In her first words on learning that she is the new Tory leader and will be PM in 48 hours, Mrs May said: “We need to unite our country and … we need a strong, new positive vision for the future of our country – a vision of a country that works not for the privileged few, but that works for every one of us.”
Guff, you might say, the sort of guff that all newly elected leaders come up with. Even hypocritical guff given that Mrs May has been in the Cabinet since 2010 and, presumably, has been content or at least able to live with the policies enacted by the government since then.
But let’s put the cynicism aside for one moment. What the result of this referendum has revealed – perhaps even more than Britain’s attitude to the EU – is how little the political class understands the country and people it is seeking to represent and govern. That will have implications for our politics long after any trade deals are signed.
Cameron is reported to have told other EU states in his first post-referendum meeting with them that change is needed to Freedom of Movement. Regardless of the fact that this is one of the EU’s founding principles, there is one good reason why other EU states have been reluctant to make any change. FoM has allowed those Eurozone states with stagnating economies to export their young rather than than have them – unemployed, angry and potentially a destabilising force demanding change – at home.
It has allowed such states to export one potential political problem caused by the adoption of the euro. The UK has acted as a safety valve for Europe’s poorer economies. But what has, in part, allowed the euro to stagger on and survive has – as the referendum result now brought home – caused a very real political crisis in the UK.
It is not easy to see how such a crisis can easily be resolved, certainly not in the immediate aftermath. But the idea that such a vote can be ignored by implementing a solution which does not seek, at least in part, to address the issues raised is as delusional as the idea that the UK can get all the benefits of the single market without any of its costs. So how to square the circle?
The first might be to realise that the benefits of globalisation, of which FoM is an expression, have not been equally or fairly shared. Post-1989 (when history was supposed to have ended) the assumption both amongst left and right has been that economic and social liberalism and capitalism are the way forward.
There has been little intelligent social democratic critique of this, not least because it was assumed that the soaring tax revenues from the financial sector would silence any opposition. The 2007/2008 credit crisis and its aftermath have blown a hole in that cosy assumption. The current travails of the Labour party have highlighted in a stark way the total lack of any social democratic offering by those not on the Corbynista left.
Until the necessary hard thinking is done about what Labour, about what any left of centre party is for, there is little point in Labour thrashing around to find the latest vaguely presentable MP to act as an alternative to Corbyn. Corbyn has an idea about what Labour should be and think. Any alternative needs to have an idea about what Labour should be and think, something more than “not Corbyn”.
What it has also revealed is that the benefits of globalisation have been very unequally shared. Some parts of the U.K., some sectors, some professions, some groups have done very well indeed. But many have not – and the EU / London are seen as part of the elite which have benefited, which have imposed on others costs which they have not themselves borne and have been largely arrogant and unaccountable in doing so.
Further, those bearing the costs have been largely dismissed for having any reservations at all about the consequences for them of FoM: not just the effects on jobs, wage levels, pressure on infrastructure but the sense in which people feel that this has been done to them without their say so, their sense of home has been altered and a sense of unfairness that those who are British are regarded as no more special than anyone else in their own country.
The conversation between the haves and the have nots on this needs to change. It is no use going to Tuscany and admiring the unchanging culture, the old customs, the processions celebrating feast days with priests and villagers, unchanged since the Middle Ages but then sneering at those at home who wonder why those same people are so dismissive of provincial Britain and its culture. It’s not just charity which starts at home. An understanding of the world starts there too.
A simplification maybe. But why would someone in Millom (look it up) vote to have FoM because this is the price to be paid to enable a Swiss bank to base itself in London in order to sell financial services to very rich individuals in Europe? Why would people there care about bankers who have cost the country so much? This may be a shock to Londoners and others but it is a salutary shock.
Whatever solution is arrived at to make Brexit successful, unite the country and make it work for all must not be sneaked through. Whatever the solution is, explain it and explain the trade-offs needed. Betrayal of voters on the grounds that, for instance, they are Labour people and therefore this will cause problems for Labour only is dishonourable, probably untrue and will only magnify the problems of a divided nation and cause more.
Above all, the fruits of the economy need to be much more fairly shared – not (or not just) in the form of handouts to the poorer areas but in terms of proper and visible investment in infrastructure and services and people and housing, in people being given control over what happens where they live. It means increased taxation of the better off. It means companies ensuring that the jobs boom really does benefit people in all parts of Britain. It means those at the top curbing their desire to take an ever increasing share of what their companies produce and sharing the fruits of their collective endeavours with the workers. And plenty more besides.
For too long political debate has failed (adequately or at all) to address the questions:
- who pays the price?
- who gets the benefits?
- Are both fairly shared?
- If not, what are we doing to mitigate this?
This is obvious territory for a left of centre party. But it looks as if, possibly, it may be the Tories who will be in the position to reset how collectively we share the benefits and costs of globalisation. Naïve? Possibly. Risky? Certainly. Likely to be successful? Who can say? But there is an opportunity there – and a great prize – for the politician able to seize the moment and start the process of resetting the nation’s conversation with and about itself. May has won the race to be leader and PM. What she and her government do next with the opportunity the referendum result has been provided will tell us whether she really means what she said this afternoon.