Show Hide image

The Remain campaign needs a dash of the Brexiters' utopianism

The pro-Brexit message is fearful, full of claims about Brussels largesse and the threat posed by foreigners.

When Labour’s shadow business secretary Angela Eagle described Michael Gove’s recent remarks on the post-Brexit prospects for UK trade as ‘utopian rubbish’, she probably though that the most important concept within that formulation was ‘rubbish’.

Gove was speaking ‘rubbish’, of course. He sought to turn the UK’s crippling trade deficit – the thing that demonstrates how vulnerable our economy is – into a negotiating strength. I refuse to even contemplate the possibility that Gove actually believes his own argument; he just found a clever way to spin a weakness into a positive, given the obvious unpalatability of the real reason he supports Brexit (proven by the fact that he won’t tell us what it is).

And it is of course no surprise that Eagle believes that describing this argument as rubbish is a good idea – it is what you do when your political opponent is talking, well, rubbish. The thing that elevated Eagle’s response above the mundane was the prefix ‘utopian’, because the addition of this word gave the media the opportunity to tell the story of the Brexit debate in the way it clearly wants to tell the story.

This speaks to the quintessential problem holding back the In campaign. They might have the economics on their side, but utopian ideals have unfortunately been cornered by the Brexiters, with the acquiescence of the Bremain camp. The Out campaign generally sees the EU as an evil, liberty-curtailing force, from which Britain can be freed. Strangely the prevailing narrative around the In campaign fails to dispute this – the EU is evil, they come close to admitting, it’s just a necessary evil.

I’m not suggesting the media is letting the Out campaign off the hook. Increasingly, they are being asked to provide details on how the UK will end up better off post-Brexit and, crucially, how much better off. In the absence of such evidence, commentators are quite legitimately depicting Brexiters as purveyors of fairytale and fantasy.

The question is, is this actually an effective line of attack? Is it one that the In campaign should be looking to fuel?

To be utopian has come to mean that you have unrealistic expectations, or are over-optimistic about how future events might work out in your favour. But to criticise someone as utopian does not mean you disagree with them on the place they want to get to – utopia – but rather only on how difficult the journey to get there will be.

Clearly, the In campaign has much better data at its disposal. Projecting forward a state of affairs that already exists is obviously easier than providing forecasts for a fundamentally different reality. Yet if the evidence that we are better off in the EU is so overwhelming, why cast the other side as the utopians? It is an implicit concession that Brexit would probably be the best thing, but because we do not know this for certain, we should settle for what we have. Only the present is quantifiable.

Yet many people are sick of settling for what politicians tell them is the best we can do. We don’t trust the political class anymore and, at a more basic level, we don’t trust numbers. George Osborne actually gets this, which is why he is able to keep the austerity show on the road, by appealing to colloquial notions of common sense which define his agenda against politics, despite his consistent failure to make the numbers add up.

The tragedy is that the pro-Brexit message isn’t utopian at all. It is just as fearful a message as the In campaign is offering, full of claims about Brussels largesse and the threat posed by foreigners that actually seem to render Britain rather timid, equipped for flight but not to fight. Few in the Out campaign suggest any fundamental change to the British economic model is required – they just want it to be less regulated (especially where the regulations in question concern employment rights).

This is hardly utopian – only people that have internalised the inherent wrongness of economic regulation and international law could possibly believe otherwise. Yet this is exactly the perspective which seems to dominate both campaigns. The In campaign suggests that EU membership is okay only because European regulations are not quite as onerous as the out campaign would have us believe. Ideal, no, but okay nevertheless.

But is ‘okay’ good enough anymore? Contributions like that made by Eagle are actually projecting on to the Out campaign an idealism that isn’t really there, at a time when people are desperate for something different.

It should not be necessary for the left to pretend the EU works perfectly in order to make the case for Britain to stay in. If the left is not arguing for change, then what is it for? That’s why the  intervention made earlier this month by Jeremy Corbyn – that the way Europe is governed needs radical reform just as the way Britain is governed needs radical reform – was exactly the kind of thing that Labour figures should be saying. But they need to go one step further, arguing that the former is key to the latter. If we hear more of that kind of idealism from him and others, we might start to see the value of utopianism for the In campaign.

Craig Berry is Deputy Director of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) at the University of Sheffield

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496