Much discursive work was done in advance of the Referendum vote to obscure the issues – to promise in vague terms that we could have our cake and eat it. But the real work started after the vote. The referendum result itself tied very little down, so power had to be exerted to shape the future trajectory.
The Conservative government was elected in May 2015 with a mandate to stay in the Single Market. As I’ve said before, there would have been nothing logically inconsistent in saying that the UK was leaving the EU but staying in the Single Market. Indeed, it would be the easiest way to square the various commitments.
However, the argument was made that the Referendum result superseded the Conservatives’ electoral mandate so the commitment to the Single Market must be set aside. “The British people” voted to get out of the EU completely because that’s the only way to crack down on immigration – which is inferred to be their major concern. The Government must deliver on the wishes of the British people.
The use of “the British people” in this way is one of the central, and most invidious, tropes of this debate. A majority of those who voted in the referendum voted, for diverse reasons, to leave. No one can deny that. Almost as many people voted to remain. But the views of the latter group are not worthy of recognition as those of “the British people”. They have been completely marginalised. That diversity of reasons for voting leave has been collapsed down to one – immigration – which, in the face of the assumed inviolable and integral nature of Freedom of Movement to the EU project, means that the only type of Brexit on the cards is a hard Brexit.
The “wishes of the British people” performs another function.
The EU Referendum was advisory. There would be nothing technically wrong or inappropriate in Parliament noting the outcome of the referendum, perhaps sensibly taking some actions in response to some of the concerns aired during the referendum campaigns, and then setting it aside.
David Cameron made leaflet-based pledges to honour the referendum. But he’s no longer a player in the game. There is no one still playing the game who is obliged to honour his commitment. Unless they choose to. Or unless it is possible discursively to close off other options and create a sense that ‘There Is No Alternative’ but to vote to pursue Brexit. That is the enterprise in which Europhobic tabloid newspapers and Brexit-supporting MPs and commentators have been engaged since last June. They have been largely successful in setting the terms of the debate. But it is important to recognise it is discursive achievement and not in any sense a given.
This has largely been done by traducing our tradition of representative parliamentary democracy and installing instead some vague notion of MPs as delegates who are obliged to vote in accord with the views of their constituents. Not, we should note, to use their judgement to decide what is best for their constituents as a whole, but to vote in line with the Leave majority. In fact, it is worse than that. The argument has been prosecuted – so far, with considerable success – that even MPs in constituencies that clearly voted to Remain are obliged to support triggering Article 50 and send us towards Brexit. What is demanded of such MPs is that they act neither as representatives nor delegates of their own constituents but simply as facilitators of the wishes of the 52% who voted Leave in June. And they should do so whether or not they, personally, judge Brexit to be wise. They are told, in stark terms, that to do otherwise is career suicide. It may even be tantamount to “treason”. The prospect is voting otherwise is condemned as showing contempt for ‘democracy’ – frequently by those who show only the loosest grasp of the meaning of the term as it operates within our system of government.
If we accept that politics is a process of ongoing deliberation and debate, and that decisions and promises made at one point (e.g. in Election Manifestos that give governments their mandate) may be superseded or no longer be serviceable as events evolve, then perhaps we should pause to reflect again.
If Donald Trump had been elected prior to the EU referendum, would it have resulted in a vote to Leave? Aspirations for a “Global Britain” might be plausible when the international trading environment is benign. How do they look when protectionism is on the rise? When the key market which is seen as substituting for lost European trade has just signalled that it is heading towards isolationism? It is true that Mr Trump has promised an early trade deal. But Mr Trump has promised to rebalance trade in favour of the US. Anyone who believes that any trade deal offered will be to advantage of Britain rather than the US has really not been paying attention. The art of the deal is something altogether different.
It is possible that some may have taken the view that, on balance, showing some solidarity with our near neighbours in the EU, at a time when the US shows signs of turning its back not only on international trade but the whole architecture of post-World War II global governance, might have been a more prudent strategy.
What of Theresa May’s approach to the Brexit negotiations? She has concluded that the only good Brexit is a good hard Brexit. Despite experts insisting that sorting out the UK’s trading relationship with the EU will take longer than two years, Mrs May is determined to push ahead in that timescale. Of course, it would be relatively easy to secure a trade deal in that time if the UK were to simply accept whatever terms the EU offers. To get a good deal requires rather more.
Yet Mrs May has made dark threats about changing the UK’s economic model if the EU doesn’t give the UK what it wants. Even if what the UK wants – as framed by the Brexiteers – is barely coherent, given the institutional constraints and political imperatives facing other EU countries. Mrs May holds out the prospect of turning the UK into a low-tax, low-regulation Singapore of the north. My sense is that few on the EU side treat that threat very seriously. If nothing else, functioning tax havens tend to be on a much smaller scale geographically and demographically.
