As the Brexit farce proceeds, it is worth remembering that before David Cameron made his catastrophic error of calling a referendum, the EU was way down the list of British people’s concerns in almost every opinion poll. Indeed, not even in the first 11.
The central point is that Brexit became the focus for all manner of discontents, many of them understandable. But leaving the EU would indubitably not be the answer to them, and would be guaranteed not to make the discontents into “glorious summer”.
Indeed, it would exacerbate the sources of this discontent. Why? Surely it is becoming increasingly obvious that growing swaths of British industry – much of it foreign-owned by conglomerates that enjoy the advantages of the single market – are cutting back their investment plans and in many cases planning to relocate to mainland Europe. The prospect of the diminution of the economic base of the country has dire implications not only for employment and living standards, but also for the tax base on which living standards depend.
We have spent 45 years becoming an integral region of Europe, creating an economic omelette that no one in their right mind would try to unscramble. Unfortunately there are a lot of not-so-right minds about, some of them in the cabinet, and we have the misfortune to have a prime minister who transmits but does not listen, and is fixated on a treacherous mission.
The past fortnight has been particularly interesting. The prime minister’s deal, a weak attempt to please Brexiters while offering half a loaf to Remainers, has satisfied – it would be an exaggeration to say no one, but manifestly very few. The size of the vote against her was so formidable, indeed overwhelming, that the honourable thing to do would have been to resign, or at the very least decide not to plough on towards the cliff edge.
But, as has been obvious for some time, her “strategy” – if one can dignify it with that name – has been to frighten everyone into having to accept a bad deal, to avoid a disastrous no-deal. This is a slight change from her absurd earlier view that “a bad deal is worse than no deal”.
Fear of no deal has, however, had a countervailing effect on Remainers. It has strengthened the forces arguing for an extension of the deadline laid down by article 50, so that crashing out without a deal can be avoided and time gained for a second referendum.
As Alexander Pope asked: “Who shall decide when doctors disagree?” Well, certainly not our eccentric trade secretary, Dr Liam Fox. In circumstances when our parliamentary representatives cannot agree on a way out of this mess, another referendum seems to more and more people I meet to be the only answer.
I know one northern Labour MP whose constituency contains a preponderance of Leavers. This particular MP thinks a referendum now might well be lost (by Remainers) or at least produce too narrow a Remain margin for comfort.
Now, some recent polls have indicated that opinion is moving slowly in favour of Remain, although that king of pollsters, Sir John Curtice, warned us last week that the nation is actually split 50-50. But a campaign during which the actual and potential damage of Brexit would almost certainly become clearer? That might offer hope.
Which brings us back to those understandable discontents. Many well-off Brexiters have their own personal reasons for discontent, and are focusing them on “Europe”. But the not-so-well-off are often largely the victims of the accumulation of austerity measures that readers of this column will know I regard as economically unnecessary and punitive. I have quoted my friend John le Carré before: “It’s planned penury.”
We have a Conservative party that is badly split and does not seem to know how to govern. We have a Labour party that ought to be taking full advantage of this but is polling very badly.
There is surely an opportunity here for Labour to give its minority of Leave voters – as well as the more than 80% of party members who are Remainers – hope. They should take the austerity bull by the horns and conduct a referendum campaign which is not only anti-Brexit but also pro-investment (both public and private) and in favour of redressing regional and social inequalities.
And another thing: if Corbyn and McDonnell are worried about sovereignty, vis-a-vis another referendum, they should recall the words of one of their heroes, Aneurin Bevan: “National sovereignty is a phrase that history is emptying of meaning.”
Even more so all these years later!