The forces of history are with Remain. The only question is when we will win
Now that the dust of the general election is settling, some of the outlines both of the Brexit issue and the state of the UK’s political order have become clearer. We are dealing with a moving three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle (if you can imagine such a thing), and though the direction of movement is clear enough when viewed in perspective, the complexities might seem puzzling. The following paragraphs examine the situation with the aim of clarifying where we are, illustrating these points in this order: (1) ‘Hard’ Brexit is dead; (2) there is no such thing as a ‘Soft’ Brexit; so (3) the real question is, how much time will we waste and how much damage will we see before the UK’s membership of the EU is again secure? That leads to: (4) the right way to pursue the anti-Brexit campaign; (5) Jeremy Corbyn; (6) the decrepit and manipulated state of our democracy, which must be reformed.
(1) So-called ‘Hard’ Brexit is dead. ‘Hard’ Brexit is not going to happen because Remainer-leaning MPs will not support it in Parliament, and because the country is against it. The far-right of the political spectrum is extremely angry about this; they blame Theresa May’s general election call, which from her and their point of view was an act of gargantuan folly. Corbyn and his close allies share the far-right’s anger about the collapse of Hard Brexit hopes. The rest of the Parliamentary Labour Party do not.
(2) There is no such thing as a ‘Soft’ Brexit, except as a monumental fudge in which, at considerable expense and inconvenience, the UK effectively remains in the EU while pretending not to – for a while. And all to uphold the pretence that our politicians ‘respect’ the ‘referendum result’, despite knowing that it was nowhere near sufficient to mandate a huge constitutional change and disruption of the kind they are now ineffectually engaging with. Remember: only 37% of a gerrymandered electorate voted Leave.
A ‘Soft’ Brexit, to put the best possible construction on what it could mean, is continued membership of the most important aspects of the EU – the single market and the customs union – but with inconveniences, not least the major one of accepting the costs, the regulations and the requirements of such membership but with no say over them. That is not a tenable situation because it is not an intelligent one, and that is why, even if some fudge given the name ‘Soft Brexit’ happens, it will be cosmetic and temporary. Pro-EU sentiment in the UK is far too strong and determined to allow that foolish arrangement to last long. But it will anyway probably stop it before it happens – which is why the overall outcome of the present debacle is that the UK will remain in the EU.
(3) and (4) The question, in fact, is not whether the future of the UK is in the EU – it is – but how long the damage to our country and its economy can be allowed to continue while we mess around in the current situation before coming to our senses. This concerns how Remainers should see their task and how to carry it out. What is our strategy?
It is as follows. Politics is a matter of sentiment, of attitude and feeling. Sentiment is determined by the rhetorical climate in which it is evoked and directed. The more people say and believe that Brexit can be stopped, the sooner it will be stopped. At present a number of Remainers, not least among MPs, are hoping that by arguing for a ‘Soft’ Brexit they can achieve a half-way house after which they can achieve ‘no’ Brexit. This is bad strategy. Let me explain why by means of an analogy.
As many readers will know, there has been a long struggle in the UK to legalise ‘assisted dying’, that is, enabling those who, because they have a terminal illness or an intolerable and irreversible physical condition, wish to end their suffering and want to be able to seek and get medical help to do so. For decades the voluntary euthanasia movement has campaigned and introduced private member’s bills into Parliament, to no avail. And this despite the fact that, for equally many decades, over 80% say in polls that they would like the option of an assisted end to life in case they find themselves suffering in that way at some point.
In Parliament the movement for this humane and compassionate option for people who have a clear-minded and settled desire to end their lives has been thwarted, by two lobbies in conjunction: the religious lobby, who hold that we do not own ourselves, but must leave the day of our death to the decision of a deity, even if the deity makes that death an agonising and lingering one; and campaigners for the rights of people with disabilities, who fear that legalisation of assisted dying would result in a slippery slope to involuntary euthanasia of disabled people. Neither argument holds any water: the first is an anachronism, the second is understandable but misguided, because there has never been and never could be any suggestion in the UK’s voluntary euthanasia movement that euthanasia should be other than voluntary – and indeed that the voluntariness should be clear and manifest to objective third parties.
