One answer is horror: there’s a compelling case for asking the British public whether the Brexit that is negotiated is what they actually want — not least because the dishonest and contradictory messages from the Leave campaign mean that many who voted Leave will find a large gap between the deal that is offered and what they thought they had voted for.
But an Exit From Brexit means healing the deep divisions that it has exposed, not just a narrow vote the other way in a referendum. That means bringing across many of those who voted Leave, and engaging with why they voted that way. Many voted Leave out of fear, and they still have reason to be afraid. That is particularly the case in the Labour heartlands.
On 26 February, Jeremy Corbyn gave a speech saying that Labour favoured remaining in customs union with the EU. The week leading up to that was dominated by said an absurd, untrue, and ultimately retracted, allegation that he had spied for Czechoslovakia. It seems like a testing of absurdity on the way to a wise position on Europe.
In the foreground was the media storm which ended with Jeremy Corbyn winning an apology and payout from Tory MP Ben Bradley over his “Wholly untrue communist spy tweet”.
This is so absurd that the question it raises is “Why on earth did anyone believe it?”
In the middle of the storm, one comment caught my ear — Jeremy Corbyn saying that he had spoken with Czech diplomats because he wanted to hear both sides in the Cold War. An individual backbench MP won’t have had a huge effect, but advocating peace rather than war, and talking with the other side rather than demonising them, sounds like the conduct of a wise statesman.
So, why has this story blown up now? There is a political answer, and a below-the-surface one.
I was out today with a group of people from East Herts for Europe in Ware. In among the leafleting and gathering 161 signatures on a petition for referendum on the terms of Brexit (once the government actually works out what those are, and actually manages some meaninful negotiations). There were some fascinating conversations.
In the referendum campaign, I was focussed on Cambridge, but friends in Hertford and Stortford talk of street stalls getting significant opposition. The case for Europe was worth making and clearly needed to be made. The constituency was the closest in the country to 50:50.
Now the feel is different. It’s unwise to draw any conclusions from those who didn’t want to stop and talk, but conversations today were rich. Some shed light on people’s real worries over Brexit, and others on their attachment to it.
Messages of support for Remain
There were people who stopped to thank us for being visible. There were stories of people feeling gutted by the result and of people from elsewhere in the EU feeling unwelcome since the referendum.
A few months after the referendum I gave a conference paper where I suggested that Europe has been so important to the UK for so long that the referendum and its result had had a profound effect on the British political system, leaving it struggling to cope. The week of the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos has provided a striking example of this.
The systemic problem
In the background of that paper was the thought that stable systems need some form of containment. That applies at lots of levels, from a small child feeling safe in the containment of its mother’s arms, through to people feeling an anxiety over immigration feeling the need for a country’s borders to be enforced to make them feel safe. Containment is particularly important when people feel vulnerable. It can be about actual physical needs, but is much more about managing anxiety. Some of this will seem irrational, but it makes sense if it is thought of as managing anxieties that are hard to express. Immigration is a good example because the economic evidence that it helps the economy, boosts living standards and doesn’t cost people their jobs doesn’t communicate at the same level as the raw emotional fears in people for whom life is uncomfortably fragile. Continue reading “A snapshot of the chaos of Brexit”
Recently a friend and Liberal Democrat activist showed me an email from Labour Remain — formed at the start of 2018 and claiming significant support. This comes on the back of a survey showing that 78% of Labour members disagree with Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to a referendum on the terms of Brexit How should Liberal Democrats respond?
Brexit is a profound threat to British values, the economy and the very integrity of the United Kingdom. In that sense it needs us all to pull together.
The country is in a crisis. We have been so intertwined with the rest of Europe, for so long, that the referendum result has had a deeply destructive effect on public life. Parliament seems paralised. Andrew Adonis has written of a Brexit-induced “nervous breakdown” in Whitehall. The Conservatives and Labour seem massively dysfunctional. There are stories of moderate councillors in both parties being de-selected. Most of the pro-Remain majority in the Commons is silent or vanquished. My excitement over the formation of Labour Remain is more than a little tempered by the lurch to the Left in their recent National Executive Committee elections and stories of MPs being threatened with de-selection. Faced with Brexit, ths has all the wisdom of re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. We need to think differently.
