This week two cabinet ministers (David Davis, for Brexit, and Boris Johnson, foreign secretary) resigned, and a handful of junior ministers and parliamentary private secretaries also resigned over the government’s “Chequers” Brexit plan formulated last week at the prime minister’s country retreat in Buckinghamshire which the “hard Brexiteers” say is a proposal for a half-Brexit which still leaves us subject to a number of EU rules without a say in making them, or as Johnson says, with the status of a ‘colony’. There has been talk, according to the BBC’s Robert Peston, of a split in the Tory party over the issue (with some responding that it cannot come too soon, or words to that effect), while a number of right-wing Labour MPs have talked of supporting the prime minister, Theresa May, to achieve a ‘good’ Brexit deal (as if there could be such a thing) and even talk of some sort of government of national unity. This has angered a lot of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters, which account for the bulk of Labour members but of only a minority of MPs, and amplified calls for the introduction of mandatory re-selection of parliamentary candidates.
To reiterate what I’ve said many times here and on Twitter: Boris Johnson should never have been appointed; he has a long history of racist remarks and inflammatory untruths about various minorities, particularly as editor of the Spectator, which were allowed to pass because of his status as a “figure of fun”, because of his wealth and because the people he demeaned were unfavoured minorities, particularly Muslims. Apart from his regular embarrassing gaffes, the position he expressed on Brexit in his resignation is inconsistent with the one he expressed in the run-up to the referendum in which he said he would vote for the UK to remain in the Single Market; he also made some false claims in his resignation letter about truck design and cycle safety, drawing attention to his campaigning while mayor of London for improvements in the design of trucks for that purpose, but conveniently omitting that the proposals were adopted by the European Parliament and later the European Council but opposed by the British government. It is alarming that so many articles have been published on Johnson’s shortcomings, usually mentioning his diplomatic gaffes and his better-known racist remarks, without mentioning his pages and pages of slurs on Muslims.
There have been some crass remarks made on Twitter by other Tory politicians indifferent to the ideas of either democracy or the public good. One Tory MP claimed that ‘democracy’ means that the people vote once — in other words, it’s against his version of democracy for there to be another referendum now that his wing of the Tory party appears to have the upper hand (however, despite the fact that general elections are supposed to be held every five years by law, his leader held one in 2017, just two years after the previous one). Meanwhile, the MP for Witham in Essex, Priti Patel, claimed:
This is no longer an argument about whether Brexit was a good idea but is about democracy & standing by the democratic decision made by the people. The public want to know that their political leaders will stay true to the promise made to them that Brexit means Brexit.
But actually, in a Parliamentary democracy, the matter of whether a policy which has enormous consequences for everyone, which could easily result in food and fuel shortages and economic ruin, is a good idea is something they should be debating regardless of whether one poll two years ago revealed that people want it, especially when they voted without knowing what it would mean; as noted earlier, many Brexiteers then favoured joining the European Economic Area, like Norway, while now they are talking about a bespoke deal which they still cannot agree on after two years and less than a year before we are due to leave.
So, Brexiteer Tories do not like the idea of the people having their say again. More depressing is the attitude of Labour MPs which stretches from defeatism on Brexit itself to collusion with the government and not even to the end of stopping Brexit but simply to defeat Jeremy Corbyn. From a number of them we have heard statements of mysterious and convenient ‘maturity’ and ‘statesmanlikeness’, calling for Labour not to oppose but to support the government on getting the “best Brexit deal” as if there could be such a thing. If the idea was a temporary alliance with Tory Remainers, that would be a good thing, but not to stick the knife into Corbyn while pushing forward a ‘deal’ which is a sub-Norway option fudge. I have a feeling that their defeatism stems more from the aggression of right-wing Brexiteers than from actual deference to the referendum result; they should know that any violence is more likely to be the result of the ill consequences of Brexit itself than of reneging on the referendum result, especially as there is large-scale popular support for the latter.
