As Harold Wilson said, a week is a long time in politics*. My last blog post on events concerning the EU and UK was over 6-months ago and so not surprisingly things have changed a great deal - and yet in some ways they have not changed at all.
As I have said several times before I am less concerned about whether we are in or out of the EU rather than the process that has led us to the current fiasco. Nevertheless, I’l put that aside for a moment and try to look at the here and now. It can be very difficult to have a worthwhile debate about Brexit because the subject seems so polarised. In reality however, there’s probably a scale upon which most people’s views sit. Let’s take a scale of 1-10, where one represents those who believe the European Union represent an almost utopia of unified international co-operation and ten represents those who see the EU as a superstate dictatorship. Most of us sit somewhere along the scale from two to nine but the debate seems dominated by those at the extreme ends. For full disclosure I sit around three and a half to four.
There are those to the right hand side of the scale who believe Brexit at any cost and those on the left of the scale that want Brexit to go away so we just get back to normal. For most of us in between there seems to be a general political acceptance and the question is now how we leave, not if we leave.
There are those who want a “hard Breixt”, that is to leave all EU institutions including the custom’s union, single market, EMEA, Euroatom etc etc (although I am unclear on EUFA). They claim that this was clear during the referendum. That claim is utter nonsense and an attempt to rewrite recent history. The leave campaign had no definition of what Brexit meant although it was a question that came up time again. To give just two examples, the leading Brexit campaigner Daniel Hannan said, “absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the single market” and Nigel Farage referred to the UK being like Norway and Switzerland (both are not members of the EU but in the single market). I also posted on the obvious ambiguity of what leave meant before the vote.
It is true that there were those that who did say Brexit meant leaving the single market, Boris Johnson included. But the question is one of clarity. If some Brexit campaigners said one thing and others said something else then by definition it was not clear. In truth, the decision to pursue a hard Brexit was made post-referendum by Theresa May (and her government presumably but even that is not certain).
The economic consequences of crashing out of the single market and into the rules of the World Trade Organisation could be very serious. Those leaning towards ten on the scale believe this will be worth it but this is based, don’t forget, on either the ideology that we are living in a dictatorship or in denial of the majority of economists throughout the world. The economic consequences will undoubtedly hit the poorest the hardest, who ironically were more likely to vote to leave the EU. The likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove will weather the storm without too much hardship.
There seems to be one realistic direction that the UK should now pursue. We fulfil the outcome of the referendum by leaving membership of the EU but negotiate to remain in the single market and custom’s union, as well as some other EU institutions (Euroatom at least in my opinion). This preserves the economy, solves much of the problems around the Irish boarders and even helps keep Scotland in the Union. Those crying “undemocratic” are going to be towards the one and ten ends of the scale but a classic British compromise such as this will satisfy the majority and keep the country’s democracy (such that it is) intact. Some on the ten end of the scale have threatened to riot if they don’t get their way, although interestingly I don’t know anyone on the one end of the scale that has threatened the same. This is of course no reason to kowtow to the extremes.
I am particularly unhappy about such a compromise because of the criminal incompetence that has got us to this point (the words of the Conservative Matthew Parris). But pragmatically seeing where we have come I cannot see any other realistic route. And this brings us full circle because the government shows little sign of compromise and Jeremy Corbyn’s position is very muddled and it’s hard to know what the Labour Party’s position is. I just hope that those MPs who sit somewhere in the middle of the scale are able to come together and put a line under this phase of UK history. Personally, I don’t hold out a lot of hope based upon their track record, but we will see.
(For those concerned with such things, whether Harold Wilson said this or not is uncertain. What is on record is the Liberal politician Joseph Chamberlain having said in 1886: ‘In politics, there is no use in looking beyond the next fortnight’).