Brexit: Country Before Tribe
Brexit: Country Before Tribe
Speech by Tony Blair at the Institute for Government, Monday 2nd September 2019.
In the modern history of Britain, there has never been a more important moment for politicians to put country before tribe, national interest before self interest.
We are numb to the state of our politics. What is happening is shocking, irresponsible and dangerous.
Our Government is ripping Britain out of the European Union – by common acceptance the most important change in this country’s affairs since 1945 – in the most extreme form of Brexit imaginable, without an agreement to replace the complicated network of political and commercial arrangements which we have built over decades of European membership, and doing so, without the consent of Parliament but with a deliberate manoeuvre to curtail it, and without the express consent of the British people, relying instead on a one-off plebiscite now over 3 years ago, in which not for a moment was it suggested by those advocating Brexit, that No Deal would be the outcome .
Parliament – the capstone of our democracy – is held up to ridicule as the ‘enemy’ of the very people who elected it.
Not once have our nation’s leadership explained to the public why Brexit has been so difficult to resolve, which is because there are at least three different versions of it – Hard, Soft and No Deal and all are vastly different in their implications.
Rather it has suited them to ride a wave of ‘just do it’ emotion born of public impatience. You're bored of Brexit. I'm bored of Brexit. We all are. But no serious political leader would suggest we should take a decision of this magnitude by an effluxion of patience.
The obvious way to have resolved Brexit was by setting out the different forms of it, making Parliament choose and if they can't, asking the people to have the final say. This has never been tried, by Government, in a structured way and is now dismissed as a ploy of obstruction when it is the only plan of reason.
So, we are poised to leave Europe on 31st October with No Deal and no idea frankly of what it really means: difficult; damaging; or disastrous. But many believe that it will be a disaster, not only economically but in areas like security.
Does no one presently in Government, particularly those Cabinet members who used to protest against the irresponsibility of such a course, understand the consequence of doing this in circumstances where a large part of the country will regard it as illegitimate?
Democracy depends on a shared sense of legitimacy in decision making.
Legitimacy is not the same as agreement with Government. Governments do things people dislike. But outside of the political fringes, most people accept their right to do them.
This is now a crisis of legitimacy.
No one in Government even pretends to address these anxieties.
We are a riven nation.
One part of the People is enraged Brexit is being thwarted, the other enraged by the manner it is being done.
Each side accuses the other of being anti-democratic; of deception and destruction of faith in politics.
People vs Parliament; Parliament vs Government; People vs People.
Elements threaten to take to the street; never a good way to decide anything
Brexit has become so bitter because Brexit is not simply about a decision to leave the EU. It is about culture, identity, values, generation. The essence is not about trade. It is about who we are as a nation in the 21st C.
Normally questions of identity play out over time, by evolution, or by staggered points of development in successive elections. But the holding of the referendum turned this into a moment of revolution.
It forced us to confront a division, perhaps better unconfronted.
On the one side are those who feel Britain as they know it, is being cast aside, the things they like about Britain disappearing, and in their place, petty political correctness, bureaucratic obsessions, magnified and exemplified by Europe, and, above all, obedience to the god of multi-culturalism at the expense of ‘our own culture.’
This part of Britain imagines a parallel with the Second World War, a period of our history which, rightly, makes us proud. Read the speeches of the Brexiteers and they are replete with references to this feat of glory.
But it casts a long shadow over the British psyche. It creates a longing to live the moment again, to see each new circumstance through the lens of its narrative, a life and death struggle between us and those who would harm us, where against all odds we triumph, a series of Darkest Hours from which we emerge to the sunlit uplands.
Those of us on the other side, think if there is a parallel with WW2, it is the need to stand firm when you are doing what you believe to be right for the country, even when it is unpopular. We look at Europe today and see 70 years of peace and relative stability. We see the crisis as visited upon ourselves. A folly of nostalgia. We celebrate our cultural diversity. We revere but don't dwell on Britain’s past or see it as the only point of reference for its future. We're comfortable with a secondary European identity alongside our primary British one.
This profound, cultural difference was also part of what we were deciding in June 2016. It’s a big decision to take on one day in one vote.
Since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, everything has changed, and nothing has changed.
The mood has changed radically.
He has energy and strategy: to cajole Tory MPs into not ‘tying his hands’ because a deal with Europe is possible; to cajole Europe by the threat he is serious about No Deal; and if both fail, to blame Parliament and EU for their intransigence.
Our Government has been taken over by a gang of adventurers; but don't underestimate the appeal of adventure after a long period of paralysis.
