As Britain leaves the EU on 31 January 2020, Mike Buckley argues that Remainers must redouble their efforts to protect democracy and fight for an open and tolerant culture.
Brexit hasn’t got any better just because the Conservatives won an election. Unless there is something they know that the rest of us don’t, we now face all the trials, losses and challenges that were set out in every serious impact report on the impact of Britain leaving the EU.
Regardless of the choices the Government now makes, we know that the economy will suffer. We know that the adverse impacts will be concentrated in the regions of the UK that can least afford it. We know that key sectors including manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and financial services are likely to be worst hit, all the more so if the Conservatives follow through on Sajid Javid’s pledge to diverge from EU standards.
Those of us who have been opposed to Brexit because of its impacts on the poor and vulnerable, on manufacturing, jobs and wages need to recognise that our fight is not over. We also need to recognise that the fight against Brexit is just one part of our mission to create a fairer, more equal and socially just nation.
What the Conservatives will do to the country through Brexit comes at a time when households are already struggling. Wages are still below their pre-financial crisis peak. Household savings are at historic lows, which means that millions will have little resilience in the face of another economic shock. Their decade of austerity has forced households into poverty and the Government’s welfare reforms are making it worse.
It is true that we don’t yet know exactly the direction that Boris Johnson will take with Brexit. He may yet pull back from the brink and find a way to stay aligned to EU standards and regulations, doubtless under a new name, and hope that the Tory European Research Group (ERG) either don’t notice or don’t care. But this would counter everything he has said and done since becoming leader. His withdrawal agreement is largely the same as Theresa May’s, but with commitments on alignment, a level playing field, workers’ rights and environmental protections stripped out.
Since the 2019 General Election, the Conservatives’ language has all been about divergence, which means a bare bones free trade agreement and economic damage almost as bad as ‘no deal’. Given the near-impossible timescale that they have left themselves – a matter of months – for negotiations, some believe that they intend to end with a ‘no deal’ in December 2020. While the provisions of the withdrawal agreement would still apply, meaning that citizens’ rights would be at least partially protected and the Eurostar would still run, the economic impacts would be catastrophic. No serious country has attempted to survive on World Trade Organisation terms. No serious country would.
Talking about the impact of Brexit has almost become unfashionable since the General Election. Brexiters are triumphant but muted. Remainers have largely kept their views to themselves, recognising that the fight for EU membership is at least on pause and that the public have little desire to be told yet again that this is not going to work out well.
But as 31 January comes and goes, those of us who believe in a country that is more equal, that our key sectors of employment ought to be valued and protected, and that our best future will be found working in partnership with our closest friends and neighbours, we have to find ways to protect what is valuable or at least to explain to the public why things get worse and what can be done to remedy it some years from now.
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We also need to recognise that Brexit does not end the ambitions of those who are opposed to the open, equal and tolerant country that we aspire to live in. Brexit for them is part of a process that involves removing the UK from the EU’s orbit, its rules, agreements and standards – which do not just keep us employed but also keep us safe – and that give us the ability to collaborate with others in research and development, education and more. In policing for example, Brexit presents a huge risk: the loss of automatic access to meetings, documents and databases in important areas such as migration and money flows. The big challenge is how British officials can mitigate being cut off from the Schengen Information System (SIS II) – a giant cross-border database.
More fundamentally, Brexit has changed the Conservative Party and its vision for Britain. If it was not already obvious, it is no longer the party of Michael Heseltine, John Major, Ken Clarke, Dominic Grieve or even Margaret Thatcher. As Brexit has progressed, it has evolved into a party of right-wing populism and English nationalism. It increasingly resembles the Law and Justice Party (PiS) of Poland and Orban’s Fidesz in Hungary. PiS won re-election in October with a very similar campaign to that of Johnson in December. Each blended patriotic conservatism with pledges of extra public spending on social services and a higher minimum wage.
Brexit has been an argument about EU membership but, more than that, it has been a deeper struggle over national identity, social values and economic pressures related to globalisation and the western world’s post-2008 financial crash.
There is a temptation to believe that now Brexit is happening, now that they have ‘got what they wanted’, that things will get back to normal and we can pretend that the past five years didn’t happen. This would be a historic mistake.
As the Conservatives continue down their path to right-wing populism, we have more than the lack of EU citizenship to worry about. For those complacently thinking that a far-right government couldn’t happen here, it’s worth pointing not only to Brexit itself but also to last week’s refusal to let child refugees reunite with their families in the UK and to this week’s plan to decriminalise non-payment of the BBC licence fee, a “pincer movement to cause the BBC to wither and implode”. These are textbook populist moves – act against migrants and undermine free, objective journalism.
Far from being a time to accept defeat and move on, or to believe that now is the time to cede the stage to the Brexiters to give them space to fail, now is the time to redouble our efforts to protect our democracy and free press, our open and tolerant culture, and our vision of a fairer, more equal country. We may have lost a fight, but the war continues. We had better be on the field.
Mike Buckley is the director of Labour for a Public Vote. He tweets at @mdbuckley.