A mess from which there is no apparent escape

Forward planning: the Brexit crowd only offers implausible alternatives to Theresa May’s own implausible plan.

The Brexit proposal – that Britain should simply walk away, sticking a finger up to the EU as it leaves and embracing the glorious opportunities that will emerge once free of the EU – offers no more than unconvincing “trust us, we know what we are doing” incantations, writes Geoff Kitney.

Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron probably never spent much time in a London taxi.

We know this because, if he had, he would not have held a referendum on whether Britain should stay in or leave the European Union.

As a resident of London for half a decade not long before the Brexit referendum, I was a frequent traveller in London’s iconic black cabs. Their famously chatty drivers always loved to talk about politics. And there were two constant themes to their opinions: England has too many immigrants – and everything was the fault of the European Union. I don’t believe I ever heard a good word said about the EU.

Asked if they ever got into arguments with their passengers over these views, invariably they would say: “Nah, everybody hates the bloody EU”.

In the broader community in which we lived and moved – in south-west London – it was rare to find anyone with a good word to say about the EU. Almost anyone you spoke to about the subject had some anecdote about Brussels interfering in British affairs and making life more difficult for British business and the British people.

It was rare to hear any public figure publicly argue in favour of EU membership or to attempt to counter the anti-EU conversation. No-one in the Conservative Party dared to, because it was such a divisive issue for party members. Whenever political leaders of whichever political colour talked about the EU it was invariably about how they were off to Brussels to fight another battle to protect British interests.

In politics it is always good for political leaders to have a dark force to blame for whatever goes wrong and say that they are the gallant defenders against that dark force.

An alternative view from a taxi

Donald Trump used this classic political trick to great effect in his run for the presidency, blaming Washington and its inhabitants for the nation’s woes and promising to “drain the swamp” of Washington insider politics.

In the case of the UK, the EU and its bureaucrats in Brussels were easy targets for those who needed an easily demonised foreign enemy to stir English nationalism into action.

So, when David Cameron announced that he would put the issue of Britain’s future membership of the EU to a referendum, it seemed to me he had taken a very dangerous decision. The Brexit vote came as little surprise.

This wasn’t just a decision motived by a deep public antagonism towards the EU. The Brexit referendum campaign coincided with a deepening mood of disenchantment with politics, with establishment political parties and with the dominant political classes.

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, which resulted in stagnating living standards, wages which barely moved, tough and seemingly intractable austerity policies by government while, at the same time, executive salaries and bonuses quickly returned to their pre-GFC levels regardless of what was seen by ordinary people as the culpability of those high earners for the crisis in the first place, ordinary people began to feel powerless and forgotten.

Given this mood, for Cameron to conduct a referendum giving voters the choice between maintaining the existing system and smashing it was asking for trouble.

Cameron suddenly found himself being outsmarted and outmanoeuvred by the parish pump politics of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). The leaders of the Brexit push were seen as more authentic voices of the ordinary people, especially older generations who could remember nostalgically what they thought were simpler and easier times.

Given that the public mood was a feeling of increasing powerlessness, the idea of “taking back power” from Brussels had an easy appeal.

Interestingly, in the those post-GFC years of growing disillusionment with politics and politicians, one mainstream politician who seemed able to rise above the mood of dissatisfaction was the one who ultimately became the poster boy of the Brexiteers – Boris Johnson.

In fact, when Johnson first stood for office as mayor of London in 2008, I voted for him. Then he seemed to be a breath of fresh political air.

As mayor, he seemed to rule by common sense, in the middle ground, attuned to the public desire for a new approach to politics. He seemed to be someone who understood the practical realities of governing rather than being ideologically driven. As far as I can recall, I never heard him talk about the horrors of Britain’s lost sovereignty. In fact, in his early years in Westminster, he backed the Conservative’s most pro-European figure, Kenneth Clarke, for party leader.

The attempt by Brexiters to topple Theresa May from the Conservative Party leadership and seize the prime ministership failed because the Brexit crowd offers such an implausible alternative to May’s own implausible plan.

When the issue of Britain’s future in the EU became a real political event and Cameron presented the voting public with the chance to make a choice, Johnson too had to make a choice. Given his popularity with voters, he must have known that the choice he made could be a decisive one for his country.

There was never any doubt that Johnson – an openly and drivingly ambitious politician – would make the choice that advanced his own cause.

Maybe Johnson had spent more time than David Cameron in London cabs because when he made the decision to move to back Brexit, he must have had reasonable confidence that Leave would be the winner, especially if he was its cheer leader. He must have seen that it was the best vehicle for his ambition.

Just what percentage of the Brexit vote was a result of Johnson backing Leave is not possible to measure. His public advocacy of the case of Leave was classically populist – simple lines and anecdotes, unburdened by any hint of the complexities that Brexit would involve.

Johnson’s time as mayor of London had somewhat immunised him against the general mood of distrust and disillusionment with politicians. In much the same way as Donald Trump and his siren song of easy remedies to America’s complex problems offered a break from politics as usual, so did Johnson and his message.

The problem with successfully persuading voters that there are alternatives to the way things are currently being done, is that the crunch comes when you actually have to do them. Johnson and the Brexit movement have managed to make it virtually impossible for Theresa May to construct a safe means of withdrawing from the EU without having set out a plausible alternative.

Slogans such as “take back control” are meaningless without setting out a clear pathway to getting there. The Brexit proposal – that Britain should simply walk away, sticking a finger up to the EU as it leaves and embracing the glorious opportunities that will emerge once free of the EU – offers no more than unconvincing “trust us, we know what we are doing” incantations.

The reality that this is not enough seems increasingly to be dawning on British voters as the polls show support growing for a second referendum and a complete rethink of the Brexit idea. The attempt by Brexiters to topple Theresa May from the Conservative Party leadership and seize the prime ministership failed because the Brexit crowd offers such an implausible alternative to May’s own implausible plan.

The result is an almighty mess from which there is no apparent escape. Even the growing demands for a second referendum don’t offer the promise of an end to the nightmare. Imagine the bitter recriminations that would be unleashed by the Brexit crowd if a second referendum results in a vote for Remain.

But even if a second referendum resulted in another vote for Leave, the means of leaving without creating the horrible mess currently in prospect has yet to be explained by anyone, least of all Boris Johnson.

A year which is ending badly for Britain may be giving way to an even worse one.

 


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Headline image credit: frankie’s/Shutterstock.com

 

 

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