Friday 28 September 2018

Brexit Britain's war fixation

In the run up to the referendum, it was widely remarked upon that one significant strand of the leave campaign channelled the British fixation with, and often mythologization of, World War Two (WW2). How big a part it played in the outcome of the vote is impossible to say, but it seems plausible that it was a factor amongst the demographic that voted most strongly for Brexit, the over 50s. This would be not so much people who remember WW2 – now a relatively small number – but the generation or two who grew up, as I did, in its shadow. It was a time when every other film and TV series was set in the war, when children made models of Spitfires and Lancasters, and teachers and parents spoke of ‘the war’ both routinely and as the defining event of their lives.

No doubt future analysts will have much to say about this*. For now, what matters most urgently is to understand how that same fixation and mythologization is impacting upon the ongoing politics of Brexit. As the outgoing German Ambassador to Britain remarked earlier this year, it has two components**. One is the idea of Britain ‘standing alone’, the other a narrative that links, as Boris Johnson has explicitly done, Nazi Germany’s attempt to subjugate Europe with the present-day EU. Perhaps we could add (at least) a third aspect, quite often seen on social media, that Europe owes Britain a debt of gratitude from the war that ought to be repaid by accepting all Britain’s negotiating demands.

These and similar sentiments constantly re-appear almost every day, and, possibly, with increasing regularity as the negotiations grind, stutter and stall. Just today there was a report of the views of Conservative Party members on these negotiations. One said: “I’d rather have no deal than a bad deal … if this country had a chance and an opportunity it could look after itself. In the second world war we were feeding ourselves”.

This is obviously historically inaccurate (much food was brought to Britain, at huge cost in human life and suffering, by Atlantic convoys) but the real point is that it seems to have been said not as a worst case scenario, but as something desirable, part of the opportunities of Brexit, not as a calamity or as Project Fear hyperbole. It is revealing of the quite different ways that people may react to things like the appointment this week of a Food Supplies Minister as part of no deal planning. Many will think it extraordinary that a rich country in peacetime could even be entertaining such a possibility but others may feel not just sanguine but enthusiastic about it***.

A national quirk takes centre stage

We’re no longer in the situation where this longstanding quirk of the British psyche can just be dismissed as an amusing eccentricity. It has somehow come to occupy centre stage in the politics of Brexit. The Brexit Cabinet sub-committee is routinely described as the ‘war cabinet’. Boris Johnson constantly attempts – and fails – to cultivate a Churchillian image.

Peter Hargreaves - the businessman who donated millions to the leave campaign, funding a leaflet to every household in the country - celebrates the insecurity Brexit will bring: “it will be like Dunkirk again”, he enthuses. Liam Fox announces his support for a round-the-world flight of a restored Spitfire to drum up exports for post-Brexit Britain.

Nor is war fever the preserve of crusty oldsters. Darren Grimes, the 22-year old Brexit activist fined for breaking electoral funding rules during the referendum, recently pronounced that “we’re a proud island nation that survived a world war – despite blockades in the Atlantic that tried to starve our country into submission. I don’t think we’re about to be bullied by a French egomaniac [i.e. Macron]”.

There’s a certain bathos in all this. Brexit, sold to the voters as a sunny upland of national pride and prosperity, reduced to the glum promise by Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab that the government will ensure “there is adequate food supply”. Slogans like ‘it won’t be too bad’, 'it won't be the end of the world' or ‘you won’t actually starve’ would probably not have had much traction, no matter how shiny and red a bus they were written on.

The dangers of war fixation

But there is far more danger than humour in it. The underlying sentiment of confrontational antagonism has permeated the Brexit negotiations from the beginning. Brexiters, having won their great prize, and having assured us how easy it would be, immediately adopted a stance not of confident optimism but of sullen suspicion punctuated with bellicosity.

Recall one of the early moments that the complexities of Brexit became clear – in relation to Gibraltar – and former Conservative leader Michael Howard immediately started talking about war. Or, more low-key but showing how permeated with hostility the approach has been, Johnson’s ‘go whistle’ jibe or Davis’s ‘row of the summer’ bluster.

That’s one danger, and it has already done its damage. The far greater one is the now ingrained and sure to become worse narrative of EU ‘bullying’ and ‘punishment’. This is almost invariably accompanied by invocations of WW2, of standing alone, of German aggression and French duplicity. It is dangerous not so much because it often invokes a highly partial picture of the war but because it always invokes an entirely unrealistic picture of Brexit.

