Pity Labour right now: feeling the righteous heat of Brexit failure, needing to appease ever more vociferous remainers, but desperate not to alarm “red wall” voters.
So we are offered vague words from Labour’s David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, of better connections between the EU and “tarnished” Britain and aspirations about joint talking shops, when the reality is that faced with a continually chaotic UK, the EU will simply protect its members and enjoy the schadenfreude.
What we are being offered now is another sticking plaster for the deepest running sore of British politics. As we mark 50 years since we joined the then EEC and three years since we left, isn’t it high time we took stock of what has become of Britain’s sorry relationship with the EU and of us, the British citizens?
Let’s start with some home truths. Europe was only ever a partially democratic project. It was deeply contradictory in nature. Ted Heath took us in without a vote; we only voted to stay in after this fait accompli. The public was offered its first slice of battenberg cakeism – everything was to be gained from this club and nothing lost. Instinctively, though, people knew that powers and decisions were being handed over. And for more than 40 years they had no say on it.
In the same year as the 1975 referendum, an influential report by the Trilateral Commission claimed the growing social and economic problems of the US, Japan and Europe stemmed from an “excess of democracy”. Politicians were too amenable to the whims of voters and would spend too much, causing inflation. The people could not be trusted – but central bankers could. Thus the democratic deficit was deepened.
As a consequence, as Helen Thompson suggests in her majestic book Disorder, “Brexit was, in the long term, most likely unavoidable”. There was bound to be a clash between the interests of technocrats and democrats. Being in Europe, by definition, meant the loss of some control. But that conversation was too difficult, and the people, after all, could not be trusted. The seeds of Faragism were being sown.
The deceit, once created, had to be maintained. With every new treaty that ceded more power to the EU – sometimes for good social or environmental ends, often to embedded neoliberalism – Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown and then Cameron all promised referendums, but would wriggle free from the commitment.
And all this time the nation polarised. Deindustrialisation, the political project of Thatcherism to hollow out the unions and any semblance of effective class solidarity, bred bitterness and resentment. New Labour, because it never sufficiently levelled up, eventually rolled the pitch for Nigel Farage.
By supporting the extension of the EU to 27 nations and not adopting the transitional immigration rules other countries took up, Labour handed the initiative to the Brexiters. In New Labour’s cynicism, it saw a quick productivity fix that boosted tax revenues through easily imported eastern European labour.
It never reckoned with the backwash from the already precarious people for whom all this was too much too quickly, economically, socially and culturally – especially when there was no enforcement of the minimum wage, so little social housing and so much pressure on the NHS and school places. Labour refused to make the case for immigration and just hoped “growth” would cover the tensions. And poisonously, it based New Labour on its humiliation of old Labour, also known as the red wall.
The referendum cemented the divide. An adversarial two-party system that ignored huge chunks of voters eventually destabilised the country and both parties, just as it had in Scotland, two years before. But the party tribalists couldn’t learn. Instead of forging a deal that looked like the 51% to 49% result, they pursued their own factional interests. Eventually, of course, the country tired of it all and backed the strong man who could “get Brexit done”. We live in its hard wake. Inevitably, like everything in our post-democracy, it unravelled.
The tragedy, of course, is that we need to belong to institutions that go beyond nations as the only hope of dealing with climate chaos, globalised finance, multinational corporations, mass immigration and turbulent geopolitics. But that need must be balanced with nation and place. There is no socialism in one country, no globalised cosmopolitan nirvana and no Davos on Thames. Instead, there must be a way of managing the challenges, tensions and paradoxes we face.
It is our political system that forces bad binary choices on us. Today, Labour, the party that ignored leavers now ignores remainers. The Tories, eternally trying to spring the Faragist trap, see his Reform UK vote climb again. Devoid of Boris Johnson, the only politician who can withstand Farage’s populist touch, the pressure to bend to the politics of hard Brexit remains irresistible. The polls are encouraging now, but something like the 2019 Tory upsurge could happen again, as the right consolidates around an anti-Europe, anti-immigration agenda, retaining some of the red wall. Whether it’s enough to deny Labour a majority remains to be seen. But the most dynamic force in UK politics continues to be rightwing populism.
Farage tweeted recently that “Britain is broke”. He should know. Brexit tipped us over the edge, but for Brexit to have happened, the country must have been broken. The biggest beneficiaries of such desolation could be him and his populist, scapegoating anti-politics. Only a new negotiated politics allows a serious and deep conversation about what sort of country we want to be and how we govern ourselves.
It is more than six years since the Brexit vote, but everything and nothing has changed: we have same electoral system, the same cartel parties, the same adversarial and short-term, zero-sum politics. It’s “blue walls” v red walls, as if the country, its people and its future really were that binary.
Brexit was a project instigated by people who wanted to take our country in the wrong direction, and the fact that they won still hasn’t given us anywhere near enough pause for thought about why, and whether we are anywhere near a politics that could make people feel connected, and repel the populists.
Labour means well, but it’s offering sticking plasters – and sticking plasters will not do.
Neal Lawson is director of the cross-party campaign organisation Compass