It’s easy to laugh at Britain’s unpopular populists. Ukip is dead. Farage has been reduced to being a minor radio personality in Britain and a down-the-bill warm-up act in Trump country. As for the supposedly serious Brexiters, the Observer’s revelations will surely discredit the Vote Leave crew, assuming they have any credit left to diss, that is.
Look at them. They can’t even organise a mindless publicity stunt. They were to throw fish in the Thames – haddock, if you must know – to protest about EU fishing quotas remaining until 2021. Alas, the trawler could not moor. Jacob Rees-Mogg was left stranded on the bank, not by Brussels bureaucrats but good old British red, white and blue tape, which mandates that you must have a Transport for London permit to pull in at Westminster pier.
As futile was the Tory right’s follow-up threat to crash the economy by scuppering the transition deal if Britain does not get control of its territorial waters in 2019. Because of the Brexit referendum, and for the first time in British history, we have a prime minister, chancellor of the exchequer, home secretary, half of the government benches and nearly all the opposition benches following a policy they believe is against the national interest. They will not make further concessions to the Tory right that has forced them to betray their conscience and country.
As I said, it’s easy to laugh. A little too easy. Nigel Farage remains the most significant politician since Margaret Thatcher. If it wasn’t for him, we would still be in the EU. As for Ukip and the Tory right, they only seem insignificant because they have forced the PM to give them virtually everything they want. Their sidelining may turn out to be a clever strategic move. They will be able to cry “stab in the back” and “Brexit betrayed” because Theresa May will be responsible for the decline they brought to Britain. If only, the right will say, the perfidious establishment had not compromised we would have had a Brexit filled with hope and glory.
Matthew Goodwin and Rob Ford, who pioneered the research into the new right, tell me they are not writing its obituary yet. Trump and Orbán control the US and Hungary. So weak are liberal forces, it is counted a victory when the National Front wins only 33.9% of the vote in the French presidential election. There’s no reason to believe in British exceptionalism. Given a charismatic leader either inside or outside the Tory party, the right will clamber out of its shallow grave to blame everyone else for the consequences of its dogmatism.
For even the most blinkered must be realising that Brexit is looking absurd. Until 2021 there will still be free movement with the EU, Britain will have to accept the judgments of the European court and implement EU laws, the only difference being we will have no say in the laws’ content. Even after the transition period is over, exporters will still meet EU standards because they will want to trade with the continent, and farmers and the protesting fishermen will have to cut a deal if they want to sell their produce. As for immigration, business and the public sector will tell the government that every enterprise from care homes to restaurant chains will collapse if it closes the borders.
I don’t want to lay the flattery on with a trowel but Jacob Rees-Mogg isn’t always the drivel-spouting dullard he appears. When he says Britain risks becoming a “vassal state” of the EU after 2019 he’s right, but he cannot draw the obvious conclusion that we shouldn’t leave. Nor can millions of others because of a failure by progressive opinion to argue respectfully with them.
For some, the failure is an act of policy. A faction among Labour MPs and commentators announces they are respecting the voters’ wishes, even though they realise leaving the single market will harm the poorest parts of Britain. (They then stand back as if expecting a round of applause for their bravery.) The rightwing press makes too much of them, but there are undoubtedly also liberals who think supporters of Brexit are just stupid racists, and there is no point arguing with them.
In any political battle, you should always ask how far you can compromise without selling your soul. The right cannot be stopped now or in future unless a portion of its supporters are offered reasons to change their minds. Few are forthcoming from the liberal-left. The dominant leftish explanation for working-class support for leave is it was a protest by the people left behind by Thatcherism. As leftists hated Thatcher, this is the worst type of self-indulgent reasoning: the argument that proves you have been right all along.
The liberal-left does not try to understand harder reasons behind Brexit and grapple with working-class patriotism, fears about immigration and political correctness, and the yearning for strong government and national security. Perhaps progressives can never assuage these passions without becoming reactionaries themselves, but they could try. If not, there should at least be a campaign to explain to leave voters how they have been deceived.
Here we run into an under-discussed problem. Without the support of the official opposition, efforts to hold the right to account will be puny. That Jeremy Corbyn and the British far left are anti-EU has been of the utmost importance. They have not pounded away at the lies the left-behind were fed, and tried to provoke a class that is hugely suspicious of politicians to turn on Farage and Johnson for taking them for fools. Silence can be the most effective form of complicity. Because the Labour leadership stays silent, the Brexit right can revive, regain the trust of the men and women it shamefully misled and win the next battle.