Sunday 26 June 2016

Keep calm - and plan for a new future

The people have spoken, and the people’s will must be respected. But that need not mean that the UK has declared war on the European Union.

The priority now surely must be to take stock, reflect, and then plan for a new future. Whatever the weather may say, summer is upon us, and July and August will offer at least the opportunity of a respite from the aftershocks resulting from Thursday’s political earthquake.

David Cameron’s great mistake was to regard political decision-making as an exercise only in crisis management. Whoever succeeds him – and whoever takes over from Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Opposition (I do not expect him to last much longer) – would be well advised to take a longer view.

And incidentally, how depressing is it to have to acknowledge that Nigel Farage is now Britain’s most successful politician since Margaret Thatcher, if judged by their ability to change the country to more closely reflect their own ideological preferences?

The EU is bad at a lot of things, but there is one thing it is good at – fudging its way out of a crisis. Eurozone meltdown? Bend the rules, do whatever it takes to keep the show on the road. Migration crisis? Fudge, mudge, and compromise – crisis not solved, but crisis somehow now a bit more manageable.

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel, without whom nothing much can happen in the EU, does not want the UK to turn its back. She accepts that nothing is going to happen in a hurry. It is quite possible to imagine a scenario in which politicians and diplomats spend the next few weeks quietly exploring options: a Norway-style relationship, not in the EU but still close to it? An associate membership of some kind, a made-to-measure relationship which benefits both parties in this unhappy marriage?  Like living in separate apartments but still in the same house.

Boris Johnson, who as things stand looks likely to be the next prime minister of what, for now, we can still call the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, shows every sign of suffering from shell shock. He is not an ideological Brexiteer, and has demonstrated a talent for political flexibility that would impress even a circus contortionist.

What any new leader will have to show, however, is that a new arrangement with the EU will deliver something less than total freedom of movement into the UK for all citizens of the EU’s 27 remaining members. There is no point in denying that fears over ‘uncontrolled’ immigration did more than any other factor to boost the pro-Leave vote. I do not underestimate how difficult it will be to negotiate a new agreement on freedom of movement, but given the very real concerns of more exit referendums being called in other EU countries, it is by no means impossible that some kind of deal could be done.

In return for at least some access to the single market, for example, the UK could perhaps agree that any EU citizen who can show they have a firm job offer will automatically be entitled to residence – an arrangement that, if agreed, would help to meet voters’ objections, albeit largely unfounded, that EU ‘scroungers’ are milking the benefits system. It would also help to ensure that the NHS and other employers who depend on EU immigrants to fill job vacancies will not be left facing a chronic labour shortage crisis.

A huge responsibility now falls on the Labour party. It was disaffected, ignored, alienated Labour voters in what used to be the party’s heartlands who swung it for Brexit, and it will be up to Labour’s new leader to re-engage with them, convince them that their needs and anxieties have been noticed and encourage them to return to the fold.

Labour needs to find its own version of the hugely impressive Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson: authentic, working class, and able to connect with the voters patronised by Nigel Farage as ‘ordinary, decent people’. One name that comes to mind is Jess Phillips, MP for Birmingham Yardley, who made a name for herself by telling Diane Abbott to ‘fuck off’ during a row over the lack of women in Jeremy Corbyn’s top team. Asked how Abbott had responded, she said: ‘She fucked off.’

She also, as it happens, was as much a success on the BBC comedy show Have I Got News For You, as Boris Johnson has been. And she has a steel core, telling an interviewer last March: ‘I am utterly ambitious. I’m ambitious for the sake of being so, too. Not enough people are, and I think if you’re in any job, you should damn well believe you should get to the top.’

As one of the 48% who voted to Remain, I am still deeply disappointed and disheartened at the result. But I believe the focus now must be to make the best of it, to find new leaders who can act in the public interest and persuade UK voters that a new deal, once negotiated, will be better than what went before. Then, and only then, might it be time for another referendum.

So this is the Lustig timetable for a brighter future: first, a new Labour leader, and then a general election, a new deal and a new referendum. There’s still a chance that the United Kingdom will remain united.

