Saturday, January 16, 2021

The strange death of Remain Labour

Brexit died a long time before it was implemented as a little-loved zombie by the Johnson government. Any hope of forming some sort of national agreement was wrecked by Theresa May declaring that Brexit meant hard Brexit, leaving the single market and customs union – something that much of the Leave campaign said wouldn't happen. But it was the opposition that she stirred that killed it off. The largest pro-European movement in Europe took to the streets, the majority turned against Brexit in the polls, and all hope of a consensual politics, without which such a radical and complex change is impossible, was gone. Instead, Brexit became a theatre for right-wing Tory zealots, cosplaying nationalists, and a handful of deluded Lexiters. The opposition hasn't gone away.

And now Brexit is here. Two weeks into it, rather than sunlit uplands, we are looking at a rain-sodden valley. It's hard to know where to start, but we should remember that what will get to most people is not the big national issues but the small personal costs and inconveniences. They are already accumulating. According to polls, the majority think Brexit was a mistake, the number who still support it is shrinking to no more than a third of the electorate. And it is at this moment that the leader of the opposition has decided that it's inviolate. His positioning is strategic, but I have to wonder about the strategy, especially in Scotland. 

Starmer's caution and reticence has meant it has taken Tony Blair to give a clear indication of where this thinking is coming from. I was never a Blairite, though after the Cameron/May/Johnson horror story I began to think more kindly of him. Now, I can remember why I had my reservations. He's a convincing political storyteller, but it's the story that's a problem. His narrative is an amalgam of generalities and conventional wisdom, a sort of lyrical management textbook. It's vacuous. In his Chatham house speech he returned to a familiar rhetorical formula:

... we should make a virtue of necessity and see in Brexit’s consequences, an opportunity and an obligation to renew our country and its place in the world

It is no longer: ‘Leave or Remain’ but ‘Change or Decline’.

And bafflingly:

[Brexit is] a catalyst for change which is necessary even without Brexit and could have been done without doing Brexit, but which, by the challenge it poses, Brexit somehow enables.

He starts by saying that Brexit is a mistake, but then produces a rehashed 'Global Britain' Brexiter argument, reconciling himself to it. 

And this is his aim:

... if a return to Europe is ever to be undertaken by a new generation, Britain should do it as a successful nation Europe is anxious to embrace, not as supplicant with no other options.
This is like an unfaithful husband; dump the wife, be a bloody nuisance settling the divorce, go away, get a better job, and then return saying, ' OK, I've come back to you, aren't you the lucky one.' I think I know what the answer might be.

He's wallowing in the Brexiter nostalgia that Robert Saunders describes 

... a story that reduces empire to an expression of British power, rather than its source. The myth it fuels is not that empire can return, but that it hardly mattered in the first place: that Britain can flex its muscles on the world stage without the sinews of imperial power. 

This dream is a chimera. However successful Britain is in the international arena, Europe will be what it has always been, our main trading partner and where our most important strategic interests lie. It's inescapable. This isn't new. EU membership resolved difficult structural problems. We have now reimposed them and compounded them by adding extensive barriers to trade, which we had spent the last forty years removing. We have chosen to disadvantage ourselves against every other European nation. 

Structural problems cannot be overcome by vapid calls for "unifying values, clarity of thinking, competence and delivery." Opposing the rancid politics of Brexit is not "outdated ideology." We cannot escape geography, history and economics. Reality always wins and is not going away. The Labour Party standing for doing something stupid more competently than the Tories, even as it becomes more and more unpopular, is not wise. 

The relationship with Europe is the single most important issue facing the country today. It isn't going to disappear. Our economies are interdependent. Close ties are integral to European security. Both the EU and the UK have lost. Brexit is as damaging as it is pointless. We are now locked into a process of continual negotiation and renegotiation to manage these mutual interests. Brexit has scarcely begun. Now is not the time to pretend that it's over.

No, when Britain returns, as self-interest insists it will, it will be as the penitent, not the supplicant. Brexit was a hostile act - intentionally. It has hurt other countries, it has particularly damaged Ireland and put the peace process at risk. Any hope of return means rejecting convincingly the radical right-wing populism that produced it. It seems that the majority of the people have. It's about time the opposition followed and spoke for the national interest.