Award 2018 Nominee
Six articles about Brexit
This work of John Harris gives a sense of 2017 as one of the most complicated, strange moments in modern UK history.
Whatever happened to the left-behind?
It seems more unlikely than ever that deprived Brexit-voting areas will see any economic revival
It was not much more than a year ago. The result of the EU referendum was still being pored over, and the political moment seemed to be all about two things: a view of much of the leave vote as a cry of pain and resentment from parts of the country beyond London, and the urgent need to do something. Journalists were still being dispatched to the supposed Brexit heartlands; among politicians, the idea was that now that such places as south Wales, the east of England, the Midlands and the non-urban north had spoken so loudly that their deep problems were finally going to be addressed.
If you want a taste of what was briefly afoot, have a look at the text of Theresa May’s Conservative conference speech from October 2016 , delivered in the days when she was still in the business of strong and stable leadership and her backdrops did not collapse , both literally and metaphorically. She used the word “revolution” four times. “In June people voted for change,” she said. “And a change is going to come … this is a turning point for our country.”
She did not mean this only in terms of our exit from the EU: the referendum, she said, was nothing less than a “call for a change in the way our country works – and the people for whom it works – forever ”. Among other things, there was to be “an economic and cultural revival of all of our great regional cities”, while the power of government would be placed “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”, and the gap between “the wealth of London and the rest of the country” would be narrowed.
Now, as her government decays, most of her words read like the founding statement of a project that never was. Clearly, even if most of the people who voted for Brexit still seem convinced that it was the right thing to do, there are few signs of any changes to the places where they live. Quite the reverse, in fact. Though the creation of the capital’s beloved £15bn Crossrail continues apace, plans to modernise railway lines in Wales, Yorkshire, the Midlands and Cumbria have all been shelved. Philip Hammond has promised train services in the north a derisory extra £300m (by way of comparison, the cost of HS2 is put at £400m per mile ).
Meanwhile, the austerity imposed on city and local government carries on, and the loudest sound coming from the most neglected parts of the country is the great howl of pain arising from the government’s cruel changes to the benefi ts system. The Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfi l became something of a byword for Brexit , and it seems just as symbolic of what has happened since: universal credit will arrive there next March, and the council is facing at least another two years of cuts. Not far away in Newport, Gwent, where 56% of people voted to leave the EU, the council leader also happens to be the head of the Welsh Local Government Association.
“Services are wearing down to the point of collapse, and the public are rightly growing frustrated in terms of paying council tax and yet seeing key community functions cut or closed,” Debbie Wilcox says. “The whole position is unsustainable.”
At the heart of all this is the political irony that defi nes our times: that the very thing so many places voted for makes any attempt at their area’s revival even less likely. The only economic rebalancing that looks set to arise from Brexit will be London becoming a bit less rich thanks to the downsizing of the City. The Herculean effort needed to even begin meaningful negotiations is so consuming to the machinery of government that it clearly has no capacity for anything else.
And just look at this week’s Brexit headlines: news that £500m has already been spent on preparing to leave the EU , that next year’s outlays will be about £1m a day, and that the number of extra civil servants who will be needed to deal with our departure is now put at 8,000. Imagine if all that money and effort were devoted to a policy aimed at reversing the country’s long decline and thinking creatively about the future.
That mess of contradictions might look like good news for the people who think Brexit has to be overturned. But in the context of the places that ensured that leave had a majority, they have their own set of problems.
Whenever I spend time in Brexitsupporting areas, a few questions usually rattle through my mind. In the 17 months since the vote, has the coalition of forces – Labour and Tory remainers, Liberal Democrats, Greens – that now demands it is nullified given any serious thought to why so much of the country failed to heed its warnings, and continues to ignore them, even as promises go unmet, and Brexit grows dangerous and ever more complex? Do they have any kind of offer to leave voters in neglected places, beyond a second referendum and a return to the pre- 2016 status quo?
Even if the prime minister has failed to make good on her promises of a rebalanced country, the Brexit moment embodies one aspect of her vision: the fact that, for the fi rst time in decades, people and places that were long overlooked – sneered at, even – now sit at the core of our national politics. Though the Labour party’s acceptance of Brexit and its failure to come up with much of an alternative might seem maddening, its position on the EU is not just down to the Eurosceptic instincts of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Clearly, it is also locked into its position by the fact that most of the constituencies it holds – seven out of 10, according to credible estimates – voted to leave Europe, and the assumption that a critical number of the people who live in them are still of the opinion that Brexit has to happen, no matter what.
If you want to be patronising about it, you could take the view that all this is down to the lies of the leave campaign and a mess of nastiness surrounding immigration. But from a more enlightened perspective, it might be more instructive to understand a lot of support for leave as the climax of years of decline, neglect and condescension – and something that is hardly going to be abandoned in a hurry.
Forget, for a moment, all that noise about the fine details of the negotiations or whatever trade secretary Liam Fox has said about chicken, and think about how the politics of Brexit will actually play out. If the government’s weak grip on power offers the chance of renewed questioning of where the country is headed, some of the answer will arise from those remain-supporting MPs who now reluctantly back leaving the EU out of fear of their leave-voting constituents.
Will those voters change their minds? If there is a contrast between the promises of national revival made only a year ago and the lack of action since, a lot will hang on whether that discrepancy has any traction, or collides with people’s ingrained fatalism and fades away. Just as much will depend on the trade-off between economic damage and a deep belief in national sovereignty that runs much deeper among workingclass leave supporters than some people would like to think. The future suddenly pivots on Merthyr and Mansfield, Walsall and Blackburn: symbolic of these unexpected, upturned times.
Brexit won’t punish bankers. But it will harm voters
With a balanced economy we could relax when financiers shut up shop. As it is, we need their taxes
The reasons why 17.4 million British people put their crosses in the leave box last summer have been endlessly analysed, and often crudely carved in half – as if some Brexit supporters were angry about immigration and others fixated on questions of sovereignty, and that was pretty much that.
But 10 years after the French bank BNP Paribas heralded the coming financial crisis by suspend ing two hedge funds that had effectively proved worthless, it’s worth reprising a pretty basic point: among the furies that exploded on 23 June last year were lingering grievances about the crash of 2007-8. The years since the cashpoints almost ran out had seen simmering anger about the endless billions pumped into the big banks and the lack of any obvious reckoning – not to mention exasperation with politicians chained to the demands of high finance, and not nearly interested enough in the millions of people whose only acquaintance with the City lay in the mess it had made.
Clearly, the vote for Brexit represented a kind of misdirected, flailing revenge. As big banks lined up with the UK’s largest corporations to warn the public that Brexit would be disastrous , the sense of an instantaneous backlash was obvious. Former City insider Nigel Farage well knew Brexit’s basic populist plotlines, and when he made his victory speech in the small hours of 24 June , he said that the leave campaign had knocked down three adversaries in particular: “multinationals”, “big politics”, and “merchant banks”.
Having got up off the floor, some of the City of London’s biggest players are now taking big decisions. They have contracts that extend way beyond 2019, but what Brexit negotiations might mean for them remains chronically unclear. Plans for their future European operations need to be made now. So plenty are starting to shift parts of their business outside London, to a surprisingly muted response. Philip Hammond, the chancellor, seems to know roughly what is at stake, but swaths of the Conservative party – that historic redoubt of traders, brokers and high-rollers – seem surprisingly unconcerned. After all, what have bankers – bankers – ever done for us? Part of the answer lies in the £70 bn-ish of tax revenue paid by financial services in 2015/16 – about twothirds of our annual spend on the NHS .
What is pushing banks away from London is obvious enough. In the wake of the referendum, there was a lot of talk about the City somehow retaining its “passporting” rights, which allow banks and fund managers to do business freely across Europe. Those hopes now look forlorn: indeed, the City ’s biggest lobby group, TheCityUK, served notice that it was giving up the fi ght for such privileges back in January.
Given that Britain has said that it wants to leave the single market, the EU was hardly likely to allow the UK to retain one of that market’s lucrative elements, and the search for a possible substitute has now focused on so-called “equivalence” : arrangements for certain kinds of fi nancial trading to continue, if the EU agrees that Britain’s regulations are in line with its own.
This may be all that the City has to cling to, but there are no end of drawbacks, not least the fact that such arrangements are unilaterally granted by Brussels, and can be revoked at a month’s notice . Small wonder, perhaps, that there is all that talk about possible transition periods. But even if we actually get to postpone the worst of Brexit, what happens in 2022, or 2025, or whenever we fi nally leave? And what of the big City interests who are already reshaping their operations?
To the audible delight of Irish estate agents, tailors and wine merchants, the authorities there say they have finalised deals with more than a dozen banks and finance houses for some of their business to be shifted from London to Dublin. JP Morgan – which warned during the referendum campaign that Brexit might mean losing a quarter of its 16,000 UK staff – has started building a 22-storey tower on the banks of the Liff ey. Morgan Stanley is likely to shed jobs in London by expanding operations in Frankfurt; CitiGroup, Standard Chartered and Nomura Holdings are reportedly opening new offices Brexit won’t punish bankers. But it will harm voters John Harris in the same city . That much-loved public favourite the Royal Bank of Scotland apparently has its sights set on Amsterdam, which is nice.
“To the joy of Irish estate agents, tailors and wine merchants, more than a dozen banks will shift business to Dublin”
When I called round a few City insiders this week and asked them how much of London’s financial business Brexit might cost, one put the figure at 25%. An LSE study reckons the potential loss of business revenue is around 15%; one Brussels-based thinktank says the value of assets about to be transferred to mainland Europe may total € 1.8tn , equivalent to 17% of the UK’s banking assets. To state the blindingly obvious, in an economy as financialised as ours, that’s a lot.
Meanwhile, even bigger anxieties swirl around. Some relate to the disastrous possibilities of a cliff -edge Brexit, glimpsed this week in the letter written to the House of Commons Treasury select committee by the deputy governor of the Bank of England in charge of the Prudential Regulation Authority, which essentially exists to prevent financial crises.
He warned of threats to both the financial sector and the UK economy as a whole, as well as holding out a particularly chilling prospect: that just as personal debt reaches a critical point and warnings of financial fragility are once again heard, British regulators might be prevented from doing their usual work by the new responsibility of regulating the British operations of European companies hitherto overseen by other EU governments. He calls this a “material extra burden”; the rest of us might think of it in terms of accidents waiting to happen.
This may be the first column I have ever written in defence of banks. If we had any kind of solid, dependable, balanced economy, we all might be much more relaxed . But there are no signs of that; indeed, leaving the EU looks likely to make the gaping inequalities the City symboli ses even worse. The next time you are in a hospital or school, you might want to consider two things: that bankers foot a siz able share of the costs; and , in the midst of Brexit’s mix of anger, delusion and indiff erence, they may soon be paying their taxes somewhere else.
Fear there’ll be food rotting in the fi elds after Brexit? It’s already starting
Our farms rely on EU fruit and veg pickers. But they are staying away, and it’ll hit this summer’s harvest
In the wake of an ocean of writing linking Brexit to the zeitgeisty Dunkirk spirit , here’s one more martial metaphor. Self-evidently, this is the phoney war stage of the process. Negotiations have barely started; the prime minister is on holiday. Meanwhile, ministers – and Labour politicians – talk about the fundamentals of leaving the European Union as if we can push Brussels in any direction we fancy and freely choose no end of measures to ease our passage out.
The recent noise about freedom of movement is a case in point. If the government has a coherent position, it seems to be that migration from the EU under current rules will end in 2019 , but also carry on, with – according to the home secretary, anyway – the proviso that during an “implementation phase” of up to four years, people from the EU will simply have to add their names to a national register. Thus, a great human army which keeps so much of Britain’s economy ticking over will still be available, just as long as the right arrangements are put in place.
This is, of course, somewhat less than credible, as evidenced by a mounting crisis that has yet to turn critical but is bubbling away across the country. At the least, we are fundamentally changing the basis on which people can live and work in the UK, swapping residence as a right for a much more uncertain system dependent on political caprice.
If you wanted to be more dramatic, you might say that the 2016 European referendum in effect put a huge neon sign over Britain, saying, “ Foreigners not welcome ”. And to make matters worse, the value of sterling is making coming here even less attractive. “
The perception from overseas is we are xenophobic, we’re racist, and the pound has plummeted too. We’ve gone with Brexit and that makes us look unfriendly.” Those are the words of John Hardman, director of Hops Labour Solutions, which supplies about 12,000 workers a year to food-grow ers. He reckons that when it comes to “foodpicking jobs in agriculture – which means everything from strawberries to brussels sprouts” , there is currently a Brexit-related shortfall of about 20% , which chimes with recent surveys by the National Farmers Union.
What of the much-discussed prospect of food rotting in the fields? “We’re not far off . I suspect that’ll definitely happen next year,” he says. Hardman reckons that growers are beginning to question their investment plans for 2018, fearing crops going unpicked, and says that large-scale growers might soon consider moving into central and eastern Europe, at which point those much-fetishised union jacks will start to disappear from strawberry punnets.
According to a study by the GMB union sourced from official figures , nearly half the workers employed in the UK’s fruit and vegetable “processing and preserving sector” are from countries within the EU. In meat processing, the figure is 44%. But among seasonal businesses that use fruit and veg pickers, the number usually rockets to more than 90%. Such figures denote thousands of people who are often poorly paid and prepared to do monotonous, frequently back-breaking work, thereby keeping a large swath of Britain’s food economy ticking over.
But not for much longer, perhaps. In the latest survey by the Association of Labour Providers , 30% of agencies who supply workers to British food and agriculture businesses say they don’t expect to be able to source sufficient workers for the remainder of this summer’s peak picking period, and almost half say they will have problems in the busiest period before Christmas.
Whenever the subject of free movement and the UK’s food industry comes up, many people envisage a Brexit in which wages will leap up, British workers will return to the fields , and all will be well. Superficially, the fact that 40% of labour providers in agriculture and food say the businesses they service have recently had to increase wages makes it look like things might be pointing in that direction. But the food sector is just as complex and fragile as the rest of the economy, and it may not take much to tip it into chaos.
“The jobs are poorly paid, boring and backbreaking. Most UK-born people wouldn’t be interested”
Supermarkets can sell cheap food to people who haven’t had a pay rise in years thanks to an industry partly built around growing and packing businesses that tend to run on unbelievably tight margins (half of British fruit farms are reckoned to turn profi ts of less than 2% of turnover). But in the main food-growing areas of England – the East Anglian fens, for instance – unemployment rates tend to be low. And even leave-voting locals acknowledge that, whatever the wage rates (if you’re up for the work, you can turn £10 to £15 an hour picking strawberries), most UK-born people wouldn’t be interested in the kind of jobs that might soon be available.
Besides, seeing Brexit as any kind of cure for low-wage work is surely a political category error. The project that Britain is embroiled in is not a great progressive drive to right social wrongs: it is an emotion-driven revolution led by people on the political right who have no idea what they are doing . And sooner or later, thanks to a combination of reduced domestic production and insuffi cient workers, Brexit may well explode into further increases in food prices – a prospect which takes us back into the fragilities of Britain’s teetering economic model: limited household budgets, rising debt, and the fact that what separates millions on limited incomes from borderline starvation is the availability of cut-price food.
Meanwhile, the most zealous Brexiteers look forward to a supremely unlikely future in which we spurn the huge amount of food we import from Europe and somehow either produce our own, or fly in stuff from around the globe. Beyond the prospect of stupidly increased food miles and basic fruit and veg suddenly refrigerated to within an inch of its life , such half-baked visions may well bump up against one big problem: the effects of Brexit (including the loss of farming subsidies , which is a whole other mess) meaning we may not have much of a British food industry left – a strange thing to be embraced by selfstyled patriots, but there we are.
Who knows? We could turn the suddenly vacated fields into nostalgic theme parks, where people could watch re-enactments of the second world war while eating imported strawberries: it would be the perfect Brexit day out, should anyone be able to afford it.
