Theresa May’s Brexit speech

theresa_may_brexit_speechTheresa 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.

Post Brexit: First thoughts

Tragedy, disaster, catastrophe—over-used and frequently mis-used words to be sure. But in relation to Brexit they are appropriate. For this is, without doubt, the worst and most destructive event in British politics in my lifetime (and I’ve lived through some grim and bleak nights of Tory election victories). After a campaign characterized by fear and negativity, and above all by dishonesty, xenophobia and racism, a terribly misinformed and historically bad decision has been made that will affect millions of people now and many more millions into the future. Just because it was a democratic decision does not make it wise or right. If ever there was an example of democracy making a disastrous error of judgment, then the EU referendum is it.

Brexit is many things. It is a political deed that will have countless consequences, most of them bad, for the politics, economy and society of Britain, and quite possibly for wider Europe and the world too. It is a bleak and dispiriting expression of how Britain sees itself and its relation to the rest of the world—as disengaged, closed off, turned inward, and, with an absurd and misplaced grandness, ‘special’. And it is a historical moment that decisively marks the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new one.

It will take some longer than others, but ultimately reality has to be faced. Brexit is irreversible; Scottish independence is highly probable; Britain and England will be diminished and suffer. Tough times lie ahead. The pain that Britain will endure is less important than the need to ensure wider international stability. Europe should focus on containing and limiting the risk of chaos and the spread of nationalism; that is far more important than showing any favours or sympathy for Britain. In political terms it is right to accept a tough and unsympathetic EU if that is in the interest of the greater good of Europe. Boris Johnson’s ‘pro having my cake and pro eating it too’ stance should be exposed for the infantile wish that it is: if Britain refuses to cooperate and engage constructively with Europe, then we can hardly expect Europe to cooperate and engage constructively with us.

But despair needs to be resisted. In the immediate aftermath of the vote I certainly felt this. The temptation simply to give up, to find a way of leaving Britain, to disengage from politics in a life of higher contemplation—all of this was strong. But I’m an historian, so I know that historical turning points do not mean the end of history. Life goes on and politics goes on. I also know that few things are inevitable. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, Britain (or more accurately and likely England) has decided to turn away from Europe. And right now internationalism, progressive politics and the Left are in disarray, while nationalism, irrationality and xenophobia are marching ever more successfully and triumphantly. It is a critical point, a crisis. More than ever it means that those of us who believe in progressive politics need to engage, and to strive for clarity and purpose in that engagement.

Little, of course, is clear at this moment. Brexit is the manifestation of many complex things, some specifically British, many European or global in nature. It raises questions about the way politics is conducted, about the nature of debate, the media and political culture. It exposes deep divisions and faultlines in Britain as a society, and within British politics: the Tories are deeply divided as they attempt a reincarnation as UKIP; Labour and the Corbyn leadership look increasingly like a busted flush; and where now for the moribund Liberal Democrats? There is much to explore and understand historically, politically, socially, culturally and intellectually—and all with a view to trying to shape the next chapter in British and European history.

What I hope to see is the following: the EU address the implications of Brexit in ways that lead to reforms and to a reinvigorated European integration; Scotland to achieve independence and continued membership of the EU, so that at least one part of Britain remains engaged with Europe; a concerted resistance to neoliberalism, xenophobia and nationalism in England, and the revival of a meaningful and relevant progressive politics.

If there is one silver lining to Brexit, it is this: the establishment (among whom are numbered Johnson and Gove) will now find anti-establishment anger directly at their door, rather than at the EU’s door. They can no longer blame social injustice and the democratic deficit on the EU; and they may find that the misplaced anger at the EU is concentrated upon them, as questions are raised about how socially just neoliberalism is and how democratic Britain is. They have unleashed one revolution, but are they ready for the revolutions to come? It is a critical moment, and the far right will undoubtedly try to exploit it. Hence the importance of the liberal and progressive left to reflect, regroup and re-engage.

Ultimately I hope that a progressive England will rejoin a reformed EU, an unlikely short-term achievement, but a reasonable medium- to long-term goal.

