The approaches of the two main parties to Brexit are limp. Here are ideas how each could go about their jobs better. I’m not sure any of them is truly desirable, but as we know, I did not want the country to vote for Brexit. However, these approaches at least seem to be consistent and constructive.
- The Blair resistance
There is nothing wrong with calling for a movement to stop Brexit if you think it is a bad idea, or if you think the end result will be bad for the country. This is not “antidemocratic”. Governments and parties change their minds on issues all the time, and this is one of the most important issues, and the most complicated process, since the last world war.
It is shockingly ignorant and displays terrible leadership if you promise to barrel on with a policy which, in the face of new information, looks decidedly bad for the country. Most voters and most leave supporters obviously will not be of that opinion now, but by 2019 they may well be. It is a cowardly rhetorical trick to limit their options and those of the government to deny that there is any merit in keeping the door open for a delay or a reversal. Just as leavers correctly criticised some extreme EU federalists for prescribing “more Europe” as the answer to any conceivable future malady, so Brexiteers should be lambasted for maintaining a belief that any version of Brexit is the only acceptable endpoint.
If it will not fight for its own distinct version of what Brexit should look like (below) then I would much rather Labour unite behind a simple anti-Brexit message. The average voter has no idea what the party’s position on the EU is, because it is far too itty-bitty, point-by-point, and riven with internal contradictions and disagreements. Of course presenting the party as anti-Brexit will look bad in the short term as Labour-voting Brexit supporters feel betrayed, but the party’s electoral prospects can hardly be worse. Positioning the party in this way would allow them to take advantage of the chaos and ill feeling we may well see by 2019. In any case, many voters already think Labour opposes Brexit due to its referendum stance and recent silence.
On the question of Blair himself: I would much rather the man was nowhere near this policy or our television screens. It seems that he himself knows his presence is toxic, which is why he waited so long to make any intervention, but in the absence of another prominent left-winger acting as a figurehead for the position, I don’t mind him. It would be nice if Gordon Brown led it instead, if the Labour leadership refuses to.
This tactic probably will not stop Brexit happening, but would build a foundation for later efforts to soften whatever form Brexit takes.
Side note: Leavers who say that if we’d voted Remain, it would be completely impossible to call for another Ref in a few years’ time, are talking crap. Look at Scotland. Look at what Farage and Vote Leave said on the night of the Referendum when they thought they’d lost.
- Worker’s Brexit
If the Labour Party is not going to fight against Brexit happening, then it should create a simple vision for a post Brexit Britain which is distinct from that of the Conservative party but desirable to large sections of the country. This will allow them to attack the way Theresa May pursues her higgledy-piggledy vaguely pro corporation blueprint, while showing that they are listening to the result of the referendum. Key planks of such a campaign would include:
> a close trading arrangement with the EU which preserves jobs that currently depend on the single market;
> agreement with the EU on mutual healthcare, police cooperation, respect for workers rights, consumer protection;
> using free trade agreements to spread UK standards on labour protection, high quality products, human rights*, environmental progress;
> explicitly reject trade deals which compromise food, chemical and pharmaceutical standards;
using whatever savings eventually result from ending EU budget contributions to pivot from ailing industries suffering from globalisation towards new growth areas** (while fighting unfair aspects of globalisation, such as Chinese steel dumping, which the Conservatives positively encouraged);
> promising a savage fight against cutthroat exploitation practices which permit the worst aspects of immigration (real or imagined) with muscular resources devoted to fighting those paying below minimum wage, gang leaders tracking in nonunionised Eastern Europeans unaware of their rights and working them illegal hours and housing them illegal sweatshop conditions
Such a vision would help craft Brexit and help bring Labour around to a recognisable attitude to the most pressing issue of the decade. Have every MP repeat ‘Workers’ Brexit’ on TV at every opportunity, so much that ‘Long term economic plan’ fades from memory.
One of the biggest disappointments with the government’s approach to Brexit thus far is its tone. While it is in many ways refreshing that Theresa May refrains from constant media appearances and briefings, it also means that her ministers and MPs are left to run wild and blast out radically different mood music from one another. Some talk about “constructive relations” with Europe, while others tiptoe the line between patriotic pride and offensive jingoism with the subtlety and deliberation of an inebriated hippopotamus.
- Dr Strange Love Bomb
Respected centre-right commentators, notably Andrew Lilico and Tim Montgomery, are vocal advocates for the “love bomb” approach. (Lilico also has a whole CANZAKUK Brexit idea with many good points.) In many ways I feel that that ship has already sailed, given the comments of various Tory MPs, the tone of the referendum debates, and the gnawing presence of Ukip.
