I’ll freely admit that the past week has been a stunner, in the literal sense. With the almost complete suspension of normal political rules, everyone has piled in and tried to set agendas, grab pie and settle old scores (and some new ones too).
To comment in any meaningful way has been next to impossible, as all the pieces of the jigsaw have been in constant movement. It’s only now – after seven days of voting, speeches, non-speeches, commitments, reversals, plotting, spinning, blundering and general messing about – that any kind of sense is emerging. And even then, I’m deeply hesitant to say that.
The big question is whether anything has actually changed.
Now, clearly, at a basic level, everything has changed, following the referendum result. The UK is effectively now committed to leaving the EU and is certainly getting a new Prime Minister and Cabinet, so even if we stopped at that, then we’re in a different era. As much as there are protests about the fairness of the referendum, the extent to which people understood the issues and implications, and the failure of various politicians to follow through on their promises, the vote on the 23rd was free, fair and legitimate within the boundaries that we understand to apply. If you doubt that, then imagine if there has been a similarly close result the other way around and ask whether you would be supporting those Leavers who would no be protesting.
In brief, politics is about power and sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.
Before we continue, it’s worth exploring that point some more. The Leaver majority is composed of many different voices and positions, but it does include many in society who feel that they have been left behind or let down by the system, by social and economic modernisation. The passion that fuelled so many Leave campaigners was partly about the EU and its injustices, but it was also a broader repost to ‘how things are’. The liberal cosmopolitan bubble that isolated such a large part of the Establishment from seeing this succeeded in that isolation precisely because it has grown so big and so wide that many within it can no longer see that it is a bubble. Repeatedly over the past weeks, I’ve talked with people who have got out of that bubble and they never doubted that Leave was much more of an issue than the Remain campaign often seemed to think.
Looked at another way, while the referendum is a victory for Leavers, it needs to be understood in the context of the bigger social change, where those same Leavers have been on the receiving end much more often than not. I wrote about this in relation to eurosceptics some years ago, and the same ideas still apply: the EU is a convenient way to voice dissent, even if the EU per se isn’t the issue.
Which brings us back to the main question of how much anything has changed.
While there’s a seeming symmetry to the UK’s entry-then-exit, the rise and fall of an idea, we might also argue that this is simply more of the same for UK-EU relations: tactical compensation for a lack of strategic vision.
The UK has never known what it wants from European integration. There is some inchoate sense that this is something that matters and that the UK should work with or around, if only to head off unpleasantness further down the line. But it has been incidental, a function of domestic political life – even more so than in other member states – used when necessary, rather than as a matter of course. That use has been positive on occasions, but it’s also been negative; a scapegoat or excuse to push through unpopular changes. Last week saw a lot of those birds coming home to roost, as the inability to articulate a positive case for membership was beaten by the channeling of those broader discontents.
What this past week has shown is that while the starting point might have shifted – from being inside, but wondering about being outside, to being about to leave – the basic dimensions of the debate remain the same. There are clearly benefits to working with European partners, on a whole range of policies and issues, but there are also costs and conflicts. The will of the people might have been voiced, but the calculation of that balance is the same, hence the various excursions to find ways around that voice.
This is a mistake, at least in the form that it has taken.
The referendum result is an expression of a wider tension and the very worst thing that could happen is to seek to find a weaselly way not to abide by it, because that would be much more what the wider tension is about. It would confirm the worst suspicions of many, and not just on the Leave side. In closing down one issue it would almost certainly open up a much bigger one.
If there is to be a response then it has to be about engagement and debate, to find a common path that the very broad majority can live with and work together on pursuing. In part that’s about improving our political education and debate, so that we can spend less time arguing that ‘they don’t understand us’ and more on ‘what shall we do’. In part, it’s about showing respect for those in our community and acknowledging that there will always be a diversity of voices, all of whom need to be hear, all of whom need to be engaged with constructively.
These are big issues, and long-run ones too. As the dust settles on this week, we might reflect that we have moved not nearly so far as we might first have thought.