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Brexit: a manifesto for peace

2020-01-26 07:37:20

It is fair to say that the "remain" campaign in the 2016 referendum was abysmal, even if it was only marginally worse than the official "leave" campaign. Noticeably, the remainers chose to home in on the negative aspects of leaving the so-called "project fear" strategy. No serious attempt was made to talk up the benefits of European Union membership.

After the referendum, it is also fair to say that the main emphasis of the "remainers" was to negate the result, seeking amongst other things a second (actually third) referendum, in the hope that this would restore the status quo. As to how we should manage the Brexit process, there was very little, if any, coherent input from that quarter.

Whatever else has been the result of the 2019 general election, the net effect has been to crush the "remainers" as an organised protest. Calls for another referendum have all but disappeared and, although a disconsolate rump is embracing a "rejoin" movement, it is unlikely that this will gain any political traction for the foreseeable future.

All of this has led to a somewhat morose Nick Cohen to write in the Observer that, with Boris Johnson in control, "the danger is that liberals will give up the fight".

From where he gets this "liberal" schtick, I really don't know, but I have difficulty with the idea that support for the EU is a liberal (with a small "l") value. Nevertheless, one takes the poor man's point he is lamenting not only the demise of the anti-Brexiteers but their descent into "torpor".

"The listless acceptance", he writes, "extends to those who believe that leaving the European Union is an act of monumental folly". What he concedes as "Brexit's inevitability", plus the possibility that we are in for another decade of right wing rule, is leading opponents of the status quo to retreat into private life, as the defeated so often do.

I must say that I have found the idea of chucking this blog to concentrate on my passion for building scale models is increasingly attractive, and have already retreated from Twitter where the cacophony of aimless noise and the self-referential love-fests serve no useful purpose.

But, taking heed of the warning that, if you don't take an interest in politics, it will take an interest in you, I am prepared to continue to invest the six hours and more spent daily researching and writing posts and the many more hours monitoring and moderating the comments.

Where Cohen does himself less than a favour though is that, while he is full of dire predictions of the woes that are about to befall us, he has little to offer by way of any remedies.

Thus, he tells us, "the hard break the government is proposing as the only way to leave the EU without following EU law will be a direct attack on the pharmaceutical, chemical, aerospace, food processing, farming, fishing and car industries".

As if we didn't know already, he goes on to warn that "businesses that rely on the frictionless movement of goods will suffer", almost revelling in the prospect of our decline and fall as he regurgitates what is fast becoming the received wisdom of the dispossessed. Amongst the evils we face, Cohen says:
The absence of regulatory checks and arguments about the source of components and applicable tax rates is essential for their health, just as the absence of border checks on perishable food is essential for fresh food and fish exports. Hundreds of thousands of jobs and everyone's living standards are at stake. The Food and Drink Federation said last week that the Johnson administration's policies sounded like the "death knell" for frictionless trade with the EU and were likely to cause food prices to rise.
For all that, the great sage also spends next to no time analysing the causes of our demise. Simply, he lists four things, without commenting on any: the Conservatives won a handsome majority; Brexit bored the public rigid; the opposition was hopeless; journalists weren't doing their job.

One might, however, venture a view that the reason the Conservatives won a "handsome majority" is because the opposition was "hopeless". I have even gone so far as to suggest that the dynamics of the general election were such that that Tories didn't win it Labour lost it.

As to the public being "bored" with Brexit, I have always held the view and hold it to this day that the craft of the journalist is to transform the dull, and make it interesting, to make the complex simple without losing any of the essence.

This was something at which the late Christopher Booker was the supreme master, and had he still been alive, I would most likely at this time be summarising one of his pieces to publish on this blog. Not for him was the simple formula of dismissing EU legislation as "almost incomprehensible to an untrained eye". He would get stuck in to the likes of the electro-magnetic compatibility directive, of the intricacies of fisheries regulations, and tell us precisely why they were wrong.

It is no coincidence that he and I, having spent most of our working lives opposing the EU, should at the very end support remaining in the EU's Single Market which had previously been the target of much of our criticism. Ours was simply the caution of avoiding sudden change and taking careful, measured steps in order safely to emerge into our EU-free world.

But, if that was to happen, we needed a plan and that was something that neither this nor earlier governments, the leavers nor the post-referendum remainers have ever troubled to formulate. In fact, so much energy has been spent on poisoning the well that it is difficult now to debate intelligently the most obvious plan of all the Efta/EEA option.

One would have thought by now, though, that the likes of Cohen who are so sure that Johnson's "hard break" Brexit will be a disaster would see in this an opportunity to come up with an alternative. And if we take as a given that the possibility of taking up the Efta/EEA option (or something very much like it) will never completely close, Cohen has an obvious place to turn.

Interestingly, nearly nine years ago, anticipating the coming referendum, I was writing of our experiences as a nation in the Second World War.

In 1940, I wrote, political issues such as European political integration were being widely discussed, all in the more general context of defining British "war aims". It was not simply enough to fight and win, we had to have a reason for fighting, or so the argument went.

This, I went on to record, was discussed in a parliamentary debate on 15 October 1940. As the wreckage of London lay around them, MPs gathered to find out whether the Government was prepared to make a definitive statement on war aims. But Churchill refused, point blank. He was guardian of the status quo, suppressing any debate on the issue.

In what is an insufficiently aired facet of our wartime politics, Churchill's Information Minister Duff Cooper, very much supported the idea, and had been speaking secretly for it in Cabinet. 

He expressed his support as far as he could during the debate but the crucial event on the floor of the House was the intervention by Richard Stokes, Labour MP for Ipswich, a Military Cross winner in the First World War (and bar), a stern critic of British tank design and soon to become an arch critic of the area bombing policy.

Cooper, said Stokes, had enunciated what we were fighting against, but not what we were fighting for. "[It] is no use fighting for a negative object. You must have a positive one, and the sooner that [is] stated the better".

Nearly eighty years later, all we have from Mr Cohen is his view of the prime minister's announcement that: "we can put the rancour and division of the past three years behind us and focus on delivering a bright, exciting future" should be met "with derisive laughter".

That may be the case, but unless or until the opposition which Cohen represents is able, in the manner of Richard Stokes, to come up with a positive way of dealing with Brexit, it will remain in the wilderness. A contemporary cartoon (pictured) caught the mood of the moment way back in 1940. Where now is our "great peace manifesto"?