On Brexit, What a Pathetic, Leaderless Country We Have Become
In America and around the world, the apocalyptic nightmare of Donald Trump and his administration is provoking widespread protest.
In the UK, meanwhile, as deluded nationalists led by the Prime Minister Theresa May forge ahead with pushing for our departure from the EU as a result of last June’s narrow victory for the Leave campaign in an advisory referendum in which 27.9% of the electorate couldn’t even be bothered to vote, almost no one is standing up for the 16.1 million people — myself included — who voted for Remain.
It is as if, at a general election, the party that wins gets the right to prevent the opposition from criticising them at all, and also gets to completely ignore everything that those who voted for the opposition believes, when it contradicts what the winning party thinks.
How is this possible? The wretched referendum, whose outcome was not legally binding, was so blunt and inadequate a tool that it failed to specify what leaving the EU would entail, or, indeed, whether that would be acceptable to voters. And yet, under Theresa May and her three Brexiteers — David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox — no questions about the form Brexit might take — let alone whether it might not be a good idea to accept the result of an advisory referendum that might end up being economically suicidal — was allowed.
With the blackest irony, our leaders, defending a referendum that was supposed to restore sovereignty to the UK, spent months fighting to prevent that. Sovereignty in the UK resides in Parliament, not in the whims of the Prime Minister and her Cabinet, and yet the increasingly unhinged May and her Brexiteer clowns fought in court to prevent Parliament from having any say, appealing to the Supreme Court when the High Court reminded them what sovereignty means, and losing for a second and final time last week, after wasting nearly three months that could have been productively spent discussing what Brexit actually means.
In response to the Supreme Court ruling, the petulant government then issued a derisory bill, the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill (HC Bill 132), containing just two clauses and 137 words, scheduling just two days for MPs to discuss it (yesterday and today, culminating in a vote), and three days in the committee and report stages before it goes back to the Lords.
As the Guardian reported, Labour then “tabled seven planned amendments to the bill, one of which would guarantee a ‘meaningful vote in parliament’ on any final deal. Another amendment would be to guarantee the protection of workers’ rights and securing ‘full tariff- and impediment-free access’ to the EU’s single market. The other five amendments are: to ensure the Brexit secretary, David Davis, reports on progress to the Commons at least every two months; guaranteeing the rights of foreign EU nationals living in the UK; obliging regular consultation with the devolved governments; requir[ing] regular impact assessments on the effects of leaving the single market; and [obliging] the government to keep all existing EU tax avoidance and evasion measures. The final amendment is targeted at the government’s threat that if the UK does not get a sufficiently good deal from the EU it will walk away and shift the economy towards low regulation and tax.”
These are sensible amendments, but Jeremy Corbyn then imposed a three-line whip on Labour MPs, insisting that they all vote with the government and pass the bill — presumably because of fears that, otherwise, pro-Brexit Leave voters will be alienated.
Quite why the concerns of Remain voters should so thoroughly dismissed was not explained by Jeremy Corbyn, but it has, understandably, led to rebellions by shadow ministers and MPs.
Lest we forget, although 17.4 million people voted for Brexit (37.4% of eligible voters), and 16.1 million voted against it (34.7% of eligible voters) — and another 13 million (27.9% of eligible voters) didn’t vote at all — those results are not reflected in the views held by MPs.
As we went into the referendum, 479 out of 637 MPs who had declared an intention were voting Remain — almost exactly 75%, with just 12 MPs’ opinions unknown.
Of the Tories, 185 supported Remain, while just 138 supported Leave. For Labour, 218 supported Remain, while just ten supported Leave. And all 54 SNP MPs supported Remain, as did all eight Liberal Democrats, and 22 of the 24 other MPs from other parties, including Caroline Lucas of the Green Party.
And yet, since June 23, Remain voters have found themselves almost entirely sidelined in discussions about Brexit, in the media and also in Parliament, despite the fact that this is the most significant decision in the lifetimes of anyone born after the UK joined the EU in 1973, despite the fact that it is hugely significant whether leaving the EU means leaving the single market (which we were not asked about), or leaving the customs union (which, again, we were not asked about), in order to allegedly control our borders, and even though doing so might well be the single most devastating act of economic suicide committed by any country in living memory.
Against our valid fears of an economic apocalypse, all we have been given in response is the would-be tyranny of Theresa May, seeking to exclude Parliament from its sovereign role, and aggressive Leavers complaining, monotonously, that “you lost, get over it,” as though disentangling ourselves from 43 years of laws and treaties is a simple binary choice, and not, as I recently described it, “like deliberately cutting a living body in half but then having only a few minutes to conduct the major surgery required to not let the patient die.”
When not snapping at us, the Leavers have also demonstrated a hopelessly sunny and deluded optimism, adopted by people up to and including David Davis, whose behaviour suggests that they believe that upbeat jingoism and nationalism and obsessive British pride and self-obsession is a reflection of reality rather than a hopelessly outdated delusion from the inhabitants of an island nation and former imperial power with a deluded sense of its own importance, which is proposing cutting itself off from a club that numerous other countries would dearly love to be a member of.
And yet, as the vote on Article 50 approaches, the 16.1 million of us who voted Remain are still barely represented. In December, just 89 of the 479 MPs who supported Remain last June voted against a non-binding but symbolically significant proposal to allow Theresa May to trigger Article 50 by the end of March — 23 Labour, 5 Lib Dems, 51 SNP, Green MP Caroline Lucas, Ken Clarke of the Conservatives and eight others — and, two months on, those who voted Remain are no closer to being adequately represented.
