The centre ground of politics which New Labour once inhabited is gone. Tony Blair argues it must rise again to fight Brexit, the Conservatives and even the Labour Party
Not since I became politically active four decades ago, has clarity of thinking been in such urgent demand or such short supply.
Britain hurtles towards a triggering of Article 50, meaning that, next March, we enter a time-limited negotiation to go out of the EU, yielding up a significant part of our freedom of manoeuvre to a process governed by the necessity of a Europe-wide agreement.
We propose doing this with no clear idea of what life outside of the EU and especially outside of the European Single Market really looks like.
Nonetheless, any hint of braking or slowing down is condemned in some quarters as a treasonous denial of the will of the people.
The British people ‘have spoken’ we are reminded. That is true but no reason for us now to shut up and go along with whatever version of Brexit we end up negotiating, good or bad. We can carry on speaking and debating. This is democracy.
Our ‘will’ is not some immutable, semi-hallowed expression of opinion that, once given, cannot be changed or adjusted irrespective of any facts which emerge that might make a reasonable person doubt the wisdom of the course we have taken.
The Labour Party has decided for the main part, understandably, that it can’t be seen to be backsliding and so can, as Keir Starmer has very ably done, hold the Government to some kind of account, but cannot disturb the notion that Brexit does indeed mean Brexit.
In any event the Conservative Party will believe that the sharp turn to the Left under Labour’s leadership will mean that the Labour Party struggles to be a credible alternative government and therefore an effective opposition; and so they can do more or less what they want.
Meanwhile in a profoundly depressing pointer of the future direction of policy the new Government has heralded a return to grammar schools, a bizarre response to the challenge of any nation, in or out of Europe, which is surely to educate the broad mass of people and not simply a minority to the highest possible standards of educational attainment.
So Britain’s political choice is at risk of becoming one between a Hard Brexit Tory Party and a Hard Left Labour Party, presenting two competing versions of the 1960s.
This should not stand.
First let us deal with the argument that following the vote of June 23 we can choose between different types of Brexit – (not that the choice is ours alone because it depends also on our European partners) – but that we cannot choose no Brexit.
Let us do some ground clearing. I am not suggesting: either that we disregard the vote, or base a case on saying the people were misled, or didn’t know what they were voting for, or that we can just stay in the EU and override the will of the people.
I am suggesting something very simple.
It goes to the heart of the nature of the referendum vote.
We knew we were voting to leave the EU. We did not know and could not know what the alternative to EU membership looks like.
As I said at the time, it was like agreeing to a house swap without seeing the other house. Sure, we knew what we didn’t like about the existing address.
We had two people talk to us who claimed they had seen the alternative home. One said it was great; the other said it was awful. And we went with the one who said it was great.
But we hadn’t actually seen it ourselves. Now we will.
There will be a negotiation. As it proceeds, more will become clearer. OK, it will not become completely clear until we’re actually living there. But we will be a lot wiser than we are today. We will see the neighbourhood; we will view the structure; we can at least do a survey.
Think of what we now know even in the few months since the vote and before the actual negotiation has even begun. The currency has undergone the sharpest devaluation since Black Wednesday. Of course it makes exports cheaper. But this is a devaluation that is not a market correction. It is a negative prediction about our economic future resulting directly from the referendum decision.
If inflation rises, then working age families receiving benefits will see their real incomes fall, unless the Government finds extra cash to compensate.
Some major companies are already signalling a change – again adversely – in investment plans. Many more are waiting to see what the negotiation brings.
I recall the powerful slogan of the referendum plastered on the battle bus proclaiming an extra £350million a week for the NHS, a slogan featured prominently because speeches would take place with it in the background.
Now the talk is of loosening the borrowing requirement, Bank of England measures which mean even more monetary easing as if what we have done up to now is not risky enough, and the NHS – quite close to crisis – is going to receive little attention and not more cash because all the focus is on minimising the costs of Brexit.
Now, the Brexit folk appear to accept there will be some years of painful economic re-structuring (remember that being a big part of their campaign because I don’t?).
If food bills rise, because of higher import costs, the pain will be felt most of all by low income families, some of whom we can guess voted Brexit.
And one delusion should be put soon to rest: that we’re going to be negotiating all of this with a gang of smart German business leaders. The stalling of the Canada trade deal with Europe – certainly a simpler one than ours is likely to be – over an issue to do with the Walloon Parliament, shows where the power will lie: with politicians who will behave as politicians sometimes do, with parochial interests triumphing over the common weal. And in this negotiation there will be 27 sets of such politicians plus the European Parliament.
In other words, what we’re about to witness, is reality replacing conjecture.
The ghastly claim and counter-claim dogfight of the referendum campaign won’t disappear completely; but it will be much more framed in fact.
In these circumstances, it is odd to say that, having made our decision, we now can’t amend it or change it even if we want to.
The issue is not whether we ignore the will of the people; but whether, as information becomes available, and facts take the place of claims, the ‘will’ of the people shifts.
Maybe it won’t; in which case people like me will have to accept it.
But surely we are entitled to try to persuade, to make the argument, and not to be whipped into line to support a decision we genuinely believe is a catastrophe for the country we love.
