At first sight, the two waves currently crashing onto British politics are landing on different beaches. It was not the EU, after all, that required successive governments to become so dependent and financially exposed to poorly-run rapacious private business. Until now the Brexit debate and the increasingly assertive Remainer campaign are being conducted separately from the inquest into Carillion and the cost of private finance initiatives.
The two issues, though, should be seen as intimately intertwined. The country revealed by the collapse of Carillion and the bail-out of Virgin Trains is the same country that voted to “take back control”. It’s the country whose people believe that the system is run in other people’s interests. The contractor failures are more than isolated failures of public policy. Theresa May’s description of government as merely “a customer” of massive companies admits a profound pessimism about the power of public policy and institutions to shape the nation. (Those of us who were ministers during a part of this process can often defend our individual decisions, but we cannot lightly dismiss where it has led).
Look more widely, and the decay of institutions serving the public purposes is apparent. Our universities no longer see themselves as part of a collective collaborative system of higher education that, by seeking excellence, serves a national purpose. They are now competing institutions, in national or international markets, with leaders who openly compare themselves with the global corporate elite.
British businesses – in the sense of companies based, owned and led by people who see their own success and the country’s success as closely linked – are harder and harder to find. Instead of being valued and enabled to grow into major British companies, innovative entrepreneurs are seen by the rest of the business world as suitable only to be sold to global bidders. The failure of employers to train a workforce – and thus depend on cheap migrants – cannot simply be laid at government’s door.
Parliament’s decline in public standing is well documented. Many Tory MPs openly prefer Rupert Murdoch to the national institution of the BBC (whose own leadership has done much to make it vulnerable). The state’s capacity to deliver any policy efficiently and effectively is degraded. It’s no coincidence that the English, who enjoy no democratic institutions of their own, were most likely to believe that EU institutions had more influence over our everyday lives.
Go on like this, and you can, perhaps, sound like a saloon bar Tory from a 1970s cartoon. But it’s surely not wrong to believe that the powerful should serve some common good, some national interest, whatever their field of public or private endeavour. The idea that we all share some common purpose and responsibility beyond our individual self-interest is not a nostalgic dream, but a modern essential to any country that hopes to succeed in the globalised world.
The political challenge is much more than the reversal of austerity and privatisation as Labour seems to think. It is the challenge of national renewal, the forging of a new sense of national purpose and shared values. National renewal must be more ambitious and inclusive than the simple replacement of one government with another.
It’s around this challenge that domestic politics crashes into the Brexit debate. For all that Remainers are taking heart from the incompetence of our negotiators and the profound problems they face, the case for Remain hasn’t shifted an inch. It is still, at heart, just an argument that things will get worse if we leave. They will, of course, but that still leaves Remain without any convincing case that things might get better if we stayed. Lacking a story of national renewal, Remain is trapped in the language of national decline, and trapped, too, in its own coalition. Many of its leading lights, like George Osborne, don’t just see much wrong with Britain today, but were the architects of much that is. Labour Remainers seem as keen to be distanced from Labour’s radical leadership as to support the EU case. It is certainly hard to discern a distinct left-of-centre case for Remain. Progressive Remainers need to set out a vision of a country transformed, not of a continuing dependence.
Leave voters rejected the country’s direction of travel and the conduct of its most powerful elites. It was partly clothed in conservative nostalgia but, as Anthony Barnett has argued, had radical implications too. Both Brexit and the collapsing confidence in Britain’s institutions demand the politics of national renewal. The public mood of disillusion could be caught and given shape and confidence. But it requires the ability to go beyond transactional policy to set out just what sort country we want to be, and to transcend the triangulation between Leave and Remain. The alternative vision for Britain and for England must be of a root and branch rebuilding of our public realm and private values. And that’s the only basis on which to make a case for the best possible relationship with the EU.