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Liberal Britain has nothing to say

Liberal Britain is not being heard because it speaks incessantly of a past that cannot be retrieved. 

There has always been a type of conservative who believes that things were much better in former times and warns of catastrophe if we don’t return to them. Today, it is the self-styled liberals who are peddling this apocalyptic gospel. If this country fails to obtain a deal with the EU, they say, we will fall into an economic abyss, while the risk of such a disaster is tearing apart the British state. Why can’t we go back to the sunny uplands where we basked in the prelapsarian days before Brexit? Whether or not they admit it, a return to the past is the unspoken manifesto of pretty well all of those now parading as liberals.

There is no status quo to which we can return. The situation in Europe continues to be highly unstable. Geert Wilders may not have broken through in the Netherlands but his party remains the second largest in terms of seats, while Prime Minister Mark Rutte won only by adopting Wilders’s inflammatory rhetoric. Even then, Rutte emerged with fewer seats than his party had five years ago. With the Dutch Labour Party achieving less than a quarter of those it had then, the country’s centre left has all but collapsed. In Italy, the chaotic Five Star Movement – whose only clear policy stance is scepticism regarding the euro – continues to garner support as the old parties crumble. Most people seem confident that Marine Le Pen will be seen off in May in the French presidential elections. But in a run-off against Emmanuel Macron, a semi-virtual politician who makes François Hollande look like a substantial figure, anything can happen. Unless Le Pen is trounced, the danger she poses to the EU is not going away. If she succeeds in making any significant advance in the final round, alarm bells will ring in the financial markets. There is no equivalent to Article 50 for the euro. If France or any other country threatens to leave the eurozone, the upheaval that results will be far greater than the impact of Brexit.

Again, Brexit has made a break-up of the Union less, not more, likely. If Scotland decides to leave the UK after a second referendum held in the aftermath of Brexit, it will have to apply to rejoin the EU. Such a move would be strongly resisted by Spain (whose foreign minister has already said Scotland would be “at the back of the queue”) from fear of Catalan nationalism. With its own separatist problem in Corsica, France would also try to block Scottish re-entry.

Where would this leave Scotland? There have been suggestions that until it joined the euro it would continue to use the British pound as its national currency. Would Scotland’s financial system – its banks and pension schemes, for example – be backstopped by the UK for the duration? If not, the economic risks of independence would be enormous. Since the last Scottish referendum, the oil price has nearly halved and, with the US shale industry putting a cap on any future rises, only a reckless gambler would count on North Sea revenues returning to 2014 levels. Are Scottish voters ready to confront this uncertainty while being outside both the UK and the EU?

The existing settlement between Scotland and the rest of the UK is unlikely to endure. Some type of “devo max” is probably inevitable and not only in Scotland. But Scottish independence is further from reality than at any point since David Cameron nearly bungled the last referendum. Nicola Sturgeon may be a more intelligent and careful politician than Cameron was – not a high bar to cross. Even so, she faces repeating his fate.

Of all the apocalyptic prospects brandished by liberals, none is supposed be more terrifying than a “hard Brexit”. Prophets of doom of the kind one used to see in sandwich boards on street corners, they warn that Britain is about to be hurled over a “cliff edge”. They have been joined in these feverish prognostications by the seemingly stolid figure of John Major, who declared in a recent speech that Britain had rejected “the colossus of the EU”. It is a curious way to describe a zone that – despite a widely celebrated recent uptick – remains among the slowest growing in the world. Youth unemployment is around 25 per cent in France and 40 per cent in Italy and Spain. Major’s rosy view of the EU may be less surprising if one recalls a speech he gave in 1993 to the Conservative Group for Europe, in which he rhapsodised about Britain fifty years hence still being “the country of long shadows on county [cricket] grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers”. Echoing an essay by George Orwell that was published in 1941, Major was harking back to an irrecoverable and partly imaginary past. When he issues dire warnings against the danger of Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal, he is doing the same.

The real danger that Britain faces is of being locked into a deal with an economic zone that is incapable of adapting to the present. Britain will continue to be engaged in Europe whether or not a deal can be struck on trade. Issues of defence and security, including the need to prevent terrorist attacks (such as those in Paris, Brussels and now Westminster) make continuing co-operation imperative. Yet there is no advantage to Britain in any “free trade deal” with Europe that would curb our freedom to trade with the fast-growing countries – China, India, the US and the rest – that are shaping the world’s future. If that is what is on offer, no deal will be the best deal.

Liberal Britain is not being heard because it speaks incessantly of a past that cannot be retrieved. This is also why Britain lacks any serious opposition. Liberals who fulminate against Corbyn should remind themselves how he came to be the leader who has taken Labour to the brink of destruction. Has the stupefying banality of the campaigns of his rivals for the leadership already been forgotten? With the exception of Tristram Hunt, not one of the contenders showed any sign of fresh thinking. Corbynism is a consequence, not the cause, of the failure of the liberal centre ground.

After the shenanigans of the past few weeks, Labour is in a worse state than in the early Eighties. A change of leader will not be enough to make the party electable again. A radical shift in policies is needed that shows that the party respects the attitudes and values of the majority of voters. There is little sign of that at present, and it is not only Corbyn who stands in the way. By identifying liberal values with institutions and policies that cannot command democratic consent – European federalism, continuing large-scale immigration and unfettered globalisation, among others – the self-appointed guardians of liberal centrism in Labour and other parties have shirked the question of what liberalism means in the irrevocably changed conditions of our time. Until it can answer that question, liberal Britain has nothing to say.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”