Back to Brexit ….

A brief note – in the end not quite as brief as I intended! My reason for this post – to explain why I am not one of those who voted Remain but is now prepared to accept Brexit, to accommodate – accept that the vote has happened, argue we should make the best of it and get on with life.

A few reasons, in no particular order, as they say on Strictly Come Dancing, as follows….

The vote was won on a basis of a false prospectus and false promises. Even now – press headlines pick up James Dyson and Lord Bamford, two of the rare industrialists who supported Brexit.

We are a parliamentary, representative democracy, and we should live and die by that. Not be ruled by plebiscites, which are the first and last resort of populists and demagogues. (We currently have an unelected government, governing to its own and not the 2015 Tory manifesto, and which anticipates pushing Brexit through using the royal prerogative without, if it can help it, reference to parliamentary discussion or vote.)

The European Union is a remarkable institution. Unwieldy, bureaucratic, fractious, but it is the extraordinary coming together of 28 different nations, each passionate about its own interest, but likewise seeing the benefits, after two thousand years of conflict, of coming together. Our efforts should be concentrated on reform not withdrawal. (The EU has been pilloried for its poor handling of the refugee crisis, but I wonder how it could have been handled well, given all the fear and anxieties felt by 28 countries with very different histories. Had here been no EU, how would the crisis have been handled? With any less agony, any less suffering?)

A war which tore Europe and then the world apart ended only seventy years ago, a year before I was born. Before that another war, arguably even more terrible. We’ve had seventy years of peace, unprecedented peace. The EU symbolises and acts out that peace.

As an economic union, despite all the talk it’s a significant success. No serious economist would argue otherwise. Run a business which trades with other European countries, which I’ve done, and you’re aware of all the benefits. The danger is you take them for granted – assume they’d have happened anyway. There are also extraordinary levels of scientific, environmental and cultural collaboration, for which the EU has provided both the mechanism and inspiration.

The EU isn’t restrictive – unless you’re opposed to workplace and environmental rights. And we’re not going to do without the regulations by asserting our independence – if we want to trade with Europe, the regulations are the terms.

Where there is unnecessary red tape we need to be in there, ensuring it’s removed, instead of being passive observers. We are sacrificing engagement, and influence. We’ve used that influence well over the years.

Immigration is a perceived threat – where immigrant numbers are highest we had the highest Remain votes, where they were low the highest Leave votes. A perceived threat – nowhere near the actual threat that much of the press played up. Likewise no evidence that immigration has held wages down. Yes, pressure on schools and housing in certain areas – and the last government singularly failed to recognise that immigration, and other changes in our working lives, must be reflected in improved infrastructure. (Levels of immigration in recent years have been too high – I’m not arguing otherwise – and politically they’re unsustainable at this level. How you handle this while preserving freedom of movement is a mighty challenge, but not remotely a sufficient reason for Brexit.)

Behind immigration lies the identity politics, aligned with nation and race and social group, which we should be fighting every step of the way. Espouse patriotism not separatism. Patriotism based upon British values of openness, tolerance, free speech – and a tradition of welcoming strangers, bringing them into the fold, and letting them benefit our life and culture – blending in as countless immigrants have done before. Likewise refugees – there are limits of course, but our first instinct must be to welcome.

Related to this, the argument that British, the U.K., England, isn’t the country it used to be. The old generational cri de coeur. True, the pace is faster, and the landscape much impaired. But there have been many radical improvements, too easily discounted. As for the negatives –  the EU takes the rap. I may personally be in the old codger bracket, but I’m with the younger, pro-EU generation.

There’s a mood out there, encouraged by the right-wing press, and played along with by the BBC, that somehow it will all work out. In Philip Hammond’s words, there will be bumps in the road. There’s another much more likely scenario where we find ourselves out on a limb, with an agreement which is dictated to us, and which we accept out of necessity. The economic auguries are not good. Put simply, a crisis awaits us.

There is so much else that matters out there in the world which we were just about facing up to, and they’re now on the back burner in terms of government and public attention. Global challenges, new technologies, fundamental changes in our working lives. At home, infrastructure, the NHS – requiring focus and funding when attention is elsewhere.

