If there is one political narrative that has dominated late 2017, it is the unravelling of the Brexit project. The evidence has mounted, not just that leaving the EU will make the UK a much poorer and meaner society; but that the polticians who are leading it are simply clueless. The furore over blue passports – in which politicians including the Prime Minister Theresa May have claimed that taking a decision about the colour of our passports (a decision that the UK would have been fully entitled to take as an EU member) has been a major step forward in rediscovering our national identity has lent an additional layer of sheer fatuousness to a political project that has steadily fallen apart in front of our eyes.
The reality is obviously very different from the rhetoric of the blue passport brigade. The Article 50 clock is ticking. The fundamental issues – not least those surrounding the Irish border – remain unsolved, a tentative form of words to allow a move to the next stage of negotiations being no more than a punt into some shortish grass. It is obvious that the EU negotiators are running rings around their UK counterparts, to the extent that it is now reported that Theresa May has so little confidence in her Secretary of State for Exiting the EU that she has empowered one of her officials to speak to the chief EU negotiator in David Davis’ place. Davis himself, having told Parliament that his Department was preparing fifty-eight sectoral studies of the impact of Brexit – in “excruciating detail” – has recently published a set of content-free papers that appear to have been prepared by a combination of Spads and middling-to-poor PPE undergraduates (the two are by no means mutually-exclusive) – while overlooking the Treasury’s own 2016 paper, a rigorous and sobering document that leaves no doubt about the damage that Brexit will cause to the UK economy.
The economic case for Brexit has always been non-existent – even the ideological fringe of economists who back Brexit, like Patrick Minford, believe that it can only succeed at the price of the liquidation of manufacturing industry. But at heart Brexit is not an economic project – it is a political one, based around the slogan of “taking back control”, and resting on the idea of sovereignty. And I would argue that, devastating though the economic consequences of Brexit would be, it is the political consequences that would be most horrifying.
At the heart of the Brexiteers’ case, quite obviously, is the fact that they won a referendum. The arguments will continue to rage about the nature of that referendum, especially as allegations of Russian interference and unlawful spending by the Leave campaign mount. The victory was narrow – and the leave vote only represented some 27% of an electorate from which those directly affected the most by Brexit – British citizens living in Europe – were excluded. But there are more fundamental issues than these.
The most obvious issue is that this was a referendum victory based on lies. Most obvious was the lie on the side of the bus – the £350m per week for the NHS which has proved to be wholly illusory and was never in any case in the gift of the leave campaign. There was the lie that the EU the UK more than the UK needs them; the lie that it would be a simple matter to negotiate trade arrangements under WTO rules; every one of these built on a vision of British (or, more precisely, English) exceptionalism that is wholly unevidenced in the real world.
And as time has gone on, the referendum result is increasingly being used to justify political decisions – most notably to leave the Customs Union and the Single Market – that did not appear on the ballot paper, but happen to suit the leadership of a Party that has been tearing itself apart over Europe for a generation, and in which a faction of extreme nationalists, wholly untroubled by considerations of evidence, have gained control.
And of course that is part of the real problem with this referendum: that its origins had nothing to do with democracy, but in the moral and intellectual cowardice of David Cameron, a Tory party leader running scared of UKIP and without the courage to face them down. For all the talk of democracy and taking control, this referendum was founded in weak and grubby political gamesmanship. And, as the negotiations continue, it becomes increasingly obvious that the rhetoric of “taking back control” was wholly hollow; the moment that Government and Official Opposition collaborated in the triggering of Article 50, control was lost, irrevocably (although since then it has become clear that if the UK wanted, the mechanism does exist to revoke Article 50, in contradiction to what I and others said at the time).
I wrote at the time of the referendum result that it was a vote for soft fascism. Eighteen months since the referendum, it’s looking a lot less soft. The surge in reported racial attacks and abuse since the referendum is testimony to that; as is the language of the right-wing nationalist press, which has branded those Tory MPs who have sought to remain inside the Single Market and Customs Union – neither of which, remember, was on the ballot paper in June 2016 – as traitors. The MPs concerned have received death threats, and it’s worth remembering that not long before the referendum an MP was murdered by a far-right fanatic. Not just MPs, but the judiciary who had the effrontery to rule that Brexit should face Parliamentary scrutiny have received the same treatment, in the name of standing in the way of the will of the people. The Universities are under attack, the tabloid assault aided by the nasty and sinister attempt by a Government whip to compile information on pro-EU teaching. That narrow referendum result – backed by 27%, remember, of those eligible to vote – has become the rationale for the wholesale undermining of political and judicial institutions who impede what a handful of newspaper editors have decided is the will of the people. Far from promoting democracy, this referendum has done what referendums always do: it has provided a tool for undermining democracy, because it has allowed nationalists to undermine the fundamental principles of judicial and Parliamentary independence, without which liberal democracy is meaningless.
