This article first appeared in the New Statesman on 23 November 2018
The Brexit deal that Theresa May has negotiated with the EU poses a grave danger to the fundamentals of our politics, economy and society. I fear that if her deal were to pass, and we entered the so-called transition, our democracy could be put under more intense strain.
I say that for three reasons. First, the diversion of all political and institutional time and energy towards the single goal of Brexit at the expense of all others will continue. Second, the total lack of consensus in the continuing discussions over our future relationship, which will further exacerbate divisions in our society. And third, the profoundly anti-democratic nature of both the transition and the proposed backstop.
Taking first the focus on Brexit to the exclusion of all else. Over the past two years, politics in this country has been completely consumed by Brexit. Across Whitehall there has been barely any time to address any other priorities. Our NHS is in crisis, we face a profound challenge in addressing our productivity gap, our schools face unprecedented funding challenges, and the government still fails to take meaningful action to address our chronic housing shortage. Anyone who thinks that we should get Brexit “out of the way” so we can focus on other priorities is in for a nasty shock. These vital political challenges will continue to be ignored by a government that continues to be totally absorbed in negotiations about our future relationship with Europe.
In the meantime, the scale of these challenges will only grow, along with public pressure as people realise that none of the underlying causes of the referendum result have been addressed. Indeed, we now know that Brexit will actually make them worse. There will be less money for public services, fewer jobs as inward investment falls, and a substantial increase in regional inequality: the government’s own analysis suggests a future free trade deal with the EU would see an 11 per cent reduction in GDP in the North East, compared to our continued membership, against a 2 per cent reduction in London. This would be far worse than the 2008 crash.
The government has cynically built expectations of sunlit uplands ahead, despite knowing all the evidence points to us being worse off under every possible scenario compared to membership of the EU. The betrayal narrative that will be propagated by the likes of Nigel Farage, and his supporters in the right-wing press, writes itself and provides the perfect opportunity for the far right to exploit a sense of disaffection, create grievances and undermine our democracy.
This alone is a serious threat to the stability of our society, but it will be built on my second point; that our country is more divided now than ever before.
The 2016 referendum, far from settling the argument about our relationship with the EU for a generation, has created two entrenched tribes of leavers and remainers. This division is not going to be healed if we officially leave the EU next March. The government has not even begun proper discussions on what our future relationship with the EU looks like yet, and already phrases like “traitors”, “saboteurs” and “enemies of the people” are being thrown around. There exists absolutely no consensus on what form the future relationship should take.
Across the spectrum, politicians offer their preferred model, whether it is “Canada plus plus” or a “jobs first” Brexit. However, none of these models really exist, or – at the very least, are impossible if we are truly committed to respecting the integrity of the United Kingdom. Can our politics really survive at least two more years of rival visions, fantasy promises being confronted with reality, fraught negotiations, and accusations of betrayal? So, we have a government diverted by delivering Brexit when it should be addressing the causes of Brexit; a country more divided than ever before.
And then, we enter the transition, becoming rule-takers not rule-makers. We will be subject to all the EU’s rules and regulations without any say in the decision-making process. We will have swapped our seat at the table, where we are an important and influential member, for a state of vassalage.
What will happen the first time a regulation comes along that is either politically untenable or not in our national interest? Unable do anything about it, how do we think the Eurosceptic press will react, never mind anyone who considers themselves a democrat? The cries of betrayal from some quarters of our politics and media will be all too predictable, but equally this situation should be an outrage to anyone who believes in the UK’s place as a powerful voice at the centre of European politics.
If this appalling situation should lead us to want out of the transition, our only course of action would be to move into the backstop – yet that again would leave us as a rule taker. This would be a democratic nightmare, and surely the UK Parliament could not countenance such a loss of power.
This three-pronged assault on our democracy is profoundly dangerous. This deal is the opposite of what was promised – it does not take back control, it cedes it. In doing so it creates the perfect recipe for extremism, and there is a very real danger our political system will be unable to cope with the strain that an additional decade – or more – of Brexit would bring.
We must focus on this before it is too late. We need an honest conversation about what it is we are signing up to and what it really means for our country. But more than that we need a pressure valve. The public must not fall into the anti-democratic vice of the transition without being fully aware of the consequences, and being able to provide their informed consent. Members of Parliament must not fall for Theresa May’s empty threats of no deal: they must oppose her deal and support a People’s Vote.