The contrast with Theresa May is stark.
And many are prepared, like him, to believe that with belief it can be over. It will end. The word Brexit will vanish into history. We can get on with our lives.
The strategy has been to go at it full tilt, whipped on by the Brexit press and a vibrant social media campaign, buoyed by the weakness of the Opposition, the spending pledges rolling off the conveyor belt as if it is only Brexit which has liberated us from austerity, posing as the saviours of the People ready to steamroller over the recalcitrant out of touch Elite.
However, this public sentiment, like the entire Johnson premiership, is based on an illusion, a national example of what we all know from our personal life lessons, which is that decisions based on fatigue and desperation are usually wrong ones, and that belief can give you the courage to take a risk but cannot alter the objective facts as to what the risk is.
This is where nothing has changed.
The long term impact of the Brexit decision is unaltered.
The political consequence of Brexit is to diminish us globally. Within a relatively short space of time, the world will evolve into a combination of giant powers and regional blocs.
The giants will be the USA, China and probably India. The blocs will come together to achieve collectively what is impossible individually: to sit at the top table of geo-politics on equal terms. This is the modern rationale for the European Union – not peace but power. In time, in South East Asia, ASEAN. In South America, MERCOSUR. In Central Asia, the bloc around Russia. The Africa Union.
Britain should retain its strong and special relationship with the USA, but its natural place is with Europe. For reasons of history, culture, commerce, values and of course geography. Its quicker to go by train to Paris than Newcastle.
The economics of Brexit have not changed.
We exit our largest trading market and the largest commercial market in the world, in a manner no modern developed nation has contemplated let alone done before.
Brexit is based on a colossal myth - that Europe controls our laws. In fact, virtually any decision that affects the practical life of British people is decided not in Brussels but here in Britain. The NHS, education, crime, taxes, welfare, pensions, defence. Even on immigration, other than freedom of movement within Europe, Britain decides British immigration policy.
So, the Brexiteers were driven to construct their case around the area where, as the settled policy of successive Governments, we have indeed pooled our law making – the Single Market and Customs Union.
Every time Brexiteers are challenged on specifically why it is so important to our identity to exit Europe, they resort to bizarre examples – as with Boris Johnson and truck windows (when resigning as Foreign Secretary); kipper wrapping (when fighting to be Tory leader); and Melton Mowbray pork pies (when advocating for the supremacy of American trade deals). They would be trivial even if true. As it turns out, they're both trivial and untrue.
But as a result, we are torn between the self evident truth that exiting such a relationship is bound to be painful and the necessity of satisfying the Brexiteer myth that we must exit it to preserve British identity. Thus, we ended up with the unobtainable ‘cake and eat it’ strategy.
Then we have the added dimension of the Irish border, where naturally the accepted need to keep it open, conflicts with the fact that for the first time, Ireland and the UK will not be in the same economic or political status viz Europe.
The backstop is merely the expression of this dilemma. Brexit is really a choice not a negotiation. If we want out of the Single Market and Customs Union, fine. But then we will have a hard border. If we want an open border we stay connected to the European system.
The latest attempt at negotiation simply underscores this. Our new PM is apparently offering Europe regulatory alignment in certain areas which will mean effectively abiding by Europe’s rules overseen by the ECJ. This is a slimmer version of the May deal presented at Chequers which he resigned over.
He may succeed in this negotiation. But I doubt it because ultimately Europe may change the form of the concept behind the backstop, but not the concept itself. In which case, we bump against something else which hasn't changed: the impact of No Deal.
No amount of self belief can alter its reality.
No Deal is presented as the end of Brexit. On the contrary, it’s not the end but a fresh beginning. Because we will then be obliged to negotiate with Europe a new trade deal, though with little or no negotiating leverage.
Of course, Europe wants to avoid No Deal and the Irish particularly will be badly damaged by it, something of which we should be ashamed given all the extraordinary efforts of so many to lay to rest the ghosts of the, often, savage past between British and Irish.
But the principal damage will be to ourselves.
We misunderstand European politics. Brexit is our daily news curse. But not theirs. Germany has its own problems, France and Italy theirs. Its vexing for them. Its paramount for us.
So, this is a reckless path. But there is a strategy behind it, and we must be equally strategic in opposing it. We cannot let the big arguments be lost in the minutiae of Parliamentary process.
First, we must constantly debunk the notion that the June 2016 referendum is a mandate for a No Deal Brexit. Feeble attempts to suggest it is, have foundered on the overwhelming evidence that on the contrary Brexiteers continually stated that there would be a deal and that it would be easy.