We have a hugely inflated view of our presence and reputation in the world. We embody as a nation tolerance, free speech, we pioneered modern representative democracy, the world plays many major sports by rules we laid down. But this is Britain as was. Our current behaviour simply alienates.

To end, two further points –

I’ve mentioned openness above. We have always been open to the world, and the danger now is that we shut ourselves off. Look to the past. Seek one-off deals when others work together. Openness is state of mind, and in an atmosphere of fear and apprehension, in great part built up by the media, it is now challenged as never before in my lifetime.

In direct contradiction to Theresa May’s comments, whether we like it or not we are citizens of the world, citizens, along with all our neighbours, of Europe, and citizens of the U.K. My patriotism is undiminished, I’m British to my last breath, but I also share a common humanity  with every man and woman on the planet.

And finally – never imagine that the change you wish for works out as you anticipate.  It will not, and never has. Gut instinct will never provide. A wing and a prayer will never suffice.

I remember one egregiously daft piece imagining a post-Brexit Britain in 2025 by Daniel Hannan in the Telegraph. It was the stuff of dreams, and typified the dream world in which Brexiters exist.

Now isn’t the time to buckle under.

Taking time off from Brexit

I’ve written a lot about the referendum and Brexit in this blog. It is after all a blog with ‘politics’ in the title. But we’re all tired of reading analyses of one kind or another, about hard and soft Brexit, free trade and customs unions, the democratic deficit, immigration levels and the like.

And I want to get back to writing on other subjects, could be political, but just not Brexit, chill out, write poetry, seeking out high mountain or deep country retreats – or more prosaically, just get on with ordinary life.

That said, I’m not signing off without one last submission! With a focus on the action – the actions – we should be taking.

There’s a sense at the moment that events are running away from us. We’re anticipating dire consequences from the Brexit vote – but that means we’re looking out for those consequences – almost willing them – to prove ourselves right. And that’s no place to be.

A sense that more than ever in my lifetime we are headed in the wrong direction, and led by the wrong people – amateurs in a ruthless world. Rarely has hope – false hope – so triumphed over pragmatism.

Nor should we forget anger. Anger over the simple mendacity of many in the Leave campaign. But also over our own foolishness for not seeing it coming, for not realising the potential for a protest vote – and not understanding earlier why that protest vote might happen.

We now need to take action, to build up and sustain pressure – working with others, as part of campaigning groups, as supporter/members of the pressure groups, or pro-EU political parties – the Lib Dems, or an actively opposing opposition, as I hope Labour will become after the September leadership election. (It may be another kind of Labour, a breakaway or a reborn Labour, as it needs to be if it’s to regain support among the old blue-collar, working-class vote.)

‘Actions’ in italics.

All the while we have to keep that open and open-market, European, international, global perspective. International agreements by continent or wider are a much more effective, more reliable way forward than agreements at a single country level. (Which isn’t to say we should be immediately signing up to TTIP!) Europe is also an attitude of mind, relating back to how we connect with the world.

But – don’t so much shout in from the roof-tops, develop a wider, quieter strategy, but one that’s no less determined. There was too much shouting during the referendum campaign.

And too little awareness – now I hope radically changed for everyone on the Remain side – of economic and social and political realities, too little awareness of what life is really like beyond city borders – the sense of a government that doesn’t listen, the decline in prosperity and pride in traditional working-class areas, and the hostility and alienation felt even in prosperous Tory outer suburbia. If immigrants bring increasing wealth to the country, where is the infrastructure, the investment in the NHS and schools? If industries close down, where are not just the re-training packages but the industries, the services, the actual physical jobs to allow people to re-engage with society?

We may find we’ve common ground with Brexiters here – arguing for (sensible, nationwide – not HS2) infrastructure and investment.

Cameron and Osborne all but turned their backs on the problem. Inadequate re-training, and little sense of a wider industrial strategy. The irony is that it’s now the Brexiters, the old-style grumbling Tories of the shires who have to take action, when it’s just they who have been happy to turn their backs on run-down, de-industrialised areas in the past.

