Friday, 15 June 2018

What did we learn from this shameful and shambolic week?

Few watching this week’s pitiful events will have thought that Westminster any longer has much claim to be called the Mother of Parliaments. Just two days (and those a concession from the single day originally offered by the government) were devoted to debating a string of highly significant amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill; with a contemptuous and contemptible 15 minutes made available for that relating to devolved powers. And a good chunk of those days were taken up by the archaic voting system, with each amendment requiring a separate ‘division’ itself lasting about 15 minutes. Given the technological wonders being promised for the Irish border, perhaps the government could turn its mind to creating the very simple system that would be needed for electronic voting? At all events, as some of the dust clears, a few things stand out clearly.

MPs have abdicated responsibility

The first is that the Commons has decided to almost entirely throw away the lifelines offered by the House of Lords. Just as they squandered the opportunity given by the Article 50 vote given them by Gina Miller’s Supreme Court case. So we had the utterly shameful spectacle of MPs voting down amendments which most of them know would at least reduce the damage Brexit will do; that is, voting to make our country a poorer and a worse place. There can be little doubt that an unwhipped, free vote would have seen most or all of those amendments upheld. The party structure is now completely misaligned with political realities.

It’s understandable, of course, that the government side would whip its MPs to vote down the amendments; it is quite extraordinary that the official opposition so often did so. If Labour adopted the policy that most of its members, voters and MPs wanted it could not only shape Brexit in a far less extreme direction it could also inflict serial defeats on the government (which oppositions used to think was a good thing to do if you could) and even, conceivably, force a General Election.

Most obviously, if Labour had supported the amendment to seek to stay in the EEA – the only thing near to being compatible with their six tests – it would very likely have carried. Instead, they whipped their MPs to reject it whilst proposing their own doomed and utterly fatuous ‘access to single market’ amendment (it is simply beyond belief that this meaningless notion is still being peddled). Kudos to those Labour MPs who defied the whip, but it was too little and, now, it’s too late.

The one amendment on which the government did look vulnerable – that on a ‘meaningful vote’ – does have an importance, but even had it been supported represents the barest minimum that the Commons could aspire to. It really is no more than the slenderest of safety nets to insure against an absolute national catastrophe. What kind of perversion of the idea of public service and political duty could have so many MPs lining up to gleefully declaim, under the shop-soiled banner of the ‘will of the people’, that our country must march towards a potential cliff edge without even that minimal insurance?

Perhaps the one thing to be said in favour of the truncated timetable was that it meant we didn’t have to hear every last Brexiter camp follower braying out this dismal slogan as if it were one of the more sophisticated propositions of Wittgenstein. For that matter, there was more than enough bloviated guff about how parliament had long ago voted to give the decision to the British people by enacting the Referendum. I’ve commented before on this blog that I don’t think the fact that it was an advisory referendum, whilst legally true, has much political traction as an argument for remainers now. But, by the same token, Brexiters cannot peddle the legal fiction that parliament’s hands are now tied; any more than Theresa May can propound the view that parliament cannot “be allowed” to reverse or ‘subvert’ Brexit. Parliament was and remains sovereign even if MPs seem reluctant to do much with it, and they don't have many chances left.

The government approach followed a familiar, doomed pattern

The second thing which stood out came from the manner in which the potential Tory rebels were placated by the government. It followed the pattern adopted by Theresa May and her government to almost every aspect of Brexit: to promise completely incompatible things to different people in the hope of keeping the dismal show on the road for a little longer and, perhaps, imagining that somehow no one will notice.

That approach is evident in the entire mantra of delivering a ‘Brexit for everyone’ whilst pursuing a Brexit which appeals to and is good for only a tiny minority of zealots. It is evident in all the promises of frictionless trade being accompanied by promises to leave the single market and customs rules that enable such trade. It was evident in accepting the backstop proposal in the phase 1 agreement when in Brussels, but announcing at home that it was something that no British Prime Minister could accept.

It was also evident in the way that another potential rebellion this week, on a customs union amendment, was dealt with: by reconfiguring it as a ‘customs arrangement’ which the rebels could take to mean a comprehensive customs treaty and Brexiters to mean something entirely minimal or fanciful. In all the rest of the drama, this derisory piece of can-kicking has had less attention than it deserves. It is worse than a ‘fudge’, since not only did it enable both sides to vote in support of the government’s position on customs but also it did so when the government doesn’t even have an agreed position on customs.

