Two former Remainers battle it outby Will Hutton and Patience Wheatcroft / March 3, 2020 / Leave a comment
Yes—Will Hutton: Patience, I am phenomenally concerned. By 1st July the British government has to give notice to the EU if it wants to extend the transition period beyond 31st December of this year. Yet it is clear that it will not. Boris Johnson is imprisoned both by his own rhetoric of national “independence” and the need to keep the impossible pledges that won him the prime ministership. But within the timescale nothing but the most damaging of hard Brexits, with incalculable economic, political and cultural consequences, is possible.
In these circumstances we have an obligation to call the government out for traducing our interests and its own promises, and to continue to argue that British membership of the EU was, is and would be the best of our national options. In democracies it is vital to carry on making arguments in which we believe: what is happening is bad and avoidable, and the solution is to rejoin.
The pre-referendum Brexit ambiguity—always a lie—that Britain could maintain the best of both worlds has died a death. Any continual alignment with EU rules and regulations is now seen as betrayal—Britain would become a “rule-taker”—so a “Canada-style” or minimalist “Australian” WTO trade option (which even the Australians think is flawed) is floated by ministers as the only way forward. Or, if there is to be compromise, Britain will pick which sectors we align with the EU and which we don’t.
Any of these options will badly hurt what remains of our manufacturing, asymmetrically helping overseas exporters who are already more competitive than us, while crippling services—particularly financial services—which will have sharply curtailed access to EU markets because the floated trade agreements don’t cover them. Moreover, the EU has already ruled out any form of cherry picking. Thus our already vast current account deficit can only expand even as growth prospects shrink. A first-order financial and economic crisis in the months after 1st July is becoming ever-more likely. Ideologues and adolescents are running our affairs. We will be proved right. We must keep the pro-EU argument alive.
No—Patience Wheatcroft: I share your concern about the future of the UK. The 31st of January left me feeling desolate. I am appalled that my country has inflicted such huge potential damage on itself. Brexit makes us poorer in countless ways.
Neither do I believe that the general election delivered a government with a massive mandate to “Get Brexit Done,” even though that is how Johnson and his gang interpret it. Many who would have preferred not to leave the EU just dreaded a Jeremy Corbyn victory more. Despite the negligible chance of that happening, they felt unable to risk doing anything other than voting Conservative.
Nevertheless, I do accept that there is now an overwhelming wish in the country to move on from the Brexit debate after the years of debilitating argument. People want to see the government dealing with the deep-seated problems that have caused such discontent: basic issues such as housing, social care, transport and low incomes. Johnson has rashly promised to deliver miracles on all these fronts despite the fact that most economists and business people have warned that the country will be poorer post-Brexit.
I hope, one day, Britain will come to its senses and rejoin, although the terms will never be as advantageous as those we have surrendered. But to campaign for that now would simply allow the government to vilify recalcitrant Remainers for continuing to undermine its negotiating hand. If the country crashes out at the end of the year without even the miserly protection of a Canada-style arrangement, it will be blamed on an intransigent EU, given succour by a sulking elite.
So we must accept the principle of Brexit but challenge on detail. Crucially, we must fight this government’s desperate efforts to grab ever-more power. Attempts to reduce the role of the Supreme Court or bypass parliament have to be resisted. If we fail, then Britain will not deserve to be part of the EU again.
Yes: I think you’re right that people feared Corbyn more than Brexit: an opposition leader with broader appeal would have forced a second hung -parliament—and might have managed to garner the few extra parliamentary votes last autumn needed to legislate for a second referendum.
But that leads me to very different conclusions. First of all, there is a latent pro-EU majority in the country that now has no political expression. Secondly, Remain’s fair-mindedness means we do not match Leave for zealotry and we worry too much about their portrayal of us as a recalcitrant elite resisting the popular will. And of course we recognise that there were genuine grievances that caused the vote and need redressing.
We former Remainers will never stop being fair-minded, but let’s combine it with some comparable conviction. The years that lie ahead of 1 per cent growth, or less if austerity has to be re-imposed in the wake of a run on sterling, will never allow the UK to find the resources to deal with those grievances. We can’t duck the truth: the cause is Brexit. Nor should parts of the country that voted Remain have to pretend the things that drive their convictions and prosperity—openness, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, the need to base action on evidence—are suddenly values that must go underground before the hyper-nationalist fantasies of the gang around Johnson.
Ultimately one of the chief reasons Leave won was that they wanted it more: it was passion before reason. You say we must accept the principle of Brexit but challenge the detail. But the details—whether on trade, defence, security or whatever—are wrong because the principle of Brexit is wrong. Johnson judged correctly that Europhobia would deliver him to No 10. My judgment is that the country will recoil from the consequences of Brexit—and we must stick to our guns to capitalise on the opportunity that failure will present. In politics, as in life, it pays to be bold in the pursuit of what you believe.
