The news that a group of MPs have left Labour to form the Independent Group feels both exciting and dangerous. It might well be the first clear break in the resolution of the crisis around Brexit. But, as the SDP found, the British electoral system creates a massive problem. Unless some Conservatives join soon, it also risks Theresa May calling an opportunistic General Election. Just because that would be grossly-irresponsible doesn’t mean it can’t happen.
There had been rumours that something was in the offing. A video showed in my twitter feed from Chris Leslie announcing his resignation from the Labour Party, and I caught up with the remarkable news. Leslie’s words were wise, measured and statesman-like. He reminded me of Roy Jenkins’ Dimbleby Lecture, which signalled what then seemed to be the tectonic shift in British politics that gave birth to the SDP. The criticism of Jeremy Corbyn was stinging but fair. The criticism of Labour for failing to oppose what the Tories are doing on Brexit was spot on. He came across as a man of integrity, remaining true to the principles that took him into the Labour party in leaving a Labour Party that has moved far from that place.
Enabling a People’s Vote, and defusing the present sense of chaos, needs a Government of National Unity.
In the preceding article, on the People’s Vote, I argued that the process should be given significantly more time.
But we also have a real problem: both of the big parties are too fractured either to govern or to face a General Election. The unedifying results create the opposite of the sense of stability needed for such the People’s Vote.
This is the time for a Government of National Unity bringing people together from across Parliament, not as a formal coalition between parties, but as an interim arrangement, which would need a more collaborative way of working. The obvious person to lead this is Kenneth Clarke. This is partly because of his own considerable depth and experience. Age means he is also likely to stand down at the next General Election, so it would be clear that the Government of National Unity is there to provide stability in an exceptional time without being subsequently returned to power. He is also sufficiently unpopular with the right wing of his own party to mean that MPs from across the Commons could support him.
The Brexit process began as an internal Tory party squabble, but its resolution has to move from there to mature thinking about the future. Part of this is around the People’s Vote done thoroughly, overseen by a Government of National Unity.
This means asking the rest of the EU for a significant extension to the Article 50 period. This is not for significant further negotiation — if Brexit has to happen, May’s deal is pretty good — but to enable things to be done with considered thinking about the future.
I suggest that the process needs a People’s Vote, but on a longer timetable than people are suggesting to allow adequate preparation. It needs a Government of National Unity to provide the stability for this to happen, and for enough time afterwards for political parties to draw up manifestos in the light of the result, on which to have a General Election.
There’s a wild — and delusional — optimism at the heart of the fantasy of a hard Brexit and trading on World Trade Organisation rules. The idea of “lots of trade deals” has been dubbed “British Empire 2.0”. What binds these together is people dealing with the awkward legacy of empire by projecting the negative emotions onto the EU and fantasising that we can capture the imagined glory of empire again.
The problem now is unresolved things from the past being worked out in the present, with the UK seeing its own imperialist tendencies in the EU, rather than acknowledging them, chasing an ill-conceived flight of fancy that tries to recapture the past without recognising its shadow, doing real damage in the present and even more serious damage to our future.
I am one of many Liberal Democrats who sees Brexit as a slowly-unfolding disaster, with no conceivable upside. There is every reason to oppose it. In that comment is an implied vision for the future — much less attractive if Brexit actually happens — but it doesn’t reach the same spot as Brexiteers with bright images of what’s in store (albeit detached from reality), or Corbynistas whose optimism would run aground on the harsh realities of a Brexit-induced recession. But there is real hope for what is in view on the other side of a People’s Vote choosing, after all, to remain in the EU.
The preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution is a good place to start — we “exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”.
This is not about a narrowly party-political agenda. It is about embracing the bright future on offer to a Britain at the heart of the EU, which we are in danger of failing to grasp, but gets in touch with the vision that took us in and has enabled us to make a real contribution — not least to bringing about the Single Market.
Putting some flesh on those bones, in no particular order:
The Guardian piece put a persuasive case for seeing bigotry at the heart of the support for Brexit. It is persuasive but not totally compelling, in that I know people who voted Leave out of a sense of alienation or wanting to waive two fingers at politicians, and others who voted Leave because life has been very tough and they felt that “something has to change” — without thinking too closely of the possibility of things changing for the worse.
