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Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Whither Brexit? - A response

Following my last blog post about Brexit, I received a lengthy response from a former civil servant which I'd like to reproduce in full (with edits to remove identifying personal details).

I don’t agree that Euroscepticism has largely been a minority view.  One of the reasons why working-class leave voters are frequently described as “forgotten” or “ignored” is because they and most people they know have been Eurosceptic for decades, but it is only relatively recently that their views have received any mainstream attention at all.

When John Major joked that Redwood and IDS had “all the characteristics of populists except for popularity”, he was right, but not for the reason he thought he was.  Euroscepticism wasn’t and typically hasn’t been popular among well-off Tory voters.  When you’re alright Jack, why rock the boat?  The system is working fine for you.  David Cameron wanted to stop his party “banging on about Europe” because it was off-putting to most “moderate” Tories and the floating voters he was hoping to attract.  He didn’t consider the views of “old Labour” voters, because those people would sooner boil their own heads than vote Tory.  But Euroscepticism runs deep with those voters.  The views espoused by the “headbangers” like Redwood and IDS weren’t unpopular at all; it’s just that they were only popular with the kind of people who hated Tories.

I would argue that hard Euroscepticism among working-class voters goes at least back to the 1980s, and it has suddenly bubbled to the surface in the last few years.

I’m going to use the Welsh valleys as an example because it is where my family is originally from.  My grandad was born in a village just outside Merthyr Tydfil and lost his father in a pit accident when he was three.  Having been widowed in her twenties, my great-grandmother pushed her sons to get a decent education so they could have professional careers instead of becoming miners like their dad.  Needless to say, they left Wales and never returned.  Everyone else they grew up with became miners, as did their sons, and they were all completely fucked when the mines closed.  My best friend’s family live a few miles away and it is a dismal place.  She once told me that she was registered to vote there and she always voted Tory even though she hates the Tories.  When I asked why, she said the Tories don’t try to win people’s votes in South Wales because they know that people there will never vote Tory, and Labour don’t try to win people’s votes in South Wales either, for exactly the same reason.  So South Wales gets completely forgotten about and suffers from decades of industrial decline, whilst lots of lovely money is found to bribe voters in marginal constituencies.

Wales is the example I’m most familiar with, but I’m sure the same is true of other former mining / post-industrial communities in the north and the midlands.  Hatred of the Tories and Thatcher in particular is ingrained.  And if you look back to the early 1980s, Labour campaigned (unsuccessfully) with a manifesto pledge to leave the EEC, whereas the single market was Thatcher’s baby.  For a lot of working-class voters who remember the 1980s, Euroscepticism is an old-school working-class Labour ideal, and the single market is the brainchild of the prime minister they associate with the destruction of their communities and way of life.

When John Major was trying to put out the Eurosceptic fires of the 1990s, it was a very Tory problem.  It was purely about the divisions within his own party at a time when they were deeply unpopular thanks to Thatcher’s legacy.  Then in 1997, boom!  Along comes fresh-faced Tony Blair, who wholeheartedly embraces the EU.  The problem was that New Labour and Old Labour were not at all the same thing, and Tony Blair won because he was able to rely on all the Old Labour voters who would vote for a monkey as long as it was wearing a red rosette, whilst simultaneously managing to woo the people in the centre, the “aspirational middle classes” and bored Lib Dem voters.  It’s the old South Wales problem again – he didn’t feel like he needed to do anything to win over the “Old Labour” voters because they would never vote Tory in a million years, so he was free to concentrate on winning the centre, which is what he really wanted.  Blair’s Labour bore absolutely no resemblance to the old, incompetent, depressing Labour of the 1970s.  Blair then saw us through the 2004 expansion, ratification of the Lisbon Treaty without a referendum, and had his reputation seriously tarnished by Iraq.  The financial crisis was the last straw.  So as with Thatcher, so with Blair.  As always happens eventually in a two party system, after so many years at the top the ruling party becomes deeply unpopular and people want change again.  But the Tories were still really unpopular too, which is why Cameron couldn’t win a majority even when the alternative was Brown.  The Lib Dem coalition was widely seen as a fiasco, even if many people now look back on their contribution far more kindly in retrospect.  At the time I remember seeing the Lib Dems as a beacon of hope, only to be crushingly disappointed a few months later when they seemed to just be propping up the Tories.

For a decade now we have been in a situation where most people feel their standard of living has worsened and whether you are working-class, middle-class, poor, well-off, staunch Brexiteer or passionate remainer, most people view general elections as a largely pointless exercise where you are being asked to choose which of the two potential parties of government you hate the least, and you know your vote probably won’t count anyway. Not to mention that at some point the right-wing media decided that being in the EU wasn’t in their interests, so they started giving loads of airtime to people like Farage and Boris, and drip-feeding people negative stories about immigration and bendy bananas.