There are critical procedural considerations – how we can best secure votes in parliament before before Article 50 is invoked, and likewise on the results of negotiations, if we get that far. And how we can make certain we win those votes, should they happen. In the first instance – by supporting individual MPs, think tanks, pressure groups – and political parties, Labour I hope as well as the LibDems. 

God knows how the immigration debate will play out over time. Business and the NHS and social care depend on immigrants, and if the economy expands, and the NHS and social care improve their services, we will require continuing high levels of immigration. If we’re to stand a chance of retaining a sane immigration strategy it will need some radically re-thinking at an EU level – which we must argue for.

The sovereignty debate is one where opinion if it changes will only do so over time. It’s become confused with national identity, and too many people have argued that British and European identities are not compatible. The EU has to a great extent only itself to blame. It has now to show, and we have to argue hard for, a radically improved awareness of national concerns and susceptibilities. It will go to the wall, and one country after another will exit, if it doesn’t. Federalism must be put out to the very longest grass .

And that, for now, is it on the subject of Brexit!!

China shock

A digression – an important digression – into trade policy. Maybe a little heavy-going, but important!

*

Apropos my comments in my last post on de-industrialisation, there’s an interesting article in the current (July) edition of Prospect, by the FT’s economics leader writer, Martin Sandhu.

Has the cause of growing inequality in the rich world since circa 1980 been caused by globalisation or technological change? In Sandhu’s words, by the late 1990s ‘… the economics profession settled on the consensus that technology more than trade was to blame. Then China joined the World Trade Organisation.’

He quotes Autor, Dorn and Hanson’s paper, ‘China Shock’, and highlights their conclusion that ‘Chinese competition had localised but substantial negative and long-lasting effects on the places particularly exposed to it’. ‘On one estimate more than half of [US] factory job losses can be attributed to the China effect.’

’… the imbalanced effect of trade liberalisation can only be corrected if the losers are compensated out of the overall gain – but more redistribution and greater public goods are not on the cards in Trump’s deck.’

Of course technology is also a key factor, so too the shift of power away from labour to capital – not least, the decline of trade unions.  Benefits have also been hit hard – even more in the USA than the UK.

‘It is no surprise that that people feeling powerless and alone in the face of their demotion yearn to regain control – to ‘take their country back’. That is what Trump promises them.’

So too the UK. ‘The same dream of regaining control …fuels the growth of socially-conservative nativist right-wing parties in Britain, France, Germany, Scandinavia and central Europe.’ Some of the same grievances have been picked up by Bernie Sanders as well as Trump. (We have nothing directly comparable in the UK.)

But whereas Trump talks of putting up trade barriers the Brexit message has been all about lowering barriers with the rest of the world , ‘to escape the walls of Fortress Europe’ – a rigorous free trade message. (Both the USA and UK insurgencies are of course agreed on immigration.)

Also bear in mind that economic theory ‘predicts that the effect of low-skilled immigration is the same as freer trade with countries that have a lot of low-skilled labour’. Put another way, freer trade (especially negotiated from a position of lesser rather than greater advantage post-Brexit) will hit hardest those areas already suffering.

(Some will course want to rubbish economic theory. That’s the mood of the moment.)

The impact of Chinese imports on British industry, and the resultant job losses, has been far far greater than the impact of immigration. And yet it’s immigration on which the Leave campaign has focused.

And the impact of free trade? Now that we’re escaping from an EU that’s perceived to be the over-regulated and slow-moving ?

‘…Brexit will not lead to a bonfire of the regulations, but a redoubled effort to harmonise rules – that’s what trade openness increasingly means.’

There’s an obvious and striking irony here – we put behind us the EU and harmonisation, and negotiations over TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), and we find that we’re faced with just the same issues when we seek to negotiate free trade deals around the world. But without the clout the EU gives us.

More than ever it’s apparent that immigration for the Leave campaign has been a target of convenience. The issues we face as a country with regard to our future prosperity are of a very different order. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t pay heed to the specific impacts of immigration, but our future lies in facing up to the global context in which we operate, and in which we will be, post-Brexit, less equipped to operate.

And our response as a country to those who feel excluded and resentful will involve strategies which simply aren’t part of the Leave agenda. That’s the absurdity of the situation in which we find ourselves.

