Steve Thomas considers where political responsibility for the acrimony of Brexit lies
In his biography of Michael Foot, Michael Foot – A Life, historian Kenneth Morgan argued that possibly his finest hour was writing the book ‘Guilty Men’ published in 1940. While Foot was the primary author, it included contributions from Labour MP Frank Owen and Peter Howard, a Conservative journalist, collectively published under the pseudonym ‘Cato’. Having known Michael Foot, he once confessed that he was surprised by its impact. He shouldn’t have been. It was a coruscating polemic accusing fifteen politicians headed by Neville Chamberlain with the failure to prepare the country for war and its consequences. Observing the Brexit debate with its impact on the reputation of government raises comparable questions of political responsibility for the rancorous acrimony washed up by these historical tides.
The consultancy Britain Thinks recently published a report which concluded that ‘Brexit anger’ is escalating. Altogether 83% of remainers and leavers felt the entire political establishment has failed them. They detected that the whole country is experiencing a sense of ‘collective despondency and anger’. This is made worse by the myopic condition of our political discourse. Brexit has exposed the decline in standards of reasoning so evident in the ‘post truth’ era. ‘Alternative facts’ proliferate. Christopher Hitchens’ maxim that ‘exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence’ is ignored particularly in the many pronouncements from Boris Johnson. Brexit’s great success is in creating its own reality. Even Salvador Dali could never have conceived of this level of surrealism
Throughout, there has been evident media courtship of the bellicose European Research Group (and a Labour faction led by Kate Hoey) openly arguing for a calamitous ‘No Deal’. Key bygone figures like Bill Cash, Nadine Dorries, Peter Bone, and John Redwood have become supposed voices of common sense. The group is supported from Wales by Patrick Minford whose monetarist zombie-economics they have resuscitated. Reconciling their economic and political recklessness with conservative philosophy is baffling. Michael Oakeshott, the doctrines greatest 20th century philosopher argued that ‘To be conservative……is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible’. How can a no deal possibly chime with this?
Equally unfathomable has been the ‘party of business’ casting adrift from large sections of industry. In some Conservative quarters the loathing of the CBI is astonishing. Register the condescension of Brexiteers blithely advising companies such as Jaguar Land Rover and Airbus that they don’t understand their own trading conditions. It is remarkable North Wales’ most successful employers has prospered over the past decades without this unsolicited wisdom.
But something deeper is at work. Warnings from the Airbus boss Tom Enders on the dangers of a no deal led to a patriotic paroxysm. David Bannerman a Conservative MEP vented on Twitter stressing his nationality, ‘Here we have a German CEO putting EU interests first before his own employees. A disgrace.’ The ‘Bloody Germans’ narrative is at the root of Brexit’s deep national psychosis. The historian Anthony Barnett contends in his book The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump, that ‘Europe moved on from the second world war and Britain didn’t. One might go so far as to say that England never got over winning the war’. In the past month a Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski added insult to historical injury arguing that Britain did not benefit from the Marshall Plan in 1948. A lack of basic historical understanding has been an ever-present feature.
Whilst more rational thinking has originated from Wales and Scotland, power dynamics dictate that the unionist implacability of the DUP is the most influential devolved voice. Her Majesty’s Opposition has unfortunately failed to rise to the occasion. The UK Labour Party’s response to Brexit has been akin to a despairing tennis player stuck on deuce, clinching the odd advantage but with no prospect of winning the game. It is doubtful that there has been a comparable existential national crisis when an opposition has had such an historic opportunity to politically ‘own’ a serving government but failed so lamentably.
Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘Lexit’ based antagonism to the European project is well known. The House of Commons is the primary battleground for the Battle of Brexit but it is neither a setting in which he excels or an issue where his passion lies. Consequently, comment from Labour has been outsourced to the likes of Barry Gardiner MP and Len McCluskey. The contradictory statements from them regularly defy gravity, while inexplicably the brilliant lawyer Sir Keir Starmer appears subject to a periodic gagging clause.
On the remain wing of the party, Labour’s frustrating stance has been a primary cause for eight MPs leaving to form the Pro-Remain Independent Group. Three Conservative “ultra” remainers headed by Anna Soubry, have now joined them. Time will tell whether this is a historic realignment of British politics or the SDP mark 2. At this very early stage it easy to know what this group is against but hard to know what they are for. They deny being Blairite in orientation which is probably astute. The recent image of Tony Blair arguing for a people’s vote amongst the global élites at Davos, the most ruinously expensive ski resort in the Swiss Alps, provided one of the best visual representations of why people feel ‘left behind’. Dutch historian Rutger Bregman’s epic attack exposing elite double standards at that gathering has gone viral.