And here is the problem. Brexit has moved on beyond being a simple question of whether or not the UK should remain in the EU. It has become a shorthand for a whole range of political and ideological positions: for leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, for a way of life that is insular and inward-looking, steeped in nostalgia for a Britain that only ever existed in the imagination; for a society in which these nostalgic tropes trump social justice and even truth itself – where critical, objective thinking is an act of treachery; where Parliament, Judiciary and Universities must bow down to what a handful of wealthy newspaper proprietors declare to be the will of the people; where to indulge in rational, open debate has become an affront to the overweening ideology of “taking back control”; where discrimination against people of colour or of a different culture is tolerated as an assertion of national identity; where the colour of one’s passport is more important than the freedom of movement it brings; where, like a latter-day Downton Abbey, people know their place.
At its heart, Brexit is a revolt against politics itself; against the idea that political decisions should be taken on the grounds of evidence and reason, with an understanding that politics is about trade-offs and resolving conflict through compromise. It is a revolt against reason, process, consensus, responsibility – against the central tenets of liberal democracy. The language of Brexit is the hyperbole of the social media warrior for whom freedom of speech is no more than licence to abuse.
And it is for all those reasons that Brexit must be utterly opposed by anyone – anyone – who believes that the principles of liberal democracy are worth fighting for.
The political question of how to oppose Brexit remains complicated the equivocation of the Labour Party leadership. Labour’s leadership failed – dismally – to campaign with any vigour or conviction for a remain vote, even though it was always obvious that a strong showing from Labour was essential to winning the referendum for Remain. Jeremy Corbyn notoriously called for Article 50 to be invoked immediately after the referendum result – showing that he did not understand the issues involved. On his watch, Labour MPs where whipped to support triggering of Article 50 when it was clear that the UK was not remotely ready, and that to do so would give the EU the upper hand in the negotiation. Throughout, Labour seems reluctant to oppose, apparently too scared to come off the fence and oppose a Brexit that will hit its core supporters so badly.
There are those who claim that Labour is playing a long game, waiting for the tide to turn, so that it edges towards opposition at least to leaving the Customs Union and the Single Market while retaining its pro-Leave support in its heartlands. That support may well be exaggerated, but Labour’s lack of leadership on the issue is the more surprising when its bettter-than-expected result in the 2017 General Election was largely the result of a surge in its support among young people – the electorate of the future who, according to every poll, overwhelmingly oppose Brexit. Moreover, all the evidence suggests that Labour MPs overwhelmingly oppose withdrawal from the Customs Union and the Single Market; in Wales, the only part of the UK in which Labour is in Government, First Minister Carwyn Jones is adamant that the Welsh economy must have full and unfettered access to EU markets.
The problem with Labour is that the woefully inexperienced – and, in the current state of Labour politics, unshiftable – Corbyn is surrounded by people whose political tradition is closer to the Brexiteers than they would like to admit. Momentum remains committed to a quasi-Leninist model of party organisation in which a simplistic view of the mandate dominates: votes of members used as post-hoc justification for centralised decision-making. Moreover the intolerance of debate; the misogyny and anti-Semitism; and the manipulative obsession with deselecting candidates who fail to adhere to the letter of the line, of many on the traditional Left is a mirror image of the Brexiteers’ antipathy to liberal democracy. The similarity between some Corbyn supporters and the hard Brexiteers is striking and disturbing. And if one accepts that Labour is trying to play a tactical waiting game, it’s particularly ironic that a Labour leadership whose supporters regard “Blairite” as the ultimate term of abuse seems so willing to countenance what looks awfully like a wholly Blairite strategy of triangulation.
Having said that, there are MPs from across the Labour spectrum who are speaking out in opposition to Brexit, aware both of its consequences and that the public mood is changing. Swansea West MP Geraint Davies has proposed a Private Member’s Bill requiring a second referendum, which receives its Second Reading on 19th January: he argues that in Swansea, which voted narrowly to leave, opinion is shifting. It remains to those of us in the Labour Party, outside the Momentum bubble, to make the case. The intellectual case for Brexit is in tatters, as is the Prime Minister’s negotiating strategy.
So opposing Brexit – and leading the debate, arguing passionately the case that Brexit will hurt British people, and hurt the poorest and most vulnerable most, would not only help to kill the Brexit nightmare; it would also be an opportunity for Labour to reassert its traditional values, and to become once again a popular party in the mainstream of liberal democracy, as distinct from its lurch into a populist party that mirrors the faults of its opponents. It was true right at the outset of this debacle that defeating Brexit needed a vigorous, campaigning Labour party; that remains just as true today.
In conclusion: Brexit must be opposed, in the name of liberal democracy. It is a monster that has broken its chains and – leaving aside its potentially catastrophic economic results – threatens a slide into nationalist authoritarianism. And if it summons the courage to oppose Brexit outright, Labour may well find its defining cause and its route to electoral victory.