting identities: in July/August 2018 PV set up branches51 such as Women for a People’s vote, LGBT+ for a People’s Vote52 and Ethnic Minorities for a People’s Vote, thus reflecting the diversity of British society53. Besides, the Brexit negotiations carried out under Theresa May’s premiership deeply divided British politics. Indeed, some politicians were particularly keen to defend EU membership and resigned altogether from their respective parties.

The political response : the failure to create a last defence against Brexit

  • 54 Alexandre-Collier, A., 2020; Curtice, J., 2018.
  • 55 Independent campaigning organisations such as the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) or Make Vote Matte (...)
  • 56 Cutts, D., et al., 2020.
  • 57 Cutts, D., et al., 2019.
  • 58 “… although Brexit has reconfigured the geographical base of electoral support for the main parties (...)

11Brexit bias has partly superseded party identity and also wiped out the long-standing dyadic nature of UK politics (Labour/Conservative and left/right), as Agnès Alexandre-Collier explains: “Brexit has realigned British politics around two enduring camps (remainers/leavers), triggering new political identities”54. Pro-European activists accused the system of being broken and have been militating for electoral reform through proportional representation.55 Furthermore, new parties (Change UK and the Brexit Party) emerged after the Brexit referendum transforming “a once stable two-party system […] into a four-party race”56. In their article, Cutts et al. analyse the 2019 European Parliament (EP) elections57. The Liberal Democrats, who, unlike Labour, took a radical position on Brexit by deciding to revoke Article 50, came second with 20.3% of the vote and this was interpreted as auspicious for the 2019 general election. Contrary to the two main parties, which performed poorly, pro-remain parties scored well, gathering a total of 24 seats. Cutts et al. formulate two hypotheses behind the results: leavers were either tired of the May government’s incapacity to leave on 29 March 2019 or remainers seized this opportunity to make their voices heard. Where did it go wrong? The 2019 general election embodied hope for the remain community who campaigned ardently to stop the nine-year conservative domination by promoting tactical voting. We also know that the 2019 general election was not only shaped by Brexit but by long-term factors and that 2019 does not necessarily echo a critical turning point in British politics58.

  • 59 Change UK “indicated a willingness to make a difference within their party and to try and prevent t (...)
  • 60 “Labour sought to ‘own’ a more moderate position by backing a ‘People’s Vote’ which would include a (...)
  • 61 Clarke, J., 2019.
  • 62 Weaver, M., 2019.
  • 63 “Given the limitation of our electoral system, there would be nothing worse than the emergence of t (...)
  • 64 Snowdon, P., 2019.
  • 65 “Unite to Remain” became “Unite to Reform” after the 2019 general election.
  • 66 Amongst them were 10 pro-remain Labour seats –Meadowcroft, T., 2019.
  • 67 “Nationally, the Conservatives gained a majority by winning seats primarily from Labour, who suppor (...)
  • 68 The alliance was “successful in only nine of the sixty seats, and this included only one gain (Rich (...)
  • 69 Winston Churchill in 1911 already warned the country that the FPTP system was detrimental to politi (...)

12Change UK tried to reshape politics by answering what they thought were Britons’ main concerns under the slogan: “Politics is broken. Let’s change it”. Conservative mavericks rejected the hard-line Theresa May was taking on Brexit and eschewed the party’s shift to the right of the political spectrum59 while some Labour MPs were dissatisfied with J. Corbyn’s ‘leftist’ line and indignation at antisemitism allegations. One could assume that Change UK embodied hope for the pro-European community who could no longer identify with Labour policies, as Jeremy Corbyn would not clearly stand for a second referendum60. However, remainers’ feelings were rather mixed towards the new party. The “gang of eleven” took a centrist approach to British politics and advocated for a people’s vote on Brexit and campaigned to remain in the European Union. Amongst the party’s 11 priorities, avoiding a no-deal Brexit was on top of the list and when on 29March 2019 former Prime minister Theresa May decided to postpone Brexit, the group took a leap and registered as Change UK- the Independent Group in order to stand for the 2019 European elections scheduled to take place in May. Change UK gained the support from the centrist independent Renew party led by Julie Girling as they did not succeed in securing seats in the 2019 local elections. The alliance was temporary as James Clarke, deputy leader, underlined in our interview: “We entered into an alliance with them for the EU elections and that was partially successful, partially unsuccessful but there’s no urgent plans to merge with them, particularly given the split that they’ve currently experienced”61. Renew disagreed mostly on the top-down political structure of Change UK which was against their grassroots’ ideology. As a result, Heidi Allen was rather pessimistic about EP elections and decided to “take a step further”. She proposed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, whilst Chuka Umunna was of the opinion that a “pact” would be more “sensible”62 just like the SDP allied with the Liberals at the 1983 and 1987 general elections63. When the Liberal Democrats came third in the UK’s local elections there was no consensus amongst Change UK. According to Umunna and Allen, the Liberal Democrats’ success was seen as an opportunity to reinforce centre politics through a possible alliance with the pro-EU party. However, Berger, Shuker and Smith stood by their convictions that politics needed a fresh start and that Change UK should keep its stance as an independent reformist entity with the perspective that it would grow into a powerful party for “disillusioned MPs”. Gapes, Ryan, Shuker, Soubry and Leslie saw an alliance with the Liberal Democrats as a paradox given it had always been seen as a rival. The party organised a meeting on 4 June 2019 and Allen, Berger, Smith, Umunna, Shuker and Wollaston decided to break away from it concluding that “[w]hat had begun in the spirit of friendship and co-operation ended in acrimony and division”64. Consequently, Allen set up “Unite to Remain”65, “a cross-party initiative to help anti-Brexit candidates maximise their chances in parliamentary elections, regardless of party”. The electoral pact or “the most significant electoral pact since 1918” comprised Plaid Cymru, The Liberal Democrats and the Green Party. Despite covering 60 seats66 in England (49) and Wales (11), the coalition struggled to form a strong remain alliance (even Jo Swinson, former Liberal Democrat leader, lost her seat in East Dunbartonshire). Opinions differed especially with Labour67 and the alliance could not measure up to Boris Johnson’s Conservative party, which won with a hefty majority68. Indeed, Britain’s first-past-the-post system69 is disadvantageous for third parties and political pacts like UTR constitute the only alternative to broken politics:

