Sunday, 24 June 2018

Hysterical Reasonableness

That the pro-EU Tory "rebels" have neither rebelled nor secured any meaningful concessions from the government should not come as a surprise. It has long been clear that they have neither the numbers nor the determination to substantially influence the negotiating strategy of Theresa May, but despite this they remain the darlings of the centrist commentariat. Some of this is just the habitual indulgence of "sensibles" such as Ken Clarke, a man whose decidedly mixed record as a minister under Thatcher and Major has always been occluded by his TV-friendly geniality, and some is the media's structural appetite for division and plots as the narrative frame of political reporting. What is more of the moment is the determination to avoid admitting that the only effective route to mitigating the impact of Brexit (or preparing the ground for reaccession) will be through a Labour government, which until further notice means investing hope in Jeremy Corbyn. Far from acknowledging this political reality, the various forces of "Continuity Remain" seem determined to pin the blame for Brexit on the Labour leader, hence the recent protests at the Labour Live event and yesterday's "Where's Jeremy Corbyn" chant at the People's Vote protest march.

The six Tories who did vote against the government last Wednesday on the "meaningful vote" amendment did so in the certain expectation that the government would prevail. The effective winning line in the Commons is 320 (there are 650 seats, but 3 are held by the Speaker and his two deputies and 7 by Sinn Fein, so there are only 640 votes in practice). The government won by 319 to 303. It would have needed 9 more Tories to rebel or 17 to abstain. This was never going to happen, yet the media coverage was breathless in anticipation during the early part of the week. With 317 Conservative and 10 DUP MPs, the government could be defeated on Brexit if 8 Tories rebelled, but when you add the 4 hardcore Labour leavers (Kate Hoey, Frank Field, John Mann and Graham Stringer) to the balance, then it would need 12, and that's assuming no abstentions. The ease with which Dominic Grieve was bought off, and the alacrity with which the Brexit ultras crowed that a "no deal" outcome remained in play, should make clear that these "moderates" would prefer the worst kind of Tory administration over any flavour of Labour government. Were we to end up facing a no-deal exit next year, I'm not convinced that enough Tories would rebel to bring down May even then.

The implicit suggestion of some of the anti-Brexit activist groups that have come to prominence, such as For Our Future's Sake and Our Future Our Choice, is that Labour cannot effectively oppose Brexit while Corbyn remains as leader, but replacing him wouldn't change the numbers in the House of Commons. You'd still have a hard core of Labour leavers and enough other MPs wanting to respect the referendum result to prevent cancellation of Article 50 (and that's assuming such a manoeuvre would be both legal and acceptable to the EU27). Were Keir Starmer to be promoted to the leadership there is no reason to believe that he would pursue a different strategy to the one he has crafted to date because it reflects political reality rather than the leader's personal preference. An unrepentant Blairite in the job, however improbable that might currently appear, would end up adopting the same policy as Corbyn. The limit of their ambition would be to reserve the power of the Commons to pass judgement on the negotiated deal, which is precisely what Labour was trying to achieve last week. Pushing now for another referendum, before the terms of the final deal are clear, is poor politics if the aim is to persuade Labour. Realistically, Corbyn and Starmer can only oppose Brexit and insist on a second vote if we end up in no-deal territory.

The ulterior objective of the mostly centrist groups now dominating the pro-EU cause is presumably to associate Corbyn with Brexit in the hope that chaos arising in 2019 and after will either justify a leadership challenge before the next scheduled general election in 2022 or boost the electoral fortunes of the Liberal Democrats. This is naïve. Not only is it likely that the damage of Brexit will be slow rather than sudden, but the all-too-obvious aim of the government's handling of the transition period and "backstop" is to maximise the Conservative Party's chances in four years time. The best hope of the anti-Corbyn forces within Labour is that he leads the party to defeat in 2022 and that a more "moderate" candidate can win the inevitable leadership contest thereafter. As the left will be able to justifiably point to the relentless undermining of Corbyn since 2015, both within and without the party, the chances of the membership falling for a Blair Mk II are slight. If they had any sense, centrists would back off Corbyn now to avoid the charge of disloyalty, but just as Tory centrists would never facilitate a right-wing Labour government, so Labour centrists will never tolerate a left-wing leadership.

