This blog was written on Fri March 30th, 2018
In the Ireland of the 1950s and 60s, in which I grew up, you had no choice but to go to Sunday mass. You might get away with not going in the big cities, but not in rural Ireland, the valleys of the squinting windows, where everyone knew your business.
Those who were reluctant mass-goers would wait a few minutes until after the mass had started, then slip in and stand furtively at the back. Needless to say, they did not “participate” in the mass and you would rarely, if ever, see them join in the singing of hymns, much less walk up the church to take communion. As soon as the priest gave the final benediction they were out and gone. There in body, but not in spirit.
It often strikes me that this is a useful way of looking at the UK’s membership of the EU: arrived late, stood at the back, participated as little as possible, and a lot of the time, seemed to wish it were elsewhere.
Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s man in Brussels, resigned in January 2016 when he realised how unrealistic the May government was being in its handling of Brexit planning. He despaired that May seemed determined to go about it in the wrong way and was resistant to all advice. He neatly summed up the British approach to EU membership when he said in a lecture later in the year:
“Throughout all his years in office, [Cameron] was defending and enhancing British exceptionalism, and in carving out a permanent niche, within the market project, but outside the monetary, banking, fiscal and political union. He believed strongly that this was in the U.K.’s best interests.”
The British political class has never been emotionally engaged with the “European project” in the way that mainland Europe politicians have always been. To those who felt well-disposed toward Europe it was, at best, a commercial matter, a market that the UK had to be part of. They never wanted it to be any more than that and fought at every turn to prevent it becoming so.
Herein lies a major part of the reason for Brexit. When pro-European politicians are themselves not emotionally invested it is difficult to persuade the people at large to be. When you look back at the Remain campaign it came down to little more than: Yes, we know that the EU is terrible and we don’t really like it.
But being in is the lesser of two evils and we have negotiated a deal that gives us all of the benefits with as few of the obligations as possible. Hold your nose and vote for it.
Further, there was no, what we might call, popular movement outside parliament which demanded that the UK stay in the EU/Europe. As we have previously written, a great deal of the daily benefits that the EU brings are, like the air that we breath, simply taken for granted: the right to move and settle freely within the 28; emergency health cover when you do travel or live there (here); the ability drive from country to country on your home country’s licence; the facility to bring your pets with you; the freedom that the budget airline networks – which the EU made possible – brings to people on a budget who like to travel.
No one has ever started a popular movement in favour of keeping oxygen. Why would they? It will always be there. You only miss it when you are under water and gasping for it.
Ironically, rather than uniting the UK behind their imagined vision of Global Britain, free of the “shackles of the EU”, the Brexiteers have actually called such a pro-EU movement into existence, a movement which may have the long-term capacity to profoundly reshape UK politics. We’ll come back to this later in this Briefing.
By contrast, opposition to the UK’s involvement in the EU has deep roots in both main political parties. Hugh Gaitskell, then leader of the Labour Party, denounced McMillian’s application to join the “Common Market” as it meant “the end of Britain as an independent nation-state. It would mean the end of a thousand years of history. It would mean the end of the Commonwealth.”
Denis Healy, one of the outstanding Labour figures of the past decades, saw the EU as KKK. Described by Denis MacShane as meaning “Kapitalist, Katholik, Kartelistische”, the international of catholic capitalist cartels, Healy wanted nothing to do with it. Tony Benn, the political inspiration of the Hard Left which today controls the Labour Party, just saw it as a capitalist cartel, a position today’s Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, also clearly takes in deed if not in word.
It has to be said that the majority of Labour MPs and party members do not share this view and are, if not pro-EU, certainly not in favour of the UK leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union. Unfortunately, they do not control the party.
But the real driving force behind Brexit came from the right of the Tory Party, and from the far right outside of it. While the majority of Tory MPs fall into the “lesser of two evils” group, the majority of its aging membership, along with a significant minority of MPs, are obsessed with Brexit, making it their defining political issue.
The 1960s and 70s politician, Enoch Powell, was, as Hugo Young puts it in his classic This Blessed Plot “…the godfather of the successor tribe to whom nation was not merely something but everything.”
Powell wanted an independent Britain, not reliant on any alliances, whether with Europe or the US. Young quotes him as saying: “We earn what we earn by our work and our brains… We are not a drowning man clutching at a rope and screaming for someone to throw him a lifebelt”. The seeds of Global Britain?
In a way, Brexit is a politics of nostalgia, a yearning for Britain to go back to the way it once was, proud, alone, head of a great empire/commonwealth, bestriding the globe. All seen through the sepia tint of Dunkerque, Churchillian speeches and selective memories of WWII.
This politics longs for the United Kingdom to be again one polity, sensibly ruled from Westminster. But that’s not possible. Three of the “nations” of the UK have their own parliaments: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Only the English have no assembly of their own which may, as Anthony Barnett argues, to some extent explain the English vote for Brexit.
Theresa May, the prime minister, spent yesterday, March 29th, flying around the UK to remind it that it is one “precious union”. That’s she had to do so shows it is no such thing. This is well worth a read: www.capx.co/mays-unhelpful-unionism/
But beyond constitutional arrangements, the world today is a very different place to 1972, the year before the UK joined the Common Market and one to which there is no going back.