  • 70 Editorial, 2019.

Electoral pacts are a consequence of the first-past-the-post voting system. If Britain’s electoral system was fairer, and less prone to confer majoritarian powers on parties with only minority support among voters, they would not be necessary. As long as the voting system is unreformed, the pressure for pacts will be there, as it is today. But pressure to cooperate in the national interest stems from policy failure too. The system is wrong, but so is the political direction70.

  • 71 “… the emergence of tactical voting websites risks muddying the waters further for electors seeking (...)
  • 72 Sabbagh, D., 2019.
  • 73 “We need an economy that increases opportunity and reduces poverty. It must close the gaps between (...)
  • 74 “Johnson went further than May, combining strong support for Brexit with socially conservative mess (...)

13However, such political strategy has its limits and can sometimes deliver unwanted results. According to Nicholls and Hayton, the 2019 general election was more coordinated than ever before, and coordination happened to be an issue as UTR suffered a considerable defeat71. According to the grassroots, the fact that Labour and the Liberal Democrats refused to work together clearly helped the Conservatives to win. Indeed, people voted for policies (Brexit/second referendum) instead of parties hence the salience of a strong pro-Europe coalition campaigning for a continued membership. On the bright side, “the Change UK breakaway had one other important effect: prompting Labour’s leadership to finally back a second referendum”72 in order to stymie Tories’ hard Brexit. Unfortunately, another people’s vote was not supported by a majority of Labour MPs. A question remains, now that anti-Brexit political formations have exposed the social, economic and political malaise in Britain73, has it helped make these issues inescapable even for a pro-Brexit government with a big majority in Parliament? The 2019 Conservative and Unionist party manifestos set the tone very assertively: “Get Brexit done”. The phrase repeated 24 times made every leaver see eye to eye but also appealed to Labour working-class heartlands who had felt disconnected from their party74.

14In spite of the political failure pro-Europeans encountered during the years 2018-2019, it did not prevent the grassroots to continue their campaign against Brexit. Even though they had to review and update some of their objectives and tactics, the movement, learning for its mistakes, is still growing but not without facing some challenges.

The enduring relevance of the pro-European mobilisation

The grassroots’ fight

  • 75 Grassroots for Europe, 2020 (b).

Never! Ever! Betray your core beliefs and values! Never despair! In a democracy we argue our heads off, have faith in good argument, truth will out for Britain can and must be at the heart of the European Project! - Will Hutton75

  • 76 Scientists for EU, InFacts, Healthier In the EU, Britain for Europe, Open Britain, OFOC, the Europe (...)
  • 77 Groups count up to 500, 000 supporters.
  • 78 Roberts, D., 2018.
  • 79 The organisation was set up in February 2018.
  • 80 Grice. A., 2018.
  • 81 Manson R. and Syal, R., 2019.
  • 82 “We are appalled by the recent actions of Roland Rudd as chair of Open Britain. The intimidation of (...)

15One may wonder whether the movement is limited to a specific moment in time. Or whether the movement’s impact has shaped something more lasting? Despite the impediments, activists have managed to maintain the movement. As pointed out, one of the main coordinating actors of the remain campaign was People’s Vote. In the Spring of 2018, all national groups76, with the exception of Best for Britain, decided to work together in the Millbank Tower in London, a place not left to chance as major political campaigns of 1997 (Labour) and 2010 (Conservative) happened there. The idea was to create an atmosphere of collaboration and solidarity but above all an attempt to coordinate the anti-Brexit campaign77 effectively with one single goal: to get a “people’s vote” on the Brexit deal78. Under the umbrella group called the Grassroots Coordinating Group79 (GCG) the remain coalition attempted to give a voice to those asking for a soft Brexit and indeed, possibly, a second referendum. As a result, their strategy was to lobby MPs, focusing more particularly on Labour so they could get support in Parliament for a “meaningful vote” on the exit deal80. Unexpectedly, the umbrella alliance signed its death warrant when the organisation “imploded” in October 201981. Less than two months before the general election, PV was no longer the movement’s coordinating body, due to internal tensions with OB’s chair Rolland Rudd (also self-proclaimed chair of PV) who used his title to reorganise PV by dismissing some of its staff82. Power struggle or opposite ideologies? Abuse of power or dysfunctional campaign? The wrangling seems to be a mix of the two rattling the smooth operation of the campaign.

