The People’s Vote: Marching for democracy and against authoritarianism

london-brexit-march
The People’s Vote March, 23 March 2019

On Saturday I marched, along with more than a million others (and what seemed to be a few hundred dogs), in support of a people’s vote on the UK’s impending exit from the EU. The estimate of the number of marchers feels right to me. I was one of the million who marched against the Iraq War in 2003, and the People’s Vote march seemed bigger. Setting off from Marble Arch at the appointed time, it took me, my two teenage children and my daughter’s friend four hours to get to Parliament Square. For most of the route it was less of a march than a shuffle to advance a few inches every couple of minutes or so. The speeches long over, thousands behind us were still making their way to parliament at well after five o’clock.

Despite the political crisis—a crisis that threatens our freedoms, our economy, our futures, and our political culture—it was a joyous, high-spirited, and hopeful occasion. Wit and intelligence abounded in the signs and placards carried by marchers; creativity and fun ran through the different expressions of outrage; there were drummers, guitarists, and mobile discos; many came in costume, and dogs were draped in signs and flags; and the occasion was characterized by an idea that we should all embrace: protest and partying are not mutually incompatible. It is possible to call out a government and a system for its appalling ineptitude, while at the same time dancing and having fun. It is worth comparing this with the joyless, aggressive and thuggish antics of the EDL, James Goddard and his “yellow jackets”, and almost anything associated with Tommy Robinson. The different forms of protest present different visions of the UK’s future: on the one side there is humour, dancing, diversity, creativity, hope, and jokes; on the other there is aggression, intimidation, exclusion, nastiness, anger, and death threats. I know which of the two offers a brighter political future.

Peoples-vote-marchProtests are vital checks on a slide to authoritarianism. Authoritarian governments—and Theresa May’s government aspires to be such—thrive on keeping their citizens to armchairs, light entertainment or shopping. Political participation is at best an inconvenience, at worst an existential threat to such governments. Our politics has been dominated by Brexit for the past three years, yet for much of that time citizens have been reduced to powerless, passive spectators of a chaos and crisis that deepens by the day. We are not asked what we think; rather, we are told—usually with reference to the referendum vote on an impossibly general question, to which little more than a quarter of the entire population gave an answer that has subsequently been divined as “the will of the people”—what we think. We are often reminded that the 2016 referendum was the largest democratic exercise in British history—even if the lies (on both sides) and criminal funding and electoral practices of the Leave campaign significantly devalue its democratic worth; but it is as if at every step of the way since June 2016, the referendum result becomes the reason why any further public engagement in the issue is out of the question.

Theresa May might have begun her premiership by initiating a national conversation to ascertain an approach to and form of Brexit that would work across the social, political and cultural divides. The referendum revealed that, by a narrow margin, a majority of voters wished to leave the EU, but it told us nothing beyond that. The deeper reasons behind the vote, and the voters’ visions, hopes and fears of a post-Brexit future were unclear. A robust, informed, transparent and open process would have advanced patiently and carefully by engaging with and listening to public views on all sides, and it would have used that preliminary stage as a guide to the subsequent and highly complex task of honouring the referendum result. It might even have been an opportunity to reinvigorate our political culture by devising processes and mechanisms that engage citizens, foster debate, and seek consensus, and by moving towards greater government openness and transparency.

This opportunity was squandered by May. Rather than starting a conversation and trying to build bridges, she gave her “citizens of nowhere” speech. Rather than learning more about the reasons behind the referendum result, she came up with her red lines, with little transparent consultation, and informed more by her own anti-immigration obsessions and her wish to appease the hard right of her party than by informed, evidence-based analysis. Rather than welcome input from across the political landscape, she worked with a disturbing determination to restrict debate, to oppose any attempts at giving the electorate’s representatives in parliament a meaningful role, and to limit the release of information. Her approach to Brexit has been characterized by evasiveness, dishonesty (the many promises that turn out to be anything but), and dour opposition to scrutiny, debate and normal democratic practices. Fortunately, her astonishing ineptitude and incompetence (her lack of agility, flexibility, imagination, charm and charisma; the absence of a coherent plan A or anything resembling a plan B; her constant tactical and strategic mistakes; and her hopeless general election campaign) have saved us from what might have been the most anti-democratic and authoritarian government in modern British history. Seen in that light, we should be thankful that we have been blessed merely with the most incompetent government in modern history.

Theresa May Speaks To The Nation After Asking EU For Brexit Extension
Theresa May delivering her statement to the nation, 20 March 2019

Many of Theresa May’s failings came together in her statement to the nation last Wednesday. It was graceless and devoid of anything new. It was a tactical disaster: attacking the very constituency (Members of Parliament) that she needed to persuade was incomprehensibly stupid. And it demonstrated her demagogic, authoritarian instincts: casting the Brexit crisis in terms of parliament versus “the people”, and presenting herself as “on the side” of the people, she revealed her ongoing delusion that she divines what the people think and that she is in some mystical sense one of us. It was a speech more befitting of a dictator than of a prime minister in a representative democracy. Irresponsible, reckless and dangerous—had May forgotten that the issue of Brexit has resulted in the murder of one MP and intimidation and death threats directed at countless others, or did she not care?—we are fortunate that its crassness and stupidity became immediately obvious to almost everyone.

dog theresa mayIt is unsurprising that in the days since May’s statement millions, both online and on the streets, have come out to tell her she is wrong in claiming to know what we think and to suppose that she is on our side. And, perhaps, more than her delusions and her authoritarian tendencies, it is her inability to listen to and engage with others—outside the hard-right extremists in her own party, that is—that amounts to her greatest failing. Hence, the importance of petitions and protest: the march, as well as the online petition to revoke Article 50, are opportunities to engage and be heard. If we are to reinvigorate our politics and to involve everyone in working out our future, then we need these opportunities. If the political system does not provide them, then the people will eventually do so themselves. A less incompetent prime minister might have enabled better ways of listening to and engaging with the public—and what a political legacy that would have been. Theresa May failed to do so, which is one reason why her legacy looks set to be the most dismal in modern British history.


Although the march was anti-Brexit, and it is reasonable to assume that almost every marcher was a Remainer, it is worth considering the core issue of process that lay at the heart of the event, and which is as relevant to die-hard Leavers as it is to Remainers. The march was calling for a people’s vote. That those of us who marched are Remainers who believe that Brexit is, and will be, a tragic, humiliating national disaster is irrelevant. In a democracy, it is natural to call for votes on matters of national and constitutional importance—and Brexit is, without doubt, the single most important matter of my lifetime; what is strange is for purported democrats to fiercely oppose a democratic vote. Few Remainers are under the illusion that a further popular vote would be a guaranteed win for Remain. Indeed, there is a good chance that Brexiters will triumph in any such referendum. All that remains, hopefully, to be seen. But for now we should focus on the question of process and how that will help us find our way out of the current crisis. The case should be made that central to process of Brexit is a confirmatory vote by the public.

It is now almost three years since the EU referendum. Weight should be attached to that result, but this weight must surely diminish over time. Demographics change: people die, and new voters come of age. Around 600,000 Britons die each year, and 700,000 reach voting age; thus, nearly two million voters in 2016 are no longer with us, and approximately two million have joined the electoral register. There has to come a point at which more weight is attached to voters who are alive than to those who are deceased. With each passing day, the “will of the people” shifts a little more towards the “will of the people RIP”.

Many of those who are still with us may wish to exercise their fundamental democratic right to change their minds. What any of us thought on one day in June 2016 is not set in stone. There are many reasons why people may subsequently come to revise, and in some cases to reverse, their decisions. The most obvious are that circumstances change and that more information comes to light. Back in 2016, the debate over EU membership was somewhat embryonic. The issue had never been an overriding preoccupation of the British electorate (the economy, health, education, and crime were usually far more pressing issues in the minds of voters), and it was evident that most people’s understanding of the issues was limited. Thanks to the referendum result, Brexit has dominated politics for the past three years, and we are all a lot more informed about what EU membership means, about single markets and customs unions, about trade agreements and regulations, about goods and services, about tariffs, about the WTO, about car manufacturing, and about the Good Friday Agreement and Northern Irish history and politics.

Furthermore, in witnessing the day-to-day difficulties and complexities of implementing Brexit, we are more familiar with the practicalities of Brexit. Leaving the EU is not, as it was in 2016, simply an idea that could be achieved in one of several vague ways; it has become a concrete policy that is being worked out, occasionally successfully but more often painfully, in all its difficult detail. It would not be surprising if many voters would now revise their view in light of this—and this applies to both sides, since some have clearly reconsidered their previous support for Remain in light of their perception of the EU’s negotiating tactics.

These are compelling reasons for a second referendum. But in addition to them, there is the matter of ensuring a robust, democratically legitimate process—and one that enables a way out of the current crisis. There should be no rerun of the first referendum. Rather, voters should be asked to choose between a form of exiting the EU agreed in parliament and remaining in the EU. The nature of the former is open to debate: it might be a no deal, or Common Market 2.0, or a Norway option, or May’s deal, or something else. But it needs to be concrete, clear and achievable (either it needs to have been agreed with the EU, or it stands a realistic chance of securing that agreement). Then it needs to be put to the test. A withdrawal that fails to command a majority among the electorate surely deserves to be rejected. On the other hand, a withdrawal that passes the test is one that has survived a rigorous democratic exercise.

It is never clear why Brexiters, some of whom spent decades campaigning for a referendum, would resist a confirmatory vote—unless, that is, they know that any form of Brexit that takes detailed shape would be vastly unpopular. None of them, it appears, believes that their own version of Brexit would be supported by a majority of voters. If Theresa May really believes that she has understood the will of the people, then she should not be afraid of putting her deal before the public. One way out of the impasse would be for parliament to approve her deal on condition that it be put to a confirmatory referendum. As an opponent of her deal, I would be satisfied with this outcome; but do the proponents of her deal fear that a confirmatory vote would kill it off for good?

A confirmatory vote has, therefore, two advantages. First, it offers a way out of the crisis. Potentially, it increases the likelihood of majority support in parliament, since many who have doubts about any particular approach may nevertheless support it if they know it will be subject to the further test of a popular vote. Second, it ensures that whatever form of Brexit is agreed by parliament acquires greater legitimacy. A confirmatory vote would involve a wide public debate, detailed scrutiny of the proposed withdrawal, and a referendum. But, whereas in 2016 nobody knew what Leave meant, in a second referendum it would be clear precisely what a vote for Leave means. If it succeeds in passing the popular test, then we can hardly complain about Brexit on democratic grounds. But without a confirmatory vote, Brexit becomes something that is imposed on the public without consultation and against its will. If Brexit turns out badly, then the architects of such a Brexit will rightly be held fully accountable—and it will be reasonable to maintain that any such Brexit lacked legitimacy, with all the unpredictable and potentially dangerous consequences that follow from any illegitimate policy.

Imagine if Theresa May somehow managed to get her withdrawal agreement “across the line”, sneaking a tiny minority in parliament thanks to arm-twisting, pork-barrel politics, shady backroom deals, and dubious tactical manoeuvres. What would be the democratic legitimacy of her deal? Surely we should aspire to more than getting a widely unpopular deal “across the line” by any means necessary; we should be aspiring for a withdrawal that commands widespread support, or at least acceptance, in parliament, and then majority support among an informed electorate who have had an opportunity to study, debate, and question the withdrawal agreement.

Theresa May is happy to be populist and appeal to the public when it suits her, such as when she called a general election and put herself at the heart of it, or when she toured the country trying to sell her deal to the public, even though it was MPs she primarily needed to persuade, or when she gave her disastrously misjudged statement to the nation last week. Last December, she was briefly keen to subject her deal to a public television debate—a perfect encapsulation of her tendency to favour persuading and hectoring others to agree with her, but to refuse listening to them or subjecting her position to a meaningful verdict.

Evidently, she has little confidence that her deal would pass the popular test; this is one of the reasons why she resists a referendum. Nevertheless, her main stated argument against a referendum is that it would be divisive. Aside from the fact that the UK is already obviously divided, it is not clear how imposing a vastly unpopular withdrawal agreement on the country would somehow bring people together—except, perhaps, by uniting them in angry opposition to the politicians who imposed the policy. Conjuring up the threat of increased populism and violence, as some opponents of a second referendum have done, is not only irresponsible, it is also manifestly cowardly and spineless in the face of those extremist minorities who advocate violent action until they get what they want. Moreover, it is also illogical. Angry protest is far more likely to follow a process that denies people a debate and a vote, than one that consults them, engages with them, and invites their approval or rejection. It also treats the electorate as sophisticated grown-ups who understand that, in a democracy, outcomes can be accepted if they are transparent, fair and truly democratic. I have been disappointed more often than not by votes and elections over the years, but if the process has been fair then I can accept the outcome (which is not the same as saying that I agree with it—it remains my democratic right to continue arguing against a policy or government).

There are numerous problems with referendums, but only if they are badly conceived or abused (and David Cameron’s 2016 referendum was guilty of both). If they present a concrete policy, are clear on the alternatives on which the electorate is being asked to vote, are supported by a well-informed debate, and are conducted according to transparent, fair and enforced rules, then it is hard to find fault with them on democratic grounds. The accusation that the democratic step of holding a confirmatory vote would be undemocratic is patently absurd. Parliament, contrary to many characterizations of it (mostly by the government and the right-wing press), has performed rather well throughout the Brexit process: it has endeavoured to hold the government to account, to scrutinize and debate government policy and actions, and to resist being the rubber stamp that Theresa May would like it to be, and it has had partial success in all these areas, despite the implacable opposition of the government and the increasingly problematic logic of loyalty to the party machine. It would be a positive step if the many sensible parliamentarians managed to seize control of the Brexit process from the catastrophically inept, authoritarian and deluded government; and it would be an even more positive development if parliament embraced the idea of a confirmatory vote as a way out of the crisis and a means of ensuring a robust, legitimate and democratic resolution of the Brexit problem.

