Why Theresa May’s approach to Brexit might actually be the wisest one

A fudge is the only answer to this insurmountable problem.

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On Brexit, I have decided, I am neither a Moggite nor a Corbynite but a Mayite. The Prime Minister’s approach – fudge the whole thing so that nobody has a clue what you’re trying to do – seems to me the wisest strategy.

As I have said before, the people’s wish to leave the EU cannot be implemented because our economy and security – and the Irish peace agreement – have become too closely entwined with continental Europe. A fudge is the only answer: keep Britain in the single market and the customs union, substituting “a” for “the” where necessary and twiddling other details, while telling the voters that we have left the EU and the referendum result has been honoured. Since most people don’t understand how EU institutions work and find them boring anyway, this is probably achievable.

Until a week ago, Jeremy Corbyn was also a fudger. But his latest speech on Brexit is very clear, explaining what he wants and why. That is not helpful of him, but it’s not his job to help a Tory PM. A parliamentary vote on the final deal would be more dangerous for May’s strategy, and another referendum more dangerous still. The more the deal is debated, the more its true nature will become clear. Clarity is the last thing we Mayites want.

Sky’s the limit

In another recent speech, Corbyn warned “billionaire media owners” that “change is coming”. He can say that again. It looks as if Rupert Murdoch, who owns 39 per cent of Sky and wants to acquire the other 61 per cent, is about to be outbid, a rare event in his long career. Comcast, the US cable operator and owner of NBC Universal, proposes a £22.1bn bid for the company, valuing the shares at £12.50 each, well above Murdoch’s offer of £10.75.

Sky shareholders may well accept. Murdoch planned to sell 21st Century Fox, through which he owns his Sky interests, to Walt Disney. That deal could fall apart if Murdoch raises his Sky bid and tries to saddle Disney with the costs. Moreover, the prospect, however temporary, of Murdoch controlling the whole of Sky, including Sky News, is currently under scrutiny from UK regulators. Comcast offers all the assurances a regulator could wish for, saying it will maintain “high-quality impartial news and adherence to broadcasting standards”. Unlike Murdoch, Comcast has no record of breaking such promises and its NBC News, unlike Murdoch’s Fox News, is a model of even-handedness.

The people who should worry most are John Witherow, Martin Ivens and Tony Gallagher, respectively editors of Murdoch’s London-based papers, the Times, the Sunday Times and the Sun. A proprietor with time on his hands who has just been bested in a business deal is not a pretty prospect.

Sorry, Henry Jackson

A new report from the Henry Jackson Society complains that at least 30 registered Islamic charities, though not advocating violence or illegality, support “the spread of harmful… extremist views”. They are subsidised by taxpayers, since all donations attract an extra 25 per cent from the Treasury as “gift aid”. The report estimates the annual cost at £6m, enough to fund 27,328 hospital beds a day or the annual salaries of 264 new teachers.

As the report’s author, Emma Webb, says, this is “outrageous”. But it’s not just Islamic charities that benefit from gift aid, which costs the Exchequer well over £1bn a year, with hundreds of millions more going to higher-rate taxpayers in tax relief on their donations. Public schools and Oxford and Cambridge colleges also benefit. So do think tanks such as the Thatcherite Institute of Economic Affairs, which “educates” the public in the merits of free markets. So indeed does the Henry Jackson Society, a neoconservative think tank whose founders backed the Iraq War and wish Western countries to engage in more conflicts. Since its principles include support for “a strong military… armed with expeditionary capabilities with a global reach”, it cannot claim that its aims are non-violent. Nor, since those principles contain not a word about the UN, can it claim to oppose illegality.

Bounced by Czechs

Where did I go wrong? I have had a long career as a left-wing journalist with views that, to many people, border on lunacy. But unlike almost everybody else in London of similar opinions, including Jeremy Corbyn, I was never approached for assistance by a Czech spy or any other communist agent. Even more shamefully, the only such approach I ever had was in around 1970 from a South African describing himself as a “freelance journalist”. He suggested it would be helpful to “exchange information”. Inquiries confirmed my suspicions that he was an agent for Boss, the South African security service in the apartheid era. I declined to meet him. Whether I would have refused to meet a Czech I cannot say.

In the Pink(er)

The psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker has written a book – reviewed in the NS last week by John Gray – insisting that, whatever you read and hear about war, crime and Brexit, everything is getting better. In the Guardian, he quotes the PG Wodehouse character Gussie Fink-Nottle: “The sky is blue, the birds are singing.” Not everywhere perhaps. “Universities are becoming laughing stocks of intolerance,” according to an opinion quoted in the Boston Globe, “with non-leftist speakers drowned out by jeering mobs, professors subjected to Stalinesque investigations for unorthodox opinions… and much else.” Who holds such dystopian views of higher education in America today? Why, none other than Harvard’s 63-year-old professor of psychology, Steven Pinker. Which shows that, as we get older, nothing can dissuade us from the view that, when it comes to what we care most about, our country is going to the dogs. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 01 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the radical left