Thursday, 29 September 2016

Be glad it was Brexit - the alternatives are worse

There have been a number of political maneuvers to try and block Brexit. I can't say they have given me much cause to worry. On the whole I think parliament understands that the vote must be obeyed. There would be a strong showing for any blocking move were it to go to a parliamentary vote but ultimately it would be defeated. Blocking Brexit would have extraordinary consequences.

There was a vote in parliament to grant a referendum. Parliament brought that act into law. There was a referendum in which Her Majesty's Government spent an inordinate amount of money publishing a guidebook which categorically stated that the government would carry out the wishes of the people.

To then tell half the population that their vote doesn't matter sets a dangerous precedent. It says that your vote will only be respected so long as you vote the right way. What it says is that parliament will not tolerate an entirely legitimate vote which they themselves voted to have. There would be no coming back from that. It would be a confirmation that we are ruled rather than governed. If politics was toxic before the referendum then nullifying the largest political mandate ever recorded would have a profound effect.

There are a number of good reasons to leave the EU but there is one often overlooked reason. Ignoring all the technocratic and economic arguments, the issue of identity is not one that can be casually disregarded. Not wanting Britain to be a subordinate of a supreme government for Europe is a perfectly valid reason. The people's right to define their own society is as close as there is to sacred. Without it we are nothing. 

In that regard, I even find cause to agree with Nicola Sturgeon who in the face of damning economic reports says that independence transcends the practical. If people are willing to fight and die for democracy then they will happily shed a few percentage points of GDP for it - not least when none of that money is going in their direction. If MPs took it upon themselves to overturn such a vote they would be offending a core sensibility and I would expect to see MPs put in the ground because of it. 

And that's also why Brexit must happen. The question has been put to me as to whether Brexit is actually necessary. After all the UK is a blocking influence on the EU which stops runaway federalism and the grim prognostications of leavers don't really pan out. I can imagine that it actually grates with Ukip hardliners that the EU isn't as bad as they say it is. For all the predictions of doom it is still with us and the economy is stable even though it is stagnant. 

But if you cast your mind back to the election last year we saw a potential threat to domestic stability. Had there not been an offer of a referendum we would likely have seen a repeat of the 2010 hung parliament, again in a political limbo of centrist consensus politics. Beneath that was a boiling resentment because the current settlement is one not favoured by the people. 

Had there not been a referendum the issue of the EU would continue to bubble under the surface waiting to bring down yet another government. The fact is that all political settlements are life limited and centrist consensus politics after Blair and Cameron had long outstayed its welcome. The referendum though has lanced the boil. Look at where we are now.

All the signals now point to a soft Brexit. The EU question is one that is settled, Ukip is on the wane, and the Tory right have missed their window of opportunity. I recall just after the referendum Tim Montgomerie saying that the Tory right had more power than they had in decades. And for a very short time that was true. Andrea Leadsom, David Davis, Liam Fox were in the spotlight as frontrunners for John Redwood, Bernard Jenkin, Michael Gove, Owen Paterson and Philip Davies. 

Like Ukip though, their lack of planning and intellectual foundation soon become apparent. If they had a vision and a credible plan between them they could have have captured the Conservative Party in the same way that Momentum have on the left. The problem is that an agenda of "pull out as fast as possible at any cost" is simply not one any of us could allow. 

Though Mrs May has thrown them a bone by putting the three Brexiteers into key positions it is quite clear that they are on tight leash and Mrs May is in charge. It's her way or the highway. And now it seems the Brexiteers are going to be neutered politically. Once Mrs May signs the Article 50 agreement, the sacred cow of the Tory right is out of the picture. Meanwhile, Labour is in full self-destruct leaving a moderate Conservative government to get on with running the country. What is not to like?

Perhaps five years ago I would have been sorely disappointed by this but I have come to actively despise the Tory right for their ignorance, intellectual dishonesty and ideological zealotry. They are the mirror opposite of Jeremy Corbyn, caught up in their delusions with no real connection to the present. That they have been consigned to the political wilderness is a good thing for the country. Moving forward, the left will gradually get their act together. Something will emerge from the wreckage of the Labour party and we can all get on with reshaping the country. 

Had there not been a vote to leave the EU Ukip would still be as strong, the Tory right would still have an axe to grind and David Cameron would still be prime minister. Worse still Cameron would be cock-a-hoop. A vote to remain would have empowered him. You can just imagine him lecturing us all in that oh-so-smug tone. "We had a referendum, the people had their say - we are staying in the EU and we're not going keep banging on it". Or words to that effect.

The consequences would be worse than Brexit. A remain vote would be a licence to rub our noses in it and the bogus reform package would continue to be a political device so that the issue could be ignored completely. I can imagine that this would send Ukip into a civil war but not the entertaining death spiral we see today. A defeat on its core agenda would see a complete reset and reorganisation of an insurgent movement. 

Having had a referendum the issue would be unlikely to die. The referendum would have created a new legion of experienced campaigners and effectively create a new generation of EU obsessives for a cause that would otherwise have died out. The issue would continue to haunt the Conservatives and the toxicity levels would continue to rise. 

Ultimately the Brexit vote was not a vote against immigration and in some respects it wasn't even a vote against the EU. It was a vote for change. Change that could not be secured by any other means. We've heard all the empty promises about EU reform and general elections don't have any real tangible effect. This vote is the only vote in my lifetime that forces the government to have a serious rethink about how we do things. 

What we are going to see is political turmoil descending into farce but that doesn't worry me. I'm not even all that bothered by any Brexit recession. Recessions happen. They come and go. We muddle through. What is happening though is something quite extraordinary.

At the moment I spend most of my time watching what the media does and what politicians are saying. They still haven't grasped the basics but they are tossing around entirely new terminology. Trade and diplomacy is now a hot topic. There is a new lexicon in town and there is a space race to be on top of it all. There is, for the first time in a long time, a serious debate about Britain's place in the world.

So far all we've heard from Liam Fox is platitudes about free trade and openness. Though we know that Fox doesn't actually know what he's talking about and we can be quite jaundiced about it, it is still nonetheless a signal to the world who will take him at his word - and in international politics platitudes, gestures and signals are everything. I'm not especially pleased that Mrs May in one of her first acts on the international stage was to sign the Paris Agreement but it was a signal to the world that we are not retreating from international cooperation. It's a price we have to pay to maintain our presence.

For a time we will have to put on a major international charm offensive. I doubt the forthcoming far east tour of the Red Arrows is unconnected. We will also see the Royal Navy putting in appearances all over the place as power projection. The Hinkley Point deal is also another obligation we could not have backed away from and it gives Mrs May the photo opportunities she needs. Though it may all seem thin gruel from the domestic perspective it is these kind of signals that show our intent. 

Though political competence may be in short supply for the moment, we are only just finding our feet in preparing to take control of policy areas abandoned for decades. Just because we lack that competence doesn't mean that we are not going to acquire it. The lack thereof is a lesson in why we shouldn't have joined the EU in the first place. 

We will have a long road to travel before we start seeing any tangible benefits from Brexit - but I find it most gratifying to see the political establishment scurrying around trying to make sense of it all. At the very least there is a new sense of urgency in government that I haven't seen for a very long time.

We may have missed the opportunity for domestic democratic reform and Brexit is not going to be the transformational influence we had hoped but we are witnessing a new level of engagement and, in a small way, a revival of grown up politics. When this is done and dusted we may not have a new Britain but we will have all the tools to do it. The rest is up to us. 

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