Monday 30 July 2018

We don't have to do this

With the daily grind of events around Brexit it can be hard to step back and recall the enormity of what is happening and why. It’s easier either to get caught up in the minutiae or to tune out the endless Brexit noise. But the recent discussions of what ‘no deal’ would mean serve as a stark reminder of the scale of what Brexit itself means.

A self-inflicted crisis

It is not simply the dangers of food and medicine shortages, of planes not flying, plans to draft in the army, and all the rest of it. After all, these things may not happen. It is that this extreme scenario is a reminder that even in less extreme scenarios Brexit involves the reorganization of much of our way of life. Moreover, this relates not just to the economy and to public services but to the fundamentals of Britain’s geo-political strategy. Meanwhile millions of lives are in limbo and our political culture is becoming ever more toxic and degraded.

For sure, Brexit still has plenty of supporters – and amongst the wilder fringes of Brexiters that includes for the no deal scenario itself. But it is striking that it is still the case that almost all people with direct practical knowledge of the economic, business and political consequences remain opposed to it. They can be dismissed as the elite or the Establishment – and often are, ironically often by people who clearly qualify as both. But that misses the central point: over two years after the referendum no practical, workable plan for Brexit has been advanced by its adherents.

Instead, those outside government have merely continued to peddle semi-digested factoids and slogans, meeting any challenge with more or less sophisticated versions of ‘we won, get over it’. It is visible how relieved those who have served in government are when, on leaving, they can revert to this comfort zone of complaint and victimhood. Meanwhile the government’s initial – and ill-judged - attempt to operationalise the ‘dream’ of hard Brexit foundered precisely because it is not practical or workable. Dreams, it turns out, are the easy bit; policies, not so much. It has also made a series of gross and unnecessary mistakes, most flagrantly in the premature triggering of Article 50.

Had the Brexiters within or outside of government come up with something credible, the objectors would have been easily silenced, and negotiations with the EU proceeded in an orderly fashion. Instead, all that has been achieved is a political crisis, a paralysed parliament, and negotiations with the EU that have achieved little and are now stalled.

To describe a nation in such turmoil, facing in any scenario economic and political damage and actively planning for a state of emergency in the worst case scenario, would normally mean it was the victim of some terrible externally imposed crisis. But the most absurd and extraordinary thing about Brexit is that it is entirely self-inflicted. We – collectively – are doing this to ourselves. We are acting as if we have no choice but we do. We don’t have to do this.

People make mistakes

Ah, but the referendum and, with it, the ‘will of the people’ narrative that is used as a blackjack to bludgeon all questioning, all opposition and, even, any sober discussion of practicalities. It has become, in the new political correctness of Brexit, taboo to say something quite obvious: people sometimes make mistakes. That’s not an awful or a startling thing to say. We make them as individuals, and therefore we can make them as collectivities. It would a harsh world indeed if we held individuals to every mistake they made, with no possibility of redemption or revision.

But with the referendum, we have supposedly lashed ourselves forever to what was, of course, a very narrow outcome after a campaign that was mendacious and which, we now know, involved significant breaches of electoral law and, possibly, foreign interference. At the very least, we know that it invited people to vote against EU membership but did not present a workable plan, or even any single plan, that people could vote for as to what would come afterwards. And we know that not least because after all this time there still exists no such plan. Thus it could hardly have been known and voted on by people two years ago.

The consequence is that, now, we are being told that there is nothing we can do even though recent opinion polls clearly show extreme disquiet about what is happening. A Sky News poll today has results showing that 51% think Brexit will be bad for the country (40% think good), 42% think it will be bad for themselves personally (31% think good) and 65% think the government will get a bad deal (14% think good). That latter figure does not, of course, mean 65% are against Brexit but it does mean they are not happy about what it actually looks likely to mean in practice (i.e. it must include many who think Brexit is a good idea, but that the government are doing it badly: in fact, 78% think the government is doing a bad job of negotiating Brexit, and just 10% think good). Overall, 50% want a referendum on the terms of Brexit when they are known, with an option to stay in, and other polls have for some months now suggested a narrow majority would vote to stay in the EU.

What this adds up to is a country which remains as deeply divided as it was at the time of the referendum, if not more so. A vote on any given day could as easily go one way or the other. There is certainly no overwhelming popular support for Brexit. By the same token, nor is there for continued EU membership. But in those circumstances it is common sense to stick with the status quo. That is why, in most countries, a referendum on a constitutional change requires some form of super-majority rather than a simple majority. Without very strong support for change, the status quo prevails. Indeed, the reason given for that not being so in the 2016 vote was because it was an advisory referendum – something rendered politically meaningless, however, in large part because of the government leaflet to households saying that the outcome would be implemented. (This, presumably, was an ill-judged attempt to stop voters concluding that they could, without danger, vote to leave as a kind of protest or anti-government gesture).

In the context of such a close result, the way that May’s government sought to handle matters has been a travesty and has ensured that the divisions remain as great as ever. It was not inevitable. There could have been a kind of moratorium with, say, a Commission established to consider ways and means. There could have been a soft (single market) Brexit plan, which might have had some chance of generating consensus. Instead, May, after many months, plumped for the hardest form of Brexit and, since, has had to backtrack - leaving almost no one satisfied, as the Sky poll shows.

There are still choices

That has happened and, to use the old political cliché, we are where we are. It’s still not impossible that a way could be found out of this mess, although all routes – parliamentary, electoral (including another referendum) – to this are fiendishly complex, as are the EU- related issues of suspension and/or revocation of the Article 50 process. But of an equally fiendish complexity are all the routes to continuing with Brexit. It would be quite crazy for a country, as for an individual, to back itself into a corner and say that having made a series of bad decisions and botched attempts to deal with them it must now just submit to fate. As when individuals get into dire situations – through debt or addiction, say – the first step on the road to salvation is to admit that you have a problem, and then to start making the right choices to address that problem.

With Brexit, it’s now becoming abundantly clear to most people, whether they voted leave or remain, that we have a problem. They certainly do not all think that it is a problem with Brexit in principle, but at least with what it is becoming in practice. It is a problem of our own making. And we have choices, the 2016 referendum notwithstanding. As David Allen Green writes, the mandate of a referendum can be democratic or it can be irreversible, but it cannot be both.

Perhaps the most dangerous and dishonest of political slogans is ‘there is no alternative’. It is only true, if at all, when faced with some overwhelming external threat such as war or natural disaster. In other cases, there is always an alternative: that’s what politics means. That is the situation with Brexit. We are doing it to ourselves. We don’t have to. There is not much time left, but we can take back control.


A final and, I think, important thought. If it were to come about that Britain decides against Brexit, and finds a way out of it, that will be the beginning not the end of something. It will be important not to make the mistake the Brexiters made of having no plan. A reversal, or even just a softening, of Brexit would be a delight to some and a relief to others, but it would leave a dangerous legacy of extreme bitterness and anger amongst a sizeable percentage of the population. It will become an urgent task for political leaders, and for all of us, to address and heal that. No one should imagine that reversing Brexit will be an easy path – there are no easy paths now – but, unlike Brexit, it will at least give us a chance of getting to a better place.

(This will probably be the last post on this blog for a while. I will be taking a break from it over August and will resume again at the beginning of September.)

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