First thoughts about Brexit: Quos Deus vult perdere, prius dementat

Those whom God wishes to destroy, he first makes insane.  That might be Britain’s epitaph after yesterday’s referendum in which a majority of the Britons voting decided that our country is to expel itself from the European Union, however dire the consequences.  This was not a conscious reasoned verdict on the pros and cons of UK membership of the EU:  the liars and fantasists who led the Brexit campaign persuaded millions of voters to ignore the warnings of Britain’s friends and the experts – almost all economists, leaders of all our political parties except the maverick, far right-wing UKIP, Barack Obama, the leaders and often the ordinary people of our major former partners in Europe, all independent financial institutions, the Bank of England – lumping them all together as part of a huge international conspiracy of fraudulent scaremongers.  “We’ll be fine out of Europe – don’t worry!”, was their treacherous message.  So the people, or enough of them, felt free and safe to vote for Brexit in order to express their anger with the Establishment, their frustration over endless cuts in public services, reductions in their living standards while the rich get ever richer, the erroneous but never properly refuted belief that a flood of immigrants are depressing their wages, the apparent — or actual — indifference and smugness of the ruling class.

The fact that millions of working people all over the rest of Europe and in the United States feel the  same anger and frustration, and that the disaffected Europeans take it out on the EU while the angry Americans rage against the mainstream politicians, makes yesterday’s calamity in  Britain all the more frightening.  If ordinarily sensible Brits can be so badly misled by the lies and myths of right-wing demagogues, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Alternative fuer Deutschland, and all the other far-right nightmarish figures and movements are bound to be heartened and their prospects enhanced.  ‘Fascism’ is not a word to be used lightly, but it looks increasingly as if much of the once democratic West is ripe for something horribly like it.

Chto delat’?  In Lenin’s famous phrase, What is to be done?  David Cameron’s resignation, scheduled for October, is good news and bad: good, because it’s his reckless gamble with Britain’s future in the childish hope of mending divisions in the Conservative party that has brought us to this ruinous pass, so he has no credibility left; bad, because his Conservative successor in the autumn, to be chosen by Tory MPs and then by a few thousand members of the Conservative party around the country, seems almost certain to be even worse than Cameron – quite possibly, indeed, the malignant buffoon Boris Johnson, probably now the front runner.  One can barely stomach the vision of a government headed by such a person conducting the negotiation of the modalities of Britain’s divorce from the EU over the next five or ten horrendous years, with the economy in ruins, the already yawning trade deficit opening out into a Grand Canyon, sterling reduced to Monopoly money, inward investment dried up and the cost of government borrowing floating ever upwards. Jobs will be lost in droves, government revenues will shrink with the economy and there will be no alternative to higher taxes and further agonising cuts to public expenditure.

The first thing to be said about this prospect is that we dare not entrust such a massive, challenging task to the Conservatives, the party which has inflicted this dire situation on us, a party which is congenitally unable to contemplate taxing the rich who finance it and which instinctively ensures that the burden of abandoned or shrunken public services falls mainly on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.  But what is the alternative?

The installation of a new prime minister in October chosen by a tiny unrepresentative section of the electorate points unmistakeably to overwhelming pressure for a very early general election.  The new government will need the backing of an electoral mandate to strengthen its hand in the inevitably difficult negotiations, first of the terms on which Britain disentangles itself from the EU, then of the new trade relationship with our European neighbours, who can’t be expected to be in a generous frame of mind, and then, years later, negotiations of new trade agreements with the fifty or so countries from whose agreements with the EU Britain will no longer benefit.  The Conservatives in the country will see a golden opportunity to prolong Tory domination of our politics for another five years by holding an election for which Labour is totally unprepared, under a leader who is manifestly unfitted for such a mammoth task.  And Labour, whoever leads it by the end of this year or early next, can hardly oppose a proposal to hold a general election to provide a proper mandate for the government that is to lead us through the next turbulent and destructive decade.  It’s just possible that even Mr Corbyn, with all his limitations, might win an election against a Tory party with a new and untried or already discredited leader, split from top to bottom, and manifestly responsible for the gigantic, wholly avoidable mess that the Cameron government has created.  But a Corbyn government would be hardly any better equipped to handle the massively complex task of steering the country into its new diminished place in Europe and the world.

