Boris Johnson won the general election in December on a platform whose main plank was to “Get Brexit done”. Now that the UK has left the EU nearly everybody can breathe a sigh of relief thinking that, at long last, endless bitter arguments over the B-word will become a thing of the past. Or not.
Rows on social media, and specifically Twitter, over the past four years have been spurred on by the rise of tens and tens of accounts on both sides of the divide, constantly relitigating the referendum via pithy tweet, sleek clip, or viral hashtag. Now that Brexit has entered the realm of actuality, will those digital to-and-fros come to an end? Will Brexit Twitter finally fizzle out?
Negotiations between the UK and the EU over their future trading relationship kick off in March, and by December 2020 the country will again be confronting a no-deal scenario if a new arrangement is not agreed upon. Throughout that period, it is a virtual given that both pro- and anti-Brexit advocates will take to social media to push their competing agendas.
“Our mission is far from accomplished,” says Helen Mayer, strategic communications director of pro-hard-Brexit pressure group StandUp4Brexit. “It’s vital that the government negotiate for the best possible deal for the UK with Brussels and StandUp4Brexit will be there to ensure that they are held to account throughout these negotiations.”
From February 1 on, she says, the organisation’s activity will focus on “the negotiations with the EU in particular, but also those with the wider world”.
Something similar will happen at the opposite end of the Brexit spectrum. “I won’t stop,” says Femi Oluwole, a co-founder of pro-Remain campaigning group Our Future Our Choice. “[Over the next months], I’ll hold Boris Johnson to account for all the moves that he makes.”
He says that, going forward, his social media activity will be devoted to comparing prime minister Johnson’s promises with the realities of the Brexit his government is delivering. “For example: Sajid Javid came out and said there would be no regulatory alignment – even though about two months ago, Johnson went to a factory in Sunderland and said, you’ll be fine, you won’t lose your job because we’re going to keep alignment with the EU.”
More generally, Oluwole believes that the debate over Brexit will keep raging online for a long time still – with scornful Remainers underlining why Brexit is wrong and Brexiters pointing out that no catastrophe has happened despite the UK’s departure. While the general election’s conclusive result might have triggered a “cooling off period” in the Brexit rows, he thinks that will not last. “I lost about 1,000 followers the day after the election,” he says, a decrease that he partly chalks up to Remainers’ resignation, fatigue or boredom. But the appetite for pro-Remain opinions still seems to be there. “I’ve now bounced back to more [followers] than I had before.”
Trade negotiations might sound like a boring and complex topic, but they could still end up eliciting the kind of heated partisan debates we have become used to seeing play out online over the last three and a half years.
Ian Dunt, the editor of political news website Politics.co.uk, and a prominent Remain advocate, thinks that the situation is likely to play out in two ways. “The trade discussions might suddenly turn into a culture war and continue kind of in the same way it has so far. The other way that it could happen is a much more objective conversation about the sort of trade offs in the reality of what the next year entails,” he says. While he would prefer the latter scenario to come through, he suspects that the actual online debate will be a mixture of the two.
Given its territorial connotation, Dunt singles out fishing, and the UK’s alignment or divergence with the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), as one issue pro-Brexit groups on Twitter might rally around. “I really do think that fishing is going to be a major thing – even though it is economically insane as the fishing industry is tiny.”
Fishing accounts for 0.12 per cent of the UK’s overall economy, but Brexit proponents say the sector would flourish if the UK stopped abiding by the EU’s fishing quotas – aimed at preserving the fish stocks – and regained full control on its waters. The UK will still have to comply with international obligations regarding sustainable fishing after leaving the CFP.
For sure, Aaron Brown, founder of pro-Brexit group Fishing for Leave, is not going to stop tweeting. He says that even if January 31, 2020 was a date to celebrate, things will be “business as usual” when it comes to speaking up for the fishing community. “We’re into this 11-month transition, which is effectively [an EU] membership minus,” he says. “We’re going to go on until we see that the final relationship ends.”
“We got to ensure that we properly leave, and we leave the common fisheries policy.” Brown says that, once that objective is accomplished, he will wind up his organisation.
Sure, there are exceptions. Brexit Central, a blog founded by Vote Leave CEO Matthew Elliot and a prominent Brexiter haunt, has announced that it will stop existing as of February 1, 2020. And the account of the People’s Vote campaign HQ hasn’t tweeted since October 2019 – although its sister handle @peoplesvote_ukwas active as of January 30.
But if you’re hoping that Britain’s online debate will magically go back to football and the Great British Bake Off – think again. There is still a lot of Brexit and fish to talk about.
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