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A year on from Brexit Day – does the UK still have an ejector seat?

June 29, 2017

This time last year, on the morning when Britain voted to leave the European Union, I was almost uncontrollably angry. One year on, everything I felt then I still feel: that the referendum shouldn’t have happened in the first place, at least not without a higher bar for success, that promising it had been an act of cowardice on the part of the ruling party, that the electorate was duped and that the consequences were unknowable but almost certainly negative.

Subsequent events have given me no confidence that things might, after all, turn out OK for the United Kingdom.

We are walking away from a political entity in which two major members – France and the Netherlands – by rejecting right-wing extremism in their recent elections, have reaffirmed their commitment to the union. The EU economy is getting stronger, while ours is getting weaker. Our most powerful ally beyond the EU is under the control of an unpredictable sociopath whose loyalty is extended no further than to the last person who flatters him.

Any expectations we might have had about doing a quick trade deal with the US, or any of the other major trading nations, must now seem fanciful.

We face a lonely future. No sunlit uplands, only the prospect of many years of economic under-performance. And if our economy under-performs, where will the money be found for all the post-austerity investments we so urgently need: infrastructure, health services, education, defence and social care? More debt – assuming that there are institutions willing to lend to us – more taxation or a combination of both.

I would be willing to believe that we would have a fair chance of making Brexit work if our political leaders were up to the task. But we are asking a mediocre bunch to do the impossible, and persuade 27 countries and an entrenched central bureaucracy to give us a deal that leaves us no worse off and more socially coherent than we would have been if we had never embarked on this project.

Why do I describe our politicians as mediocre? For me a successful politician needs three qualities in equal measures. These are campaigning skills, personal magnetism and ability to govern.

In the recent general election, the Conservatives were out-planned, out-thought and out-messaged by Labour. In terms of personality, Jeremy Corbyn wiped the floor with Theresa May. He came over in most of the key media events as warm, empathetic and reasonable, whereas May appeared cold, inflexible and emotionally blocked.

Theresa May has experience in government, but her track record as Home Secretary suggests competence rather than stellar ability. As Prime Minister, she has failed to unite her party, and has appeared irresolute and in thrall to her now-departed senior advisors. Her ministers are, with the notable exception of Boris Johnson, anonymous to the extent that it would be hard to imagine any of them as a credible successor. As for Johnson, he’s a chancer with a talent for self-promotion who might have been viable if it were not for his reputation as an incorrigible buffoon.

We have no way of knowing whether Jeremy Corbyn would be capable of governing effectively. Reports of his chaotic performance as leader of the opposition may be exaggerated, but it seems clear that he’s in his element as a campaigner, something he’s done for all but the last two years of his long parliamentary career. How would he deal with the daily grind of government? That remains to be seen.

Lurking behind his affable aura are others who appear far less cuddly. Chief among them is John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, whose rhetoric is a throw-back to the golden age of mobilisation of the masses, agitprop and street protest. I know his ilk – I rubbed shoulders with them at university. There was a quality of hardness and intimidation about them then that I see in McDonnell now.

As for the policies of the parties, it was more of the same from the Conservatives, barring blunders of presentation on social care that sent a chill through the Tories’ most loyal constituency – the home owning elderly.

Labour’s package was a mixture of promises to energise our young voters, and old dogma scraped from the 1960s. The offer to scrap university tuition fees was bound to be a winner, and I support it. As for the re-nationalisation of rail companies and utilities, I fail to see how further reorganisation of our essential services would result in better outcome in the hands of a government apparatus that has become unused to running things directly over the past thirty years.

Either way, the minority Conservative government will limp on at least for the next few months until Theresa May faces one challenge too many to her authority. At that stage there may well be another election, and Corbyn my well get his chance.

It’s entirely possible that by then, opposition to our leaving the EU will have hardened to the point where it would be impossible for either party to ignore. Though both parties would campaign on various flavours of Brexit, an ace in the hole would be available for whichever of them is courageous enough to play it.

If, say, the Labour Party included the promise of a new referendum on Brexit – perfectly reasonable given what we know now and didn’t in June 2016 – it would pick up all those voters who have always known what a disaster Brexit will be, as well as a substantial number of Leavers who regret their original votes.

Add these voters to the under-25s, many of whom for most of their adult lives have been trained by the social media to put their emotions – likes and dislikes – before cold logic, and the newly-cuddly, Glastonbury-friendly Labour party would sweep the country. Corbyn may despise the EU’s capitalist institutions, but he cannot ignore the fact that Brexit was overwhelmingly opposed by the young, educated voters who subsequently turned to him in the recent election.

For the Tories to go for that option would be unthinkable. For Theresa May, or any of her potential successors, it would be a career-ending U-turn.

I might not like everything on the Labour agenda, but the prospect of a new referendum in which we voted to stay within the EU would override my concerns over their more questionable policies. Whether the vote took place immediately after the election or at the end of the negotiation is immaterial. Better a Britain in the EU with Labour in power than outside it with either party in control.

That prospect is the only chink of light I see in an increasingly gloomy outlook for my country. Otherwise, as the EU negotiators who represent member states who see no reason to curry favour with Britain grind away at us in the months to come, the only way forward is a slow decline.

I hope I’m wrong, and that we don’t face a future of friendless irrelevance. Much will depend on how things pan out with the EU negotiations. But we shouldn’t forget that if it becomes even more obvious that we’re plummeting towards a crash landing, we still have an ejector seat.

From → Politics, UK

  1. John Butler permalink

    Agree entirely. I don’t think Brexit will happen now. But the forces against it need mobilising and vocalising. The EU will need to chuck us a life belt though unsurprisingly they’re hardly in the mood. A total humiliation for the UK whatever happens. The end, fortunately, of Britain acting as though it had an Empire still. Never again will we have the political clout and respect we once had.

    • Thanks John. I didn’t speculate over whether the EU would have us back, and under what terms. Yes, you could describe this as a post-imperial watershed. We need to redefine our view of ourselves and move on – hopefully within the EU.

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