The frivolity and boredom which unsettle the established
order, the vague foreboding of something unknown, these
are the heralds of approaching change.
Brexit is not an especially big decision. Compared to the kinds of changes that seem necessary in the not too distant future to avert climate catastrophe, the changes involved in withdrawing from the European Union are not enormous. And opinions about Brexit are not especially polarized. At the 2017 general election, the parties of unequivocal hard Brexit and unequivocal hard Remain (UKIP, Lib Dems, SNP) all slumped, attracting only one vote in eight between them—less than half their combined total in 2015. The Conservatives and Labour both surged, under the leadership in both cases of people who had been lukewarm Remain supporters during the 2016 referendum but had subsequently promised to accept the Leave result. Not everybody who voted either Labour or Conservative necessarily agreed with the parties’ positions on Brexit, of course; but their willingness to put Brexit aside and vote based on other issues is significant in itself.
Turning, however, from this prospect of near-consensus and readily attainable compromise to the actual Brexit debate as it has been playing out in the House of Commons and on the newspaper comment pages, we are perhaps surprised to notice clear signs of crisis. Less than ten weeks before the statutory exit date, there has been no decision about the terms on which Britain will leave. None even seems imminent. Longstanding constitutional principles around collective Cabinet responsibility and the relationship between Parliament and the executive have come under strain. Much of the running seems now to be being made by advocates of ‘hard’ solutions—leaving without a withdrawal agreement, rerunning the referendum—that gained only minimal traction in June 2017.
And yet, for all its maximalism, the debate is curiously dull and unfocused. Labour Party factions recite their different glosses on the wording of their famous composite resolution. Inordinate amounts of time are spent on the minutiae of ‘May’s deal’ (a time-limited transitional arrangement that does not even claim to define Britain’s future relationship with the EU). The reiterated complaints about potentially being ‘trapped in the Irish backstop’ verge on the nonsensical: whether or not a treaty contains explicit withdrawal provisions, a sovereign state can always abrogate it and simply cease to abide by its terms. It cannot necessarily do so without consequences; but there would be consequences under any circumstances. Away from Parliament, the leftist groups that mostly supported Leave now seem hesitant and uncertain; and UKIP, the self-proclaimed ‘party of Brexit’, has spent more of the past year exploring the outskirts of the far right with Stephen Yaxley-Lennon than having anything much to say about EU membership. And so the Brexit arguments rattle on, at once desultory and intransigent, never making any progress, in a prevailing atmosphere of frivolity and boredom.
But these peculiar features of the Brexit debate should not be wholly surprising. Because this really is a turning point and critical moment in British political life: but the question demanding an answer is much more fundamental than whether the country should end up half-in or half-out of the European Union. (Hardly anybody argues that it should be either fully in, like Germany or Greece, or fully out like Russia.) It concerns the basic direction of social and economic development that is to replace the Thatcher–Blair consensus shattered by the crisis of 2007–8. That consensus had its origins in another period of crisis, when post-1945 Keynesianism was breaking up and rival strategies from right and left were fighting to take its place. The theme of British politics between roughly 1975 and 1985 was the struggle between the ‘Thatcher option’, the ‘Benn option’, and the ‘SDP option’: a sharp turn right, a sharp turn left, or trying to keep the old consensus going. As we all know, the battle that time was won by the right. It was Thatcherism, not Bennism, that defined the new mainstream; and the terms of the Thatcherian consensus were eventually accepted (with enthusiasm) by the Labour leadership and by all but a marginalized continuity-Bennite fringe of the parliamentary party.
That consensus itself now faces formidable challenges—not just in Britain, but in most Western countries. The moderate, ‘third way’ centre-left has often been hit the hardest (see recent elections in Greece, France, Germany, and the Netherlands): there is no longer any real niche for parties that exist only to offer a slightly more humane twist on an unquestioned monetarist orthodoxy. Parties of the radical right have made considerable gains. Rightists now hold power (alone or in coalition) in countries including the USA, Brazil, Italy, Poland, Hungary, and Austria. But left parties have also made advances, and are participating in governing coalitions in Portugal and Iceland; and in Germany the major beneficiaries so far seem to have been the Greens.
The extraordinary revival of the Labour left since 2015 means that in Britain, unlike many other countries, the most vehement and popular challenge to the existing consensus is coming from the left rather than from the nationalist right. But the right exists here too, and rightist figures like Steve Bannon and Geert Wilders have put some effort into fostering its growth. (One oddity of the current situation is that the radical right tends to be better at organizing internationally than the radical left.) Thus, all three possibilities—radical turn to the left; radical turn to the Trump–Orbán–Salvini right; trying to continue with the status quo—remain open. And the essential content of British politics right now is precisely the struggle between them.
These three possibilities do not map in any uncomplicated way onto the Brexit debate. None of them is entirely incompatible either with leaving the EU or with remaining in it; and the degree of compatibility depends in each case on how the EU itself develops, which will be largely determined by the struggle between left, centre, and right in its member states (e.g. France). The Brexit debate is thus not an acceptable proxy for the more general question. But, as long as Brexit is at the centre of attention, the wider struggle about the way forward is to a very great extent neutralized. And the radical left is neutralized in particular. The right and centre have had some limited success in associating their programmes with Leave and Remain respectively; the left has no ownership of either, and its attempts to propose distinctively left-wing versions (‘Lexit’, ‘Remain and Reform’) have not achieved wide resonance. Labour left-wingers who can speak passionately on poverty, rampant inequality, casualization, underemployment, deteriorating infrastructure, ecological degradation, and perpetual war often seem blurry and triangulating when they address Brexit. When they do adopt any definite stance, they risk appearing as cheerleaders either for the radical right wing of the Leave side or for the Blairite recidivists grouped around continuity Remain. The perspective of radical, fundamental social change is obscured almost to the point of invisibility.
The Brexit debate thus has the great advantage, for defenders of the status quo, that it effectively paralyses the underlying debate about the general way forward. But at the same time it is paralysed by it. Brexit need not in itself be a terribly difficult question: it only comes to seem insoluble because the stakes are so much higher than Brexit itself. Continuity Remain is supercharged by the Pasokifying wing of the Labour Party as a factional weapon against the possibility of a Corbyn government. Theresa May is held hostage by the relatively small number of Rees-Moggite ultras on her own back benches, unable to put forward a ‘soft Brexit’ that might command a Commons majority for fear of splitting the Conservative Party and handing power to the left. And the radical right—among the Conservatives and also in UKIP—have no incentive to stop pushing for the very hardest Brexit imaginable, even in the knowledge that they risk ending up with no Brexit at all: leaving the European Union would undoubtedly be nice, but a juicy betrayal narrative might well serve them better in the real political battles that are to come. And so the Brexit debate continues to get nowhere. It is not, in reality, a debate at all: only the vague foreboding of more important debates and struggles that probably cannot be put off forever.
Saturday, 19 January 2019