In some ways, this is just the normal tactics of politics, but with Brexit May has elevated such tactics to an entire strategy and it is a doomed one, because each time she pretends to everybody that they are getting their way it comes under immediate pressure by virtue of the constraints of the Article 50 process itself. The decisions between incompatible promises can’t be sustained forever, and in a time-limited process there is no forever anyway.

In the case of the ‘meaningful vote’ amendment the tactic lasted barely an hour, following the shambolic spectacle of the government front bench suddenly offering ‘in good faith’ concessions in a bizarre, private conversation in public between the Solicitor General and Dominic Grieve. This – along with a behind the scenes meeting with the Prime Minister - was enough to stop the supposed rebels voting to support the amendment, but by immediately disavowing what had been promised it may not be enough to hold them back next week. This isn’t short-termism, it’s micro-termism.

The Tory ‘rebels’ lack steel

It may very well backfire, of course, by enraging the potential rebels and shredding any sense of fair dealing and good will that existed. If it finally puts some fire in their bellies it can’t come a moment too soon. For the fact is that these 12, 15 or perhaps even 20 Tory MPs show no sign at all of being anything like as ruthless as their Brexiter colleagues are prepared to be, and have been in the past (for example during the ‘Maastricht wars’ of the early 1990s). Whilst the Brexiters seem to be champing at the bit to exert themselves, the rebels appear to be desperate to find any possible way of avoiding doing so.

I can understand the pressures they face, both from their party and from the sickening bullying of the Brexit press. But if they were really determined they would never have fallen for indefinite promises made at the last moment when the government saw that the amendment was lost: they would have said ‘sorry, you’ve left it too late and what you are saying is too vague’, and then put the boot in - hard. They didn’t, because they don’t really want to.

We will see next week if that has changed but, to repeat, even if so it will only be to put the most minimal of safety nets in place. It’s notable that the language has now shifted so that what used to be called soft Brexit (essentially, single market) is now seen as no Brexit, what used to be hard Brexit (no single market) is depicted as soft Brexit and what used to be the unthinkable (‘they need us more than we need them’; ‘the easiest deal in history’ etc.) of no deal has been downgraded to hard Brexit. As that ground has shifted, the options in parliamentary discussion have also shifted so that the most the rebels are offering is some degree of damage control.

Meanwhile …

None of this is happening in a vacuum, and it has costs both political and economic. The EU look on bewildered. Far from there being any sense that the British government has a clear and viable negotiating strategy that – as kept being claimed in the debates - the Commons votes might derail, there is growing alarm in the EU-27 that no such strategy exists.

That same alarm is evident in the growing evidence of business slowdown in the face of a completely unknown future, and its gleeful counterpart in the pro-Brexit hedge funds betting on just that. It’s very likely that the average voter thinks that nothing much is happening except for irritating political rows: under the surface, the economic tectonic plates are shifting and really serious damage is now in prospect.

And the clock is ticking very loud now. A Withdrawal Agreement (which, of course, is a completely different thing to the Withdrawal Bill being discussed at the moment) is meant to be ready for ratification by the EUCO meeting on 18 October. Given that almost nothing will be done in August because Westminster and Brussels close down, that means that, by my calculation, there are now just 62 working days left.

If ever there were a time for political leadership, it is now. We already know that isn’t going to come from the Prime Minister or from the government. What we learned this week is that it isn’t going to come from the House of Commons, either.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Brexit seen from abroad

I’ve been in France for a few days – hence there wasn’t the usual Friday blog last week (for which, apologies but also thanks to various people who have said they missed it) – and as a result I haven’t been closely following Brexit news. On the other hand, I have had numerous conversations about Brexit, mainly with French people but also Spaniards, Dutch, Luxembourgers, a Swede, and a Lithuanian. In age they ranged from early 20s to late 80s and in occupation from photographer to farmer to accountant to retired. Some had worked or studied in Britain at some point, and a few spoke English. It wasn’t, of course, a scientifically selected sample or a statistically significant one but, still, a cross-section of, say, 20 people.

