For Britain’s sake: how we can solve this crisis
The result of the EU referendum has triggered the biggest national crisis of my lifetime.
It’s grotesque to compare crises, and hard (even if you want to) to finely gauge their relative proportions. Obviously this is not like 1940 when we were at war. On 7/7, fifty-two people died and hundreds were injured. But a big economic shock, the loss of the government, an incoherent pretender, the realisation that the Leave campaign was based on a mix of false and impossible promises, the murder of an MP, an outbreak of racist aggression and, to top it all, the threatened separation of Scotland means this is a very deep crisis indeed—I think worse than the three-day week in the early 1970s. We have to find a way to stop it. It’s not enough to blithely say “the people have spoken” and keep accelerating towards the wall.
So what can we do? I write as someone who campaigned passionately for Remain, and who still thinks remaining in the EU would be the best outcome to keep the UK together and heal it. But even if you disagree with me on that, we desperately need proper consent not just for the vague idea of “Brexit” but for what that should mean in practice.
The way forward is to reverse the process that unleashed this national disaster. It was brought about by departing from Parliamentary politics—one of the most characteristic things about this independent, sovereign country, and that’s served us well—by usurping it and installing the alien, populist politics of the referendum. The antidote is to settle the political questions before us in the British way: by returning members to the House of Commons in a general election.
The referendum process’s vice lay not so much in its populism and the unpleasant mood it kicked off (though those things are nasty enough) nor even in the lies that were told and insufficiently (I thought) exposed by our media, nor even that the immigration many Leave voters hate has nothing to do with the EU. The biggest flaw was that the referendum allowed “Brexit” to be sold as one policy when, in truth, it’s several incompatible dreams. Brexit was both open markets and protectionism; both immigration on the scale we have now, and a complete halt to it; both full participation in the single market and its rejection. The incoherence of the Leave campaign was proved by Boris Johnson’s utterly confused, complacent article demanding the moon and a unicorn together in a biscuit tin. Even he admits it was nonsense, and he’s already gone back on it.
Even apart from the man who disagrees with himself, Brexiters disagree with each other as much as they did with Remain. The referendum obscured those choices and made Leave all things to all voters. Want great, open trade deals with the US and China, and to bring in the workers Britain needs? Vote Leave. Want to protect British steel and the NHS from US and Chinese trade, and clear doctors’ waiting rooms of foreigners? Vote Leave. The referendum allowed Brexiters to avoid presenting any coherent plan.
Many of us now see why populists and demagogues favour referendum politics, and that it’s referendumism that’s brought us to this pass. Our foolish generation has relearned what Clement Attlee knew decades ago. We need to bring our country’s politics home, back where it belongs. We must put our trust in the old methods.
In the coming days or weeks we’ll find we have a new Prime Minister, chosen exclusively by the members of the Conservative Party, and a new government. Those who aspire to lead it must set out their competing plans for “Brexit”, so that at the latest when Parliament comes together again on October 10, we all know in broad terms what ministers’ actual “Brexit plan” will be. Anyone who wants to ensure Britain salvages as much economically as possible should put pressure on Conservatives to choose the most moderate possible path, including participation in the single market. Whether that does become their plan or a more anti-immigration approach emerges, it’s bound to disappoint and anger many: but those people are entitled to know, as soon as possible, exactly how they’ve been deceived and used. We must not permit the Conservative Party to delay this moment of reckoning.
By October we’ll have an unelected government, with an actual “Brexit” policy for which they have no mandate. It would be outrageous if it were allowed to push its plans through without allowing anyone—not the Remainers who may want it moderated or rejected, nor UKIP-minded Leavers who want it toughened or spurned—to have a say. They must seek consent for their policy at the polls. It’s the responsibility of us all to contact Tory MPs to insist on it, and to pressurise opposition MPs to demand it.
Can there be an election, under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act? Yes. I wrote a book about it. If the Conservatives and Labour both want an election, they have enough MPs to vote to trigger one—and they should vote to make it happen. Even the Conservative majority alone can cause one by passing a motion of no-confidence in itself, an idea that sounds bonkers — but that has actually happened twice in Germany. In today’s fluid political situation, I have no doubt a new Tory leader would have public consent for this. The crisis in Labour proves Labour MPs also think an election’s on the cards.
What ought to happen then is a campaign purely on the “Brexit” issue. The government will be able to put forward its negotiating stance, and if it gets a majority will be entitled to put it into effect. The argument would then truly be over, and article 50 process could begin.