What’s intriguing about the Daily Mail story is that the claim has been that “immigrants are taking our jobs”. Though the reality is that immigrants also boost the economy and therefore create jobs, this has been a real fear. But Brexit is leading to staff shortages in the NHS, and the Daily Mail is proud of people volunteering to plug the gap, then something else is going on. Volunteers are not paid. The Daily Mail initiative has turned “immigrants taking our jobs”, which sounds like an economic argument, into “we should be prepared to work for nothing”, as a price (apparently) gladly-paid for getting rid of foreigners.
Two years ago I wrote an article suggesting that Brexit makes sense as a new “class war” — in this case an attack by the rich on the rest. The details have changed, but the suspicion persists.
Shortly before Christmas, Dominic Raab made the extraordinary suggestion that we might crash out of the EU on a hard Brexit, not pay the agreed £39Bn settlement, and use that money instead on tax cuts for business. A friend acidly — and rightly — suggested that, when more and more people are needing food banks, and there seems to be an explosion in the numbers sleeping rough, there might be other uses for that money. Her point was underscored by the death of homeless person just outside the Palace of Westminster later the same day.
As a point of fact: if the UK fails to honour what has been agreed, then why would any foreign government trust us? This money is not a sweetener: it is honouring commitments the UK government has already given. If foreign governments can’t trust us, how on earth are the promised “trade deals” to be negotiated?
And the idea of “trickle down”, where money given to the rich somehow boosts everyone has been seriously challenged. The perception is that it instead widens the gap between rich and poor in a way that fuels social tension.
A People’s Vote is looking increasingly likely, but it’s outcome is not in the bag, especially if there are three options.
There’s a warning in a comment from Gina Miller: “We discovered that a vast swathe of people who would vote for no deal across the country would do so because their perception is that no deal means remaining”.
As a strong supporter of full EU membership, the danger is that I seize on every opinion poll that suggests Remain would win in a People’s Vote. But the polls are still uncomfortably close: Remain is ahead almost everywhere, but not by nearly enough. The tracking at whatukthinks.org shows Remain on 36%, Leave on 33% and “don’t know” at 31%. That’s too close. Over at BrexitCentral numbers are being quoted that show Leave in a strong position. My twitter feed showed a BMG poll putting Remain at 52% and Leave at 40%, with the gap widening, but BMG also have a more fine-grained poll showing 51% against a second referendum, and “Canada Plus” as the preferred option for all age groups except those under 34.
Speaking about achievements in the last year, particularly Sophie Bell’s victory in the Watton-at-Stone by election, and the fast-moving situation around Brexit.
It feels as if we are in a very different place from this time last year. Sophie Bell’s super victory in the Watton-at-Stone by election means there is now an oppostion party on East Herts District Council. In Sawbridgeworth, Annelise Berendt Furnace has been doing a brilliant job on the Town Council. Seeing what she’s done in that role, the people of Sawbridgeworth would be daft not to elect her to the District Council in May. The action day in support of David Payne in Goffs Oak on Saturday is another step along the way — in the last elections there we’d gone from fourth to second and are working hard to go further. I won’t be at that action day — instead I’ll be with the people canvassing as part of Terence Becket’s campaign in the by election in Meads ward, Bishop’s Stortford — another place where we have a real prospect. Plans are coming along well for the District Council elections in May.
Help is needed for all of these — you can sign up to volunteer or to donate via the “contact” section of Hertford and Stortford Liberal Democrats web site.
The European Council has approved the Brexit settlement. Coming so soon after its members were at the ceremonies marking the anniversary of the end of the Great War, this should cause people to stop and think.
What Madness is this?
Today’s meeting of the European Council (25 November 2018) endorsed the EU withdraw agreement. In the words of European Commission President, Jean Claude Junker:
“To leave the European Union is not a moment of jubilation. It is a moment of deep sadness.”
“There are no smooth divorces.”
It is a day to weep.
With its characteristic professionalism and generosity, the EU has enabled some sort of agreement. Virtuoso work behind the scenes by negotiators means the deal that has been negotiated a lot better than it might be — though still well short of simply staying in the EU.
But it is a day to weep.
It is a fortnight since European leaders gathered to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War — the “Great War”, the “War to end all wars”. The determination to end war in Europe is what called the EU into being.