There must be a better way: and there is.  As Caroline Lucas, the admirable Green MP, has eloquently pleaded, it’s time for the progressive parties to stop fighting each other, letting the reactionary Tories and UKIP through the middle.  We need more than ever a working alliance of all the progressive, left-of-centre parties with a vision of a new and imaginative form of partnership with the EU and the rest of the outside world, to throw out the Tories and start again with a fresh constructive idea of Britain’s role and a new capacity for addressing the real problems of real people throughout the land.  It’s plainly inconceivable that Jeremy Corbyn, for all his qualities of modesty and sincerity, could be the creator and then the leader of such an alliance.   But there are others who could do it: Chuka Umunna has been increasingly impressive, articulate, and strong throughout the referendum campaign, as have Angela Eagle and Hilary Benn.  Other credible candidates will certainly emerge as the debate proceeds.  Jeremy Corbyn will surely have a major role.  But this is something that Labour can’t possibly handle alone.

The old Labour heartlands which voted in such huge numbers to Leave the EU no longer share Labour’s traditional progressive social values and are in danger of deserting to UKIP in droves in a new election held on the old familiar terms.  A major realignment of parties and their values is now inevitable.  We have reached a situation where a large section of Labour in parliament and in parts of the country has more in common with the LibDems and the SNP, even with One Nation pro-European Tories, than with xenophobic, illiberal, disillusioned sections of opinion in the north-east and north-west of England and parts of Wales, however genuine their grievances.  Idealistic campaigning Corbynites with no fixed political goals or philosophy beyond a desire for ‘a new politics’ are another group that doesn’t fit easily into the new fragmented political mosaic.  Realignment, involving proportional representation, no more one-party governments, a shifting pattern of alliances and partnerships for ad hoc purposes, coalitions and minority governments, will take years to settle down, and may never do so.  The important thing now is to recognise that there is more that unites Labour people with most LibDems, the SNP, the Greens, and others, than divides us, especially in the present massive crisis now facing Britain.  Progressives must learn to work together, putting aside past animosities and mistrust.  The sole alternative is to leave the salvaging of the wreck to the original wreckers.  And we know what kind of salvage that will mean.  Come on, Chuka: come on, Angela: start talking to our natural friends in other parties out there.  There’s no time to lose.


14 Responses

  1. Lorna says:

    Well said.  Alas that it needs saying.

  2. Peggy says:

    Brian, I’m sharing this. Wish I didn’t need to!


  3. Paul Sharp says:

    Brian, an excellent cry from the heart which captures the anger, frustration and fear of 99.9 per cent of my academic colleagues. I agree with everything besides its central premise that leaving the EU is a Bad Thing. The winning side in this debate are, in Terry Thomas’ apt phrase, an “absolute shower.” This being so, I suggest that you and my academic colleagues are in a position similar to Antonio Gramsci when he found himself rotting in an Italian fascist jail. Broadly speaking he asked, if we are the smart guys, if we are the right guys, and if we are the good guys, then how did we lose to a bunch of yahoos in leather jackets on motorcycles and with good posters. It is a question which has to be asked over and over again -and the road to an answer lies through two referenda side-stepped by a treaty, the crushing of the Greeks and the squeezing of the other Meds in defense of a flawed monetary systems which serves German and northern interests, and in the growing feeling on the part of what Lenin would have called the labour aristocracy (whether employed or not) that they are losing out. We, the beneficiaries of the EU and globalization, not only do not speak to them, we do not want to speak to them.