No: I’m not sure that you are correct in asserting that there is “a latent pro-EU majority in the country.” Before the December election, I think that was the case but, as I said earlier, the public mood has since moved to overall acceptance that Brexit must be done and as quickly as possible.
A YouGov survey at the end of January found that 30 per cent of those who voted Remain in the referendum had come to accept that the UK was leaving the EU. The proportion asserting that “I don’t believe people in the UK really wanted to leave the EU” had fallen from 32 per cent in November 2016 to 19 per cent.
Hence, much as I still wish to shriek from the rooftops that leaving the EU is madness, I think it would achieve nothing other than providing Johnson with others to blame if—when—he fails to secure a good deal. There is no such thing as a good Brexit but those who have swallowed the rhetoric about making Britain great again will not listen to the sad truth. They have to discover it for themselves.
Your analysis of the Remain campaign’s failings rings true. There was too much reasonableness, not enough passion and far too much emphasis on economics rather than the broader benefits of being part of a powerful and peaceful union. All those faults need to be addressed when the quest to rejoin the EU begins. In the meantime, we can and should fight against what you term the “hyper-nationalist fantasies” of Johnson and his crew. Tolerance, respect for our institutions and a belief that the government should not try to dupe the electorate are worthy causes for our passion. Rejoining, for the time being at least, is not.
Yes: I’ve been curiously cheered up by this exchange, despite the destructiveness of Brexit and our disagreement on the way forward. They prove something I have been convinced of ever since the referendum; that Remainers’ commitment to Enlightenment values and the recognition of interdependence trumps whether we lean left or right. It is the big reason for hope and why Brexit is not going to disappear quickly from public concern—even if Tory high command wants to expunge the very word from our vocabulary. Standing by those values is the essence of Britain, Britishness and being European. We are the majority, even if temporarily bested.
The question is how quickly those values will be reasserted. Support for the Tories has grown since the election, as it has done over the last 40 years for winning parties after polling day, often lasting for months. It is helped by Labour not only being effectively leaderless but its actual leader being so discredited. That has had a knock-on effect, creating the poll numbers on Remain you quote, but that does not mean the Remain majority before the election is suddenly reconciled to Brexit. Yes, a proportion of “softer” Remainers accept the reality as in a sense we all have to. Yet as it plays out in the way we both expect, that—and a turning away from Johnsonian hard Brexit values—will make majority opinion readier to make itself heard.
But it has to be led, and that is the difference between us. You judge that we can’t get ahead of opinion, and to do so will help Johnson. But he is going to blame his failures on the damnable EU whatever. My view is that rewards fall to those prepared to argue a case even in lean times: indeed it is imperative to do so, so there are leaders and a movement ready to rally to when the tide turns—and help provoke that turning of the tide. It will also make the next Labour leader warier about neglecting such an enormous constituency. So let us keep the flame alive—in our articles, speeches, public meetings, social media presences and marches. It is our duty. The fight must continue!
No: You’re right to say that the Brexit debacle has succeeded in uniting people who share similar values, no matter where their former political allegiances lay. For me, the one positive legacy of the battle of the last three years is strong new friendships forged by a common cause.
We haven’t given up that cause, but I continue to disagree with you about when we should resume the fight. We can and will campaign for the Enlightenment values you extol, calling out any attempt by Johnson’s government to disguise nasty nationalism as patriotism or to dismiss proper scrutiny of the administration as Luddite resistance. We will also work hard to strengthen what relationships we still have with Europe, underlining that the disgraceful behaviour of Nigel Farage and his friends as they bade farewell to the European parliament, showboating with flags and causing commotion, was not representative of the country at large.
But only when we judge the ground to have been laid for the public to tolerate, let alone warm to, a rejoin argument should we go into full campaign mode. Your frustrations with this are clear and understandable: it is painful to watch the country taking huge risks with the fate of future generations. Timing, however, is crucial.
For over 40 years the extremists campaigned for the country to leave the EU. The likes of Bill Cash and John Redwood were a nuisance for successive prime ministers but they did not influence the public. It was only when Farage appeared as the voice of Brexit that the campaign began to pick up true momentum. The absence of a rival figure was the crucial failing in the Remain campaign. I agree it lacked the passion and the pithy slogans but those failings would have been overcome if there had been a charismatic leader for the pro-EU brigade. The most useful thing pro-Europeans can do now is ensure that, when the battle eventually recommences, we have a worthy champion at the head.