Saturday 24 September 2016

A journey

One of the best things about blogging is that you don't have to work to a deadline in the way that those who write for a living inevitably do.

If you are contracted to write a Thursday newspaper column then it is highly unlikely (!) that your editor would welcome an approach that "it is not quite finished, could it appear on Friday instead"? Similarly, writers of longer narratives, fictional or non fictional, still have deadlines to meet to satisfy the requirements of pre booked printers or seasonal publication.

And even among those of us who write professionally but only secondarily to another function, there are equal deadlines. In my trade, dates by which writs must be drafted,  warranted and served to avoid a statutory time limit. Dates thereafter by which documents: Defences; Lists of Witnesses; Notices to Admit must be lodged for fear of the client's case otherwise going by default.

Never mind the even tighter deadline of a profession, at the sharp end, still largely conducted orally. You can only ever ask a witness a question while they are actually in the witness box. Stories are legion of adverse judicial decisions premised on questions that witnesses ought, sometimes needed, to be asked but which the lawyer engaged thought of or re-remembered only too late. Or, worse still, which the lawyer only appreciated should have been asked when they got the judgement. The deadline had gone.

But that's my day job.

Blogging's only deadline is when you press the "Publish" button. Then it's too late to recant. But if the blog is never finished, if the Publish button is never pressed? Who ever knows what you might have been going to say? Unless it's Wikileaks, I suppose, but I don't think it's very likely they'll be remotely interested in hacking into my "drafts" folder.

However, because there is no deadline, there is a distinct advantage to blogging. So long as, by the time you finally finish, your topic is still.....topical, you can take as long as you like to write it. When it is finally published your audience will be none the wiser whether it was written over three hours or three months.

Unless you confess that yourself. Which I readily do here. For this is a blog which started off weeks past to reach one conclusion and in the end has reached more or less the complete opposite.

It's about Brexit.

A month or so ago, I started to write a blog, "this" blog I suppose, on that topic.. Focussed on the Greek Referendum of May 2015. You may recollect that event. The Greeks had elected a populist left wing Syriza Government on the completely false premise that they could expand Greece's already wholly unsustainable levels of public debt and yet remain in the Euro. The EU, essentially the Germans, had demurred and had said to the demagogues in the Greek Government that they couldn't have their cake and eat it. There was a deal that involved cutting public expenditure (and embracing much more economic reform that Syriza had been elected expressly vowing to oppose) while remaining in the Eurozone. Or there was a departure from the Eurozone. These were the only options.

But the Greek Government deluded, if not themselves then certainly their electorate, that they had a third option. They would have a referendum! Which they did. And in which, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Greeks voted for the Germans to pay their pensions.

You will recall this didn't end well. The Greek banks were immediately forced to close their doors. People couldn't get access to even their Greek Pensions, never mind the turbo charged German ones they had voted for. It was made clear that either the Greek Government capitulated or their cashline machines would re-open only with Drachmas coming out. At a grossly devalued value to the Euros originally deposited. Within a fortnight, the Greeks had been forced to sign up to a much worse deal than had been on offer before their "game changing" Referendum. Their Government had learned that this wasn't a game.

And when I started to write this blog three weeks ago I intended to reach the same conclusions about our own referendum June past. That people had been offered a false option of retaining the advantages of membership of the European Single Market while shrugging off the downside (as seen by many) of free movement of people. That in reality we had voted for an outcome that was no more on offer to us than, a year past in May, a different outcome had been on offer to the Greeks. And once the dust had settled our referendum vote would have been no more decisive than theirs

Except that in the interim three things have happened. Well, three have happened and a fourth has perhaps been realised by me.

The first is the polling that was done on public opinion post Brexit on the relative desirability of each option in a free movement/single market trade off. Here it is.

No surprise? Well, actually, it was not so much a surprise to me as a wake up call. And promoting perhaps a very grudging nod to, of all people, Nigel Farage. For Farage is probably entitled to the credit, if that's the right word, for realising that the road to victory for the Leavers was not through the esoteric subject of Westminster Legislative Supremacy or even through the Brussels waste and bureaucracy so beloved Boris Johnson in an earlier incarnation. Rather, Farage saw that success for his cause would lie through the way in which the existing EU impacted on the everyday lives of ordinary working class people; through unrestricted (essentially) East European immigration. Which they perceived as responsible for restricting employment opportunities, undercutting wages and overloading public services in education, health and, perhaps above all, social housing.

Now I can rehearse, indeed have advanced, all the counter arguments. I won't bore you with them again.

