So an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman all walk into a pub. Then the Englishman wants to leave for no reason, and they all have to. My kid told me that joke. Between laconic Brexiteries and a whole new constellation of insults around the name and concept of Donald Trump, I have reluctantly concluded that I preferred life when children at primary school had less political awareness. Didn’t dream about the third world war. Didn’t do roleplays where one of them is a wall and the other a Mexican. Things just felt a bit more stable.
Gallows humour brings the chilly intimation that we have started to resign ourselves to the inevitable. The six stages of political grief are protesting, protesting some more, raging against Boris Johnson, picking over the carcass of the decision and pointing out the rotten bits that make it unfit to eat, maybe one more protest for good measure (a planned pro-EU rally is to coincide with the Tory party conference) and, finally, making jokes about it.
It is perhaps reaching the end of this trajectory that has spurred a new line from the Labour party. Political disasters are by definition manmade, and only politics can unmake them. Keeping a careful inventory of Conservative chaos while delighting in the Tories’ lack of dignity worked brilliantly for a snap election but would not, in the long term, have made the Labour party feel mature, responsible or proud.
Keir Starmer’s new terms are remarkable mainly for their sobriety: the shadow Brexit secretary wants a transition period that is as short as possible but as long as necessary. During this time, the single market and the customs union remain in place – the alternative to which is a ruinous descent into trading limbo, where businesses’ only certainty is that everything would be harder and more expensive.
Starmer’s suggestion is hardly radical – let’s try not to get too much poorer, too fast – and his proposals thereafter are distinctive mainly because it is unbelievable, even in the dishevelment of post-Brexit politics, that they should need to be said. We need to find a deal of partnership, not membership, based on shared values and history, not just mutual interest; it must cover areas beyond trade and security, encompassing science, education, technology, medicine and culture. This edges towards the most optimistic take on Brexit: that intelligent, receptive, non-adversarial negotiations could do more than simply avert disaster.
This is by no means a blueprint for what a Labour negotiating position would look like, but it is the beginning of something vital: a clear set of differences between Labour Brexit and Conservative Brexit, without which Theresa May’s government has been hurtling cluelessly along, as unopposed and wild as a log crashing through a flume.
If Starmer’s priority was to establish clear differences between the government and its opposition, that is not all that’s been achieved. A pall of impotence has been deadening debate ever since Liam Fox and Philip Hammond spelled out their joint vision a fortnight ago. However long the transition period turned out to be, they said, from March 2019 we would be outside the single market and customs union. Voices opposed to this – whether students, unions, businesses or some novel collaboration between all three – could campaign for a change of government as much as they liked, but a new government when it came would be left steering a ship the Conservatives had already hulled.
It is very easy to imagine the divisions this would cause within Labour, between those who want to stay in the single market perpetually – whose campaign Heidi Alexander and Alison McGovern launched this weekend – and those who consider leaving it axiomatic to the Brexit project, yet are committed to leaving constructively.
It is hard to imagine a united and purposeful Labour party weathering that inherited storm if it had to start from the bottom of the cliff edge. Without staunch opposition to Fox and Hammond’s first move, the Labour project seemed amorphous and not unreasonably trepidatious.
Parliamentary politics, such as it has been since the general election, has been like fighting over the steering wheel when you’re already in the middle of a game of chicken. Do you really want to be in charge when the British and EU cars collide? Labour has often seemed so petrified by the oncoming negotiations that it has found it easier to commentate than to oppose.
In laying out a forthright and practical alternative to the Tories’ cliff-edge transition, Labour has effectively restored Brexit to the grasp of parliamentary politics, one in which MPs can vote as their reason and consciences determine. Where previously the plan swung like a pendulum between Tory factions, announced categorically one day and briefed against the next, it is now fixed. In seeking clarity for its own position, Labour has surely forced clarity from the government.
Tory Europhiles could at any point find themselves in the ascendant again, and seek a more measured, single market-tolerant exit period for the sake of stability. But that territory now belongs to the opposition, and they will have to forswear it or defect. The scandalously long period when the internal divisions of the Conservative party could wreak havoc on the country yet force no bravery or conviction from the party’s own MPs has come to an end. Labour has finally appropriated the Tories’ wriggle room, and started to build on it.
The details of the UK’s EU exit have yet to be even hypothetically resolved; the Labour party, plainly, has its own internal divisions, many yet to be said out loud. There is as yet no way of telling whether or not this consensus will hold, that Brexit is the overwhelming will of the people and must be performed at all costs. A decision built on unknowns and falsehoods is not one to which the label of democracy very durably sticks.
Yet the opposition has bought itself some time (as short as possible, as long as necessary), taken the territory of common sense for the transition period (which many remain Tories will envy), and written the opening bars of a progressive overture in which their divisions can be harmonised gradually, rather than having to be silenced by the cacophony of the Conservatives. The new distinction is not between hard Brexit and soft Brexit: it is between infantile Brexit and grownup Brexit.
- Labour and the single market: The Brexit debate that threatens to tear the party in two
- Labour politicians unite against Tories’ hard Brexit plans
- Anna Soubry interview: My government needs a ‘reality check’ on Brexit
- Labour MP Lisa Nandy: The argument about Corbyn’s leadership is over
- The EU’s holding Brexit talks with Jeremy Corbyn amid fears Theresa May’s government could crumble
- Labour takes 8 point lead over the Tories as support for Corbyn’s party surges
At last, Labour has wrested the Brexit debate from the Tories have 1179 words, post on www.theguardian.com at August 27, 2017. This is cached page on Talk Vietnam. If you want remove this page, please contact us.