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Brexit: predictably chaotic, and predictably never likely to happen

global britain vision
Brexiteers present their youthful, joyous, diverse, multicultural and dynamic vision for the UK

The day-to-day politics of Brexit are wildly unpredictable and volatile. But the bigger picture is one that has long been predictable. Back in 2016, shortly after the referendum, I argued that Brexit was a long game that would result in Brexit not happening. Nothing since then has substantially altered my view. Theresa May, with uncharacteristic clarity, has outlined the three options that remain viable: her deal, no deal, and no Brexit. The very warm favourite has to be no Brexit.

May’s deal is simply a bad deal. This is not surprising, since there was never a good deal to be had—something that has been obvious since the referendum itself to anyone with reason and sense. The pursuit of a deal was always about mitigating the considerable downsides to leaving the EU; the idea that the UK could retain all the benefits of EU membership but none of the responsibilities and inconveniences was something the average child (if not the average Brexiteer) could understand was impossible. Those Brexiteers who maintained that it would be straightforward to secure a good deal are fantasists or stupid (or both).

The best negotiators in the world would have failed to succeed given the various incompatible goals of a good deal and the heavily disadvantageous negotiating context: frictionless trade; no hard border in Ireland; an end to free movement; holding the Union together; the ability to make independent trade deals; the high-wire parliamentary arithmetic; the uneven playing field of one country of 60 million people negotiating with a block of 27 countries of 450 million people.

And the UK ran the project of negotiating Brexit with all the skill, organization and experience of a losing team on The Apprentice. In addition to having no obvious negotiating plan, the UK seemed to treat Brexit as if it was hiring a sitcom cast rather than a team of crack negotiators: the doggedly unimaginative and incompetent Theresa May, the self-important Dominic Raab, extremist unicorn-chasers like Steve Baker and Suella Braverman, and (the crowning ignominy of it all) the delusional, workshy, inflated ego that is David Davis (in a fiercely competitive field, possibly the most overrated politician of our time). Passing mention also has to be made to the idiotically unhelpful contributions occasionally made by various senior figures, such as Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt.

Given all that, and given her own mantra that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, it’s a minor miracle that May reached any sort of draft agreement. Of course, her mantra was, like much of her Brexit rhetoric, simply fluff that she didn’t believe in. She was always going to cobble some sort of deal, because the alternative would have been a personal disaster. And so she has now pivoted, arguing that this is the best the UK can get (which is probably true), and that parliament should ratify it because the UK needs some sort of deal—all of which is just another way of saying that ‘a bad deal is better than no deal’. A further argument for her deal has been made: in its series of compromises, it is the deal that best reflects the 52:48 referendum divide. Superficially, this has some truth. But if a popular vote revealed a 52:48 split over whether the England football team should play in red or white, and it was decided that a pink strip was an acceptable compromise, then the outcome is one that satisfies nobody’s wishes. So it is with May’s deal.

This was always the likely outcome. It is tempting on all sides to point out May’s failings as prime minister—she is badly out of her depth in the role, and, for all her evident ability to cling on grimly to her position, she is an astonishingly limited leader, singularly incapable of building bridges and uniting factions (except, perhaps, against her). But I doubt a less incompetent prime minister would have achieved much more in the negotiations; although such a prime minister might have gone about things with less overpromising of success, less grandstanding about her toughness and resolve, and less spinelessness in the face of Brextremist demands, and with more imaginative and quiet exploration of how to bring together moderates to find solutions.

Parliament should refuse to ratify the deal, and in all likelihood that is what it will do. That will lead to a crisis—and how that will play out is uncertain (my best guess is that May will resign or be forced out, which will make for entertaining drama but resolve nothing). A parliamentary defeat of May’s deal will also simplify matters by removing from the table one of the three options (not least because there is no prospect of the EU renegotiating the deal), so that we will be left with two: no deal, or no Brexit.

Being left with those two options means that the choice will be between the only two coherent positions there have ever been on Brexit. May’s deal was always going to be incoherent, because it is manifestly worse than the current position of full membership of the EU, yet it also fails to deliver most of what the Brexiteers want. No Brexit (or Remain) is self-evidently rationally coherent, since it ensures the continuation of what has been a mutually beneficial and prosperous relationship that cannot be replicated in any other way. No deal (or hard Brexit) has little rational coherence, but it clearly has an emotional, perhaps even romantic, coherence: if you’re going to leave the EU, then, as Boris Johnson might say, ‘fuck business’ and sense, wax lyrical about independence and global Britain and believing in ourselves as a nation, dream of glories past and fantastic futures, and take a mad but exciting punt. It’s a crazy argument that will almost certainly lead to disaster, but I can see how it appeals to the dreamers who care little for facts or reality.

