William Crawley on a passionate call for the country to turn back from disaster

Reports on the current talks to settle the terms of Britain’s departure from the European Union give little confidence that British and EU negotiators are close to bridging the gap in the expectations of the two sides. And, while Brexit has united the other 27 members of the European Union in what they want from Britain, neither the governing British Conservative coalition nor the main opposition Labour party are agreed among themselves, or with each other, as to what they want from Europe.

The party conference season just underlined the deep split in British politics. The Labour conference avoided a vote on the most pressing issue of the day. Following her badly received conference speech, the Prime Minister, Theresa May, faces the contradictory objectives of softening EU opposition to her Brexit proposals and shoring up her own position against hardline Brexiteers in her party.

Denis MacShane is an outspoken and passionate advocate of Britain’s membership of the European Union. A former member of parliament and former minister for European affairs in a Labour government, he is one of the very few political commentators who correctly predicted that when David Cameron, then Conservative Prime Minister, called a referendum in June 2016 – Remain in the EU or Leave – the vote would go against the EU.

A majority of parliamentarians were in favour of remaining, as was virtually the whole British political establishment. No explanation had been provided as to what would replace the 40 years of international treaties and trade agreements which linked Britain to the EU, and no measures were put in place to take account of the possibility that a small majority might decide the vote either way. Of those who voted, 52 per cent voted Leave, 48 per cent Remain.

The party conference season just underlined the deep split in British politics

In Brexit No Exit, Denis MacShane sets out in a compelling if unashamedly partisan manner why he thinks it will be so difficult for Britain to renegotiate its ties with the EU on terms that are not deeply damaging to Britain’s interest. Either it will not happen, he predicts, or ultimately something very like British membership of the EU will re-emerge under another name.

It sounds like wishful thinking: the pitch of EU supporters who are derided as ‘Remoaners’ for their supposed opposition to the democratically expressed ‘will of the people’. But the range of Brexit-related issues in which Britain is linked by a common interest with the European Union is exceptionally wide. It includes the management of the environment, security and policing, anti-terrorism measures, climate change issues and, above all, trade. Favourable access to British markets is important for other EU countries, but not nearly as important as access to European markets is for Britain.

Issues that supposedly separate the two sides are, for Britain, the European judicial system, and above all the issue of immigration. For the EU the free movement of people within the EU is a basic principle. British politicians have interpreted the Leave vote predominantly as a vote for tighter immigration controls than the EU allows.

Brexit, No Exit: Why (in the End) Britain Won’t Leave Europe by Denis MacShane, London IB Tauris 2017, £8.99
Brexit, No Exit: Why (in the End) Britain Won’t Leave Europe by Denis MacShane, London IB Tauris 2017, £8.99

Asian communities in Britain have watched this controversy with a mixture of distaste and disbelief. The anti-immigration movement of the 1960s was directed primarily against immigration from outside Europe, especially from the south Asian subcontinent. A Conservative candidate elected in 1967 on the back of an anti-immigrant campaign, in what had been a safe Labour seat in Birmingham, was memorably savaged by Labour’s Michael Foot as a ‘parliamentary leper’. Today, with a surge of supposed popular resentment against immigration from eastern Europe, much of it in areas which have not been affected by it, parliament is much more tolerant of the ‘lepers’ in its midst.

Britain is a different society from that of 50 years ago, in many ways more integrated than it was, if not assimilated, with three generations or more of stable settlement, and a broad recognition of multiculturalism. Asian attitudes to the European Union are generally very favourable, with 80 per cent of the Asian communities voting to Remain. Sadiq Khan, the Labour Mayor of London, is strongly pro-EU, and London as a whole voted decisively in favour of Remain. Yet one of the most prominent anti-EU Brexiteers,  Priti Patel, currently Minister for International Development, comes from an Asian family background. Other prominent Conservative Eurosceptic leaders, such as former Chancellor Nigel Lawson, one-time party leader Michael Howard and current aspirant Boris Johnson, have an older east European family heritage.

The Brexiteers have made much of Britain ‘taking back control’, and regaining the ability to negotiate more favourable trade deals with other Commonwealth countries and countries outside the EU. India is often mentioned optimistically in this context. But it is not at all clear that India sees its interests in the same light. India would like less restriction on the admission of students and on immigration in general, but this objective clashes with the British government’s already unrealistic pledges on reducing immigration.

If immigration is the issue the British government claims it to be, replacing Europeans with south Asians is unlikely to be a solution. Nor does lowering tariff barriers or opening access to British service industries figure high in Indian priorities. Attempts to get India to reduce its 150 per cent tariff on Scotch whisky, for example, have been on the agenda for eight years with scant result. Pakistan in turn is talking up the prospects for British investment in the massive China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, strongly opposed by India.

Both of these ideas are so peripheral to Britain’s potential loss of privileged access to the EU market, however, that they barely figure in MacShane’s calculation of the pros and cons of Brexit. In anticipating a change of public opinion on Brexit, he looks to growing awareness of the cost to Britain, already sustained in a depreciated currency and lower credit ratings. He rails against what he calls the ‘Brexit liars’ who peddled false information in the referendum campaign and the supineness of broadcasters – especially (he claims) the BBC – who, in the name of balance, allowed these lies to be aired without being challenged.

Many former Remainers now argue that since the Referendum result public and political opinion has reconciled itself to Brexit in some form, still to be decided. In contrast, MacShane takes comfort in the argument that 64 per cent of the country as a whole did not vote for Brexit – but then many of them did not vote at all. So, little comfort for younger people who voted mostly in favour of the EU and even for those of the older generation which saw greater European cooperation as a guarantee that we do not re-enact the hugely destructive conflicts of the first half of the 20th century.

Currently MacShane’s is a voice crying in the wilderness. But in the volatile situation that Britain finds itself in, who can say that things may not change?

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