Six weeks on a look at the aftermath and beyond
Enough already. The referendum has been fought and the good guys lost. The country decided to follow the lead of those pandering to xenophobes and obsessives. So be it. What next?
Clearly we are not going to get any guidance from those who led the Leave campaign. Nigel Farage has left the field, Michael Gove has been sent to the sidelines and the three Brexiteer ministers are more concerned about house-sharing arrangements than policy formation. The average Leaver, meanwhile, is flapping wildly with bulging eyes, like a flounder that has aspired all its life to see what the deck of a fishing boat looked like and is now confronted with the realities of its ambition.
To date, Leavers have shown no interest in those of us who voted Remain, telling us alternately to “suck it up, losers”, to stop talking down Britain whenever we note with dismay that all the economic indicators are making honking noises or to stop standing on the sidelines and make Leave work (which is rich, given that they are showing themselves to be utterly clueless themselves on how that might be achieved). Nevertheless, if anything is going to be salvaged from the wreckage, Remainers are going to have to see what they can do to mitigate the disaster. So those of us who voted Remain are going to have to think about how to sort this mess out.
It’s no good saying that we wouldn’t have started from here. This is where we start. So what are the unavoidable realities?
First, Brexit is Brexit, as our Prime Minister so wisely said. The referendum result cannot be finessed, sidestepped or ignored. While the referendum was formally advisory, Leave secured the largest vote ever for its victory. The people have spoken, the bastards, and their will must be followed. There is no point hoping for events to show the folly of that vote. The EU is unlikely to countenance Britain staying in now, whatever happens.
Some Leavers have been openly touting an EEA-style approach, hoping to co-opt the Remainers to their own light touch free trade vision while preserving freedom of movement. Remainers should not touch this proposal with a bargepole. This would rightly be seen by the bulk of Leavers as a complete betrayal of their vote (for which Remainers rather than the cynical free trader Leavers would be blamed), which was won off the back of posters inflaming fears about unrestricted immigration and refugees. Disgraceful as that campaign was, Remainers have to accept that the settled view of the public is that immigration needs to be controlled more. The settlement with the rest of the EU will need to include the ability to restrict freedom of movement. This is likely to be very costly but that cost was one that the public explicitly signed up for. They can’t say that they weren’t warned.
Beyond that, Remainers have more of a free hand. They should be encouraging mechanisms for close co-operation with other European countries wherever appropriate, whether on a bilateral basis, such as on defence matters with France, or at an EU level, such as on matters relating to common goods, such as fisheries or the environment. Isolation isn’t splendid and there is no need to abandon the field to the Little Englanders on such matters.
What of the trade deal with the EU? For anyone who does not regard the EU as the incarnation of the whore of Babylon, which presumably includes all Remainers, it seems self-evident that Britain should want as full an economic partnership with the EU as it can secure. It remains overwhelmingly the largest single destination for its exports. With so much of Britain’s exports being formed by services, a trade-only deal is not anywhere near as valuable to Britain as a much fuller arrangement. This would necessitate agreements on soft barriers to exports, so we should be arguing for a continuance of common standards in many areas. This is likely to be unpopular with the tabloids, but their readers are going to be crying betrayal at the drop of a hat anyway, so this will have to be confronted. Curvy cucumbers may yet be here to stay.
The bigger threat comes from the other side. The EU is unlikely to offer untrammelled access without freedom of movement and the EU public is expecting the EU to take a hard line. Even an inferior level of co-operation is going to need to secure broadbased support within the EU member states. With so many different interests, that broadbased support is likely to be a very long time coming. But again, the public can’t say they weren’t warned on this either.
Lastly, it is looking increasingly apparent that the economy is in for a rocky period as a direct result of Brexit. Public finances are going to be put under renewed strain at a time when the deficit was still not under control. So further cuts and tax rises will be required. Simple social justice would require that this entirely optional cost be borne primarily by those groups that had voted enthusiastically for Leave. Abandoning the triple lock for state pension increases would be logical and ethical in the circumstances. For the same reason, halting the support of the rollout of broadband in rural areas would be an obvious and fair cost-cutting measure. After all, Leavers should not be expecting to expecting others to pay for their policy preferences, should they?