Now here is the analogy. The organisation Dignity in Dying, of which I am patron, some time ago decided to restrict its campaign for assisted dying only to those in the last months of an incurable illness. Some in the organisation believe that this modest first step will prepare the way for later extending help to those with irreversible and intolerable conditions also. However the more modest aim has been repeatedly defeated in Parliament, pushing the more inclusive aim yet further off. And the terrible irony is that whereas someone in the last months of a terminal illness has the one small consolation that their suffering at least has a predictable terminus, those with conditions that might last decades, such as degenerative conditions that completely paralyse them or result in locked-in syndrome, with permanent incontinence and dependency, are set to suffer far more.
Some with such conditions wish to live on, and should be given every support and help to do so; but some do not, and have every right to choose for themselves. And if they are incapable of ending their own lives by their own hands, they have a claim on our compassion for help. In the current legal situation, they are denied it. We are far kinder to our pets than to our fellow humans in this regard.
As this shows, going for the half-way house is not a good strategy. That applies as much to the anti-Brexit campaign as to the compassionate assisted dying campaign. Remainers arguing for a ‘Soft’ Brexit think that this will palliate Brexiters – but it will not: the rage of the ‘Hard’ Brexiters at the mess May’s continual poor judgment has made of their dreams will never be palliated. No: the aim to defeat the folly and damage of Brexit should be clear and unequivocal. ‘No Brexit’ is the target. The EU has every door and window open to the UK to remain; they are minded to be helpful in that case, but cannot be helpful if any form of Brexit folly continues because they have neither reason nor advantage in helping the UK to be as well-off out of the EU as in it.
To sum up thus far: ‘Hard’ Brexit is dead, ‘Soft’ Brexit is a nonsense, Remain should continue to argue for the obvious good sense of its ‘No Brexit’ position, unequivocally; and it will achieve this aim by continuing to speak out and campaigning, for to say a thing is possible is to make it possible, and to make it possible is to make it actual.
A Remainer colleague illustrated the point to me in a telling and amusing way: he had a very large dog which loved to chase squirrels; when a squirrel ran up a tree the dog would bark so loudly and fiercely at it that it would fall out. Exactly!
The actuality will take one or more of the following three eventualities, specifically addressed to the EU membership question: votes in Parliament, a referendum, another general election.
(5) Now, alas, some remarks about Corbyn. His party’s manifesto for the 2015 election was firmly pro-EU, and committed the party to fighting for Remain. He betrayed that manifesto promise by distancing himself from the Remain effort before the referendum, and has since the referendum come out as a Brexiter, the ally and darling of Daniel Hannan, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nigel Farage, and all the rest of the head-banger Brexiters. To his own great surprise and that of his close allies, the anti-Tory, anti-Brexit protest vote that Labour received in the recent general election – helped, admittedly, by the Father Christmas Letter of a manifesto that he produced – has produced the illusion of Corbyn as King Across the Water.
But his Brexit stance makes him the enemy of the young who voted for him. He does not have their interests at heart. He does not see or wish to see that Brexit will damage not just the future of the young but the present of those groups, especially low-income groups in regions of the country that have been worst hit by recession and austerity measures, whom Labour ought to be representing. His reasons for being a Faragist on Brexit appear to spring from some antediluvian desire for an old-fashioned form of a socialist command economy.
The greatest danger with Corbyn is this. Over many years he repeatedly defied his party’s whip. He defied the Labour whip 428 times. He voted against a Labour government 617 times. Now that, courtesy of Ed Miliband’s disastrous leadership election reforms, he is the activists’ choice of leader, he does not brook defiance of the party whip. Why? Because ‘he is right.’ He was convinced he was in the right when he defied the whip, he is convinced he is in the right in demanding obedience to the whip now. A politician who Knows He Is Right is a dangerous politician. He is not a listener, he is not flexible. He is successfully at present working the soft-touch angle, coming over as a man of the people, concerned and compassionate: I have no reason to doubt that he is sincere in this on a personal level. But his Brexit stance means that in practice he is not the people’s friend. He has set his face against the young, the deprived, and the future.