Britain, through its vote and its government’s actions, has chosen to leave and to do so in the form that it has. That entails losing all of the benefits of membership of the EU and of the single market. It is not bullying or punishment to be expected to face the consequences of that choice. Britain has not been forced by foreign aggression to ‘stand alone’: it has chosen to do so. It has backed itself into a corner, through lies and fantasies about the practical realities of what Brexit would mean. It is now in danger of telling itself lies and fantasies about why that has happened.

Britain’s wartime history is something we can justly feel proud of. For that matter there are plenty of people - older people, now, inevitably - in countries like France, Belgium and Holland who continue to feel gratitude for it. But pride should not mean truculence, bellicosity, entitlement and self-pity. Above all, Dunkirk was almost 80 years ago. There is also plenty to feel proud of since and, in any case, that one desperate moment in our history should not and does not define us forever.

*Indeed some already have. See in particular the excellent chapter by Robert Eaglestone, ‘Cruel Nostalgia and the Memory of the Second World War’ in Eagelstone, R. (Ed) Brexit and Literature. Critical and Cultural Responses. Routledge, 2018.
**It is noteworthy that even pointing this out was enough to enrage Brexiters, with the Daily Express railing against the comments for ‘mocking’ them.
***The relative numbers in these different camps will become politically significant if a no deal Brexit were to happen. Brexiters are likely to find much less appetite than they think for massive disruption to the amenities of everyday life, even amongst those who currently appear relaxed about the prospect.

Tuesday 25 September 2018

Labour inches towards another referendum

Political predictions are always foolish, especially when they concern Brexit so I take a little bit of credit for the prediction I’ve made since at least July that this autumn Labour would come out in favour of another referendum having been proved half true.

Only half true, because there is still some ambiguity about under exactly what circumstances Labour would support one, and what question they would push for. As for the circumstances, for now this would only be if a General Election does not occur. So the scenario envisaged seems to be Labour voting against any Withdrawal Agreement deal the government come back with – if they come back with anything at all – if it fails Labour’s six tests, which seems all but certain. If enough Tory MPs, on whichever side of the party depending what the deal is, join them, then the deal is voted down. If May then refuses to hold an election, Labour would push for a referendum. (Presumably, also, they would do so if she did get the deal through, although with little chance of success in those circumstances).

Ambiguities and uncertainties

So far, so clear. What remains unclear is whether they would push for a referendum with ‘remain in the EU’ as an option. Keir Starmer said today that such an option was not ruled out. But John McDonnell said yesterday that this option should not be available (as did the influential trade union leader Len McCluskey), but instead the vote should be on the deal (i.e. the putative deal negotiated by the government). The conference motion itself says nothing about what the ballot question would be.

Initial reports of McDonnell’s comments suggested, incorrectly it turned out, this meant voting for ‘this deal’ or ‘no deal’ – a nonsensical proposition (it would mean Labour campaigning for ‘no deal’). Later it became clear that he meant it would be on ‘this deal’ or ‘another deal, to be negotiated’. But this is scarcely less absurd – how could people know what that hypothetical deal would be? And if the vote was in favour of that option, it would surely be inevitable that there would need to be another referendum as and when that deal was done (which would be ‘new deal’ versus ‘remain’, presumably, since it must be inconceivable that anyone would suggest going back for another renegotiation). To say nothing of the imponderables of how long an extension period would be needed, and whether it would be agreed with the EU.

What is also unclear is what happens under this new policy if there is a General Election. Does Labour then adopt a manifesto commitment to holding an immediate referendum (and with what options?), or simply to re-negotiating another deal, or re-negotiating another deal and then holding a referendum on it, and if so with what options? It certainly won’t be possible for Labour to go into such an election – which will be entirely dominated by Brexit – with the same ambiguity as in 2017, and the implication of each commitment is very different. In particular, with a ‘re-negotiation but no referendum’ policy it would mean both main parties offering voters no choice other than Brexit in some form.

Labour’s Brexit dilemmas

I haven't written much about Labour's stance on this blog, and it’s worth reflecting on some of the reasons why Brexit is almost as tortured an issue for them as it is for the Conservatives, even though the vast majority of Labour members and MPs*, and the majority of Labour voters, are opposed to Brexit.

