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13 October 2021

Labour has no hope of defeating the Conservatives until it answers the Brexit question

The alternatives to a hard Brexit are well known and entirely possible to achieve.

By Paul Mason

The Conservatives are running a regime of crisis. Ten months into the Covid-19 vaccination programme, Britain has the highest infection rate in western Europe.

We are missing not only 100,000 HGV drivers but the same number of care home workers. Firms making steel, ceramics and cement glass are on the verge of collapse due to the gas price spike. A shortage of abattoir workers has already led 650 pigs to be culled

But the government has learned to revel in chaos. It has threatened to pull the plug on the Northern Ireland protocol, which would plunge the peace process into turmoil and spark a trade war with Europe. It is also at war with itself over whether to let vital manufacturing firms live or die. It is a chaos engine.

But crisis turns out to be the most profitable modus operandi for Boris Johnson. The pattern was established early in the pandemic: incompetence, passivity and absence followed by aggressive buck-passing and rhetoric of “sunny uplands”. And it paid off.

No matter how many bodies in the morgue or how long the petrol queue, nothing can dent the Tories’ poll lead because every crisis situation feeds the conservative impulse among the two groups that form the Tory coalition: elderly, white middle-class people in southern England and elderly white working-class people in northern England.

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The same social coalition that brought us Brexit seems happy enough to live with the consequences: a permanent trade crisis and a disintegrating democracy. Do they care that the Conservative Party has become a machine for organised corruption, running a conveyor belt from the dodgy end of finance into the House of Lords? Not enough to risk a non-Tory government.

And should the supply chain crisis, the labour shortage and the perpetual diplomatic war with Europe fail to weld middle England to the Tories, there is always the unexploded constitutional bomb of Scotland to do the job.

At the Conservative Party conference, speaker after speaker lined up not only to oppose Scottish independence and a second referendum, but to declare that they would “never allow” them to happen. And in the conservative press, a narrative is being constructed around Scottish disloyalty and threats to national security. 

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The former defence secretary Michael Fallon warned this week that Scottish independence “would weaken Nato and would play into the hands of our adversaries, especially those in Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang and Tehran who wish us harm”. 

Meanwhile, the Scottish conservative commentator Iain Martin laid into an SNP MP for suggesting a post-independence defence pact, customs union and banking union. Martin tweeted: “Why would England or English voters agree to any of this? A hostile power to the north again. One of the main original reasons for the Union from an English perspective would be undone.”

This, then, is the emerging logic of Tory thinking. Play hardball with Europe over the Northern Ireland protocol, pick fight after fight with France – over fishing rights, submarines and migrant crossings – all in preparation for a decisive showdown over Scotland.

If they can paint Scottish independence as the next existential threat (following Europe and Covid) to the UK, and depict Labour as soft on the issue, they can stiffen the conservative impulse in middle England, setting the stage for yet another “crisis election” whose timing will be choreographed around any bid by Holyrood to hold a second referendum. The result would ensure two decades of Tory rule.

The opposition parties are failing to land a blow on Johnson because they are playing the wrong game. Since 2014, when Scottish independence was averted by chicanery and duplicity among politicians, business and the media, the UK has been in a rolling constitutional crisis.

The referendum accelerated the desertion of Ed Miliband’s Labour Party by English voters. Then Labour itself ceased to be a stable pillar of the British state, becoming instead a warzone between its radicalised membership and its MPs. Then Brexit happened, followed by three years of political crisis characterised by government attacks on the judiciary, lies to the monarchy and the unlawful prorogation of parliament. 

[see also: From Germany, the UK appears ever more dysfunctional and absurd]

But at Labour’s conference in September, nobody wanted to mention Scotland or Brexit. Labour is trying to fight the Conservatives on the terrain of competence, honesty and mild redistribution. Here, ironically, there is complete continuity between Starmer and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, both driven by the conviction that talking loudly enough about something else will make Britain’s constitutional and geostrategic issues go away.

Miliband’s defeat in 2015 should have killed forever the “one more heave” philosophy that lurks behind all Labour thinking. Instead, it has been replaced by a naive hope: that “one more crisis” will break people’s emotional attachment to the Tory party.

Maybe, once the care homes close their doors, the shops run out of Christmas tat, the garage forecourts fill with angry motorists again, the steel industry collapses under the gas price surge and the docks pile high with undelivered goods, something will snap. But don’t count on it.

What will defeat this chaos-addicted government is a clear alternative. Not just on economic and social priorities, but on trade, geopolitics and the constitution.

And that means confronting the issue of Brexit. The Conservatives chose a hard Brexit: skills shortages, goods shortages and energy shortages are the result. They sold British voters the fantasy of a “global” buccaneering nation, reliving its colonial heyday, at the very moment the world economy began to harden into rival continental blocs. The result is geopolitical isolation, severe stress in the supply chain and the accelerated break-up of Britain. 

There is only one logical escape route from ten years of continuous crisis, corruption and incoherence. And it is not some kind of mild, “normal” Labour government. The electoral advances required look impossible.

The solution is a Labour-led coalition that drives radical constitutional change, creating the conditions to keep Johnson and his right-wing populist crew out of office. That coalition is unachievable without an honest and open alternative to a hard Brexit. 

Britain cannot and should not return to the EU. But the alternatives to a hard Brexit are well known and entirely possible to achieve with good will: Britain should seek entry either to “the” or “a” single market for goods, reintegrate into European energy and labour markets, and resume strategic partnership over security and defence. That would solve the Northern Ireland border issue and remove the threat of trade friction across Britain in the event of Scottish independence.

A Labour-led coalition would, by its very design, be obliged to permit a second Scottish vote. But if, along the way, it delivered radical electoral reform and accelerated devolution, this might help to soften support for outright independence in favour of a federal system.

Until opposition politicians learn to see the nature of the conflict clearly, they can’t fight it effectively. The Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu reduced all conflict to two kinds of force: the ordinary and the extraordinary – and wrote that it is the latter that wins the battle. For Johnson, maladministration and graft is the ordinary force; chaos politics the extraordinary one. 

Until it stops ignoring the big, emotive issues driving the chaos Brexit chief among them Labour will have no extraordinary counterforce to match.

[see also: We are back in the land of Brexit negotiations]