THE REFERENDUM SHOULD NOT DEFINE OUR NEW POLITICAL FAULT LINES
Undoubtedly, the decision by the British electorate to leave the European Union has resulted in a political earthquake. It was the catalyst for the removal of David Cameron and ascent of Theresa May. It was the catalyst for Labour moderates to take on Jeremy Corbyn, following his half-hearted referendum efforts. It has shone a magnifying glass on the divisions in the UK: little Town England VS. the Big Cities. England and Wales vs. Scotland and Northern Ireland. The weeks following the result have perfectly fit my favourite (but, alas, fake) Lenin quote: There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen. But not everything will change, and not everything should be reformed in the image of the referendum.
The British political landscape is long out of date. Talk of a ‘Progressive Alliance’ in the late 90s between Paddy Ashdown’s Liberal Democrats and Tony Blair’s New Labour is just one example. Tim Montgomerie’s (2013) widely shared ‘new political parties‘ (Solidarity Party, The Liberals, The Nationals, Freedom Party) is another, more contemporary example. See also Peter Hitchens’ calls for a post-Tory/Labour politics. The Referendum campaign crossed party lines, with many politicians recognising that they rather enjoyed campaigning alongside people they wouldn’t usually side with. Some even said they found they had more in common with those people than many in their current parties. From this, some have inferred that the new political fault lines should be (or will be) Remain vs. Leave. This would be undesirable.
Firstly, this would be undesirable because it would solidify the deep divisions that were highlighted, and arguably exacerbated, by the referendum campaign. Binary referendums can be polarising — and this is not the sort of politics that Parliamentary democracy benefits from. With only two choices, and a simple one-off question, there is no room for compromise. Compromise is what makes politics work. Referendums are anomalous to this.
Even beyond the polarising effects of Remain vs. Leave in perpetua, a political realignment along these lines would miss the fundamental differences within both the Remain and Leave campaigns. Rather than ‘Sneering Remainers vs Racist Leavers’, I think the two blocs were much, much less homogenous. There were a lot of sneering Remainers (I have no idea if I was one of them), and there were Racist Leavers. But they’re not the ones I’m really interested in: Sneerers and Racists might be vocal, but I doubt they’re going to be heavily involved in shaping policy in the coming decades.
Not all Remain Voters and not all Leave voters are the same. Working loosely off Lord Ashcroft’s polling I think the factions within the two camps can be broken down as:
- A. Remain Voter: Worried about impact of leaving the EU on personal economic prospects. Views the Referendum as a matter of economising.
- B. Remain Voter: Believer in the Four Freedoms and generally support a very open society. Views the Referendum as a matter of principle and political culture.
- C. Remain Voter: Believe that Britain has greater influence in the EU, than out of it. Views the Referendum as a matter of Foreign Policy.
- D. Leave Voter: Worried about migration — sees EU membership and the freedom of movement that comes with it as detrimental to personal economic or cultural prospects. Views the Referendum as a matter of asserting control and economising.
- E. Leave Voter: Libertarian-minded, believes in free trade and migration. Believes in uncontested supremacy of UK Parliament. Opposed to political integration. Views Referendum as a matter of principle, focused on Constitutional issues.
- F. Leave Voter: Believes in traditional power and role of UK as straddling different spheres. Sees UK as independent to European sphere of influence and thinks that EU membership constrains autonomy. Views the Referendum as a matter of Foreign Policy, but also culture.
These six ‘characters’ are all quite different to each other, and they don’t even address the other differences that exist within the Leave and Remain camps. A Green Party activist, who believes in heavy redistribution and is skeptical of free enterprise, might find themselves in category B or C along with a New Labour or Liberal Democrat who strongly believe in the powers of competition. Remain consisted of people who believe in a genuinely open Europe — open to each member state AND to the rest of the world, plus people who thought that freedom of movement definitely shouldn’t extent beyond Europe. Conservative or Libertarian advocates of Free Trade undoubtedly found themselves alongside voters (often Labour voters!) who were skeptical of globalisation in all forms: of movement of labour, to goods and services as well.
All parties are coalitions. Labour mixes business friendly Social Democrats with profit-scathing Socialists, with a relatively non-ideological Workers Rights advocates in the middle. The Liberal Democrats feature Mill-like Classical Liberals alongside capital-hostile radicals who make John Rawls look like Laissez Faire. The Conservatives feature economic interventionists and traditionalists with free traders and reformers. UKIP — oddly — mixes avowed libertarians (some of whom really are libertarians) with social conservatives and enemies of immigration.
This old system, as I pointed out in my second paragraph, is under strain and needs replacing. But supplanting the current arrangement with a Remain/Leave dichotomy would probably be worse. Duopolies cannot give voters a choice, and the Remain/Leave sides would find themselves paralysed by division.
Instead, E and B would make more sense together; while C could match with F if it [C] didn’t find itself with E and B; and A belongs with D.
For my part, I think I belong in category B but definitely think we should be working with category E to build a truly liberal Brexit. What matters is not the institutions and buildings of the European Union, but its principles: Human Rights, the Rule of Law, Freedom of Movement for Goods, Services, Labour and Capital.
It is for that reason that I am skeptical of organisations such as More United or any sort of Progressive Alliance. Remain does not have a monopoly on progressive, liberal politics. The key question is the one of whether the UK should be an Open or Closed Society and this is not the same as Remaining in or Leaving the European Union.
Aside from — but intricately linked with — leaving the European Union, the new political order will have an overwhelming challenge: addressing the feeling of being left behind by globalisation that motivated so many people to vote for Leave. How can small town England and Big City Britain be reconciled? Who will feel the pinch most and first in a ‘Brexit recession’? What policy tools can be deployed to counter this?
Many Remain voters and activists are angry. Some will relish in the suffering of Leave towns when recession bites. This is absolutely wrong. Remainers must have zero tolerance for ‘we told you so’ or ‘you voted for this’. Britain’s membership of the European Union does not change the fundamentals of the structure of our political economy: some are still vastly better off than others. Big Cities are much better equipped to weather the storms of uncertainty. Big City Remainers — even if we feel wronged or snubbed, have a responsibility to help those less fortunate to weather the coming storm.
Remainers — many of whom are the most highly educated and skilled in society — have a responsibility to build the best possible Brexit. That means a good Brexit for London and Cambridge, a good Brexit for Boston and Peterborough, a good Brexit for Scotland and Gibraltar, and a good Brexit for the rest of Europe and the world. To do this will require working across the Remain-Leave divide.