Although parliament has more than its share of dim and deranged members (how people like Philip Davies, Andrew Bridgen, Nadine Dorries and Andrea Jenkyn actually get elected is one of the great political mysteries of our age), it is almost inconceivable that, faced with the prospect of no deal, it will fail to act. A general election is unlikely—and it is even more unlikely that it would solve anything anyway. Renegotiating isn’t going to happen, and the EU will not extend Article 50—unless there is the prospect of a second referendum. Another referendum will be pretty much the only option left on the table to prevent a catastrophic hard Brexit. And since there is no majority among MPs for a hard Brexit, it is a referendum that they will, in effect, be forced to go for. Referendums are not a good way of conducting politics; but when the situation is such that the only viable way out of a problem is a referendum (and the gridlock in parliament is such that it is hard to see any other parliamentary solution), then needs must.

As a Remainer, I’ll be delighted with another referendum. It was always going to require another vote to reverse Brexit. And it was always likely that we’d have to stare into the abyss of a hard Brexit and realize how insane any sort of Brexit is before the nation as a whole would seriously begin thinking about how to pull back from the edge. Voting down May’s deal, despite the immediate prospect of no deal at all being in place, is therefore an acceptable risk. Of course, a second referendum may deliver another victory for Leave; and a victory for Remain is not suddenly going to end the divisions (but a referendum will not create divisions, it will simply reveal them). But for Remainers and Brexiteers alike, the political impasse is such that a referendum is the best chance for either to get the outcome they want.

Reversing Brexit was never going to be easy or risk-free; but for those willing to play the long game, it has always been doable. If Brexit was a two-legged football match, then we’d just be about to finish the first leg with the Brexiteers 1-0 up, having scored in the opening minute and, with increasing desperation, clung to their advantage since then. The second leg will begin soon, and for Remainers there is still all to play for.

 

The beginning of the end for Brexit?

As I write, David Davis has just resigned as Brexit secretary. This could be the beginning of a wild and wonderful week. It could play out in various ways, but it’s hard to see an outcome that serves Brexit well. We should, therefore, be thankful.

First, Davis. After repeatedly threatening to resign but never following through, he has finally done it. Although Michel Barnier may lament that the time he has spent negotiating with Davis this year is four hours he will never get back, it’s hard to imagine that anyone will truly miss Davis. He must rank as one of the most overrated politicians of our age. His specialisms are bluster, vacuous grandstanding and self-satisfaction. If Davis was the best the government could send to negotiate with the EU, then it was always a good bet the negotiations would get next to nowhere. His incompetence was never more exposed than when he repeatedly claimed that his department had conducted detailed sectoral analyses of the impact of Brexit, only for him to be rumbled when parliament requested to see these analyses. He stalled for as long as he could before eventually doing what any panicking student would do: he hastily cobbled together some analysis out of basic Internet research. It’s fair to ask several questions about this. Why, given he was in charge of delivering Brexit, had he not bothered doing any research on Brexit? Why did he persist in claiming that he had done some research when in fact he hadn’t? Did he not suppose that he might be found out eventually? And why, on the most important political issue in generations, was someone who behaved like a lazy, bullshitting student put in charge?

It would be surprising if more resignations do not follow (Steve Baker, another minister in Davis’s department, has also resigned). Boris Johnson must surely be giving serious thought to it. If there’s any chance that Theresa May’s government is about to collapse, then his own leadership ambitions will be finished if he hasn’t got out of that government in time. The best way to work out what Johnson will do is to consider various scenarios and assess what actions would be most likely to fulfil his ego-driven, self-serving quest to become prime minister. It’s not likely he will ever achieve that quest, but he certainly won’t resist a tilt—and this may well be his last chance.

A leadership contest is highly likely. The outcome of that is entirely unpredictable. My best guess is that May will cling on. The Conservative Party is so divided that it is hard to imagine a credible unity candidate. More likely is that it will split along soft/hard (pragmatic/fantasist) Brexit lines, and now that May has signalled a move towards soft Brexit, she may just about garner enough support to see off the challenge—the arithmetic probably favours a pragmatist or a soft Brexit candidate, which is what May will calculate and stand for. But she will be weakened even further, and whatever the outcome it is hard to see Tory divisions resolved any time soon.