  • 83 Schwartz M. and Paul, S., 1992.
  • 84 Richard Wilson founded Leeds for Europe in 2017 and was appointed vice chair of the European Moveme (...)
  • 85 Grassroots for Europe, 2020 (c).

16In the aftermath of the 2019 general election, pro-Europeans decided that it was time to review the situation on Brexit: Boris Johnson had just been elected Prime minister and the UK was about to legally leave the EU. A change of objectives was required as campaigning to stay in the EU no longer made sense. The pro-EU campaign being unencumbered can easily change tactics83. Therefore, on 25 January 2020 Grassroots for Europe (GfE) organised a pro-EU international conference in Central Hall, Westminster. GfE, chaired by Richard Wilson84, was formed in September 2018 by activists from pro-EU campaign groups located across various parts of the UK. The GfE network, which now numbers more than 220 local groups, has until now remained largely informal, reacting rapidly to emerging developments, and creatively supportive of its member groups. The event gathered “450 local activists, representing over 200 groups, who travelled from across the UK and beyond to take part”85. The aim of such an event was to set the next step forward as its title “Where Now for Remain?” suggested. Learning from their mistakes, the grassroots are getting ready for the 2024 general election and are working together for a “Rejoin” campaign.

17It was the occasion to collect feedback on what had worked and what had not worked in terms of campaigning but more specifically to discuss strategies as to how to oppose Brexit in a climate of a substantial conservative majority. Internally, the movement will continue to reach as many pro-EU groups as possible across the UK and abroad by gathering them with representatives of national organisations. Moreover, more cohesion and fluidity are required and the connection between groups will be strengthened as they need to support each other even more now with the election of Boris Johnson as Prime minister. Preserving EU and UK citizens’ rights is of paramount importance for remainers. For most of pro-EU activists it is inevitable that the UK will end up back in the European Union, however some activists would rather wait for the next general election whereas others are keen to start campaigning now. Dr Mike Galsworthy (Scientists for EU), openly condemned the control OB had exerted over the campaign by keeping jealously money and data collected by the campaign groups. OB put the emphasis on lobbying parliamentarians and by doing so they starved the local groups who needed investment to set up structures and to be efficient on the field. Today the top-down organisation of the movement continues to hamper the grassroots’ success severely impacted the EP elections:

  • 86 Grassroots for Europe, 2020 (a.)

By the European elections, a lot of political dynamics were changing, and it was at the point that we really needed a robust and local grassroots-led remain campaign to complement the essential work of PV that was working on parliamentarians. That’s what we needed at that stage. And through top-down organisations and various jealousies within it, it just started turning into an internal combustion rather than sensible-work share. I had always envisioned […] a triangle […] upside down because we needed to turn the triangle upside down because we needed our direction to be informed by all those grassroots campaigns that have been at the bottom86.

  • 87 Bremain in Spain, 2020.
  • 88 Grassroots for Europe, 2020 (a).
  • 89 Woodcock, A., 2020.
  • 90 Ibid.

18Richard Wilson reiterated the importance of collaboration and asked, “key national groupings to put past disagreements aside and come together to agree a coordinated and cooperative campaign”87. Mike Galsworthy added that he does not think that had there been another referendum Remain would have won it because they “didn’t actually have enough infrastructure in place and tested messaging in place that was redolent to those key demographics that [they] need to be working on now”88. Holding the government to account is the ultimate motivation, the Tories have to take responsibility for their actions. The EM have set a Brexit watch to “gather evidence of how EU withdrawal is affecting communities around the country, with the aim of making the government and the Leave campaign take responsibility for the consequences of their policies”89. Indeed, local authorities have been encouraged to constitute impact assessments about the consequences “Brexit has on jobs, communities and livelihoods and to encourage supporters to lobby MPs of all parties for closer engagement with Europe”90. For anti-Brexit activists, EU membership is more than an ideological fight, it is a civilizational fight.

The grassroots movement eclipsed by the national campaign ?

  • 91 YouGov, Jan. 2020.
  • 92 Schnapper, P. and Avril, E., 2019, p. 64.

192018 might be considered as the heyday of the pro-EU movement as January polls suggested that the country was shifting towards a second referendum. Indeed, from October 2017 an increase in support of Remain could be observed; people realised that voting for Brexit was wrong, peaking at 50% at the end of 2019 against 43% pondering it was the right thing to do91. However, this must be interpreted with care, as akin to the pre-referendum polls, which predicted the victory of Remain, there is always a margin of error, as Pauline Schnapper and Emmanuelle Avril underline92. Unfortunately, the pro-European coalition dislocated due to internal disagreement over the cost of the management of local groups. Ultimately, the remain cause seemed like a two-tier campaign, as national groups were sending different messages to the grassroots and the lack of consensus severely hurt the campaign:

  • 93 Fletcher, M., 2018.

There have been tensions between the grassroots and top-down organisations, and between those run by the tarnished veterans of the referendum campaign and by the newcomers […] The deepest divide has been between outsider groups such as Best for Britain that are determined to stop Brexit, and those with close parliamentary links such as Open Britain that have been fighting to mitigate it93.

