BREXIT – time to pause, reflect and take a deep breath

The grave situation that the UK currently faces with Brexit is undoubtedly the greatest
political crisis in modern British memory. In less than six weeks there is a clear and present
danger we might crash out of the EU without a deal but also the possibility that the nature
of our democracy and society will have changed irrevocably.
The decision to prorogue parliament and the populist rhetoric of Johnson referring to
another extension as “surrender” and other antics designed to frame an election with a
binary ‘people versus parliament’ narrative are further steps in a trajectory going back to
the initial referendum of 2016 that could bind the UK to forms of authoritarian nationalism
reminiscent of countries like Hungary.

Johnson appears to be aching for an election, as does Corbyn who has stated that as soon as
a ‘no deal’ scenario has been averted, he would countenance an election. However, another
election might be something we would be best of avoiding. My fear is that the deep
divisions in the country will be further intensified through a deeply emotive and probably
irrational election campaign that will cause further irreparable damage to the country.
I would rather see a referendum staged after a six month national dialogue about where we
are and where we want to be framed by regional citizens’ assemblies – such is the level of
anger and division we need to step back, reflect and deliberate upon the deep economic,
social and cultural causes of Brexit and fissures it has created. We must avoid rushing into
any decision that continues to leave the nation deeply divided and resentful. Johnson is
desperate for an election because he knows his emergency politics will further wilt as
parliament is allowed to assert its authority, hopefully pushing Johnson to the opposition
benches and the ‘naughty step’ of British politics.

Would the EU grant a nine-month extension? Why not? The EU is acutely aware of the
poverty of debate on this issue and need for an informed discussion in the UK. The EU
would be bolstered if the UK were to have a change of heart. As we know from history a
broken and angry nation on the periphery of Europe can bode ill for the well-being of the
continent. The EU will be keen to avoid such a scenario.

Corbyn has put himself forward, as is his right as leader of the opposition, as a premier to
head a short-term government to seek an extension with Brussels and call an election.
Rather than a lifespan of weeks I would rather see such a government last at least nine
months and stage a national conversation, referendum and then election. In recent weeks
Corbyn has proven to his critics that he can be an effective parliamentary performer. Corbyn
has been instrumental in helping to forge a united opposition in parliament and his
statements and interventions have been wise and strategically productive in trying to steer
the government away from ‘no deal’. Maybe such work and action can win over those who
have set themselves against a Corbyn premiership, maybe Corbyn will need to make a huge
demonstration of his integrity and desire to avert tragedy by stepping aside for a unity
government leader that could unite diverging threads of opinion. It should be noted though
that Labour and Corbyn would be hugely important to the success and stability of such a
government. If Corbyn did feel the need to step aside though it might pay dividends in the
form of a sense of stability emerging that the country has been deprived of since 2016 and
improve his standing and the debt of gratitude owed to him by a nation pulled back from the abyss by a politician who put his country before his own career, potentially leading to victory for him once an election is called.

An election ranged against the crude populism and hyperglobalism of Johnson might offer
an enticing prospect to Labour. There are real chances that a Johnson election campaign
guided by Dominic Cummings might unravel and gift a Labour campaign based on a
transformative agenda victory. However, there is also a real chance Johnson might triumph.
If Labour had enjoyed a sustained lead in the polls such a gamble might be worthwhile but
we know that has not been the case and there is no reason to assume Labour can replicate
its rapid and sudden surge of 2017 and even that was not sufficient of course to dislodge the
Tories. We need to step back!

Brexit and the social, political and cultural dissent it has unleashed is partly attributable to
the fact that through a referendum we created a political force centred on the notion of the
‘will of the people’ which clashes with our conception of parliamentary democracy reliant
on representative judgement. Representative judgement is a centuries old tradition where
parliamentarians use their insight, expertise and overview to make a decision, which in the
short term may not meet with popular approval but may in the long term be judged to have
been prudent. The risk that parliamentarians take in such action is that if the public are
sufficiently disgruntled when MPs ‘put the brakes on’ then they run the risk of being voted
out whenever they face the electorate in a poll. Such a conception of a parliamentarian’s
role explains why some MPs have defied their parties and even constituencies and have
supported remain, another referendum or softer forms of Brexit. Representative
judgement through thwarting ‘no deal’ and frustrating the passage of a hard Brexit might
prove itself to be an integral safeguarding mechanism in our democracy. It is representative
judgment that might be needed to invoke the creation of a nine-month unity government,
hopefully led by Corbyn.

To bolster the chances of a Corbyn led unity government it might help win over those who
distrust Labour on this issue by seeing the party declare its position as being remain in any
referendum offering the choice of a negotiated deal and remain. Labour has left behind the
flaccid technocracy of third way policy models on the economy by adopting transformative
policy stances – we need to be as equally bold on Brexit by committing to a radical remain
and reform agenda centred on a robust conception of Social Europe, seeking institutional,
economic and cultural change across Europe. Rather than bending to perceived resentments
and anxieties in some working-class and left behind communities we need to challenge and
reshape such sentiments with a principled and honest remain position shaped by and in
accordance with Labour’s internationalist values which reject nativism and sees the sense of
transformative change in addressing the underlying causes of Brexit.

Labour though also needs to develop its commitments to democratic reform. The statism of
Corbynism has sometimes led to the neglect of an issue that could and should be closely
aligned with a transformative agenda. Brexit has sorely tested the fitness of our political
institutions. We need to assess what has worked and what has failed. A written constitution,
the degree of power afforded to the executive and the role of the media and donations in
our democracy are all issues which need to be scrutinised and acted upon. Such an agenda
alongside Labour’s regenerative and redistributive economic policies could ultimately be a
central factor in delivering a radical Labour government capable of healing the divides of
Brexit Britain.

Andrew Ryder is an academic and social justice campaigner based in Hungary whose book
‘Brexit Britain and Europe at a crossroads: The politics of anxiety and transformation’ will be
published in 2020

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