Thursday, 15 September 2016

Brexit is a hollow victory

Readers will probably be able to confirm this, but I think it was Peter Hitchens who was against the idea of a referendum. He took the view that unless it was a general election issue, being part of an overall reform agenda there is very little point. He was probably right - but since we had a referendum anyway I decided to fight it all the same - but with no real expectation of winning.

During the build up I remember sitting in Leave Alliance meetings thinking the whole thing was futile. The polls suggested a two to one defeat for leave and looking around at all the elements in the equation there was no reason to expect we could turn that around. Ukip was dire, Leave.EU was worse and eurosceptic MPs had no real idea what they were talking about. That was a bitter pill to swallow knowing we were about to blow our only chance in a generation.

Readers of this blogs will recall that even the night before the poll I fully expected to lose. If there was any chance of winning it was going to be through a last minute change of mood. A roar of defiance. And in the end it was the establishment who did the heavy lifting for us.

If one picture perfectly encapsulates the remain campaign it is that of Bob Geldof sneering at the flotilla of fishing boats. Then there was the whole nasty business surrounding the death of Jo Cox. Her body was still warm while the Spectator was penning accusatory venom directed at Brexiteers. For the remain camp it was an early Christmas.

Ultimately the remain camp lost because they had all the possible advantages they could want - and rubbed our noses in it. It was their conduct that ultimately gave us leavers the moral advantage. If anything Vote Leave's scaremongering over Turkish accession and Farage's "breaking point" poster cost us a larger majority.

But this is all ancient history. For now, the Toryboys will congratulate themselves for their role in the victory. Ukip will tell themselves that it was immigration that won it. History will filter out such biases over time. The final draft of history will look very different.

I do not see it as a victory though. I see it as a squandered opportunity. Just the other day Arron Banks was taunting me on Twitter saying "you said we wouldn't win without your plan - but we won without you!" - or words to that effect. And sundry other Toryboys have said roughly the same - that I did nothing but "whinge" throughout. So I have to ask what did we win exactly?

For starters we did not win £350m a week to lavish on our creaking health "service". And it rather speak to the cynicism and lack of imagination that membership fees would even be a central issue. For me the measure is whether we are going to get what we were fighting for.

What we will find in due course is that we have such a tangled web of cooperation agreements and international treaties that "out" looks very much like "in" so far as the average voter is concerned. Popular sovereignty has only been notionally restored and even though we can change things in theory, the reality is that we probably won't. We will have a veto on a great many things but we will likely will not use it most of the time.

I suppose it's good that we have the freedom to change things if we so wish which is a theoretical advantage but the problem is the "if we so wish" part of that equation. And this is the failure of the eurosceptic brigade. They always spoke of parliamentary sovereignty - which just means moving the power from one remote and aloof establishment to a similar one in London. 

Some say that now is the time to continue leveraging our victory but we don't actually have any leverage. The Conservative party is stronger that it has been for a decade, Ukip is collapsing and the opposition is in a real mess. Meanwhile, the majority for Brexit is so slender that the government doesn't have to do anything radical. So in terms of a recognition of the people's sovereignty goes we are no further forward. Brexit is a symbolic victory, but in practical terms will make little difference.

The fact is, even though we have give the establishment a kicking, it's one they will bounce back from. Leaving the EU is the last thing they wanted to do and it does smash a cosy consensus among our insular political class but Brexit is something which can easily be corrupted. Brexit may mean Brexit but is it our Brexit or their Brexit? Chances are it will be their Brexit because there is no movement threatening their ownership of the issues. MPs are no longer worried about their seats and and the Tories fully expect to sail through the next general election.

The Brexit they will deliver is more than likely going to be unsatisfactory to Ukippers and eurosceptics but the government can get away with it. There is no advantage to the hard Brexit they push for and no mandate for it either. The Leave movement is stuffed because the demands they made are simply not deliverable. International cooperation costs money and one way or another we will be paying substantial sums into the EU budget or directing it on trade missions elsewhere. New trade agreements do not fall out of the sky.