20What’s more, the national groups appeared to overlook the power of the grassroots militating in their constituencies. Activists admitted that the remain alliance functioned as classic top-down dynamic; however, one must bear in mind that it is crucial that the campaign happens locally. National groups tend to asphyxiate the grassroots and really need to adopt a bottom-up approach, should they wish to see the UK rejoining the EU in the near future. Mike Galsworthy advised the grassroots to collaborate with the Greens, the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party. He put the emphasis on the notion of community as the central engine of the campaign:

  • 94 Grassroots for Europe, 2020 (a).

We need to become masters of understanding our communities’ issues and our communities’ politics. We embed there with our news, with our hearts, with our values, with our understandings of how all these granular local environments around this country take and because we’ve got national organisations we can bring that together and make that cohesive, and drive a deep plan from here that is not top-down but is bottom-up for all of the understandings that we have been working so hard to build94.

21In hindsight, national campaign groups were beneficial to the grassroots in terms of visibility, but they hampered them from accessing resources. The 2019 general election pushed activists to question the efficacy of their campaign as it disclosed the concentration of power at the top of the pyramid, the failure to provide local groups with the necessary resources and the absence of a proper bottom-up organisation.

Conclusion

22After the 2016 referendum, pro-EU local groups multiplied and developed a common identity based on European values and dovetailed in order to work together. Brexit has certainly made the questions of identity, migration and citizenship salient. However, for most people, Brexit “is done”, an impression that certainly affects the movement. Will the pro-EU movement leave its mark on the country’s politics? Or was it solely limited to a specific moment? Will the grassroots be able to fight Brexit fatigue, a non-negligible factor in the 2019 general election? It still feels like the campaign is being submerged by Brexit rhetoric. Activists have (as leavers would say) to “take back control” of the narrative; for example, by lobbying opposition leaders and their local MPs. Although PV spawned visibility, money and collaboration between groups, it overlooked the power of the grassroots. Remainers (or should we now call them “rejoiners”?) came to the conclusion that their message had to be community-based. Learning from their mistakes, activists have picked their battles: focusing on doing politics more effectively and putting aside marches and debates with leavers. They are determined to try and reform the electoral system and to hold the government to account, by exposing Boris Johnson’s lies. The grassroots wish to see Brexit back on the political agenda, laying emphasis on the moral effect that leaving the EU will have on the country and communities. On a different note, they want Labour to scrutinise the Conservative trade deal, especially with India, China and the US.

  • 95 @JoeBiden, 2020.
  • 96 March for Change, a campaigning organisation in collaboration with the grassroots, has launched a p (...)

23Getting the US Democrats on their side is also part of their objectives. Joe Biden’s election has been seen very positively for the campaign. Indeed, on 16 September 2020, the then US candidate of Irish descent declared in a tweet: “We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit”, thus supporting pro-EU activists95. Moreover, they seem intent on preventing Boris Johnson from stopping Parliament scrutinising all policies, so that the impact of Brexit does not go unnoticed. As of January 2021, the COVID crisis has undoubtedly hit the campaign. Not only have activists had to find new ways to keep the movement going (notably through using online tools such as Zoom to conduct group meetings), but they also have had to reassess their objectives, taking them away from their primary battle: condemning the Conservative government’s handling of the pandemic, for example96. One may wonder how this will affect the movement. Campaigners will make the case for trade and economic effects and will find local businesses that have been and will be impacted. Their strategy hinges on lobbying conservative backbenchers and “red-wall” Tory MPs who rely on the support of local businesses. Indeed, the dire economic consequences that Brexit is very likely to bring to their constituencies may be the leverage the movement needs to achieve its goal.

24Now that the UK formally left the UE on 1 January 2021, one may wonder whether the movement will live on, knowing that the Labour leader elected in April 2020, Keir Starmer, declared on 10 January 2021 that he will not back free movement in anticipation of the 2024 general election, another hard blow for remainers.

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Interviews conducted by the author

Arrowsmith, H., The European Movement. Skype, Bordeaux, France, 29 February 2018.

Ashton, B., Liverpool for Europe, Bordeaux, France, 11 July 2018.

Ashton, B., Liverpool for Europe, Bordeaux, France, 14 June 2019.

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Cole, T., Open Britain, Bordeaux, France, 25 July 2018.

Courtault, S., Britain for Europe, Bordeaux, France, 22 August 2018.

Coward, R., Norfolk for Europe, Bordeaux, France, 7-26 July 2019.

Coyne, J., Bristol City Council, 21 June 2019.

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Gavin, S., Liverpool, 25 September 2018.

Glynn, V., The European Movement Scotland, Bordeaux, France, 11 July 2018.

Horsfall, G., British in Italy, Bordeaux, France, 15 November 2017.

Lamb, G., Liverpool, 24 September 2018.

Leslie, E., Stockport for Europe, Bordeaux, France, 6 July 2018.

Mccarthy, X., Bordeaux, France, 30 November 2017.

Meadows, K., RIFT, Bordeaux France, 5 February 2018.

Meier, N., Why Europe, Bordeaux, France, 13 July 2018.

