Well, that’s it, then; all done and dusted – at least for the time being. In Europe as a whole (certainly in Sweden) people seem to be relieved that the Far Right Populists didn’t do better than they did. In Britain everything turned out almost exactly as predicted: 32% for the new Brexit Party, the Lib Dems doing far better than both Labour and the Conservatives, the Greens getting a good look-in at last. Well done Farage, boo to May and Corbyn. From a party political point of view, it looks like an earthquake. And of course it’s party politics, and political leaders, that the media commentariat is mainly interested in. Politics is a game, between teams and team managers. By this way of looking at it, the red and blue shirts have received a kicking, maybe in danger of relegation; with the new boys on the block – with their Man City colours (or Cambridge University, if you prefer) – running away with the cup.
This election, however, wasn’t really about parties. We weren’t electing a national government, or even delegates to the wider EU one. If Brexit goes through – which still looks more likely than not – none of our new MEPs will be taking their seats anyway. Thursday’s vote was in effect a quasi-referendum on the wisdom of Brexit, with people voting on that issue alone. Those who wanted a ‘hard’ Brexit voted for Farage’s party; Remainers for the Lib Dems, Greens or (in Scotland) the SNP. The Conservatives and Labour were seen as equivocal on this issue, with both of them officially offering compromises: May’s rather poor ‘deal’ on the one side, Corbyn’s clear but – it has to be admitted – complicated policy on the other. Those who generally favoured the two main traditional parties, but felt strongly about ‘Europe’ one way or another, or, alternatively, had been alienated from ‘establishment’ politics in general, chose one of the parties that seemed to reflect their feelings on either or both of these points. Right-wing Tories went over to Farage; Europhile Labour supporters backed the Lib Dems, the Greens or the SNP. (I voted Green.) All these parties had clear, pro or anti, positions on the ‘Brexit’ issue. One hopes – though it can’t be assumed – that most of these people will return to their ‘natural’ allegiances when the Brexit storm has passed over. The Brexit party, after all, doesn’t have any stated policies, apart from Brexit; though scratch its members and you’ll find plenty of nasty proto-Fascist ideas underneath. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2019/05/22/the-emperors-new-clothes/.) Labour has lots, which might begin to attract support in a ‘proper’ General Election.
Commentators have been busy analysing the voting figures to determine what they tell us about voters’ stand on the issue of Europe. The consensus is that if you add together the Lib Dem, Green and SNP votes on one side, and divide the Labour and Conservative votes between them roughly equally, Remainers outnumber Brexiteers – certainly ‘hard’ Brexiteers, but only marginally: by 52 to 48 per cent, say, which is the same proportion the Brexit referendum was won by, albeit now in reverse.
This is the problem, for Remainers who are demanding a second referendum in order to test how opinion has changed in the three years since the first one. Everyone assumes that with the demographic change that has taken place – elderly Brexiteers dying and being replaced by bright young Remainers – and after the evidence of wholesale illegality and corruption on the Brexit side in 2016, Remain would stand a better chance this time. But you can never tell. Opinion polls before the first referendum were almost universally wrong. You might get an even smaller turn-out this time, which would detract from a new vote’s legitimacy. People might vote Brexit for the same reason they did before: nothing to do with Europe, but because they were still frustrated and angry at the way the government – and by extension the political class generally – had neglected them. And who could blame them? Which may explain why many in the Labour Party, for example, are nervous of the prospect.
Despite this I, for one, wish that Corbyn had come out more firmly in favour of a ‘People’s Vote’ in all circumstances, in the approach to this election. I actually thought he was going to do this, banking on Labour Brexiteers’ realisation that there was no real alternative, after both main parties’ efforts to reach a compromise – the May-Corbyn negotiations – had broken down. If he had, I for one would have voted Labour, and possibly many others too. That compromise would have involved a close (Norway-style) customs arrangement with the EU, which was the ‘red line’ May refused to step over, mainly because it would involve ‘free movement’ still, which she abhorred, in deference either to the xenophobia she believed was rife in Britain, and on her appalling Tory right wing; or to her own. (Her entire Home Secretaryship was defined by its cruel hostility to immigrants – that ‘hostile environment’. She really is a monster, together with all her other faults. Shed no tears for her just because at the end she shed some for herself.)
Corbyn’s compromise, which he set out quite clearly, could have brought this crisis to an end. If he had been in a position to negotiate it with the EU he would probably have succeeded; hence his preference for a General Election over a referendum. It wouldn’t have been my ideal outcome, as a committed albeit critical European (who has even taken up another citizenship in order to preserve his European one); but it would have come fairly close. It also would have ‘honoured’ the result of the 2016 referendum, however little ‘honour’ that referendum deserved. Most Brexiteers – aside from the crazies – could have accepted it. It might even have ‘brought the country together’ again. For the priority, surely, must be to avoid civil war? A ‘hard’ Brexit certainly won’t do that. Nor, I fear, would our return to the EU.
We’ll see what happens after the upcoming Tory leadership election (please not Boris!), and the next General Election, which will surely come soon. In the meantime I’m occupied with trying to work this whole affair into the final chapter of the new edition of my The Lion’s Share – I’m attracted by the idea of using it as a symptom of the ‘fall’ of the British Empire and of Britain; and, secondly, with deciding what to do with all my books, if I finally decide to settle permanently in Sweden, in order escape from a country I used to be fond of, but now no longer consider mine. Anyone want to come to Hull (UK) and take them away? For free?
“If he had been in a position to negotiate it with the EU he would probably have succeeded; hence his preference for a General Election over a referendum….We’ll see what happens after the upcoming Tory leadership election (please not Boris!), and the next General Election, which will surely come soon.”
I find these sentiments almost incomprehensible. May was never going to have a General Election and hand government to Labour, so that Corbyn could negotiate a customs union. A policy which was based on such fanciful thinking hardly rates as a policy at all. Also, I find it hard to understand why you would think that a general election “will surely come soon”. Why? The new Conservative PM is going to want Brexit to happen or not happen in October and then spend three years knitting together the broken threads of his party. Whoever wins will need a longish time to lure back the many Tory voters who succumbed to Farage.
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A General Election was never entirely in the gift of May – there were one or two occasions when she could have been toppled by a vote of no confidence in the government, and was only held up by the DUP; and that’s quite apart from her disastrous 2017 election, which was very close. I never said Corbyn WAS in that position; but it’s why he was pushing for it. As for the proximity of the next election, let’s wait and see. Most politicians and commentators are expecting one soon, and are preparing for it. They may be wrong – they often are. But the next few weeks are entirely unpredictable, with none of the Tory leadership candidates, for example, likely to be able to ‘knit together the broken threads of their party’. The only thing likely to unite them is fear of Corbyn.
Incidentally, what a stupid thing it was for Labour to expel Alastair Campbell on that particular pretext! I and most of my constituency party voted Green or Lib Dem, and made no secret of it. We’ll all be going back to Labour when this Brexit business is all over. Should we expect letters of excommunication in the next post?