Thoughts on the UK general election

Trump and May
The coalition likely to be elected on 8 June

Finding any grounds for optimism about the forthcoming British general election is a challenge. After the 2015 election and last year’s EU referendum and US presidential vote, I have learned that life is a lot easier if lived in despair rather than hope. Consequently, when Marine Le Pen was defeated in the French presidential election, I could regard it as an unexpectedly joyous moment. But I doubt that I will experience unexpected joy on 8 June: the Tories will win, and win big, and the UK will press down the accelerator as it heads towards its perverse and suicidal Brexit catastrophe.

But—and here I begin my search for some fragments of hope—Brexit remains a long game. Theresa May’s cynical power grab in calling an election (which also conveniently cuts short investigations into previous Tory electoral shenanigans) changes nothing. It will make no difference to the Brexit negotiations (the idea that EU negotiators are going to tremble before a huge Tory majority is laughable); at best, it buys May and the Tories time to figure out how to survive the disasters lying ahead. May’s correct calculation is that 2020 would be a rough time for her to go to the polls; but that by 2022 she might just have come up with a plausible explanation for why Brexit has turned out so badly.

It’s fascinating to watch the evolution of May. I’d once had a grudging respect for her—tinged with fear of her apparent competence. Increasingly, however, she comes across as simply demented. She’s always been a ruthless politician, but her decision to embrace jingoism, heartlessness, aggression and an autocratic style looks like the behaviour of someone badly out of touch with reality. Is there a plan? So far as I can see in her enthusiastic adoption of hard Brexit, she’s thrown in her lot with those who’d like to tow the UK from the coast of Europe to the other side of the Atlantic where Britain can be remade as a lightly-regulated client state of the US. It’s desperate stuff.

The next few years are going to be grim. I have never known Britain to be so divided and in such a mess. It’s a genuine crisis, and it’s only going to deepen. However, because Brexit is a long game, all is far from lost. Sooner or later Britain may well come to its senses (more likely later, but I remain hopeful about sooner). As the old Brexiteers gradually expire, they will be replaced by a younger generation who will seek to recover the future that the Brexiteers have tried to limit. As Brexit’s curtailment of rights and freedoms (to travel, work and live in the EU) kick in, as the promises of the Brexiteers become exposed for the fantasies and lies that they always have been, and as the economy flatlines, so the direction the UK is heading in will become increasingly unpopular.

The danger is that the far right will exploit the troubles ahead: no Brexit is too hard (and, let’s be honest, too nationalistic and xenophobic) for them, and so they will aggressively blame soft Brexiteers, Remainers, Muslims, immigrants and Europeans (in short, anyone but themselves) for the problems the UK will encounter. Combined with a febrile popular press, and perhaps helped by the designs of zealous extremists abroad, they may have success in pushing their agenda. The evidence of this general election supports that: Theresa May and the Tories are riding high while tacking sharply to the right.

For this reason, a revival of the progressive centre and left is essential. I’m not persuaded that a progressive alliance is either realistic or will make much difference in this election. Right now, the centre and the left are in a mess. Yet they still command nearly 50% of popular support (which won’t prevent the Tories from winning a huge majority thanks to the idiosyncrasies of the British electoral system—cf. Trump and the US electoral college). The struggle is between a liberal, rational tradition that remains vigorous but is badly fragmented, and an anti-liberal, irrational politics that has successfully infected, transformed and taken over the Conservative party.

This struggle is not going to end on 8 June. Assuming the anti-liberals win the election (and, let’s face it, they will), there will inevitably be a lot of soul-searching among those of us who are liberal and rational. Perhaps the election result will focus minds on how to build a strong and stable (to borrow May’s auto-repeat phrase) progressive movement that will ensure liberalism and rationalism not only remain significant players in the Brexit long game but also emerge victorious at the end.

So although I fear there is little prospect of this general election being anything other than miserable for the centre and left, that does not mean the election is without value as a moment to reassess how progressives realign and organize ourselves in order to launch a determined and sustained fightback against Brexit.

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.

Resist Brexit!

anti-brexit-rallyBrexit can and should be resisted, and it can and should be stopped. Those of us who voted Remain in the EU referendum and who regard Brexit as potentially (for it hasn’t actually happened yet) the most disastrous event in modern British history have every reason to keep fighting and grounds for cautious optimism about success. As Martin Kettle has written in The Guardian, this is a long game: the complex process of leaving the EU has not even begun, and assuming that Article 50 is triggered in March next year it will likely be two years, possibly longer, before any formal agreement to leave has been reached. For the Remainers, there is time to mount a determined fightback; for the Brexiters, who have so far revealed themselves to be lacking any sort of coherent plan, who are divided among those who want variations of ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit, who are increasingly having to explain why they no longer stand by many of the claims and promises made during the referendum campaign, and who are facing growing evidence of the economic, cultural and social disarray that Brexit will cause, the problems will only accumulate.

Many Brexiters have argued that Remainers (or Remoaners as they are fond of dubbing us) should shut up since the ‘will’ of the British public is for Brexit; some, notably the Daily Mail and Daily Express, have gone so far as to accuse those opposing Brexit of being unpatriotic subverters of democracy, in effect suggesting that we are traitors. As I noted shortly after the referendum result, 17 million people voted for Brexit out of a population of 65 million; that amounts to 26% of the population as a whole, and about 38% of the electorate—hardly numbers that reflect a clear and emphatic ‘will of the people’. Even the headline (and most important) figure of 52% does not amount to such a general ‘will’; it simply reveals that a narrow majority of those who could be bothered to vote on 23 June favoured leaving the EU in one form or another. Unless the 48% who voted Remain (and the 74% of the population who, for one reason or another, have not expressed any desire to leave the EU) are no longer to be considered as part of the ‘British public’, any claims that the Brexiters speak on behalf of the ‘will of the people’ should be rejected as arrogant and unjustified. Put simply, they speak for the 17 million who voted for Brexit, no more, no less.

