This article was first published on LabourList on 14 January 2018
The contempt I hold for Nigel Farage cannot be adequately expressed through the power of words – or hand-held signs – alone but, lamentably, he is one of the most influential political figures of our times. It was his influence that led David Cameron to put party before country and call a referendum and it is his influence that has shaped Theresa May’s extreme approach to Brexit.
Farage is not a benign influence. His plan is, and always has been, to sew a narrative of betrayal. He knows full-well that the country cannot afford to sever its ties to Europe, and he knows full-well that no responsible government in its right mind would actively seek a “no deal” outcome from the talks. Yet the government’s willingness to placate his worldview by hinting that such an outcome is still on the cards is music to his ears; the obvious gap between the rhetoric and the eventual reality means his betrayal narrative writes itself.
Had Remain won the referendum by 52-48 per cent he was all set to be the voice of the 48; of those who were being ignored and betrayed by the “establishment”. Having suffered the temporary setback of winning the referendum in 2016, he is now able to turn the government’s capitulation to unavoidable reality in the Phase 1 agreement to his advantage.
Be prepared. There will be further such capitulations by the government as their impossible goals crumble before logic and inevitability in Phase 2 of the talks.
The reason is simple.
There are two options for Britain: (1) to remain in the European sphere, from where the majority of our income derives directly from the European market or indirectly through EU trade deals or; (2) to exit the European sphere and attempt what few leading trade unions, businesses, NGOs or third countries advocate – to scramble in record time to recreate it elsewhere at the mercy of trade negotiators from much bigger countries than our own such as China or the US.
The government pretends we can have both spheres, without loss. We can’t.
The Phase 1 agreement has already tied us in many areas to the European sphere. Thanks to the DUP it will be the entire UK, and not just N Ireland, that is affected. The Phase 2 negotiations will see us tied in many more areas until the final deal looks like something fairly similar to EU membership – but without any say over the rules we will follow. In the course of signing up to this, the government will have to divest itself of its red lines over the next few months or risk a package so damaging to Britain that no responsible Parliament could ever lend its approval for it.
Which brings us back to Nigel Farage. There is no avoiding the pitfalls above; they are hard-wired into any approach to leaving the EU. And it is the inescapable nature of what is to come that has led many of us in the Labour movement to call for the British people to have the final say at the end of this process.
Farage wants to use the inevitable clashes ahead to cry betrayal and build resentment; we should instead use the very same inevitability to save the country from an irrevocable decline and to instead encourage unity.
The argument against a new referendum has long been that it would be an insult to those who voted Leave, that it would risk social discord. But now the man who would himself be a lead protagonist for that social discord has admitted directly that the issue can be revisited, that it is not settled, and that giving the people the final say is not an affront to those who voted Leave in June 2016.
Despite his rather desperate row-backs following attacks from his own party, it is too late. He has let the cat out of the bag, and Labour should seize the initiative.
Allowing the public to cast judgement on the outcome of the negotiations is not an affront to democracy. It will allow us to consider the reality of where we find ourselves. We cannot avoid the inevitable revelations of the weakness of the UK’s negotiating position ahead, so we must prepare to leverage them for the good of the country.
Labour should be unequivocal about our future being in the European sphere. We shouldn’t be relaxed about an outcome where we lose all influence but accept the rules. The ability of the Labour movement to shape European policy has led to huge gains in equality, workers’ rights and the environment. This is a legacy we should celebrate and extend.
The British people deserve more than to be patronised by a government that pretends no difficult choices lie ahead. We would do a huge disservice to our country’s future if we left the stewardship of those challenges to someone as deceitful as Nigel Farage.