Friday 2 December 2022

Our politics is incapable of responding to the failure of Brexit

A few weeks ago I wrote about how, with public opinion now firmly settling to the view that Brexit has been an economically damaging failure, Brexiter ideologues were out in force to claim that this was just a new ‘Project Fear’. Typically this either came from, or drew upon the analysis of, the small group of economists who have always been, and no doubt always will be, pro-Brexit. So far as the vast majority of economists are concerned, the debate is over except, as the Financial Times set out in a summary this week £), over just how large the economic damage is.

Although Brexiters will undoubtedly continue to churn out denials of this, they are increasingly putting forward a different defence of Brexit. This arises partly from the implausibility of the economic defence, but also as a way of reconciling defending Brexit with Brexiters’ own frequent laments that the ‘opportunities’ of Brexit haven’t been delivered.

Most notably, what is increasingly emerging is an acceptance by Brexiters that they have indeed lost the battle for public opinion, and that the idea that Brexit has failed is now firmly, possibly permanently, the dominant narrative. Rather than contest the evidence for this, they now propose that it is based on a false criterion of Brexit success and failure.

Brexit has worked!

So the latest line is to say, as Daniel Hannan did in the Telegraph (£) last weekend, that “Brexit has already worked”, the reasoning being that the only actual meaning of Brexit was to leave the EU. We’ve left the EU, so it has worked. Questions of what is then ‘done’ after Brexit are secondary, and not relevant to that of whether or not it has been a success.

In a similar way, towards the end of a typically paranoid and frankly weird article by Brendan O’Neill in Spiked Online it is asserted that:

“[Brexit] wasn’t about trade deals or economic boosterism. It was about democracy. We voted to leave the EU in order to strengthen British sovereignty. We made a constitutional demand, not an economic one. Brexit is working just fine, thanks. We are no longer beholden to laws drawn up by distant institutions over which we have no direct democratic control. That’s what we wanted. Brexit is a success, a brilliant, historic one.”

It is an idea that is now found all over social media with, for example, former Brexit Party MEP Belinda de Lucy tweeting that “[People] who say Brexit is failing are lying. They know full well Brexit is not an economic policy it is simply the act of a nation self-determining its own laws. It can no more fail than the act of any other country governing itself outside the EU.”

In one way, there’s nothing new about this strategy. Brexiters have always segued opportunistically between claims about sovereignty and claims about the supposed economic benefits of Brexit. But this latest iteration takes a particularly hard line in trying to completely decouple Brexit from its effects. Doing so has the particular consequence that it not only enables them to say that Brexit has ‘worked’ and been a ‘success’ simply by virtue of having left the EU but also, conversely, that there is no possibility that it has failed because Britain has, as a matter of fact, left the EU.

A bogus argument

It’s a bogus argument, for at least two reasons. One is that it is such a peculiar, and certainly limited, concept of sovereignty, whereby it is simply something to ‘have’ and is entirely separate from what is done ‘with’ or ‘by’ sovereignty. It is a purely hypothetical concept. Secondly, it is an empirically fatuous understanding of sovereignty. Whether in or out of the EU, a country has to exist within all kinds of international regulations, systems and bodies, which is one of the many reasons why Brexiters are finding it so hard to actually do anything meaningful with this sovereignty. Moreover, countries typically need the agreement of others to do some of the things they want to do. An obvious example is the current so-called ‘small boats crisis’, where the ability of the UK to ‘do what it wants’ turns out to rest upon the agreement of other countries, such as France or Albania. So even in its hypothetical form, this sovereignty doesn’t exist.

If the Brexiters’ response is that what Brexit meant wasn’t just sovereignty but democracy, so that the things that affect British people are voted on by them, or by their elected representatives, then the same issue remains. Like it or not, British people are affected by decisions made in other countries and within international bodies, from NATO to the WTO. And if the response to that is that Britain is represented in, and able to influence, those bodies then the same goes for being an EU member.

Dishonesty and incoherence

It's also, of course, a dishonest argument. Brexit was never presented to the British people as simply being an end in itself. It was always presented as allowing Britain to do certain things and to have certain things. Many of these were, indeed, economic, such as making trade deals or having more money for the NHS, or they were in other policy domains, such as immigration and border control. But they were all to do with the supposed benefits flowing from sovereignty, not just ‘sovereignty’ in the abstract. The stated aim wasn’t simply ‘to leave the EU’ but to do so because leaving the EU would make people’s lives better in various ways.

So it is wholly disingenuous now to say that the sole definition of Brexit being a success is to have left, as if, to coin a phrase, ‘Brexit means Brexit’. It is also completely incoherent, given that Brexiters also oppose, for example, aligning with large parts of EU rules, as proposed within a report by Anton Spisak of the Tony Blair Institute this week. Responding to this proposal, leading Brexiter and former Brexit Minister David Jones “said that aligning with EU rules would defeat the point of having left the bloc” (£). But how can it, if the only test of Brexit is having left the EU? And how can it violate the democratic principle, if alignment is what an elected British government chooses?