Except perhaps we weren't dealing just with appeals to the head. Appeals to the gut featured as well. In much the same way as it had been while arguing different nationalists to a standstill on economic realities in September 2014, there was always a fall back for them. In 2014 it was "I don't care, I just want my country to be 'normal', even if that involves living in a cave". In 2016 it was: "I don't care, I just don't want all these people who are not English/Welsh/Scottish living here."

(The numbers might be a bit smaller in Scotland but anybody denying the sentiment here as well is deluding themself.)

And, do you know, I kind of understood that argument in 2014, even if I didn't respect the willingness to lie to others to bring it about. If you think a flag is important then you think a flag is important. But,anyway, whether I understood it or not is not the issue. What I had to understand is that it was there. In the minds of an awful lot of people, even if not thankfully a majority. And thus you had either defeat it or accommodate it. In one referendum we defeated it. In the second we didn't. And, regrettably, we have to concede to the victor the spoils. At least for the moment.

The second thing that has happened is the Owen Smith campaign. What might, in a different reality, have been the post referendum line of "my" wing of the Labour Party. Smith started off thinking that his ace card was that Party members were overwhelmingly horrified at Brexit and that Corbyn's "lukewarm" support for Remain might thus give Smith a useful internal advantage. I'm not writing here about the Party leadership campaign in general, just about this aspect of the Smith campaign. He thus started off saying that Labour should seek a re-run of the referendum and/or, if we hadn't left the EU by the next General Election, campaign then on proposing to ignore the referendum result. The problem is that this wheeze simply did not compute when it encountered the wider electorate. They regarded it as an insult to their democratic vote just cast and indeed almost amounting to an attack on their intelligence. It became increasingly clear that it almost invited Labour Leavers to take their General Election vote elsewhere. Indeed that it was just as toxic to them as anything that might be proposed on the wilder fringes of Corbynism.

And the third thing that has happened is a single Commons exchange involving David Davis. Like everybody else on the losing side I have enjoyed the mocking question: "Yes, Brexit might mean Brexit but what exactly does Brexit mean?"

But when Davis was asked that very question in real life he answered simply: "It means Britain is going to leave the European Union."

And, at least for the moment, he is right. There is, at least for now, no buyer's remorse. There is no point in fantasies of "uniting the 48%". It is still a minority. And, anyway, who's  to say that such a development might not just impel the 52% to unite in their own way?

So, in summary, Labour strategy (no laughing up the back) must start by trying to get the best Brexit deal possible. If the British people want free trade without free movement then we must at least explore that possibility. I know, I know, that for the moment there are those at the highest level within the EU stating in black and white terms that there could never be such a deal but there are other voices too. And much the same, until recently, was being said to Switzerland but, very interestingly, it is not being said now.

For that leads me on to my realisation. Or perhaps more precisely, my recollection. Britain is not Greece. Britain is not even just any other member of the EU. It is its second largest Country both in terms of population and GDP. It is also the fifth largest economy in the world. Free trade between the EU and the UK is very much to the advantage of both. And any preferential treatment in the right to live and work here will always be a prize worth having. For while Britain will always need immigrants we do not need them necessarily from Europe. While it is no accident that free movement between the UK and central and eastern Europe has been almost entirely one way.

Equally, it is not as if the UK is a stranger to bespoke deals, even while within the EU. From the rebate to Schengen to, most noticeably of all, the Euro, the advantages of free trade with the UK has already trumped "ever closer union".

How this can/could be done already has its theorists. Recently both Professors  Tomkins  and Gallagher have weighed with contributions from differing sides of the left/right divide.

But, and here is another thought. The Scottish Referendum ended with an outcome not on the table when that process began. Might not the EU referendum have a similar outcome? For the main argument by the Remainers was never about free movement. For some, overwhelmingly white middle class people (like me), planning to retire abroad, it was an undoubted incidental benefit, but for many others it was no more than a price worth paying without having any great attachment to the principle itself.

However the main argument for the Leavers?  Here I come back to the "credit" I gave to Mr Farage earlier on. If free movement was really the key reason to leave and we might no longer have free movement? Then the arguments for retaining a top table seat where decisions are made and not simply coming to terms with their aftermath comes back into play. So, reach a deal on free movement and then, only then, there might be a case for a second referendum.

But be in no doubt, if Labour remains committed ideally to continuing membership of the EU then a deal on free movement is an essential starting point. Don't ask me, ask the electorate. Or just ask Owen Smith.