Dominic Cummings may have been booted out of Downing Street, but Britain is still on the brink of a No-Deal Brexit. Who's to blame? Might it be the #FBPE agitators? Séamas O’Reilly unpicks the last four years of Remaniac delusions.
At some point after the Brexit vote in 2016, many Brits seemed to think it possible, perhaps even likely, that a second EU referendum would take place. Leave’s victory was not just slender, it had also been delivered by something that was, prima facie, unachievable. Making good on those promises wouldn’t just be a disaster, it would be impossible, since the business of trade, treaties and technocrats was a world away from napkin-scribble soundbites delivered by Leave’s foremost proponents.
The official story of Leave’s victory is that it came down to Dominic Cummings’ data-happy deployment of catchy falsehoods, mass-targeting their dodgy promises at swing voters via social media. Why then, couldn’t Remain profit online via these same platforms, once each of those promises fell apart? They’d lost the online war, but they might still win the peace, and lead a chastened nation to accept the error of their ways.
So how did the rush to rejoin end up beached on digital sands, with the country’s trajectory toward the hardest possible Brexit still fully on course, all under the stewardship of a clown?
What led us down this nightmare path? What happened to the #FBPE dream?
In the days immediately after the referendum, some strange things happened. Nigel Farage resigned from ‘frontline politics’, and Boris Johnson was a non-starter in Tory leadership contest that had been spurred by David Cameron’s own resignation. Having promised a glorious, golden future, it seemed like Brexit’s biggest blowhards wanted no part in the fiddly difficulties of actually making it happen. If a lack of conviction was apparent on the victors’ side, perhaps it’s not surprising that prominent Remainers were doubly afflicted. Faced with a stunning defeat and the sense that the country had moved drastically away from the interests of any of the country’s mainstream parties, most fell into line, went quiet or, if they spoke at all, did so in bland platitudes about ‘the will of the people’ or ‘the best Brexit possible’.
There were some notable exceptions – the Europhilia of Tory stalwarts Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve would effectively end both their political careers – but the political landscape of post-vote Britain was characterised by an absence of resistance. In this vacuum, an army of agitated Remainers surged online, and it seemed like it might build up enough momentum to strike a counter-blow in the social media information war. In one of those quirks of the time-hole in which we now live, the #FBPE hashtag only dates to the 25th October 2017, fully 17 months after the Brexit vote. Its first use was also unrelated to the UK referendum, sparked by a more generalised profession of pro-EU sentiment from Dutchman Hendrik Klaasens. ‘#ProEU tweeps organize Follow Back Saturdays!’ he wrote. ‘Type #FollowBackProEU or #FBPE if you want to get more #ProEU followers. Let’s do this!’
This received an enthusiastic reception from Remainers, who adopted it as a badge of honour and a practical way to identify, and accumulate, fellow travellers on their respective timelines. Sometimes their accounts would spell out the hashtag itself for clarity – elsewhere it was amended to From Britain, Proud European as a further punt at localisation, but ‘#FBPE’ was the clarion call that suffixed their posts and bios. Soon it was to be seen alongside the familiar surfeit of Union Jacks, Saltires and Welsh dragons – sometimes all at once – now accumulated beside the EU halo on their usernames.
As a show of numbers, it was heartening to the faithful. It coalesced Remainers into a single, recognisable bloc. It was also a convenient vehicle for signal boosting their collective message, useful in a British media environment incapable of skewering the lies, false promises and outright incompetence of Leave and the UK government. #FBPE was a megaphone chain of users, on hand to amplify facts unmentioned in the starkly Leave-leaning printed press, or stories inadequately covered in the more sober, balance-obsessed broadcast media.
But those four letters also held within them the original sin of the #FBPE brand; a sense that, in asking for follows, there was within its central premise something shot with desperation.
Plays as Expected
After the vote, large parts of the Remain prognosis came to pass. Successive Tory governments backtracked, failed, prevaricated and gaffed, amassing just about enough good news days in four years to count on one shaky, greying hand. Brexit as sold was a logical non-entity, an unworkable morass of contradictions and self-harm, key planks of which were immediately reneged upon.
Bus slogans were disavowed, and expectations were recalibrated from ‘taking back control’ to ‘bleached chicken is underrated’. Even the government’s own experts deduced that any Brexit would break the promises they made during the debates: it would impoverish the nation, increase bureaucracy and imperil peace in Northern Ireland. Moreover, that Brexit was abandoned by many of its proponents in favour of a No-Deal variant that was even more calamitous in scope, and for which no one had ever voted.
But none of this resulted in any meaningful damage to the government, or the Brexit cause. Everything Remainers had said before the vote, online and off, had come true – and still their message wasn’t breaking through. Even as their argument fell around their ears, Cummings had somehow out-webbed the extremely-online liberal superweapon.
So many of those who had most ardently backed Remain either accepted the inane premise that anything marked ‘Brexit’ was the will of the people, or else splintered into closed bubbles of ineffectual dissidence, while a grinning cohort of gleeful incompetents ploughed the country ever further into a right-wing fact vacuum pursuing Brexit at all costs.
but Privileged & English
As #FBPE progressed as an online force, the makeup of its users became, fairly or unfairly, associated with a particular type of Remain voter: white, English, slightly middle-aged and more than slightly middle-class.
This is, and was, a reductive assessment of a cohort that soon numbered in the tens of thousands, but it was a hard assessment to shake off given that so many examples could be found who met that twee and specifically English archetype – no matter how many flags crowded their usernames. On the one hand, this played into Leave’s fatuous but effective charge that Remain was the province of metropolitan elites, the political project of people who enjoy the Turner Prize, listen to Radio 4 and support the IRA.
