Liberal Britain has nothing to say

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

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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