Saturday, June 25, 2016

To Live in (Un)interesting Times

I wrote a blog post last week which tried to articulate a positive vision for Europe - it had seemed to me that on both side of the debate that were different flavours of Euroscepticism. At the end of the day, when both Cameron and Corbyn spoke about Europe it wasn't with a verve or a vision, but as the least worst option. Perhaps this was a necessary corollary to their personal narratives to make Britain great again, or perhaps this was where they were - 75% in, 25% out as Corbyn unhelpfully said. With friends like that, the Remain campaign hardly needed enemies. Though Cameron - through his resignation speech - had finally grown to the point where he realised how wrong the Brexit argument was and how little he could do to be the leader of that negotiation, before that point his dislike for Europe - his impatience with Europe - had been all too clear. I said before the last election that I wish Ed Milliband had come out 18 months in advance as an advocate for no-referendum, as a pro-Europe Labour party, alongside an anti-austerity agenda. Together those things may not have changed the narrative in 2015, but they would have possibly changed the narrative now. It's clear now, the day after the results came in with a 52% vote for Brexit, how entrenched support for giving Europe (and elites) a bloody nose was. With only around 70% of voters voting Lab/Con at the last general election we perhaps knew that there were a substantial block who were no longer tribal voters - did we know that they would coalesce around this issue?

In truth a plebiscite is a more direct democracy than our compromised one - Yes/No, In/Out. The 4% gap between the 2 sides is sizeable, but not so entrenched that it couldn't have been the other way round. Something over a million more votes is substantial however. We are large country. That 72% of the electorate came out to vote is a sign of engagement, whatever happened to that missing 28%. Cameron asked the country to answer a question he wasn't certain what the answer would be. Funnily enough, his reforms, which even the government's own leaflet didn't feel worth mentioning in any great detail, seem more substantial now than they did back then - now they are in the shredder of failed promises. A Britain opting out of ever-closer union? An acceptance of Europe being a multiple currency block? A linkage between in work payments and contributions? These seem the sensible compromises of a working Europe, not of a broken one. Europe - if it has some sense - would look at the best of these and see which of its other members would like the smorgasbord on offer.

Europe's lack of sense is what will be put to the test in the coming months. They are right to say negotiation should begin immediately. Truth is, it can, but the 2-year clock might not start ticking at once. The 27 remainers - meeting (illegally?) without Britain in the room - should offer us an extension at once - as long as Article 50 is invoked at once. The negotiating team shouldn't be dependent on the leadership - both Labour and the Tories have casually replaced leaders mid-term and government has gone on as usual. Remember the Belgians were without a government for months - this is only about one person. Between now and October Cameron should sit with Europe and get the best terms of reference that he can - about scope and timetable, rather than content. The added irony of course, is that with a Talleyrand, negotiations tend to make you lose out. Our best negotiators will inevitably be pro-Europeans. Nick Clegg, where are you now?

That's the formal aspects of this. When countries split - Yugoslavia, USSR, Czechoslavakia - we somehow manage this - so surely the splitting of a voluntary union should be less problematic?

As ever its the geopolitics of this which is more fascinating. Devastated as I was by the result - having lived so much of my life under terrible Tory governments, its not the first political disappointment of my life, I doubt it will be the last - though if handled badly it could be the most damaging. I had worked as a poll clerk for 15 hours on Thursday so went to bed with optimism - there was a high turnout, lots of young people - but that's because Manchester is a young, vibrant European city - and along with Trafford and Stockport voted to remain. The other 7 boroughs all voted out.

So there will be consequence in the North as well as elsewhere. Wherefore the "Northern Powerhouse" - Osbourne's invention - when our Chancellor is unlikely to be there come October? Devolution is already on its legislative track - but was predicated - I'm sure - at least partly on the continuing investment in the NW of European funds. Starved of that, (after 2020 certainly, but possibly earlier) how will the city mayors assert themselves? The Labour contest for Manchester mayoral candidate will now happen invisibly as the Tories elect a new Prime Minister; meanwhile the 7/10 boroughs voting for "exit" means that feasibly a pro-Brexit politician - Tory or independent - could possibly make the running in an area thought to be a Labour stronghold. Scary thoughts.
Also, maybe the NW has taken Europe a little for granted - surely the logic of Devolution means that even if there is national indifference to the continent Manchester may choose to have a stronger relationship, even outside of the EU, with its continental partners? This too will take political will as well as innovation. The city owns the airport - and our connectivity - easier to get to Dublin or Amsterdam than London - is something that is key to our economic prospects. The risks of separating the north into its component parts - big cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds - and ignoring the rest is now also laid bare. Blackpool was the highest "out" vote in Lancashire. I've said for a long time we need to be enabling our region to work together - rather than letting our coastal towns fall into rack and ruin. Europe, for all its faults, recognised the risks of winners and losers - its why you can go into the most unexpected places in the continent and finding gleaming new airports, roads and business centres. The logic of neo-liberal economics would have these places empty and lifeless - but the population's there become left behind, and as we've seen, disenfranchised. Our British failure is concentration on London at the expense of everywhere else - something that Boris as PM will hardly improve upon.

Cameron going was inevitable - the P.R. man, adept at tactics, bad at strategy, with a weakness on detail and a willingness to wing it - and if all political lives end in failure his is hardly a tragic one, as it was so self-inflicted. Osbourne - helped along by his fear budget - will no doubt go with him. They would not be mourned if it wasn't for the likely replacements, proven incompetents like Gove or Boris. That said, its a long time since the favourite won a Tory leadership election. Like Cameron, an outside bet could appear to stabilise the ship.

What will come next will inevitably be a general election - leadership without legitimacy scuppered Gordon Brown, and always hampered John Major despite his resounding victory. But when? I think the country is tired of political flummery - Scotland has had 4 major votes in 18 months. We want to live in uninteresting times in the UK. I suspect a new leader will want to complete the negotiation and then go to the polls - so my money would be on 2018?

Europe won't be happy - but at 17% of their economy and with a 10% of their budget lopped off with us leaving - I suspect they will not be as vindicative as might currently appear to be the case. After all the UK has always been an awkward partner - though the counterbalance has been generally liked across the bloc of nations. I suspect that this will mean "ever closer union" for Eurozone countries - leaving Denmark and Sweden more vulnerable, and possibly hastening Poland joining the Eurozone. Its hard to see that a multiple currency Europe is anywhere near as viable now with the pound existing outside of it.

For Brexiters the reality might sink in: there's no silver bullet to immigration or the economy. It will take a better politician than Johnson or Gove or IDS to make the case for a new Britain outside of Europe. A new Labour politician could well emerge - untouched by the past - and work with this dogs dinner.

In the mean time, life goes on. There appears to be no street parties on the streets of Walsall and Swindon, and it seems that those with nothing invested in Europe felt no loss in saying goodbye to it. 48% - 16 million people disagreed. Had it been a "remain" I had fears of right wing militias forming and civic unrest. For the "remain" party its not about blaming anyone (though Cameron deserves blame - he's no longer there to be blamed), but about making an ever more vital case for how we can be inclusive Europeans whilst outside of the conveniences of the worlds biggest trading block. Amazon, Uber and the like have no difficulty operating in Europe for instance. My biggest worry is less about how we untangle with a Europe which is still a Channel Tunnel or a one hour flight away, than what dreadful deals we put in place afterwards. Our zero hours contracts, low income and corporation taxes, and sweetheart deals with financial institutions aren't what we need to rebuild the social contract from Sunderland to Swindon.

We live in interesting times....

No comments: