Some Thoughts on the Lib Dems’ Current EU Plans

(I’ve pushed the Batpost and Beach Boys post back a couple of days, as I had a blood pressure headache yesterday and then news happened today. They’ll be up tomorrow and Friday).
I’ve mostly stayed away from the subject of “Brexit” on this blog, mostly because I don’t want to fall out with people about something neither they or I can change. A lot of people on both sides have very strong views, and see any disagreement about them as being an attack on their core identity. I’ve already lost friends because of the relatively mild things I’ve said on my own Facebook about it, and while I think there are circumstances where losing friendships is a reasonable price to pay, a disagreement over political decisions made at levels no-one I know can affect is not one of those circumstances.
One distinction I *have* always been at pains to make, though, is that while I am a Remain supporter (and my position there has only hardened as more information has come in), the people who voted to leave did so from a huge variety of motives, and can’t all be characterised as fascist Little Englanders.
(Which is not to say, of course, that fascist Little Englanders didn’t vote to leave. In much the same way as the old quote from John Stuart Mill — “not all Conservatives are stupid, but all stupid people are Conservative” — the leave vote contained much more than those people, but it did include them).
The leave voters had a variety of motives, from those who just wanted to “send them back”, to those who were voting in the hope of removing some of the pro-capitalism elements in the EU’s founding treaties and bringing back the post-war Keynesian consensus; from those who want to bring about a low-regulation Singapore-style economy built on the exploitation of the poorest, to those who are so poor, and who have been so ignored by every government of my lifetime, that they’re willing to take any risk in the hope, no matter how faint, of improving their lives.
This is one of the many reasons I was against the referendum in principle (and indeed am against all referendums) — the question being asked simply wasn’t reducible to a binary yes/no. If the kind of left-wing utopia portrayed by some supporters of “Lexit” had been a realistic possibility, I may well have voted to leave myself. As it is, my political instincts told me that the intended result by those Leavers in positions of power was rather closer to the “crush the poor under my bootheels” one. Maybe I’m wrong — I certainly *hope* I’m wrong, since the result didn’t go my way.
But that distinction is one that the Lib Dems, unlike pretty much everyone else involved in the argument, appear to have recognised, if Tim Farron’s most recent articles are anything to go by. Farron has based these on the policy proposals that will be put to Lib Dem conference later this month, and as a democratic party we may well vote against those proposals of course, but I suspect they will be broadly acceptable to Lib Dem members.
The idea is a simple one. The Lib Dems will continue to support membership of the EU — anything else would, in fact, be against the party’s constitution, and would require a constitutional amendment — but will not be pushing for a simple rerun of the referendum we just had. Quite rightly, the argument is that you don’t just keep rerunning a referendum until you get the result you wanted.
Nor will the party be pushing for an early general election on the issue — if nothing else, given Jeremy Corbyn’s recent comments about the single market, the Lib Dems are now the only pro-EU UK-wide party, and unfortunately the chances of a Lib Dem landslide any time in the next few years are minimal.
What the Lib Dems will be pushing for is a referendum *on the final agreed terms of exit*, once those have been negotiated by the government. The choice then would be “exit on these terms” or “remain” — and the Lib Dems would campaign for remain as a party (though individuals of course may not).
Given that we’re accepting referendums as a legitimate way of making decisions — which I’m very unhappy about, but can do little to change — this seems to make sense to me.
Crucially, it’s *not* about rerunning the previous referendum. The referendum we just had was one where one side was pointing to a single, concrete, state — the deal we had with the EU at the time — while the other side was pointing to every conceivable state that could be described as “Brexit”, which could encompass everything from Singapore-style ultracapitalism to a Trotskyite workers’ state (many of the small Trotskyite parties actually campaigned for leave) through to the “soft Brexit” many politicians are now arguing for, which is essentially “keep everything the same, except stop having the right to elect MEPs and have a different passport”.
It’s only right that the people get to say yes or no to the final deal. It may well be, for example, that the deal that gets negotiated is one which keeps single market access and also has the UK becoming members of Schengen — those who voted leave to keep out immigrants would get the opposite of what they wanted. Alternatively, if Jeremy Corbyn gets his expressed wish of access to the single market but less regulation around what kind of involvement the Government can have with regards to subsidising failing industries, the free marketeers will not be very happy. And so on.
That’s not the same thing as rerunning the first referendum, and it goes both ways. I can easily imagine deals being made that would be enough to get me to say “OK, that’s actually better than being in the EU would be”. I don’t think that the people currently in government are likely to make such a deal, but I can imagine it happening.
At the moment, the British public is split very close to 50/50 on the issue, and that showed in the referendum result — and right now, a lot of people are angry, on both sides. But as Tim puts it, “voting for a departure is not the same as voting for a destination”. It may well be that the politicians in charge can find a destination we can all agree on — or one that we can all agree is a disaster. Either way, if, as it appears we must, we have to regard the referendum as a legitimate way of making that decision, the people should get to decide where we’re going, ideally before we get there.

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4 Responses to Some Thoughts on the Lib Dems’ Current EU Plans

  1. cgp100 says:

    It would be very nice if the British people could be given the choice whether to “exit on these terms” or remain, but it won’t be possible.

    Once Article 50 is invoked, Britain will be bound to leave the EU within two years at most, unless the European Council agrees unanimously to a postponement. The only choice that will be within the government’s power to offer will be between “leave on these terms” and “leave without any deal at all”.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I’ve seen various different legal opinions on whether it would be possible for Britain to unilaterally change its mind within the two-year post-article-50 time limit (the treaty itself is ambiguously worded). For the most part, the view seems to be that it would be possible.

  2. gavinburrows says:

    I don’t know if you’ve ever seen ‘A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology’, where Zizek recounts his theory of what the shark stands for in ‘Jaws’. A theory which comes down to “any damn thing you want it to stand for”.

    And I think in the referendum the EU was like that. Rather than form any coherent theory of what they thought Britain would look like after exit, Leavers just wanted to paint the EU in whatever colours they found easiest to rail against. To a keen neoliberal, it could be a cloying bureaucracy, a mountain of red tape. To an anti-corporatist, it was the conduit by which big business forced TTIP and other such nasties on us. To an uber-conservative it was a modernity we could pull the plug on and go back to an Empire system, with the only provisio we had to remember to call that Empire the Commonwealth. To a blood-and-soil racist it was a cosmopolitan plot to pollute our gene pool with Poles. And so on. People often seemed to combine these or switch arbitrarily from one to the other, regardless of how they contradicted.
    (About the only group who did have a consistent goal were those small Trotskyist sects. But unfortunately as you say that goal was only achievable in theory, while in practice the Leave vote will almost certainly take us further away from it. They essentially reasserted the argument they made in the Seventies referendum, merely proving how marooned in time they are.)

    So in short those people can’t have what they wanted, even if it was offered to them, because they don’t even know what they want. There can be no purpose in asking them. I think the problem with what you say here is it kind of assumes now one side have won, they will be more reasoned in debates. I’d like you to be right, but I don’t think they could be like that if they tried. I think the referendum has instead cemented that the way politics now works is that you tilt at sharks. (If you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor!) When slaying one shark doesn’t fix your world, you just start tilting at the next one. The winner will be the group who paints the biggest target. Politics just got dumber.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Oh, you’re absolutely right. Unfortunately, in the stupid political world we’re living in, the only way to get to an even slightly not-stupid position from where we are is to try stuff like this :-/

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