We’ve had three and a half years to make our peace with Brexit. Let’s make better use of the next three and a half
In the last parliament, MPs who opposed a hard Brexit were in the majority and had real power. Sadly they squandered it, and now they have little or none.
There turned out to be no concrete option they could agree on. Theresa May’s Brexit was too hard for almost all Labour MPs and too soft for many Tory MPs. As a result, an admittedly Leave-tilted Brexit compromise fell, as did the prime minister who negotiated it. She was, predictably, replaced by a far more hardline successor.
Boris Johnson pivoted from No Deal in all but name to a Deal — abandoning regulatory alignment and dropping May’s promises on the Union. Then Tory MPs had to choose between Northern Ireland’s unionists and a hard Brexit for Great Britain. Meanwhile, referendum-sceptic Labour MPs were confronted with the price of their inconsistencies. As a result, a narrow majority emerged for a much harder Brexit. And thanks to last year’s election, that majority is now beyond doubt.
So now opponents of Boris Johnson’s Brexit have to rely on embarrassment and political pressure, not hard political power. There’s no point pretending: they have far less chance of changing policy as a result. But keening and wailing until perhaps we rejoin the EU one day isn’t much of a policy, and parliamentary democracy needs an effective opposition.
So given where we are now — leaving in a week, like it or not — what should opposition MPs and campaigners do?
1. Don’t fight the last war
In 2015, a narrow majority of seats and votes went to parties who backed a referendum on EU membership. The 2016 referendum delivered a narrow but clear vote for Leave. In the 2017 election, both major parties pledged to deliver some form of Brexit. And in last year’s election, ‘get Brexit done’ secured the largest parliamentary majority since 2001.
We don’t have to change our minds about Brexit. I still think it’s a historic tragedy and an enormous policy error. But while people have every right to campaign for whatever aims they choose, the wise thing is to recognise the parameters the voters have set for us on three separate occasions and work within them for now. (Yes, 52% of voters backed pro-referendum or pro-revocation parties. But voters are not stupid. If it had been their priority, more of them would have voted tactically. They didn’t.)
No one should assume the EU will be in any hurry to radically renegotiate by 2024, even if Labour finds a compelling political project in time. It’s also a pretty good bet that most voters will think they never want to hear the word ‘Brexit’ again by then. (In fact, they’re already there. They essentially voted to get Brexit off TV on 12 December.)
That means the future EU-UK relationship may well be fixed, in outline if not in detail — life outside the EU is a constant negotiation — for years to come. Like it or not, the national interest requires the government to make a success of Brexit — or, more likely in my view (but I hope I’m wrong), the best of a bad job. The sooner Remain MPs and parties recognise that, and make it clear they do, the sooner they might get a hearing. Labour and Lib Dem MEPs’ decision to vote against the Withdrawal Agreement next week — when they know the consequence of it falling would legally be a No Deal crash-out at 11pm next Friday — is not a good start.
2. Don’t pick every battle
I get why people do this. Really, I do. The Big Ben bong saga, Union Jacks flying down the Mall on Brexit Day, commemorative coins, blue passports: they all feel designed to aggravate. And I expect they often are: cries of irritation from ‘Remoaners’, refracted through social and tabloid media, are part of the point.
As a rule, though, if your opponents want you to do something, you should pause before going ahead and doing it. The current government won its majority on the back of the other side of the culture war. Playing along energises parts of its voter base. It makes it harder to get real issues across. And fairly or unfairly, it fits a ‘Remoaner’ stereotype we need to shake off.
So when faced with such things, ask yourselves a basic question: do they actually matter? If the answer is ‘no’, try to ignore them. Does it matter whether Big Ben bongs next week? No. Does it matter if we have Union Jacks on the Mall? No. Does it matter if we see a 50p coin with an unattractive typeface reminiscent of Monotype Corsiva once or twice? No. Does the colour of our passports matter? No. Let Leavers have them and focus on something which does.
3. Don’t kick away ladders ministers might climb down
One of the most important pieces of soft power an opposition has is deciding when not to oppose. In a system whose adversarialism engenders juvenility, it’s easy to reject proposals, mock U-turns and point gleefully at climbdowns. That’s par for the course in British politics. But given the stakes, the priority shouldn’t be finger-pointing. It should be making it easier for the government to do sensible things and harder for it to do stupid things.