Right now there is one point and one point only to win: we should keep every option open.
That this should even be contentious speaks loudly about how much those of us – and after all we were 16 million people – who believe Britain’s future lies within the European partnership, have been shoved onto the defensive.
But defeat is a great leveller provided that you learn from it.
There is a really good piece written on why we lost by Daniel Korski who worked for David Cameron. It sets out vividly the failings not of the Remain campaign, but much more seriously of our politics.
It should inject a sense of humility. We took too much for granted and got too much wrong.
We have to listen and learn.
But then we have to lead.
We have to respect that people voted as they did. But we have to believe in the people’s innate sense, that they’re also open to a better argument in the light of the facts as they come to light.
We have to recognise we’re the insurgents now. We have to build the capability to mobilise and to organise.
We have to prise apart the alliance which gave us Brexit.
The truth is that the real case for Brexit is the one you now hear openly acknowledged by some of its supporters.
And it’s not a stupid case.
It is that Britain should free itself from all the constraints which Europe imposes and from its essential social democratic model and go for a new type of economy altogether.
This economy would be defined in a sense by its very opposition to that European model. It would be free market, free trading, light regulation, low tax, low social protection – a sort of attempt to replicate the city states of Hong Kong and Singapore.
It’s not an impossible vision. We might – or at least some of us might – succeed in such a society.
But let us be very clear. It is not what a lot of the Brexit people voted for.
The NHS? Forget it. It would be much too expensive. Low numbers of migrants? Of course not, we would want them and need them. Theresa May’s workers on boards and a fairer capitalism? Not on this model.
What on earth would be the point of leaving Europe only to import Europe’s labour laws? Our competitive advantage would be precisely the absence of such regulation.
This vision is the future which could work.
But it isn’t the future Britain voted for.
And I am not sure we ever would; in which case, we would end up with the worst of all worlds – out of Europe’s market, but still with its model albeit at the frontier of it. The painful restructuring, supposed to be temporary, would turn into a permanent loss of income and a poorer country.
This is not apparent yet.
But it will be.
However, none of this is enough.
We also have to offer answers to the critical questions raised not only by Brexit but by the state of politics today.
Brexit is one consequence of the changing politics of the Western world. The centre is being pushed to the margins by a virulent populism of left and right.
Centre ground politicians feel so beaten up by the attacks on them that they default to a kind of uneasy trade with the populism.
One Labour MP explained it very graphically to me. He voted Remain. His constituency voted Leave. They voted in larger numbers than they did at the last General Election. All the pressure is one way; he thinks if he doesn’t conform to Brexit, he’s sunk.
Many Labour MPs are more worried by UKIP, even with their current travails, than they are about fighting what they regard as a doomed campaign to persuade the people to change their mind.
So, I asked my Labour MP, ‘what do you think is right? Stay or Leave?’ ‘Stay of course!’ he said. ‘And how important a decision for the country is this?’ I persisted. ‘The most important of my generation of course!’ he responded.
‘And you’re just going to accept it?’
The answer was a very eloquent shrug of the shoulders.
Sometimes the inevitable is called inevitable because it is. But sometimes the inevitable is in the mind of the beholder.
We have to provide answers: to the pressures and anxieties about immigration; to the feeling that many are left behind after the changes globalisation has wrought; to the worry over stagnant incomes, housing shortage, and over-burdened public services.
But we should not concede to the anger. We should channel it and pacify it in the only way which truly works: by real solutions which provide real change not fake fantasies which make enemies of neighbours.
If we don’t, then understand one thing above all else: that anger won’t disappear. It will metastasize. Soon there will be a new wave of technological change. The developing world, as it should, will move up the value chain.
The challenge of globalisation will grow greater not smaller.
If we have not built an understanding of what the true answers to this challenge are – which are much more to do with education, skills, infrastructure and open trade than it is to do with being ‘swamped’ by migrants – then we will be prey for an even more foolish excursion into populism than the one experimented with so far.
So these stakes are high. They are high all over Europe.
One missing but crucial element in all of the post-Brexit debate is how we influence the other side of this negotiation.
We know that Britain’s vote was symbolic of a general European feeling not simply an expression of a British one.
Europe should also be examining itself. Its failures were a cardinal part of Leave’s success.
There are elections in France next May. Whoever wins that election, will have – at least for a time – huge authority in Europe. Then it is Germany’s turn in September.
We have allies in Europe and many who fear – absolutely rightly – the corrosive impact of Britain’s departure on Europe’s ability to have weight and strength in the world. From European defence to trade negotiations with the USA, Europe is weaker without Britain. Many Europeans know that.
We should be working with them. Staying doesn’t necessarily mean staying in an unchanged Europe.
The world is dangerous right now, not simply for all the conventional reasons.
It is dangerous because Western politics is at risk of losing its way and its character. Just look at this Presidential election in the USA to see it.
Brexit has always meant more than Brexit.
So I come back to the central point. Keep our options fully open. Build the centre in all political parties. Organise and persuade. This is a world which changes fast. There is a downside to that. But there is also an upside. Things which look resolved emphatically can be open to a new resolution.
Above all stay firm. We’re a sovereign people. We can make up our mind; and we can change our mind. And whether we do, is up to us.