The UK must embrace a European future or accept isolation and decline

As the world divides into regional superpowers – the US, China and the EU – Britain cannot stand alone. 

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Brexit has become a roulette wheel with just three slots: no deal, thin deal or the abject humiliation of the Conservative Party. The deal currently being negotiated gives the UK such meagre access to the European Single Market, say reports, that it comes close to the no-deal option in terms of economic damage. The sticking point, as always, is the EU’s demand for a “level playing field” and the legal status of the body that will oversee it. 

Michel Barnier’s EU team are said to be working hard to make the market access look extensive, and the oversight slim, but if Boris Johnson signs anything that leaves the UK subject to oversight from Europe, or obligated to match European standards, the Tory back benches will revolt. 

As we spin the wheel this weekend, whichever slot the ball lands in, Northern Ireland has been strategically severed from the UK. In an “urgent” letter seen by the New Statesman from the Business Secretary, Alok Sharma, to small businesses, two out of the four calls to urgent action mentioned trade with Northern Ireland. The arrangement that Theresa May said “no prime minister could sign up to” is six weeks away. Physical transactions with that corner of the UK will now require paperwork.

We will soon know whether the Tories are going for broke, cutting this country adrift from the biggest free market in the world, or trying to cling to its edges with their fingertips. Neither prospect is appealing.

The world has changed. With the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the US signalled its preparedness to embrace isolation and decline. Nothing about the this month’s presidential election result reverses this: the increased vote for xenophobic isolationism and mercurial great power politics means that, whatever mood change Joe Biden brings to the State Department, the 21st century’s die is cast. 

The US will decline. China will rise. And the EU must respond by achieving strategic autonomy. If the world is breaking up into regional trading power blocs, Europe either becomes a chess board or a chess player. Either it allows China, Russia and the US to tear it apart, or it develops a strategic concept of its own, not just for market rules, but in security, defence, technology standards and values.

And the people who matter get this. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, explicitly defines strategic autonomy for Europe as sovereignty. The EU Council president, Charles Michel, outlined a wide-ranging vision in September of an EU prepared to spread the “Brussels effect” – which forces other countries to meet its product standards – into geopolitics and behavioural standards.

Michel spelled out Britain’s dilemma in words clearer than any Tory minister has done: “The United Kingdom has had to come to terms with our quiet strength. The truth of the matter is that the British are faced with a dilemma. What type of society do they want? Would they rather maintain high standards (in health and food safety, the environment, etc)? Or do they want to lower their standards, exposing their farmers and businesses to unfair, cut-throat competition from other parts of the world?” 

And the problem is, the Tories do not know the answer. They knew in 2015, when they revelled in the rhetoric of “taking back control”. The UK could cut loose from Europe, straddle the Atlantic as a trading power, duck and weave through the niches and opportunities to the east, from Ukraine to Sri Lanka to Australia to Singapore. Robert Clive, Sir Francis Drake and all the other heroes of the mercantilist past would be emulated by buff Etonian hedge-fund guys sipping cocktails after a hard day at the Hong Kong Sevens.

[See also: Emily Tamkin on what a Biden victory means for Brexit]

Geopolitical reality has put paid to that dream. As large, regional trading blocs emerge, the UK has to decide whether it is strategically oriented to Europe or not. And that’s a choice facing the Labour Party, too.

From mid-2018 I became convinced that only a second EU referendum and a strong commitment to Remain from Labour would prevent political disaster. The only solution was to build a progressive social and electoral coalition to either stop Brexit or achieve a Norway-style deal. But that failed.

History will record that we, the internationalists and realists, failed because we were divided between liberalism, socialism and progressive nationalism, and the xenophobes were not. They could switch entire political parties and campaigns on and off at will. Even now, they are prepared to turn every issue – from the "spy cops" scandal to free school meals – into a culture war.

It’s easy to look at the US and say that because a large minority of xenophobes can dictate to liberals and the left, the country is headed for decline. It’s a lot harder to say it about your own country, but it’s true. And our decline will not be smooth.

The rising generation of Scottish people have mentally checked out of the Union. Northern Ireland is co-owned with the EU. Wales is learning to take tough decisions as a permanent social-democratic principality. The UK is headed for break up and decline unless the will emerges to form a government that commits to strategic alignment, engagement and collaboration with the EU.

I have no regrets about trying to stop Brexit, nor about fighting to change the minds of the Labour leadership under Jeremy Corbyn, whose refusal to take a clear position contributed to the party's electoral defeat.

A narrative has emerged that blames commentators such as myself, the People’s Vote campaign, Another Europe Is Possible and Keir Starmer for refusing to roll over and accept Brexit. Thousands of people on the left believe the conspiracy theory that our opposition to Brexit was part of a Blairite plot to throw the election and get rid of Corbyn. 

“If only we'd stuck with the working class” – for which read elderly white people in northern English towns – is the conversation starter for this new, anti-internationalist wing of the left. I am totally unrepentant about resisting the “Lexit” myth, and watching Steve McQueen’s BBC drama Small Axe: Mangrove reminded me why. It relieves the story of the Mangrove Nine, a racist show trial of black activists during the Enoch Powell era.

McQueen’s stunning drama could be commissioned and aired on primetime TV because our country has fought a 50-year battle against racism, sexism and homophobia. The world in which I grew up was full of policemen who could use the term “black bastard”, in the shocking way McQueen’s characters do. The same goes for the entire dictionary of prejudice we have left behind, which formed the lexicon of stand-up comedy in the 1970s. And as the human rights select committee’s report on racism showed last week, we have a lot further to go.

Brexit is a xenophobic project. It was designed and voted for by people who could look at McQueen’s drama and think: “Those were the good old days.” There is no left version of it.

I have no problem if, faced with a Tory rebellion, Labour decides to abstain on a Brexit deal rather than voting against. It makes no difference. What will make a difference is Labour’s strategic post-Brexit vision. Either the UK aligns diplomatically, culturally and economically with the EU, or this country faces decades of decline – and whatever else has to be done to win back parts of the “Red Wall”, avoiding that issue can’t be one of them.

Labour is either a party of engagement and alignment with the European superpower or it is the party of Perfidious Albion and decline. There’s no third way.

[See also: Martin Fletcher on how the delusions of the Brexiteers were exposed]

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Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.

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