Brexit has energised the centrist political forces that want to remain in the EU, but they have little to show for their efforts. Michael Wilkinson (LSE) argues that Labour should avoid flirting with Remainism if it wants to be the party of radical change and defeat Boris Johnson.
The divisions underlying Brexit are deep and complex, and cut across various social and ideological cleavages. They have revealed splits not only between but within the political parties which are meant to mediate differences and contribute to the production of a political will. They reflect regional and generational as much as traditional Left-Right divides. And the Brexit process itself now raises serious constitutional questions about the relationship among judicial, legislative and executive powers, about the constitution’s fitness for purpose, and even about the location of sovereignty itself – bringing to the surface strong and countervailing currents that usually ebb and flow less vigorously underneath.
With 31 October fast approaching, things are reaching a climax. The appointment of a new Tory Prime Minister who is more willing to adopt an aggressive negotiating position – within his own party, with Parliament, and with the EU itself – has heightened tensions and also reignited the political embers, re-energising those on both sides of the Brexit divide.
Reactions to the PM’s advice to prorogue Parliament in a manner that pushes constitutional boundaries to their limit have produced a great deal of heat. But the light, as yet, remains obscure. This is because we are not nearing the end of the Brexit saga, not even the beginning of the end, but perhaps only the end of the beginning.
To see why, we need to start disentangling the political and constitutional questions, which, due to the peculiarity of the UK’s uncodified constitution, are mixed up in the day-to-day workings of government and in the normal play of party politics itself. This is especially so with Brexit.
So one might, rightly or wrongly, consider Brexit to be a positive constitutional move, or think that, given the referendum outcome, it is now a constitutional change that must be seen through, but at the same time be strongly politically opposed to the Tory regime represented by Boris Johnson. From this position, one might even acknowledge that any negotiation with the EU requires running the risk of no deal, without thinking no deal to be the best outcome or to be a positive outcome in the short-term. Any government that happened to be in the position of negotiating with the EU would have to retain it as a credible threat, or so the Greek crisis may be thought to have revealed. That it happens to be Johnson in the position of negotiating the deal is unfortunate for those ideologically opposed to him, but can be corrected at the next electoral opportunity, or for those who believe in extra-parliamentary activity, on the streets, the workplace and elsewhere.
But to disentangle the constitutional issue of leaving the EU – the kind of question that arises once in a generation – from the vicissitudes of everyday politics is a challenge exacerbated by other factors, which have less to do with constitutional law than with the layers underneath the constitutional surface: struggles over political unity, institutional power, political objectives and the social fabric..
Since the Brexit vote, certain divisions, and the positions undergirding them, have entrenched and attitudes hardened. At the same time various splinters have formed. There are no longer, if there ever were, two homogenous blocs facing each other across the Brexit divide. There are however two figures – caricatures perhaps – that can be sketched in a way that may help to discern certain trends. If the Brexit referendum gave some voice to those previously disenchanted with centrist politics – marginalised by neoliberal economics, years of austerity under the Conservative-Liberal coalition, and an establishment that had offered various shades of the same political hue – Remainism has since presented a countervailing reactionary force. It has awakened certain parts of the British (and European) bourgeoisie that were previously passive, their social and economic capital more threatened by the prospect of the Brexit vote than the austerity that preceded it. These two groups are new to the political landscape, making politics very hard to predict.
What we can say for sure is that there has been a high level of volatility in the political representation of the bloc of Brexit voters as a mass – and especially for those who voted Brexit in the hope that it would signal a desire for rupture with the status quo. In the 2017 general election, both major parties campaigned on a promise to deliver the referendum result, committing to leave the EU. As a consequence UKIP, after its extraordinary advance in the 2015 general election, was nearly eviscerated just two years later, with politics reverting back to a struggle between Left and Right in a way that had not been witnessed for several decades. But in the recent European Parliament elections, in the wake of the established parties’ apparent unwillingness or inability to agree to any Brexit deal and refusal to countenance a no-deal scenario – despite that being the logical implication of having approved the triggering of Article 50 in March 2017 – centrism returned with a bang, the newly formed Brexit Party – like Italy’s 5 Star containing elements across the political spectrum – making significant inroads, along with the Liberal Democrats as the unequivocal party of Remain.