For the most part, this principle was nowhere to be seen in the last parliament. Far too often, MPs sniped at May’s government in both cases. For instance, Labour said it wanted a softer Brexit for most of the last parliament. So why did a party which said it wanted a customs union object to the fact that May’s backstop included a customs union?
The most urgent question is whether Boris Johnson will U-turn on extending the transition period in time for the legal deadline of 1 July. After that, the question is whether we find a fudge or face a fall on 31 December. In the unlikely event that Johnson changes his mind, it will be hard not to crow. If he panics in the autumn and we scrabble for a fudge — perhaps referring to the transition in a new, basic FTA as the status quo ante from which we’re moving and, by including ‘implementation’, extending it in all but name — the urge to expose it will be hard to resist.
Nonetheless, MPs, campaigners and others who want to blunt the edge of Johnson’s hard Brexit should resist. A decent deal takes time. We need the government to buy it. The last thing we should do is join with the most extreme Brexiteers in begrudging the purchase. If we borrow ‘dynamic approximation’ from Ukraine’s DCFTA, or agree to align with parts of EU law, the same applies. If you prefer a softer Brexit to a harder one, don’t scream about disguised rule-taking if you get some of what you want.
4. Don’t dismiss every possible opportunity
The European Union is a great European achievement. It has done more than any other organisation in human history to change the way European states relate to each other, to place them on a basis of law and not just power. Its economic, geopolitical and human achievements are remarkable. Part of the tragedy of Brexit is that pro-Europeans only made a case against Brexit, not a case for the EU, until far too late.
Nonetheless, European integration is a set of institutions and a body of law. It is not the organisational equivalent of Sir Galahad. It has faults. EU membership has downsides; there are some positive features of life after leaving. The far larger number of downsides (in my view) doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Not even the most starry-eyed British pro-Europeans think the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy are great European triumphs, for instance.
Above all, Brexit may at least return some issues to the arena of democratic discussion. I am not saying the EU has no democratic aspects. It does, and I always thought we should have done more at home to make use of them and to up our own democratic game. But formal institutions can’t substitute for public engagement. And British people rarely identify with or follow the European Parliament on a day-to-day level.
For the first time in decades, trade, agricultural subsidies, fisheries management — and EEA/Swiss immigration — will be on the democratic table at UK level. That means people on all sides can make their case for their view of how we should do things. For instance, I’d love to see the UK lead the world in how its parliament scrutinises trade negotiations. I don’t actually know where exactly I think the balance between open trade and food security should lie: I’d welcome a proper debate about it. Don’t let mourning for EU membership close off any thought for how we do things in future.
5. Don’t make yourself sound like you despise the country
The most tone-deaf continuity Remainers and the most zealous Corbynites have very few nice things to say to each other. But sometimes they have more in common than they care to admit. And they share a certain tone towards the country in which they live and whose people they want to win round to their way of thinking.
However they voted in 2016, most people in Britain have an affection for the land they call their own. As it’s Britain, what that land is varies depending on where you are. For most of us, which one we’re talking about depends on when you ask us. And it’s not necessarily a demonstrative or performative thing. Nonetheless, ‘we are useless, everything we make and do is useless, vote for me’ is not a winning message for people to hear — even if it’s not what you really think.
You don’t need to paint Britain as a benighted disaster zone to say a harder Brexit is worse than a softer one. You don’t need to label the British people the most prejudiced in Europe — they really aren’t — to call out the Home Office. You don’t need to sneer at British manufacturing to defend its just-in-time supply chains. You don’t need to see the Union Jack as an affront to see yourself as a citizen of the world. You don’t need to disdain Britain’s distinctive voice to want it to join the choir.
Our aim is not to stop an awful country from becoming the rainier version of the apocalypse. Our aim is to get the best or least-worst outcome for a good country which isn’t being well-served by its government. Other countries’ pro-Europeans always twin the flag of Europe with their national flag. Learn from them.
Brexit has always been too serious an issue to treat as a normal political football. Sadly and unsurprisingly, that didn’t stop many politicians. And it turns out that in the battle of the anti-compromisers, the hard Brexiteers held the most cards.
I hope progressives can do better in the next three and a half years than they did in the last three and a half. I am too much of a realist to expect them to revolutionise policy. But they can start to re-earn a hearing. They can try to soften government policy and encourage more rather than less sensible government strategy. They can look to the future — and maybe they can avoid exacerbating the wounds in our body politic. I hope they manage.
This post was originally published on Medium.com on 24 January 2020.