All of this was a perfect storm, and created the ideal conditions for hard-line Europhobia (because it is far more than scepticism now) to come along out of nowhere and dominate public discourse.  I have no idea why anyone was surprised that disaffected voters turned out in their millions to vote for UKIP in the 2014 European Parliament elections, or why people didn’t see Brexit coming from a mile off.  Clearly no one in charge was listening.  I have been regularly reading the comments on many pro-Brexit and pro-remain Facebook pages since 2013.  I also often read the comments below the line on news articles (across the whole political spectrum), and I even looked briefly at Mumsnet, of all places.  The writing has been on the wall for a really long time.  (Incidentally, at risk of looking like an insane conspiracy theorist, I am fairly certain that people were being paid to post pro-leave propaganda on Mumsnet [SNIP personal details].)

I worked for the government [SNIP], and I witnessed what I would describe as a gradual takeover by the “headbangers”.  [SNIP]  Even as far back as 2014 when I first started advising [a Conservative junior minister], [SNIP] his response would invariably be “well when we leave the EU we won’t have to worry about this sort of thing any more”.  This was before Cameron had even got his majority and committed to holding a referendum. [SNIP] He is exactly the kind of politician who was considered to be on the fringe five years ago and is very much mainstream now. [SNIP]

We have some real nutbags in the government at the moment.

As for where we are now, I’m afraid I have my doubts about whether we are really heading in the direction of a soft Brexit.  If we end up with any kind of solution which doesn’t look like we have properly left the EU, a lot of people are going to go absolutely apeshit.  Most of the prominent faces in government have essentially committed to hard Brexit, either because they are a headbanger who genuinely thinks that’s a good idea, or because they haven’t really thought through the consequences of hard Brexit but want to be seen to be doing what’s popular.  It is going to be very difficult for all those people to backtrack now.  If we end up going for something which looks like soft Brexit, millions of people are going to feel completely betrayed and as though they have no stake in our democracy anymore.  (They felt that way already, but now they will feel that it has been confirmed beyond all doubt.)  They also – overwhelmingly – do not care about the economic fallout.  They do not care about Northern Ireland.  They are not interested in listening to evidence about the benefits we get from being in the EU, or in having a discussion about the Working Time Directive.  They definitely don’t care about wanker bankers in London losing their jobs.  They are just angry and they want us OUT.  And contrary to popular belief, they’re not all Daily Mail reading pensioners who will moan but ultimately find other things to complain about.  Some of them have the potential to cause real havoc.

I fear we are in a lose-lose situation.  Hard Brexit will be shit from an economic point of view and it will completely fuck up Northern Ireland, but soft Brexit will create the ideal conditions for widespread rioting, civil unrest and the rise of groups like Britain First.

Your post is essentially based on the assumption that parliament has taken back control and that the grown-ups are now in charge.  But parliament is not the government.  If the Tory government stays the course until 2022 (which you seem to think it will), I am not sure which grown-ups you expect to take over, because I haven’t seen any for quite some time.  And if the government falls… well, Jeremy Corbyn is traditional old Labour and mad as a box of frogs, so I wouldn’t count on him to save the day either.

Even if the predictions you have made turn out to be correct in the short-term, in the long-term the issue is never going to go away until the problems that have led to it have been addressed. And Brexit (any kind of Brexit) makes it far less likely that any government will have the time, the inclination or the funds to address those problems.

I can respond to this briefly, as follows.

I would accept that a distinct bloc of nationalist voters exists in declining former industrial areas (sometimes called by the rather patronising term "left behind").  But the 52% was a coalition between these voters and other, quite different groups (and the same is true of the Remain side).  I'd also want to make the point that British society hasn't been consistently Eurosceptic - support for the EU (and the EEC before it) has shown large swings from one side to the other in polls over the years.  All in all, I don't think there was anything inevitable about the 2016 vote, and I don't think we can say that a hard Brexit is the settled "will of the people", to use a currently fashionable phrase.  At this point in time, we have a deeply divided society, and that's what lies behind the current parliamentary arithmetic.  My main point in my last post was that there is now a parliamentary path to soft Brexit (and no obvious path to hard Brexit or Remain); but I wouldn't claim that this has anything to do with grown ups taking over.  There are few enough of those in British politics these days.  A soft Brexit may enrage the "left behind" voting bloc to the point of encouraging far-right extremism, but at this point there is no outcome that won't cause serious anger or harm to some part or parts of British society.  That's how fucked we are.  I merely point the problem out without offering a solution.