They came to live a British dream. Is it all over?
Europeans moved to the UK to get ahead. But tough talk on immigration makes them fear for the future
On the southern edge of Peterborough is a new residential development called Cardea – a huge expanse of housing served by a solitary Morrison s supermarket and a self-styled “clean, modern pub” called the Apple Cart – which has become a byword for the more affl uent elements of the city’s Polish population.
On roads called Jupiter Avenue, Hercules Way and Neptune Close, newly built homes extend into the distance. A three-bedroom detached will give you change out of £250,000, and put you in close proximity to the expanse of warehouses, distribution centres and retail outlets which power a big part of the local economy. The openings such places offer tend to fall one of two ways: management positions and tech roles for people who have either worked their way up or arrived with the right qualifications; or, at what the modern vernacular calls entry level, more uncertain roles for people who are prepared to put in the graft, and who often shoulder the burden of mindbending shift patterns and low wages.
From a leftie perspective, all this might suggest some awful neoliberal dystopia. But to many people from EU countries, Peterborough has off ered the prospect of self-improvement and hardwon comfort. Individual career histories often defy not only the more doomy critiques of the modern job market, but the idea that human beings can be neatly divided into “low-skilled” and “highskilled” . They instead present a picture of people who have determinedly moved from one category to another.
One of my most reliable contacts is a fortysomething man who arrived in 2005, began stacking shelves for Marks & Spencer, and now runs his own photography business. In the recent past, I have met people who started packing crates for Ikea and became middlemanagers, or initially found low-grade work in supermarkets, only to eventually open their own shops.
Such stories are built around a set of aspirations: property ownership, relative affluence, and as much stability and security as the modern economy can deliver. Hearing them first-hand, I have felt at least some of my ingrained scepticism melt away: it might be easy to scoff at such an idea, but at least some people in this part of England have lived out a kind of British dream.
But no more, perhaps. Since 24 June last year, the signals emanating from Whitehall and Westminster have been clear. If the United Kingdom once offered an open door and an array of opportunities, such things are now almost completely obscured by mistrust, bad faith, and the sense that a majority of people in England and Wales (including the 61% of voters in Peterborough who supported Brexit) have had enough.
Such is the upshot of those leaked proposals from the Home Office, reportedly reflective of the views of Theresa May herself, and loudly endorsed by the right wing press. In symbolic terms, this is just one more burst of nastiness and delusion to add to an ever-expanding pile. But in the sense of practical policy, what has been proposed represents something quite remarkable: confirmation that post-Brexit Britain will put the demands of economics – or, put another way, national prosperity – well below the emotional stuff of belonging and nationhood, with no end of consequences.
Certainly, if it all comes to pass, there will be no more Cardeas. For any wouldbe migrant from mainland Europe, the kind of career ladder scaled by people in Peterborough will be snapped in two.
Supposedly low-skilled workers will only be able to stay for up to two years; even the high-skilled will have their stays capped at five. In that sense, the British dream will be over: migration from the EU will be subject to the kind of guest worker system that institutionalises prejudice and mistrust, and puts up huge barriers to some of the most basic elements of human existence.
Britain will be no place to start a family, or buy a home; as with people from outside the EU, anyone wanting to come and work here will be subject to an almost incomprehensible regime of income requirements, residency permits and immigration checks.
As far as I can tell, the mood among many people from EU countries remains stoical and hard-headed, perhaps reflective of a sensibility ingrained under communism, when the people in power regularly lost their minds but life had somehow to continue. “You are leaving the EU, so I guess some sort of restriction is inevitable,” said one of my Polish acquaintances this week.
But at the same time, there is a sense of a collective anxiety that has been slowly growing since last summer. On that score, I think of a woman I met in a Peterborough delicatessen back in February, who told me that her Facebook feed had recently filled with rumours that after the triggering of article 50, people from EU countries would be barred from re-entering Britain. “There are fears that they might chase us out of here, fears of deportations,” she said. Then she shrugged. “But life goes on.”
