Image: Brexitometer in Cross Gates, East Leeds - a Leave stronghold.
The Brexit debate already has quite enough angry invective, especially from somewhat gammony middle-aged men. But unfortunately what the Westminster village is serving up now, with just 52 days left on the Brexit countdown clock, demands fury. So, with apologies to Lynsey de Paul for pinching her lyrics, here’s a blast of anger from the North of England.
If you break it, you own it. If North of England Labour MPs end up as the crucial votes to get Theresa May’s Brexit deal over the line, then the inexorable decline and despair of the region resulting must be hung around their necks like the albatross.
It’s not complicated. Tory Brexit offers not one single thing that will help fix any of the North of England’s problems in any way. It will just make all of them massively worse. For Labour MPs this should be absolutely basic.
Yet, last week in the House of Commons, Northern Labour MPs played a vital part in passing ‘the Brady amendment’, the bad taste joke that sends Theresa May back to Brussels to negotiate ‘alternative arrangements’ to the Irish border backstop that neither Brady, May nor anyone else can describe.
It’s a debacle that destroys what little remained of the UK’s international diplomatic reputation and – unless reversed - will in time destroy the United Kingdom itself.
It’s hard for anybody who gives a damn about our country’s future not to despair. But whilst there remains any slim chance of stopping Brexit, there is no better option than to soldier on. The indefatigable Brexitometer volunteers are an inspiration.
Our message is simple: in the North, the 2016 Brexit vote was never about the EU, it was about the state of us. So let’s take a long hard look at ourselves, and get serious about our choices. Amazingly, there is still time to drop Brexit and get on instead with addressing our actual problems - our society, our environment, our economy and our democracy. Or we can choose Tory Brexit and ruin.
This shit is our shit
Say what you like about Sir Graham Brady, but the Salford-born MP for Altrincham, Chairman of the Tory 1922 committee and former Chairman of the Durham University Conservative Association, is unquestionably a Northerner. As is Tadcaster-born former Yorkshire miner and Rother Valley MP Sir Kevin Barron. And Tynemouth-born former Northumberland miner and Blyth Valley MP Ronnie Campbell. And Beswick-born, global warming-denying Labour MP for Manchester Blackley, Graham Stringer. The three Labour MPs are all working class boys made good, and they are all well rooted in the communities they represent. They are also three of the Northern MPs who voted with Brady last week.
And it’s not just the pale, male and decidedly stale. Laura Smith, 34 year-old former schoolteacher and now Labour MP for Crewe & Nantwich, and Liverpool-born Labour MP for West Lancashire Rosie Cooper, are both unquestionably Northerners too. They were among the 14 Labour MPs who voted against the Yvette Cooper and Dominic Grieve amendments that would have wrestled control of the Brexit process away from Theresa May and her Tory minority administration, and given it back to parliament. These 14 Labour MPs exactly cancelled out the 14 Tory Remainer rebels and gave Theresa May all the votes she needed to retain power over parliamentary business. These 14 Labour MPs are personally responsible for an excited Boris Johnson being able to bounce onto live TV to tell the nation to rejoice for the great achievement of a reunified Tory party.
In other news in the last week, Nissan announced that it is not investing further in its Sunderland plant, Airbus as good as announced that it is leaving as soon as possible, and the European Medicines Agency left London for Amsterdam, which spells the beginning of the end for Britain’s competitive edge in pharmaceuticals. In a single week, we have seen the death sentence pronounced on three of the four remaining jewels in the North of England’s manufacturing crown. This will leave the North with one last world class manufacturing industry: warplanes and weapons.
Brexit. Call it the craziest own-goal in football history, call it a self-indulgent, weirdly camp, masochistic act of self-pity borne of a misplaced sense of both superiority and grievance (© Fintan O’Toole), call it what you like, but we Northerners own a big piece of this shit. The North of England voted for Brexit, by approximately 56%-44%.
If we’re honest with ourselves – and it is time to be honest with ourselves - it’s part of any Northerner’s comfort blanket to blame London for the misfortunes that befall the North. But although this colossal fuck up is being enacted in Westminster, it is being done by ‘England-outside-London’ for England-outside-London. For once, London didn’t do this to us; we are doing it to ourselves.
