I spent yesterday evening listening to a speech by the philosopher A C Grayling at a meeting in Bath, organised by Bath for Europe, on the subject of rejoining the EU (unfortunately I had to leave before the Q and A in order to stand a fighting chance of getting a train back to Cardiff). Grayling has been one of the heroes of the Remain movement: acerbic and indefatigable. I went along to this because, as in the aftermath of December’s disastrous election result, Remainers have to think about what to do next. In particular, we need to decide whether to campaign all-out to rejoin – in the knowledge that Johnson and Cummings appear to be determined to move us as far as possible away from any meaningful relationship with the Union, making rejoining increasingly difficult as time goes on – or whether now is not the time, following the body-blow of that election result.
Grayling argued that the UK could be back in the EU in no more than a few years. His scenario – which he freely admitted was optimistic – revolved around:
– an acceptance that the majority of people had voted for remain or pro-referendum parties, and it was a divided opposition that had allowed Johnson to win and gain the untrammelled power that a Parliamentary majority confers in our political system;
– that in order to overturn the grave harm that Brexit did to the UK, parties of the left and centre-left needed to make common cause, and to offer an electoral pact at the next General Election in support of both electoral reform and a new referendum. That election could come in less than five years if Johnson (and Cummings) managed to throw off the shackles of the Fixed Term Parliament Act and revert to the tactic of holding elections at a time of the Government’s choosing;
– the reality of the negotiations was that they could not be concluded by the end of this year and that politicians would shy away from the appalling political consequences of a no-deal Brexit;
– the EU wants us back, and if the UK remains closely aligned to the EU and its rules the acquis – the conditions of membership – should be relatively easy to meet.
It’s an attractive – some would say idealistic – scenario; Grayling concluded that politicians were wrong to shy away from campaigning to rejoin. We needed to set the campaign going on the ground now, possibly through the use of People’s Assemblies.
Afterwards, I reflected that Grayling’s approach was reasonable, logical and closely-argued. And therein, in a time of unreason, lay its problems.
First, I was worried by his analysis of the result of the General Election. Yes, he is absolutely right about the aggregated UK figures; Johnson did win with the backing of a minority of the electorate and there was a small majority in favour of remain-leaning parties. But once one disaggregates the result the situation changes. Johnson’s triumph was overwhelming in England; and since his election has shown himself to be an unrepentant English nationalist. Scotland looks set for another referendum and possible departure from the UK; Northern Ireland’s position looks set to change as a result of Johnson’s unworkable border proposals and there is an upsurge in interest in independence in Wales; with elections in all three nations next year. Johnson talks a lot about the Union, but not at all about the democratic aspirations of the non-English nations, which will be undermined by Brexit. I think one could argue that the Tory election win was down to an upsurge in English nationalism and the ability of a Tory Party that has changed beyond recognition in recent years to capture nationalist sentiment. There appears to be a new, nationalist, pro-Brexit electoral coalition in England that Johnson will want to appease, and if that means throwing the troublesome Scots and Welsh under the proverbial bus, so be it. The effect of Brexit could be to accelerate the break-up of the Union, with parts – Scotland, Northern Ireland, and even Wales – rejoining. Whatever happens, that Union seems likely to change irrevocably.
Second, it is difficult to see how a coalition of opposition parties could be pulled together. Grayling said that he had rejoined Labour to vote for Keir Starmer in the leadership election; but whatever the outcome of that election there is no appetite in the Labour Party to reopen the Brexit debate that has traumatised it under Jeremy Corbyn’s hapless leadership. And there is likely to be even less appetite for any sort of rapprochement with the Liberal Democrats; Labour’s anti-Lib Dem venom is as powerful as ever.
But most of all, Grayling is advocating reasonable behaviour in a time of unreason; and I wonder whether as a polity the UK is ready to re-embrace that reason. On a (much-delayed) journey home across the border to Wales, I kept reflecting on a comment made by a staffer in the George W Bush administration, often attributed to Karl Rove:
The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ […] ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reality-based_community
I think it’s a quotation that’s relevant to our times: a very Cummings-eque description of what liberals and democrats – people who adhere to the values set out in Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty – are up against when facing a wholly unscrupulous politics based in populism, nationalism and the denigration of truth in favour of heroic ideological statements. And because of that, I question whether we are yet ready to begin that campaign to take us back to where we belong in Europe. Because it seems to me that unless and until we can reassert a politics based on reason and truth, any campaign to rejoin could strengthen the hand of the populists and nationalists.
I respect A C Grayling for the passion, the logic and the clarity with which he set out his case. He was well-received by an audience that was clearly drawn from the reality-based community. But it seems to me that there is a bigger political battle to be won before we can lance the boil of Brexit, one that depends on the ability of liberals to rebuild the case for liberal democracy itself.