What all this says about the state of British Conservatism is very revealing. Post-Thatcher, the Tories have never resolved the tensions between the politics of nationalism and base prejudice, and the most basic principles of freemarket economics . But if May has her way, the fi rst will decisively trump (a good word, that) the second.
In that sense, the fate of a lot of people from mainland Europe will be hugely symbolic. Most of the EU citizens I have spoken to in Peterborough do not have a left wing thought in their heads; they believe in a credo of self-reliance, hard work and home ownership. In a British context, these ideas are as Tory as they come. So how come so many Conservatives now want to slam the door on their most devout adherents?
And what of the economy? Peterborough is one of the largest urban centres of a region of England in which unemployment is below the national average ; and in a city of nearly 300,000, a mere 1,770 people are currently claiming outof-work benefi ts. Its successive waves of migration from the EU – first Poles, Latvians and Lithuanians, then Bulgarians and Romanians – have fed a job market in which most British people are barely interested. Nonetheless, all of us have come to expect the benefi ts: cutprice food ; consumerism-on-tap ; the confidence of knowing that an online click today means a delivery tomorrow ; the idea that if the worst comes to the worst, some or other army of care workers will be there to look after us.
No more, perhaps: if a good deal of the explanation for Brexit is about a denial of the future and some misplaced vision of the past, we may be about to fi nd out what all that means in practice.
Terrified of the more irate elements of its core vote, the Labour party currently seems little interested in loudly raising the alarm. Whether Tory unease will boil over is uncertain, at best. But what we could be about to lose is obvious. Frozen into the brickwork of those newly built houses in Peterborough is a whole host of stuff – hard work, persistence, ambition, stoicism – that has played a huge role in keeping an increasingly fragile country in business. To throw all that away would be madness. But amid the general lunacy of Brexit, will that be enough to stop it?
Revolutions are for zealots and fools – as the Tory Bolsheviks will find out
Leaving the EU was meant to be Thatcherism’s fi nale, but could turn out to be its death instead
The centenary year of the Russian revolutions of 2017 highlights an accidentally topical question: what do revolutionaries do when they actually get their revolution? The immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik takeover of October 1917, wrote Leon Trotsky, often boiled down to “legislative improvisation”. In his auto biography, My Life , he explained the general idea as follows: “Everything had to proceed from the beginning. There were no ‘precedents’, since history had none to offer … As a rule, matters were brought up for consideration without previous preparation, and almost always as urgent business.”
Does this remind you of anything? Swap St Petersburg for a Brussels conference room a century later, and you perhaps get a comparable sense of slightly unhinged ideals colliding with reality (albeit without the rattle of gunfire and the looming prospect of civil war). “The Bolsheviks came to power without a detailed template for the new state order,” wrote the anti-communist historian Robert Service in his 2007 book Comrades. “They did their inventing almost as an afterthought.”
Reading those words again this week, my mind settled on three things: Theresa May’s claim last year that Brexit was nothing less than a “revolution” , that image of David Davis facing the EU’s negotiating teams sans notes , and an essential difference between Bolsheviks and Tory Brexiteers – the fact that whereas the former’s revolutionary project survived its most besieged and confused period, the latter’s seems to be crumpling before it has even got started.
Which brings us to the dire state of the Conservative party. Most political commentary frames mounting Tory chaos in terms of May’s spectacularly illadvised decision to call a general election, runners and riders for the leadership, and the implicit idea that a change at the top might make a signifi cant diff erence. But there is a much deeper story at play, about 2017 as the denouement of a Conservative story that dates back 40 years, and what might turn out to be the most piquant of ironies: that if Brexit marks the Tory right’s apogee of influence, it could also prove to be their moment of eclipse, in which they take even the more enlightened elements of their party down with them.
We all know where leaving the EU sits in the romantic imaginations of such Tories as Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox . They have their differences, but 40 years after the first of the great changes authored by Margaret Thatcher they tend to see Brexit as the ultimate stride into the free-market utopia her followers have always dreamed about, with the added bonus of huge patriotic symbolism. In this vision – of, as Fox puts it , “a low regulation and low taxation environment which is only likely to improve outside the EU” – Brussels is not the liberalising, pro-business force that reality suggests, but an eternal brake on enterprise and initiative that has to be comprehensively left behind.
