It is, of course, a drama manufactured almost entirely by the right wing of British politics. An unpopular Conservative prime minister, running scared of his hard-right backbenchers, takes the gamble of his political life and loses. A pretender, having already betrayed his leader to establish himself as successor, in turn feels a trusted ally’s knife slide between his ribs even as he reaches for the crown. It’s a political drama worthy of Shakespeare himself.
Disastrously, this drama continues to wreak havoc across our country. Britain is to be ripped from the heart of the world’s most productive international alliance, its biggest market, and its most successful peace project. The political and economic fallout on both sides has already been every bit as devastating as the predictions, and there’s no end in sight.
Faced with this bizarre situation, how should we on the left respond?
I have two suggestions.
First, for the Labour party at home, a word of caution. Having campaigned to remain, we are not best placed to lead the increasingly vocal debate about a second referendum. True, there is a huge petition for a new vote. True, the referendum was won by the narrowest of margins following one of the most dishonest campaigns in political history. But it is primarily for regretful Leave voters who will take up the call.
And I wouldn’t be surprised if the debate about a further vote intensifies in the coming months. After all, the key reason why none of the Tory leadership contenders are keen to trigger divorce negotiations with the EU is that Britain still has to decide on what alternative relationship to seek. There was no consensus on the Leave side on this during the campaign.
Indeed, contradictory visions were offered. Some advocated seeking to keep full access to the European market which, as they are now beginning to admit, would mean accepting the common rules for the common market without a say on them — including free movement. But opposing free movement was the main argument used by many Leave campaigners.
Others Leave campaigners advocated leaving the single market completely, even though that would mean British exports would face a tariff and the financial sector would lose its right to “passport” various banking and insurance services across Europe, endangering millions of jobs in Britain.
Now, until a UK Government can resolve these differences and go for one or other of these unpalatable options, the negotiations can hardly get underway. And when they do choose one or the other, there will be horrified gasps from many — including vast swathes of Leave voters who will say, quite rightly, that they didn’t vote for that. At that point, we may well see a build-up of pressure for a popular vote from Leave voters themselves, whether that manifests itself in a further referendum or a general election.
My second suggestion is for the left more generally across Europe. As we look out across the European political landscape, we see cause for serious concern. From UKIP to the Front National, from Hungary’s Jobbik to the Netherlands’ Freedom Party, the far right is on the march. These are people for whom human rights, liberal democracy and internationalism are anathema. They long for the fragmentation of the European family. It’s no coincidence that the only prominent international politicians who welcomed Brexit were Le Pen, Trump, and (it would seem) Putin.
In the face of this, Europe must not disintegrate. It is a challenge to which the traditional centre-right, obsessed with austerity, has no answer. It requires the left across Europe to work together.
A year ago, when the referendum battle lines were only just being drawn, I wrote that one of the defining characteristics of our political movement throughout history is our willingness to stand up and fight for our values. That is even more true now, in the post-referendum political free-for-all, than it was then.
Now is not the time to give up and walk away from any political battleground, especially not Europe. Whatever chaos is unleashed in the coming months, both our country and our continent will both have need of a strong and confident voice from the left.
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