With the exception of a small cohort of MPs headed by Dominic Grieves, Ken Clarke, Hilary Benn, Yvette Cooper (plus Michael Gove ‘on maneuvers’) politicians are having a dreadful Brexit. Theresa May seems devoid of the emotional intelligence needed to chart a course through this crisis. Margaret Thatcher once famously said that ‘the lady’s not for turning’. The current Prime Minister alternatively applies the handbrake turn with such regular ferocity that it is difficult to detect which way the vehicle of government is pointing. As the March deadline approaches her obstinacy may surprise by securing from the EU, a form of words outside the withdrawal agreement that scrapes through a parliamentary vote. But as probable is that the cacophony of the Brexit ticking clock defaulting to a no deal simply by automatic operation of law.
In the real world, Government is missing in action and immobilism rules. Some metropolitan politicians have sneered at Northern Ireland’s deadlock since January 2017, yet Westminster is possibly worse. Public policy proposals are decaying on the Brexit vine, and the UK civil service is on extended secondment. Paul Johnson of the IFS has pointed to the impact on older people’s care against the backdrop of rising chronic conditions. As he states, ‘the failure… of all governments for the last 20 years at least – to deal with social care is especially egregious. It is a failure of our democratic system on a remarkable scale’. Meanwhile council services are being decimated. The author Sir Phillip Pullman lamented on library closures that we are in danger of killing off ‘every humane, life-enhancing, generous, imaginative and decent corner of our public life’.
The ‘Guilty Men and Women’ will have to face the verdict of history. Some argue that the passage of time will provide historical defence. Arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg famously edged his bets stating that ‘We won’t know the full economic consequences for a very long time. The overwhelming opportunity for Brexit is over the next 50 years.’ If it does take this long, he will be approaching his 100th birthday and may be too old to stand in the historical dock. It’s undeniable that the incomprehensible bureaucracy of the EU needed a strong dose of reform. The BBC documentary Inside Europe showed how reprehensible their handling of the Greek emergency was and how the institution is plagued by crisis management. But instead of influencing this, the UK are walking away to be a mere ‘rule taker’ with a deal some Brexiteers have admitted is worse than staying in.
By historical standards Brexit is a political Ponzi scheme. A scam promising high rates of return with little risk to investors. The cost is huge. The current Brexit divorce bill alone is £39bn and rising. All Ponzi schemes are ruinous for people’s lives and jobs. In Wales this is not just in traditional manufacturing or farming. The FT reported that we risk ‘being the biggest loser from a bad Brexit deal for the finance industry, that places Cardiff at the top of a ranking of British cities based on their dependency on the sector for services exports’ (26/07/18). Swansea and Newport also figure in this respect.
People appear immune to these warnings not least through ‘Armageddon fatigue’. This has led to some disagreeable elitist despair with voters. But as Guardian writer Jon Harris observes, ‘if you reduce the reasons why so many people voted for Brexit to mass prejudice and stupidity, you are guilty of the same transgression the liberal misanthropes wail about: the denial of fact’. In the pro-Brexit communities of Wales, the root causes of the malaise continue through post-industrial decline, poverty, opiates and concerns about immigration (real or imagined). Add to this unedifying Westminster spectacle of warring politicians and then wonder why there is such a sense of visceral alienation. The sentiments that they have had two years to sort this out and just get on with it appear to currently overshadow a clamour for a people’s vote. While this could change it difficult to discern a significant opinion shift in Wales. Those on the Ebbw Vale omnibus still appear content with the destination marked ‘Brexit’. The referendum may have been in Fintan O’Toole’s words ‘a fantasy of national liberation’ but for many it is preferable to the harsh reality of austerity.
Ultimately David Cameron’s and George Osborne’s use of a binary referendum to outflank UKIP, stem a Tory party civil war and then re-run ‘Project Fear’ was the prime cause of this failure. The weight of any guilty verdict must be located with that negligent toss of the political dice. Whether in the forthcoming weeks a deal is concluded or not, Brexit has injected a lethal poison into the veins of our body-politic. There currently appears no prospect of a healing vaccine. Lincoln’s warning that a ‘house divided against itself cannot stand’ reverberates down the years. For those responsible for the ensuing political conflict and the wider ‘culture war’, historical absolution may never follow.
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