Second, therefore, if the Government policy is to come out with No Deal, then the mandate to do it should either come from Parliament; or the People.
Third, and this is the crux, if Parliament cannot agree, then the right way to consult the People is not through a General Election but through a referendum.
That means, as MPs from different parties have agreed, that there should not be a Motion of No Confidence but rather legislation preventing No Deal.
Should the Government seek an Election, it should be refused in favour of a referendum.
It is counter-intuitive for Opposition Parties to refuse an Election. But in this exceptional case, it is vital they do so as a matter of principle, until Brexit is resolved.
Brexit is an issue which stands on its own, was originally decided on its own and should be reconsidered on its own.
The Brexiteers are laying a trap, to seem as if pushed into an election, whilst actively preparing for one.
They know there are two issues in British politics not one: Brexit; and the Corbyn leadership.
It is the interplay between these two issues that has shaped and defined British politics over the past 3-4 years.
Boris Johnson knows that if No Deal Brexit stands on its own as a proposition, it might well fail. But if he mixes up the Brexit question with the Corbyn question in a General Election, he could succeed, despite a majority being against a No Deal Brexit, because some may fear a Corbyn premiership more.
The Labour Leader could be similarly tempted.
Without Brexit, winning an Election is tough, but with it in the mix, especially as No Deal, he may gain support from people who otherwise would not entertain his premiership.
In backing away from the idea of himself as a ‘caretaker Prime Minister’ Jeremy Corbyn has behaved responsibly and if he continues to put country first he will benefit the country and himself.
He can now play a decisive role in how Brexit develops.
But he should see an Election before Brexit is decided, for the elephant trap it is.
After Brexit is resolved, an immediate election is right and necessary. And if Labour approaches the resolution of Brexit with the spirit of strategic cooperation it has shown recently, it will emerge with its standing and that of its leadership greatly enhanced.
If the Government tries to force an election now, Labour should vote against it.
The challenge, of such an Election is brutally clear.
Leave aside what is fair or unfair: no Opposition Leader or Party with these poll ratings has won an Election.
The 2017 result has inoculated the Labour Party against a realistic assessment of where it stands.
To be sure, an Election is a risk for the Tories. Each Tory candidate will have to sign up to No Deal. The Brexit Party is a one man unpredictable band. Scotland will be very tough.
But my bet is the Brexit Party will collapse to them.
The Labour Party at present will struggle; a resurgent Lib Dems will do well, but not well enough to govern. The Opposition vote will split. Under our system that delivers a comfortable Tory majority.
When you get to real world politics, it will be presented as: do you want Boris Johnson delivering Brexit plus a populist Tory programme or do you want to turn the country, its economy and security over to Jeremy Corbyn and his small group of acolytes from the far left?
The Parliamentary tactics are clear: seize the agenda; but the strategic goal must be that if it is the People who are to break the deadlock, they should be asked to do so directly, not in an Election to choose a Government.
Should it come to an Election, then we will be obliged to try to replicate that well orchestrated cooperation which has been so remarkable in Parliament across tribal boundaries, in the much more complicated setting of an Election, to mobilise the potential majority in the country against No Deal.
There is a will; but the way is dense with obstacles.
But we would have to try.
Return to what is at stake.
Brexit is the answer to none of Britain’s challenges. Consider all the announcements Johnson is making. Not one of them depends on Britain leaving Europe.
Brexit is a gigantic distraction. It will cause slow but significant damage to our economy. It is a self inflicted diminution of our geo-political relevance.
It is opposed by an overwhelming majority of the younger generation who will live with its consequences.
No Deal Brexit poses a genuine threat to the union of the United Kingdom.
This is a time of genuine national peril.
To their credit, many politicians across all parties have been willing to put aside normal politics to meet this abnormal challenge in these abnormal times.
They should stay on this path. An intelligent and rational way to Brexit resolution can still be found.
But it requires, as ever in politics, the alliance of principle with strategy.
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Speech by Tony Blair at the Institute for Government, Monday 2nd September 2019.
Copyright © September 2019 by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change
All rights reserved. Citation, reproduction and or translation of this publication, in whole or in part, for educational or other non-commercial purposes is authorised provided the source is fully acknowledged. Tony Blair Institute, trading as Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, is a company limited by guarantee registered in England and Wales (registered company number: 10505963) whose registered office is 50 Broadway, London, SW1H 0BL.