After a particularly crazy year of Brexit chaos I wanted to take some time to reflect on the state of Brexit. Sober reflection is the one thing this debate is lacking. Everyone knows what is pissing them off, but not what should be done about it. The need for some clarity of thinking has never been greater.
I’m pro-European on an emotional level, but I have serious criticisms of the EU as a project. I feel a connection to my European neighbours and a sense of community with them. We have a shared history and a shared culture. The EU as an institution is one that is difficult to love as - like local government - it’s overly complex, staffed by technocratic functionaries who have their own impenetrable jargon and deeply is involved in citizens lives but seems unresponsive to their wishes.
I think the best course of action (given a magic wand) would be to stay in the EU and reform it from the inside. I dislike the anti-immigration, anti-politics rhetoric of Vote Leave. I’m also worried by their implication of Britain's Imperial past and a vision of a hyper neo-liberal future outside the restraint of EU protections of workers’ rights and the environment.
To pretend that the EU isn’t in need of reform is self-delusion on the same scale as those who deny the damage a No Deal Brexit would do. The way that the Greek economy was treated like spoilt child that needed harsh discipline, and not a sick patient who needed treatment, is worrying to say the least. As does the fact that the EU has done little to intervene against the Tory's savage austerity, and done nothing to alleviate the plight of the homeless or children suffering from malnutrition.
The EU has made deals with authoritarian Turkey to keep out millions of poor people seeking a better life. It has also been good at ensuring the easy movement of financial resources across Europe away from tax authorities or into the London property market, thus perpetuating the housing crisis. I’m not sure whose needs the EU is prioritising, but I am beginning to think it’s not the poor and the needy.
That said, letting a Tory government take us out of the EU won’t help any of the above. Putting the Tories in charge of Brexit will lead to either a No Deal Mad Max hellscape where we murder each other for the last bottle of Prosecco or a Blade Runner neoliberal nightmare as Britain becomes Singapore with a more historically entrenched class system.
What if the Tories weren’t in charge of Brexit? I hear you say. What if it was all down to Jeremy Corbyn and Labour? Well, I doubt that they could do any worse. However, under different leadership the central problem of Brexit won’t go away. This is that no one is agreed on what Brexit should be. Labour’s insistence that they should be in charge of it (via angling for a general election) overlooks the fact that we need to know what Brexit would look like if we were in charge. On that, there is no agreement.
Due to all this, I’m still against Brexit. The way to address the problems with the EU is not to storm off in a huff. Nor is Brexit the way to address the problems of this country and it will likely make poverty worse if there is a huge (or even slight) economic contraction. Brexit is a bad idea and all the versions of Brexit on the table are bad ideas, which is why politicians are unable to agree on the particular shit sandwich they want to eat.
What I don't believe, is that the tide of popular opinion is turning against Brexit. Brexit voters on the whole don’t regret their decision and none of the factors that led Leave winning the referendum have changed in any meaningful way. Poverty, inequality, immigration, concerns about British identity, distrust of politicians, none of this has changed since the last vote. Voters certainly regret putting Theresa May in charge of Brexit, but I don't think there’s a ground swell against it.
I still think Brexit should be stopped but I have two concerns about the People's Vote, the most prominent method of stopping Brexit. The first is that a second vote could trigger huge support for the far-right, who will seize a narrative of the people being betrayed by the elites. My second concern is that even if Nigel Farage doesn't end up storming parliament ahead of an army of gammon, I don't think that Remain can win a second vote so we might end up with an even more fractured political landscape and even more support for Brexit.
Whenever I raise these with supporters of the People's Vote, my concerns are usually dismissed out of hand and then I am usually asked if I voted Leave. When I try to explain my concerns, what follows is usually a lot of condescension about the people who voted for Brexit. Twice someone has told me that street violence is an acceptable price to stop Brexit, which is chilling in itself. None of this reassures me that Remain can win a second referendum.
Coupled with this unwillingness to consider that not everyone is a horrified by Brexit, there is tangible desire (occasionally directly expressed in these terms) to turn the clock back to 2015. They want to go back the days when the debate was between David Cameron's austerity, Ed Miliband’s small shuffle towards redistribution and whatever Nick Clegg stood for. This desire is as fantastical as the wildest, mercantile dreams of Brexiteers. Not only does time move forwards not backwards (I can't believe I have to explain that), but the EU today is not the EU from before the referendum.
The EU has been changed by the spread of right-wing populism taking governments in Eastern Europe and opposition parties in Western Europe. I still think Britain needs to remain with the EU to fight this, but not engaging with developments in the EU over the last two years is naive. This comes from many Remainers not really understanding or following European Politics or even caring. They are more motivated by a dislike the pro-Brexit narrative in Britain. Nothing wrong with this, I hate the immigrant bashing too, but let's stop pretending that politics goes back to reasonable after a People’s Vote.
The question all this poses is what should Labour do? No Deal must be avoided at all costs. It is a disaster of untold proportions. If we think politics or the economy is bad no, wait until planes can't fly, shops run out of food and hospitals run out of medicine.
Labour has been on the right track in trying to get the Tories out of office, as is the job of any opposition, but it looks like government will not fall before the Article 50 deadline. If a general election cannot be brought about, then Labour should accept the deal on the table. It's not good, but it's better than No Deal and it's unlikely anything better can be negotiated in the time left. If the party really cannot stomach May's deal and parliament is deadlocked, then the decision needs to be handed back to the people to resolve the impasse. This could either in the form of a Citizens Assembly or a People's Vote.
Another thing that must be avoided is a People's Vote that is Remain against No Deal as we cannot run the risk of No Deal being decided upon in a referendum. Farage and his pals will be on TV telling everyone that No Deal will be fine - and then it will visit destruction upon the country. The reason why No Deal must not be on the ballot is the same reason that general election ballot papers don't have "fuck all politicians, burn down parliament" as a voting option. It might win. Then we would have to do it.
So, Brexit is a mess and there are no way forward. The only thing I can say with a degree of certainty is that a No Deal catastrophe must be avoided. Beyond that, all I can say is that both doing Brexit and stopping Brexit are very risky courses of action.