Saturday, June 27, 2020

Changing times

It's nearly a year since Johnson became Prime Minister. Amidst all the bluster, lies, scandals, and evasions, he has one solid achievement. Britain is no longer a member of the European Union. We are now a third country, even if the full consequences are yet to be felt. Remain is over. We can begin the long application process to rejoin, but we cannot remain. Johnson took us out.

The final terms are unknown and the haste with which Johnson wants us to leave the transition period is baffling. Even so, we know that the shape of Brexit will bear no relationship to the one that we were promised in the referendum campaign.

Johnson's achievement was facilitated by others, of course. Cameron's decision to hold an unnecessary referendum at the tail end of the Euro crisis, expecting remain to win handsomely, was a master class in bad timing. Corbyn's decision (with a bit of help from Swinson) to vote for an early election, again thinking he would win, was criminal stupidity. Johnson's landslide with 43% of the vote was a consequence of the perpetual failings of our electoral system. His gamble in purging the Conservative Party of real conservatives paid off.

This was the culmination of an era of political instability in the aftermath of the financial crisis and the desperately misjudged response of the coalition government, with its austerity and resultant grinding poverty. Even so, everything was politically normal until 2015. Cameron's majority, as a result of the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, Miliband's weak leadership of Labour, and the bloody electoral system again, changed everything. Cameron initiated the chaos by holding the EU referendum, which smashed everything to pieces. Labour's folly was the collective act of suicide in choosing Corbyn as leader.

2015. Five short years ago. It seems a lifetime.

During that time we saw radicalisation accompanied by the processes of accommodation and excuse making that Anne Applebaum wrote about and that I referred to in my earlier post. First, Theresa May redefined the referendum result as mandating a hard Brexit, leaving the single market and customs union, in line with the demands of the right-wing ultras in her party. Then we saw her hard Brexit described as soft, as the Brexiters radicalised after the referendum. Hard Brexit became orthodox belief, even for people who campaigned for Remain. While Lexiters abandoned the language of social democracy in favour of vituperative hatred for the EU and all its works.

We saw the same accomodation on the left. People who had been critics of the politics that Corbyn had espoused, rallied round and found reasons to support someone who was clearly inadequate and personally unpopular. As Labour sank into a morass of antisemitism, they dug themselves in deeper. The left winning mattered more to them than the nature of the left that did win.

It's been changing for a while. Possibly, it's been accelerated by the government's inept handling of the pandemic, but it would have happened anyway due to the inherent contradictions of the politics of the era. Now, it's over. This week saw two things that clarified what's going on.

Rebecca Long-Bailey, the left's defeated candidate for Labour leader, tweeted her support for an interview with an actor. The interview contained an antisemitic conspiracy theory (as well as other criticisms of the party). I don't expect political acumen from a celebrity, but from a member of the shadow cabinet? It was not an act of intelligence. She was sacked. Rapidly, rightly, and decisively sacked. It marks the start of a serious change of political direction. The Corbynista left has become irrelevant.

As Labour detoxes, the Tories are finding that their one triumph is turning septic. The  European Social Survey was published this week, confirming previous trends and showing that support for the EU is growing across Europe. This report deals with its consequences for Brexit.
The survey, completed in 2019 and released this week, found that 57% of Brits would vote to be inside the EU, compared to 50% who said the same in the previous survey released in 2018.
By contrast, just 35% said they would vote to be outside the EU, compared with the 52% of people who voted to leave in 2016. Eight percent of Brits said they would not vote in such a referendum.
35%, that's all. Demographics and everyday experience will probably shrink that number further. The referendum took place at the only time Leave could win. Brexit has happened when the majority oppose it, in a form no one campaigned for. The form is one that few anticipated, and even fewer voted for.  It has happened solely because it was defined as 'the will of the people,' rather than a quirk of timing. It's shape is the result of treating the views of half the population as irrelevant. The insecurities of the Brexiters, with their accusations of betrayal, shows Brexit's fragile foundations.

Brexit is Johnson's nemesis. His only success is turning into a curse that will haunt him. His personal inadequacies are manifest. But worst of all, his legacy will be defined by a policy that will be despised. He has wrecked his party and his country with his one moment of triumph.  His premiership will be seen as a curse.

There is only one certainty about the next political era. It will be dominated by our relationship with Europe. Europe is, as it has been for centuries, vital to our security, economy, and, given our near fifty years of integration, our personal lives. The coming years will be spent dealing with the consequences of our folly. I'm sure that we will look back on our years of membership as "the land of lost content" as we begin to deal with the accursed legacy of Cameron, May, and Johnson.  

Chris Grey is right about the immediate tasks, and he views the prospect of rejoining as remote. I'm not so sure. Back in 2015, nobody could have foreseen where we are today. I suppose, much depends on the extent of the change that is coming. Reality points in one direction, as it has throughout. It's just that right-wing utopians chose to disregard it. 

The years 2015-2020  have been momentous. Though, how much better off we all would be if they had never happened.

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