Let’s not party like it’s 1899: On Brexit, Remain and the EU referendum

chris_riddell_cartoonI shall be voting Remain in the EU referendum. Unlike Boris Johnson, I have not had to agonize over this decision. Like Jeremy Corbyn, my intention to vote Remain is 100% but my enthusiasm for the EU runs at about 75% (give or take 5%). But the nature of the referendum, and certainly the impoverished and shrill campaigns on both sides of the debate, does not allow for nuanced positions. There is no scope for a ‘Remain, but’ vote. This is a zero sum game in which a stark in/out choice is presented. Unable to pick and mix among the Remain and Leave arguments, we have to choose one side or the other. Given this, Remain is the obvious choice.

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There are positive and negative reasons for voting Remain. The referendum campaign has been dominated on both sides by negative arguments. Fear is a relevant factor in many of our political choices, and there is nothing wrong with voting for one side out of fear of what may happen should the other side. (However, scaremongering—using exaggeration, distortion and untruths deliberately to raise fears—is less virtuous. Both sides have indulged in it, although the Brexiteer claims about immigration have been especially dismal examples of it, and Brexit has been characterized by ‘dishonesty on an industrial scale’.) One does not have to be an expert on economics to realize that there are benefits to membership of a single market that will be lost by leaving that market; nor to surmise that a comparatively small island in the Atlantic with a diminishing manufacturing base may struggle in a world dominated by vastly more powerful economies and large trading blocs. Unlike Michael Gove, I am prepared to listen to the economic experts and to accept the consensus that leaving the EU will negatively impact on the British economy (and may well lead to wider international economic instability).

It is certainly fair to say that, while one cannot be certain of future disaster following from a vote to leave, Brexit is surely a chancey leap into the unknown. The economic risks are clear, but what is unclear is the path a post-Brexit Britain might follow. Many Brexiteers have made leaving the EU the defining issue of their political lives, and yet when tasked with mapping out a coherent and plausible idea of their long-desired post-EU Britain they provide only vagueness and confusion. Norway, Switzerland, Canada, blessed isolation, or none of the above, have, with varying degrees of incoherence, been posited as models. But for the most part the Brexiteers tell us with rhetorical airiness not to worry, because (in what amounts to an equivalent to Donald Trump’s ‘make America great again’ fluff) Britain is ‘a great nation’ and the British ‘a great people’ and that as long as long as we keep believing this then everything will probably work out. When Boris Johnson exhorts voters to believe in Britain, he has the air of an Eton schoolboy rousing his team on the rugby field rather than a politician of substance who might be a serious and responsible Prime Minister. Back in the days when undergraduates used to listen to me, I was always keen to encourage self belief and to remind students of their many abilities and great potential; but I also thought it important that they had a clear plan about how their studies would progress, since good university degrees are not achieved on self belief alone. Brexiteers (when not indulging in their own campaign of fear) offer little motivational nuggets but precious little of any substance. We may well find at the end of the Brexit rainbow nothing more than a pot of fool’s gold.

So we know where we are with the EU; but we have little idea where we would be post-EU. For many it is clear that the EU may not provide the perfect relationship for Britain. There are bills, arguments and a lack of real passion, and some parts of the house need renovating—but there is also security, occasional common purpose and frequent fondness, and some parts of the house are lovely. Upping and leaving may may feel like a racy, exciting idea, but it could well end up as life in a lonely, damp bedsit. Given this, the only rational choice for wavering voters is to vote Remain: Britain can leave the EU at any point (for, no matter what the Brexiteers like to say, the UK retains full sovereignty on its membership of the union), but it would be almost impossible to rejoin it again after Brexit, and certainly impossible to rejoin it on anything like the favourable terms of its current membership. Bremain now, Brexit in the future, is not an inconceivable scenario; Brexit now, Breturn (or Brejoin, or whatever ‘Bre-‘ word might be coined) in the future, is inconceivable. Unless one can be sure of the benefits of a post-Brexit Britain, then the only sensible and rational vote is a vote for Remain.

Much has been made of the irreversibility of the referendum decision, of how this vote is a ‘once in a lifetime’ choice. But it is only truly irreversible if Brexit is the outcome. Should Remain win, Nigel Farage and UKIP and Euroscepticism will not suddenly disappear for good. They will continue to campaign, and, like Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP, they will push for another referendum. A British government will be free at any time to call a second referendum should it wish. Certainly it would be unlikely to happen any time soon, but politics can change quickly: if in a few years the EU looks like an irredeemably failing project, then nothing stops Britain from exiting. But should Leave win there will be no going back: if in a few years time Britain is struggling while the EU flourishes, there will be no easy route to regaining membership.

