The triggering of Article 50 marks the end of the political stand-off that has been the dominant feature of British politics since the Brexit referendum last June: a stand-off between our elected representatives on the one hand and “the will of the people,” as expressed in the referendum vote, on the other. Between the end of June and the end of March, any party with something to lose has had to go along with a show of respecting the referendum result, whatever they thought of it. Scotland too, although this has a different tint there. (The obvious exception is Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats, but in 2016-17 they have nothing left to lose.)
So politics can start up again now, with differences on the terms of Brexit, and we saw this as early as last Sunday, when Labour’s Keir Starmer popped up on the Andrew Marr show to make a robust defence of “soft Brexit”, and on Wednesday when by all accounts Andrew Neil gave May the toughest interview of her Prime Ministerial career.
It’s also the last point at which May has any control of her Premiership, and there must be a question about how many of her senior civil servants have pointed this out to her and her ministers over the last few months.
The left case for Brexit, or so called Lexit, has been well articulated during the referendum by Tariq Ali, John Hilary, and others. Paul Mason made it in one column, then rowed back again in another. A number of notable Greens have been leavers: Rupert Read, who changed his mind, and Jenny Jones, who made her case in the Guardian.
In the most recent edition of New Left Review, Susan Watkins summarised this case succinctly:
[A] vote to remain, whatever its motivation, will function in this context as a vote for a British establishment that has long channelled Washington’s demands into the Brussels negotiating chambers, scotching hopes for a ‘social Europe’ since the Single European Act of 1986… A Leave vote… would not bring about a new golden age of national sovereignty… But the knock-on effects of a leave vote could be largely positive: disarray, and probably a split, in the Conservative Party; preparations in Scotland for a new independence ballot.
And God knows, it’s hard to hold progressive views and not have one of Polly Toynbee’s famous clothes pegs over your nose as you approach the EU. [Update: Or to vote Remain through gritted teeth.] Peter Mair’s argument that the EU has the form of a democratic organisation but none of the substance is hard to argue with. The Lisbon Treaty, with all of the shenanigans involved, shifted the centre of gravity of the EU sharply towards neoliberalism and away from the social market; Germany’s imposition of ordoliberalism on the Eurozone and the brutal bullying of Greece was plain ugly.
The notion that the EU “needs to be taught a lesson”, put to me last week in a bar in France by a woman who said she’d vote Leave if she was British, has an obvious attraction.
But there’s something deeper going on, and that’s why I think that progressives have to vote Remain despite the EU’s evident problems.
Whatever happened to the Conservative party? Not this week, but over the last twenty years? Geoffrey Wheatcroft asked this question in the Guardian this week, and it is a good one. Actually, he asked it a bit more forcefully than that:
Has what was the most successful political party in modern European history succumbed to some strange death wish, determined to tear itself to pieces and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?
By “successful,” he means that between 1886 and 1997 – 111 years – the Conservatives were in power in the UK for 79 of them, either alone or occasionally in coalition. Now, though, said Wheatcroft, it looked “like a fractious rabble”.
Mrs Thatcher’s only been in Hell for 30 minutes, and already she’s closed three of the furnaces and another three are on strike.
It wasn’t on Twitter, or on a political blog, but on the listserv of some football fans – fans, as it happens, of a club in a former mining area in the north of England. As Hugo Young said in his posthumously published piece on her (he died in 2003) in Tuesday’s Guardian, “Thatcher was a naturally, perhaps incurably, divisive figure.”
For my part, I think you need only one chart to understand her influence on Britain, which shows the step-change in inequality during her time in power. I’ve published this here before, when I blogged on the 30th anniversary of her first election victory: