Tag Archives: brexit

Revoke or Referendum?

I’ve been fascinated by the response to the new Lib Dem position to fight the next election on a platform of revoking Article 50 and doing so if (and at the moment, it’s a big if) they win an outright majority. Polly Toynbee has denounced it as “extremist” with Emily Thornberry deciding to up the ante by comparing the party to the Taliban (I don’t know where I stand with regard making jokes about this reaction, possibly because I haven’t come up with any good ones, but I think Rajin Chowdhury makes some strong points about the unfortunate racial dimension that, as a white man, I’m privileged to not be impacted by).

Even Caroline Lucas has got in on the act, describing the policy as “arrogant, self-indulgent, cynical and very dangerous” – her point being that the policy is likely to ignite divisions rather than heal them.

There’s a few things to unpack here. Basically, there are three questions: is the policy undemocratic?; is the policy divisive?; and, is the policy likely to be a vote winner?

In terms of the latter, I’ve heard a lot of people express the worry that it isn’t – including, funnily enough, some of the six million people who signed a petition a few months ago demanding article 50 be revoked without a referendum (indeed, I don’t recall Lucas, Thornberry or Toynbee denouncing that petition). All I can say to that, aside from that time will tell, is that I would imagine the Lib Dem leadership team did their research very seriously before committing to this position and that, thus far, the polls have borne that out.

Is it undemocratic? Well, this is an interesting one. I’m still trying to keep up, as a constitutional reformer, with the situation that all my opponents have switched from saying that parliamentary sovereignty should and does trump everything else to seeing them consistently argue the exact opposite, including by people who for decades argued to leave the EU on precisely these terms. Before the crazy started, a party pledging to keep the nation’s status quo constitutional arrangements after winning a democratic mandate in a general election wouldn’t be considered noteworthy, let alone undemocratic or extremist.

Of course, you can argue that if the Lib Dems were to do this it is still unlikely they would win more than 50% of the popular vote. This is of course true. Nor was there a majority in the popular vote to impose austerity in 2010. Nor was there a majority voting for a whole host of policies which have had a major impact on our lives since time immemorial. This is a problem the Lib Dems have always recognised and pledged to do something about; neither Labour nor the Conservatives have ever made any such commitment.

There is also the argument that a general election result cannot trump the specific mandate of the 2016 election. This is where things start to slide into the third question, which is largely about politics. But I would point out at this stage that not only does that referendum result have no legal status whatsoever, but also that any democratic regime in the world which has referendums as a central mechanism for making major decisions, particularly Switzerland, would likely have stricken that result down as unconstitutional a long time ago.

If you think referendums should form a part of decision-making, then it is incumbent on you to prevent them from being quite so open to abuse as they currently are. The UK is very, very bad at holding referendums: we don’t have a legal framework to do so other than one that was sketched out in 2000 to deal with, at the time, a series of abandoned referendums for regional assemblies. We haven’t significantly updated referendum law since them, despite the debacle of the 2010 AV referendum providing us with a very salutary warning as to what might happen in a higher stakes national ballot.

It is perhaps Cameron’s greatest failing, having decided to hold that cursed referendum in 2016, to imagine that the unfair practices done in his name in 2010 would be done against him in 2016 – despite knowing that a number of the same people were involved in both campaigns. Not only did he not take that into account, but he doubled down, unjustly excluding 16 and 17 year olds and even EU citizens from the debate, for no reason other than to hand the leave campaign an unfair advantage by excluding the people with some of the greatest stakes in the result from being able to take part.

In short, if you are going to make this claim that the 2016 result should be binding, you need to at least be able to make the case that it was held democratically. In that regard, I fear, you would be on a very sticky wicket.

Finally, as in all things, we are left with the argument that this policy is divisive, and that we should be healing divisions between remainers and leavers, not deepen them. And this argument certainly has some superficial merit: the country is indeed deeply divided.

