Brexit changes everything. With a bang, the opportunity has presented itself for the formation in Britain of a new political party of the centre-left and for that party to take hold. Now is the moment to grasp the opportunity. It will not come again.
The outcome of the referendum has been described, not without justification, as a political revolution. The immediate effect was a collapse of political order, with parties in turmoil and no one in control or authority. The leaders in the campaign have departed the scene en masse.
The Conservative Party is regaining its footing. The Labour Party is however going into destruction, Brexit having become the catalyst for the centre wing to try to wrench back control from the left wing, something they are unlikely to achieve or can only achieve at suicidal cost. The Scottish nationalists are likely to again press for independence. The two-party system, long wobbly, has now collapsed.
The referendum has brought to the surface two deep political defects. First, in Britain we are NOT all in it together and not all in the same boat. Britain is a deeply divided society, by class, standard of living, race and ethnicity and by geography and region. Huge divisions have burst into the open and need healing, divisions that the outgoing political order has glossed over but that must now be tackled.
Second, Britain does not have a safe system of political decision-making. The referendum, the way it was called, framed and fought, was a colossal political mistake. By coincidence, the week after the vote, the Chilcot report explained the systemic defects that enabled the previous colossal mistake of the Iraq war. The broken system of decision-making is that of the outgoing political order. This again can no longer be glossed over but needs to be repaired.
The response to these breakdowns and upheavals should be a new political party of a broad progressive coalition. We now need and can have a party grounded on a platform of economic equality, the building of bridges over Britain’s many divisions, environmental protection, responsible capitalism, national unity, internationalism, and constitutional reform.
There needs to be opposition to the Conservatives’ dominance to avoid hegemony. There needs to be a modern political alternative. There needs to be an effective force for social justice, for environmentalism, for internationalism and for a more workable political system.
Labour can provide none of this, as it provided no effective force in the referendum campaign. Partly it will remain preoccupied with its own civil war. But more basically, the Labour Party has historically had its time. Its internal turmoil is the symptom of its deeper demise. It has been a great force in British life but is now destined to be a small third party. A new centre-left coalition should take its place, as Labour itself once displaced the Liberals. That is only the march of history and should be welcomed.
EARTHQUAKE. We are coming to realise the enormity of the decision. Deciding to join the EU or not is one thing, leaving is something totally different.
British life – economic, political, social, cultural, scientific, and more – has become arranged around the fact of EU partnership. It all has to be disentangled: an enormous task. Out of it will come a different Britain, diminished nationally and in the world.
The decision to hold a referendum unleashed the ugliest imaginable campaign. Nothing in this campaign was FOR anything, it was all AGAINST. There was no leadership, no ideas for deliberation, not a single memorable speech. It was a campaign of fear, fear of the modern world, fear of commitment, fear of those who are different. Even the remain side did not have a kind word to say about the European project, or about anything else. The referendum was a spur-of-the moment decision by the prime minister, the people had not asked for it, and as things unfolded we were let down by a dysfunctional political system and an incompetent political leadership.
It is now dawning on us how ugly this was and is. The economy is in disarray. Britain – steady, sensible, tolerant Britain – made itself the one country in the west where the ugly political undercurrent which is now flowing through the democratic world has been allowed to prevail.
For my part, my sentiment is not just embarrassment, but shame. That we should choose to turn our back on modernity. That we should make racism and xenophobia respectable. That we should make ourselves wreckers in Europe. That we should make ourselves quitters. That we should speak of others in Europe in us-and-they terms as if they were enemies. That we should choose the coward’s way of turning on the EU in its moment of need and difficulty and seek out the weak spots where the boot could be put in.
RESPONSIBILITY. We have to move on from where we are, but let it not be forgotten, not now or ever, how we got here. The responsibility for the Brexit calamity lies fully and undividedly with Mr. David Cameron personally. He is the prime minister whose legacy is a divided and diminished society and a reduced standing of the United Kingdom in the world. He is the prime minister who has caused damage not only to his own country – and we do not know how far the fallout will reach, the union is again in danger of breaking up – but also to the cause of European cohabitation. Britain is a big power in Europe. With power comes responsibility. In calling the referendum and waging the campaign in narrow terms of self-interest, he abandoned that responsibility.
The referendum should never have been called. There was no issue in the EU to be decided on. There was no prospect for a different deal for Britain in the EU. There was no prospect for settling the European question in the Conservative party. Even a remain majority in the referendum would have been a calamity since it would have emboldened the voice of leave.
Prime ministers must take risks, but to initiate a gamble in which there is nothing to win and everything to lose is madness. This gamble, with no analysis of consequences and no plan, was a colossal mistake. It was a mistake strategically, as we are now seeing. It was a mistake morally and politically since it invited the ugliness of the campaign that we have seen.