The 17 million do, of course, represent a majority of the vote. But the UK is a democracy, and as such the right of the 48% to continue opposing Brexit, through argument and debate, through democratic and legal means, should be respected. A democracy does not work on the basis that all those who lose a vote are immediately expected to abandon their position and adopt the position of the winning side—if it did, then it would cease to be a democracy and become instead a tyranny of the majority. It may be that the Remainers will not ultimately succeed in resisting Brexit, but that in no way means they do not have the right to resist it democratically. Those Brexiters who think that right should be denied the Remainers are adopting a dangerously anti-democratic stance (in keeping with their ‘enemies of the people’ attack on the judges who ruled that parliament must be consulted about triggering Article 50). Fundamental to democracy is inclusive debate, in which the views of all sides are heard; anyone, whether Brexiter or Remainer, who supports democracy should welcome an ongoing and vigorous debate about Brexit, the right of all sides to make their strongest cases, and the right of the 48%—just as much as that of the 52%—to be represented in those debates.

Equally to be rejected is the Brexiters claim that Remainers are ‘unpatriotic’. Those of us who continue to argue for Remain do so on the basis that Brexit will be enormously damaging to the UK. Remainers are determined that Britain avoids this damage; we believe that for Britain to flourish and prosper, it needs to be an open, inclusive, tolerant country within a Europe founded on cooperation and integration. There is nothing ‘unpatriotic’ about campaigning for the best interests of the UK; the implication that Remainers are anti-British is a nonsense. And there is something perverse about a ‘patriotism’ that is willing to risk the sort of long-term damage to the UK that Brexit is likely to cause.

Brexiters are fond of dismissing Remainers as metropolitan elites—part of their argument that we do not speak for ‘the people’. The tendency (on both sides) to portray the referendum result in terms of simple divisions—young versus old, graduates versus non-graduates, cities versus the rest of the country, and so on—should also be rejected. A significant proportion of people in London, Manchester and Birmingham (and the many other areas that were majority Remain) voted for Brexit; and a significant proportion of people in majority-Brexit areas voted for Remain. The notion that Remainers are an elite is laughable to most of us: any elite which includes someone like me—economically poor, insecure in employment and housing, highly critical of neoliberalism—is a strange one indeed. As for the supposed ‘representatives of the people’ such as Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, Douglas Carswell, Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mail: if standing in a gilded elevator with the multi-millionaire president-elect of the United States (and angling to become UK ambassador to the US, not to mention numerous attempts to become part of Westminster), if public school education and privilege and hedge-fund financing and corporate global media, are considered the marks of the non-elite, then we have entered unusual times. Many of the most prominent Brexiters—Michael Gove, John Redwood, Iain Duncan Smith, Christopher Grayling, and the like—have energetically promoted policies of austerity that have hit hardest the very non-elites that they now claim to represent. The underlying truth, obscured by so much of the rhetoric, is that neither Brexit nor Remain stand for elites or non-elites; they are opposed positions in relation to EU membership, positions which attract the support of both elites and non-elites.

A compelling case can be made, therefore, to reject the demands of those Brexiters for Remainers to be silenced and for debate to cease. Such Brexiters are adopting anti-democratic rhetoric and simplifications intended deliberately to distort discussion. Right now, what is needed above all is a properly democratic debate. Article 50 will be triggered, and a process to leave the EU will start; that needs to be scrutinized and argued about, and the views of the 48% need to be part of that debate. Even if the UK ultimately leaves the EU, the terms of Brexit require careful debate. All we know at present is that 17 million people voted to leave the EU; we do not know what sort of exit they wanted, and there is no evidence that 52% of voters favoured a ‘hard’ Brexit. Almost certainly large numbers of the 17 million did not vote for ‘hard’ Brexit, which may end up being the only form of Brexit left on the table—and is the form of Brexit that many of the most vocal Brexiters are pushing for. At the very least, Remainers will play a vital role in ensuring that any ‘hard’ Brexit is decisively defeated.

Brexit may happen; but it is not inevitable. The Liberal Democrat victory in the Richmond by-election was the result of opposition to Brexit. Cross-party initiatives are being forged to fight Brexit (and, in particular, ‘hard’ Brexit). The calls for a future referendum on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations are being made with increasing persuasion. Brexit is not a done deal; right now, as illustrated by the shambolic early stages of the process, it is ludicrous to talk about Brexit as a reality when those who want it are so clueless about what form it will take and what it will entail. Two years (or more) is an extremely long time in politics, particularly when the economic fall-out from the referendum result is likely to become more acute. As Martin Kettle suggests, time is on the Remainers side (and certainly time favours the Remainers more than it does the Brexiters), and it is a matter of continuously chipping away every day at the increasingly weak Brexit position, resisting outright ‘hard’ Brexit, making the compelling case through debate and democracy for Remain, and turning the 48% into 50+%. Those of us who support Remain should be making the case, clearly, confidently, positively and passionately—and repeatedly. We should be up for the fight ahead. As long as we are, we have good chances of success.