 

Another day and another …

… and another. There is no end in sight.

A febrile and emotional atmosphere, 150,000 Tory members out in the shires with the final decision on the new Tory leader. They will represent the nation. Even more so since there’s no new parliamentary election planned.

And once the leadership election is over, the big question – whether to invoke Article 50 sooner, or later.

The general disruption and shenanigans on all sides in the meantime will keep us in a state of both panic and amusement.

Quite where Labour will end up is likewise impossible to predict – a separate but related battle in its own right for the soul of the nation – who in the end does Labour represent?

Those who visited this uncertainty and foolery on us will be pilloried by history. Boris has now departed the scene, but he bears a heavy responsibility. He paraphrased Brutus in his recent withdrawal speech: ‘A time not to fight against the tide of history but to take that tide at the flood and sail on to fortune.’

If the tide for him is Brexit, a withdrawal and a ‘glorious future’, he should reflect on the fate of Brutus (he took his own life) and how futile his gesture in holding back the imperial tide.

Back to reality …

Peter Wilby in the New Statesman: ‘… the European project that led to the EU was – and in some respects still is – an an attempt to embed humane and liberal values so deeply that the nightmare [of war and violence] could never be repeated.’

That remains my view as well, but obscured and obfuscated by reactions (some valid, some not) against elites and establishment, against authority and expertise, against neglect and ostentation, post-industrial decline and globalisation, together with …

false perspectives on the past, colouring absurdly-imagined perspectives on the future (Daniel Hannan being one such errant dreamer),

neo-liberal attitudes and policies which with Ayn Rand lurking as a ghost in the room will only make division worse,

immigration and refugee crises, again with deeper issues, this time regarding population movements, tucked away in the shadows.

The optimism and open hearts of younger generations against the certainties of age, idealism against anger and cynicism. (We will need to reduce the voting age to 16, and maybe younger (!), to counter the increasing numbers of the elderly.)

Not forgetting the dangers of referenda, of populism, of a popular press in the hands of barons who bought their stake in the national debate. The triumph of mendacity and misinformation. The dangerous subjugation of parliamentary democracy, which is slow burn and should always be so, to the politics of the moment.

It’s one hell of a mix. To quote Wilby again: ‘Now new monsters, more frightening than Johnson or Farage, emerge across Europe to challenge those values. I was confident that none would acquire serious power. Now I am not so sure.’

We are fighting chimera and obsession and absurdity when there are big issues out there – population, the future of work, the fairer apportionment of resources, and much more, not to speak of the violence and hatred which are always looking for fertile ground in which to take root – they should be our focus.

Working with international bodies – the UN, and the EU, and all the others forums where we get together and talk. The very existence of such forums, in the wider context of history, is a miracle in its own right.

Matched against this there’s the gathering of Beaconsfield Conservatives shown on the news last Sunday (3rd July), so pristine, chatty, engaged in discussing the rival merits of candidates for the leadership), and all so far removed from reality. It might have been a garden in September 1939.

I’ve always loved politics and political discussion – but do I enjoy walking on a tightrope over a precipice?

The same again please

Written before May announced and Johnson renounced, and then Gove pronounced. More on that later…

I’ll argue to the end for the re-assertion of parliamentary democracy (over referenda) and continued membership of the EU. And millions with me, I know. But, if that doesn’t happen, what should we argue for – what should we demand?

The same…

If we can’t have the EU we need the EU without the EU. The same workplace, health and safety, and environmental legislation, the same Europe-wide agreements in science, the same cooperation in the arts.

What we still want to be a part of came about because of the EU. That fact will be more than apparent for many of us. Maybe the realisation will strike home for a few Leave voters.

The same vision: that’s more difficult – the open inclusive vision that many of us have is simply not shared. And that, as long as it doesn’t shade into bigotry and prejudice, I can just about accept – I must accept. (That it did so shade in the referendum is a challenge for all of us.)

The same trade deal: all save a few economists on the neo-liberal wing of the Tories (or beyond that wing) would like to be spared tariffs, would want to be part of a single market. EU regulations would have to be adopted by the UK – little option but to do otherwise – and any reining back would be a betrayal of civilised values.