Very often this is the reasoning behind the “no deal is better than a bad deal” position, and the most out-there Conservative vision of post-Brexit Britain, in which the only way to survive will be as a kind of northern European Singapore, fully in keeping with the ideals of the blessed Margaret.
Prior to the election, even if May’s brand of Toryism was turning out to be a lot less laissez-faire and anti-state than these people would have liked, there may have been some mileage in the idea that enough of the electorate would approve of these visions or meekly put up with them to make such turboThatcherism a goer. After all, after seven years of austerity and state-shrinking, the Conservatives were apparently heading for a landslide. But now? Austerity goes on, but its rationale is in retreat. Signal events, from the Grenfell Tower disaster to this week’s figures showing stalling rises in life expectancy and a big surge in crime , only underline the sense of a governing philosophy hitting the skids. The idea of Britain as some indulged, state-dependent place in dire need of further liberation now looks more like the stuff of political suicide than the basis of any renewal.
“The idea of Britain as in dire need of further liberation now looks like the stuff of political suicide”
And then there are the economic factors . In the wake of the 2008 crash we have seen the slowest recovery in modern history. Wages continue to lag behind prices; poor pay feeds into the weak demand that seems to rule out any hint of strong growth. Household debt, not surprisingly, is forecast to exceed even the catastrophic levels to which it soared before the crash of 2008. Such, self-evidently, is where the kind of capitalism long embraced and encouraged by British Conservatism has taken us. Rather than what May is like on television, this is the most fundamental reason for the Tories’ poor showing at national elections. And clearly, the economic convulsions of Brexit will make things much, much worse.
What can the Tories do? Well away from the Brexit Bolsheviks, there is a strand of Conservatism that is at least aware of the depth and breadth of these problems. That applies to May herself, though beyond fuzzy talk of a new social contract and the imperative of “government stepping up”, very little flesh has been put on the rhetorical bones. Many of the people who have advocated some kind of Tory reformation are still full-throated Brexiteers, still seemingly oblivious to the basic fact that the society they want and the historic disaster they support are mutually incompatible. But even more problematic is the rising sense that for as long as Conservatism is defined by abstract economic beliefs that increasingly fi nd no reflection in reality (question: which “markets” do Google and Facebook operate in?), and attached to the idea that people have to mostly help themselves, it will founder.
There is – or rather was – another Conservatism, always hostile to grand schemes, accepting of the idea that people can look to the state for help, and well aware that one person’s buccaneering capitalism is often many people’s misery. Sixty years after its post war peak, it may now be so far-fl ung as to be beyond the Tories’ reach – though if they lose power to a Jeremy Corbyn-led government, or the current administration quickly fi nds itself surrounded by the rubble of Brexit, it may once again find its voice. If that happens, the reconstructed Tory view of the party’s recent history will surely centre on one key understanding: that revolutions are largely for zealots and fools, and if Conservatism is the author of uncontrollable chaos, the game is usually up.
It is clearly a terrible idea, but Brexit has to happen
Those who still hope to stop us leaving the EU need to think harder about the likely repercussions
Social media is awash with it. In a certain kind of company, conversation inevitably turns to it. Now, even senior broadcast journalists hint that it might be possible, triggering great surges of online excitement. Barely a year after the EU referendum and only three months since the Daily Mail’s triumphal “Crush the saboteurs” front page, you can almost smell it: a rising expectation that the nightmare of leaving the EU might somehow be averted, allowing the country to return to some kind of normal.
“ Brexit may never happen ,” says Vince Cable.
“ I know in my heart that Brexit can be stopped,” offers Alastair Campbell.
“ We’ll stop Brexit,” insists the venerable AC Grayling .
On Tuesday Manuel Cortes , the general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staff s Association and an enthusiastic supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, wrote an eloquent article for the LabourList website encouraging the party to bow to the supposedly inevitable. “The folly of the Brexit vote is becoming clearer and its economic consequences look dire,” he said. “Staying put won’t even cost us a penny.”
