What should progressives do after the Article 50 vote?

I have a degree of sympathy with Labour MPs who had to wrestle with their conscience over the votes on the Article 50 Bill. Labour’s position is clouded by the referendum result in many Labour areas and how individual MPs see their role.

Just as football is an easy game to play from the stands, so politics is a simple business from the armchair. Had I been in Parliament at the time of the Iraq War I like to think I would have voted against the conflict for the reasons expressed by Robin Cook and John Denham in their resignation speeches at the time. However, I cannot honestly say that for certain as I was not privy to the information in front of MPs, nor to the pressures that come to bear on MPs. Equally, though my sympathies lie squarely with those who voted against Jeremy Corbyn’s ridiculous three-line whip, I cannot say with certainty that I would have acted the same way had my hypothetical constituency voted 60:40 for Leave. Under such circumstance I may have abstained on the principle and the final question, for while wishing to reflect the view of constituents, as I could not in all-conscience vote for a measure that will certainly do untold damage to the UK in years to come. There was, I will note, a marked absence of Conservatives seeking to represent the views of their Remain supporting constituents.

A Bad Government, an Opposition barely breathing

The entire Article 50 process has been botched by the May administration. Caught by an unexpected result, an unexpected elevation to high office and failing to read the entirely legible writing on the constitutional wall and so losing an unnecessary battle in the courts, the Government had looked clueless – because that’s what it is. They couldn’t even see taking the route through Parliament would be an elephant trap for Labour! Not that any of that matters when the loyal opposition is on life support.

The rush to trigger Article 50 ‘before the end of March 2017’ is, like so much else, about the management of the Conservative Party rather than any logic about the good of the nation or even the negotiating process. By triggering early the May Government will create a ‘dead period’ within an already challenging two year window during which nothing much will happen because the French and German elections simply mitigate against the two other key players making decisions or even agreeing much of a line.

Article 50 Act or not, however, this is far from the end of a process that has simply never been tried before. Article 50 is a measure designed never to be used – like parents with a first baby, there is no manual. Consideration of what progressive minded people should now do requires some very serious strategic thought. It is not simply a question of how MPs may have voted on this or that clause or amendment or legislative stage. It is, and has been since 24 June, about how to win a long game.

There is no progressive case for Leave, there never was

First and foremost, there is no progressive case for Leave, there never was. The strategic objective for progressives and democrats must be to change minds. We should be seeking to persuade and lead public opinion. Without a substantial change of the public mind remaining within the European Union is off the agenda. It is not good enough to say that there is, by any means, an expression of the ‘settled will of the people’ to which progressive convictions should be subjugated. This is not a progressive position in any way. It is simply wrong to suggest that those of us who believe that the lasting damage that will be inflicted will permanently damage the UK and its people should remain silent. There are all sorts of reasons why that is nonsense, not least among these are the narrowness of the Leave majority and the argument stated by some of the leave supporters that they would have argued for a second vote had things gone the other way. Equally powerfully, the world has changed – even since the vote last June. Events since then have demonstrated the folly of detaching the UK from its largest markets and historic European allies and placing ourselves at the mercy of political, social and economic events in the wider world over which we have neither control nor influence. In a democracy, while we understand the outcome of elections, we seek to point out the consequences, to posit alternatives, to argue the case and to change minds.

If minds we progressives and democrats are to change then we need to understand how Leave voters have reacted to the situation since June, how, when and why they might be persuaded to change their minds. While there is some of anecdotal evidence of Leave voters individually regretting their decision, there is little hard evidence that public opinion has shifted.

Why would there be? Little has happened. No serious negotiations have started, the Government has outlined a still optimistic set of objectives, even though has conceded even trying to fight some important battles, we haven’t left anything as yet. We have had blithe assurances and vague unwritten deals, large measures of wishful thinking and the thoroughly British mantra of ‘making the best of it’. All the while the Leave papers and cyber-kippers have ranted their narrative of betrayal and urged the lead lemmings to head ever faster for the cliff edge.

Meanwhile the dire consequences are becoming ever clearer in some key sectors – higher education, science, the motor industry, banking and financial services, the exit from the Customs Union and division of the UK. The external exchange rate has been heavily devalued and the economic and fiscal outlook remains grim in the medium term and desperate long term. The more outrageous claims of Leave campaigners have been shown to be comprehensively false, even some of the myths peddled over many years by Europhobes have been belatedly debunked, yet still opinion has shifted little. Why, some ask, don’t leave voters see how wrong they were?