Of course, Corbyn’s allies indulge in vain talk about a “jobs-first Brexit” when a number of major employers have suggested that they might not be able to do business here if we do not get a deal that is very good for them — despite the British roots of some of the industries, they are now based overseas and have many other countries where they can make the things they make here. Party chair Ian Lavery claimed that his party was ready to take over negotiations now because “Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party have a much higher standing in Europe than the Conservatives. The Conservative Party, Theresa May, David Davis, Boris Johnson, they are a laughing stock.” Yet Corbyn’s cabinet is likely to consist of people who have never held high office, even under a Labour government, while Labour in office were always known for a strongly pro-EU position (as were the Tories until recently) — this is the party which won a landslide in 1997 on a pro-Maastricht platform while the Tories were divided. They have no more credibility on this issue than the Tories and the EU27 leaders will know that they lack the support of many of their MPs.
Besides the fact that Brexit will have tremendous disadvantages for British citizens and none for European ones, who will still have the rest of Europe in which to travel, work, holiday without visa hassles and broaden their horizons, another thing we should consider is who our closest allies will be once we are out of the EU. The only other large countries in Europe outside the EU will be Russia, currently strongly suspected of an assassination attempt which killed a member of the public and may yet kill more, and Ukraine which is partly occupied by Russia; our so-called closest ally in the world is the United States whose president — as well as making some demonstrably untrue accusations against his NATO allies in mainland Europe — has given an interview to the Sun in which he endorses Boris Johnson for PM, blames Theresa May for “wrecking” Brexit, blames Sadiq Khan (mayor of London) for ‘terror’ and claims that migration is “killing Europe” and that’s just the blurbs on the front page. The EU right now remains a bloc of mostly stable democracies; outside it we will become more and more vulnerable to interference from both the already corrupt and authoritarian Russia and an increasingly violent, fascistic US ruled by a deranged ignoramus surrounded by liars.
I have said many times that politics cannot return to the pre-2016 status quo, whichever way the Brexit negotiations go (or stop). Regardless of whether people gave immigration as the reason for how they voted, the places most affected by Thatcherite industrial decline and subsequent Blairite neglect were among the places most likely to vote to leave, and the discontent will continue unless the areas affected receive substantial investment, and in proper industry rather than infrastructure projects, but right now, stopping the carnage that Brexit will lead us to is the most important thing that needs doing. 48% of people voted to remain in the EU; to paraphrase Paul Kingsnorth, that’s one big no and, as has been revealed since the vote, many small yeses. None of the unsatisfactory Brexit deals that have ever been suggested would in themselves attract 40%, let alone 52%, of the public vote. The Brexiteer Tories thump their chests and proclaim that they represent the “will of the people”, yet none of their factions commands a majority.
Let us look at the different camps on Brexit as parties in the tradition of British party politics; usually, the biggest single plurality wins. This may not (and usually is not) an outright majority or even as high as 48.2% — usually in the low 40s, sometimes much less as in 2005 — but it carries enough weight to gain a majority in Parliament because of the divisions among their opponents. This was the same reason why the vote to abolish the (British) monarchy in Australia was defeated; none of the options for a republic could attract a majority and this issue was debated before rather than after the vote. We need to look past the aggressive triumphalist rhetoric of the hard Brexiteers because their demands do not have the support of the majority of the population and supporters of the Norway option could be brought around by letting them know that it has all the disadvantages of full EU membership without a seat at the table when the rules are drawn up. Ultimately we cannot inflict enormous harm on both the economy and the constitution of this country just because some people think they want it. As everyone learns when they are a child, you cannot always get what you want, especially when this requires the sacrifice of others.
Update 16th July: Today the former Tory cabinet minister Justine Greening called for a three-way referendum with preferential voting with options such as staying in, the Chequers deal from last week or a no-deal Brexit. While I am normally in favour of proportional representation with preferential voting, Tories are generally against either. The first-past-the-post system which favours the biggest single minority has done them very well in the past, with four Parliamentary majorities between 1977 and 1992 based on a share of the vote in the lower forties. I would oppose this type of referendum because of the danger that hardcore (no-deal) Brexiteers and ‘pragmatic’ (any-deal) ones could, through transferring second preferences to each other, deliver a Brexit which would either way be ruinous to the British economy and risk the break-up of the UK itself and the sabotaging of the peace in Northern Ireland — the only Brexit that would not pose extreme danger would be a Norway-type arrangement and even this would leave us without a say in formulating the rules our industries had to work to. If the three options mentioned are to be the options, I favour a first-past-the-post referendum because this is how politics works here and the Tories have never complained until now.
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