I am entitled to shout this from the mountaintop since I have been asking since the referendum was called: Why are we having this referendum? How are political decisions made in this country?
NO MORE REFERENDA. It is to be hoped that we draw the learning from this experience that referenda are a bad way of making big political decisions.
Britain is a parliamentary democracy in which the people elect a Parliament to govern in their place. When Parliament is elected and constituted, Parliament is the people and when Parliament makes decisions it is the people that decide. There is no place in British constitutional tradition for referenda. The introduction of this mechanism is one of the many ways in which the British constitution has in recent years been reduced.
There is without doubt a majority in the British people for continued membership in the EU. But because of voting patterns, this majority was not reflected in the referendum. The young are pro-EU, but did not participate in the vote. They are to be blamed for that and now they are getting what they deserve, but nevertheless the referendum does not reflect the will of the people.
If Parliament had not abdicated its constitutional responsibility by accepting a referendum to be called, Britain would not be leaving the EU and would have maintained an EU-policy in correspondence with the will of the people. We all, and Parliament in particular, should draw the conclusion that Parliament has the duty to accept its constitutional responsibility, and that it is in our interest, the interest of the people, that Parliament does not shirk away from its duty to govern over us and make important decisions for us.
THE WINNERS. The referendum was won by no single group but by an unholy coalition. The partners in this coalition were
- the old euro-sceptics, many of whom are from within the mainstream establishment,
- the disenchanted and angry marginal working class in the industrial heartlands who have been left stranded in the last decades of turbo-capitalism and neo-liberal political economy,
- sundry xenophobes and racists who were allowed out of the closet.
The great strategic mistake in calling the referendum was to give these groups a platform on which they could join forces. The responsibility for that mistake lies, again, with Mr. Cameron personally.
Euro-scepticism is an honourable position. The marginal working class has every reason to be disenchanted and angry. But what was dishonourable and unforgivable, on the part of establishment euro-sceptics in particular, was to accept the coalition with xenophobes and racists. The result was an ugly concentration, as the referendum drew near, on immigration and fear of those who are different. The referendum was not won by the racists but it was won by others allowing the racists respectability.
THE LOSERS. Many young people have recently made it a habit of complaining that there is no point in voting because it is all the same. Well, we now know that it is not all the same. If young people had participated in the referendum to the same degree that older people did, there would have been a majority for remain.
But they did not, and the result of the referendum is as it is. If you do not vote, you leave it to those who do to decide. You then have no cause for complaint. The law of the democratic jungle is that those who do not vote do not count.
The young left it to the old to decide on their future. One of the many tragedies in this calamity. The young of today have grown up in a Europe of cohabitation. They wish to continue that cohabitation. They have now allowed others to deny them the future they have wished for. Brits will now be the children outside the playground looking in.
Let there be no more moaning about the futility of voting. Let young people draw the lesson that the way forward in a democracy is to do your part and cast your vote. You can participate in various other ways too – manifestations, protests, single issue campaigning – fine, but come election time go and cast your vote.
BREXIT – SIXTH POST
WHAT NOW WITH THE EU? There is a view that in Britain’s parliamentary democracy, Parliament is supreme and the referendum only advisory, and that Parliament can now decide to follow the advice of the referendum or not.
But this, although formally correct, is not politically tenable. Parliament is the people’s servant and it was Parliament that decided to put the matter to a vote of the people. Parliament must then accept the verdict it has asked for. That is all the more the case since there was next to no opposition in Parliament to calling the referendum. Nor was there much voice to be heard from either within or outside of Parliament during the campaign that the referendum was without legitimacy. Unless there are dramatically new circumstances, Parliament has no choice but to follow up on what it itself has set in motion.
However, we need to be clear about what was decided and what not. The referendum was about membership in the EU, and nothing else. That was the only question on the ballot paper. It was not about the terms of Britain’s collaboration with the EU as a non-member. It has been suggested, for example, that given the leave verdict, Britain cannot have a non-membership deal with the EU that includes free movement of persons.
But that is false. The only question answered in the referendum was yes or no to membership. All kinds of arguments were used in the campaign, but the referendum was not on any of those arguments. Immigration was a core issue but only one of many, and the referendum settled nothing on any other question than membership. On all questions on the terms of non-membership relations with the EU, it is for Parliament to decide and there is nothing in the referendum that binds Parliament in these matters. Parliament has not abdicated its responsibility on any other question that the straight one of membership.
We do not know what kind of deal the EU might offer Britain, but the referendum does not bind Parliament in what Britain might seek and obtain from the European Union.