The UK is now over a fortnight into not being a member of the EU, something which has not yet really impacted most of us all that much, despite a raft of insolvencies and factory closures already. We are, until 31st December, still in the “transition period” during which all the previous trade and regulatory provisions still apply, the only actual difference being that we don’t have any say in what EU laws, rules and regulations are. Those setbacks to the economy (including Axminster Carpets and Norton Motorcycles) are just the tip of the iceberg, as one commentator ably indicates in this video.
To be honest, I cried when we left on the 31st of January, and kept bursting into tears again on a regular basis after that for several days when I saw some British people crowing about our leaving, with a stack of xenophobic comments, but equally saw many Europeans, including prominent politicians, regretting our departure and holding out a hand of friendship for the future. One thing which does warm my heart is to find that the UK now has the largest and strongest pro-Europe movement in Europe, and there are around half a dozen vociferous grass roots groups starting to construct a campaign to re-enter the EU, a couple of which I’ve joined – because I am absolutely sure that if the country is to have any decent future, it is going to be within Europe, not as a cantankerous island adjacent to Europe which doesn’t really want to join anything.
American friends have asked me why I am still banging on about Brexit, considering that it’s a “done deal”; the Tory majority of 80 makes it impossible for anything I (or any mass movement) does for the next 5 years, bar a revolution, to have any effect on government policy, and suggest that the country will no doubt survive the exercise (in which I notice Paul Krugman agrees – he thinks it’s a huge mistake and will make us poorer, but that we’ll survive). I actually regard it as a true existential threat – because it is very unlikely we will come out of it as “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.
Firstly, and particularly considering Sinn Fein’s new status as the largest party in Ireland (and recalling that Sinn Fein are the political wing of the IRA), I think there’s no doubt that we’ll soon be seeing a referendum in Northern Ireland on Irish unity, and the fact that quite a lot of Unionists really want to stay in the EU and that they’ve now experienced sharing power with the Republicans means that they’re prepared to vote in ways which were never in contemplation previously; a majority of NI MPs are now from parties supporting reunification. If opinion stays in favour of reunification for a significant period, the Good Friday agreement commits us to allowing NI to join with Eire in an united Ireland – and that’s the end of the UK, which then becomes merely “Great Britain”.
At the same time, there now appears to be a solid majority in Scotland for independence, and there seems to me no possibility that there won’t be another independence referendum, and that that will elect for an independent Scotland which will want to rejoin the EU. Granted, Johnson has said that he will not permit such a referendum, but the SNP are quite capable of calling one anyway, and trying to hold on to an independence-minded Scotland by force seems to me a losing strategy. That will remove the “Great” from Britain, which will at that point be merely England and Wales… which one might possibly still style “Great Britain”, I suppose – but then, two of the three elements of the Union Flag will have gone, and all that will be left is the red-on-white cross of St. George, Wales never having managed to insert green field or red dragon into the national flag.
Krugman may be correct, but I think underestimates the depths of misery into which a hard Brexit would plunge the country, with the collapse of all manufacturing which relies on “just in time” supply chains and guaranteed food shortages (the supermarkets similarly rely on “just in time”, and Kent will turn into a lorry park – just two minutes of delay at Dover produced a 17 mile tailback of vehicles recently, and the delays are likely to be far longer than that, and continue more or less as long as we have no “minimum friction” trade deal). What we risk, at that point, is the one way of displacing the government which I left open, namely a revolution. And I really don’t want a revolution. Granted, I felt a surge of passion when a fellow Rejoiner posted a version of “Do you hear the people sing” (“singing a song of angry men…”) from “Les Miserables” this week, but I couldn’t help remembering that that song is followed not long after by “Empty chairs and empty tables”. Revolutions are chancy things, often fail, and the common thread is that people on both sides die.
However, any campaign to rejoin probably can’t make any serious headway until 2021, when we’ve seen what kind of Brexit we are actually going to have to endure. Boris Johnson’s speech on the morning after the disastrous election in December made me think that there was at least a possibility that this would not be a “hard Brexit”, though every indication in his revised withdrawal agreement indicated that that was his goal; he talked of bringing the divided country together, and the one way that might be achieved is to soften Brexit to the point at which we pro-Europeans can say “Oh, OK, it isn’t a total catastrophe, we can live with this for a while”.