However there is still great value in trying to revive a spirit of diplomatic friendship. We should be praising all of the aspects of Europe that we do like, and that we do want to keep, and in general sending the 27 EU leaders the message “it’s not you, it’s us”. (As a negotiation tactic even Brexiteers who actually do believe “it’s not me, it’s you” should see the value in this.) Say we are leaving because we want to keep our traditions of democracy et cetera, but that we still want to work with them on a whole host of issues – not just NATO, but university swaps, arts and humanities promotion, friendly sporting events, a general sense of continental fellowship.
We do not need to make any policy promises on this, and certainly do not need to follow through on them. It would simply be nice to at least begin the article 50 process on a collegiate note, given the distinct danger of it all breaking down later. One of the major issues delaying and upsetting negotiations between the Greek government and the Eurozone was tone, and when the Greek government altered its tone and some key personnel, the crisis was diverted relatively quickly.***
- Balls Out Brexit
If Theresa May does not have the authority or control mechanisms to carry off the kind of message discipline above, which may well be the case, then the writer and journalist Ben Judah raises an interesting but opposite approach. Rather than going for a mutually beneficial Brexit and essentially becoming hostages to 27 countries and one institution each looking out for their own interests (and beholden to their own electorates), we could try to get a good Brexit deal by being absolute bastards.
I cannot remember whether Ben coined a moniker for his version of Brexit so I will call it “balls out Brexit”. He suggested we negotiate along the lines so well tested by Charles de Gaulle in decades gone by: refuse to trigger article 50, refuse to abide by most of the EU’s laws and mechanisms, make the whole edifice grind to a halt until market and political pressure forces the larger EU countries to get together and offer us a perfect deal. We would have to be obstinate as hell. Stop paying into any EU projects or budgets, start impeding or taxing EU imports on the border, really make it clear that we are willing to follow through on the most catastrophic reading of “Brexit means Brexit” if we are not offered a tastier option.
I’m not sure exactly what the perfect deal would look like in Theresa May’s mind, probably something that included the single market in goods, services, and capital, but not in the free movement of people and without European Court supervision, and with continuing UK input into writing product regulation. But being subject to less product regulation. It would take nerves of steel and again, would require Theresa May to have galvanised her party behind her, probably with the support of Labour’s few Brexit champions too.
It would not be nice, it would not be pretty, and it would almost certainly mean a short-term hit to the UK economy – but if we are not even going to try to get a deal along the lines of Norway or Switzerland, then this seems a valid way to push for a free trade agreement with bells on.
- Lock, stock and awe (Works with 1 and 2)
It has been commented on a fair amount since the referendum result, that Britain does not have the negotiating capacity to simultaneously handle: exit negotiations with the EU, renegotiations of trade agreements with over 50 countries, putting British representatives on all of the standards and diplomatic bodies where the EU used to represent us, extra diplomats for Ireland, Gibraltar and other obvious flashpoints. Indeed I made this point in my 2015 book on the lessons leave supporters should learn from the Swiss experience of free trade negotiation – we do not have anything like enough capacity. Leaked stories that the Department for exiting the EU is struggling to gain enough skilled staff prove this point.
But we should not be aiming for “enough”. In July and August Theresa May should have very openly and deliberately sought to hire the most experienced diplomats and ex-diplomats of similar countries with experience of representing themselves on the international trade stage: we should hoover up experts from Canada, Australia, Korea, New Zealand, Japan, South Africa, anywhere else that offers them. And we should make a big thing of these hires. We should be showing the world that we will be going into talks fully tooled up and ready, rather than our current display which resembles the diplomatic equivalent of a late-night essay crisis, or a village cricket team deploying children from the next hamlet and the postman. We would not need to boast that we had a crack team, merely show that we appreciated the magnitude of the task before us and had equipped and supported the existing diplomatic corps with the requisite heft.
Leaders of all parties should be striving to agree with European leaders that the rights of EU nationals living in other EU countries will be respected along the same lines as they are now. I can see why neither side wants to agree this first, but it would be a display of goodwill and positive intent if all sides agree that this issue should not form part of the main Brexit negotiations and that the millions of Europeans living in Britain, and the millions of Britons living abroad, will be protected. It is a weeping shame that this has not already occurred, especially given that both leave campaigns agreed this should be the case during the referendum fight.
* For example, we could be the first Western country to offer a comprehensive free trade deal to Iran, but as well as offering access to our markets, we would say the deal had to include basic provisions of labour fairness, gender equality and so on to be written in by their government.
** A more exciting expansion of this would be for Labour’s general economic position to revive the spirit of Harold Wilson and promised the regions outside London investment and support for cutting-edge high-end manufacturing. This would form the main plank of a campaign to create high skilled meaningful jobs in the UK, using generous government research and development grants and special enterprise zones to encourage businesses to take advantage of our educated workforce, top class universities, and already well-strained, experienced manual workers.
*** This is not to say that I think the original Greek aims or demands were wrong: I think they were entirely appropriate and it is a shame both the Greece, for the Eurozone, and for the global economy, that SYRIZA/ Varoufakis did not get some kind of a deal. But that is an entirely different blog.