The reason they all talked to me about Brexit certainly wasn’t because they see it as particularly important, and even though most of them were politically knowledgeable they don’t follow the twists and turns of the UK Brexit debate. Beyond a general sense that the British government was rather weak, and divided about Brexit, there was no knowledge of, or interest in, what Boris Johnson has said this week, or whether David Davis might resign (the things I might have blogged about, had I not been away). Nor did I get a sense of any particular familiarity with, say, customs options for the Irish border.

Rather, the reason they all kept engaging me, unprompted, in conversations about Brexit was because, now, this is what Britain ‘means’ or connotes to non-Brits (in Europe, anyway). In the same way as a few years ago a typical conversation with, say, a taxi driver in Europe would be about Manchester United or pop music or, I don’t know, Princess Diana, now when someone knows you are British what comes to their mind is ‘Brexit’.

That – just in itself – is indicative and problematic. There’s been much written about Brexit and British or English self-identity, but less about what it has done to our identity in the eyes of others. And it is not good. No one I’ve spoken to sees it as connoting some leap to freedom, or the opening up of new vistas of opportunity for Britain; still less as a template that they would wish to see their own countries adopt. And, indeed, statistical data back up my conversations: support for the EU has increased throughout the EU-27 since Brexit.

Universally amongst those I spoke to, the Brexit vote is seen as bemusing, and the explanations given for it are of two types. One links it directly to Trump’s election as an expression of the populism that they also see in their own countries. The other sees it as an expression of British exceptionalism in the sense of a belief in a special innate superiority. That view, by the way, is accompanied by considerable – if perhaps exasperated - affection, especially amongst the older people I talked to, seeing it as a kind of endearing eccentricity. But, whatever they ascribe as the reason, they invariably see it as a terrible mistake, and as a departure from the pragmatism which they most strongly associate with British identity.

Alongside this was an assumption, or at least a hunch, from all of them without exception that Brexit will not actually happen. That is perhaps because this dominant image of the British as pragmatic still holds sway. Or – which may be another version of the same thing – because they can’t believe that any country would choose to do such harm to itself. There was no particular sense of what the concrete mechanism for that would be (e.g. a further Referendum), just a vague belief that it would probably be reversed. In that, I think there is a large gap between what these ‘ordinary citizens’ believe and what political leaders in Europe expect or think possible.

As to who is right about that, it is still impossible to say. This week’s parliamentary votes may conceivably tell us more about what direction we will go in. But of one thing I am sure. Even if Brexit is averted at the last minute, by some combination of events, it won’t be the case, as some of my European friends think and many Remainers assume, that Britain reverts to the status quo ante. There is far too much division and bitterness for that to be the case. In that sense, I think it is astute of Andrew Adonis and Will Hutton (and Gordon Brown) to recognize in recent interventions that any reversal of the Brexit vote would have to be accompanied by policies addressing some of its root causes. Just as Brexiters are quite wrong to think that the vote was a kind of time machine taking us back to 1973, so too are those Remainers who think there is a time machine to take us back to 2016.

There was a strange and sad coda to my trip to France. Returning on Eurostar I struck up a very interesting conversation with the (British) man sitting next to me, whose work is very much affected by Brexit. Our conversation included, I suppose, a bit of ‘remoaning’, if we must call it that, but was mainly quite technically focussed on various things which, in his sector, had to be done to deal with Brexit.

After a while, an elderly British couple sitting in front of us complained that we were talking too loudly. I’m not really sure that this was so, but I do have a rather carrying voice so we continued our conversation in near whispers. Yet even though, of course, there were numerous other conversations going on in the carriage, they complained again, saying that they ‘needed earplugs’ because of us. With the best will in the world, that was ludicrous. I don’t want to over-interpret it – perhaps they were just a crotchety old couple – but I am as certain as I can be that they were upset because of what we were saying about the practical consequences of Brexit.

There’s a link, somehow, between the conversations I had during my trip about how Brexit was something to do with a certain conception of Britishness – or, maybe better, Englishness - and this complaint on the way back. It’s reflected in the way that the government continue to oscillate between ‘we’ll fight them on the beaches’ type rhetoric and appearing to hope that ‘we’ll just stay at home with a nice cup of tea and hope the whole ghastly mess will blow over’.

The complaints of the couple on Eurostar seemed like a kind of metaphor for what is going on in Britain right now. There’s a sense that – as with the people I talked to in Europe – we all know that Brexit is crazy, including many or most who voted for it. But it would be embarrassing to admit it (see this Mike Galsworthy video) so it shouldn’t be said out loud and we just have to get on with it, even though we don’t really want to.