Whatever the Conservative position, UKIP will probably argue for a more anti-immigration one. I’d hate a UKIP-run Britain, but if they can gain a Parliamentary majority they’ll be entitled to their way. I’ll brook no whining from them about the electoral system: they’re our traditional rules, and that’s that. If they don’t like British institutions they should found their own UKIP island somewhere else.
The Liberal Democrats have already said they’d campaign to Remain; an election would be an opportunity for them to win back some of what was their natural constituency. The harder the Tory Brexit plan, the more vulnerable parts of the South-West may be to them. I think they’d profit if they put to one side for a Parliament their usual obsession about constitutional change, which would be yet another upheaval the country does not need.
In Scotland, the SNP would I’m sure campaign for Remain, and for a second independence referendum if Brexit goes ahead. I’m British and a Unionist, and think the SNP a cynical, negative influence, partly responsible for the nationalist plague afflicting us. But I can’t really deny the force of their argument now. The majority in England, if Brexit goes ahead, really has said it doesn’t given a stuff about Scots.
Finally, there’s Labour: and Labour is the key. Whoever is its leader (someone I hope far more credible than the hopeless, indefensible Corbyn) it must recommit fully and firmly to the Remain cause. If it doesn’t, it’ll deny the country the choice it needs—not just between different types of Brexit but between all of them and the alternative. It will have denied a voice to the 48% who voted Remain partly on its advice. It’ll have condemned us to do what we still don’t have to, and waved goodbye to the UK as well. It’d simply be unacceptable for Labour to go back on what it said, incompetently and mutedly, only days ago.
Labour will be tempted, for fear of UKIP, to turn around and accept Brexit. But those of us who have Labour MPs must make clear that this would be betrayal. I’ve said why trimming would be bad for the country, but it’d be against Labour’s interests too.
Brexit is a frighteningly poisoned chalice. No one can deliver what Leavers voted for. Any Brexit government is heading for a terrible end. If there is an election, Labour cannot guarantee losing it. As we’ve just seen, politicians can shock themselves by winning a vote, and find themselves in trouble. If Labour went pro-Brexit, winning would be a nightmare.
Labour would face public fury when it explained that there must be free movement, or that jobs would be lost; and that anyway that there was no £350m a week. It would be lambasted for again “crashing the economy”. It’d be blamed for losing Scotland; and Kezia Dugdale would lose what hope she has there.
It’d be no good trying to blame the Tories. “Everything’s the fault of Labour’s bungled Brexit”, they’d say. Having torn themselves apart over Europe and created a crisis they couldn’t solve, with one bound the Tories would be free. They’d be in clover, and back with a big majority in 2021.
That’s why Labour must be ready to fight an election on a firm Remain platform. True, the UKIP threat in Labour heartlands is serious. But accepting Brexit would be no magic charm. Labour will face the same questions about immigration regardless, and UKIP will always have a more extreme version of Brexit to offer. Voters won’t trust Labour if it pirouettes now.
Nor should Labour forget that it will expose another flank to the LibDems, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and (yes, it really can get even worse) the SNP if it hands the 48% who voted Remain to them. Labour can win an election though, if it’s the biggest party representing Remain while Leave is split between a relatively soft Tory Brexit plan, and UKIP.
A Remain stance doesn’t mean saying nothing must change. I don’t like this, but Labour can offer a new immigration plan doing what’s legally possible and reasonable to reduce numbers and the perceived impact — in the NHS and schools, for instance, and if need be reshaping the benefits system. It need not be any sort of nasty or extreme “close the borders” plan. It must also launch a big programme of help for deprived areas. Spelling out what’s required makes it obvious Labour is the natural party to do it.
This way, Labour may lose. But at least it’d have allowed the country a proper choice, and played its part in finding our path.
That’s what we need. Our divided Conservatives must put forward, finally, a Brexit plan for us to assess. The populists can present their populist one. And the Opposition must preserve for us the option of Remaining, in spite of everything. I accept there’s a risk of a hung Parliament. But the country can’t be more hung than the referendum’s left it, and some sort of coalition might not be the worst outcome. I doubt it’ll be needed. I think a clear choice would be likely.
If you agree with me that this is the way out of our mess, please tell your MP there must be an election this year. Tell Conservatives they must seek a mandate. Tell Labour to demand a poll and to give us the option of staying. Do everything you can to make it happen. I will, for Britain’s sake.