I guess my counter to that is that I’m not at all convinced that a compromise exists that can heal those divisions, and that the best approach would be to adopt the position that will at least end this ongoing festering wound. Revoking article 50, for all its risks, would at least give British politics a chance to breathe, and to start a dialogue about something, anything, other than Brexit – a great many of which would help heal those rifts. Keeping the debate going by contrast will only ensure those divisions continue.

From where we are now, I can’t see a compromise that will keep most people relatively happy. There certainly was a window of opportunity. In the summer of 2016, like a lot of people, I worked on the assumption that we were going to end up with the softest of soft Brexits and that, by 2019, would effectively have a trading arrangement akin to Norway. The result was close enough that no-one could reasonably argue that there was a strong mandate for a “hard” Brexit in which the UK went it entirely alone. Better yet, from monitoring the debate, both Vote Leave and Leave.EU had consistently argued that claims that we would drop out of the EU without a deal were “Project Fear” and specifically cited Norway as a model example.

To be clear, it wasn’t an option that I exactly relished: the Norway model is essentially the Leave position made manifest. We’d have to pay billions to the EU and have very little say in return – certainly no more votes in the European Parliament or Council of Ministers. But hey, there was a mandate, and I guess we have to listen to the will of the people. What’s more, only a few absolute headbangers were calling for a harder Brexit and surely Theresa May wasn’t going to listen to them?

How wrong I was. The subsequent conduct of the May administration appeared to work on the basis that the referendum had been a thumping victory for leave and not the narrow one that it was in reality. And as they did so, so did leave opinion harden. One of the greatest acts of gaslighting of the last few years has been to attempt to argue that the subsequent debacle has been because of remainers refusing to compromise and secretly undermining the talks, rather than leavers. Theresa May made a deliberate decision to put them in the driving seat and leave everyone else out in the cold.

So we ended up with a deal that didn’t please anyone and a leave contingency even more determined to leave at all costs, and this crazed government we have now. I didn’t do anything to create this situation and neither did Jo Swinson. The response by politicians on the leave side following Jo Cox’s murder by an extremist was not to pause for thought but to double down on the rhetoric about “saboteurs” and “enemies of the people” – and indeed we now have a government that has shut down parliamentary scrutiny, legally due to our shoddy constitution, or otherwise.

To be clear: this is not the situation we were in in 2016 where there was legitimate hurt on both sides that needed to be addressed. We’re in a situation where one side of that divide has been radicalised, and the other side has been repelled as a result. I’ve criticised the idea of centrism in the past, arguing that politicians shouldn’t be aiming for the moving target of the middle way because they are then entirely subject to the whims of their opponents, but it increasingly feels that trying to find a middle way here isn’t merely fudge but appeasement.

You don’t deradicalise a significant body people by trying to meet them halfway. Not only are people like Stephen Kinnock’s attempts to exhume the withdrawal agreement doomed to fail; if they had been successful they would be lumped in as filthy traitors just as much as the rest of us. Equally baffling is this idea that a Labour negotiated withdrawal agreement would somehow satisfy anyone, least of all the Brexiteers.

And so we return to the topic of a second referendum. For years, despite my misgivings of referendums, I thought this was the least worst option. I could see how revocation would be simpler, and it would certainly be my dream option, but I couldn’t see how it could be a politically acceptable solution to anyone other than a small cadre of remainers. I supported attempts to bring Labour on board and finally get off the fence by supporting this position; if they had done so a year ago we would likely have had the referendum by now.

But the question of what options you put in the referendum has become increasingly hard to answer. Six months ago, if Parliament had supported such a proposal, it was still just about possible to hold a referendum on remain versus Theresa May’s deal; I can’t see how that could be seen as anything other than a stitch up now. You could put crashing out of the EU with no deal at all as an option, but while people might relish the fight, it is surely not a responsible option any respectable political party could consider – it would be putting people’s lives up for debate in a public poll.

