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A country in a critical condition

The Brexit negotiations were a battle over how much control Britain would have to cede to the EU and Theresa May lost it. 

The homeless still huddle under their rain-sodden duvets; beery blokes still crane their necks to watch the football in crowded pubs; racists still rant their bewildered nonsense at radio talk-show hosts. But something has changed. This is a defeated country – though the consequences of defeat have hardly yet been felt.

All negotiations are essentially a battle. In the case of Brexit, the question was: how much control will Britain cede to Europe in return for access to its markets? Theresa May has lost that battle.

She started out, in the Lancaster House speech of January 2017, determined that Brexit should leave Britain able to agree free-trade deals with the rest of the world, renege on its financial commitments to the EU and free itself from the jurisdiction of the ECJ. By December 2017 most of these aspirations had gone up in smoke.

Looking back, the period between then and the fateful Chequers plan was the denial phase. After the Chequers white paper was published on 12 July, May was effectively running a zombie government – always implicitly reliant on Labour to get the eventual deal through parliament. Between the Salzburg bust-up in September and the final deal May experienced defeat in detail.

The resulting deal, which has led to more resignations from government and hands control over the timing and terms of any departure from the customs union, cannot pass through parliament. As a result, we are about to see the disintegration of the Tories in office: they cannot rule, yet they cannot allow themselves to fall. Most people have no idea of the scale of dislocation and disarray that’s about to hit this country. But as the spectacle unfolds, the danger is that it collides with a mood change among the people.

Outside Westminster, life in Britain has become fractious and insecure. The stabbing epidemic in London, the police forces stretched to breaking point, the rising penury among those being forced on to Universal Credit, the tension created on small-town streets by the “county lines” drug trade –these are just the most obvious examples of a deeper malaise.

If you ask people to describe how things are going to get better, for them and their families, many will simply shrug. People have lost the ability even to imagine a big, progressive change. It hurts to admit it, but outside the big cities, large parts of Britain resemble a poverty-stricken wasteland. Amid the charity shops, vape shops, nail bars, payday lenders and crumbling old shopping malls and high streets, we have forgotten what prosperity is supposed to look like.

But the political class has been lucky, so far. You don’t need bread and circuses when you have parallel shit-shows going on inside both the Labour and Conservative parties.

Since the Brexit vote, “politics” has revolved around Chuka versus Jeremy, Rees-Mogg versus May; all conducted in language detached from civility and reality. Traitors, anti-Semites, terrorists, fascists, loons… that’s the routine lexicon among the off-duty politicos in the pubs and coffee bars of Westminster. Meawhile, instead of a struggle over the future, politics has become a battle of nostalgias: for Bennism, Thatcherism and Blairism.

As a result, the mass political mood is sullen rather than angry. The polls show the electorate split, fairly constantly, at 40:40 between a left-wing Labour Party and a Tory party in which all the energy comes from the xenophobic right.

Meanwhile a low-intensity culture war rages between two, increasingly distinct, demographics: the liberal, centrist, educated section of the population (labelled luvvies by the Sun), and the older, less educated populations of small towns, despised and mocked by the liberal intelligentsia.

We knew these cultural “tribes” existed, even before Brexit. The pollster Populus found, in the run-up to the 2016 referendum, 34 per cent of Brits were strongly globalist, liberal and multiculturalist, while 32 per cent were “nationalist in outlook; socially conservative; fearful of globalisation; opposed to multiculturalism; preoccupied by immigration; pessimistic about the future”.

My hunch is that, in the two years since the referendum, this struggle between identity groups has become stronger, and the identities themselves more sharply defined, while commitment to party politics has weakened. Pollsters and NatCen found that while 77 per cent of Britons identify strongly with they way they voted over Brexit, only 37 per cent identified strongly with the way they vote at election time. That’s because neither party will allow itself to align fundamentally with one side in the culture war.

When I spoke to Labour activists in south Wales in September, they confirmed what the polling suggests: that up to 10 per cent of voters in Labour heartland seats have switched from Leave to Remain. But they also revealed something the polls don’t really measure: that the racism and xenophobia among the pro-Leave demographic has intensified, and with it the fractiousness of everyday conversations. The phrase “Why don’t we just walk away without a deal?” has become the mantra of right-wing discontent.

Well, now Theresa May has given people the honest answer. We cannot walk away because, by triggering Article 50 without any consensus about what we wanted to achieve, she handed all the negotiating power to Brussels. Britain has lost the negotiation battle. And if we did risk leaving without a deal, we would hand Brussels the power to wipe the floor with us in the subsequent trade negotiations.

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As this sinks in, the feelings of anger, betrayal and hopelessness are going to rise – unless the political class finds new language and new solutions. While journalists, MPs and businesspeople have been obsessed with Brexit for years, the polls show that the real spike in popular engagement only began in early September this year. The Populus tracker poll, which recorded public engagement with Brexit at between 10 and 30 per cent for most of 2018, has spiked to 65 per cent in the past nine weeks. Those among Labour strategists who hoped the Brexit issue might “go away”, so that they could focus on the bread-and-butter issues, have been disappointed.

For Jeremy Corbyn, as for every responsible politician, the career-defining moment is now, and the defining issue will be Brexit.