Yet although many centrist Remainers have significant social (as well as real) capital and significant representation in the liberal media and the academy, they have not as yet translated this power into concrete political advances. In fact they have suffered a series of setbacks and embarrassments. In 2017, the Lib Dems flatlined on an unambiguously Remain platform. The new centrist party Change UK made more name changes than political headway. For this group more broadly, which includes – along with Conservatives and Lib Dems – many within the Labour party, failure to topple Jeremy Corbyn is perhaps the most conspicuous of all, although they have succeeded in pushing the party to adopt a more aggressively Remainist position, voiced prominently by the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer.
The Remainists’ response to Johnson’s premiership appears to be to raise the rhetorical stakes but diminish the practical ones, as if the appropriate response to a ‘coup’ is to launch a ‘petition’ or to look to the establishment to sort this mess out: the courts, the Queen, the European Commission or Hugh Grant. Some lament that if only we had a written constitution, these political crises would be avoided, apparently learning little from recent episodes in constitutional democracies from the US to Italy. Others suggest that until a few weeks ago the UK was legitimately lecturing other folk on how to run a constitutional democracy, and bemoan the loss of global influence Brexit would bring. Even some Left Remainers place their Remainism so far above their politics that they refuse to agitate against Johnson with those who advocate ‘Lexit’ (a left-wing exit from the EU).
If the opposition to Johnson frames the current struggle as a battle on the terrain of the constitutional question of Brexit, rather the substantive issues of left-right politics and policy, it may well play into Johnson’s hands and enable him, perversely, to fight on a populist or anti-establishment platform, one that appears to be having considerable success in drawing in voters. This is exacerbated by a curious and troubling political void – not only here but in the rest of Europe too: the fact that the Left, with some notable exceptions, almost entirely vacated the terrain of meaningful Euroscepticism. The third of Labour voters who voted Leave in 2016 would be effectively disenfranchised. Indeed not only those who voted Leave but those who voted Remain or didn’t vote at all, but who consider it imperative to respect the outcome of the Referendum, would be jettisoned, with only the Brexit party offering an obvious refuge.
If the absence of Left leadership on the Leave side was somewhat excusable prior to 2016, considered too unlikely to materialise to warrant serious attention, it has now had nearly three years to mature – not on a speculative terrain, but on a terrain primed by the electorate against political and economic elites, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a rupture from the status quo. Even the self-styled revolutionary Left appear unable to grasp this, lazily dismissing what is unarguably a democratic case as necessarily retrograde and ‘nationalist’.
Instead, the strategy on the much of the Left appears, again, to be essentially negative, to present Johnson as dangerous primarily because he is intent on driving through a no-deal Brexit. But Johnson is not committed to a no-deal Brexit, or perhaps to any kind of Brexit. Johnson, probably committed only to himself and to political power, is willing to risk a no-deal Brexit and certainly wants to be seen to be willing to risk no deal – both for party political reasons and (as he may see it) to improve his bargaining position with the EU. But there is little doubt that a soft or even hard Right Conservative political agenda could be pursued from within the EU. Even a cursory glance at the political landscape across Europe confirms this. And the prorogation of Parliament may actually decrease the chance of a no-deal Brexit, not least since it increases pressure to act with urgency.
What may have changed politically is Johnson’s calculation that he can also, or may effectively be forced to, risk an election – a gamble that effectively sunk his predecessor Theresa May.
If it was no coincidence that Johnson’s advice to prorogue was officially made soon after Labour put a motion of no confidence on the backburner, reaching out to those crying ‘Coup’ but suggesting installing Ken Clarke as PM, its strategic implications were unclear. Some commentators perceived it as a sign of weakness from Johnson. Others as a trap to lure the opposition. But is the trap sprung by pressing for an immediate election or avoiding one?
The logical response is that it would depend on the result. But this knowledge is a luxury politics must do without; and in the current moment predictions are difficult. What will matter for now is whether the message from the opposition, on the streets and elsewhere, is unequivocally about getting rid of Johnson, and implementing a radical political and economic programme, or whether it is boxed into manoeuvring for a fight to stop Brexit.
If there is a trap, it surely lies there. It would see the Labour party embrace Remain, or join a cross-party alliance of Remainists, effectively in defence of the established political system. It would write off half the electorate at a stroke and in the longer term write itself off as a party that presented any real political and constitutional alternative to the status quo. Is that the end of the beginning?
It would be an error to think that Brexit can simply be reversed without serious political cost. But it would also be an error to think that a general election will resolve the deeper constitutional issues underlying Brexit. Although this is true to the extent that the Brexit vote reflected a deeper economic malaise that requires serious redress, some of which has little to do with EU membership, it will not dispel the need to address the basic material constitutional questions of democracy and sovereignty that underpin the current drama. Only then will we be nearing the beginning of the end.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.