All of this is good news for those of us who oppose Brexit. The rule of thumb here is that the weaker the government, the less likely is Brexit. The most pessimistic I have been since the referendum was when May called a general election: like most others, I assumed she would get a huge majority and be able to push through Brexit without any significant opposition. But the best night of politics in my life was that of the general election itself: the utterly unexpected disaster that May had brought upon herself made Brexit far less likely (almost my first thought when I saw the exit poll was that Brexit was finished). What we’ve been treated to since then is the hopeless (but often entertaining) psychodrama of the Tory party, which has ensured that little credible progress has been made on Brexit. Meanwhile, Remainers and the EU watch on, somewhat bemused, at the interminable Brexit game being played out in the Tory party, all the while patiently letting the Brexiteer unicorn-chasers vent until they shatter their own Brexit fantasies.

Of course, there are risks. It is hard to know what the EU will make of all this. Can meaningful negotiations take place with a government (and governing party) in a state of civil war? British politics is so unstable right now that it is hard to see how the EU can trust any negotiating position of the UK. And if agreement has to be reached within the next few months (and progress achieved almost immediately), how will this happen if the Tories are at war with themselves?

The prospect of no deal has, therefore, significantly increased. No deal is, of course, a disaster—and everyone, apart from the most lunatic Brexiteers, knows it. For that reason, if no deal is the likely outcome then there will be a crisis, which will probably lead to the fall of the government, and certainly will lead to an attempt at an emergency solution that avoids the cliff edge and the catastrophic economic and political turmoil that will follow. I suspect that the EU calculated this from the beginning (it was always an idiotic bluff of May to think that the EU would be worried by no deal—they knew, because it is obvious, that no deal is a vastly worse outcome for the UK1 than it is for the EU27). It may be (and this has always struck me as a sensible option) that Brexit is parked in a Norway option until such time (and it may be years or decades or forever) that the UK has sorted out its weird relationship to Europe. My guess is that general elections, and maybe even a second referendum, are far more likely to happen than Brexit being decided any time soon.

Fighting Brexit has always been a long game. I sensed this in the days immediately following the referendum. The point, of course, is that Brexit would be both a tragedy and a disaster, but fortunately one that was never going to be easy to achieve; however, the full scale of the near impossibility of Brexit, and its potentially calamitous effects, would only become fully apparent in time. It’s always been about patience and waiting for the Brexiteer position to implode. Along the way, we have been treated to the most incompetent government in modern British history—but the ride has been, at times, richly entertaining. And this coming week promises to be Brexit politics at its hilariously entertaining best. That said, the UK remains in an appalling political crisis with no end to it in sight.


UPDATE Originally, I mentioned that Suella Braverman had also resigned. Apparently she hasn’t. It’s hard to keep track of the government’s chaos.

Labour’s fighting chance

corbyn
The next Prime Minister? Let’s hope so!

I know, of course, that it is usually the hope that kills you. But astonishingly, Labour and Jeremy Corbyn look to be in with a fighting chance in next Thursday’s general election. I’m usually sensibly sober about this sort of thing, and I shall remain so: the likelihood is still that the Tories will win. But a couple of weeks ago I couldn’t foresee anything other than a huge Tory win; now I’m not so sure.

Lots of things seem to be going on.

First, it is becoming clear that Theresa May is far from the competent, stable politician it was complacently assumed she was. Her relentless focus on herself does not sit well with the evidence that she has little confidence in her own policies or her ability to engage in any meaningful debate. Alternating between her mantra about ‘strong and stable leadership’ (when increasingly it is evident that she is far from strong and stable) and tediously personal and negative attacks on her opponents does not make a coherent, inspiring or edifying campaign. It has the air of unhinged panic.

Second, although the opinion polls continue to suggest that May and the Tories are the most trusted on Brexit, it is hard not to wonder whether this perception may be crumbling. The reality—which the Tories have done well to mask—is that May and her Brexit team (Davis, Fox and Johnson) have so far made a complete mess of Brexit. Provocative statements, absurdly bullish rhetoric, threats and diplomatic incompetence suggest that the Tories will turn the negotiations into a disaster. Not everyone has grasped the truth yet, but it is this: Labour will almost certainly make a better job of the Brexit negotiations than the Tories. Corbyn has a better chance of getting a deal; May has a better chance of achieving catastrophe.

Third, the Labour manifesto is great. This is not because it is robustly costed or fully workable (it probably isn’t), but because, unlike the Tory manifesto, it makes an effort. Labour are offering a positive vision, and as such are tapping into many of the concerns that motivated so many people to register protest in last year’s referendum. British politics needs this vision; and even if one disagrees with the politics behind it, we are all better off for having a party of the left standing on this platform. The Tories offer little except for more cuts and a belligerent attitude towards the EU; Labour are offering a constructive approach towards the EU and a plan for a reformed society based on social justice. The Labour manifesto undoubtedly has a touch of utopianism about it; but I’d rather that than the platitudinous vagueness and misery of the Tory manifesto.