Had there been a plan and a series of deliverable objectives, the leave campaign would still be in operation and dictating the agenda. It may even have had a larger mandate and even won considerable support from the remain side after the fact. But no, "we don't need no stinking plan" they said. And certainly not Flexcit.

The mistake we made was selling Flexcit on the premise that it initially compromises on Freedom of Movement relying on what we were then calling an emergency brake. Resistance to that idea was to strong in the wake of Ukip fashioning itself as populist anti-immigration party. Ukip however, argue that we would never have had the referendum had they not done so. Fine. But we would at least still have a counter-establishment movement and leverage over the government which is actually more valuable than Brexit. 

Ukip should have been patient and played the long game. Farage traded sustainable growth for rapid expansion and in so doing turned a respectable small-c conservative party into a mass of grunting knuckle-scrapers and village idiots. Having drummed out anybody capable who would pose a threat to him, all that is left after his departure are the intellectually subnormal. Even by MP standards Ukippers are thick. 

I am told that Brexit is a great moment. And for a brief time I allowed myself to enjoy the moment. But it is a hollow victory. We even knew it on the day. It should have have been a moment for elation but it didn't feel like a victory I could own. I celebrated like all the other leavers but ultimately all we've done is cash in our chips leaving the job half done. Worse still, the likes of Arron Banks and Vote Leave don't even see how we have all been completely outmanoeuvred. 

To the eurosceptics Brexit is an event, not a process. To them it is the end in itself rather than the beginning. They are happy be to be slaves of the system just so long as the system is waving a Union Jack rather than a ring of stars. Having people make choices for them is ok just so long as they're in London and not Brussels. And where is the point in that?

In most respects the EU was an abstract element in the referendum campaign. For sure we got plenty of opportunity for a good moan about the EU but this really was a domestic dispute. In the end it was a plebiscite against the establishment and a culture war on London. So why are we happy to leave the job half done? The Westminster bubble is still as insular as ever, the Brexit shock will soon wear off (if it hasn't already) and pretty soon we'll be back to business as usual. 

The truth is that there are no shortcuts to meaningful change in politics. Politics is like a big jelly mould. You can keep the pressure on and change the shape of it but if you release the pressure it will wobble back to its original form. And that is what it will do now. Mrs May will negotiate an EEA solution - or something akin with it - but mainly as a means to park Brexit rather than a means to an end. 

This is why those of a revolutionary disposition would prefer to see a hard Brexit as it's the only way  to guarantee sweeping change - but the change they propose is as the remain camp always said it was - a leap in the dark. Though I dislike the EU intensely I am not going to push for a hard Brexit on the back of John Redwood's free trade fantasies, nor am I in any rush to experience whatever it is the left wing leavers have in mind. They propose a lot of economic pain but have no destination in mind, just so long as it has nothing to do with the EU. That is no basis for a political revolution.

And this is really why we didn't want Roland Smith going off half cock, appropriating Flexcit for the Adam Smith Institute. Stage one of Flexcit was only ever the first step. If you're campaigning only for an EEA endgame then you might as well have voted to remain because it's only marginally better than the EU - and a lot of expense to get there. 

In that regard the likes of the ASI and the Institute of Economic Affairs are part of the problem - pushing something they have only half understood. It seems Ben Kelly and Roland Smith were more interested in making a name for themselves in the bubble than actually achieving anything in their own right. But that goes with the territory it seems. Euroscepticism is marked by self-serving chancers for whom theft is no real obstacle. Just like the rest, they'll enjoy their moment in the spotlight - but ultimately join the herd in producing generic, derivative crap.

Howsoever, this is where I get off the bus completely. The upcoming Harrogate Agenda meeting is now the focus of my attention and we'll see what is left to work with. At least we've rid ourselves of the parasites. It's just a shame that they, along with the rest of the eurosceptics, were so completely lacking in vision. For a time there, we were making some progress.

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