openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Brexit Britain: a six step survival guide

How do we get out of this mess?

Peter McColl
31 January 2020
Woman looking at Union flags
Union flags in Parliament Square on Brexit Day, January 31st 2020
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Kirsty O'Connor/PA Images

The day is here, and much as many of us may have thought it wasn’t going to happen, the UK is leaving the EU. The Brexit we are getting is a right-wing one. But it won’t deliver what many of those who supported it wanted. That creates an opportunity to try to salvage something.

1. Don’t build expectations that it will be terrible

It’s easy to catastrophise Brexit – to say that there will be no medicines, the shop shelves will be empty, the army of workers who’ve come from around the world to do essential jobs will leave. While I recognise the psychological value of doing this it is deeply unhelpful. We must try not to do this.

A great deal of the momentum for “Get Brexit done” came from voters observation that there hadn’t been an economic crash after the Leave vote in 2016. Predicting doom that doesn’t happen doesn’t convince anyone. Of course, the damage done by Brexit is real, but has come slowly – and predicting it now does nothing to convince anyone.

2. Brexit Britain: Everything is for sale

The point of Brexit for the UK Government is to dismantle what remains of the post-war settlement. The lever they have to do this is ‘trade deals’. Now is exactly the wrong time to be doing trade deals. The US is hostile to free trade, the EU is very wary of the UK undercutting its consumer and environmental standards and workers’ rights.

We can therefore expect the government to start making the case that we have to reduce these standards in order to ‘get trade deals done’. Like austerity over the past decade this will be presented as an unpleasant but necessary change to cope with the reality of the world. We need to find an effective way of resisting this.

While it was fair to criticise the EU for its lack of democracy, the UK government has already moved to stop scrutiny of trade deals. There will be no democratic oversight whatsoever of trade deals once agreed. We have exchanged an imperfect institution for a decision making by elites behind closed doors.

3. Brexit will be a huge let down for most Brexiters

The reasons that people voted for Brexit won’t, in most cases, be addressed. It’s clear that immigration isn’t going to be substantially reduced. People won’t have more control in their lives. Austerity will worse not better. Incredibly some people thought that Brexit would reduce prices in the shops. The reverse has happened.

Saying ‘I told you so’ is satisfying. It is totally unhelpful. We need to bring people with us in exposing how disastrous this is. Telling them they were wrong is the wrong way to do it. We must be compassionate and reach out to help people understand that the only people who are ‘taking back control’ are the elites that so many distrust.

4. Brexit is part of the culture war

That said, there are some people for whom Brexit is a culture war issue: a way to roll back the advance of women, LGBT+ communities, BAME communities and on issues like the climate emergency. It may be useful to draw lines on these things. Brexit has given permission to people who want to make Britain hate again. We should oppose this vigorously.

5. Be aware of claims of investment

There is a lot of noise coming from Westminster about investing in the north of England and the midlands. It will be in physical infrastructure rather than the much needed social infrastructure if it comes. But it is very unlikely to come. This investment is difficult to deliver. Boris Johnson spent his 8 years as Mayor of London living off the work done by his predecessor. Donald Trump made similar promises, which have entirely failed to materialise.

We need to seize the agenda on these things, produce proper plans to transform places and highlight the failure to invest that seems likely.

6. Brexit will mean lots of pressure to agree to a right-wing agenda

There will be enormous pressure to remove politics from the debate around trade deals and the destruction of the country. We will be told to ‘come together and move on’. This is an attempt to stop opposition. We must resist it. British nationalism is excellent at the pretence that it simultaneously doesn’t exist and that everyone agrees with the elite positions it holds. We need to be gracious, but avoid being drawn into the notion that we have to destroy our quality of life for similar reasons to those people believed austerity would work.

We have a very difficult couple of decades ahead. Part of the reason the right wanted Brexit was that it will dominate our politics in both the short and medium-term. They have succeeded beyond their hopes. We cannot allow ourselves to be cowed by this, but we do need to find ways to create a better future, even if the situation we find ourselves in is far from ideal.

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