Being Anti-Brexit

There are three, at least, major problems facing anyone wanting to be actively anti-Brexit at the moment:

– The accusation of ignoring the popular will as expressed in the referendum and, related to that, of being a ‘bad loser’ in some way that offends English sensibilities.

– The continuing strong support in the country for an anti-immigration stance around having unconditional sovereign control of our borders.

– The political logic driving the government towards a hard Brexit as a means of maintaining party unity.

The first of these is the relatively easy one, as it is about rhetoric rather than facts (though rhetoric can, of course, have real world consequences).  There is no denying that 52% of people who voted in June 2016 expressed a preference for leaving the EU.  But this did not amount to a vote in favour of any particular future relationship with the EU, nor does it bind the people of England to a course of action which, at some future point and in the light of further information, it decides it does not want to pursue.  Given the enormous importance of what is happening, it is not being a ‘bad loser’ to point this out, it is being a responsible member of a mature democracy.  Anyone who tries to indicate otherwise should be robustly rebutted.

The second and third problems, taken together, are more tricky because of the continuing determination, it would seem, of our EU partners to tie single market membership to the free movement of labour.  Maybe in some back room somewhere, a partial disconnection between the two is being negotiated, but there is little sign of that being the case.  In any case, it is dubious whether partial retention of free movement is any longer politically tenable, without some radical shift in the public mood.

So, what can the anti-Brexiteer do to help bring about this change in public perceptions?  There is, naturally, the need to continue pointing out the benefits of the Single Market to family and friends and to workplace colleagues.  But one of the lessons of the referendum was that abstruse economic arguments do not outweigh the immediacy of issues like sovereignty and immigration.  The more effective path is therefore to identify the material consequences of Brexit as and when they occur and make sure that people understand that these are happening due to separation (or the prospect of separation) from the Single Market.  The Remain campaign suffered from dealing in hypotheticals; it will be much easier to make the economic arguments when the hypotheticals become reality.  There may well arrive a time, if events are properly framed, when the price being paid for an extreme anti-immigrant approach will be seen as being too high by the English electorate and compromise will be welcomed.

The sad aspect of this approach is that the argument can only be won after much, or possibly all, of the damage has been done.  Nevertheless, the fight must be fought – we owe it to our country and to future generations to do so.  If the impact of a hard Brexit on jobs and living standards start to become clear before the end of the two year notice period of Article 50, there may yet be an opportunity to soften the terms.  Failing this, a future government could be better positioned to modify our relationship with the EU in the future.  And, at the very least, if the English people come to appreciate the economic losses of leaving the Single Market, they may be less willing in the future to accept the lead of those who offer them simple solutions that appeal to their prejudices and fears.  They may even be willing to listen to experts.

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How Should a Centrist Party Position Itself?

English politics has reached the slightly surreal position where the two main parties have both adopted the policies and philosophies of minor parties that operate on the fringes of what used to be the political mainstream.  The Labour Party has taken on the radicalism of the Green Party and the commitment to full-blooded socialism of the Judean Popular Front or whatever splinter of the Fourth International one might care to name.  Meanwhile, the Conservatives are working their way through the UKIP manifesto while in government.

This clearly leaves acres of space within which a centrist party can emerge.  The obvious inheritors of this opportunity are the Liberal Democrats – if they can find the wit to disown their Tory-supporting past, weakness in coalition, and unappealing leader.  Even then, there is a need to put together a policy platform that has broad appeal and distances itself from both Labour and Tories.  Fortunately, this is a relatively simple task given the desertion of the centre ground by these parties, and allows for a policy platform that is progressive in nature while still being in line with the fundamental conservatism of the English electorate.

A centrist party can plausibly position itself as the only party that is currently:

  • Pro-Business. Committed to policies that generate the wealth and prosperity that can then be used to combat social ills.
  • Future-directed. Optimistic about the ability to create a better future rather than trying to re-create some version of the past.
  • One-nation. Seeing all groups in society as contributing to our general welfare and as meriting respect and consideration.  Middle class or working class, educated or not, indigenous or recently settled, urban or rural, northern or southern, liberal or conservative in temperament, traditional or alternative in lifestyle.  All one nation.