    At the end of the journey, I believe we find an answer in terms of the idea of more and less authentic political communities -the things for which we are prepared to fight, die and, more prosaically, pay our taxes and not fiddle our insurance claims because we feel we belong to them and they to us. Nation states, despite the best efforts from all points of the political compass to chip away at it, retain this. The EU has not achieved it.

    The Tories are in a mess. Some cold comfort is to be obtained from the blood-letting in which they are soon to be engaged -and I think that Mr. Johnson and Mr. Grove are very vulnerable in that they were driven far more by establishing their credentials for the Tory leadership than by any desire to see their professed objective -Brexit- coming to pass. Boris is suggesting we should move slowly. It’s all he can say but, broadly speaking, he is right. With more time there is more opportunity for a deal -a fudge even, if the toiling masses, now stirred, are prepared to give him that time.

    Labour is a busted flush. It’s leader still adheres to the old left view of the EU as a corporatist, capitalist stitch up of which we are well shot. The intellectual shock troops of the party are hamstrung by what a nice thing the EU was for them. And what’s left of New Labour wants to say that Brexit would not have happened if Cameron had simply kept the lid on those who wish to keep banging on about Europe -an issue about which it was an article of faith to believe no one important or in important numbers was really interested.

    Well they were, and here we are. I think we may well lose Scotland and cease to be a great power. The former saddens me. The latter worries me. Allowing Scotland to go, however, is consistent with my argument about more or less authentic political communities, and it is a far lesser evil than subjecting political communities to the stress and strain of the ever increasing price to be paid for keeping the EU going -in either its hybrid or full federalist form.

    Thank you again for an excellent, thoughtful and, above all, committed piece. It has helped me clarify my own ideas and it raises the most important question of all -now what?




  4. Tim Weakley says:

    Brian, forgive my ignorance of constitutional niceties: but is the result of a referendum binding on Parliament?  Cannot the Commons simply pass a resolution saying in effect ‘The opinion of the country, as expressed for whatever reasons by a narrow majority of those who bothered to vote, is noted’?

  5. Rob says:

    Well said, Brian but I’m just too angry, bitter and miserable to comment and that’s nothing compared to the frustration poured out yesterday by my children.

    And for his lack of performance I want to see Corbyn gone, forgotten, deported just anything but get him out of my way.  Hilary Benn I believe.

  6. Aidan Boustred says:

    Brian, as your blog has been so informative in the past on constitutional issues, I thought that I would ask this here, as I’ve struggled to find a definitive answer elsewhere. What elements of this would the PM have to put through the Commons? I’m assuming that triggering Article 50 wouldn’t require this, but the PM might decide to get a Commons vote to share the blame/responsibility. What about ratifying the UK part of an exit agreement, or any trade deals?

    Finally do you think the UK might hold back from triggering article 50 for a long time – months, or even years, in order to give time to advance at least informal trade talks with non-EU countries, if not to try to extract some kind of outline agreement from EU leaders (who want to get it over with) before starting the two year countdown?

    (Sorry if this isn’t as clear as it could be. I’m on my phone which isn’t ideal for writing).

  7. Betty Ratzin says:

    Brian, many thanks.  We need voices of sanity in these uncertain times when the lunatics appear to have taken over the asylum.

  8. ObiterJ says:

    Good piece expressing the views of so many – myself included.  I despair at the present state of British politics!  A few questions asked by your other commentators:

    The Referendum is NOT binding in law on Parliament.  Politically, it cannot ignored.
    There could be another referendum but it would have to be to seek endorsement of some very different arrangement with the EU.
    In law the government controls the trigger over Art 50.  They would be foolish politically to simply press ahead without getting Parliament to agree.
    I would hope that there will not be any start of the Art 50 process until there is a very much clearer view of precisely what the leave side want in terms of trade etc.  Similarly, there needs to be a view as to what the EU is likely to accept.

    The other problems are Scotland (=Remain), Norther Ireland (=remain) and Gibraltar (=remain).  They cannot be ignored.  The potential for UK breakup was entirely predictable.


