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The post-Brexit fantasy of a utopia of flammable sofas

I wonder if Brexit is a magic mirror, in which everyone sees what their heart most desires. 

“Brexit means Brexit.” For nine months now, I’ve been puzzling over this sentence. Theresa May’s later clarification that Brexit means leaving the single market and the jurisdiction of the European courts hasn’t stopped the itch. What is Brexit, really? What’s the core of it, the essence – the thing that has to happen for Brexit to have happened? I’m not sure that triggering Article 50 is it, but a good test will be whether this simple act calms the hysterics of the sorest winners in history. What is it that the Brexiteers so fear will be snatched away from them? Surely no one feels this emotional about the possibility of a free trade deal with Canada.

I wonder if Brexit is a magic mirror, in which everyone sees what their heart most desires. For Nigel Farage, there’s an end to mass immigration and a return to a Britain where Romanians don’t live next door, hijabs have disappeared and only English is spoken on commuter trains to Kent. For some in the right-wing press, there’s an end to all those slights and restrictions inflicted on our proud, independent nation by faceless bureaucrats and busybodies, even if these often turned out not to be quite as advertised, if not wholly made up. (In 1994, the Sun claimed that the EU had brought in standardised condom sizing that simply couldn’t handle British manhood. This seems, shall we say, unlikely.)

But it’s the final group whose vision of Brexit should be most alarming, because it’s more subtle – and thus harder to counter – than Freudian laments about bendy bananas or straightforward, unabashed xenophobia. For some Eurosceptics, Brexit was a means, not an end: the first step to a different kind of economy. Call this what you want: a less humid (and less interventionist) Singapore, a tax haven with terrible weather, a place where “red tape” can be banished (read: where pettifogging luxuries such as statutory maternity leave are no longer interwoven with international obligations).

If this latter point sounds exaggerated, consider the Whitehall career of Steve Hilton, who was David Cameron’s “blue sky thinker” before moving to California to become a Silicon Valley sage, then returning last summer to detail the case for Brexit and show off his tan. In government, Hilton ran a “red tape challenge”, hoping to banish reams of dead weight from the statute books. Instead, as the former Liberal Democrat adviser Giles Wilkes records, weary civil servants had to defend basic safety measures: “Only the determination of hardy officials saved the public from the return of flammable sofas.”

Perhaps Hilton was unconvinced of the merits of red tape, even then. Perhaps our unwillingness to risk death from furniture-induced burns shows how unready Britons are to compete in the global marketplace. But the saga suggests the possibility that basic employment rights will soon receive the same treatment meted out to benefits and international aid, with every out­lying example and every rare piss-taker used to damn the whole system. The left will find itself having to refight battles that it thought were long since won.

To a certain type of Tory, the answer to every problem is to shrink the state. So Brexit provides another opportunity for the new Bolsheviks such as Michael Gove to smash the bits of Whitehall that they don’t like. (Gove kept a picture of Lenin in his office at the Department for Education as a semi-ironic reference to his revolutionary fervour.) It is no coincidence that the TaxPayers’ Alliance – that scourge of public spending – provided the intellectual ballast behind Vote Leave. When Philip Hammond said that he was ready to “change our economic model” – to become a low-tax, low-regulation state – if the rest of Europe played hardball during the Brexit negotiations, the Chancellor intended to deliver a threat. But some wish it were a promise.

There is only one problem. Only a fraction of the 52 per cent of people who voted Leave want any of this. You can tell because, during the referendum campaign, Boris Johnson began to fret earnestly about “the bankers”, as if he hadn’t spent eight years as London mayor telling the City it shouldn’t be at all apologetic about that rum business with the bailouts. Much was made of how immigration (allegedly) depresses wages.

Voting Leave was presented in protectionist, even left-wing terms: a vote for higher wages and stronger communities, a vote against London and its metropolitan elite. No one said: “Oh, and by the way, we’ll make it easier for you to be sacked.” Or: “Have you ever tasted salmonella? It’s delicious!” Or: “We send £350m a week to the EU. Let’s spend it on bribing companies to stay here after we leave the single market instead.” Brexit was sold as a route to a better life for ordinary workers, not a chance to cast off the shackles of the welfare state and buccaneer into a utopia of Randian self-reliance.

That’s why I find the sullen, boorish machismo of Farage and Arron Banks less dispiriting than the smooth-tongued sales patter of the liberal Leavers. At least Farage is open about what he is and what he wants. Some high priests of Euroscepticism chunter endlessly about “sovereignty” to mask a libertarian agenda for which they know there is no public appetite.

The competing priorities of these two right-wing visions will define the politics of the next decade. Brexit was not the end of an era. It was just the beginning.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

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.”