O’rourke, A., Liverpool, 24 September 2018.

Oluwole, F., Our Future Our Choice, Bordeaux, France, 25 June 2019.

Seaford, C., Brexit: is it worh it? Bordeaux, France, 9 July 2018.

Sykes, O., Liverpool, 25 September 2018.

Tait Brun, S., Bordeaux, France, 6 June 2018.

Turton, N., Islington for Europe, Bordeaux, France, 9 July 2018.

William, M., Liverpool, 23 September 2018.

Wilson, S., Bremain Spain, Bordeaux France, 23 October 2017.

Books

Baker, D., Schnapper, P., Britain and the crisis of the European Union. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Bellier, I., Wilson, T. M., An Anthropology of the European Union, Oxford New York N.Y.: Berg, 2000.

Crewe, I., King, A., SDP, The Birth, Life and Death of the Social Democratic Party, Oxford University Press, New York, 1995.

Goodwin, J., Jasper, J., Polletta, F., Passionate Politics. Emotions and Social Movements, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Morris, A.D, Mcclurg Mueller, C., Frontier in Social Movement Theory, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1992.

Rebes, M., “Debating crisis of values and European identity in the philosophical perspective ” in Gura, R. and Rouet, G., Les citoyens et l'intégration européenne, L'Harmatan, Paris, 2016.

Remigi, E.,. Martin, V., Sykes, T., In Limbo, 2017.

Schnapper, P., Avril, E., Où va le Royaume-Uni ? Le Brexit et après, Odile Jacob, Paris, 2019.

Articles

Alexandre-Collier, A., “From Rebellion to Extinction: Where have all the Tory Remainer MPs Gone?”, The Political Quarterly, Vol. 91, No. 1, January–March 2020, accessed 23 April 2020.

Ashcroft, R., Bevir, M., “Pluralism, National Identity and Citizenship: Britain after Brexit”, The Political Quarterly, Vol. 87, No. 3, July–September 2016, accessed 23 April 2020.

Cutts, D., Goodwin, M., Heath, O., Milazzo, C., “Resurgent Remain and a Rebooted Revolt on the Right: Exploring the 2019 European Parliament Elections in the United Kingdom”, The Political Quarterly, Vol. 90, No. 3, July–September 2019, accessed 22 April 2020.

Cutts, D., Goodwin, M., Heath, O., Surridge, P., “Brexit, the 2019 General Election and the Realignment of British Politics”, The Political Quarterly, Vol. 91, No. 1, January–March 2020, accessed 18 April 2020.

Jasper, J.M. “The Emotions of Protest: Affective and Reactive Emotions In and Around Social Movements”, Sociological Forum, Vol.13, No.3, 1998, 397–424, accessed 31 March 2020.

Jasper, J.M., Poulsen, J. D., “Recruiting Strangers and Friends: Moral Shocks and Social Networks in Animal Rights and Anti-Nuclear Protests.” Social Problems, vol. 42, no. 4, 1995, pp. 493–512, accessed 1 Apr. 2020.

McAdam, D., “The framing function of movement tactics: Strategic dramaturgy in the American civil rights movement” edited by McAdam, D., McCarthy, J.D, Zald, M.N., Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Nicholls, T., Hayton, R., “Splitting the tactical vote? Coordination problems with Polling Model-Driven Tactical Voting Websites”, The Political Quarterly, Vol. 91, No. 1, January–March 2020, accessed 26 April 2020.

Polletta, F., Jasper, J. M., “Collective identity and Social Movements”, Annual Review of Sociology, 2001. 27:283–305, accessed 7 March 2020.

Ward, M., Rethinking social movement micromobilization: Multi-stage theory and the role of social ties, Current Sociology Review, 2016, Vol. 64(6) 853–874, accessed 29 April 2020.

Press articles

Andrews, M., “It's the 'Brexitometer': People invited to have say on Brexit at Shrewsbury event”, Shropshire Star, 14 April 2018, <https://www.shropshirestar.com/news/local-hubs/shrewsbury/2018/04/14/salopians-dont-want-brexit-claims-campaign-group/>, accessed 1 May 2020.

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Editorial, “The Guardian view on the Unite to Remain pact: a response to a failed system”, The Guardian, 7 November 2019, < https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/07/the-guardian-view-on-the-unite-to-remain-pact-a-response-to-a-failed-system >, accessed 29 February 2019.

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Henley, J., “ ‘Politically we don’t count’: EU citizens fear for future in the UK”, The Guardian, 12 December 2019, <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/dec/12/politically-we-dont-count-eu-citizens-fear-for-future-in-uk>, accessed 19 March 2020.

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Leslie, C., “Our Independent Group knows it’s time for change in the UK, and not just on Brexit”, The Independent, 29 March 2019,< https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/independent-group-change-uk-brexit-chris-leslie-mp-new-party-heidi-allen-a8846346.html >, accessed 28 February 2020.

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Mason, R., Walker, P., “People’s Vote staff walk out over sacking of senior figures”, The Guardian, 28 October 2019, <https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/oct/28/peoples-vote-senior-figures-forced-out>, accessed 1 April 2020.