The collision of stories in the last few days sends a shiver down the spine. At Christmas, there are grinding stories of real poverty, and of the super rich who donated to the Leave campaign complaining at HMRC asking them to pay their taxes.
Early last autumn I blogged about Brexit as a new class war — already by then it was seeming like a cynical attempt of a wealthy minority to mobilise the frustrations of the most disadvantaged to vote in a way that helped the wealthy minority. I hesitate to lay that at the door of the Conservatives because that is a deep betrayal of the “one nation conservatism”, which deserves respect, and took us into the EU, displaced by something far nastier.
Hearing the BBC coverage of the engagement of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle, a friend tweeted in frustration that the Brexit debate would look rather different if the BBC put as much effort into describing the details of our relationship with the EU as they did the details of the relationship between the prince and his fiancée. He has a point.
Cynics would note that this announcement eclipsed the news that the government had finally published the Brexit impact reports — but in a form so redacted as to deserve fierce criticism, and was attempting to restrict amendments to the Budget, with the implication that this is an attempt to rig parliament to avoid defeat.
I think the cynics are wrong. With the way the Brexit saga is unraveling, it’s hard to imagine any day on which the announcement of a royal engagement would not have seemed like an attempt to distract attention from a piece of bad news.
The increasing tensions in Spain, leading up to the Catalan parliament’s unilateral declaration of independence on 27 October, offer a strong case for a more federal Europe, made stronger by the lack of other viable options.
In the distant past, this is something that would have been settled on the field of battle. Spain would seek to put down the province declaring independence, and Catalonia would have resisted.
In the twenty-first century, there’s reasonable hope that this won’t end in bloodshed. There’s a vestige in that older way of thinking in the speed with which Spain suspended Catalan autonomy, calling fresh elections, and the threats to arrest the (now ousted) Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont. From the outside, it feels like a game of double bluff, but one in which every twist tears at the self-understanding of the many who see themselves as both Catalan and Spanish, making it harder to find a negotiated solution.
In a dis-spiriting parallel with Brexit, the near-impossibility of establishing an independent state seem not to impinge on the desire for it (countries can only join the EU with the agreement of all existing members, and Spain would be likely to veto membership). The sense is of poorly and partially articulated grievances leading to actions that make things much worse.
For the EU this presents a dilemma. Donald Tusk quickly came out with a statement saying that, the declaration changes nothing, and the EU will deal only with Madrid. In one sense he has no choice: for the time being this is an internal matter for a member state. In the short term, that would come under pressure only if Spain cracks down on Catalonia in a way that calls into question its commitment to the basic ideals of the Union. That’s possible, and there was pressure for action on that basis against Hungary in May 2017, but the hope is that things won’t get that bad.
But the other side of the EU’s dilemma is that this does change everything.
Are we right to mock Theresa May, or is she caught in the impossible position of trying to deal with the wreckage of her predecessor’s mistakes, over Europe and in calling a referendum without planning for both possible outcomes, and the divisions in her own party?
Almost since the moment when she became Prime Minister it has been tempting to mock Theresa May. From her 2016 conference speech, when she seemed to have abandoned her previous support for EU membership and managed the meaningless “Brexit means Brexit”, through vacuous comments on the “will of the people”, to her performances as the “Strong and stable” “Maybot” in the 2017 General Election.
But is this fair? Her disastrous speech speech to the 2017 Conservative Party Conference begins to flag up another side. As it stands, she may well go down in history as the most unfortunate Prime Minister in a very long time. In the long view of history, she may get credit for courage in an impossible situation, and come to be seen as one of the high-profile victims of Brexit.
That conference speech said more than its words. Letters falling off a sign, someone playing a prank, and a nasty cough could be seen as bad luck. But things are rarely as simple as that, and it can be worth asking what is happening unconsciously in the seemingly-accidental.