Brexit, Brexit Negotiations, Democracy, Emily Thornberry, EU Referendum, Euro-Scepticism, European Commission, European Union, Eurozone Crisis, Greek Debt Crisis, Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Jose Manuel Barroso, Labour, Opinion, Politics, Sovereignty, The Euro, Theresa May, Twitter
International finance is no doubt presently wondering whether Theresa May, the stateswoman who will save UK capitalism by negotiating fiendish trade deals with countless foreign nations, is at all related to Theresa May, the simpleton behind such worrying utterances as “Brexit means Brexit” and “We want a red, white and blue Brexit.” I am surprised that the pound did not slide down another huge snake with that last one, all the way to the bottom of the board. A red, white and blue Brexit?
This snatch of geopolitical doggerel leaves you conscious of an imagination under tremendous strain, groping vainly in the dark for anything eloquent or catchy. It also suggests that Mrs May is still inhabiting an era when people listened dutifully to their Prime Minister’s pronouncements on the teatime news. Today we have Twitter: an ocean of listless piranhas which are just waiting for any flake of trivia to land in their midst. The red, white and blue Brexit was derided from every conceivable angle. Pictures of the Russian and Norwegian flags were tweeted; clunky metaphors were GIF-ed; the sarcasm was brick hard. Content-creating journalist Adam Bienkov squeezed eight hundred words out of that red, white and blue Brexit for Business Insider (“’Red, white and blue Brexit’: The worst UK political slogans of all time”); the Canary managed only four hundred words of abuse which was almost as witless as the original sound bite (“Government accidentally leaks every slogan it considered before ‘red, white, and blue Brexit’”). Mrs May’s single bungled remark was thus unravelled on an industrial scale.
Mrs May is the very last thing that today’s media has been built for. Why, we have twenty-four hours of rolling television news to fill; we have tens of thousands of bored academics and activists on Twitter, all of them bent over their rapid-firing tweet machines, and someone has put Vaseline on those triggers man! So a government which has said basically nothing for five months must be a living hell for these people. An infinity of content is being created every day out of specks. An all-you-can-eat buffet from a few crumbs.
What is so strange is that if we move from content to actual analysis, Brexit is habitually described in terms which strip it of all meaning. It has been unanimously agreed that the safest possible word for the forthcoming Brexit talks is “negotiations.” This word makes Brexit sound as sensible and off-putting as the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement. If you picture the Brexit “negotiations” in your mind, an image might form of lots of feeble old men meeting on the lawn at Bretton Woods, amiably steely-eyed and gripping their copies of the Financial Times. At the end, a tiny spokesman in pinstripes will emerge to read out, in a suitably clipped accent, that “These negotiations have been concluded to our mutual satisfaction. We can announce to the public that capitalism will continue.”
Who would guess, from such an innocuous label as “negotiations,” that Brexit is in fact a power struggle? It is exactly the same struggle, largely unruffled by the June referendum, which David Cameron was fighting when he had presented himself to the EU at the start of the year. The two forces in this struggle might as well be magnetically opposed: the largely leaderless, predominantly working-class voters who want their sovereignty back (or “power” if this term still remains too difficult for you); and an undemocratic reaction which is trying to keep this power away from national electorates. There is henceforth nothing significantly new about Brexit, other than that the former side has lately acquired a national government as a rather dubious ally.
Mortifyingly, for those who want to negotiate a consensual inclusive outcome, this is a power struggle which only one side can win. I am sure that you currently hear the same argument almost hourly. “They sell much more to us than we do to them. Will German car manufacturers really want…?” The drawback with this argument has always been that it is logical. The Euro is not logical: the economies of Spain, Italy, and Greece are going nowhere until they leave it, but since the Euro is the motor of EU integration, the economies of Spain, Italy, and Greece will be not going anywhere anytime soon. The EU characteristically prioritises the survival of its own institutions over enriching the masses.
The EU negotiators are in such a strong position precisely because they are so estranged from those who they are supposed to represent. After bringing their customary insolence to the negotiating table, they need not return to explain themselves to any waiting voters. Having previously overseen the asset stripping of Greece as President of the EU Commission, José Manuel Barroso this year became the non-executive chairman of Goldman Sachs, a bank which had earned 600 million euros in 2001 (12% of its trading and investment revenues) from helping to cook Greece’s books. You will be relieved to hear that Mr Barroso has been cleared of any wrongdoing by an EU “ethics panel.” Under a more democratic system, he would have been flung into jail like the cheap crook that he is.
The powers that we are fighting to get back from these people will not somehow belong to Theresa May or Boris Johnson or (to quote the SNP) an unrepresentative government down in Westminster. They are powers which we personally exercise every time that we vote – our own power over taxation, public expenditure, immigration, and foreign policy. If I had Mrs May’s talent for coining spirited phrases, I would say that it is not a red-white-and-blue Brexit but a me-and-you Brexit.
Jeremy’s Corbyn’s Labour Party does not so much require policy development as immediate reinvention. The Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell at least gets it, in insisting that, “It is time we were all more positive about Brexit… Labour wants to see an ambitious Brexit Britain.” Yet his party is as a whole behaving as though they have found themselves in the centre of an inexplicable national crisis. Voters are likely to look at Labour and say, “We’re not voting for them. They keep repeating that they don’t know what to do.”
Individuals such as McDonnell sometimes appear to have a cautious idea of what to do, but these clear notes are lost in the gale. The leadership does not want to obstruct Article 50 or have a second referendum; much of the membership, and the Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry, are keeping all options open. Dimly, one might perceive that Labour’s position is so far identical to that of the government. The trouble is that Labour’s coalition of interests is fastened together so delicately that the party is forced to preserve itself in a state of cryogenic depoliticisation. A reheating political row is a shock that this party could never recover from. There is consequently an overwhelming disincentive against putting any new idea on the table and potentially triggering the return of political discussion.
Labour’s ambitions for a future UK at best resemble damage limitation – just getting by, muddling through, and constantly apologising to the rest of the world for the UK electorate. Vote for us and we’ll probably work something out eventually! How can they seriously stand for election on this whimper? It looks as if most of Labour can only imagine the UK as an independent democracy reluctantly, in incremental steps, like a nervous swimmer who is gradually lowering themselves into cool water. In their confusion, and their daily belatedness, they seem to be lacking the most elementary instinct to seize power.