Six (unconnected) thoughts about Brexit and all that

Here are a handful of Brexit-related topics that have been on my mind:

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.

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6 replies »

  1. A great read Alex.

    I’m a little bit sceptical about the “rise of the far right” narrative. Not that I think there is not a problem but that it is hugely exaggerated by elements of the left calling everyone they disagree with “far right” or a “nazi”. I’ve seen tweets from academics calling the likes of Boris Johnson and Jordan Peterson such things. Now, you can say what you like about Boris, but he’s not a Nazi!! On the freedom of movement point, (Blair and Brown’s) Labour and the coalition and Conservatives since have signally failed to implement the rules as they were designed. In particular Blair’s decision to not apply the transitional period to the A8 accession countries, when most, if not all other countries did, was a fatal error. Regardless of the merits, the optics were terrible.

    On points 3, 4 and 5 agreed! One of my major frustrations with the whole farago is lack of a coherent, positive case from Remain. Instead, it seems to be that Remain are largely guilty of the “project fear” label that has been attributed to them. Claims of an instant recession in the event of a leave vote and some of the other extreme predictions have damaged their cause, almost fatally.

    Your point about the establishment is a good one. We are in the middle of one of those periods of flux where people are looking for change. This is as true with Brexit as Trump. Hillary pushed herself as the “continuity” candidate in a country that wanted change. Ditto Brexit. The people were not in the mood for “business as usual”.

    Certainly agree that greater local solutions are a potential way forward that could bear fruit!

    • What are your thoughts on the notion that Tony Blair’s decision to immediately throw open Britain’s doors to Eastern European workers (the only other EU15 countries to do this were Ireland and Sweden) was driven by a hope that they would replace other and more unpopular immigrants?

  2. I missed this, so commenting late.
    Agree with most of this – I’d note that the lack of leadership is actually hobbling the development of strategy. Feel like we need to acclaim CL leader so whenever Blair or Adonis says something stupid we can say “this is not official, go check what Caroline said.”

    Last point is a huge frustration for me. It’s singularly apparent that both main parties are actually hopped up on “Westminster is da best” – Tories for obvious reasons and Labour apparently b/c of Tony Benn. Practical result is there are no meaningful proposals for institutional change on the table from them.

    • I think if everyone were exposed to Lord Adonis’s Twitter account then that would be the quickest route to cementing Brexit on the hardest possible terms. It’s without fail monumentally irritating and counter-productive.

      I’m not sure anything that is being done at the moment will result in any reduction in the sense of powerlessness being felt by communities. Things like the recent announcement about govt money for town centre regeneration I guess starts to look at something that might be causing people’s sense of dislocation. But it’s rather a case of treating symptoms not causes, and causes surely have little to do with the EU.

      The lack of proposals for institutional change is absolutely the issue. And I’d have said it was worse than that. 2019 could quite possibly be a crunch point, as several local authorities that have been teetering on the edge finally run out of money. What happens then will be interesting (and important!). It could be the beginning of the end of sub-central government, or it would be a trigger for renewal and reform? One thing I’m intrigued about is the size/power of the constituency willing to make the case in favour of local govt/democracy. LG has been roundly abused by Westminster, particularly since 2010. If it faces a genuine existential threat is there a sleeping giant that will be roused in its defence? Time will tell.

  3. Commenting even later so apologies
    This is an excellent analysis and is enabling me to have some clarity of thought on the whole sorry business. I particularly believe that Brexit has its roots in a sense of powerlessness in many communities. I wouldn’t have said that a year ago but recently moved from London to the Brexit supporting countryside. The sense of powerlessness is palpable and entrenched. But what I’m also shocked by is people’s lack of political awareness. The major political development here (other than Brexit) is that the County Council is making a land grab for the 7 boroughs to form a unitary authority and when I bring this up no one a) seems aware or b) bothered. So yes, 30 clones of Caroline Lucas – someone who can get to the heart of the problem without rabblerousing is exactly who we need right now.

    • I don’t know precisely where you are referring to in the country. But I might start from a position that is a bit more charitable – in those parts of the country that I do know, local authorities are looking to merge to create larger unitaries not so much because they are keen to make a land grab but because it is one last attempt to try to save money/make the budget balance. If they weren’t under such budgetary pressure from central government then they wouldn’t be considering it as a strategy (and at the same time it’s not necessarily a very effective strategy to save large amounts of money).

      Regardless of the motivation, it is very likely that it will have a negative effect on local democracy/political engagement because, as we know, engagement tends to be inversely correlated with spatial scale – as local authority size increases, engagement goes down. Your point about lack of awareness/apathy in relation to these changes is an important one. As I said in the comment to Metatone above, if local government faces existential threat in 2019 then it will be interesting to see who, if anyone, is going to defend it vigorously.