Fourth, Jeremy Corbyn is reminding us that when he gets media exposure and a greater opportunity to be heard, he is a quietly impressive figure. I’m certainly no Corbynista, but as each day passes Corbyn looks considerably more impressive than May at connecting with people and at managing a campaign. Corbyn would make an unusual, unconventional Prime Minister, but it is no longer impossible to imagine him occupying Number 10—and doing so with greater competence than May.

Fifth, a lot will depend on turnout. The most recent ICM poll put the Tories 11 points ahead, but that is after adjustment on likely turnout (i.e. factoring out those deemed unlikely to vote); if that adjustment is removed from the equation, then Labour trail the Tories by only three points (a figure in line with some other polls). Clearly, for Labour to have any chance they must mobilize certain groups—above all the young—to vote. The priority in the final week of the campaign must surely be to urge young voters and other groups traditionally lukewarm about voting to turn out next Thursday.

Three weeks ago I was adamant that I would not vote Labour. Not any more. The Greens remain the choice of my heart; but my head tells me that I should add my vote to the Labour numbers. I live in an extremely safe Labour constituency, so I could probably get away with my modest show of support for the Greens. I’ve yet to decide. All that matters is that one does whatever one can to get the Tories and their miserable politics of self-interest out of government.

Theresa May arrogantly assumed that by calling the election she would automatically be handed a landslide. But it turns out that an election campaign allows for scrutiny of what the political parties and their politicians stand for. The more one scrutinizes May and the Tories, the less attractive they appear; conversely, Corbyn and Labour look more attractive with each passing day.

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.

Brexit, Bob Dylan, Braudel: Part 1—‘Something is happening here’

bob_dylan_ballad_of_a_thin_man‘Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mister Jones?’ sang Bob Dylan in ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’. It’s a refrain appropriate to the political situation in the wake of the EU referendum (which increasingly seems to have occurred in a past life rather than a mere fortnight ago). For about the only thing about which we can be fairly certain is that nobody—not Mister Jones or Mr Gove or Mr Johnson or Mr Cameron or Mr Farage, not Mrs May or Mrs Leadsom, not the leader writers or the commentators, not the investors or the speculators, and, for sure, not me—knows what is happening or what will happen. The atmosphere is febrile, tumultuous and astonishingly, gloriously clueless. Perhaps, ultimately, nothing much will happen, yet Britain feels different, as if anything could happen—the real possibility of a bona fide loon such as Andrea Leadsom becoming Prime Minister is evidence of that. When not dispirited by the alarming and hideous rise in racist incidents over the past two weeks—hardly surprisingly the far right, among whose number one should include the Faragiste wing of the Brexiteers, are feeling very chipper right now—I will, a little guiltily, confess to finding the ‘Brexit crisis’ rather exciting and invigorating. How can one not when so clearly something is indeed happening here?

And yet—is it? On the one hand: the Prime Minister has resigned; Farage has resigned; most of the Shadow Cabinet has resigned; Boris Johnson’s absurdly vainglorious ambitions lie in tatters; the Tories remain divided, and yet find themselves, for the first time in British history, with the remarkable privilege, and strange constitutional quirk, of directly electing the next Prime Minister; Labour are daily disintegrating before our eyes; the pound is plummeting; the FTSE is ailing; even the Greens are in the midst of a leadership election. On the other hand, Brexit has not happened, is not likely to happen anytime soon, and may in fact never happen (and the chances of it happening in a way that would satisfy the Faragistes, who are pinning their hopes on the hopeless Leadsom, and the Goveites seem, to me at any rate, extremely remote—the reality is that even Brexit will have to involve, at the very least, some access to the single market and some concessions to freedom of movement).

All of this has consigned Britain to limbo (a place in hell, according to the Catholic church, it is worth remembering). For example, Britain is still a member of the EU. But nobody seems sure what this means. For some in the EU, and in Britain too, the referendum result makes Brexit a fait accompli; consequently Britain should no longer participate fully in EU decision-making. The UK is due to assume the EU Presidency in July 2017, yet will it or indeed should it? Doubtless all over Europe heads are being scratched, for until Britain invokes Article 50 so that exit negotiations can begin, the UK remains formally as much a member of the EU as it ever did—and even in the event of Article 50 being invoked, the two-year negotiating process could easily become overwhelmed by events that force dramatic rethinks of Brexit. With the Tory leadership contest still to be resolved, as well as elections in France and Germany that could well transform the situation by offering new possibilities and paths, the most likely thing to happen over the next few months is nothing much.

