Theresa May deserves some credit for the way she has handled Brexit thus far. The reality was that the most incompetent Prime Minister in recent British history tossed a grenade. Somebody had to catch it, and while the hopeless Andrea Leadsom would have provided great entertainment value by quickly letting the grenade explode, it was probably for the best that May and her much-touted safe pair of hands took charge. Evidently nobody had planned for Brexit, so it was always going to be a matter of muddling through the political chaos bequeathed by Cameron. And May has provided a textbook study of how to muddle through: in public play for time, don’t say too much, and don’t commit to anything, while behind doors scramble as rapidly as possible to assemble some sort of coherent plan. She has been much criticized for not having a plan or strategy for Brexit, but criticism should really be directed at her dismal predecessor. Anyway, what would we rather she had done—sit down with Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox over a few evenings, scribbling down a plan on post-its, and then announce that to the world? We may live in an age of instant news, information, clarity and decisions, but in relation to an issue as complex and important as Brexit there are many reasons why old-fashioned virtues such as patience, careful deliberation, information gathering and stalling for time are the best approach.
At some point, of course, May was going to have to issue more clarity, and so she now has with her major Brexit speech. The importance of this speech lies more in its political significance than in its detail. Much of the latter could have been guessed at; the only difference now is that we no longer need to play a guessing game. May’s focus on restricting immigration and freedom of movement has long been known (she was a notoriously illiberal Home Secretary); and the reality that ending freedom of movement means leaving the Single Market has been confirmed. Hard Brexit was always the most likely approach (most EU members have been correctly predicting that for months); May has now closed the door on the faint hopes of Remainers that a Norwegian model might have been the goal.
Although a Remainer myself, I appreciate two things about that. The first is the logic to it: while I would prefer a Norwegian model (aka soft Brexit) over hard Brexit, the Brexiters are right in regarding it as a compromise that would involve continued membership of the EU in everything but name and political clout. It would be a solution that would satisfy few, and would raise the question: if we’re paying for all the benefits of the EU, why not simply be full members with the ability to be part of the decision-making, instead of having access to the Single Market but no say in how it is run? For Remainers, the Norwegian model is hardly ideal, but it would have been a compromise hard to oppose; furthermore, it offered the hope that the model’s contradictions would result in it becoming a convenient stepping stone to a full EU return. That somewhat desperate hope, along with any prospects of a difficult and uncomfortable compromise outcome, is now off the table.
The second thing I appreciate about May’s speech is the clarity. All of us—Brexiters and Remainers alike—have a much better sense of the political terrain ahead. And the fact is, despite the Prime Minister’s rhetoric about Britons coming together over the Brexit negotiations, what she has done is mark out the dividing line for the forthcoming political war. She has confirmed that the referendum result was a winner-take-all outcome: nothing in her speech offered the slightest concession to the 48% who voted Remain (nor to the unknown number of Leave voters who believed that membership of the Single Market would continue after Brexit). As a case study for discussion by future students of democracy, the referendum will provide fascinating material: What is the best democratic response when a fraction over half the country want one thing, and a fraction under half the country want another? In the UK (unlike in most functioning democracies) you give the former everything that they want and the latter nothing, with no attempt at any sort of compromise. Having suggested in her new year message that she would be representing in Brexit negotiations the interests not only of the 52% but also of the 48%, it turns out that she’ll be doing no such thing. So it is that we remain divided—but the divisions are at least clear and confirmed now.
For Remainers the fight ahead is obvious. The object will be to attempt to resist and obstruct the goals of the Brexiters as much as possible. Had membership of the Single Market been on the table, then Remainers would have something worth supporting within the negotiations themselves. As it is, Britain’s objectives have little to recommend themselves to Remainers. A soft Brexit might have been worth supporting; a hard Brexit is not. So Remainers can focus on resisting Brexit tout court. And they can focus on getting organized and prepared for the forthcoming fight, now with a better knowledge of what they will be fighting.
Many Brexiters will regard what I have just written as treason; others will not comprehend why Remainers want to carry on with the fight. Here are some reasons:
(1) Brexit remains in all probability a national suicide. The Brexit position is still largely delusional. It is one thing to make an optimistic set-piece speech, quite another to sit around a table with other negotiators trying to make that optimism real. The speech was intended to be tough, portraying Britain as negotiating from a position of strength. In reality Britain’s position is desperately weak, at the mercy of the EU27 (any one of whom can veto whatever deal may be reached, and many of whom will already be figuring out ways of luring British businesses to the continent). The breezy Brexiter confidence about rapidly agreeing a whole series of favourable trade deals that will establish the UK as a major global player is the stuff of fantasy. May speaks about ‘global Britain’; yet the only platform that would truly give Britain significance on the global stage is that provided by the EU. The Brexit road ahead is going to be extremely hard going for the UK, will almost certainly result in a much diminished country and may well end in national disaster.
(2) The obsession of May and the Brexiters with immigration and the restriction of freedom of movement is nonsensical and corrosive. Freedom of movement has a sound economic basis, and it is a social and ethical good. The Brexit vision of borders—restricting, it should be remembered, movement both in and out of Britain—is worth opposing, not least because it panders to nationalists and racists.
(3) Early in her speech May spoke about protecting workers’ rights; yet she ended the speech with a threat that should Britain not get the deal it wants then it will choose to become, in effect, a low-regulation, bargain-basement tax haven. This threat was directed at the EU, but it should be seen as an equally great threat to British citizens. Given that May is so ready to make this threat, one ought to be suspicious about the broader government vision. The plan seems to be to leave the EU, then to cherry pick full access to as many areas of the Single Market as possible, with the prospect of ‘competitive’ tax rates as a secondary option if the EU does not hand over the cherries. May is here keen to display her hard edges to the EU—but they are hard edges which will wreak havoc on millions of Britons. More than that, it is precisely the sort of thing many Brexiters (Michael Gove, for example) want: for them, Brexit offers the possibility of pursuing a utopian neoliberal experiment. The admirable European social model, based on such things as workers’ rights and regulations to protect the environment, will be abandoned. For Remainers who value the European social model, and who are rightly dismayed at the casual way Brexiters are prepared to use workers’ rights (as well as the rights of EU citizens resident in the UK) as bargaining chips, there is no choice but to oppose the Brexiters.
(4) Brexit is not a foregone conclusion. The politics are not currently promising for Remainers, but things can change quickly over the months and years to come. (In the past eighteen months Jeremy Corbyn has become leader of the Labour party, David Cameron has resigned, the British have voted to leave the EU, and the Americans have voted for Trump: anyone at the beginning of 2015 predicting even one of those things would have been scorned.) There will be parliamentary votes and elections, there will be opposition from Scotland (and possibly Northern Ireland too), there is likely to be legal action to determine whether Article 50 is reversible (informed legal opinion suggests that it probably is), there will be economic developments, there will be political developments impossible to predict right now, and there are scenarios in which a reversal of Brexit may become a serious possibility. Brexit remains a long game.
(5) A point I have made several times previously bears repeating: just as Brexiters have for years exercised their democratic right to campaign against EU membership while the UK was a member, so Remainers will now exercise their democratic right to campaign for EU membership as the UK ceases to be a member.
(6) For all the predictable and meretricious rhetoric about the British being a great people, and how 65 million of us will come together to make Brexit work, May’s speech changes nothing; at most it offers slightly more coherence to the Brexit position (i.e. no more uncertainty about whether it will be hard or soft Brexit), and consequently it clarifies the anti-Brexit politics that lie ahead for Remainers.