It's equally dishonest and incoherent to say, as O’Neill does, that Brexit wasn’t about things like trade deals given how Brexiters trumpeted these as a huge triumph. If they are more coy now, it is only because the Australia and New Zealand deals have been exposed as damaging and of little value, whilst the amended rollover deal with Japan has just this week been revealed to have been followed by a slump in trade with Japan. Yet previously it was regarded by Brexiters as a vindication of their project.

But of course this whole attempt to re-write what Brexit success means is so transparent that a three-year-old could see through it. We know full well that if the figures showed these trade deals to be a huge success Brexiters wouldn’t just shrug and say that Brexit was never about trade deals, they would be saying that this vindicated Brexit. We know that not least because of the way they have constantly made the entirely false claim that the vaccine rollout programme was proof of the success of Brexit. No mention then that the only proof needed of success was to have left the EU.

It’s not even necessary to dig back into the past to show what nonsense this all is. Because, even now, Brexiters are totally incapable of agreeing on what Brexit means. Hannan, in particular, purports to speak with authority on the basis of his own long-standing support for Brexit. Yet, on the very same day as his article was published, an editorial leader in the Spectator, also stressing that magazine’s Eurosceptic lineage going back to the 1975 referendum, came up with a completely different “defence of Brexit”. This one acknowledges the economic problems that have been caused, but makes the familiar argument that the success of Brexit will take years to be judged, and emphasises that “above all, Brexit was a call to abandon an economic model based on low wages and unskilled labour …” [My emphasis added.]

That characterisation can itself be challenged, but the present point is: so which is it? Was Brexit simply about leaving the EU, and the fact of having left means it has now succeeded, as Hannan claims? Or was it about creating a new economic model, the success of which can’t be judged for decades, as the Spectator insists? The answer, of course, is neither. These are not arguments made in good faith, they are opportunistic deployments of incompatible claims in order to wriggle out of accountability, and to deflect public recognition of the abject failure of Brexit.

Politics in limbo

At one level, all this is just about the fading battle for control of the narrative of whether Brexit has been a success or a failure. As I suggested at the time, this battle started in earnest from the end of the transition period, when ‘economic Brexit’ began, and it has gradually been lost by the Brexiters. So, whilst it won’t go away, it is now in substance over, unless something dramatic and unexpected happens. This, as again I’ve suggested before, is the reason why it’s still only the usual cast of diehards who try to defend Brexit, and that they have been forced to adopt ever-more contorted and absurd arguments to do so. It is a mark of having lost that there are so few, if any, new recruits. If anything, amongst many of those who supported Brexit – and I think Rishi Sunak is an example of this – there is a sense that the defence they now offer of it is half-hearted, unconvinced, and unconvincing.

At another level, what is important about this battle is that, to the extent it is settling to the view that Brexit is a failure, then, in principle, it becomes possible to address the political question of what follows from it. But, as it is turning out, this now leaves us in a limbo, because our politics is incapable of dealing with the failure which the public clearly recognize, as do many, possibly most, politicians. In an interview this week, Tony Blair put his finger on this, saying “people think there’s a problem and it needs fixing” but that there is a political fear of addressing it because of the toxicity of the Brexit referendum and its aftermath.

Labour’s strategy

That does not look like changing any time soon barring, again, something dramatic and unexpected happening. As I said last week, the Tories can’t deal with the mess, so it will come down to whether Labour can. Since then, Sunak, who seems increasingly like a schoolboy actor struggling to play the part of a Prime Minister, has made his first foreign policy speech, but the mentions of the EU within it were bland and vacuous. To be fair, perhaps that is the furthest departure from outright antagonism that his party will allow him to get away with, but that is just another way of saying that the Tories can’t deal with the failure of Brexit.

As for Starmer, he has now made an unequivocal statement against freedom of movement of people and with it, not for the first time, ruling out single market membership, as well as a customs union. He must know that going back on this in government would be virtually impossible. That still leaves scope for some progress. Judging by his interview, Blair thinks Labour should, and could, implement the proposals of his thinktank’s Spisak report. These proposals fall short of seeking single market membership “just yet”, but, even so, it’s not clear that Starmer is willing to go even as far as they do, for example and in particular, on extensive regulatory alignment.

Perhaps, as Gaby Hinsliff of the Guardian argues, he intends to do so without trailing it too loudly before the election, but that will cause problems later and hardly constitutes the kind of honesty and seriousness which Brexit requires. It may also be that, as Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia group suggests, he is planning on the basis of having two terms in government to deal with Brexit but, if so, he is also accepting that for the first term he will preside over an economy carrying its drag weight which, in itself, may jeopardise achieving a second term.

