The Tories are often seen as the champions of Brexit, but it is clear that it is they who are betraying Brexit through their unwillingness to deliver on what was voted for.
They are doing this because of their own internal problems and because, although divided, ultimately they are the party of capital and the dominant wing of British capital, particularly the City, always wanted Remain. All the time it is edging closer to the result it wants.
At present the media has narrowed debate into what might or might not be possible to get through Parliament – more specifically May’s deal versus Remain, with a few other options orbiting in the far reaches of the Westminster universe. These are presented as the only games in town. What now seems to be on offer, to paraphrase Henry Ford, is - you can have any Brexit you want providing it is actually Remain. All options that appear on the table would tie Britain to the EU’s rules, negating any benefits of Brexit. As the deadline to leave approaches time is running out to renegotiate reinforcing the take it or leave it message. A tactic deliberately pursued by May with vote deferred until well into January and with no concessions forthcoming from the EU.
The choice promoted by the media is between Remain, which has the possibility that we could leave at some other future point, or May’s Leave deal which keeps us tied indefinitely to the EU in an arrangement that we cannot actually leave unilaterally. This is no choice and we shouldn’t accept the terms of this debate.
Let’s also not get too caught up in speculating whether or not Article 50 can be extended, the EU might make a further concession on the Backstop, whether a Norway model can be put in place in time etc etc. Our voice on the left hasn’t been well heard up till now, but that is no reason to stop talking sense about Brexit and arguing for a General Election, a full renegotiation or a clean break Brexit, the only possibilities which would provide a real way forward.
There are other reasons for opposing May’s deal than that it is a non-Brexit. All possible outcomes of the Brexit process will continue to impact negatively on British politics for years to come, but May’s deal would be by far the worst of these as negotiations between Britain and the EU would continue to be live everyday business - actively on the political agenda. It would prove fertile ground for the far right and make it hard to move political discussion onto other vital policy areas. Jeremy Corbyn fell foul of that recently as he tried to raise other issues in Parliament to the derision of commentators.
Whether we are actually exiting the EU or not has huge implications for the future of politics in Britain. Not only whether Brexit carries on dominating political life, but also how it threatens to discredit democracy. This is a question not only of whether the Leave vote is respected or not, but also of how the whole process has been conducted.
Throughout the electorate has been treated according to the laws of political spin, rather than with respect. This was something not lost on the voters, despite their “low educational level”.
There are several ways that democracy has been undermined in the process:
Firstly, this crisis originates in the last couple of decades where we were expected to put up with slightly different versions of the same political offering - Blair’s Labour or Cameron’s Tories. The warning signs were there, however, with the rise of an alternative in Scotland in the SNP and independence. There was also a bit of an upsurge in support for the far right in the form of UKIP. The rejection of business as usual politics was also what lead to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. As they were subject to carefully crafted messages drawn from focus groups and designed to offend no one, people’s real lives felt the impact of austerity and saw decent jobs disappear, services begin to fall apart and inequality rise. People had become increasingly disengaged from elections.
Secondly Cameron treated the democratic process as a tool to deal with his problems in the Tory Party. Like previous Tory leaders he was plagued by its Eurosceptic wing which has a strong grassroots base. He did not want, or did not feel strong enough, to take this on, instead promising an in-out referendum on British membership at the election. This was never meant to happen as Cameron expected to be back in coalition with the Lib Dems. Their demise mean that he had to deliver on his promise, but not before the pantomime of him “renegotiating” Britain’s terms with the EU. This was, of course, a damp squib, delivering almost nothing. The cynicism of this was a further assault on democracy and Cameron’s arrogance in thinking that this would be enough made it more likely to be rejected by the voters.
Within the Tory Party itself it was plain that prominent MPs weighed up their options according to where their career interests lay, rather than on principle. It took Boris Johnson some time to declare for Leave and May was a quiet Remainer.
Despite all this and the lessons of the Scottish independence referendum, where it was shown that if people are given a chance to vote for decisive change they will turn out and do it, including in the mix the unknown factor of people who do not usually vote – these turned out in big numbers in both referenda. Despite all that Cameron breezed into the referendum full of confidence
Then the democratic process went all wrong – the people gave an answer that they were not supposed to. Instead of voting for what the political establishment and the spin doctors told them the voted Leave. This lead on to the third blow to democracy. The fact that although they had been given a choice people were not supposed to come up with this answer. This message was spelled out loud and clear. But what is the point of voting if the outcomes are not respected
Bizarre ideas have been floated since, such as old people shouldn’t get the vote. Or maybe there should be educational qualifications for voting. Or it should be re-run again as some people will have died and others will now be old enough to vote. It is asserted that the Leave campaign told lies, unlike the Remain which didn’t.
We are entering dangerous territory in the anniversary year of the extension of the franchise to some women and to working class men. Working class people will only be allowed to vote if they act responsibly and vote the way they are supposed to within limited choices. If they can’t behave properly then maybe they shouldn’t get to vote at all
Fourthly the negotiation process has not been conducted by May’s government in good faith, attempting to get the best Brexit possible. She has more of an eye to appeasing the irreconcilable wings of her own party than promoting the interests of the British people. Also because the hierarchy of the Tory party still backs Remain, negotiating a good Brexit has not been vigorously pursued. The Tories betrayal of Brexit and contempt for the electorate has come full circle bogged down in the mire of their own political problems
Finally, of course there is the egregious idea of a so-called Peoples Vote – though most people think that’s what they had when they voted Leave. Of course, the EU has form in re-running referenda till the right result is achieved. For example, in Ireland over the Lisbon Treaty and Denmark on the Maastricht Treaty. A further referendum would be the cherry on the anti-democratic cake. Yet those promoting another referendum view it in narrow terms and do not see this proposal in the context of recent history and the danger that swathes of people will feel further disenfranchised by the political establishment, becoming an easy target for the far right. This is part of what lead to the Brexit vote in the first place and if pursued serious long-term damage will be done to democracy and progressive politics.
Britain’s current political crisis is deeply rooted in its continuing decline as an imperial power. It has been compared to Britain’s defeat over Suez in 1956 which was a major blow to its status as a world power. Other commentators have said it is worse than that. The ineptitude of the Tories reflects that decline. Leave or Remain Britain will be further weakened and the Tories have been the authors of that. It will be left on the edge of all the former power bases that it once had; the EU (whether in or out), the “special relationship” with the United States and in relation to the countries of its former empire.
Britain’s specific crisis has also coincided with a crisis of neo-liberalism. We are not alone in electorates falling out of love with established parties. Traditional social democratic parties have failed badly across Europe and Trump was elected in America against the Clinton, the machine politician. The attempt to present Macron in France as a new liberal white hope has literally gone up in flames. In Britain we do have progressive alternatives in a way that other countries do not but the challenge of avoiding the right-wing agenda and the Brexit mire is huge. It is not helped by Labour’s ambivalence and drift towards a second referendum.
We need to argue against the options on offer which represent Remain or effectively Remain and for an election, a renegotiation or a clean break Brexit. We need to say the Tories are betraying Brexit and to exploit their crisis. Above all we need to try to set an agenda for transforming our economy and society beyond this debacle.