Against that possibility, all his talk since then has been blustering about how Europe is being unfair in their negotiating stance (which is not the case – the withdrawal agreement talks about a “level playing field” as well as free trade, and the EU is merely sticking to what was already agreed there) and promoting the idea that a hard Brexit is, indeed, a possibility, indeed a likelihood unless the EU relax their stance. That is supremely unlikely, as what Boris basically says he wants is all the advantages of EU membership without having to stick to EU regulations ensuring the quality and safety of goods (without which customs checks at the very least will be needed), without any free movement of people and without contributing to the cost of anything. Not only is that asking for a massively unfair advantage, it is something the EU cannot offer, as it would destroy the very principle of the single market. Oh, and at the moment, he’s trying to blame the EU for being unreasonable…
However, this could just be negotiating posturing, and I really hope that it is. Boris is not a stupid man (he is lazy and disorganised, and likes to make things up as he goes along and pull a rabbit out of a hat at the eleventh hour, but he isn’t stupid). If his government does continue after a hard Brexit for its full expected life of five years (and that’s no guarantee, given that he proposes to repeal the Fixed Term Parliaments Act), we will have had four years of misery, during which any attempt to try to soften the blow by deficit spending will have petered out, faced with steadily declining tax receipts and an international community which will be reluctant to lend money. Against that background, he would stand approximately zero chance of another term, and the Conservative Party might be wiped out for a generation, no matter who was in charge of the Labour Party. It wouldn’t just be those votes in former Labour strongholds he admitted were “borrowed”, a wide swathe of continuencies in the South as well, and probably most of the rest of London would vote “ABC” (anything but Conservative).
Although I think the scenario painted in Prospect magazine this week is probably correct (particularly following the cabinet reshuffle in which most of the ministers appear to be sock puppets), I could envisage a possibility in which he turns round and agrees a regulatory alignment, zero tariff deal at the last possible minute (which the EU has always indicated they are willing to accept), and a substantial majority of the country heaves a huge sigh of relief and even regards him as a kind of saviour – and then, another election within about a year of that gives him another five year term. Even more so if, in the lead-up to that, he loudly sacks Dominic Cummings, who as his advisor has probably become the most hated figure in UK politics. Cummings could well be being set up as a scapegoat, and the manoeuvre might actually work…
Could he do that with his 80 majority? There are, after all, only around 20 members of the extreme Brexiteer ERG. Maybe not without some preparatory work – and that’s where I think the direction of the Rejoiners is perhaps being wasted (and yes, I think that continuing pointing out the failures of government policy is still an important thing, but possibly not the most important). That’s a big enough majority for the cracks to be showing within the Conservative Party, and we could all do our bit by barraging our Conservative MPs with pleas to avoid a hard Brexit. Politicians tend to notice those constituents who should the loudest and oftenest (I know, I used to be a politician at a local level!) Maybe, indeed, we could hope to arrive at the position (a historical difficulty for all prime ministers with a large majority, particularly Conservative ones) where infighting in his own party ends up removing him (and with him the threat of “hard Brexit”)? The weak point, if we are to do this, is the minds of Conservative MPs. Relatively small numbers of constituents in every Conservative held area could monopolise MP’s post bags and surgery time…
Let’s face it, however much they initially stood because they wanted to get something done, MPs are vulnerable to the lure of wanting to stay in office as long as possible. We can spend the next few months trying to persuade them that a hard Brexit would completely demolish their chances of doing that… and in the process help to create a Conservative Party which is divided against itself. We could hope for a massive back bench revolt which forces a soft Brexit; we could hope for a replacement of Boris and all his minions and a return of the Tories to a less hardline extreme right stance.
Yes, I grant that this is all based on hope, and there’s precious little evidence at the moment that that hope might be justified. The thing is, there’s a groundswell of people aching to do something, and railing against government actions and working within existing political parties to ensure a pro-Europe pro-PR stance pro-broad centre-left front (all are needed) is not going to use up all that energy. Here’s something which people can be doing (and no, I don’t think creating yet another political party is useful – viewing the debacle of Change UK, it would merely split the pro-EU vote even further).
And, let’s face it, even if it doesn’t work, it’ll make Conservative MPs uncomfortable!