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How We Need to Move On from Brexit

If the Leavers profited on anti-political feeling, the only possible solution is to find some way of remaking politics – which is no small task.

by James Butler
27 June 2016, 12:41pm

Anti-Brexit protesters demonstrate outside Downing Street (Photo: Isabel Infantes / PA Wire/Press Association Images)

It happened. Much of Britain wishes it hadn't, and as the despairing hangover begins to recede, we will need to figure out what to do about it.

There are three certainties about Brexit:

One – that it is the biggest political crisis in Britain in 60 years.

Two – that the changes it could force in the makeup of the British state and political system will be huge.

Three – it highlights how utterly dysfunctional our current politics is, how divided and broken the country is. Meanwhile, Europe – the scapegoat for so many – is now gone.

Think of the Brexiteer politician who told Sky News that no, actually, there was nothing behind the curtain – that "there is no plan". Think of Nigel Farage basking in his 4AM victory, declaring "we won it without a bullet being fired" just ten days after a centre-left MP was shot. Think of David Cameron jacking it all in, abandoning his post after losing the referendum he called to protect his own career. We are entering turbulent times, with nobody at the wheel.

Though there have been desperate moves among some Remainers to find a way to nullify the referendum – to hold a second one, or just ignore it, or hope that the Scottish parliament will block it using some obscure constitutional wizardry – this would be a mistake. It would give the hard right a foundation myth of staggering power: the democratic will of the people overridden by a decadent cosmopolitan elite, who need purging from public life. It certainly beats burning down the Reichstag.

Beyond being a gift to the very frothiest of racists, though, to press for a second referendum ignores one of the key dynamics of the campaign: an anti-elitist sentiment capitalised on by the Leavers. The bedrock of this was a sense that those in power do not listen and will bludgeon the electorate until they get their own way. It is true that referendums on the EU have been re-run before, in Ireland and Denmark, or ignored, as in France or Greece. But that comes with a cost: it undermines any claim the EU might try to make about its often rather tenuous democracy, and confirms every suspicion "no" voters have about distant technocrats and sham consultations. No: the vote is done. We must work with things as they are.

How are they, then? Not good.

The immediate economic impacts are obvious: the pound fell off a cliff, a sudden decline in foreign direct investment, international restructuring to move jobs elsewhere. It's hard to weep for a JP Morgan executive, but we're not just talking bankers: Britain's service-heavy economy makes it heavily exposed outside the EU, and there's little hope in concluding a simple deal on trade in services at any speed. In the medium term, another recession seems likely, as well as a "Brexit budget" to institute austerity of a kind undreamt of by the old coalition.

READ: We Went to the Most Eurosceptic Place in the UK to See How People Are Celebrating

The political ramifications are even less cheery. The Tories are in disarray, and it looks probable that Boris Johnson – a man who conspired to beat up a journalist, and was fired from the Times and a front bench position for lying – will ride an even bigger lie into Number 10.

The Parliamentary Labour Party, seeing an opportunity with the Tories divided, has decided to gather itself into a circular firing squad. Corbyn, the only major politician to have refused to pander to xenophobia during the campaign, faces an attempted coup by MPs who have failed to learn that trying to ape racists only strengthens racists, and makes you look either cynical or clueless. You'd think that a party that printed up mugs emblazoned with promises to reduce immigration, before losing a general election anyway, might have learned this.

If the state of parliamentary politics makes you despair, the widely reported rise in casual street racism and spike in racist attacks, sanctioned by a feverish Brexit atmosphere, might well make you fear. The effects of a vote aren't just in parliament, but in the fabric of our daily lives, too.

The implications of Brexit are staggering for the workings of government, too. It seems likely that Whitehall will for years be caught up in extricating British law from EU law. Having shrunk by a fifth and with many departmental budgets slashed, it's almost certain that it will take up most of the civil service's attention. So extensive is the amount of regulation needing review and reform, and so constrained the timescale in which it will need doing, it's easy to imagine that the government will essentially be handed a rubber stamp for its chosen direction. It is certainly possible that Scotland will leave the UK – a possibility only hamstrung by the likelihood the EU would expect it to adopt the Euro, and the disinclination of Spain to make it easy for a small secessionist state to prosper. It also seems likely that political turbulence in Ireland will increase. And in the face of all this: there is no plan.

Early intimations from the Leave camp are that they hope to negotiate membership of the European Economic Area (the market part of the EU) – the "Norway" model – but with restrictions on freedom of movement and freedom to pick and choose from European law. This will not happen. Free movement and acceptance of EU regulations are preconditions of EEA membership.

If EEA membership does happen, it will exacerbate political tension. It would mean keeping freedom of movement, which would see the anti-migrant voters crying betrayal. Traditional party votes in the Brexit heartlands would collapse and new UKIP MPs would get elected. It would also probably signal the end of the Labour Party as it currently exists. This is comparatively benign; its more malignant expressions are much darker.

This is the culmination of a longer story. For 30 years, media and politicians have scapegoated both Europe and migrants as catch-all explanations for why people's lives are blighted and hopeless. We've had reliance on a boom led by the South East, very limited redistribution elsewhere and no substantial fix to the gutted industrial landscape. That – and the ever-growing distance between the political class and the electorate – has led to an explosive situation without clear resolution.

In the referendum campaign, the Leavers filled that gap with the kind of lies that are seductive because they promise a very simple world, with very simple fixes. Everyone else is just out for themselves – for instance, the "experts" Gove derided for supposedly pulling the wool over people's eyes. Certainly, some experts are easy to hate, but when those lies unravel, as they very quickly have done, they will leave an even wider and more bitter gap. That is why Boris Johnson is not a clown, or a jester, or light relief: Boris Johnson is a cancer in public life.

No immediate political solution seems obvious. Any plan relying on a general election will have to overcome the new Fixed-term Parliaments Act and then actually win the contest. Both are mammoth tasks, and Labour's coffers are depleted.

It is certainly necessary for anyone who wants to resist the rightward drift on migration to defend Corbyn's leadership: he has acted as the only bulwark against migrant-bashing in Parliament. Movements outside Westminster in solidarity with migrants will require more active involvement from those disturbed by the racist drift of our politics. But that is fire-fighting – necessary to prevent total ruin of our house, but not enough to rebuild it.

Despite the chaos, we must also think in wider terms. The larger task is to survey the changing geography of British politics and look squarely at the failure of the left in this country. Not only the failure to defend the economic fabric of our common life – secure pay, good housing, accessible education – but its political expression.

If the Leavers have profited on anti-political feeling, the only possible solution is to find some way of remaking politics so that the spectres of fear and insecurity, and disdain for a distant political class, no longer animate so much of the electorate. That requires us to remake our democracy as well. It is a gargantuan task, but it may well be the only thing that can defang the vipers now at the heart of our politics.

@piercepenniless

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