Even if not much happens for a while—apart from what now seems to be the business-as-usual fever, panic and wild, clueless running around in Westminster and the City—we will nevertheless be stuck in the ‘Brexit crisis’. Whether or not something is genuinely a crisis (and I think this is), calling it a ‘crisis’ always benefits some. Newspapers, journalists, commentators, even bloggers can do well out of a crisis as a feeding frenzy for information, opinion and comment takes hold. One can be sure that Brexit, both as potentiality and as actuality, will be the making of some people. Crises invariably are.

The words of the free-market guru Milton Friedman are relevant here:

Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that happen depend on the ideas lying around. (Capitalism and Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982; originally published, 1962), p. ix.)

Whatever one thinks of Friedman’s economic ideas, it is hard to dispute his assessment of crises. Revolutions and radical political change are born from them. The Bolsheviks and the Nazis emerged out of actual crisis; Margaret Thatcher came to power against the perceived crisis of 1970s union strife and the ‘Winter of Discontent’; and, as Naomi Klein has shown in The Shock Doctrine (London: Allen Lane, 2007), for the neoliberal disciples of Friedman economic crisis presented the perfect opportunity for radical free-market ideology to be imposed on states. The Brexit crisis has opened up a rare moment for those who desire radical change to progress in their goals.

Alarmingly, however, the main ‘ideas lying around’—the ideas likely to shape what happens over the coming weeks, months and years—are nationalism (both in its nasty form as embodied by the Faragistes and Goveites, UKIP and other far right groups, and in its cuddly variety as embodied by Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP), neoliberalism and racism. The political centre and left, both in some disarray, currently offer little in the way of a coherent vision. When Theresa May represents the best hope for the moderate centre, then there are grounds to worry about the tectonic shifts in British politics.

Yet Brexit, unwelcome as it may be, surely presents opportunities. Consider what it has already achieved: the end of Cameron, the effective termination of Osborne’s political ambitions, the wonderful demise of Johnson, the accidental (and, let’s be honest, quite funny given it all stemmed from some supposedly clever—too clever as it turned out—Macchiavellian manoeuvres) harikiri of Gove’s ambitions, and in general the mayhem and panic across the political landscape. What more could follow?

I did not, and do not, want Brexit to happen, but in so far as we now are stuck in a Brexit crisis, and in so far as there can be no return to a pre-Brexit state of affairs, then we may as well make the best of it. After all, the Leave campaign have trumpeted the ideas of taking back control, of reclaiming democracy. So why not pick up their baton and run with it? We live in a country with an unelected head of state, an unelected upper chamber, an unrepresentative voting system, an excessive concentration of power in the executive, and a politics dominated by unelected media bosses, big business and the City. The potential for co-opting the Brexiteer slogans and arguments for progressive ends is great.

Perhaps this more than anything explains why Corbyn and Momentum are so determined to survive: they want to ensure that the Left has a dog in the political fights and struggles to come. It would be interesting if they succeed. In a couple of months both the government and the opposition in Westminster may be commanded by minority and comparatively extreme factions: the Tories by Leadsom and her Faragiste followers, Labour by the Momentum-backed Corbynites. If so, we could be in for a period of car-crash politics. But would this be so unwelcome if it continued the process of ripping through the familiar Westminster politics and bringing about some overdue political change? We could find ourselves in some heady days as different varieties of progressives and reactionaries battle it out.

But I am getting much too far ahead. For one thing, the Establishment, divided though it is about Brexit, invariably finds a way of asserting itself in the face of challenges. For another, it is worth being careful about what one wishes for: Germany had its heady days of progressives and reactionaries in the 1930s, and the possibility of something similar arising in Britain in the near future is remote but not non-existent.

And for another thing, I return to the words of Dylan: something is happening, but we don’t know what it is. Perhaps that is because we are so dazzled and seduced by the undeniably exciting high politics—the machinations, the party in-fighting, the psychologies of the central actors in the drama—that we are missing the more important things that are happening beneath the surface. Cameron, Farage, Johnson, Gove, May, Leadsom and Corbyn; Momentum and UKIP; the plummeting pound one day, its slight recovery the next; Merkel, Hollande and Sarkozy—these may be no more than the ripples and the froth on the surface of the ocean. To understand what is really happening one may need to make the more difficult journey into the dark depths, for there is to be found the currents that generate the tide of events. And to get that one needs the mind of an historian (or a Bob Dylan perhaps…) rather than a journalist (or a Mister Jones). We might do well to consider the ideas of the great French historian—arguably the greatest of all twentieth-century historians—Fernand Braudel, to which I shall turn in the second part of this blog post.