Mason, R., Syal, R., “Open Warfare: the week People’s Vote campaign imploded”, The Guardian, 28 October 2019, <https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/oct/28/why-is-the-peoples-vote-campaign-imploding>, accessed 23 March 2020.

Mason, R., “Change UK registers as political party ahead of European elections”, The Guardian, 16 April 2019, < https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/apr/16/change-uk-independent-group-registers-as-political-party-ahead-of-european-elections >, accessed 29 February 2020.

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Meadowcroft, T., Unite to Remain could hurt the anti-Brexit cause. That’s why I’m no longer a Green candidate”, The Guardian, 19 November 2019, <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/19/unite-to-remain-anti-brexit-labour-green-party-seat>, accessed 1 May 2020.

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Ross, T., Donaldson, K., “Inside the secret plot to reverse Brexit”, Bloomberg, 23 March 2018, <https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2018-03-23/inside-the-secret-plot-to-reverse-brexit>, accessed 24 March 2020.

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Notes

1 Leslie, E., 2018.

2 The pact included the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Greens and it was set up by former Conservative MP Heidi Allen - Jankowicz, M., 2019.

3 Payne, A. 2019; Chapell, E., 2019.

4 “I mean that’s the good thing that’s come out of that, and we’re all from different backgrounds, different… you know, we wouldn’t have met otherwise! That’s been great, and we are positive”. - Ashton, B., 2018.

5 My research is based on three phases of fieldwork in the UK (Bristol, Liverpool and London) and on a total of 37 interviews of local and national pro-European groups, academics, individuals as well as British expatriates living in Bordeaux, France.

6 Remigi, E. et al., 2017.

7 “The emotional effect on all of us is clear, we feel betrayed by the government and let down by a poorly managed system that was and still is deceptive”. – Ibid, p. 197.

8 Richard Ashcroft and Mark Bevir explain that the nature of Brexit is plural, that “[c]onflicts over the desirability and effects of multiculturalism, contests over and disconnections between different forms of national (and supranational) identity and divergent assessments of the economic and political value of multiple citizenships all played important roles” –Ashcroft, R. and Bevir, M., 2016.

9 “Anchors of one form of identity – Europeanness – which an individual had assumed signalled the same core beliefs as anchors of another form of identity – Britishness – suddenly coming into conflict with each other.”- Dâmaso, M., et al. 2020; “The Referendum made me feel rejected to the core of my identity. I suddenly realised how European, Dutch and British I felt all at the same time.”- Remigi, E. et al, 2017, p. 179.

10 Watts, P., 2017.

11 Amongst British expatriates living in the Bordeaux area (France).

12 Capera, J., 2020.

13 European Semester of Psychology, 2018.

14 According to YouGov’s latest figures, on the five stages of grief only one-third of remainers have accepted Brexit whereas those in depression has increased reaching 25% in January 2020- Smith, M., 2020.

15 “This is a short-term support service offering prospective clients up to six sessions with a qualified practitioner who is volunteering to provide this emotional support service. Our goal is to help concerned EU citizens to explore and better understand their emotional responses to this period of great upheaval and uncertainty, and so allowing them to gain greater clarity and make informed decisions on how to better cope and protect their well being”. - Existential Academy, 2017.

16 “This energy and solidarity of the Remain Fellowship has been a tremendous joy and succour to me, I feel equally strongly that this will be a strong force for good.” – Remigi, E, 2018, p. 45.

17 Remigi, E. and Metz. B., 2020.

18 Remigi, E. et al., 2017, p. 13.

19 May, T. 2016. 

20 “The problem of the crisis of values is accompanied by the problem of European identity. It is difficult to say, which was first: the crisis of values, or the crisis of identity”. – Rebes, M., 2016.

21 “European identity constitutes the product of action and experience, as opposed to birthplace, ethnicity or socioeconomic status”. - Dâmaso M., et al., 2020.

22 “The criteria and rights can all be changed. The Windrush scandal obviously crystallised our concerns: 20, 30, 40 years down the line, when all these politicians and their promises are gone, what will be left is the law”. –Henley, J., 2019.

23 “[European] identity is enacted as a cultural trait, as a political device and as a reactive process – driven not by geography, institutional belonging or legal citizenship but by values, ideals and ideas” - Mafalda Dâmaso et al., 2020.

24 “… consciousness [refers] to the interpretive frameworks that emerge from a group’s struggle to define and realize members’ common interests in opposition to the dominant order”. - Taylor V., Witthier, N. E., 1992.

25 Leslie, E., 2018.

26 Nat Cen Social Research, 2016; The film Brexit: the Uncivil War gives one angle of how the Leave campaign won the referendum in 2016.

27 Ashton, B., 2018.

28 “My personal discrimination/racism experiences happened mainly at my previous workplace. Just after the vote, a person came to me (one that never speaks to me usually) asking when I am going”. - Remigi, E., et al. 2017, p. 175.

29 “Until a year before the Referendum I was considering myself EU citizen. But it started to change. Now I feel like an immigrant-declassed citizen”. - Ibid, p. 174.

30 Brexit Brits Abroad; for the purpose of brevity, we will not develop further on Britons living in the EU27.

31 Making an inventory of all the groups and organisations remains intricate in light of the amateurism of the movement itself (groups may close, merge or split). At the time of writing, one could number them at around 300. Some organisations like UKPEN.EU have been collecting data to map their network.

