Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Through the looking glass


Curiouser and curiouser. As we reach another round of Parliamentary votes on Brexit, the detachment of the debate from reality is getting ever more bewildering. Much of it is a mirror image of reality.

For leavers on the right, the EU is an invading, colonising power to be resisted - The Soviet Union, Hitler, and Napoleon rolled into one. It is an oppressive, hostile monster that we joined voluntarily and held a commanding position in. We can leave if we want to, but we also want all the benefits of membership (and there are plenty of those), none of the costs, and all because of who we are - we are great, they owe us, Dunkirk (oh, perhaps not), D-Day (yes, that's better) and all that. But they won't let us have everything unconditionally, the bastards. Who won the war anyway? We want to be out and in at the same time. Schroedinger's Cheshire Cat.

For the far smaller number of leavers on the left, the EU is a monstrous vehicle imposing a vicious neoliberal ideology on plucky socialist Britain. We need to escape to free ourselves from this hostile, and suspiciously foreign, economic horror. We must reject their Thatcherism! Thatcherism? Er ... where did they get it from? Oh. Margaret Thatcher. She was British, wasn't she? And Conservatives bitterly resented the old-fashioned, social democratic EU's determination to resist and protect the workforce, even if they did come to share what had become a broad international consensus. Never mind, now they are the ideological aggressor. We must free ourself by facilitating an extreme neoliberal project to leave the EU and turn Britain into Singapore.

Then there is the withdrawal agreement. The critical word is "agreement." That implies that two or more parties agree. As we did with the EU over the Northern Ireland backstop - in December - December 2017. It looks as if the government might try to defeat itself again so that it can go back to the EU to unagree what has been agreed so we can have an agreement that they have said they will not agree to.

Next up, democracy. Yes, a nice word. A very nice word. However, it does have a few different meanings. We are a representative democracy, not a plebiscitary democracy. Except that we held a non-binding referendum that is, apparently, binding, allowing some MPs to openly say that they think Brexit will damage the country, make people poorer, that they oppose it, that they want to remain, but they will support leaving because democracy and that sort of thing. A sovereign Parliament bound by a non-binding referendum. How novel.

Then there are the voters. They might turn nasty if we don't leave. They will be so angry. Beware of unrest. We must do as they say. No, not those voters. Not the ones that voted remain. They don't matter. Angry? Well they might be a bit pissed off, but who cares? They are only about half the electorate anyway, or if the tracker polls are right a majority these days. But they don't count. They may be the majority of the people, but they aren't the will of the people.

Have we gone mad? Have the German leaders who wrote to The Times urging us to stay not understood that our "legendary British black humour" is not humour at all but our principles of government? The answer is no, we're not crazy, not really. Accident has trapped us into attempting to implement an impossible policy and we are thrashing around trying to do it. Even those who advocated it didn't know how to leave without doing major damage, which was why they never offered a plan. The minimalist approach, sometimes referred to as the Norway option, was to rejoin EFTA and become members of the EEA. That meant giving back control, but remaining within a beneficial set of economic arrangements. That was the only well thought out proposal. Everything else meant stripping out the nation's economic infrastructure, an economic revolution with uncertain, but deeply damaging results.

Of course, we got here by a mad route - a mistake that ended with an unintended result. Otto English put it beautifully:
The uncomfortable truth is that whether you voted Remain or Leave in June 2016 you probably voted emotionally. Very few people understood it. Inviting a largely uninformed public to make a judgement on something as unfathomably complex as our membership of the EU was akin to asking a six-year-old to perform delicate brain surgery – with a crayon.

And it's not just Brexit. Most people simply do not fathom politics. Most have no understanding of concepts like pooled sovereignty, or how net migration works, or what first past the post is, or how our unwritten constitution functions. Many, frankly, don’t even care. Why should they?

In a parliamentary democracy we elect politicians to make important decisions on our behalf. That’s how the system has functioned for decades and also why the British have traditionally astutely avoided referendums – which reduce perplexingly multifaceted matters to a binary choice. 
The problem though is that this ignorance was shared by our representatives. Worse still, they have misunderstood their role in a Parliamentary democracy.

If people do not understand something that is now as ubiquitous, then they have to find a narrative that is familiar enough for them to understand. The result is the dominance of heroic fictions invested with strong emotional attachments - on both sides - rather than prosaic reality. As Jeremy Cliffe puts it, what motivates the EU is "the quest for the quiet life." It's about stability through prosperity and creating institutional arrangements to allow states to co-operate to achieve it. It's not very exciting.

Can't we go back to being a normal country? Might we not take this revolutionary leap in the dark, informed by bollocks? Can we be ordinary please? The mantra at the moment is 'respecting the result of the referendum.' But why? Why, if it is a mistaken policy produced by a necessarily ill-informed vote in a poorly constructed, flawed referendum, can't we say 'sorry, we made a mistake.' There is no shame in admitting error. Can't we judge the referendum result on the quality and consequences of the decision, rather than implement it regardless solely because of the way it was made?

The evidence is clear from all those who actually do know something about it. Business are against leaving. Trade unions are against leaving. All our allies are aghast at our leaving. Our international reputation has been trashed. Our influence and power is diminished. We were a significant world power because of our commanding role in the EU, not despite it. Now we are irrelevant. Even before we leave, there is a process of disinvestment in the UK going on today. Investment decisions are not coming our way. We face a long drawn out transition or a catastrophic rupture. Why not stay? There will be a lot of work to be done to repair the damage, but at least we will stop more taking place. It's in our power. It's our choice. We can unilaterally withdraw Article 50. There's no need for another risky referendum if Parliament accepts its duty and explains it well. We can abandon plebiscites. It might be rather a good idea.

And if we do become normal again, we can put all our energy into doing what matters - tackling inequality, ending austerity, redressing poverty, and rethinking the failures of democracy that got us into this mess. And let's pledge to not use referendums unless absolutely appropriate, especially not poorly constructed ones to try and resolve an internal party dispute by risking the future of the country.

2 comments:

Simon Pottinger said...

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

George S said...

It is when usually sane people start blethering and foaming that you know something has gone critically wrong. Everything you say is eminently sensible but is heresy to the madhouse.