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19 July 2017

Leader: The Brexit wars

Where is the wisdom and leadership required to guide Britain through this self-inflicted crisis?

By New Statesman

The House of Commons rose this week for the summer recess. For Theresa May the break could not have come soon enough. The Prime Minister’s authority was shattered by the general election, which she called blithely expecting to crush Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Her campaign was deplorable. It was robotic, disrespectful to the electorate and devoid of hope. Her rhetorical positioning in her early weeks in Downing Street had been commendable. The reality of her election offer was demoralising and her punishment was to lose the Conservatives’ hard-won majority.

By contrast, Mr Corbyn campaigned with enthusiasm and conviction. His brand of left-wing populism raises as many questions as it offers solutions but it has revitalised the Labour Party and mobilised a generation of young people. The Electoral Commission has said that 1.9 million people aged under 34 registered to vote after Mrs May called the general election on 18 April. As Martin Jacques wrote in our post-election issue of 16 June, “It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and producers of the new… Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.”

The Prime Minister now presides over a squabbling and disintegrating government. Her cabinet ministers are in open revolt against her and one another. The Big Men of the cabinet, David Davis and Boris Johnson, strut and scheme. Their younger colleagues regard their naked ambition and self-regard with justified contempt. Meanwhile, the country could not be less prepared for Brexit, which, as Tony Blair said this week, is a spectacular act of “self-harm”.

We have been having fun in recent weeks with our Brexit variations, highlighting the foolish pronouncements of our national leaders. However, in truth, Brexit is no laughing matter. It could be a calamity. The Labour Party is as divided over the issue as the Tories. No one can agree the road ahead or what the most desirable outcome should be. Last weekend, one of Labour’s rising stars, Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow business secretary, actually said that she favoured a “cake and eat it” Brexit. This echoed the idiocy of Mr Johnson, who said in the House of Commons that EU leaders could “go whistle” if they expected Britain to pay a substantial separation fee.

How has it come to this? Where is our sense of national purpose? Where is the wisdom and leadership required to guide the nation through this period of self-inflicted crisis?

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In 1937, warning against appeasement, Winston Churchill said: “We seem to be moving, drifting, steadily, against our will, against the will of every race and every people and every class, towards some hideous catastrophe. Everybody wishes to stop it, but they do not know how.”

It is not true that everybody wishes to stop Brexit. Many ardently wish for it. And the comparisons made by Andrew Adonis, Will Hutton and others between appeasement and our present predicament are simply wrong: Britain is not existentially threatened by fascism, after all. However, dreadful national leadership is undermining our stability, our geopolitical standing and economic prospects. The Brexit wars inside the Tory party that have brought down David Cameron and destroyed Theresa May are unedifying. And they are a symptom of more than a fractious governing party. They reveal a deeper truth about Great Britain in 2017: we are drifting and we are leaderless. 

Football’s money-go-round

Last week Manchester City signed Tottenham’s Kyle Walker for a reported £50m, a world record for a defender and the highest ever fee for an English player. Walker is a decent full-back but few would suggest he is among Europe’s very best. The crazy transfer prices of this summer reflect the success of the Premier League, a hyper-meritocracy whose players, managers and owners reflect our globalised world. It is the most-watched league in the world, with broadcast revenues to match. Even the bottom club receives £100m a year from the TV deals.

But as transfer fees and wages rise (Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez wants £400,000 a week), many football fans, who are among the most passionate in sport, have had to put up with stagnant wages or small increases swallowed by inflation. Surely the teams should be using some of their windfall to lower the often ludicrous cost of match day tickets and replica kits? Jeremy Corbyn and Labour have considered proposals to cap ticket prices. We would support that. 

This article appears in the 19 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder