by Vanora Bennett, TES Contributor
The news that comes out of the radio and TV in and on Britain these days can be summarized in one B-word, and it’s not Brexit. It’s bewilderment. The same Brexit phrases and slogans are endlessly repeated: amendment, amendment, parliamentary recess, amendment, the people have spoken, amendment, 17.4 million people, second referendum, amendment, Nigel Farage’s ambitions, deliver Brexit, Teresa May’s tired eyes, amendment …. Amidst futile parliamentary vote results and ever more arcane arguments about where the country should be going, and how, the endless political process of Brexit has become so convoluted and stalemated that it’s tied itself in knots, and even news junkies have switched off. One joke circulating on Facebook is a cod-explanation of what will happen on every political date that has come up in the recent debate, whether March 29 (Brexit, postponed), April 12 (Brexit, postponed), May 23 (European parliamentary elections) or other more distant mileposts (October 31, Brexit, to be postponed?). Every single date has an “if yes” or “if no” option. Every single option leads you to the same conclusion, “fuck knows”; the same nihilistic shrug.
Beyond the Brexit process, which is tying parliament and government in knots as much as it is watchers, there’s nothing. No real government decisions, no parliamentary process, just a void. Britain is in a vacuum. What with the endless votes on Prime Minister Teresa May’s Brexit deal, repeatedly defeated, which may get its fourth rerun once parliament gets back from its holiday, and the endless Brexit-related amendments about who knows what, and the shameless jockeying for the future prime ministership that now consumers the Tory Cabinet, all realizing that the current prime minister’s time is up, there’s just no government time for thinking of ordinary bread-and-butter policy. There’s no parliamentary time for debate on the normal business of law-making, either. “Ordinary” laws, formulated before this crisis reached its current pitch, including for example one draft law with cross-party support, that should pass effortlessly through parliament, on expanding the definition of domestic abuse to include economic abuse, are repeatedly shunted down the parliamentary timetable. There’s always another Brexit amendment to trump them.
And yet it is widely agreed that the original 2016 British vote, by a paper-thin 52-48%, to leave the European Union, was a cry for help. The underserved regions that had been betrayed by everything from the last Conservative government’s austerity (real wages today are 7% lower than they were at the time of the 2008 financial crisis – an unprecedented squeeze) to Thatcher’s privatisations of the 1980s (which set the less well off lurching towards a present as the hopeless “precariat” on, at best, zero-hour contracts) are hurting. And the fact that those most hurt by these changes are blaming immigrants is a symptom of their pain.
The cause-and-effect links are clear. The 30 social mobility “coldspots” identified by the Social Mobility Commission all voted Brexit, according to Will Hutton and Andrew Adonis, authors of a book called “Saving Britain.” So did areas where property prices were stuck, where life expectancy was falling, where antidepressants were widely prescribed and where life chances were thin. In too much of the UK beyond London and the south-east, economic performance is mediocre or downright bad. The social contract has become for many people effectively nonexistent. Unemployment may be at a 40-year low, but so are savings to maintain living standards: insecure, poorly paid work is at a record high. Of course immigration, around which the Brexit debate coalesced three years ago, seemed menacing.
Any real solution should be reaching out to ease the pain of the people whose need created the Brexit vote, and to create a society where their problems were effectively addressed. Yet that real need is being set aside in the increasingly futile furore over the process of “delivering Brexit”. It’s politically easier to monster the foreigners, whether that means the Polish plumber, overpaid and over here, as the angriest Brexit voters claim, or the Brussels Eurocrats pilloried as undemocratic by their political mentors.
As a result, as Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee wrote in April, the country is ever more divided. Disappointment at the repeatedly postponed new dawn “has turned the remnants of the Brexit creed into angry, determined calls to just ‘do it’, never mind the dire consequences. The much-mocked Project Fear Treasury forecasts are already proving correct: they warned a Brexit vote would mean households losing out by £4,300 by 2030. Households are already £1,500 worse off, and becoming poorer faster than forecast, in the worst era for growth since the 1860s, according to Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The benefits freeze continues into a new fiscal year. The poor already lose an average of £340 annually, which is two months’ food shopping for an average low-income family, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. By this time next year, there will be 400,000 more poor children as a result, with food banks busier than ever.”
The statistics are dismal. Hutton and Adonis, two of the clearest thinkers in the pro-Remain camp, write: “There is no Brexit dividend, rather the prospect of weak economic growth and tax rises. The extra £350m a week supposedly available for the NHS turns out not to exist and instead we have an exit bill of £39bn (and rising). Then there is the up to £20bn a year cost of observing customs obligations after Brexit – an avalanche of self-imposed red tape – along with as much or more again as UK organisations expensively relocate to the European mainland.”
The “Global Britain” touted by Brexiters in 2016 is already exposed as a fantasy, they add. The reality: inward investment has collapsed by some £130bn over the last 12 months. The car industry fears “Carmageddon”. There is no open-skies deal with the US. Being frozen out of the Galileo project endangers Britain’s space industry. Universities fear being cut out of EU research budgets. It is the same in sector after sector.
Will leaving the European Union help? No, they say.
“Brexit Britain is right. The status quo is insupportable. But the solution is not to leave the European Union. Our problems are made in Britain; they can only be solved in Britain. Europe does not impede this mission; rather it is indispensable. The imperative is to transform the way our country works.”
They see saving Britain as a twin-pronged task: transforming our economy and society so they work for all while recommitting to an EU that covers our backs better than we know.
“Today’s laissez-faire, sink-or-swim approach to economics and society has to end; instead our hijacked capitalism must be populated with repurposed businesses, motivated by a desire to produce goods and services that better humanity. New technology needs to be mobilised for the public good, while great institutions that serve the mass of people – such as trade unions, public-benefit companies to run utilities and building societies – must be reinvigorated and reshaped.
“A refashioned social contract should invest public money where desperately needed and raise the necessary taxes fairly. The centrepiece should be an educational Marshall plan. Part of this contract should be a stronger notion of citizenship, including a national identity card system to assure citizens that we know exactly who is here and what they are entitled to.”
“A Great Charter for Modern Britain would hand power from Westminster to the cities, towns and counties of Britain so as to transform their localities, represented in a senate to replace the House of Lords, located in the north of England. This should be the foundation of a fully fledged written constitution.”
While praising the EU as a peacemaker and the “modern solution to reconciling democracy, sovereignty and prosperity,” Hutton and Adonis don’t focus much on the problems on the Brussels side of the equation. One convincing anti-EU argument that needs addressing is that clever lobbyists can manipulate EU mechanisms in favour of big business, big landowners and financial services. Another is the damage some see as having been done by introducing and continuing to shore up the single currency.
Yet the essence of their argument holds; it’s just that it can be taken further. Decisive reform both inside the UK and inside the EU are needed to give both the 21st-century equilibrium they need.
Britain may need to step back from the Brexit debate altogether, to implement a programme offering far greater social justice that buys its disaffected citizens back into politics, before it can reach a meaningful decision as to its future. But the most viable future for the UK and Europe alike can already be summed up in two R-words: “Remain and Reform”.
Vanora Bennett is an Orwell Prize-winning opinion writer and novelist.