One is ideological principle. For Jeremy Corbyn and some of his allies, the case against the EU remains that of the Labour Eurosceptics of the 1970s, most notably Tony Benn. In present day parlance, the critique would be that the EU is a neo-liberal institution. I’m not sure how much traction that has, though, in that despite Corbyn’s long record on this it’s not clear Brexit is a burning passion for him in the way it is for the Tory Ultras.

After all, although he was criticised for campaigning half-heartedly to remain, the fact is that he did campaign for it, giving EU membership a “7 or 7 and a half out of 10”. It’s hard to imagine a Rees-Mogg or a Farage – not to mention a Hoey – saying the same. Contrast that with his inability to even pretend that he would be willing to use nuclear weapons and it suggests that Brexit isn’t a fundamental matter for him. My impression, for what little it is worth, is that he isn’t that much interested in it, compared with his wider domestic and foreign policy objectives. If so, it’s by no means the case that any likely Labour policy would be incompatible with EU membership. On the other hand, the economic damage of Brexit would certainly make such policies difficult to pursue.

The second reason is electoral: the concern that many traditionally Labour constituencies, especially in the Midlands and North of England, voted leave. Against that, though, it’s clearly not the case that all, or even most, of those who voted leave in such constituencies were, or are ever likely to be, Labour voters. And many who are have since changed their minds. Moreover, even for those who are actual or potential Labour voters, and who still support Brexit, it does not follow that it is anything like the most important issue to them at least to the extent that even the prospect of another vote – for this wouldn’t be a policy of Labour revoking Brexit, just holding another vote – would be anathema to them. It is probably only amongst the most hardline Brexiters that it is considered an affront to democracy to hold a vote!

A third, and of course related, reason is simply tactical – the fear that unambiguous support for another Referendum with an option to remain would hand the Tories the ‘betraying the will of the people’ stick to beat them with. But today’s limited shift has already provoked that, so Labour might as well go the whole hog. Rather as with May’s Chequers Proposal, there’s not much point in taking the pain of being attacked without the gain of developing a clear policy. By contrast, providing such clarity would offer a net gain of about 1.5 million votes according to a recent opinion poll.

If this analysis is right, then it seems highly likely that the Labour position will continue to evolve – quickly, given the press of events - toward supporting a referendum in any circumstances, General Election or no, and if so with remain on the ballot paper. As Simon Wren-Lewis cogently argues in his latest blog, this is really the only option that makes sense. Brendan Donnelly, in an equally cogent piece this week, suggests that the fall out from Salzburg makes a referendum (rather than, in his view, an election) more likely and also thinks it unlikely that remain would not be an option.

However, even if Labour supports such a referendum it does not follow that it will be held and, if it is held, it does not follow that remain will win. And whoever wins it certainly does not follow that that the issues and divisions exposed and exacerbated by Brexit will go away.
*Although for some exceptions, see this montage of quotes and images from a meeting of pro-Brexit members and delegates at the party conference, some of which suggest that it is not just amongst the Tory Ultras that some fairly extreme views are to be found e.g. that people campaigning for another referendum should be put on trial for attempting to overthrow a democratic vote!

Saturday 22 September 2018

Britain is humiliating itself

For all the talk of Theresa May being ‘humiliated’ at Salzburg, the more fundamental truth is that Britain is humiliating itself, with May’s facilitation. To say this is, absolutely, not to be unpatriotic. On the contrary, any failure of patriotism lies with those who have brought us to this woeful pass. For as I pointed out in a post last October, humiliation has been ensured by the way that the government has approached Brexit.

That the Chequers Proposal was never going fly with the EU was obvious from the start, and it is entirely disingenuous to claim that it has been rejected out of the blue and with no reasons given. It could – and probably still will – form the basis for further negotiation, but May compounded the inevitability of its rejection by insisting that it was the only, and non-negotiable, plan*.

This set the stage for what she clearly found a distressing and infuriating rebuff to which she has reacted with ill-judged anger. Ill-judged, at least, if the aim is anything other than gleeful headlines from the dangerously irresponsible Brexiter press and, perhaps, a slightly easier ride at her party conference. But such short-termist, domestically focussed tactics are precisely what have prevented serious, strategic engagement with the complexities Brexit.

If that is an example of May’s poor judgment, discussed in my previous post (which was quoted and expanded upon by James Blitz in yesterday’s Financial Times [£]), it’s important to re-state the fact that what happened in Salzburg grows out of the much deeper failure of the British government to get real about Brexit. If Brexit was to be done, it could never be done in the way the government has tried.