That is rather an endearing, Alan Bennett-ish, national trait when applied to weak tea and stale biscuits – ‘don’t make a fuss, dear’ – but as the basis of an entire economic and geo-political strategy it’s ruinous. Britain may push ahead with Brexit on the basis of bullish exceptionalism, or pull back on the basis of pragmatic realism. But we may just drift into it from fear of embarrassment, as if voting as we did was the political equivalent of using the wrong fork and that having picked it up we are obliged to use it, or else we will lose face.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Another Referendum

The Irish Referendum on abortion rights prompted some highly specious arguments from Brexiters: if it is hailed as a triumph of direct democracy, why do remainers not say the same of the EU Referendum? The numerous differences between the two cases, including the nature of the question asked and of the process followed, have been cogently dissected by Professor Brigid Laffan writing in The Guardian. Of these, perhaps the most important is that in the EU Referendum, no one could know what they were voting for rather than what they were voting against.

This is mainly because the Leave campaign resolutely refused to identify a preferred future relationship for which people could vote, thereby scooping together the votes of people who wanted, or who believed there would follow, wildly different outcomes (especially as regards single market membership). It is also because many issues that have since risen to prominence were either largely ignored (e.g. the Irish border) or not even mentioned (e.g. Galileo). As Matt Kelly has forcefully argued in a recent GQ article, no one really understood the consequences of Brexit: it is just too big and complex. And, thirdly, it is because, in any case, the final outcome is not just something to be specified by the British electorate but to be agreed with the EU.

All of this – and a great deal more – has always made the ‘will of the people’ line a spurious one. This, of course, is dismissed by most Brexiters on the grounds that it is an elitist claim that voters ‘made a mistake’, thus patronizingly assuming that they were incapable of making informed decisions and/or that they were hapless dupes of the Leave campaign. But that argument fails on two grounds.

First, despite the constant attempts by Brexiters to decouple the vote from the consequences of the vote the two cannot be separated. There may have been some voters for whom leaving the EU in any form at all was all that mattered, but for many, and presumably most, that was not so. So it is not necessary to claim that anyone ‘made a mistake’: people cannot be said to have correctly or mistakenly voted for something if they could not know what it was. That they could not is undeniable, given that it took the Government seven months to define, even in outline, what Brexit meant, and on most details the Cabinet still doesn’t agree.

Second, why, in any case, is it considered impossible that ‘the people’ made a mistake? Imagine dropping the definite article. Does anyone think, in terms of general life experience, that ‘people’, as individuals, never make mistakes? If not, why should we think that collectivity of ‘the people’ never does so? And if it is not impossible, in principle, for them to make a mistake, why should it be unthinkable that, in this particular case, they have done so?

For these reasons, a further vote on whether or not to proceed with Brexit, now that far more of the consequences are known, would, in principle, be perfectly reasonable. After all, on much more trivial decisions about, say, entering into a utilities contract it is routine to allow people a ‘cooling off period’ to re-assess those decisions before finalising them. Why not on this far more momentous one?

It can hardly be argued that a further vote would undermine a democratic decision: how could voting do that, rather than confirm or disconfirm that decision? To argue otherwise would actually be to say that something could be what people want even if they don’t want it, a nonsensical proposition. And if the claim is that in a future vote people will have been swayed by the continuing dastardly efforts of Project Fear, why, that is precisely to make the ‘elitist’ argument that people are dupes who don’t know what they are doing which the Brexiters regard as anathema.

Nor does it cut much ice to argue that a further vote prior to actually leaving in March 2019 is impossible because the full future terms will not be known by that point. If that is given as a reason, it applies even more strongly to the 2016 Referendum, when far less was known about the possible contours of the future terms. If a vote now would be invalid without knowing the full terms, the vote then was all the more so. It is true that it would be far better to know the full future terms before voting. But that has been precluded by the government’s actions in starting the Article 50 process without ascertaining the public’s view on what exit terms they wanted to government to, at least, pursue on their behalf.

