Joyce McMillan: UK needs a new champion to save us from hard Brexit
To the Traverse Theatre, this week, to see a touring production of a powerful new German play called Winter Solstice by Berlin-based writer Roland Schimmelpfennig. His subject, in what looks like a family drama, is the weakness of liberal-minded people in recognising and opposing fascism, which tends to appear – at first – in friendly forms; it’s a vital theme, and a timely one.
As I watched Schimmelpfennig’s characters flailing about and ultimately failing to say the words that needed to be said, though, I couldn’t help being reminded of something other than the call to resist the rise of new far-right parties, because their antics often resembled nothing so much as the desperate plight of Britain’s anti-Brexit politicians, as they grope around for a way of protecting the UK from what is beginning to look like an unavoidable “hard Brexit”.
In a sense, it’s difficult to understand why the voice of those advocating a “soft” Brexit – one that involves remaining in the EU Customs Union and Single Market, therefore avoiding most of the economic damage entailed in disrupting our trading links with our closest neighbours – have been so weak in the debate so far.
If we take seriously the views of politicians expressed before the referendum, they must represent something like a 75 per cent majority of MPs, and also a substantial majority in our admittedly peculiar House of Lords. In addition, the governments of Wales and Scotland have both declared themselves strongly in favour of a soft Brexit; and more than 48 per cent of those who voted in the referendum wanted no Brexit at all, strongly suggesting that the best way to bring the nation together again would be to pursue Brexit, but in a very moderate form.
So what has gone wrong, in a debate largely dominated by the braying certainties of a small parliamentary group of extreme Brexiteers? In the first place, politicians on the Remain side have been silenced by the referendum itself. To put it bluntly, the finely balanced result of this ill-prepared plebiscite has left the triumphalist right rolling out the phrase “the will of the people” like so many tinpot totalitarians, while Britain’s much-vaunted parliamentary democracy is reduced to the status of a near-helpless bystander.
Then secondly, there is the fact that neither major party in Westminster has been willing to stand up clearly for a soft Brexit option. The coincidence of the EU referendum with the Eurosceptic Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party has created a perfect storm for pro-European voters, leaving us unrepresented except by what are, at Westminster, small minority parties, and destroying the possibility of a strong cross-party front against a hard Brexit.
Yet although it’s clear that anti-hard-Brexit politicians should be more willing than they are to stand up to right-wing talk of “the will of the people”, and to make common cause against the damage entailed in leaving the Single Market, they also – in order to succeed – need something that they lack today, just as clearly as they lacked it during the Scottish independence referendum; and that is an idea of the future of the UK that counters the reactionary vision of the hard Brexiteers, not least by showing a full understanding of how the UK itself has changed since we joined the EU in 1973.
Any well-organised campaign against hard Brexit would have, for example, to be led by a senior UK politician who fully understands the importance of achieving an agreed position among all four parts of the UK, now that Britain is both politically and culturally a semi-federal state, and – crucially – grasps the critical importance of maintaining the current EU framework, or something very close to it, in order not to undermine the peace process in Northern Ireland. A progressive future for these islands absolutely depends on the UK Government’s acceptance of the kind of complex, layered identities and loyalties that are reflected in the devolution settlements and in the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, and also of a substantial European framework which helps to recognise, and therefore to stabilise, all of those identities.
Yet although there seem to be a few elder statesman around who can recognise that potential future, and are prepared to speak up for it, the truth is that there is no major active leader in current UK politics who fully fits that bill. On the contrary, eight years of Tory-led government, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, and the English-nationalist psychodrama of Brexit, has only made the House of Commons more insular, inward-looking and ill-informed, both about the other nations of the UK, and about constitutional matters in general.
And this is where the debate over Britain’s Brexit comes back full circle to meet the question posed by Roland Schimmelpfennig in Winter Solstice, about the inadequacy of passive liberal individualism in standing up to reactionary and exclusive views of the future. To compete with the “Empire 2.0” vision of the hard Brexiteers, the advocates of a soft Brexit need a competing, forward-looking vision of our shared future on these islands and on this continent, one that takes full account of the way we live now, of the way we are governed now, and of the rich complexity of our 21st century identities and communities.
If the UK now lacks the powerful campaign against hard Brexit it desperately needs, it is because no UK party at Westminster has fully developed any such vision, or bothered to build all of the political and civic alliances – across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – that would be necessary to push it forward; so that now, to paraphrase Yeats, the best lack all conviction about Britain’s future, while the worst are full of passionate certainty.
It is a tragic failure of leadership and vision on the progressive side of British politics; and although it may eventually drive Scotland towards independence, as the only means of escape from a UK dominated by retro-nationalist Brexit extremists, even Nicola Sturgeon seems to know that the damage inflicted in the meantime would make that a harsh victory indeed – and one, perhaps, hardly worth winning.