  9. ObiterJ says:

    Deorum locuti sunt. Nunc agendum est de mortalibus.  (The Gods have spoken. The mortals must now act).  PS: My Latin was not my best subject but we had to do it !

  10. Brian says:

    Brian writes:  I am grateful for all these comments, nearly all of them reflecting the mixed grief and anger that are so widespread among the educated metropolitan élite against whom the Leave voters seem to have been protesting.

    Paul:  Your comment raises some stimulating additional points for which I am especially grateful.  I agree with your withering analysis of some of the more egregious failings of the EU (especially the championship of austerity economics, the treatment of Greece and the way the Eurozone system has so spectacularly enriched Germany at the expense of the Mediterraneans) but I don’t see that even such unacceptable items in the EU’s record can justify giving up on the whole European unity enterprise, with its huge potential for peace, justice and prosperity in our continent.

    TimObiterJ  has answered your very reasonable question.  Parliament, being theoretically sovereign and omnipotent, has the legal power to ignore and defy the result of the referendum, although it seems unlikely that parliament could prevent this or the next government from triggering our exit from the EU by activating Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, which would irrevocably start the withdrawal process, except by forcing the government to resign by passing a vote of no confidence in it before it could do so – an unlikely scenario, I think. Politically it is clearly impossible for either the government or parliament to ignore the referendum result, however narrow the Brexit victory.

    Aidan:  You too raise very interesting questions.  To what extent will the government need parliamentary approval for its EU exit proposals and decisions?  As you say, it presumably won’t be necessary for activating Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty and I can’t see any government taking the risk of seeking parliamentary approval for doing that eventually (what if parliament were to withhold its approval for acting as required by the result of the referendum?).  But the process of withdrawal, as and when its stages are agreed with the EU, seems bound to involve a huge amount of parliamentary legislation, repealing some laws, amending others to remove references to the EU, and passing some new laws to replace some of the EU-based laws that will have to be repealed.  If MPs who have strongly opposed Brexit from the start refuse to pass some of these pieces of legislation required for our withdrawal, we could obviously face deadlock and paralysis, which in theory could be resolved only by a general election or possibly by a change of prime minister and government without an election, although it’s quite possible that neither would in practice solve anything.

    Another possibility might be a single enabling Act giving the government unlimited power to repeal, amend and replace such laws and statutory instruments as may be necessary in order to give effect to the verdict of the electorate in the referendum (or words to that effect).  Whether MPs would be willing to give up their powers and rights to monitor and if necessary prevent legislation wanted by the government, especially on so many politically sensitive issues, is another matter.

    Your other question is also very much to the point, and foreshadows an increasingly interesting debate: might the government defer triggering Article 50 in the hope of getting indications of what the EU is going to offer us before the formal negotiations begin and the two-year time limit clock starts to tick?  I’m told that Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, was floating just such an idea on Newsnight last night.  Already Mr Cameron seems to be proposing that it should be left to the new prime minister to trigger Article 50 when he takes office in October (since it will take that long to complete the Conservative party’s procedures for choosing a new leader, and it would be wrong for the negotiations that would begin immediately after the activation of Article 50 to be managed on the UK side by David Cameron who actively opposed UK withdrawal and whose policies have been rejected by the electorate).  Already some EU leaders are rejecting the idea of three or more months’ delay in activating Article 50 and thus prolonging the damaging uncertainties, demanding that Article 50 and the ensuing negotiations should start immediately – implying that who should be UK prime minister in the next three months is Britain’s problem, not theirs.  But it seems that Mr Powell’s idea was that by deferring activation of Article 50 and beginning (perhaps informal) talks with the EU now, it might be possible for the UK electorate to form a sufficiently accurate idea of what Brexit would actually involve for a general election to be held with one or more parties promising to activate Article 50 if elected, and another party or parties promising to refuse to activate Article 50 if elected on the grounds that the only terms for withdrawal that could be obtained were unacceptable.  Thus the general election would in effect constitute a further referendum, this time on the terms of UK withdrawal.  On the face of it this ingenious idea might offer a democratic way to reverse this week’s referendum result and allow Britain’s membership of the EU to continue without interruption.  But I can’t imagine that the EU Commission and the other 27 EU governments would collaborate in this elaborate device by revealing, in advance of formal Article 50 negotiations, the terms which they would be willing to offer us if those negotiations were to take place, thus allowing the British people a second bite of the cherry.  Such leniency towards a would-be renegade member state would risk encouraging other member states in which there is already pressure for in/out referendums to threaten to invoke Article 50 in order to get a similar option of finding out the best available terms of withdrawal for their consideration before they had to take any irrevocable decisions on leaving.  In such circumstances the EU would almost certainly begin to unravel – as it still might do as a result of Brexit, whatever its timing.