Every single one of those Northern Labour MPs, whether young and diligent, or old, tired and cynical, did what they did safe in the knowledge that they had enough voters in their own constituencies behind them. Some did it because they think their duty is to be their constituents’ voice even if they don’t agree with them, some did it simply to help their chances of getting re-elected. Some did it from a perfectly preserved 1983 ‘Lexit’ stance, some did it some did it because they are just dodgy old rogues. But in all cases it is absolutely wrong to say that what they did was not democratic politics in action.
Although there is good evidence that working class Northerners are among the people who have changed their minds the most on Brexit between 2016 and today, and although opinion polls show that the UK would vote by 54-46 to remain in the EU if another vote was held, the fact is that the vast majority of people have not changed their minds.
Such is the state of madness we have got ourselves into, that it doesn’t matter that neither these Labour MPs nor anybody else is able to describe what tangible good Brexit will do for anybody’s actual lives, because Leave voters themselves are not asking this question. All that seems to matter is whether the Leave vote, the will of the people, is being seen through to the bitter end.
An image-canny, ideologically flexible MP like Doncaster’s Caroline Flint can see this, and so prepares the ground for getting into bed with Dominic Raab by emoting about respecting the vote.
Pro- or anti-Brexit is now a political tribal identity as strong as ‘right wing’ or ‘left wing’. As strong maybe (whisper it) as Northerner or Southerner. And when someone accuses your tribe of being thick, or deluded, or even just honestly mistaken, the general tendency is not to examine the evidence behind the accusation but to fight back on the emotional level and double down on the original point of view.
Let’s admit it: we supposedly wonderful, honest, caring, funny, plain-speaking, well-meaning, hard-working, passionate but common sense-loving Northerners are not averse to a spot of tribalism.
Is God to blame?
Most Northerners who voted for Brexit did so in what for them was good faith. Yes, some Northern Brexit voters are nasty white supremacists, or absurd empire nostalgists. But most were good people acting in good faith.
Yes, they were conned and deluded by the shameless lies of the Bad Boys of Brexit. But they were conned and deluded partly because they wanted to be conned and deluded. They wanted to believe. They wanted to believe in their own country as a place that would help them and their families, rather than a country that would continually rip them off and ruthlessly attack their dignity in times of need. ‘Believe in Britain’ was as powerful as slogan as ‘Take Back Control’.
They wanted to believe so much, that they were willing to overrule the evidence of their own eyes that Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson were obvious shysters. Or to be more precise, they knew they were being lied to, but they chose to believe it anyway. It’s so similar to religious TV in the USA, it’s scary.
I am haunted by a conversation with a 20-something, working class, lesbian Yorkshirewoman, who told me that “Come Brexit”, deep rooted but austerity-ravaged community facilities in her neighbourhood were going to stop closing, and things in her life were going to get better.
Subconsciously she was harking back to a more religious Northern past, when people were happy to believe that “Come Glory” wrongs would be righted, the last would be first, and justice would be done.
On referendum day, she and millions of others took back control and promptly handed it to Liam Fox to hand over to Rupert Murdoch, Donald Trump, and the rest of the vicious, banal, planet-destroying international kleptocrats, who are lying in wait to right royally do her, and the rest of us, over.
It was and is a giant mistake. Nobody likes to admit to a mistake. But it’s preferable to being screwed by Donald Trump.
Where are we? Rock Bottom.
Let’s be clear where we are now. We’re in the mire.
Labour and the Tory European Research Group have bullshitted on for months about going back to the beginning with the EU to renegotiate an exit deal, but back in November Theresa May got it dead right when she said there were only three possibilities still left in play: her deal, Brexit with no deal, and No Brexit.
What happened last week was that Theresa May disowned her own deal. The EU won’t renegotiate the Irish border backstop not only because - to their credit – they won’t sell the Irish down the river, but also because it is not meaningfully logically possible. If there is a border customs arrangement acceptable to both the UK and the EU that can be found, then it will be found during the two years of the transition period, and the backstop will be unnecessary. But if there isn’t, it won’t, and that’s why there needs to be a backstop.