Fair play to these people: with ministers evidently making it up as they go along, dire economic forecasts, and big EU figures warning that negotiations might quickly break down, there is clearly a prima facie case for what they suggest. And calling time on Brexit fits the guarded optimism embraced by thousands of people since the start of June. A combination of Labour’s election surge, Theresa May’s crumpling, and the joys of a half-decent summer seem to have embedded one belief above all others: that if enough of us make sufficient noise, we can somehow pretend 23 June 2016 never happened.
The problem is that it did. More over, as far as I can tell from the many conversations I had with leave voters during the election campaign, the vast majority of people who voted to leave the EU are still convinced that it is the right thing to do. In whole swath s of the country, the bitterly anti-establishment mood that boiled over last summer is still there. In places long since laid waste by the malign eff ects of globali sation, predictions of economic doom do not cut much ice. And as well as holding fast to their beliefs about free movement and the necessity of Britain taking power back from Brussels, some now express an opinion that irate remainers might not even understand: that if leaving the EU is turning out to be so diffi cult, this only underlines how much of an off ence to sovereignty and democracy it probably is.
For pro-EU people who support Labour, all this highlights some very uncomfortable tensions. Though it is hardly his fault, it is part of Jeremy Corbyn’s transformation into the Princess Diana de nos jours that he has in some way become the sentimentalised focus of many remainers’ hopes while actually tilting in precisely the opposite direction: reverting to his lifelong Euroscepticism and embracing Brexit (albeit with the strong caveats highlighted by Labour’s stance on the “great repeal bill”), and thereby ensuring that leave supporters are an equally important part of Labour’s delicate electoral coalition. This was the key reason why Labour held on to many pro-Brexit seats they were predicted to lose – something plenty of non-Corbynite, instinctively proEuropean Labour MPs well understand.
Yet still the predictions of Brexit interrupted pile up. Thanks to the kind of long transition arrangement proposed by the Confederation of British Industry, some think the process might fi zzle out. Perhaps a second referendum will kill it. This week, a talented Tweeter wrote an imagined speech for May, conceding “the Brexit process would inflict much unsalvageable damage on our country”, and announcing the U-turn to end all U-turns.
But there is always something missing : any sense of the backlash that would be sparked, the myth of betrayal that would sit at the heart of our politics, and the great gift likely to be handed to ugly and opportunistic forces that are still out there, waiting for their chance. Ukip is in abeyance partly because its current leadership could not run a bath, but also because the process of Brexit is under way. Immigration did not much figure in the general election because the prospect of ending free movement was in sight. Nix those things – which, in the latter case, applies as much to staying in the single market – and the grim politics of the pre-referendum period could well come roaring back.
“By the time everything is resolved a lot of us will be very old or dead. But that may be the price we have to pay”
At which point, a few simple facts. To understand why people support Brexit is not to agree with them. Clearly, leaving the EU remains a terrible idea. It will almost certainly be economically calamitous, and it sends out a terrible signal about the kind of country Britain has become.
The big question, though, centres on where Brexit came from, and what sustains it. A large part of the answer is about an ingrained English exceptionalism, partly traceable to geography but equally bound up with a puff edup interpretation of our national past, which has bubbled away in our politics and culture for decades. The likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have used it for their own ideological ends; in the kind of post-industrial places long ignored by Westminster politicians it turned out to be the one bit of pride and identity many people had left. It runs deep: even if the economy takes a vertiginous plunge, it will take a lot longer than two years to shift it.
The only way such delusions will fade is if they are finally tested in the real world and found wanting, whereupon this country may at last be ready to humbly engage with modernity. And in that sense, to paraphrase a faded politician, Brexit probably has to mean Brexit. That may result in a long spell of relative penury, and an atmosphere of recrimination and resentment. By the time everything is resolved a lot of us will either be very old or dead. But that may be the price we have to pay to belatedly put all our imperial baggage in the glass case where it belongs, and to edge our way back into the European family, if they will have us.
In the meantime, this messiest of national dramas grinds on, and not for the fi rst time the story suggests the priceless words of the American writer and satirist HL Mencken : “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”