Compromise is sometimes possible: in some areas we have to take a stand. And that means immigration, the devilish strand that is woven through history. Our forebears somewhere way back were immigrants, and their progeny a generation or two down the line took up against the next wave. Each generation has to manage the issue as best and as widely as it can.

Wisdom in a referendum too easily goes out the window, as it has done here. Fertile ground for wild statements appealing to the worst in people. I would have trusted Cameron to bring that wisdom to any negotiation. I think I might also trust Stephen Crabb. Start out with a degree of humility not arrogance. Boris Johnson has today disqualified himself, though there’s no more humility there than in his nemesis, Michael Gove.

Another day 

I read the Economist’s latest thoughts and prognostications before I went to bed, and I didn’t sleep for the next two hours. That was a mistake. See Anarchy in the UK for the link.

On the BBC website this morning there’s little suggestion of crisis: the BBC’s perceived need to be even-handed eviscerates their commentary, takes out the drama, compromises truth, as it did during the campaign. George Osborne, still hanging on as Chancellor, is putting on a brave face about the economy this morning, as he has to do – and all power to him. I have yet to see the Telegraph, but I’m expecting more of the triumphalism that characterised Saturday’s paper. (Well, almost – front-page article by Boris, ‘We must be proud and positive.’ Though ‘anxious and scared’ might come closer.)

Where lies the truth? You can guess. The only one of the above not in some way beholden to someone else, by way of caution (Osborne) or position in society (BBC) or ownership (Telegraph) is the Economist. Theirs is probably the most cogent analysis I’ve seen. (Do Leave have a plan? ‘There is no plan.’) Articles by the likes of Nick Cohen take in important aspects of the crisis, but the Economist provides a wider focus.

Also this morning – a Labour leadership crisis to match the Tories’divisions, and all at a time of national crisis.

Attention now has to be on the Commons. My question – how best can the pro-Remain majority make clear its refusal to countenance any Leave legislation, and its opposition to invoking Article 50? Parliament is sovereign – not referenda.

That of course begs a multitude of questions. Not least, how would the public respond?

Short term there’ll be an almighty bust-up. Longer term, government must be more inclusive if it’s to win over the protest voters (as opposed to hardliners).

Taking my local area, Spelthorne, just outside London’s boundaries, but very much in its orbit, as an example. It came out strongly pro-Leave. 65%. How much of that vote might be considered protest? While there are areas of deprivation they’ve not been left behind as other areas have. But that dividing line just 400 yards from where I live, between inner and outer London, marks a real boundary in outlook and expectations and perceptions of the world.

I could put it down to fear of immigration, stirred up by the media: that’s one reason, but too simple. We’ll be getting closer to a full picture if we link it to proximity to the instruments of government, parliament, civil service, especially the City. Closer still if we take into account the greater numbers of young people, of voting age, within London’s border, and its corollary, the greater number of retired people, suspicious of the modern global world, beyond that border. Why do older generations and the retired feel so alienated? Does it have to be that way? I’m still looking for answers.

24th June – the day after

Many responses to this absurd nonsensical vote for Leave. Anger, anxiety, recrimination. Being ashamed for the country, ashamed at the way we’ll be seen by the rest of the word, ashamed maybe that we didn’t see it coming.

A sense we’ve let down young people across the country, who voted by a substantial majority for Remain. We being the old fogeys.

What we must not do now is acquiesce, accept that the people have voted, and imagine we can’t challenge the vote itself and its consequences.

Just how constitutional is a referendum in the first place? It was established by an act of parliament so it is clear by this simple fact that parliament takes precedence over referenda. We don’t have a written constitution but the supremacy of the House of Commons is clearly established. It can make legislation, and it can remove legislation.  We shouldn’t assume, mustn’t assume, that yesterday’s vote is forever.

Referenda

The referendum expressed ‘the will of the people’, it will be argued. But did it? The will of the people at one moment in time. The will of the people as directed by a popular press which has been pursuing an anti-EU agenda for many years, and an anti-immigrant agenda. A popular press that plays on prejudice and seeks to portray isolated instances as widespread patterns of behavior – that looks to disparage, mock and scorn at every opportunity. The damage all this does to public debate is immeasurable. And given the importance of maintaining a free press there’s little we can do about it.