32 “Collective identity is seen as a spur to action because one values the potential gain to the group, so that identity thereby helps to define one’s ‘interests’”- Jasper, J.M., 1998; “It [collective identity] is also an individual announcement of affiliation, of connection with others. To partake of a collective identity is to reconstitute the individual self around a new and valued identity.” –Friedman, D., D. and McAdam, D., 1992.

33 “If identities play a critical role in mobilizing and sustaining participation, they also help explain people’s exodus from a movement. One of the chief causes of movement decline is that collective identity stops lining up with the movement.”- Polletta F. and Jasper, J. M., 2001.

34 “‘Moral shocks’, often the first step toward recruitment into social movements, occur when an unexpected event or piece of information raises such a sense of outrage in a person that she becomes inclined toward political action, whether or not she has acquaintances in the movement”. – Goodwin, J., et al., 2001, p. 16.

35 “The ‘strength’ of an identity, even a cognitively vague one, comes from its emotional side”, Goodwin, J., et al., 2001, p. 9.

36 Ibid.

37 The European Movement UK (EMUK) was established after World War Two but Hilary Arrowsmith who worked for the EMUK in 2018 explained in our interview that “for the past year we’ve really tried to transform the organisation so it’s been around a year as I have just said, so for a long time but it hasn’t really been such a campaigning organisation before the Referendum so there were sort of cheese & wine clubs, you know, maybe a speaker would come along and there might be nice little events but what we are trying to do now is assess our branches get grassroots’ activists campaigning in their local communities and also there’s stuff going on with, you know, with politicians and with the media and that kind of thing as well. But it is basically just to build up this movement of people who believe that we are better in the European Union”. Arrowsmith, H., 2018.

38 “… the actions taken by insurgents and the tactical choices they make represent a critically important contribution to the overall signifying work of the movement”. - McAdam, D., 1996, p. 341.

39 The ‘Let us be Heard’ march which took place on 19 October 2019 might have gathered a million anti-Brexit protesters and was heavily covered in the national press.

40 “We see two mechanisms for recruitment: through existing organizations and networks, and through moral shock”. – Jasper J. M, Poulsen J.D., 1995, p. 499.

41 They consist in home-made cardboard placards on which activists write questions about Brexit and ask passers-by to answer them by sticking a coloured-sticker dot next to their answers. At the end of the day, they have collected a sample of public opinion in their local area and can feed back to national organisations.

42 Andrews, M., 2018.

43 Jasper J.M., Poulsen J. D., 1995.

44 Galsworthy, M., 2018; “As an individual begins to see his or her friends and family members engaging in social movement participation, that individual becomes more likely to believe that social movement participants are ‘just like me’”. – Ward, M., 2016.

45 “What resonates with people […] is about family, friends, people in your workplace, people you know - that’s what people listen to, not the blank of war of the media […] or hoping it’s gonna be a trickle-down”. - Grassroots for Europe, 2020 (a)

46 The extent use of social media did help to rally remainers even though opinions differ on that subject some arguing that they tend to be echo chambers.

47 People’s Vote, 2020; The organisation originated in Camden, North London and was launched on 15 April 2018 by Chuka Umunna, Anna Soubry, Caroline Lucas, Jo Swinson, Jonathan Edwards, Ros Altman, Andrew Adonis, Stephen Gethins, John Kerr, Sharon Bowles and Dafyyd Wigley. It was an independent grassroots campaign group benefiting from cross-party political support and it collaborated with five other pro-EU organisations namely: Open Britain (OB), the European Movement UK (EMUK), Wales for Europe and two advocacy groups for young people: Our Future Our Choice (OFOC) and For Our Future’s Sake (FFS).

48 Münchau, W., 2019.

49 Smith, M., 2020.

50 Poll based on 1526 people from 2 to 20 January 2020.

51 For the purpose of brevity, I shall not elaborate on this aspect of the pro-EU campaign. I shall only expose the main concern: preserving rights listed in the EU Charter.

52 72% of the LGBT community supported People’s Vote, along with Ethnic Minorities for a People’s Vote they campaigned under the hashtag #Letusbeheard.

53 These groups closed down in 2019 after PV's scandal.

54 Alexandre-Collier, A., 2020; Curtice, J., 2018.

55 Independent campaigning organisations such as the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) or Make Vote Matters (MVM) collaborate with the grassroots; “There are so many things wrong with the whole system. It gives a massive majority, when that does not reflect public opinion. It causes significant disempowerment of a large swathe of the population who feel that voting will not make any difference to their lives or the results in elections. The system needs to allow for a diversity of views and people to represent them”. - Rapporteur’s summary notes, 2020.

56 Cutts, D., et al., 2020.

57 Cutts, D., et al., 2019.

58 “… although Brexit has reconfigured the geographical base of electoral support for the main parties, this process is part of a longer trend that has gathered pace over recent years […] As such, 2019 is not a critical election but a continuation of longer-term trends of dealignment and realignment in British politics”. - Cutts, D., et al., 2020.

59 Change UK “indicated a willingness to make a difference within their party and to try and prevent the ideological evolution towards a radical eurosceptic party”- Alexandre-Collier, A., 2020.

