The prospect that our next Prime Minister will be a reality-phobic extreme right-wing Brexiteer who will press the big red button at the earliest opportunity is becoming ever greater. So reflecting on non-Brexit might strike you as a quixotic enterprise. But we each have to do whatever it takes to keep the darkness at bay.
In my last post I set out why I think whichever route is chosen from here Hardcore Leavers are in line for disappointment. One of my objectives in making that point was to suggest that any case which rests on the argument “we should do X because otherwise there could be civil unrest” should be treated very sceptically. There is a chance of civil unrest whatever happens. And governments that are driven by fear of the mob show no leadership at all.
Similarly, I have no great sympathy with arguments that lawyers should desist from trying to clarify the constitutional processes around Brexit. If there is genuine ambiguity then it is right that clarity is sought. To do otherwise – and argue that the result of an advisory referendum is unambiguously sufficient to determine action – would be to disregard the importance of due process and the rule of law. I say that not because I want to stop Brexit. I say that because the rule of law is a key component of this – or any other society’s – social fabric and if we casually undermine it then the long term consequences are dire. It is better for Brexit to be affirmed through constitutionally legitimate processes and, once it has been, then that is the answer. To circumvent representative democracy to appease vociferous Leavers is to create discontent among those who value due process and the requirement that state action be appropriately legitimised. There is no route forward that won’t generate dissatisfaction for a significant proportion of the population.
In this week of the Chilcot report I’m tempted to draw a parallel with the way in which UN resolutions were, or weren’t, used to justify the UK’s participation in the Iraq war. But I won’t.
Anyway, at this precise point in time I don’t think we can rule out non-Brexit as a possible future. So how might that be handled?
One suggestion is that there will be a typical British fudge and the can will repeatedly be kicked down the road. We can see the outline of that approach in the way several candidates for the Tory leadership were offering dates for triggering Article 50 some considerable way into the future. We detect it in the specification of preconditions for negotiation that are difficult or impossible to meet.
But kicking the can would not be an effective strategy. The currency and the economy are already taking a pounding. The ongoing uncertainty would have a devastating impact upon the lives of millions of people living in this country. It is already having a hugely negative impact upon domestic and foreign investment and job availability. If politicians were to adopt the position that Brexit is coming but we’re not going to say when – while actually not planning to ever pull the trigger – then that would quite possibly be the worst of all possible worlds.
It would be much better for politicians to explicitly state that they are going to set aside the result of the referendum. That would calm the markets, reassure investors, and bring some greater comfort to those who have made their lives in Britain but currently fear that they could be forcible repatriated.
If politicians were going to pursue non-Brexit one important question is by which mechanism. It could, presumably, be an executive decision without the need for any broader endorsement. That would be the ‘cleanest’ approach, in the sense that it is unambiguous that a decision has been made, rather than hoping to engineer the outcome through some other mechanisms – a second referendum, a vote in Parliament, etc.
A key problem with adopting this approach to non-Brexit – “Thanks for the advice from the referendum, we hear that a majority want some form of Leave but we’ve decided that it isn’t a good idea” – is that there are going to be some very disgruntled people. So how can non-Brexit be defused?
That is the major challenge. One significant area of concern is that it would give greater momentum to the far right. It would offer a foundation for a betrayal-of-the-people narrative. History suggests that heading down that route quite often leads to the rise of out-and-out fascism.
Just announcing non-Brexit would be utterly inadequate. It would be akin to lighting the blue touch paper and stepping away. So there has to be more than that.
There is a legitimate argument that while the majority who voted in the referendum voted for the non-specific idea of “Leave” there are clearly several different versions of what “Leave” might look like and people were voting with different things in mind. So there is no majority for any specific model of Leave. (That’s in essence the argument for a second referendum on a detailed proposal). But that argument is backward looking, and would no doubt compel Brexiteers to claim that this is sophistry.
I think defusing non-Brexit would require much more far-reaching argument and action. And the action is as important as the argument. It would need to include:
- the argument that the negative economic fallout from the referendum outcome is already pretty dire and proceeding to actual Brexit would be disastrous for the standard of living of the whole country.
- the acknowledgement that the sort of post-Brexit arrangements that would satisfy the demands of prominent Brexiteers are unlikely to be feasible within the EU framework (eg unfettered access to the single market but stronger control of freedom of movement) and anything that is realistically on offer is going to make the country’s economic position worse.
- the argument that while many voters have indicated their concerns and frustrations by voting against the EU and, in many cases, immigration, these are not the ultimate sources of the problems they face and the grievances they feel. The problems should be seen as a longer-term products of globalisation, on the one hand, and shorter term products of austerity policy, on the other. Austerity policy is likely to intensify on Brexit and as a consequence Brexit will make things worse not better.
- the argument that it is only by looking hard at redistribution of wealth, investment in disadvantaged communities, serious attention to public services and education, and allocation of resources to ensure that the impact of migration/population change is mitigated that the economic concerns of disadvantaged communities will in the long run be addressed. And these arguments need to be backed up by action.
- more serious attention to the cultural impacts of immigration but at the same time a reassertion of the liberal message of toleration. We need to replace the emphasis upon division with a recognition of our common humanity. The last thing we need is to further denigrate human rights, rather we need to take them more serious.
There are several obviously challenges with this agenda.
The first is that it requires overturning some of the principles that have underpinned policy for the last several decades. For example, greater redistribution in pursuit of social stability and greater social cohesion runs against policy thinking that has largely eschewed the spatial. It would also require challenging thirty years of tabloid media narrative that is antagonistic to the EU and migrants.
The second is that it requires voters to trust that political leaders are acting in the best interests of the whole country and not harbour the belief that it’s all an elite conspiracy to do them down.
The third is that to adopt this agenda would required seriously brave political leadership, of a type which is in relatively short supply at the moment.
The fourth is that it requires a good chunk of people to be swayed by cogent argument and possess a willingness to revise their views on the basis of changing evidence. When it appears that in many quarters beliefs are what Left Outside aptly described as “reality invariant” that is no trivial challenge. That is, beliefs are based upon perceptions and those perceptions are insulated from the influence of external factors and changes in the external environment: so, for example, fear of crime increases even when actual levels of crime decrease.
The fifth is that there is next to no chance of this agenda being adopted by the Conservative party which, unless it chooses or is obliged to no con itself, is likely to be in government until 2020.
The agenda listed above might feel a bit Corbynesque. Clearly it has more in common with some arguments emanating from Labour than the Conservatives. But I don’t think it is the exclusive preserve of the Labour party.
Which is a good job, given the mess the Labour party is in at the moment. Others are willing and able to make this type of case. And they are doing so. The question is whether their voices will be heard and whether anyone is listening.
So the more I think about it the more of a stretch it is to see non-Brexit being successfully defused. It would require a Herculean effort from a coalition of the willing. That would only seem likely if we appreciate our current situation as a moment of existential risk.
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