I’ve done pretty well this year with my new year’s resolution of not listening to the Today programme on Radio 4, to avoid raising my blood pressure by hearing John Humphrys and Nick Robinson pander to Brexiters, but made the mistake this morning of switching it on. Sure enough, Iain Duncan Smith was talking about how terrible it is that the EU forced the UK to negotiate in this linear fashion, rather than being able to discuss trade in parallel with everything else, and all I could think about was David Davis’s “row of the summer” over the negotiating timetable which lasted all of a day. At every point, Brexiters want some magical negotiation process where everything goes perfectly for them and their irreconcilable aims are all met, rather than accepting that the reality of the situation is nothing like that.
But it’s not only the Tories. This was a disturbing read, as I spotted a familiar name among its co-authors, of one of my masters supervisors from years ago, someone I respect; it turns out he’s a Lexiter. Reading his past articles on Brexit, from before and after the referendum, I see much of the Corbyn agenda, and some points that seem reasonable—if you discount so much else about the imperatives behind and implementation of Brexit.
The timing of the referendum, one year into a five-year fixed parliamentary term, meant that the Tories were always going to control the Brexit process, and four years is plenty of time to screw everything up. Coming after a decade of UKIP politics (and let’s not forget the Tories’ past form in this) also meant that it was going to be a proxy referendum on immigration for too many voters. Discounting that aspect beforehand with the suggestion that Labour would get a chance to shape immigration policy after Brexit seems in hindsight shortsighted (to be kind), and it’s highly disappointing to see no mention at all of immigration and EU citizen concerns in that most recent article.
Whatever golden age of independent market regulation one might imagine that Brexit will make possible, there’s no way to get there without passing through a hellscape of disrupted trade, disrupted lives and ugly racist politics, as we’re already finding in our extended journey through its First Circle. Millions of people’s lives are in turmoil over this, and they won’t thank Lexiters for securing the chance to renationalise the railways at the end of it.
I find it extremely difficult, too, to see Brexit as “a necessary step in building a national growth model that benefits a majority of citizens through democratic decision” when securing it was only possible by distorting democracy. Carole Cadwalladr’s reporting has shown that the referendum broke British democracy badly, and that the entire basis for the events of the past two years is (I would argue) illegitimate. The people who broke it have no interest whatsoever in building a citizen-led welfare state.
My deepest disappointment, though, is that I get no sense of acknowledgement of the importance of European solidarity in these Lexit articles. Okay, the EU isn’t perfect—what actual real-world system of government is? But the EU isn’t just a bunch of buildings in Brussels, and it isn’t just a trade arrangement between 28 governments, it’s people, hundreds of millions of people, gradually over fifty years aligning their interests more closely and increasing their stake in each other’s success, and every step of the way making it less likely that we would screw everything up on the scale that our ancestors did a few generations ago.
Where’s the solidarity? Where’s the sense that, if the EU is too neoliberal for your liking, you work with comrades from across Europe to reshape it, you don’t retreat to Fortress Britain and say I’m all right, Jack? Or “will be all right once we can scavenge some food from these lorries stuck in a twenty-mile tailback at Dover, Jack”.
It’s the same Union Jack hot-air balloon floating off to a golden horizon, with no room in the basket for anyone except UK citizens, and paying no attention to what’s actually happening on the ground.
On that last link, the odds aren’t good when it comes to shifting Brexiters’ attitudes, not least because there’s so little time left to shift them in such a fundamental way. The focus should instead be on the large minority who failed to vote in 2016 because they didn’t see its importance. They will now, and these are people who are less likely to have the hardened nationalist views that drove many Leave voters to the polls.
We should talk about how pooling sovereignty is a way of magnifying our influence on things that affect us, and how becoming a rule taker (whether it’s in the EEA/EFTA or as a no-deal Britain forced to abide by EU rules if it wants to sell anything to its neighbours) is a loss of sovereignty, not a gain.
We should talk about the impact of the EU27 citizen exodus on the NHS, as a way of highlighting the role immigration plays in maintaining the lifestyle that Britons have come to expect, and about the positive features of immigration in general (I thought that the Windrush scandal might spark that debate, but that moment already seems to have passed).
We should talk about the importance of freedom of movement to UK citizens: the 1.3 million living elsewhere in Europe, and the millions more who use it to travel back and forth for work. They aren’t all middle-class examples: the stories of the challenges facing hauliers have been having an effect.
We should talk about the travesty of “sovereignty” playing out in a parliament being railroaded by a minority government, and the breaches of electoral rules in the referendum that were so serious that they’ve prompted the ICO’s largest ever investigation.
Plenty of people are talking about all of this, and it’s making some impact. The polls are shifting to Remain more and more every week. The question is whether they can shift fast enough to make a difference, and whether May and Corbyn will press on regardless. On that score, I’m not so optimistic.
Added by Rory on 7 June 2018.