Brian Monteith: Deepening division over Brexit can’t become the new norm

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A new paper offers a path out of the Brexit swamp, so the issues that really affect people can be addressed, writes Brian Monteith

Last week Gary Lineker made a fool of himself. He sent out a tweet picturing a supposedly official warning of an NHS in crisis with medicine and prescription shortages if there is a no-deal Brexit. The Department of Health had to correct his misleading tweet with an official and direct response saying: “This is not an official NHS leaflet. People should trust advice from official NHS sources. We are confident that if everyone does what they need to do, medical supplies will be uninterrupted and patients will get their prescriptions as normal.”

Peter Lilley speaks during a panel discussion on Brexit organised by the European Research Group at the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster, London.

Peter Lilley speaks during a panel discussion on Brexit organised by the European Research Group at the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster, London.

In addition Health Secretary Matthew Hancock had to issue a video providing reassurance there would be no shortages. Lineker had to take down the misleading tweet.

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Before then, in an even more ignorant and egregious act, the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford eroded any remaining respect opponents might have had for him by retweeting a comparison of the treatment of foreign residents following Brexit with the Holocaust. Despite being condemned by relatives of Holocaust survivors for his gross misjudgment that both belittled the crime and demonstrated a lack of awareness that the SNP’s White Paper on independence advocated removing residency rights from EU nationals in Scotland, there was no apology nor a retraction.

It is bad enough for elected representatives to focus almost entirely on Brexit when there is so much in society requiring reform and improvement, but it is an especially sad reflection of our current political discourse that celebrities feel the need to ape our politicians who, after all, the public ranks as being among the least trusted and honourable of professions.

The truth is – and we can all see it but few are willing to admit it – this Government’s cursed and botched Brexit process has, like the domination of the independence issue in Scotland before it, sucked most of the oxygen from policy debate and dominated column inches in all forms of media communication. Educational standards are being corrupted; health and social care is well down the road to a cruel financial reckoning and a sense of disharmony and injustice is growing. Yet while these are real issues that affect people and can change for the worse individual life chances, the priority of both the Government and opposition parties is Brexit. Even for the SNP, Brexit is the means to keep independence on life support.

If one were to stop and ask any person in the street what particular action the UK Government is taking to improve the lives of its people, I wager that practically all, say at least 90 per cent, would struggle to offer an example of a policy. Nor do the opposition parties offer any comfort. Were members of the public to be asked what Labour or the rest are specifically offering – beyond just doing the opposite of the Government – I again believe there would be general incomprehension.

This might explain why, in the latest polling from YouGov, with Theresa May’s Government in disarray and Conservative MPs divided beyond what anyone living can remember, Labour has still fallen back five points to only 34 per cent while the Conservatives are at 41 per cent.

How do we get back to normal – or is this deepening binary division the new normal for a long time yet? One thing is certain: the Withdrawal Agreement will simply preserve the negotiating stasis as there is no incentive to settle anything until near the end of the transition period. This will only continue the growing mood of economic uncertainty for at least two more years – and in that way risk the recession that its advocates say they wish to avoid. It will maintain the growing polarisation of people across the land where nearly every conversation with friends and family tends towards Brexit and the impotence of political parties to bring about much needed change in society’s institutions is guaranteed.

Fortunately the former trade secretary Peter Lilley and Labour Future leader Brendan Chilton publish today a paper entitled 30 Truths About Leaving on WTO Terms that, one by one, deconstructs the myths of departing the EU without a deal. Naturally it demonstrates how we could keep our £39 billion to deal with our own problems, be free to create our own laws from day one, not be held back about making trade deals with China, the US or India and need not worry about availability of medicines, international flights or chocolate for Easter eggs (the latest absurd scare story). Notwithstanding all these and many other truths, possibly the strongest to recommend itself is that if we commit to leaving and living with a World Trade Organisation deal then we can deliver to ourselves something we should all cherish – the debate will be over, we can move on, we can return to normal.

If May’s deal passes we commit the country to at least two more years of building up division in our society. If after then there is still no deal acceptable to either party (possibly because of the entirely fabricated Irish backstop) we will be caught in an interminable maze we can wander around but never escape from.

If we leave and make good of the WTO terms of trade – and the accompanying micro-deals on aviation, higher education, scientific research, citizenship of expatriates and the like – we can return to fixing our outdated democratic institutions; to mending our roads, rail and infrastructure; to healing our health and social care systems and returning standards of discipline and learning to our schools. Yes, we shall still have to negotiate a trade deal but we shall have left and the whole issue will move from being dominant to a dull backwater compared with our real societal problems.

Businesses, knowing again what they have to deal with, can make plans for trading under WTO rules and begin to make investment decisions. We might avoid an economic recession that in the cycle is now overdue and that two more years of negotiating paralysis and indecision about our future must only make more certain than all the scaremongering we have endured about Brexit.

We might even see again the day when Lineker keeps his views about politics to himself and opines instead on football and sport. As for Blackford, with the sting of Brexit drawn, he can look forward to being a crofter again in a more harmonious United Kingdom.

l Brian Monteith is a director of Global Britain