It is, however, unlikely that Britain will struggle for long following Brexit. Far more likely is that Britain will cease to be. Given that Scotland will vote to Remain, it is hard to imagine how the Union will hold together in the event of an overall vote to Leave. Brexiteers champion British ‘independence’, but what they will get is Scottish and English independence (and a lot of problems in Northern Ireland, as well as a possible resurgence of Welsh nationalism). There would be no obligation to grant Scotland either a second referendum or independence, but quite how Westminster could resist understandable Scottish fury over Brexit, possibly accompanied by widespread civil disobedience, is difficult to see.

So a compelling reason to vote Remain is the fear of where Brexit may lead. Economic instability, in Britain and abroad, is to not to be embraced lightly. Nor is the prospect of the break up of Britain, and a diminished country which, in order to attract inward investment and compete, may move towards becoming a large offshore tax haven with a lightly regulated financial sector and employment laws that favour employers over workers. There are some who warm to that vision—there is a reason why most Brexiteers are on the neoliberal political right, for they look forward to the day when Britain (or, more likely, England) will no longer be shackled (as they see it) by inconveniences such as EU regulations on workers’ rights or the protection of health and safety.

None of this is to suggest that the EU is perfect. There are certainly flaws in the EU, but there are flaws in any large political or economic system. Brexiteers on the left criticize the EU as a neoliberal capitalist enterprise, and there is some truth in what they say (it is this aspect of the EU that qualifies my enthusiasm). But Britain is also a neoliberal capitalist enterprise, and a more egregious example of it. Furthermore, Brussels is not a perfect model of democracy or accountability, although it measures up quite well to Westminster. Brexiteers trumpet British democracy over EU bureaucracy: this, presumably, is the British democracy that includes an unelected head of state, an unelected second chamber, a First Past the Post voting system that delivers majorities to parties voted for by fewer than 40% of the electorate, and a government in which unelected special advisors and media and business lobbyists play a prominent role; in many respects the European Parliament is a far more impressive example of democracy than the British parliament.

But there is much to love about the EU, and more generally about Britain being part of an integrated Europe. Two cartoons on the referendum campaign resonate with my own reasons for voting Remain this coming Thursday. In the midst of the campaign, and in the wake of Prince’s death, The Guardian published a Chris Riddell cartoon that depicts Boris Johnson and Michael Gove heading off to ‘party like it’s 1899’ (at the head of this post). On the final weekend of the campaign, the Sunday Mirror published a cartoon that combines a Philip Zec original from 1945 and a Charles Griffin ‘remake’ of the Zec original, the former proclaiming the possibility of ‘Victory and peace in Europe’, the latter ‘Stability and a place in Europe’.sunday_mirror_cartoon

History has not been invoked often during the campaign. (But there is a Historians for Britain in Europe group.) The most notable occasion on which it has, and the one that attracted most media attention, was when Boris Johnson compared the EU with Nazi Germany; in Johnson’s view, the aims of Brussels and those of Hitler are not dissimilar. Given that the underpinning ideal of the EU was to construct an economic and political arrangement in Europe that would bring lasting peace and put an end to the national rivalries that had come close to destroying the continent, Johnson’s claim is bizarre to say the least. Although I am no expert on Nazi Germany, I am fairly sure that an equivalent to the EU’s robust defence of human rights and working conditions did not feature highly on Hitler’s agenda; nor have I seen much evidence that the EU is intent upon implementing racial laws, genocide and global war. Of course, one should not be surprised at Johnson’s playground tactic of comparing something he does not like to the Nazis: Johnson will say or do anything as long as it serves his personal political ambitions, and has a proven track record of concocting lies about the EU. As a guide to history, as on so much else, Johnson is hardly a trustworthy voice.

But 1945 is relevant to the discussion. War has been endemic throughout European history. For example, I once calculated that between the beginning of the sixteenth century and the early eighteenth century there were only a handful of years (four was the answer I came to) in which there was not a war being conducted somewhere in Europe. In the years when there was not war countries were invariably recovering from the previous one or preparing for the next one. It is no surprise that both the world wars resulted from European rivalries. And as new and ever more sophisticated ways were found to destroy one’s neighbours and carry out mass murder, so, with a logic that ought to have been obvious to the heirs of the Enlightenment, by 1945 Europe had almost succeeded in destroying itself.

