Sunday 6 November 2016

Let's all take a deep breath

When Britain voted to leave the EU I thought it was a catastrophe. I still do, but things are turning out even worse than I feared, to the point that I think we are now entering a very dangerous situation.

One might have thought that with the vote having been very close, and won on the basis of claims, such as the £350M a week for the NHS, that were disowned within hours of the result, that an apparently pragmatist politician like Theresa May would have sought to find a common ground way forward. That would have meant, perhaps, a pause to look at options, then a relatively soft Brexit plan that could be just about acceptable to elements of both remain and leave. Instead, she opted to at least signal a hard Brexit, and poured scorn on anyone wanting to question that as trying to undermine democracy.

It may be that May thought that, having been a (lukewarm) remainer, she had to do this in order to run her party, and that by coming out hard on Brexit she could hold that party together. If so, she has made the same miscalculation that David Cameron made: her Eurosceptic MPs will always ask for more, whatever they are given. So she has implied that she wants to leave the single market and they have pushed her to leave the customs union; said she wants to invoke Article 50 and they have pushed her to unilaterally abolish the 1972 European Communities Act. As with the Referendum itself, attempts to manage the Tory Party’s extremists are dragging the whole country towards their extreme positions.

It is crucial to recall that the Leave campaign never specified a form that leaving would take. Some wanted a Norway model (meaning European Economic Area membership), some a Switzerland model (meaning EFTA but not EEA), some a Canada model (meaning an FTA with the EU), some a Turkey model (meaning outside the single market but inside the customs union), some a WTO model, some an Albanian model, and some a Liechtenstein model! So the vote to leave the EU was never a vote for any particular alternative. Yet the government, and the Brexiters, are now insisting that it gave a mandate for some kind of hard Brexit – though even the form of that they cannot agree on (Turkey, Albania, Canada, WTO are still in the frame; Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein apparently not).

All of that is chaotic, and highly damaging to the UK economy, as can be read from the value of the pound that falls whenever a hard Brexit looks more likely and rises when a soft Brexit seems more likely. What is not just chaotic but dangerous is the populist rhetoric around this. Given that the Leave campaign chose not to define what leave meant, it was inevitable that this would have to be decided by parliament. May tried to avoid this, but the High Court judgment confirming that it must be so led to perhaps the single most disgusting headline in British newspaper history: the Daily Mail’s ‘Enemies of the People’ (the other candidate for the title being the Mail’s ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’ support for the British Union of Fascists in 1934).

It is important to understand the resonance of the term ‘Enemies of the People’. It was used in Nazi Germany (Volksverr√§ter) and the Soviet Union (vrag naroda), and so to see it used in a British newspaper is truly shocking. It cannot be dismissed, as some commentators have tried to, as being just the same as when papers criticise what they see as over-lenient criminal sentences. It is not an attack on the judgement, but on the institution of law. And what provoked it was not – as might be thought – a ruling that negated the Referendum vote, but one that simply upheld the longstanding principle of parliamentary sovereignty; the principle that Brexiters made central to the Leave campaign.

So we now have a situation where a narrow vote to leave the EU on terms unspecified is being translated into some mythical ‘will of the people’ for hard Brexit. We know that only 37% of the electorate voted to leave the EU, and we know that they did so for all sorts of reasons, and we know that on current opinion polls they would not do so now. There is no ‘will of the people’ for hard Brexit; there may not even be a will for Brexit at all.

But that is not the worst of it. Nigel Farage, the ‘interim’ leader of UKIP is now implicitly condoning, if not encouraging, street violence if his supporters don’t get a hard Brexit. We all, whether remainers or leavers, have to stand up now and condemn this. The referendum did not suspend the constitution or the rule of law. It does not give a licence to attack judges; it does not give a licence to threaten to gang rape people we disagree with; it does not give a licence to spit on schoolchildren; it does not give a licence to beat up and murder immigrants. I know very well that almost no one who voted to leave the EU condones any of these things. But they are being done in your name.

Whether or not we are in the EU is an important question, about which there are strong feelings on both sides. I have strong feelings about it. But we must not rip up our civility, our constitution or our law in the process. Important as it is, membership or otherwise of the EU is not that important. Let’s all take a deep breath.

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