That Father Christmas Letter manifesto, written in the confident expectation of not winning the election, set up expectations that no government can deliver. All political careers end in failure, as we know, because the joy of an election victory is soon followed by this group, then that group, then a third group, then all groups in the country, coming to be disappointed in their high hopes. But if Corbyn were to become Prime Minister with the fasces of the party whip in his hands, I would not expect him to have much of a honeymoon. The Parliamentary Labour Party is split, because it contains a lot of sensible anti-Brexiters in its ranks. When the Glastonbury glitter begins to shed, they will have their day.
(6) The divisions and skewed leadership of the Labour Party is one feature of the decay and disarray of the political order in the UK. The Labour Party is in a pickle because of Ed Miliband’s leadership election reforms, which has delivered the party into the hands of entryists and zealots. The far left has its hands on the wheel at the left end of the spectrum. In the last year the far right has been over-influential in creating and perpetuating the Brexit mess at the other end of the spectrum – though aided by Corbyn! The UK is being dragged about and damaged by the interplay of the political extremes, far left and far right, because of the unholy coincidence of interests they share. The centre has to reorganise and fight back.
Centrists politics are about serious matters requiring careful discussion. Extreme politics is about slogans and loud-mouthing and lying and populism. The UK has been hijacked by the extremes – temporarily. But the smart demographic is in the centre. Cast your eye over the landscape of history and ask, how long were the loudmouths up on the hustings, when all was said and done?
The reason for the current mess is that our democracy is broken. It has been hijacked by aptly-named ‘dark money’, by the manipulations of a few powerful rich individuals – some of them not even citizens of the UK: Murdoch is the chief example – and by the unaccountable ghastliness of the tabloid press with its lies, distortions, rabble-rousing and rubbish. The combination has polluted and twisted the political order. This is not conspiracy theory: it is public knowledge. I declare an interest in saying this: I have a book coming out at the end of August, entitled Democracy and its Crisis, about the referendum, the Trump election, and what they mean. For present purposes what they emphatically mean is that the UK needs grown-up politics, a new central political configuration committed to the EU and other mature and sensible policies, led by men and women who have the genuine interests of the country and all its people – not just the rich – in view.
The people currently in government, or in roles that should be filled by leaders, are play-acting, and doing it unintelligently and self-regardingly, messing about with the keys to the gun cabinet and handling its contents without properly knowing or understanding what they are doing – and therefore shooting themselves and anyone in the vicinity. There are no statesmen and women at the centre of the political order at present. The people there – May, Davis, Corbyn – are pretenders, play-actors merely. They find themselves in office and find they are allowed to press the buttons on the console, no matter what the consequences. We are sailing in a ship of clumsy fools.
It is striking how many of the genuine political heavyweights in the country have distanced themselves from the mess and muddle of this children’s party going on in Westminster. Some have not even run for Parliament, this time at least. We want one of them, or a figure who can command a following, to stand up and state in ringing terms that the country is being led to disaster and that we must return to sanity. Let that day be sooner rather than later: for come it must.
Do you notice the deafening silence from Remainer MPs, who on both sides of the House of Commons are in the majority? They are waiting, longing, for an excuse to stop Brexit without seeming to ‘disrespect’ that referendum vote, even though they know it was not a mandate for Brexit. (Never forget that May’s first pronouncement on calling the 2017 general election was ‘I want a mandate for Brexit’ – thereby admitting she didn’t have it: and the election certainly didn’t give it!) That Remainer majority of MPs is a flock awaiting a shepherd.
We Remainers can help them. Remainer MPs will be encouraged and empowered by the persistence, strength, determination and clarity of Remainer campaigns up and down the country. Remember the rule: ‘To say a thing is possible is to make it possible, and to make it possible is to make it actual.’ This is a fight which must never be given up. It is a truly great and worthwhile endeavour, to campaign for maintaining the UK’s place in the imaginative project of European peace, progress and unity, the creation of a model of how the world as a whole should be: peoples joined peacefully together by shared aims, mutual support, exchange, friendship, trade and co-operation. Tom Paine in the eighteenth century, Richard Cobden in the nineteenth, Winston Churchill in the twentieth, all extolled this approach as the way to ensure a secure and progressive future. Today’s petty politicking by a third-rate rabble of politicians in Westminster is an effort to derail something I doubt they fully grasp the historical significance of – and history will be withering in its contempt of them. We will stop them, sooner or later: but the sooner the better.
Professor AC Grayling is Master of the New College of the Humanities