It bears saying that there are some flawed arguments made for a further vote. Comparisons with General Elections are not reasonable. Referendums are in their nature different, being used to settle major constitutional questions for the long-term, and are understood as such, rather than being regular polls on policy. Nor, for all its legal validity, does the argument that the Referendum was advisory have much traction: legal truths and political realities are not always the same, the present case being an example. Yet, on the other hand, to argue for a further vote is not to keep asking until we get the ‘right answer’. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that the original vote only gave one part of the answer – or only asked one part of the question.

Equally, we should all be honest about why remainers are presently keen on another Referendum and Brexiters opposed. It is because both believe, on the basis of recent opinion polls, the vote would probably be to stay in the EU after all. That is quite likely – but I don’t believe it is by any means guaranteed once another campaign got underway. The reality is that it is too close to call either way with any confidence. It would be a high stakes double or quits for both sides. Remainers might wish to reflect on that. And Brexiters, too, since if they won a second time that would pretty much be the nail in the coffin for EU membership. Some people would, undoubtedly, begin to campaign to seek re-admission, but such a result could not be anything other than the death knell for the Remain campaign per se. There would be no 'Neverendum': it would be over.

Without such a vote and such an outcome, Brexiters will need to resign themselves to the fact that they will forever be blamed for every consequence of Brexit, and will forever be seen as having obtained their victory by fraudulent means and dishonest claims. I suspect that the true believers amongst Brexiters take that seriously, and were never comfortable with the more egregious lies of the Leave campaign (the £350M, Turkey is joining the EU etc.) and might actually welcome the chance to win again, but this time ‘fair and square’. Brexiters might also wish to reflect on the possibility that a parliamentary vote may, conceivably, still put an end to Brexit. Would they, then, discount the case for a further Referendum?

None of this is to say that a further Referendum would be straightforward, either in terms of process or of timing. There would be huge practical complexities, not least over the question to be asked and the franchise. But I do not think that these objections are over-riding: if there was a political will there would likely be a way, and I assume that the most likely scenario for another Referendum would be a major parliamentary crisis that would sweep away at least some of the political obstacles.

The more important objection is that it would leave a legacy of bitterness and betrayal, whatever the outcome, especially if, as seems highly likely, that outcome were again to be very close. But we all need to face up to the hard fact that the same is true however events now unfold. It arises as an inevitable consequence of the way the Referendum was set up, of the way the campaign was conducted and, perhaps more than anything else, of the way that the Government took such a narrow vote and interpreted it in so extreme a way, a way so contemptuous of the 48% who voted to stay in (and, for that matter, may of the 52% who voted to leave). If that hadn’t happened, many remainers would have been unreconciled to Brexit but would not, I believe, still be so implacably and intransigently opposed to it.

For that matter, anger, bitterness and betrayal are quite as much in evidence amongst Brexiters, despite having won. On all sides, for various reasons – many of them in contradiction with each other – there is a sense that things are going badly wrong with Brexit and that the country is more divided as a result. We need, as a country, to have the political maturity to admit that we have got ourselves into a very serious mess, and to devise a way out of it. Perhaps the most discreditable response to the present situation - a response most shamefully evident amongst many politicians and even government ministers, possibly including the Prime Minister herself - comes from those who shrug and say ‘we’re doing something crazy, but we’re stuck with it’. In politics, there are always choices.

With bitterness and anger now hard-baked into British politics, a further campaign would undoubtedly unleash still more of it. It would be a horrible experience to go through. But it can’t be emphasised strongly enough that we face a situation in which there are no good options left any more. That certainly includes the peculiar ‘we’re leaving but nothing will change’ fantasy that the government have adopted. And time is running out – fast. So, arguably (and there are arguments on both sides), given that the whole process was set in train by a Referendum, a further one would be the least-worst way of bringing some kind of resolution to it, at least compared with a parliamentary vote. Perhaps, in fact, the only way of resolving things that would be seen as having any legitimacy.

At the very least, a further Referendum cannot be dismissed on the basis that it flouts the will of the people (and, indeed, we’d all be much better off if this silly, passive-aggressive, semi-fascistic phrase was expunged from the political lexicon). Nor should it be advocated or dismissed simply on the basis of whether or not people think ‘their side’ will win: it should be done on the basis of its merits as a way of resolving the increasingly divisive, chaotic and frankly untenable situation that Britain finds itself in. And, to be no doubt more optimistic than is warranted, it might just be that second time around we would be able to learn something from how Ireland conducted its Referendum.