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.
Recently, various pro-Brexit voices have been claiming that the Good Friday Agreement is dead. There is certainly a big danger of it being a casualty of Brexit, but it is certainly not something to be sacrificed. Instead, it’s worth thinking about why it is under strain — in order to save it.
The Good Friday Agreement, signed on 10 April 1998, was a remarkable achievement. After an extended peace process, which had built up sufficient trust to make a breakthrough possible, it finally brought a way to share power between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, ending decades of armed conflict.
The problem was, and is, that there is legitimacy in the claims and the stories on both sides. Finding a route to the point when both communities can co-exist peacefully is the sanest way to peace. My reading of the story is that the fundamental change that made this possible was that the UK and Eire had both been in the EU for long enough for people to get used to it.
It is possible for communities to co-exist on a day-to-day basis, but the fundamental question which is hard to fudge is “on which side will you be if there is a war?” In other words, “Will you fight for Dublin or for London?”. Peace is possible when there has been enough peace and stability for long enough to mean that question is not at the back of people’s minds.
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.
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.
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.
Privileged access for big business to government in the Brexit process threatens to make it a “Brexit for the rich”, not the people who voted for it and already felt left behind.
The Independent for 26 August 2017 ran an article by Jon Stone and Joe Watts, based on a report saying that big business and banks have been dominating access to government over Brexit, while labour groups and NGOs have been marginalised.
Without access to the report itself, its not possible to verify its assertion, but at the very least it seems highly credible Last year I blogged about Brexit as a new “class war” in which it felt as if the wealth were grabbing the opportunity of Brexit to re-shape Britain in a way that exaggerates wealth divides.
Advocates of “trickle-down” economics will say this is fine: prioritise the key wealth creators and everyone gains. That didn’t work under Margaret Thatcher, and there’s little scope for it working now, except for those who are temperamentally-equipped to gain from a brutalising “each person for themself” mentality.
29 March 2017 was not a good day in the history of the U.K. It was the day when we took a wild leap into the unknown, chasing fantasies over reality. What Brexit actually means is hardly clearer now than when the referendum was called.
The prize for the most absurd Brexit comment on the doorstep in the first three months of 2017 goes to the person who said: “I voted Leave. We were fine before we went in and we’ll be fine now. It’s my children and grand-children I feel sorry for”.
The litany of lies from the Leave campaign should anger people: the £350 million a week for the NHS (denied the morning after the vote), the fantasy of a threat that Turkey would join the EU and flood us with immigrants (suddenly not an issue), the threatened end to free movement of people causing nurses to leave the country than burst of jobs, “take back control” turning into having to obey the rules others make in what Michael Hessletine has called “the greatest loss of sovereignty in British history“, and renewed pressure for Scots independence and Irish re-unification which brings the Brexit-related break-up of the U.K. much closer.