BARELY more than a week has gone by since 37% of eligible British voters backed Brexit—52% of those who participated—but already the political landscape is transformed. With Boris Johnson out of the Conservative leadership contest, the choice of the next prime minister is one between various shades of isolationist Euroscepticism.
As Michael Gove made clear at his launch event this morning, he stands for total withdrawal from the European single market and a total end to free movement. Theresa May on Thursday was a little vaguer, emphasising the importance of access to that market. But her suggestion that she would use the rights of EU citizens already in Britain as bargaining chips in the upcoming negotiation does not bode well. Stephen Crabb, for all his modernising overtures, takes a similar stance to Ms May. Liam Fox is a veteran anti-European. And most worrying is Andrea Leadsom, who may end up in the final two, and thus go before the mostly anti-EU Tory members. She is running to the Eurosceptic right of Ms May and has attracted the endorsement of Leave.eu, the more dog-whistle of the two Leave campaigns.
Then there is Labour. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell may be about to face a leadership challenge, but they could well win it. Neither seems to disagree with Ms May’s formulation that “Brexit means Brexit”, nor with her insistance that Brexit must involve tight immigration controls. Free movement will now “come to an end”, asserted Mr McDonnell in a speech today.
Yet what about the 16,141,241 voters who endorsed remaining in the EU? The 52% of those aged 35-44? The 56% of Northern Irish voters? The 60% of Londoners? The 62% of Scots? The 62% of those aged 25-34? The 67% of Asian voters? The 73% of 18-24 year-olds? The majority of Britons in full- and part-time work who voted to Remain? And the large minorities of most other groups, as well? Not to mention the 1.1m Leave voters who, one poll by Survation suggests, now wish they had voted differently. Or the millions of Britons abroad who could not vote in Britain. Or the roughly 3m residents of Britain—who work, pay taxes and contribute to society like everyone else—who by dint of their foreign EU passports may soon be pawns in Ms May’s negotiation.
A new coalition
Call them “the 48%”, even though they are almost certainly a majority of the British population. They include the big-city dwellers, the Millennials, the globe-trotters, the university students, the European immigrants and their children. But they also include the millions of perfectly boring, perfectly suburban, perfectly Middle-England types who simply recognise that Britain and the rest of the world are interdependent—and that this fact is, on balance, a good thing. Or as one recent letter on “the 48%” to the Financial Times brilliantly put it: “We are lecturers, nurses, systems analysts and engineers. We are the civil service. We run small businesses. We work for large, foreign-owned companies. We aren’t in charge but we are the backbone of the country. We didn’t go to Eton. We are grown-ups. We can’t leave because our kids are at school and our parents are getting old. We wish that we were Scottish, or Irish. We didn’t prepare ourselves for this because we didn’t believe it could possibly happen.”
To vote to remain in the EU was to choose continued membership of the single market over an end to free movement. It was a rejection of the lies put out by the Leave campaigns and heavily promoted in the majority of the British press that supported quitting the club. Moreover, many Leave supporters voted as they did on the assumption that Britain would continue to enjoy the economic benefits of EU membership irrespective of whether it remained a member. If they do not now feel they were sold a pup, many will surely will do in due course.
But EEA membership—the Norway-style model of Brexit that might best have secured Britain’s economic interests, the freedom of British citizens to move and work elsewhere in Europe and that of other EU citizens to move to and work in Britain—seems increasingly unlikely. And few mainstream figures in either party (David Lammy in Labour being one exception) have spoken of possibly, in the future, reopening the Brexit debate. That is somewhat understandable. Voters may have endorsed a chimerical vision that does not look remotely like the sort of deal they will eventually get, but they did so in a free contest. That should be respected. Still, categorically to rule out the possibility that, once they see what is really on the table and once the full economic cost of Brexit emerges, Britons might want to reconsider their choice seems short-sighted.
And beyond the transactional costs of leaving the EU, there is the shift in the character of the country’s politics that is undoubtedly now underway. Insinuations that immigration is, per se, bad, are hardening into a new common sense. Other European peoples are coming to be talked of as if they were merely negotiating opponents, even enemies, rather than allies and partners. The ugly wave of xenophobic attacks that has followed the Leave vote has attracted opprobrium from across the political spectrum, but it did not arise in a vacuum. Many Britons rightly worry about what is becoming of their country.
To be fair, voters who rejected Brexit are not entirely voiceless. The Liberal Democrats under Tim Farron have confirmed they will run in the next election on a pro-EU ticket; and picked up 10,000 new members as a result. The Scottish National Party under Nicola Sturgeon is pushing to ensure that Scotland’s vote for Remain is heeded. Sadiq Khan is lobbying to protect London’s access to the single market (how this can be done while the capital is still wired into the rest of the country’s economy is unclear). But as welcome as the Lib Dem initiative is, it is not clear whether Mr Farron and his seven fellow MPs are the force needed to stand up to Britain’s new, illiberal establishment. And Ms Sturgeon and Mr Khan owe their loyalty just to small minorities of the country.
The best existing hope of a strong, national voice for the 48%ers surely lies with Labour. If Mr Corbyn can be forced out, perhaps a new, moderate, pro-European leadership can reorient the party: seizing the opportunity to nab liberal Tory voters from under the nose of Ms May, say, or Ms Leadsom; challenging the new prime minister to negotiate in the interests of an open and prosperous Britain; and, yes, if circumstances change sufficiently, floating the possibility that Britain revisit its choice of June 23rd.
Now for something completely different
If not—if Mr Corbyn hangs on, or is replaced by another luke-warm Remainer—and unless the Lib Dems can pull off the sort of rise that, at the moment, looks unlikely, Britain needs a new party of the cosmopolitan centre. This might be a splinter from Labour (entirely possible, especially if Mr Corbyn’s opponents fail to unseat him this summer) or from the Tories (most of the party’s One Nation sorts are lining up behind Ms May, though without a tremendous deal of enthusiasm). Or it may be something completely new: a fresh party, unsullied by the past, dedicated to keeping Britain open, tolerant and as close to the rest of its continent as possible.
“What about the Social Democratic Party?” goes the objection. It is true: the last such endeavour, a pro-European split from the Labour Party in 1981, did not achieve the realignment it set out to create and ended up merging with the Liberals, forming the party Mr Farron now leads. But 2016 is not 1981. The referendum result has fired up parts of the electorate like few previous events. Consider the more than 4m Britons who have signed a petition calling for a new referendum, or the many thousands who will pour into central London tomorrow on a “March for Europe”. Moreover, politics moves faster and is more insurgent-friendly these days. If the SDP, in 1983, could come within a tantalising 2.2 points of second-party status (it obtained 25.4% of votes and 23 seats to Labour’s 27.6% and 209 seats), surely a new political start-up today—fresher, wise to the SDP’s mistakes, propelled by an unprecedented tide of anger and dismay—could do better? Maybe not. But the question merits serious consideration.
So how about it, readers? Is this feasible? Would you support such a party? If so, how can it be set up? And what might be its explicit goals? These days politics is moving fast; faster, probably, than ever before. The kaleidoscope has been shaken and the pieces are swirling. This may be a false dawn: a grim shock to which people, even those on tomorrow’s march, eventually become used; gradually resigning themselves to a poorer, less international, less plural and more resentful Britain. But perhaps it is not. Perhaps something positive can be forged out of the mess. Perhaps the lonely void in the liberal centre of British politics can be filled.