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.