‘The will of the people’ …  in theory it exists, in practice it is easily influenced, ever-changing Next week, next month, it could express itself very differently.

Parliamentary democracy is arguably Britain’s greatest gift to the world. We elect representatives, they divide into different parties and groupings which debate and pass legislation which has at least been fully considered and argued in a (usually) sane and calm environment. Elections are open to populist rhetoric, and they can be divisive, but they elect parliaments which balance opinion and establish consensus in a remarkable way.

Why in earth should we want to subordinate a parliament to a plebiscite-based democracy?

Referenda polarize opinion too readily, as they have done this time, encouraging wild statements and mis-statements, sometimes total untruths. They give some kind of equivalence to both sides, however untenable the position one side might be. (I’m thinking of the BBC.) Opinions in the country are now so divided, tempers so frayed, that rifts engendered could take years to heal.

That said, now our ire has been roused we must act on it. At a more trivial level by keeping up the pressure on Boris. Boris found himself faced with a hostile crowd when he left home this morning. I hope that continues to happen. He needs to be aware of the consequences of his actions.

The next stage

Cameron will resist pressure from the EU to quickly invoke Article 50. So he should. There’s a big Remain majority in the Commons and they must ensure that no precipitate action is taken before we have not only a new Tory leader and prime minister (and I’d hope a new Labour leader) but also an election.

If the Brexit mood is maintained, then Tory MPs who’ve voted Remain may succumb to local party pressure and agree to vote for Brexit legislation in the next parliament. If they don’t, they may find themselves de-selected. But if they hold out, then the new parliament is likely to have a pro-Remain majority. In which case, back to my argument above – which should take precedence – a parliamentary majority, or a referendum vote? That could of course become an election issue in itself. Feathers will fly.

We can’t know how this will play out. But it will be interesting.

The Brexit vote

Some of us feel angry and ashamed. But rightly or wrongly, there were and are strong emotions on the Brexit side. I was very aware of that observing the count at my local council offices on Thursday night. A roughly 65:35 Leave majority.

Why so many? It’s important to know, and we must deal with their anger without indulging our own too much. Resentment at elites, suspicion of authority and expertise – a legacy of the financial crisis, and the expenses shambles. A related sense among many of being left behind, forced into part-time work, low pay. Among the more fortunate a sense of others on the gravy train, doing better, and unfairly so, than they are. Immigrants: if jobs are still there wages are lower than they would otherwise have been. And often a simple fear of immigrants, even when they may never see more than one or two in their locality.

Much of this has been played upon and wildly exaggerated by the UKIP and the media, but there is some truth here. If there is resentment, we have to address it. If government austerity measures have exacerbated feelings of being marginalized, we must deal with that too. It won’t help if we disparage and cry foul. If towns  in the North-East feel that all the focus and investment is down south – they’re right. (Please divert HS2 finance into a network which serves everyone, including the North-East.) We have to get to the root of the matter. It won’t stop the Mail or Sun seeking out incidents they can exploit, but we have to limit their opportunities to do so. And we must be, in two words, more inclusive.

Brexit leadership

Several strands. All need to be addressed head-on, for what they are.

Immigration – UKIP and the closet racist agenda of Nigel Farage, making racist attitudes somehow acceptable, attempting to link the refugee crisis and Eastern European immigration in the popular mind.

Arguments about sovereignty and accountability, EU extravagance, sclerotic administration.  (Mostly specious, but can be made to sound convincing.)

The neo-liberal agenda, which the Tory right has managed to squeeze through under the radar in the guise of reducing regulation.

More broadly, looking inward, looking back, shades of Empire, and a belief we can go it alone. The fairy tale land Boris would like to inhabit.

Our response

We can take up the standard from Jo Cox, be proud of Britain (and in her case Yorkshire as well!), proud of Europe and what it’s achieved and where it’s come from over the last seventy years, and be open and open-hearted toward the world.

That’s a challenge, and one I think with younger generations on our side I’m sure we can rise to.

52% doesn’t have to be a done deal.