The mother of all parking tickets

The answer lies, I suggest, in parking tickets and how people behave when they receive one.

These days, since parking offences were decriminalised, there are a lot more parking tickets. Typically, our reaction to receiving a parking ticket is one of anger. We lash out. It’s not fair, we weren’t doing any harm, it’s the fault of an overzealous warden, it’s the fault of the money-grabbing Council, it’s the fault of the ticket machine not taking credit cards, it’s the fault of the unclear signage – in fact it is everybody’s fault but our own. Even though we knew. We KNEW what double yellow lines meant, we KNEW that we had stayed too long, we KNEW we were taking a chance, we KNEW what the signs meant because we really could read and we KNEW that it was our responsibility because we KNEW we parked the car. We are still bloody angry, but the anger is really with ourselves because we KNOW we made a mess of it. We KNOW we did a stupid thing – and it’s going to cost us. Human beings are not good at feeling or admitting responsibility for their own actions – particularly when they KNOW it was avoidable and pretty dumb. There is any amount of learned psychology on this phenomenon – call it what you will – denial, minimising, transference, whatever, it is out there in spades.

The decision to leave the EU is the mother of all parking tickets – a monumentally stupid action that will hurt many of those who voted for it most. Just don’t expect anyone to admit that, at least not yet, and maybe not ever. Because people don’t own their actions, people blame. BLAME Boris, BLAME Gove, BLAME that red bus, BLAME Cameron, BLAME the Panama Papers, BLAME Osborne’s dubious figures, BLAME the Remain Campaign, BLAME immigrants, BLAME the Daily Express (that one’s fair enough) but don’t blame yourself for using a referendum affecting the next 50 years of our kid’s lives as a momentary protest vote.

Intelligent people do stupid things – a lot

But the fact that Leave voters did a stupid thing does not mean Leave voters are stupid. It is a fact, and there’s nothing alternative about it, that Leave voters are generally less well educated than those who voted to Remain. That truth hides many other factors – Leave voters tended to be older and so went to work not University, they have travelled less, they have seen a great deal of change but less of the world. None of that means they are necessarily stupid. In any case, intelligent people do stupid things too, quite often in fact. Intelligent people get parking tickets too – and fail to take responsibility too, get angry, lash out, say things they regret. Intelligent people too don’t always know that they ain’t just on a river in Egypt.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if the objective is to change minds then telling those who voted to Leave that they are stupid, selfish, racist, xenophobic or fascist ain’t likely to get the baby bathed. So, however tempting and however cathartic it may be, progressives need to recognise that way another defeat lies.

Progressives and democrats need first to recognise the many and diverse reasons for the decision in June last, our own long-term failure to win arguments against the incessant drip, drip, drip of the Europhobes, and the mistakes and over-reach of the Europhile Ultras. Then we need to fight each battle as it arises, seeking to chip away at Leave sentiments and certainties. Strategically we need to understand that we are not seeking to persuade every single person among the 52% who voted Leave – ever since 1974 around a third of the public would have voted to Leave at any point – a shift of 12% would do nicely. The arguments, messages and channels are for the second part of this essay. The rest of the EU must adapt to what has been staring it in the face for the past decade. The Leave vote is their failure as much as it is a victory for narrow nationalism. Progressives need to keep making the arguments to their friends also and to realise that turning the tide of public opinion is the only route toward giving the electorate the opportunity to change its mind.

Petitions, marches and Twitter storms merely make some of us feel better – just another aspect of collective denial and little to do with fighting ‘Brexit’. The consequences of leaving the EU are so serious, so catastrophic that we cannot yet comprehend what we as a nation have done. Those consequences will be quite the reverse of the very things Leave voters wanted, not what very many of them thought they were voting for at all. Sadly, and possibly fatally, those consequences will not be fully evident until many of the generation which tipped the balance toward Brexit have left the building for good, myself included – just as the benefits of joining took 10 years plus to come through. We owe it to the generation who voted overwhelmingly to remain and who’s futures have been potentially squandered to get serious.

JH 14.2.17


Part 2 of this essay is intended in the next few days, life, work and NUFC permitting.