Those who support sports teams prone to relegation will know well that point in the season where your fate is no longer entirely in your own hands. That’s what happened last week in the Brexit process.
Even if Theresa May comes home from Brussels with something that looks like a concession from the EU, and puts her vaguely amended deal back to parliament, there is now no longer enough time for a legally orderly Brexit on 29 March. There are too many pieces of legislation needing to go through the British parliament, never mind the vagaries of getting the amended deal through the 751-member European parliament. So we will shortly be going back to the EU27 on our knees pleading with them to extend the Brexit day deadline, not for a public referendum to ratify the original deal (which they might grant), but simply to help us out with some crummy amended version of the deal. They may extract a price. Or they may have lost patience with us and decide to toss us over the cliff.
The only action that is still entirely within our own hands is to unilaterally revoke our notification of intention to withdraw from the EU under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. And looking at last week’s parliamentary arithmetic, that looks like it is going to require a mathematical miracle. A point in the season that those who support sports teams prone to relegation will also be well familiar with.
Tragedies, we got ‘em
Brexit is going to go badly wrong. No Deal Brexit, particularly if it happens on 29 March, will be carnage from the off. By contrast, if we do sign Theresa May’s deal after all, then it won’t be so bad in the early days – there will be food on the supermarket shelves and medicines in the chemists. But the North’s economy will go into a steady, inexorable decline.
The trade talks with the EU, which only start when we leave, will be horrible, and will go on for ever. People tend to forget that the withdrawal agreement was the easy bit. The EU is waiting for the UK to become a third country before it really starts playing hardball with us.
The one great achievement of Maggie Thatcher’s economic policy, the selling of the UK to Japanese manufacturers and others as a stable, reliable base for them inside the EU single market, has now been killed and can’t be revived. With No Deal, most non-military advanced manufacturing will be gone within months. With May’s deal, it will be run down more gradually over a few years.
A truly impressive achievement of the New Labour years, the creation of the image of Cool Britannia as an open, welcoming country for international university students and researchers, has been profoundly damaged. The North’s university campuses, which have been doing so well even as much of the rest of the North has struggled, will cease thriving. Because universities are now over-leveraged businesses rather than groves of academe, many will go bust. Expect to see vice-chancellors and other professional administrators sprinting for the exits with holdalls full of cash. In some Northern cities, it’s going to be like the last chopper out of Saigon.
Meanwhile, the Trump White House is literally standing in line waiting to shaft us. Chlorinated chicken for tea will be the least of our worries. Northerners’ pensions and financial assets, and the region’s accumulated social and physical capital (for example, our NHS) will become a kind of financial strip mine for Wall Street. They will extract everything they can and then walk away, leaving behind penury.
But the thing we can be absolutely sure of is that when Brexit goes wrong, Rees-Mogg and Farage won’t be blaming themselves. They’re going to blame literally anybody and everybody else.
The tragic irony is that, deep down, a large proportion of Brexit voters don’t even really want to leave the European Union. Their comfort zone is to be inside the European Union, enjoying their pensions and Spanish holidays and fully-stocked supermarket shelves, with the luxury of someone else being to blame for betraying them, and keeping them in the EU against their will. That is most probably the real ‘will of the people’.
Remedy? Why don’t we rub it out and start it again
Lesley Riddoch wrote a fantastic opinion piece in The Scotsman calling on Northerners and Midlanders to direct their rage at Westminster, not the EU. (What a shame that we have to go to Scotland to get a decent newspaper independent of London.)
Representative democracy is the right answer, but we need a better version of it than the antiquated and unfit Westminster system.
The core of the problem is the single seat system with first-past-the-post elections. This creates the tendency towards a two party duopoly in which Labour conspire as much as Tory to deny real democratic choice.
Few want a general election - look at the Brexitometer results. One reason that a general election does not arouse much enthusiasm (contrast for example with the hundreds of thousands of people coming out to march for a fresh referendum) is that it is not really a very democratic exercise.
Westminster seats are all single member seats and the vast majority of them are safe for one of the two parties. Therefore the campaign only really takes place in the marginal seats. And even in the marginal seats, the experience is too often not about voting for a candidate or party you feel enthusiastic about, but rather about voting tactically to keep out the candidate of the party you are against. Negative campaigning dominates.