The other option is for the leave option to be a new withdrawal agreement. This is roughly what Labour seems to be tearing itself apart over now. The problem is, it’s an incredibly silly policy. Do you argue for remain and put forward a withdrawal deal that you don’t believe in? Do you say you’re going to support the withdrawal deal that you negotiate, and thus alienate your remain supporters? Or do you stay scrupulously neutral, as if that could possibly mean anything? Labour has got itself into such a mess that it might actually be for the best for them to have a formal position to remain, but give Jeremy Corbyn a free rein to negotiate the best deal he can come up with and campaign for it in the subsequent referendum in a personal capacity. That I can say that in all seriousness shows quite how hard to sustain the referendum position currently is. What looks likely is that Labour will end up committing itself to a policy almost identical to the one that David Cameron campaigned on in the 2015 general election; and look how well that turned out.

I can still see a referendum still happening as a compromise between the Lib Dems and Labour. Paradoxically, if the Lib Dems kept its position of supporting a referendum, the lack of pressure would probably make it harder to achieve. We’ve now reached a point where Labour feels it has ownership of the policy – helped by the Lib Dems vacating that space – and that will make it harder for the likes of Len McCluskey et al to persuade Corbyn to go back on it if they found themselves in government (I would be amazed if McCluskey didn’t still have a go though).

Ultimately, this muddle only strengthens my case that no position exists any longer that both leave and remain supporters can live with, and the fact that Labour is even considering an attempt at such a byzantine approach says more about the lamentable state it is currently in than anything else.

No Brexit policy is going to heal divisions; it is thus up to political parties to base their policy on what is best for the country, not try to ameliorate people with fudge. The Lib Dems have thus adopted the most responsible, straightforward and open position.

Ultimately, Brexit has only highlighted the deep divide in the UK; it didn’t cause it. If we’re going to ease that rift, we have to start looking at the deep inequality and alienation that was exploited in that poll. I’d have liked to have heard more emphasis on this coming out of Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth last week, and I have heard equally little from Labour conference in Brighton this week (scrapping posh schools, however desirable, won’t cut it). If pro-Europeans are ultimately going to win the peace, they need to start offering a vision of EU-membership from which the entire country reaps dividends, not just London and the major population centres. I don’t think offering a bit more hope would go down too badly in the election, either.

Hello world

Content warning: contains discussion around mental health, depression and anxiety

Hi there, dear reader.

You may notice that I haven’t been blogging much recently. Um, at all, to be precise. Indeed, aside from the occasional spurt of enthusiasm, I haven’t really been blogging with any degree of regularity since 2010.

Why is that? Well, lots of reasons. I was briefly banned from blogging during the AV referendum campaign, during which I worked for the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign, and I didn’t really get back into the habit from then on. Even before then, I found winning the (hah!) Lib Dem Blog of the Year Award back in 2007, weirdly intimidating – shades of imposter syndrome I guess. Fundamentally though, my output declined as my mental health fell apart, culminating in me essentially not getting out of bed from 2014 to 2017. And that mental health decline coincided as my disappointment with party politics, and the Lib Dems in particular, grew.

I should stop here and point out that this is not a case of causation. I don’t blame my mental health on how the Lib Dems governed themselves (and for a while, the country). It’s far more a case that as my mental health declined, I found myself less able to deal with the adversity I faced, and that largely came from within the political party I had spent by that point over a decade organising within.

I quit the Lib Dems in 2012 quite suddenly, after months of attempting to keep it together. At the time, I was one of the main organisers of the Social Liberal Forum, and one of the few people who set that organisation up who hadn’t by that point either gone into government or defected to Labour. It was hell. Instead of doing any work to help the organisation’s goals, I spent sleepless night after sleepless night having what I now recognise to be severe anxiety attacks.

So, to be clear, I don’t blame the Lib Dems for the state of my mental health. Nonetheless, it did utterly break my heart. I helped set up the SLF because I saw the writing was on the wall and that Nick Clegg was steering the party in a direction that I couldn’t follow. Despite the howling criticism at the time about “factionalising” the party, my biggest regret in life is that we didn’t start that process much sooner than we did.