  11. Denis LeBlanc says:

    Here is one initiative that could resolve some issues. It seems there is an EU rule that if the remain or leave vote is less than 60% based on a turnout of less than 75%, there can be another referendum.  As of now, less than 2 days since polls closed, the petition already has 2,708,200 signatures.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. The scale of support for this petition in such a short time is indeed impressive and it is generating a lot of optimistic excitement, especially in the blogosphere. Unfortunately I know of no evidence for the existence of any such EU ‘rule’ — even the petition speaks of ‘a’ rule, not ‘the’ rule — and even if a rule like this were to exist, it couldn’t be applied to a national referendum whose rules are determined by the government and parliament of the country holding the referendum: there is no EU competence to impose rules on this subject on national parliaments. This is very adequately confirmed by the very first section of Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty:
    “1. Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.” (My emphasis)
    I’m afraid this is not a runner.

  12. Bob says:

    Brian, before being metaphorically trampled under foot in the rush of commentators eager to have their say on today’s unsurprising developments in the Labour Party, I would like to squeeze in a couple of late comments on your main theme.

    The first is that much as I agree with your accusations against the “fraudulent scaremongers, liars and fantasists” responsible for misleading the public – typically about the £350million a week “sent to Brussels instead of to the NHS” – I felt you missed both the real intent and the impact of their message. I don’t think they ever hoped to “persuade millions of people to ignore the warnings of the experts, etc..”, mollifying them with “We’ll be fine out of the EU, don’t worry!” I think their intent was never so implausibly rational. Whenever I saw or heard Gove, Johnson or Farage utter the precise phrases “Let’s take our country back!” or “Let’s take back control!”I ground my teeth in helpless anger, recognising how effective those words and sentiments would be on the masses of the unemployed, the low paid and those who were simply poor and angry at their circumstances. These were the clever cynical hooks designed to catch the masses of people who were angry not only at their circumstances but at those who they felt had let them down over the years – i.e. successive governments and, above all, the Labour Party. Your Labour Party and mine. The one which under Blair and Brown said these people ” had nowhere else to go!” Remember?

    Which brings me to my second point – your apparent failure to recognise this. Your suggestion that “progressive parties of the left and centre…should join together to solve the real problems of the real people throughout the land” sounds plausible and necessary if we are to fight our way out of the mess the liars and conmen have suddenly dropped us into. But I worry about your concept of “real people”, because a little further on you say: ” We have reached a situation where a large section of Labour in parliament and in parts of the country has more in common with the LibDems and the SNP, even with One Nation pro-European Tories, than with xenophobic, illiberal, disillusioned sections of opinion in the north-east and north-west of England and parts of Wales, however genuine their grievances. ”

    However genuine their grievances, eh?! Well as you personally know, Brian, these are my people, and their grievances are real. Their industries have been increasingly closing down on them since the end of WW2 – gradually at first, then came the Thatcher disaster, followed by New Labour which didn’t really take much notice of them for reasons I’ve already given. I go back to Huddersfield reasonably frequently and have done during the nearly 50 years I’ve lived in London. In May this year the  pensioners’ fish and chips, pot of tea and bread and butter was still £3-75 in Sharkey’s Fish ‘n chip shop by the Monday market, where we go after leaving the railway station en route to the John Smith’s Stadium. (I also visit just to see old friends; but Huddersfield Town FC is my DNA.) People there, and in Barnsley, Wakefield and all the other former thriving industrial towns are poor, up against it and have deserted Labour angrily as they feel it has deserted them.