60 “Labour sought to ‘own’ a more moderate position by backing a ‘People’s Vote’ which would include a Remain option for Remainers, and a customs union, which it was hoped would appeal to Leavers. Corbyn himself announced during the campaign that he would take a neutral position in the referendum”. - David Cutts, et al., 2020.

61 Clarke, J., 2019.

62 Weaver, M., 2019.

63 “Given the limitation of our electoral system, there would be nothing worse than the emergence of two or three competing progressive parties, each with overlapping philosophies and policy proposals, all appealing to same sections of the electorate. That would guarantee another Conservative victory, even on a reduced proportion of the vote. We are forced to combine if we would succeed”. - Crewe, I., King, A., 1995, p. 63.

64 Snowdon, P., 2019.

65 “Unite to Remain” became “Unite to Reform” after the 2019 general election.

66 Amongst them were 10 pro-remain Labour seats –Meadowcroft, T., 2019.

67 “Nationally, the Conservatives gained a majority by winning seats primarily from Labour, who supported a People's Vote but had rebuffed initial approaches from UTR before the election […] There were two reasons why Labour was not involved in UTR. Firstly, the Party was late in adopting a policy of supporting a ‘Public Vote’ […] Secondly, […] Labour currently has a firm rule against electoral pacts under any circumstances and there was no evidence that this was likely to be reviewed.” - Unite to Remain, 2019.

68 The alliance was “successful in only nine of the sixty seats, and this included only one gain (Richmond Park) as the other eight were already held”. - Cutts, D., et al., 2020.

69 Winston Churchill in 1911 already warned the country that the FPTP system was detrimental to politics: “The present system has clearly broken down. The results produced are not fair to any party, nor to any section of the community. In many cases they do not secure majority representation, nor do they secure an intelligent representation of minorities. All they secure is fluke representation, freak representation, capricious representation”. Heaton, G., 2011.

70 Editorial, 2019.

71 “… the emergence of tactical voting websites risks muddying the waters further for electors seeking to vote tactically, potentially splitting”. – Nicholls, T., Hayton, R., 2020.

72 Sabbagh, D., 2019.

73 “We need an economy that increases opportunity and reduces poverty. It must close the gaps between north and south, regions and nations, rich and poor”. - Change UK The Independent Group, 2019.

74 “Johnson went further than May, combining strong support for Brexit with socially conservative messages on culture and identity and a more assertive response to austerity: reforming immigration; adopting a tough approach on crime; increasing spending on the NHS and infrastructure; increasing the national living wage; addressing regional inequality; and providing state aid for failing UK-based businesses. Such policies were clearly designed to appeal to Labour voters whose social conservatism had been loosening their connection to Labour for some time”. - Cutts, D., et al. 2020.

75 Grassroots for Europe, 2020 (b).

76 Scientists for EU, InFacts, Healthier In the EU, Britain for Europe, Open Britain, OFOC, the European Movement UK.

77 Groups count up to 500, 000 supporters.

78 Roberts, D., 2018.

79 The organisation was set up in February 2018.

80 Grice. A., 2018.

81 Manson R. and Syal, R., 2019.

82 “We are appalled by the recent actions of Roland Rudd as chair of Open Britain. The intimidation of staff, threatening letters, and sackings are totally unjustified given the extraordinary work that the People's Vote campaign and its staff has done over the last 18 months in galvanising significant public and parliamentary support for a public vote on Brexit”. - Tolhurst, A., 2019.
“The clue’s in the title – People’s Vote campaign belongs to the people, not just one businessman who is hardly ever seen in the campaign. I think he’s been in the office three or four times in the last 18 months. It’s really not for him to tell the campaign what to do”. - Mason R. and Walker, P., 2019.

83 Schwartz M. and Paul, S., 1992.

84 Richard Wilson founded Leeds for Europe in 2017 and was appointed vice chair of the European Movement UK in February 2020.

85 Grassroots for Europe, 2020 (c).

86 Grassroots for Europe, 2020 (a.)

87 Bremain in Spain, 2020.

88 Grassroots for Europe, 2020 (a).

89 Woodcock, A., 2020.

90 Ibid.

91 YouGov, Jan. 2020.

92 Schnapper, P. and Avril, E., 2019, p. 64.

93 Fletcher, M., 2018.

94 Grassroots for Europe, 2020 (a).

95 @JoeBiden, 2020.

96 March for Change, a campaigning organisation in collaboration with the grassroots, has launched a petition asking the government to “commit to a Public inquiry into the UK’s response to the Coronavirus Outbreak”. On 6 October 2020 the petition counted 117,418 signatures. – March for Change, 2020.

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Marie Aouanes-Perrière, « Pro-European grassroots groups resisting Brexit : (re)building belonging and identity in the UK ? », Observatoire de la société britannique, 26 | 2021, 259-295.

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Marie Aouanes-Perrière, « Pro-European grassroots groups resisting Brexit : (re)building belonging and identity in the UK ? », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 26 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2022, consulté le 17 janvier 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/osb/5230 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/osb.5230

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Marie Aouanes-Perrière

Doctorante en civilisation britannique et ATER à l'Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès

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Observatoire de la société britannique

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