1. We need a more balanced discussion of the risks of a far right surge
There are plenty of arguments about the risk of a People’s Vote or Article 50 revocation fuelling the rise of the far right and/or violence. Whether or not that is likely, making policy in response to threats of violence has no place in a democracy.
But it is equally important that we attend to the risks inherent in the alternative future trajectory. Brexit will deliver a negative economic shock in the short to medium term. If it’s a disorderly No Deal Brexit the shock will be more severe, and sooner rather than later. One thing history teaches us is that major recessions are a fertile breeding ground for the far right. And we can already see the contours of the betrayal arguments that will be used to blame others when Brexit fails to deliver on Leavers’ impossible promises.
We can see there is plenty of work being put into constructing this discourse in a particularly asymmetric way. And this is hardly being challenged. But if the far right is on the march whatever the Brexit outcome then that is all the more reason not to weight it in the Brexit decision. And to look elsewhere for its origins and antidote.
2. We need to resist the normalisation of No Deal
Whether stepping up preparations for No Deal is a strategy to scare MPs into voting for the Prime Minister’s deal or a prudent risk management strategy, it normalises No Deal. And norms can be powerful attractors.
Social scientists talk about problematizing the taken-for-granted. It’s a way of opening up space for thinking differently and exploring alternatives. Now is the time for as much problematization of this norm as possible.
In 2017 both Conservatives and Labour stood on manifestos that ruled out No Deal Brexit as unacceptable. No one has a democratic mandate for pursuing No Deal. Last week’s ECJ case concluded that Article 50 can be unilaterally revoked and that means a No Deal outcome would be a conscious policy choice.
To let No Deal be normalised – and take on an air of inevitability – would be a huge mistake.
3. Where’s the positive case for remaining in the EU?
The push for a People’s Vote seems to have some momentum, although it’s not clear there’s sufficient momentum to make it a reality.
There appears to be a working assumption – in my corner of the internet at least – that if there’s another vote and Remain is an option, which is by no means assured, then public sentiment has shifted sufficiently to deliver a Remain win.
I’m not convinced.
We can point to the number of people are now willing to claim they voted for disorderly No Deal, when that wasn’t meaningfully on the horizon at the time of the referendum. That indicates, if nothing else, that opinion shifts are not all in the direction favourable to the Remain cause. Clearly those are people who are unlikely to be convinced to change their view. But, with a few valiant exceptions, there is almost no effort going in to making the positive case for EU membership in ways that resonate with waverers. This seems like a strategic mistake. If we ever get as far as a People’s Vote then it would be good for the ground to have been better prepared in advance.
4. Who is making the case for Freedom of Movement?
We know Theresa May’s Brexit policy is, in fact, largely an End to Freedom of Movement policy.
Yet, many people have no idea what the EU’s Freedom of Movement policy actually is. Nor do they know how much discretion national governments have in implementing it and how little of that discretion the UK government has historically chosen to use.
I find it hard to believe that those leave voters for whom this is an important issue are highly exercised by the presence of Polish builders and Romanian fruit pickers but will be sanguine about the immigrants from South Asia and elsewhere who are likely to increase in number to balance out the shortfall in EU migration. It’s not about the content of the actual policy, and never was.
Is the only option for those seeking UK’s continued participation in the EU to argue that such continuation will be accompanied by a bid to reform/restrict Freedom of Movement? That is, must they try to appease those who fear the Other? This appears to be the line taken by Tony Blair, among others.
Quite apart from the implausibility of thinking that, if the UK stays in or rejoins the EU, it will be in a position to throw its weight around and make demands, this approach is storing up trouble. Those who are intolerant of immigration are unlikely to be satisfied with curtailing Freedom of Movement, if what they want to see is it ended entirely. If the UK is to end up with a softer Brexit or continuity membership/rejoining the EU then it will have to accept the four freedoms as they are.
So those who are aiming in that direction of remain need to be making the case that Freedom of Movement is a benefit to the country rather than something to put up with, and it is a right that we all have and should value. That would be very much going against the grain. But, as far as I can see, any other approach is pretty much doomed.
5. Where is the effective leadership of the pro-European cause?
In the 2016 Referendum the Remain campaign was (rightly) seen as the Establishment and the leave campaign were (wrongly) seen as insurgents. If we look at those agitating for the Remain cause now we see those with a strong “Establishment” profile. Blair, Campbell, Adonis, Cable, Mandelson. Not only Establishment but largely yesterday’s men. We might argue that that is no coincidence: anyone with their career in front of them is keeping quiet to see how things shake out. There are others from a different generation – Lammy, Umunna – who are keeping the fight going but they would benefit from support from those who are less frequently dismissed – however implausibly – as ‘metropolitan’ and ‘out of touch’.
Clearly there are others, like Dominic Grieve, who continue to argue for a milder Brexit and the avoidance of absolute calamity, but I’m not sure anyone would place him in the genuine Euro-enthusiast category. What’s needed to effectively market the benefits of EU membership is enthusiastic Euro-realists, willing to make the case for its strengths, while recognising it is an imperfect patchwork of institutions.
What we probably need is about thirty clones of Caroline Lucas to do battle across the airwaves with the ERG irrationalists.
6. Where is the case for broader-based democratic renewal?
The ongoing pantomime in Parliament has dramatically highlighted the weakness of the British constitution. The fragile matrix of informal institutions that sustained our system of elected dictatorship has been tested and found seriously wanting. Surely there is a need for reform there.
But, perhaps more significantly, if we believe that Brexit has its roots in a sense of powerlessness in many communities then where is the campaign to do something about that? Brexiteers may talk about regaining sovereignty, but, even if that were a consequence of Brexit, what material difference does that make at ground level? I don’t mean in a “you can’t eat sovereignty” sense, but in the sense of making a discernible difference to communities’ sense of control.
There should be much more emphasis upon thinking about how communities can be empowered to shape their own destiny in meaningful ways. If that is done constructively then it can also open up conversations that overcome division. If it’s done badly then it can be hugely dysfunctional.
But at present we face a situation in which existing local governance structures are being kneecapped by austerity and the idea of putting resources into capacity building or new structures to foster greater participation is one beyond contemplation for organisations struggling to balance their books and meet existing minimal statutory obligations.
A revival in local government and governance could be a key ingredient in moulding a more successful and inclusive future. But at the moment much of the country is travelling in the opposite direction at considerable speed.