Centrist Populism

A major challenge in advocating non-doctrinaire, progressive solutions to social ills is that rational, pragmatic arguments do not have the emotional force of the more simplistic solutions offered by the left and right.  Citizenship education (see previous post), if introduced, would go some way towards remedying this situation, but it is not currently in place and it is unlikely that it would ever entirely remove the appeal of populism.

This therefore means that for a pragmatic political programme to gain acceptance from large parts of the electorate, the inclusion of policies with a straightforward popular appeal may be necessary.  It should be possible to identify a number of such policies that can still contribute to an overall rational approach to particular issues e.g.

These policies could then be given particular prominence during communications with voters.  The point is, though, to harness populism for progressive purposes rather than just to chase votes.

Public Ownership

Debates continue about the relative merits of private and public ownership of organisations supplying services in a number of sectors – transport, healthcare, education, criminal justice and banking are all currently in the spotlight.

Valid arguments exist for both forms of ownership, thus perpetuating the debate.  For example, public ownership is seen as a means of encouraging organisations to act in the public rather than private interest, to provide services that are socially necessary but not profitable, and also avoids the profit motive to raise prices and/or squeeze wages.

By the same token, private ownership is claimed to supply the commercial incentives to be efficient and to innovate, to be responsive to consumer preferences including product and service quality, and to permit the operation of market mechanisms to match demand and supply.

These advantages occur differentially in different sectors e.g. promoting the public interest is obviously of prime importance for policing, while responsiveness to consumer preferences is central to retail operations.  These differential advantages lead naturally to a tendency for public ownership to be more prevalent in some areas of society and the economy than in others.  However, in any sector, competing arguments can be put forward for public and private ownership, as each has its advantages.

This suggests that there should be no ideological preference for either form of ownership and that the choice between the two should be made on purely pragmatic grounds.  And that, given that there are substantial costs involved in moving from one form of ownership to the other, privatisation or nationalisation should only occur when a particular sector is facing severe problems and a change in ownership is the best or only means of remedying these problems (given that there may be alternative means of addressing problems that do not require a change of ownership e.g. using inspection regimes to promote efficiency in a publicly owned organisation or strengthening the ombudsman function with respect to a particular part of the private sector).

An exception may be where (as in the case of some banks) companies have been nationalised as a short-term stabilisation measure and can be returned to the private sector with minimal disruption. Overall, though, there seems to be little need to bring about an increase or reduction in the size of the public sector in the foreseeable future.

International Law

Those aspects of the progressive agenda that transcend national boundaries can only be convincingly and sustainably pursued through multinational agreement and, preferably, by enshrining these agreements in international law.  Below is an indicative list of items that best lend themselves to this approach:

  • Removing trade barriers.
  • Preventing military encroachment on to the sovereign territory of other nations, except when necessary to enforce other aspects of international law and sanctioned by the appropriate body.
  • Clarity on national boundaries.
  • Preventing military-type action against groups of unarmed civilians, including the use of weaponry that has particular impact on civilians.
  • Preventing deliberate, serious, state-sanctioned (whether actively or passively) and widespread persecution of civilian groups on the grounds of ethnicity, gender, disability or sexual orientation.
  • Action to limit climate change.
  • Appropriate sharing of transnational natural resources through international arbitration.
  • Definition and treatment of refugees.
  • Preventing the use of torture.
  • Action against international criminal activity.
  • Removing tax havens.

Action by individual countries is likely to be ineffective in regard to many of the above, and may lead to the nation undertaking the action suffering in economic or other ways without making any appreciable difference (particularly if other countries respond by furthering their own economic or political interests in a manner that negates the action taken).  An obvious example is the use of economic sanctions; these will be ineffective, and will cause losses to the country applying them, unless a large part of the international community participates.

The emphasis should therefore always be on building an international coalition for action rather than undertaking piecemeal, isolated measures that will be little more than self-harming gestures.  This does not mean, of course, that we cannot take a leading role in forming such coalitions, including leading by example.  We should also be scrupulous in following international law ourselves where this does exist; so as to avoid giving any excuses to other countries to ignore those aspects of international law they find inconvenient to their own purposes.