The antipathy of these pro-EU groups towards Corbyn is not simply centrist opportunism, and nor should we imagine that fear of the Labour left is now a key driver behind remain - it isn't. What's going on is primarily an act of displacement. The most notable feature of the remain campaign over the past two years has been the failure to develop a better case for continued membership of the European Union beyond "I told you so" as another multinational business threatens withdrawal. This void has been filled with irrationalism and conspiracy. Many remainers have been adamant that voters were lied to or not in full possession of the facts in 2016. This is true, but it is neither a novelty nor a reason to declare the vote illegitimate. A re-run now would probably produce a similarly close result precisely because a more persuasive argument for remain has not been forthcoming since the referendum. While few people reckon the government is doing a good job of handling the Brexit process, the general sense seems to be that judgement should be reserved until the outcome is clear, which won't be any earlier than October this year and might be considerably later depending on the terms of the transition. It is at that point that popular opinion on the need for another referendum might change, though that in turn presumes a clear choice. Given that the negotiations to date have been characterised by fudge and ambivalence on the UK's part, that isn't a given.

The rhetorical emphasis of the pro-EU groups on "our future" is not just an attempt to mobilise the young. It points to a reluctance to discuss the past and in particular the failure of the EU to become truly hegemonic in British society. Blaming the media for this isn't an explanation, not least because the same media were overwhelmingly pro-Europe in 1975. Clearly something changed during the Thatcher years to encourage a Euroscepticism that we might otherwise have expected to wither away, and given the actual demographics of the leave vote, rather than the media interpretation, I suspect this change is predominantly located among the comfortable classes of the South East and the Midlands, not the "left behind" working class of the North. The psychic damage of the Maastricht Treaty, coming only a decade after the supposed arrest of British decline in the Falklands War, seems to have been more significant than the material damage of deindustrialisation. Despite its own hegemony, built on the back of victory in the South Atlantic, Thatcherism was clearly an unstable project because of the tension between its small capital values and the material interests of big capital. Europe was always going to be the fault-line, with its intersection of market liberalism and pooled sovereignty.

Remainers who question the legitimacy of the 2016 vote, and whether it may have been unduly influenced by dodgy money or Facebook propaganda, are crying over spilt milk. Short of evidence of industrial-scale ballot-stuffing or massive voter suppression, the result will stand. Pointing the finger at Russian interference is not merely irrelevant (there was probably meddling, but it was almost certainly inconsequential), it is patronising towards those leave voters who need to be won over (or at least convinced to abstain were another referendum to be held) and it encourages remain voters to continue to vilify the opposition rather than seek to convert them. Muttering about xenophobia is also unhelpful as it addresses the symptom rather than the cause. The pro-EU voices that dominate centrist discourse too often exhibit a contempt for ordinary voters, hence their blithe rejection of a democratic decision in the name of some form of superior democracy (what was the 2016 referendum if not a "people's vote"?). It often seems that they consider "democracy without a demos" to be an ideal rather a deficiency.

That public opinion on the wisdom of Brexit has remained fairly consistent over the two years since the referendum suggests a lack of engagement between the two sides and an entrenchment of views. My anecdotal evidence is that while leavers are still obdurate, they are increasingly pessimistic about the outcome, while remainers are increasingly prone to hyperbole and a belief in dark forces, despite their claims to be rational and committed to evidence. In continuing with a strategy of confrontation and deprecation, they seem to be ignoring that leavers are increasingly primed for persuasion. You'd think after two years that they would not only have come up with a better case for the EU but that they would have cut out the patronising contempt, but Guardian commentators are still insisting that remainers "are so endlessly reasonable, [but are] up against people who are beyond reasoning with". Just as the remainers failure to develop a more persuasive vision has weirdly echoed the drift and incompetence of the government's negotiations with the EU27, so their demonisation of Corbyn as an objective Brexiteer has been strangely reminiscent of Stalinist jibes that Trotsky was an objective Fascist. Hysterical reasonableness is no less silly than rebels who never rebel.

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