Such claims might have been so effective because of a paucity of Remain voices, before or after the referendum, from non-English, working-class or minority ethnic backgrounds, even though the Remain vote contained them in multitudes. My hometown of Derry is the poorest city in the UK, and everyone I know there voted Remain, barring a couple of hardline socialists who voted No out of adherence to the Lexit cause. Derry’s Foyle constituency had the third highest Remain vote in the country (after Hackney and Lambeth – two further arguments against the idea of Remain as a homogenous middle-class pursuit).
Northern Irish people were so poorly represented in the arguments leading up to the vote that almost no mention was made of the border in any of the coverage or debates. Before long, the sanctity of the peace process, and the vagaries of the Irish border were the touchstones of the #FBPE web, to be picked over with great consternation, and almost exclusively by people who’d never heard of it a few years before.
Northern Irish, Scottish, young, working-class and minority voices might have been on hand to reject this narrative online, had so many of them not been closer aligned to the left, and thus been turned off by the #FBPE crowd’s avowedly centrist leanings (specifically its universal approbation towards Jeremy Corbyn).
FBPE types had many reasons to doubt the fealty of Corbyn to their cause, since any clear-eyed assessment will reveal he failed to evince a robust defence of the benefits of the EU before or after the referendum. As a result, he swiftly became an avatar of derision for the FBPE cause, not far behind May, Johnson and Farage, which alienated even the most avowedly Europhile Corbyn supporters from the movement. A brief foray into the alternative hashtag, #PCPEU (Pro Corbyn, Pro EU), proved about as effective as his own campaigning on the subject, and soon the tribes were separated forever.
The effect was even more marked among younger voters, who might already have sensed in #FBPE something too square to be wholesome, discerning in that hashtag the unmistakable, unforgivable smell of ukulele parodies.
Successive electoral defeats for Labour disengaged an entire generation of young people, compounded by the perception (sometimes paranoid but often justified) that the entire smirking political class, on both sides of the divide, was united only in one thing; its constant, undimming campaign to ratfuck the only politician they deemed remotely interested in their lives. #FBPE’s point – that Corbyn’s ineffectual opposition basically facilitated the most incompetent and deceitful British government in living memory – didn’t carry much sway with younger voters who felt, perhaps with some justification, that it made more sense to blame the incompetent, deceitful charlatans, rather than the guy who opposed them.
Remain had amassed 48% of the population on vote day, as well as the party line of the Conservative government, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP, as well as most of the serious press. All of these had consistently, if drily, extolled the virtues of remaining a central leader within the world’s most powerful economic trading bloc. Now wedges had been driven between old and young, left and centre-left, even those broadly in step on the European issue. Leavers began to disagree on so many aspects of Brexit that the term lost all meaning, but they still worked in lockstep, while Remain fractured into digital silos of mutual difference. Robbed of the engagement of their entire cohort, their influence on broader politics was piecemeal and ineffective. Labour’s Remain camp battled as much with its own party as itself, while Tory Remainers went almost entirely silent in deference to their new overlords in the furthest right of the party. Only the Liberal Democrats and the abortive Change UK saw in #FBPE the kernel of a useful political movement – which met with disastrous electoral consequences.
The disengagement of young, politically minded people from their ranks also meant #FBPE culture was shaped by who was left behind. #FBPE rallied around the utterings of ageing comedians and political journalists who were usually perceptive, mostly earnest and often witty but never, ever cool. Without the youth onside, they turned to dunking on their enemies which, it turned out, is not a useful strategy when it was in Leave’s interests be dunked upon.
While outrage-inducing clickbait from right-wing media figures was hardly a new phenomenon in 2016, it soon afterward became something like professional blood sport. Many rent-an-offence Twitter figures were soon quote-tweeted into political relevance, and a depressing cycle established in which their comments would be trolled on social media by #FBPE types – and blinkered, trigger-happy idiots like myself – leading the likes of Darren Grimes to profit from such exposure, via the well-paid columns, interviews and speaking engagements these then generated.
In a stunning reversal of their intentions, #FBPE’s main social impact in this period might have been their success in catapulting half a dozen grifters into higher profiles and lucrative media jobs. They were able to do this because the cold truth about Leave’s online success and Remain’s failed counterpunch was now apparent: Britain’s media landscape is so geared toward mobilising right-wing lies, resistance is almost futile. It was naively believed that Leave’s lies could be countered with performative Remain truth-telling, that Leave voters could be fact-checked into compliance. But it turned out Britain had moved so far into the realm of post-accountability politics that these attempts either never reached their desired targets, or signal-boosted the lies and liars they were trying to trounce.
is Politically Expedient
Political factionalism is now so entrenched that most Leavers get their news from the Leave-supporting web and mainstream tabloids, meaning #FBPE was never going to reach them in the first place. This same factionalism has created both the means and incentive for those voters to double down on every tenet of Brexit philosophy, no matter how much the goalposts keep changing. The alternative is to accept that the Brexit project began with a lie and has progressed into the slow-moving clown car of mayhem that it has become.
The right were quick to capitalise upon an extreme psychological desire among those Brexit voters for whom leaving the EU will have the worst effects, to be lied to about those effects. This is serviced by the thriving industry of right-wing elites in the media-politics griftscape – coincidentally a cohort quite likely to be greatly enriched by Brexit – telling them lies of ever-decreasing credibility.
This is not #FBPE’s fault, and never could have been. If their dreams have been dashed on the online rocks, it’s because the entire concept of accountability has been happily surrendered by one side of the political class.
It’s how the vote was won with nonsensical claims and how no censure was ever achieved once they were shown to be bogus every single day for the past four years. This sea change happened before anyone on the pro-EU side realised this, and there was little that even our most powerful ukulele parodies could have done to stem the tide.