I remember the evening that the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition was announced, in May 2010. It was quite a surreal period walking around Westminster during that time; you had the palpable sense that no-one was in charge of the country – it felt quite liberating and a tiny bit terrifying. I ended up voting for the coalition at the party’s special conference, but nonetheless regarded it as a crushing defeat. I wouldn’t have done if I had conceived the degree to which Clegg would press ahead with his personal agenda at the expense of the party (the “compromises” the Lib Dems made over higher education, free schools and NHS reforms were all personal hobby horses of his, not things imposed by the Tories), and if I’d predicted that the Tories would, in 2015, manage to win a general election outright (I massively overestimated Labour’s ability to capitalise on the coalition’s unpopularity).

The truth is, I feel massively responsible for the coalition government, and everything that has followed – including Brexit and the current crisis the country is in. That’s a feeling that has had the effect of completely eating up all of my self confidence and sense of any moral authority. It’s hard to write when every time you do, you’re overwhelmed by guilt and self-loathing.

It’s odd therefore, that I’ve found myself crawling back to the Lib Dems. In fact, I’ve done it twice. I rejoined in 2015 and even did a bit of campaigning in the 2017 general election, only to be again disillusioned by Tim Farron’s faltering leadership, and allowed my membership to lapse again. By contrast, Vince Cable was a far more effective leader than I predicted. He certainly seemed as rudderless as I predicted, and the party seemed to spend two entirely fruitless years obsessed with meaningless internal reforms that didn’t seem to go anywhere, but you can’t argue with the last set of elections, so he must have been doing something right.

When the leadership election was announced, I knew that I couldn’t sit outside and had to join, to vote if nothing else. Jo Swinson has been a personal friend of mine for 21 years, and if failing to do more to tackle the Orange Book takeover is my greatest political regret, then helping to get Jo elected in 2005 for the first time is my proudest moment. 

The question is, am I going to end up being disappointed again? On substance, I’m pretty happy with what she’s said and done thus far. In terms of presentation, well, last week was a bit of a mess. Her team need to do much better and avoid pitfalls like that if they are going to maintain the momentum that she has been building.

I find myself in the odd position of being deeply sceptical of leaders in general, and considering them to be a necessary evil, and yet believe in Jo personally. I think she’s smart enough to take the Lib Dems forward, and has the emotional intelligence to navigate a very tricky and fraught political situation that inevitably require compromise on all sides. I know she isn’t the crypto-Tory that Twitter likes to constantly reassure me she is. Of course, by having a friend in a senior position during such a time of political crisis means that I have to churn through a daily tide of bile and vitriol, and I’m struggling to develop a thick enough skin after years of sitting comfortably on the fence. It doesn’t help that some of this bile is coming from personal friends who I respect, and indeed love. Hopefully I’ll find a way to navigate through all this in time.

Why not stay neutral? Why not even simply jump ship and become a Labour supporter? After all, I’ll always be on the left of the Lib Dems and in many fundamental ways (wealth taxes for one) would consider myself to the left of Jeremy Corbyn.

I did in fact vote Labour in the last two general elections. In 2017, it was strictly tactical but in 2015 it’s fair to say that I supported much more of the Labour manifesto than I did the Lib Dems’.

Weirdly, I’ve never felt more alienated by Labour than I currently do. It isn’t simply about Brexit, although that forms a large part of it. Corbynites seem entirely convinced that the only objection anyone could possibly have to Corbyn is his policies and that everything else is a pretext to cover for opposition to his socialism. My answer to that is: what policies? I’m sure he has some, but aside from things like his support for the Tory welfare cuts in 2017 and opposition for free movement of people I struggle to be able to name any of them.

