Keir Starmer's desire to 'make Brexit work' is unlikely to go down well in Scotland – Joyce McMillan

They talk about campaigning in poetry, and governing in prose; but this week, the Labour leader Keir Starmer made it plain that he intends to campaign in the most prosaic language possible, in an effort to win back those Brexit-supporting former Labour supporters who have recently defected to the Tories.

Anti-Brexit campaigners demonstrate outside the Labour Party conference in Brighton in September (Picture: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)
Anti-Brexit campaigners demonstrate outside the Labour Party conference in Brighton in September (Picture: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

Caught like a rabbit in headlights between the implacable right-wingery of most British newspapers, and the absurdities of a Westminster electoral system that bins millions of Labour votes cast in southern England outside London, Starmer has concluded that the trio of values needed for Labour to win the next UK election are ‘security, prosperity and respect’, three profoundly conservative concepts that make even the ‘fairness’ agenda of early Blairism sound positively radical.

After half a decade of increasingly rackety and disruptive far-right radicalism from the Tories at Westminster, Starmer and his focus groups may well be right to bet the farm on a bit of peace and quiet, delivered with some decency and integrity.

The problem with his stance, though, is that it seeks to offer a ‘steady as you go’ option, in a situation where there is no national agreement on what that might mean. In Scotland, of course, pro-independence campaigners were quick to point out that Starmer’s reference to Gordon Brown’s commission on the future of the UK constitution may sound to English voters like a reassuring punt into the long grass, but carries very different resonances north of the Border.

And if Starmer’s instinctive constitutional conservatism is likely to cause trouble in Scotland, there are even greater potential difficulties in his attempt to gloss over the profound divisions opened up by the Brexit debate.

In the course of his speech, Starmer talked of repairing international relationships damaged by the present UK government, and of “making Brexit work”; but the truth about Brexit is that it works best when we do very little of it at all, since it represents not only a needless and expensive disruption of trade with our nearest neighbours, and a damaging reduction in Britain’s political power and influence, but also a major loss of individual rights and freedoms for 66 million British citizens.

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Now it is fairly obvious from his previous political record that Starmer knows this. Even more to the point, two-thirds of Labour voters know it, and voted to Remain in 2016, even if, like the rest of the 16 million Remain voters, they remain unrepresented and ignored.

And significantly, the man who is now Keir Starmer’s shadow Foreign Secretary knows it; indeed in January 2019, David Lammy made one of the most electrifying Commons speeches of the last six years, dismissing Brexit as “a con, a trick, a fiddle, a fraud, a deception, and a dangerous fantasy”, and exhorting British voters to be angry not with Brussels, but with “the chancers of the Leave campaign who sold you a lie”.

He also directly contradicted those in his party who believe that compromise should be sought with working-class voters who supported Brexit. “We should tell them the truth about Brexit,” he said, “and not patronise them with cowardice.”

Now of course, David Lammy’s views may have changed since 2019; the wheels of history grind on, and Brexit is now seen by many in England as both a grave mistake and an irreversible process.

Yet as Keir Starmer tries to “move on” and “make Brexit work”, the question remains about whether England’s Brexit trauma is a clean wound that may now begin to heal, or – as David Lammy’s language suggests – a running sore that will continue to damage Britain’s prospects for decades to come, and suggests a profound rottenness, and a contempt for the real interests of the British people, at the very heart of the political process.

The conduct of Boris Johnson’s government, since he became Prime Minister in 2019, certainly suggests the latter. It’s not only his government’s haphazard and highly questionable handling of the pandemic.

It is, even more profoundly, the series of assaults on traditional freedoms and liberties contained in bill after bill proposed by his government, from attempts to make voting more difficult, to the drastic criminalisation of protest proposed in the current Police Bill.

These are profoundly illiberal and undemocratic measures; and questions remain about whether a Labour government elected on a conservative programme of ‘security, prosperity, respect’ would really have the will or popular support to reverse them, any more than it would have the courage to tackle Brexit, and seek, at least, readmission to the European Single Market on EFTA terms.

All of which seems to place some severe limitations on how far a Starmer administration might be able to change the political weather in the UK, and seriously improve the lot of the British people, after the disruptions of the past dozen years. That it would be preferable to the current UK government is barely debatable; almost any alternative would clear that very low bar.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion, though, that any return to seriously progressive politics in the UK would require a much more comprehensive reckoning with the systems and attitudes that led the country to its present pass, than anything suggested by Tuesday’s speech.

And if Keir Starmer and his Labour colleagues cannot now find an acceptable language in which to confront those profound issues, and to begin to tackle them, my guess is that any time they may win in government will be brief and frustrating, and that it will not succeed in changing the minds of those in Scotland who have now had enough of old Britannia, her patriotism, and her flags – and who want their chance to build a 21st century social democracy on foundations less ancient and rotten, than those to be found on the banks of the Thames.

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