The failure to face reality

In brief, the core failure has been a refusal to acknowledge the binary choice between single market membership and non-membership. That has been evident in every twist and turn of the government’s position – quite as much (albeit in different ways) in the Lancaster House approach, which Brexiters say they supported, as in the Chequers Proposal, which they don’t. These, and other variants, seek in some way to mix and match elements of membership with elements of non-membership.

The (not entirely accurate) shorthand for the binary choice is ‘Norway’ versus ‘Canada’. It is quite misleading for the government to be saying, as May did yesterday, that these are the two unpalatable options being forced upon Britain by the EU. In the run-up to the Referendum it was precisely these two (plus a no deal, WTO option) which figured as the forms that Britain’s post-Brexit future could take. This was clearly evident in, for example, the Treasury’s modelling of these three options prior to the vote.

One of the great dishonesties of the Leave campaign was to obscure or elide the different options, especially by use of the meaningless weasel word of “access” to the single market. The great foolishness of the government since the referendum is to imagine that this campaign dishonesty could be turned into policy in the form of a ‘bespoke’ or ‘red, white and blue’ Brexit.

That was and is impossible, not because of EU intransigence but because of basic definitional issues of what the single market means. And whilst this applies most obviously to the future trade relationship, it is no less the case in relation to non-trade issues such as participation in various EU agencies and programmes.

Paying the price of failure

It is from this core failure that humiliation flows. The stubborn refusal to face reality simply makes Britain look foolish. The basic parameters of the choices available have been clear for months, stated over and over again by Michel Barnier and others in the EU. Every time, the response has been either to ignore them and press on regardless, or to rail against these statements – invariably couched in polite, diplomatic language – as grotesque insults, showing a lack of respect. These narratives of self-pitying victimhood and bellicose nationalism were in plain view in May’s statement yesterday, and in the responses to it.

So we are now paying the national price for the dishonesty of the Leave campaign and the government’s pretence that it is possible to operationalise it. When Brexit was simply a matter of domestic political debate, the Brexiters could get away with dismissing all warnings as project fear and all discussion of practicalities as the tricks of saboteurs and elitists. That is precisely what happened both before and after the referendum.

But since the referendum it has no longer been a solely domestic debate. Brexit has encountered reality, and all the bluster and bullying that Brexiters use to deride and silence their opponents is completely ineffective when conducting international negotiations. It only goes to make the country look unpleasant and rather stupid. That is the humiliation, and it has been brought upon us by Brexiters and the Brexit government – not as an inevitable consequence of Brexit, but as an inevitable consequence of the way that Brexit has been undertaken.

Taking back control?

Perhaps most humiliating of all is the call from the Prime Minister for the EU to come up with a form of Brexit which is acceptable to Britain. This, apparently, is where ‘taking back control’ has brought us.

There has actually been an undercurrent of this right from the outset, as if Brexit were a problem for the EU to sort out rather than a choice that Britain had made and was responsible for. This was evident in reports that in private meetings with Angela Merkel the Prime Minister repeatedly asked to be “made an offer”, to which Merkel replied “but you’re leaving, we don’t have to make you and offer. Come on, what do you want?” with May responding by simply saying again “make me an offer”.

It is also present, in a slightly different way, in the entire notion of a ‘negotiation’, as if getting a good deal for Britain were a shared problem, whereas in fact it is Britain’s problem: for the EU the problem is how to minimise the damage of Brexit to itself**.

We yesterday heard Theresa May saying, all this time after the referendum, and all this time since triggering Article 50, and having failed until last July even to get cabinet agreement on a policy, that “we now need to hear from the EU what the real issues are and what their alternative is”. But the real issues and the viable alternatives have been well-described and well-known for years. The humiliation lies in the refusal of Brexiters to understand and accept them, and the petulance, spite and aggression with which they react when they are pointed out.

In embracing the Brexiters, May may have brought humiliation to herself. What is worse is that it has brought humiliation to all of us, and there will be much more and much greater humiliation to come.

*For detailed analysis of the series of events that led to what happened at Salzburg, see today’s article by Tony Connelly, RTE’s Europe Editor and the doyen of Brexit commentators.
*For a fuller discussion of the negotiating dynamics, and other issues arising from Salzburg, see the latest post on Tom Hayes’ consistently excellent BEERG blog.