Brexit Does Not Represent Change. It is What is Stopping Change
Politics is full of ironies.
When Theresa May presented her plan for EU citizens’ rights post-Brexit, the EU treated the Prime Minister as a wayward child: “Must try harder. It is ironic that a process that was about taking back control has exposed the feeble nature of our power. Equally when David Davis negotiates in Brussels it is clear where the power lies.
The Brexit mythology is being exposed. Taking back control is merely the first. Even if Britain leaves the Single Market, some form of rules-based trade agreement will be needed and that agreement be one less favourable than the present one. It will also be one negotiated by one government against 27.
Far from bringing about a radical change, it is Brexit that is stopping - and will stop - any change in politics. Its sheer complexity will consume any government for years meaning all other business will come a distant second.
It is not insulting to say, that while only EU membership was on the ballot last year, there was a lot more than that in voters’ minds. Brexit was a cry for change. It is a cry that will remain unanswered.
The irony becomes greater when one realises that politicians were fumbling towards a new political settlement before Brexit. As any teenager knows, a fumble does not mean success but it is an important stage in getting further.
the 2017 election was a one-sided debate led by Labour not the Tories
David Cameron’s slogan “There is such a thing as society, it is just not the same as the state” was a recognition that the extremes of Thatcherite individualism were over. Consumed by reducing the deficit and haunted by his inability to win a majority in 2010, he failed to turn what became “the Big Society” into a policy agenda. The referendum cut short any future attempts.
The great mistake by Labour in opposition was not to take Cameronism seriously: had they done so they might have devised an agenda that could have won in 2015. However, when Ed Miliband spoke about a One Nation Labour party or "predators versus producers", he was trying to forge a post-crash politics. Like Cameron, he was unable to follow it through.
Theresa May is now a busted flush in terms of authority, but for twelve months she reigned supreme. While it was a box office failure, her manifesto was surprisingly radical, with elements that would not look out of place in a Labour manifesto.
May’s deficiency was as much internal as external. It took Thatcher four years of opposition and two terms of government before she began to shape the country in her image. Had May not been distracted by Brexit, she might have better prepared the intellectual ground for her programme. As it was, the 2017 election was a one-sided debate led by Labour not the Tories.
What links May, Cameron and Miliband is that they were each grappling with the new dominant issue - the power of capital. Brexit was as much about elites and unaccountable power as it was about immigration and trade. Politics has become about them and us. Whether their solutions were right or wrong, they were trying to, if you like, take back control. They were fumbling towards a post-Thatcher politics.
In the 1970s, political leaders grappled with a cumbersome state in the face of tides of globalism. The surface issue was trade union power which Labour tried to reform in 1968 with In Place of Strife. That failure was followed by the failure of Edward Heath’s Selsdon Man and then Harold Wilson’s “social contract”.
Labour’s failing then led to Thatcherism. Its pretense that it did not have to respond to globalism was what kept it out of office for eighteen years. Its failure now is greater. If taken to its logical conclusion, in Corbynism there is little counterbalance to the state. It is to deny that there was a problem that led to Thatcherism. Its solutions are pre-Thatcher, not post-Thatcher.
Brexit is humiliating Britain not because of a weak government, but because it is a fundamentally unsound idea
Yet the deceit is greater - and one that Labour shares with the government. Brexit-related legislation will take up three-quarters of government business. It is absurd to suggest that any government can deliver Brexit, while also bringing back public utilities into the State’s control. To pretend that a Brexit that means leaving the Single Market can be a job-first Brexit is as dishonest as pretending that Labour policy is not a Hard Brexit that will lead to more austerity, depriving the NHS and schools of funds, and making infrastructure spending impossible.
The great shame is that the cavalier disregard for reality shown by Vote Leave was adopted by Theresa May and the government. The unsurprising tragedy is that it was also adopted by Jeremy Corbyn.
Both sides are pretending Britain can have its cake and eat it. They are being deceitful in pretending that Brexit will be anything but a messy waste of time that will prevent any form of political change. Brexit is humiliating Britain not because of a weak government, but because it is a fundamentally unsound idea. Unfortunately, it may have to play out until voters and politicians face up to that fact. If that is the case, Britain will be a nation diminished
It is not a danger that our politicians will fail in the same manner as their 1970s predecessors, it has already happened. Brexit is now making it worse. Its dominance in the political discourse is preventing leaders from doing the kind of grinding positioning and policy groundwork that Thatcher and Blair did in opposition to update their party’s thinking.
So here is the final irony: it is the only status quo that offers the best chance of change.
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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