Brexit: ‘Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do…’

I don’t normally seek wisdom in ancient texts, but this from Ecclesiastes 9:10 seems peculiarly appropriate to the ongoing Brexit debate: ‘Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.’ Which is to say, that it really doesn’t matter whether the UK is in or out, what really matters is what the UK actually does in the circumstances it finds itself in. However, this isn’t particularly helpful as a guide to action at the time of writing, simply because we are in limbo, neither in nor out of the EU, with no clear indication of a probable direction of travel.

It gets worse. Examination of the arguments for Remain and Leave and we see ordinary political logic overturned. To give but one example: there is a carefully worked out, academically respectable, left-wing argument to the effect that the UK should leave the EU because its institutional structure is incorrigibly neo-liberal in outlook, and inimical to any policy change that might attack inequality and restore strong growth through neo-Keynesian state intervention. If this line of argument has anything to it, then Remain ought to be the favoured stance of a broad spectrum of right-wing politicians whose ideological faith in the role of unfettered markets and shrinking the state is well-documented. In fact, the very opposite is the case. The UK’s political right favours Leave at almost any cost, while popular left-wing opinion is increasingly in favour of a second referendum in the hope of reversing the outcome of the 2016 vote.

When the Leave/Remain question is finally settled (if it ever is, but that’s another story), the most important thing is that we then go in vigorous pursuit of making the most of the UK’s status. The inescapable corollary of this is that we have a plan. Unfortunately, planning, or at least any realistic planning, appears to be the one thing missing from the current political landscape:

  • The Leave position is hopelessly compromised on this question. One by one the promised benefits of the 2016 campaign have proven to be chimeras.
  • Friedrich von Hayek argued in 1944 that planning and totalitariansm were the same. Hayek’s views continue to inform right-wing thinking.
  • The Labour case for leaving has as its custodians the Corbyn supporting majority on the NEC. Corbyn’s own position is hopelessly conflicted. Until the 2016 referendum he was a Leave supporter. He changed his stance for the lead-up to the referendum, and then the day after the vote he called for immediate activation of Article 50. Rather than present a clear plan for either Leave or Remain, he has opted for ‘constructive ambiguity’, a position that allows him to pursue his personal Leave agenda, while keeping the door open to Remain should the tide of popular opinion demand that electorally.

While it is clear that there is no credible plan for Leave, the Remain position is equally devoid of strategic credibility. The UK has failed to engage with the EU in any serious fashion, acting as a bystander and failing to argue forcefully for reform of its institutions and culture. From the left-wing Leave perspective this makes little sense: the EU’s two biggest players, Germany especially, have stuck two fingers up to the EU rule book when it suits them, and there is no reason why the UK shouldn’t do the same and get away with it. At the same time, populist governments in the EU’s economic fringe are challenging Brussels on various fronts. Again, there is no reason why the UK shouldn’t exploit this emerging mood to argue for the kind of reform that would make the EU more democratic, less bureaucratic, and unpick the Euro’s sclerotic impact on European growth.

A well-crafted plan for constructive engagement within the EU would have other, clear strategic benefits. As a trading bloc that includes the UK, the EU would function on a global scale that matches the strength of the USA, China or Russia. This argument holds equally well for controlling the influence of emergent giant multinationals. Operating outside the EU, the UK has far less ability to wield any meaningful influence. The Remain campaign’s ‘stronger together’ claim was no empty boast.

In summary, whether in or out, the UK needs a strong strategic plan, something conspicuous by its absence throughout the ongoing Brexit debate.

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