    So when you write: ” Progressives must learn to work together, putting aside past animosities and mistrust”, where would you put the neglected poor of the north, the midlands, Wales, the agricultural east and the now tawdry seaside towns with no fishing industry to speak of and mainly poor people on holiday? You don’t mention them, yet they are the ones who voted angrily for Brexit.

    I recommend Stephen Bush’s article in the current New Statesman for his excellent exposition of the gulf between “Hull and Hampstead” Labour Parties. 

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Bob. I am happy to say that I find effectively no conflict between what you say and my post above. In that post I expressly acknowledge that many of the grievances which we both believe helped to drive so many people to vote to Leave the EU were and are genuine. Where we may partially differ is in your partially blaming the Blair and Brown governments, among others, for the events that have generated these grievances. In my view the bulk of the grievances arise from globalisation, which has caused the de-industrialisation of the north of England and Wales and which no government of any persuasion could have prevented except at exorbitant cost to the whole country. Nor can it now be reversed. Other causes of the genuine grievances that have now irrationally brought Britain to the verge of disaster include the unjust cuts imposed under their austerity policies by both the Cameron-Osborne governments and the gross inequality that those policies have aggravated. But these are really the topics for a separate debate. For the immediate future, the task is to manage the crisis caused by the referendum result, not to conduct a post mortem on it, for the time being anyway. I hope you will see a glimmer of hope in my new post at

  13. Joe Atiyah says:

    Hi Brian

    An interesting and thought provoking piece. Agree with much, though I think perhaps you are a tad pessimistic about the economy. Bad yes, but in ruins? I doubt it. We still have many strong companies, and the city will continue to earn its crust, even if reduced. I have been promoting to my friends on FB the idea of a vote of no confidence (without much hope). After all, a majority of MPs have no confidence in Brexit, and a majority of conservative MPs have no confidence in Boris (assuming he will get the job, probably as he has support of the party faithful). Other scenarios, though tempting, seem even less likely. And what of the petition to question the referendum’s credibility with such a low margin? No legal force of course (apart from triggering a debate), but really hard for parliament to completely ignore, with over 3 million having signed, and counting. I remain deeply pessimistic, unusually for me.


  14. Brian says:

    Brian writes: Joe, thanks for these interesting observations. I hope you are right and that I have exaggerated the likely damage to the UK economy from Brexit. I am strongly influenced in this by the pessimism in many columns in the Financial Times by writers who know their stuff and base their assessments on verifiable facts and figures. But as the Brexiteers tirelessly pointed out during their know-nothing campaign, the greatest of experts often get their predictions wrong (and as the Brexiteers’ intellectual, Mr Gove, famously remarked, the British people are tired of experts).

    I cling to the hope that the possibility of “informal discussions” with the EU before the UK triggers formal withdrawal talks by activating Article 50 might yield some detailed information about the conditions for our withdrawal and for future UK-EU relations which could well be so shockingly punitive that even the most enthusiastic Brexiteers might agree that they should be submitted to the British people for approval or rejection before the government commits us by submitting a notification under Art. 50. The preliminary informal discussions could and should be launched very soon — no need to wait for David Cameron’s successor to form his or her government. We can’t just sit back and wring our hands for the next three months while the EU Commission and the other 27 EU governments plan their negotiating positions aimed at making an example of us. As long as we haven’t invoked Article 50 there has to be some hope, however faint, that public opinion will wake up to the realities of what is going to happen to us unless we go into reverse before it’s too late.

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