The strategic question in British politics is: can the “open” half of the population make a convincing offer to the “closed” half of the population, which settles enough of their discontent about the outcome of the Brexit negotiations? Can enough of them be reasoned with, so that the angry brigade of racist agitators are left ranting isolated in the corner of the local pub and the rest of us reach a consensus about the kind of society we want to live in? I am not convinced the answer is yes. If so, politics will enter a phase of fragmentation. Here’s how it might look. May’s deal gets voted down; the zombie government survives, but sterling plummets; the stock market falls and the housing market freezes over, as it did in 2008. May tweaks the deal, tries a second time to get it through the Commons – but then fails, and she falls.

After that we are in uncharted territory. A revived Ukip and a reorganised Conservative right will clamour for the “No Deal Brexit” they have dreamed of; but parliament, the civil service and the Bank of England will combine to stymie that – and thus, most likely at the final hour, Europe will extend the Article 50 deadline, while a new Tory leader tries to piece together the political coalition to agree a softer deal. Britain will have its very own version of the “stab in the back” myth. The fabric of democracy will have been torn.

To avoid this scenario, we need the opposition parties to show leadership and vision. Calls for a general election are valid: May had one job – to do a Brexit deal and get it through the Commons. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act was nullified easily enough for the snap election in 2017: in such a crisis it is likely to happen again. But if there is an election, it will be unlike anything we have witnessed since the “who governs Britain?” crisis of 1974.

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A general election has to answer the question: what kind of Britain do we want, and where is it going to sit amid the turmoil in the world? There is, once you take into account Plaid Cymru, the SNP, the non-unionist parties in Northern Ireland plus the Greens and Liberal Democrats, a clear institutional majority for a progressive answer. Britain should be either in the EU with its current opt-outs, or as close to the EU as Switzerland and Norway. It should be an open, globalist, tolerant country, offering high welfare and social justice to all who live here.

That millions of people actively want it to be the opposite is the central problem of our time, and cannot be solved by throwing them scraps of racist rhetoric, or the kind of neo-colonialist bluster that Boris Johnson specialises in.

The xenophobic nationalists have to learn by experience that the future is not to be feared. It is true that, as much academic research shows, the rise of authoritarian nationalist sentiment is driven by cultural dislocation, not economics. But it does not follow that economic measures will be ineffective in combating far-right discontent.

I want, in any general election called, a Labour majority in parliament. But Labour is being squeezed in Scotland by the twin issues of Brexit and independence – so even if it achieves a breakthrough in the many Leave-voting English towns, from Walsall to Middlesborough (and with the Tory right and the tabloids stoking xenophobia, it may not), it could fail to win the kind of majority needed to end this crisis with a decisive act.

That’s why all roads – even an election, a renegotiation and an extension of the Article 50 deadline – lead to a second referendum.

Yet be under no illusion: that second referendum will not be about the deal itself. It will be about migration, Islam, paedophile grooming gangs and rancid, delusionary nationalism – fuelled by the money of American multimillionaires and the ingenuity of Russian military intelligence. If we’re really unlucky, the option of No Deal will get on to the ballot paper, allowing the far right to advocate the death-ride of British imperialism, live into people’s living rooms via the BBC.

The road to a second referendum has to be prepared with a clear offer, designed to secure more than 60 per cent – on a high turnout – for the eventual outcome. For that, Labour, the Greens and the progressive nationalists have to begin, now, a public discussion about a one-time coalition government, even if Labour were to secure a majority. (Nicola Sturgeon recently indicated her desire for a “coalition of opposition” with Corbyn over the draft Brexit deal.) It would need to deliver a huge fiscal and monetary stimulus targeted into the heartlands of poverty and decay. It would have to feel like the Marshall Plan on steroids: an immediate and tangible injection of growth and optimism. But it would have to win back people’s consent for immigration by controlling it.

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What would necessitate a compromise that has been staring them in the face since 2016: a Norway-style deal (which would mean being a member of the single market) with a request for a temporary emergency brake on freedom of movement. The aim would be to create space for the radical restructuring of Britain’s labour market, ending precarious work, removing the incentives for exploitative use of migrant labour, and boosting the wage share of GDP.

The route to such a government is also hiding in plain sight: a non-aggression pact at constituency level between Labour, the Greens and the progressive nationalist parties, however unlikely this may seem in Scotland. There is a precedent for it. In the two years before the Second World War, Stafford Cripps and Nye Bevan advocated the formation of a Popular Front – an electoral alliance of Labour, the Communists, Liberals and anti-appeasement Tories – to defeat Neville Chamberlain’s National Government. The effort got them temporarily expelled from the Labour Party – but bore fruit in May 1940 when Churchill came to power. I don’t expect this proposal to be widely welcomed, but I know I’m not the only one thinking about it.

The right in British politics already have their own electoral alliance: for example Andrea Jenkyns, the Tory MP for Morley and Outwood who led the calls for May’s resignation, was put in Westminster by the votes of nearly 8,000 former Ukip supporters (including 3,500 who had voted BNP in 2010), after Ukip stood aside in 2017, as it did in tens of Tory target seats. Faced with a repeat of that, the progressive half of politics needs to go into the coming turmoil with, at the very least, the goodwill to hold talks on collaboration.

The prize would be the strategic defeat of Conservatism and its likely fragmentation, plus the revival of Britain’s economy. The alternative is perpetual culture war and national decline. Those are the stakes.

Paul Mason is an NS contributing writer

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 bestselling book Postcapitalism has been translated into 16 languages. His play Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere was televised on BBC Two in 2017. 

This article appears in the 23 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The real Brexit crisis