Friday 24 June 2016

The referendum earthquake

It was nasty, brutish and long, and now it’s over.

My overwhelming emotion is of sadness.

Not just because the referendum result is not the one I wanted, but because for the next several years, British politics will be dominated by endless negotiations, rows and crises over how to recalibrate our relationship with our neighbours. And because as our economy sinks back into stagnation, our major trading partners will themselves descend into political and economic turmoil. If you thought the referendum campaign was ugly, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

So many uncertainties have been created by yesterday’s vote that it is hard to know where to start. It is the biggest shock to global politics since the collapse of the Soviet empire more than 25 years ago.

First, the United Kingdom has never been less united: England (with the exception of London) and Wales voted to leave the EU; Scotland and northern Ireland voted to stay. In Scotland, the SNP says the vote again raises the issue of Scottish independence; in northern Ireland, Sinn Fein is talking about Irish unification.

Second, we are now in the constitutional absurdity of having a prime minister, as well as a Cabinet and House of Commons, the majority of whose members disagree fundamentally with the verdict of the voters. How on earth can they claim to be the right people to negotiate the UK’s exit from the EU, a course of action that they have been warning for months will spell national catastrophe?

Third, there will now be growing demands in other EU countries for similar in-out referendums. President Fran├žois Hollande of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel both face elections next year – they will have their own political constituencies to take care of while simultaneously dealing with the UK’s demands for a favourable new deal. Guess which will be the higher priority for them.

But what saddens me most of all is that many of the people who voted Leave yesterday will be the ones who suffer most as a result of their decision. The foreigners who they believe have taken their jobs and houses will not suddenly be deported; the over-crowded schools and GPs’ surgeries will not suddenly empty; the out-of-touch elites whom they blame for their misfortunes will not suddenly hand over power to people’s tribunes.

The referendum was a roar of anger from voters who grabbed the opportunity to demonstrate their fury at the economic and social changes they have observed around them and which they neither welcomed nor accepted. ‘We want our country back’ is a powerful motivator; but what no politician had the courage to point out was that the country they yearn for has gone forever.

It is no surprise to learn that the nation is divided, but what the referendum has done is expose the divisions in painfully stark clarity. The haves have done very nicely out of the changes of the past 30 years, but the have-nots have not. Their jobs vanished, their pay stagnated, and their children have little chance of making a decent life for themselves. The rich got richer, but no one else did. Why did anyone think that was a sustainable way to run a modern economy?

What we need now is a leader who can heal the referendum wounds and speak across the national divide. David Cameron’s days as prime minister are clearly numbered; Boris Johnson will never be a convincing leader, however hard he tries, any more than Jeremy Corbyn will be. We enter an age of uncertainty, cast adrift into turbulent waters with no one at the tiller.

And the people with the biggest smiles on their faces are Nigel Farage, Neil Hamilton, Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump. Somehow, I can’t bring myself to share their delight.

Monday 20 June 2016

A Britain and a Europe to believe in

Last week, The Sun urged its readers to BeLEAVE in Britain.

This is my response:

I believe in a Britain in Europe that looks to the future with hope, not to the past with anger.

I believe in a reformed Europe that embraces Britain, and a reformed Britain that embraces Europe. 

I believe in a Britain that is greater than its fears, and a Europe that is more than the sum of its parts.

I believe in a Britain in Europe that cares more for the future prospects of its under-35s than for the rose-tinted memories of its over-65s.

I believe in a Europe that learns from the mistakes of its past and is determined to build a better future.

I believe in a Britain in Europe that wants to work with its neighbours to confront common challenges like climate change, cyber-terrorism and tax evasion, not pretend that it can meet those challenges alone.

I believe in a Europe that welcomes immigrants as new Europeans, and does not reject them as unwanted intruders.

I believe in a Britain in Europe that is proud of its past and wants to be proud of its future.

I believe in a Europe that unites for the long-term benefit of all, not fractures for the short-term gain of the few.

I believe in a Britain in Europe that is ready to be a leader, not afraid to be a loser.

If you share these sentiments, please share them as widely as you can before next Thursday.