During the campaign, tactical voting is encouraged by the two main parties, squeezing the vote for independents and smaller parties - lend us your vote, don't waste it! But then as soon as the vote is in, those votes are presented by them to be genuine support, locking in the two party system. Theresa May delights to say that in 2017 80% of people voted for parties who promised to leave the EU. They did indeed, but she draws the wrong lesson from it.
We should reform to the Irish system for Westminster and local council elections, and for a new regional government assembly for the North. In the Republic of Ireland, each constituency elects 4 or 5 members, and voters list all candidates in order of preference (single transferable vote). This means that everybody’s vote counts, everybody gets to express a preference for the person as well as the party label, and every candidate has to give the voters a positive reason to vote for them. When the election is done, the support for each party is proportionally represented in parliament, and almost every voter feels that they are represented by a person they expressed a preference for. It is noticeable that the Irish appear to be much more content with their democracy and their politicians than we are.
Getting reform to the system won’t be easy, and Labour will be as much an obstacle as the Tories. The status quo is protected by the majority of MPs who have safe seats. This means that they have to fight a competitive election just once in their political career – the selection meeting of their local party for their candidate for the vacant seat – and then they can settle back, often for decades on end. The system does throw up some good people, but sadly, not enough.
Getting rid of the system may require destroying the Labour machine. This is what it took in Scotland, and nowhere was more solidly, reliably Labour than there. For Scotland, it’s been worth it, and things are looking up for communities across that country, although of course they will be hammered by Brexit too.
Maybe that will be no great loss, because it looks like the dream of a radical, reforming Corbyn government has died in recent weeks. Corbyn simply left his pivot from constructive ambiguity to loud ‘n’ proud backing for the young people of Britain (who are 80% for Remain) too late. It’s a tragedy and it’s also an irony: who would have guessed that, of all things, triangulation would be the ruination of Jeremy Corbyn! But that’s what a two party system does to everyone.
Maybe it’s not too late for Corbyn, but it feels like it is. Had he pivoted to Remain earlier, so many young people (and older citizens willing to pound the streets for votes) would have done anything for him. Now, it may well be that whatever he says, he won’t be able to get them to listen to him any more. Let’s wait and see.
Meanwhile, trusting the Labour party and trusting the existing electoral system is about trusting John Mann to negotiate with some random Tory minister to get serious new money for coalfield communities. Pull the other one, it’s got bells on.
With sympathy – oh I get it. Harmony - you said it.
The prospect of Brexit is so bleak that there really is no point this side of 29 March in doing anything else than keeping fighting, and hoping for our miracle.
The Brexitometer volunteers are the heroes of the hour. Going out in all weathers, to engage the people in discussion and seek their views on the big Brexit questions of the day. Only they can save us now.
Here is the result from Cross Gates in East Leeds, a working class stronghold of Leave in the city of Leeds.
Here is the result from Wombwell, near Barnsley, pit village and former stronghold of Arthur’s Army, which voted massively for Leave in 2016.
Both a bit different from what you might expect listening to the BBC’s narrative of what is going on.
Back in July 2018 Eloise Todd told a public meeting in Manchester that the 10 Downing Street game plan was to disappear Remain as an option. The narrative would be, it’s either Theresa May’s deal, or the bloodcurdling prospect of No Deal.
The BBC has stuck religiously to those instructions through thick and thin. It simply blacks out news that doesn’t fit the narrative. Rest assured that the BBC will not be honestly reporting that revoking Article 50 is enjoying widespread and growing support, even in some of the most strongly pro-Leave areas. The Scots have been through all this before with the BBC.
But if the Brexitometer volunteers keep going, and keep getting information about the results they are getting out through social media, eventually even the BBC will be forced to play catch up and report what is happening. Here are the Barnsley Brexitometer volunteers’ takeaways from a chilly Saturday in Wombwell: Firstly, Barnsley folk are warm & friendly regardless. Secondly, no amount of evidence will change some views that we're scaremongering, or in any case "we'll be right, we've survived worse!". Thirdly, something needs to change in our political system. And finally - lots of support for Remaining!
Let’s take heart from that. There’s no future for England without bringing places like Wombwell with us.
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