There is a fear that Mrs May’s threat will elicit an attempt by the EU to write into any exit agreement protections against a race to the bottom and that this, in turn, will mean that agreement over exit terms is even less likely. The conspiracy theorists – or cynics – amongst us might suggest this is the game plan: the Brexiteers are setting up the negotiations with the EU to fail. They can then blame the EU for the failure, and they have an excuse to attempt the achievement of their own personal nirvana: deregulated, degraded bargain-basement capitalist, red-in-tooth-and-claw.
What if that future had been set out clearly on the Referendum voting paper? That voting Leave didn’t hold out the guarantee of greater prosperity and improved living standards for those Left Behind? Instead there was a real risk not only that the country would end up poorer, but that aggressive tax competition would result in further degraded public services, further labour market deregulation would result in poorer terms and conditions for workers, and environmental deregulation would result in a degraded and health-damaging environment. Clearly, those who were voting to pull up the drawbridge at all costs would have been unmoved. But survey evidence suggests that a considerable proportion of leave voters were not interested in curbing immigration at all costs. Indeed, a good chunk of them were not in favour of leaving if it was going to make them worse off. It may just be that some people were taken in by Boris Johnson’s have-cake-and-eat-it schtick.
Would those on the Left who voted leave to escape the ‘neoliberal’ project of the EU – in the belief that the UK government would then exert itself mightily to improve the lot of the British worker – think twice about that strategy? Would they think that it was maybe, just maybe, a little risky and a lot optimistic? With perpetual Conservative rule a strong possibility, and the opposition utterly ineffective, the prospect of achieving a workers’ democracy recedes. It seems likely that some would have thought better of voting leave – seeing the EU as a bulwark against a rampant Conservative party proposing a turn to the hard right.
When asked what he most feared, Harold MacMillan is, famously, reputed to have replied ‘Events, dear boy, events’. Whether feared or not, events keep happening. The tectonic plates of geopolitics are shifting in a way that seemingly heralds the end of the established world order. It will take great wisdom and diplomacy to discern an appropriate course and safely steer it. While there is no denying the outcome of last year’s referendum the political landscape has subsequently been transformed. Government should be able to adjust – or indeed reorient – policy and strategy in the light of changing circumstances. That is the essence of leadership. Theresa May’s unseemly haste in rushing to the court of Mr Trump gives little hope that wisdom will prevail.
At the same time, Labour MPs are now making noises about trying to stop Mrs May delivering her preferred super-hard Brexit: she has raises the spectre of using Brexit to rip up social institutions by the roots. Yet, few Labour MPs are willing to vote against Article 50. Even if this might be explicable as a political tactic, it seems a monumental strategic error. Preventing the triggering of Article 50 is the last meaningful point of leverage the Opposition will have. They will have no influence over the UK’s negotiating strategy because they aren’t going to be in the room. A vote on the outcome of those negotiations is meaningless because it will be a take it or leave it vote, and Mrs May has indicated that she’s very happy to leave it and drive the economy off a cliff. If the Labour party want to make a meaningful difference to the process and they believe Brexit is a bad idea – as many of them do – then they have to take the plunge and vote against triggering Article 50.
If Labour were to develop sufficient courage to do some actual opposing, then it will self-evidently result in an outraged response by the Europhobic tabloid press and the anti-EU UKIP-lite zealots in the Conservative party. If the impact of that reaction is to be mitigated then the Labour party has to start talking in a more focused and more effective way about what it will do instead of voting to trigger Article 50.
For example, on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday Nick Clegg made the point that Freedom of Movement is perhaps not so inviolable a principle of the EU as it has been proclaimed to be. There are politicians across Europe – dealing with the rise of anti-immigration, nationalist and racist sentiment in their own countries – who are open to working towards changing rules on immigration for the EU as a whole. This is seemingly not a route that Theresa May is willing to consider. Her heart is set on out-brexiting the Brexiteers. But that doesn’t mean that it is a route that couldn’t bear fruit.
Similarly, the publication of an industrial strategy on Monday – whatever the merits of the strategy itself – demonstrates by its very existence that it is possible to break out of the straightjacket of some of the policy orthodoxies that has prevailed since the Thatcher era. Government can apply itself to the fate of declining regions and left behind communities in ways that can make a difference. It isn’t straightforward, but nor is it impossible. There are options. There are always options.
Yet to embrace some of the options requires politicians to show considerable courage, perhaps even selflessness.
It will be intriguing to discover over the coming weeks who will show courage and for what they will take a stand.