It was this long history of European warfare in general, and the more immediate aftermath of World War II in particular, that provided the context for the establishment of European union. When great cities have been reduced to piles of rubble, when millions are displaced and scarred, or lie dead across the continent, then understandably some will put their minds to ensuring this never happens again. At the heart of what was to become the EU lay the idea that by forging union—by creating a necessity of mutual cooperation within an integrated European economy—countries would no longer have either the motivation to wage war on one another or the means to do so. It was the ideal of securing peace, stability and prosperity, and a Europe based on cooperation rather than conflict, that led to the formation of the European Steel and Coal Community, which evolved into the EEC and then EU.

Europe has not been free from war since 1945; one only need look at the Balkans for evidence of that. But among the EU member states—and above all in relation to the Franco-German rivalry that was the source of so much earlier conflict in western and central Europe—there has been the longest period of sustained peace in European history. Whatever criticisms may be levelled at the EU, it is this securing of a Europe based on cooperation rather than conflict that represents its most impressive outcome. Both as one of the key ideals of the EU and as a real achievement, it should be embraced.

The vision of many Brexiteers is based on an ideological commitment to a world of independent, non-integrated nation states. Riddell’s ‘party like it’s 1899’ cartoon captures the reactionary nature of Brexit—and indeed the hopes of many Brexiteers (Gove in particular) that a vote for Brexit will lead to the disintegration of the EU as a whole. They want a return to the structure of international relations as they existed in the early twentieth century. And while it certainly cannot be said that Brexit will lead to war, it can be said that Brexit is likely to result in greater international instability, and a heightened potential for the return of crisis in Europe.

This misremembering of the supposed, largely fantasy, virtues of an earlier age in British and European history is characteristic of the deeply reactionary nature of the Brexit position. For the EU is based on a modern and reforming vision (and arguably even on radical and revolutionary ideas). Its architects and supporters recognize that in many areas of human concern and activity the independent nation state is no longer fit for purpose.

For better or worse we live in a globalized world; many of the most pressing social, cultural, political and economic issues of our idea are transnational in nature. Terrorism, crime, poverty, inequality, migration, climate change, communications, technology and science transcend the nation state. How we confront and solve some of the most fundamental problems in the world today and tomorrow require transnational approaches. Organized crime and international terrorism, for example, thrive in a world of uncooperative nation states, but have a much harder time of things when nation states cooperate on integrated policy. To take one instance: cyber crime, surely the most appealing career choice for criminals of the present and future, is most robustly addressed when states work collectively on intelligence gathering and sharing, on policing initiatives, and on legal responses.

Or to take another example: migration crises. The response to the Syrian migrant crisis may not have been the EU’s finest hour, but that has more to do with a refusal to cooperate on the part of individual member states (the UK being especially difficult) than it has with the EU itself. Would an EU-less Europe have dealt with the crisis better? Or would countries have been even more inclined to focus only on what they thought were in their own national interests, ignoring the international context of the crisis as well as the human suffering and moral issues it raised?

There are sensible reasons for allowing competency in certain areas to an institution such as the EU. Brussels has not led to the end of the nation state; Europe is still made up of numerous nation states, among which the UK is one. But as a collection of nation states in which economic, political and legal integration is a feature, the EU is better placed than a post-Brexit Britain to deal with transnational problems.

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In so far as I have any ideological leanings, they tend towards anarchism. I value freedom, independence, democracy and accountability; I tend to be suspicious of the state and of corporations. I have no wish to see an EU superstate (nor do I think it remotely likely that such a thing will happen), and there are many criticisms that can be levelled at the EU as a political and economic institution—although in my view not as many as can be levelled at the British political and economic systems. But both Britain and Europe have generally benefited from the EU, far more than they would have done had there been an EU-less Europe over the past few decades.

Above all I’m an internationalist who believes that integration and cooperation are fundamental to international relations. Brexit is a manifestation of a surge in nationalism; another variant of it is Donald Trump’s language of walls and borders, his rhetoric of division and conflict, and his rejection of openness. I hope Trump is defeated in the US and Brexit is defeated in the UK. If Brexit wins, then Britain will become a less open, a less engaged and a less cooperative country, and a much poorer and more unstable one too.

Finally, I’m an historian. I’ve studied and taught on both British and continental European history. I have not travelled extensively in Europe, but the social, cultural, intellectual and political history of Europe has given me a strong sense of being European, of being part of something that is a lot bigger and more important than Britain on its own. The EU, for all its imperfections, is one of the more impressive episodes in European history. Europe is better for it, and Britain is better being part of it.