And that’s the rub for me; we can argue about whether the ability to win elections and govern effectively became too predominant in the era of managerial politics (which appears to have well and truly come to an end now), but the Corbyn and his supporters appear to think they are entirely irrelevant. Under Corbyn, the worst of hard left politics – the type I used to have to deal with in student politics which typically ended with my friends getting beaten up – has merged with the worst aspects of the same Labour tribalism and triangulation that Blair, who they avow is to be regarded as the Great Satan, relied upon. It’s a toxic mess and one that at worst has lead to a growth in leftwing antisemitism. An alarming number of formerly sensible people seem at best complacent about this and at worst apologists for it. At a time when racism and white supremacy is on the march, this is something I find quite chilling. I could never be a part of it.

So I’ve rejoined the Lib Dems and, for the first time in 2012, have decided to out myself as a supporter. I’m currently terrified that I’m going to get let down again; but I do have faith in Jo that it ultimately won’t be. Is that all I have? Time will tell.

This has been a very self-indulgent, meandering blog post, but I’m going to publish it anyway. At some point in the last few years, I lost my voice and all of my optimism – and that sent me into a vicious cycle that I’m still recovering from. Somehow I need to get them back; nihilism is now killing the country and the world in the way that it was eating me a few years ago. Right now, just believing that a better, kinder world is possible feels like a radical act. I sincerely doubt I’ll ever be the political activist that I used to be, but if I can at least just put my thoughts into words again, that would be something.

Brexit and the austerity paradox

Here’s a conundrum. I think it is widely understood now that at least one major factor for why the Remain side lost in the EU referendum campaign was that a significant number of people in the poorest parts of the country did not feel that they enjoyed any of the economic benefits of being a member of the EU and wanted to give the political establishment a bloody nose. There were certainly enough of those voters to make the difference between staying in and leaving the EU, given how close it turned out to be.

So if we’d spent the last decade investing in those parts of the UK and ensuring they saw greater economic renewal, more jobs and a higher standard of living instead of forcing austerity on them, driving up reliance on foodbanks and increasing human misery in the process, we wouldn’t now be seeing the sort of meltdown that we’re witnessing going on in the City right now.

Here’s the thing though. The City had made it perfectly clear that it wanted that austerity. Indeed, the City has quite a lot of form when it comes to threatening governments with economic hardship if it doesn’t get its way. During those infamous “5 days in May” in 2010 when we had no functioning government after the general election, the mood music coming from the Square Mile was grisly. The constant refrain, especially from the Lib Dems in the coalition, was that if we didn’t follow this path economic disaster would follow. I lost count the number of times that Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander over-egged the pudding and claim that we were on the brink of economic disaster on the scale that Greece has experienced over the last few years.

I can mock Clegg and Alexander, but the fact remains that there was some truth in this. The City was telling us to follow a course of action, and were threatening to punish us if we didn’t get in line. They had the whip hand, just two years after wrecking the global economy when you would have thought there would be a little more contrition.

In retrospect, I wonder: would the market have been able to cope with a little less austerity if what it got in return was the UK remaining in the EU? With the benefit of hindsight, I think the answer is yes. And yet here we are now, staring at economic disaster, with no political leadership in Westminster, and with the money men more in charge than ever. There is talk of sensibly abandoning austerity, but only because the economic case is pretty hard to dismiss (just as it was in 2007). And in the longer term, it looks like we’re going to be more dependent on the good will of the markets than ever. Far from having our sovereignty return from Brussels, it’s been punted a couple of miles down the Thames.

For several decades now, there has been an agenda to decouple politics from economics, with both politicians and business alike preferring to pretend that never the twain shall meet. There is only one economic model that works, and politics should focus on non-economic matters. So at the same time as we see all political parties becoming uncritical market capitalists, we see identity politics and nativism take hold. The reality is that the two are fundamentally intertwined. There are deep political consequences to economic decisions, which in turn can – and has – had fundamental economic consequences. Somehow, and I don’t know how, we need to create a greater awareness for how the decisions made on the floor of the stock exchange impacts daily life in Hartlepool. The alternative is a political system which continues to consume itself and drive itself increasingly to extremes, which in turn leads to economic ruin.