Tory Remainers are so far largely refusing to break ranks — although one can only hope they find their spine when the two years of negotiations that follow the triggering of Article 50 begin — because, presumably, their constituents will not take kindly to having their wishes betrayed, as Zac Goldsmith learned in Richmond in December. Raphael Behr had an article in the Guardian yesterday about the silent Tory rebels, but every indication is that none but Ken Clarke will rebel now, and that, as in December, only around 90 MPs will vote against the bill to trigger article 50; in other words, despite the 16.1 million of us who voted Remain getting 48.1% of the vote, and despite 75% of MPs having supported Remain, just 14% of MPs will represent the wishes of the 48.1%. When the SNP MPs are taken out of that equation, the situation is even more scandalously unrepresentative, with only around 6% of English, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs prepared to stand by the 14.5 million Remain voters in the three countries — and 94% of MPs supporting the 16.4 million who voted to Leave. This massive representational imbalance — and the accompanying disdain for Remain voters from their own MPs — must surely be remedied over the next two years or there will be hell to pay at the ballot box in 2020.
As Polly Toynbee wrote in a Guardian article yesterday, ‘Labour MPs owe a duty to the country – not Corbyn’s absurd three-line whip’:
It is the first duty – the patriotic duty – of elected politicians to protect citizens from danger and promote their wellbeing, as they see it. Yet out of cowardice or political self-interest most will vote this week for what they think will profoundly and permanently damage their electors.
A quarter of MPs will joyfully vote us out of the EU, because these Europhobes sincerely believe this wayward self-destruction is in the national interest. But three times more MPs never supported Brexit, knowing it to be an error looking more damaging by the day. Still, they will vote for it all the same. Ignoring Edmund Burke’s instruction to act as representatives and leaders, instead they will cravenly follow what a small majority thought one day in June.
They “respect” the result of the referendum, they repeat nervously. Why? It was a consultative vote that failed to define Brexit on what terms, with what sacrifices or at what price. So foolishly certain were both main parties that they would swing a remain result, they agreed a referendum without setting a threshold beyond a bare majority. They added no mechanism for agreeing an unknowable Brexit deal at the end of negotiations. MPs should now salvage and repair some of that negligence.
Focusing specifically on pro-EU Labour MPs in constituencies where a majority of voters supported leave, Toynbee added:
What a dismal spectacle to see life-long pro-Europeans in Brexit-voting constituencies crumpling to “respect the will of the people” for fear of losing their seats. Those who rebel are virtually all in remain seats, where that “respect” is simpler.
Labour MPs caught in that dilemma plead their working-class voters’ indignation at immigration, suppressed wages, over-run public services – even though many of these seats have few migrants: relatively few are like the much-quoted Boston or Barking. These MPs defend themselves by sneering at “metropolitans” who, they say, don’t understand north-eastern or Midland seats.
I would reply to them that they have a deeper duty to their voters than obeying how they voted that day. MPs’ duty is to lead and defend their people from Brexit’s reduced living standards. Make the case. Stand by what you believe and explain why Brexit will harm them, their children and their grandchildren. Talk about why a stable alliance in which we have an equal voice is stronger than the haphazard chance of trade deals with the likes of US, China or the Gulf – none the size of our EU trade.
Nor is this primarily a class question: the old are more to blame for Brexit. But as older cohorts drop off the perch, Labour MPs should stand up for the new young voters reaching the register. They say economics can’t win the EU argument alone – though if brutal Brexit predictions turn horribly real, that will change. If emotional patriotism matters most, then our sovereignty is safer with Europe, not demeaning our sovereign in a golden carriage ride down the Mall with Trump. Our status in the world is stronger as a leading EU member than alone, striking dishonourable deals with dictators. Shunning Trump and re-embracing Europe best reflects British values, who we are, what we believe and what binds us to democracies like ours: it’s not too late.
Based on my analysis of the disaster that Brexit will be for our economy — in part confirmed by Ian Dunt’s excellent and highly recommended book, Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? — I’d love to see a majority of MPs vote against the proposal to trigger Article 50 by the end of March, because, to be frank, I want to see Brexit stopped — to save my country from returning to the 1860s or becoming an international tax haven with no money for public services — but I doubt that will happen, leaving myself and the rest of the 16.1 million to count on MPs fighting to secure the least damaging Brexit deal possible in the two years of negotiations following the triggering of Article 50 — with a particular focus on the importance of the single market and the customs union, and with the understanding that, if it becomes apparent during negotiations that it will be an unprecedented economic disaster, MPs can and must stop it.
Exact details of how constituencies voted have been hard to come by, but Chris Hanretty, a Reader in Politics at the University of East Anglia, published estimates after the referendum suggesting that around 230 of Parliament’s 650 constituencies voted Remain, and that the majority for Leave was only between 0.1% and 7% in the next 100 seats, taking us to a majority of the country’s 650 seats. These figures suggest to me that, if the true, catastrophic cost of Brexit can be exposed following the triggering of Article 50 (a task that, presumably, must fall to MPs because so much of our media is biased in favour of the Leave campaign), it is not inconceivable that Brexit can be stopped.
Numerous polls since the referendum (see here, here, here and here) indicate that the Leavers’ majority has already been overturned, and I would argue that the only reasonable response to this, given the enormity of what is at stake, is for there to be another referendum based on the details of leaving the EU, not the simple desire to do so, or for MPs, when they get to vote on the details of our planned departure, presumably in 2019, to refuse to endorse them, before the UK sinks under the weight of its hubristic and dangerously unwarranted self-regard.
Note: The illustration at the top of this article is by the illustrator Nate Kitch. See his website for more.
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album ‘Love and War’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp).
He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).
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