China was still Communist and not the economic power it is now. Central and Eastern Europe was under Russian occupation and the Russia economic and political model was seen as a serious competitor to the West. It turned out to be no such thing but there are many in the Labour Party who are nostalgic for the time when it was so seen. Nostalgia takes many forms.
Back then, the global market economy consisted of North America, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and a growing Japan. Markets were still largely national; trade unions were all powerful and a lot of TV was still black and white. Politicians were generally respected, newspapers widely read, and cheese and pineapple sticks were de rigueur at fashionable dinner parties.
The connected world of laptops, smartphones and tablets simply didn’t exist. How many of the generation who have grown up in the world of social media instinctively ask when watching old movies why they just don’t Google it, use their phone or switch on the GPS? The way those in their 60s see and understand the world is, indeed, a world away from how anyone below the age of 30 sees it.
Give it a year or two and they will be asking: “Why do we need a visa to visit France, what do you mean I need medical insurance if I go to Spain, you mean I have to pay roaming charges? I thought the EU looked after all those things? It does, but we are no longer EU members. We are now Global Britain. No EU handouts for us”.
The older among us remember when all football matches kicked off at 3pm on a Saturday on pitches that turned to mud when the winter rains came. Teams were owned by the local butcher, baker and candlestick maker and “foreign” players came from Dublin and Glasgow, Paul McGrath not Paul Pogba.
Despite more than ninety percent of the players coming from England, England still won nothing. Contrast that with today’s Premier League, with global ownership and players from every corner of the world, purpose-built stadia and all-weather pitches. England still wins nothing. Who would want to go back to football, 1972?
Who would want to go back to the Britain of 1972? Despite claims to the contrary, quite a few of the white, English, middle-aged men who are the daily, public faces of Brexit: Johnson, Gove, Fox Davis, Farage, Rees-Mogg and, yes, Corbyn and McDonnell. Diversity is not their strong suite.
Contrast that with those in Parliament who oppose Brexit: Soubry, Umunna, Clarke, Grieve, Benn, McFadden, Gapes, Morgan, Tugendhat, Lucas, the SNP…. to name but a few.
Contrast it further with what you might call the Blue Wave movement, those, often dressed in blue, who protested throughout the UK last weekend against Brexit and what it will do to their futures. Mostly young, though with many older people also, diverse, energetic articulate and determined. We said earlier that before 2016 there was never a popular pro-Europe movement in the UK. There is now.
This new movement cares little for what the Daily Mail, Sun or Express have to say about the EU or the way those newspapers try to define Englishness and Britishness as excluding a European identity. The Blue Wavers are happily both, English and European, Scottish and European, Welsh and European. Both, not either / or. Most of the Irish are already comfortable there.
They have their own media, The New European and InFacts, blogs, Facebook pages, daily twitter conversations. A community of identity is being forged and it is already political with the overarching aim of wanting the UK to stay within the EU. It rejects the fatuous claim that you can leave the EU without leaving Europe because it knows the EU is Europe. You can’t be “in Europe” without being in the EU.
Yes, the movement is made up of people of all political persuasions and none who would disagree as to what social and political direction the UK should take in the future. But they are agreed that whatever the answer, there is no realistic answer outside the EU.
But the movement runs up against the UK’s current political and constitutional arrangements. Politically, the first-past-the-post political system forces ill-matched bedfellows into the same political party. In reality, what has Rees-Mogg and Soubry got in common on the Conservative side, or Starmer and Corbyn on the Labour?
What would happen if the Blue Wave was to run its own candidates? For the moment they are invested in the Labour Party to stop Brexit, or, at a minimum, to prevent an extreme Brexit. But as soon as the Labour Party is seen as facilitating Brexit they will abandon it. They are not bought into Corbyn’s nostalgic vision of “socialism in one country”.
If in 2010, the LibDems could win close on 60 seats could the Blue Wave do the same? Could it result in a real hung parliament in 2022? Will the UK have really left the EU at the end of 2020/ Or will, as looks increasingly inevitable, the “transition arrangement” will have been rolled over as the UK won’t be ready to leave de facto by then, though it will have left de jure on March 29, 2019. What would happen in a hung parliament in such circumstances?
That the electoral arithmetic could move in such a direction is suggested in a new academic analysis, as reported in the London Evening Standard, here.
Constitutionally, the fact that the UK does not have a written constitution means that the executive can, literally, make up the rules as it goes along. In normal times, there are settled conventions which are generally respected. But in convulsed times, such as Brexit, there are no precedents to guide actions and it is in the nature of an executive is to grab as much power as it can. Standoffs over “meaningful votes” as regards the final Article 50 deal and what that vote would mean, not to mention clashes between the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales over post-Brexit powers, illustrate the point.
Who knows what standoffs there would be within a Northern Ireland Executive, and between that Executive and the UK government, over Brexit if that Executive could be re-established. Given the hardline position the DUP takes on Brexit, out of kilter with the way Northern Ireland voted 56/44 to stay in the EU, it would seem that the NI Executive will not be re-established anytime soon.
It seems to us that any belief that “after Brexit” the UK will return to pre-Brexit normality is very much wide of the mark. There can be no going back. The past is another country. No matter how Brexit resolves itself over the next years, the UK will need new constitutional and political arrangements if it is to survive and prosper, within or without the EU. A long road lies ahead.
We have never made any secret of the fact that we believe that the future of the UK lies with the EU which, for all its faults, is the way Europe organises and expresses itself today.
There is no other Europe to which the UK can belong.