Clearly at the heart of all this is electoral strategy, rather than issues of political principle or economic rationality, and that isn’t in itself reprehensible – if it is a good strategy. Writing on his Brexit Impact Tracker, Gerhard Schnyder suggests that:

“Possibly, [Starmer] feels that people left of the centre of the political spectrum are so disgusted by the Tories that they will vote Labour no matter what. Hence, catering to the right wing of the Tory party using anti-Union, anti-immigration, pro-Brexit rhetoric will allow him to reconquer the pro-Brexit former Labour heartlands in the North and Midlands of England without hurting their electoral appeal in the liberal urban centres.”

Schnyder questions the wisdom of this, pointing out that voters on the left might not vote for Labour, or vote at all. In a sense, Starmer is replicating the Blair approach of running from the centre-right, and assuming that everyone to the left will tag along with this. It has some logic, and worked for Blair, but in the process began to lose Labour its traditional votes in its Northern England heartlands, and ultimately completely eviscerated Labour in Scotland. It is an approach which really only consistently works in a wholly two-party system and in which turnout is high.

In any case, Starmer’s version of this strategy is a different one because, to put it at its most basic, rather than going to the centre-right to court centrist voters in the South of England, and hoping to keep traditionalist Labour northerners on board, his approach is to go to the centre-right to court traditionalist Labour northerners, and hoping to keep centrist Southerners on board. This clearly relates to the ways that Brexit has both revealed and created a much more complex political landscape than existed in, say, 1997, the year of the first Blair victory. Within that landscape, ‘the centre’ no longer sits on a left-right axis (perhaps it never really did) and possibly doesn’t even sit at a single location at all.

The risks of caution

It’s not at all clear that Labour strategizing has caught up with this new landscape, although it has been obvious for a while. Of course, it's entirely understandable that Starmer is cautious, though it is telling that a politician as astute as Blair, in his interview, whilst recognizing the reason for that caution, still believes it is politically viable to be bolder. I think that’s right, for two reasons. One is the importance of providing honest and mature political leadership, especially after the dishonesty and, often, infantilism of the last few years. That would be good in itself, and could be an electoral advantage in itself, but the second reason is more narrowly electoral.

For from a purely calculative perspective, Starmer’s excessive Brexit caution is actually rather incautious in a post-Brexit, post-left-right context, given how many Labour voters were remainers. If the opinion polls continue to give Labour a large lead going into the election, there will be a strong incentive for Labour remain voters, in all constituencies, to register their dissatisfaction by voting for robustly anti-Brexit parties, or by not voting at all. They will be emboldened to do so by the assumption that a Tory government is very unlikely. If they do so in sufficient numbers, then any Labour majority will be reduced or, possibly, not materialise at all. The fate of Theresa May in the 2017 election, which she began with such a commanding poll lead, provides a precedent.

However, if, as is more likely, the opinion polls are far closer by the time of the election than they are now, then there will also be a strong incentive for such Labour voters in marginal constituencies to vote for whichever of the more robustly anti-Brexit parties is best placed to win there, in the very real hope of a hung parliament in which a Labour minority administration could be forced to drop Starmer’s red lines. The election of 2010 provides a precedent of sorts. This scenario, in fact, is now the best hope the country has of addressing the failure of Brexit.

An unpredictable future

Having said all this, I’m not sure that there is much value in trying to second guess political events. It’s a fool’s game at the best of times but especially now, when the defining truth of post-Brexit politics is instability and unpredictability. That has been compounded by an almost unprecedented pandemic as well as and ever-more complex and unstable international polity, but both of those could have been accommodated within ‘normal’ politics. It is Brexit which lies at the core of the instability, rearranging political identities, and swallowing up and spitting out four very different Prime Ministers in six years. Sunak’s regime already seems flaky, with multiple rebellions on diverse issues, and a major blow-up over Brexit, perhaps in relation to the Northern Ireland Protocol, an ever-present possibility.

One way of understanding this ‘unleadability’ of the Tory Party is, as with the Labour Party’s agonizing over positioning, to see both as part of the same post-Brexit re-alignment of politics generally: what now constitutes a stable coalition of interests that can hold together a political party and provide it with a deliverable policy agenda and a sustainable electoral base? For this reason, it’s possible there will be an election earlier than expected but, for the same reason, it’s also possible that the result of the next election, whenever it comes, will resolve little, and the sense of crisis and instability will persist.

Regarding Brexit, specifically, that is particularly frustrating because there is actually the basis of a consensus to, at the very least, soften Brexit, and a growing impetus to re-join the EU across all social, age, and regional groups (though with much variation as to the extent of the growth), which has demographics on its side. Most people know one or both of these should happen, and most probably expect that one or both of them will eventually happen. But, for now, there seems no way of joining the dots between that and the political system we have. So we drift on, directionless, declining, decomposing. Something will shift, eventually, but when and what is impossible to know.

For now, our politics is incapable of responding to the failure of Brexit. Indeed, one of the many failures of Brexit is to have left us with a politics lacking that capacity.

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