Now we know. Brexit campaigners won the referendum by lying and dissembling but had no idea what they were asking people to vote for: no vision of a future outside the EU. And they had no leadership capable of working out and articulating what they wanted to happen so they have outsourced the job to the people who wanted to remain.
Tomorrow we will see a woman Remain campaigner — albeit a less than enthusiastic one — become our prime minister having promised “Brexit means Brexit”. The trouble is that we have no idea what she thinks Brexit means and I doubt if she has either. And how can we trust Theresa May who has so readily switched sides in a fortnight — it is like the old joke about the politician who was challenged and said: “If you don’t like my principles I have others.”
There is no vision. There cannot be a realistic one because we do not know how the various members and organisations of the European Union will react. At one extreme there is possibility of being outside the EU relying on World Trade Organisation rules to conduct our business. At the other, we could be offered something like the Norwegian deal which would include associate membership of the Shengen area.
We will be sending negotiators into the conference chamber naked. The referendum result throws away our leverage for change.
The position is not so far removed from that Aneurin Bevan faced in 1957 when he addressed the Labour Party conference on nuclear disarmament:
I knew this morning that I was going to make a speech that would offend, and even hurt, many of my friends. I know that you are deeply convinced that the action you suggest is the most effective way of influencing international affairs. I am deeply convinced that you are wrong. It is therefore not a question of who is in favour of the hydrogen bomb, but a question of what is the most effective way of getting the damn thing destroyed. It is the most difficult of all problems facing mankind. But if you carry this resolution and follow out all its implications — and do not run away from it — you will send a British Foreign Secretary, whoever he may be, naked into the conference chamber. … And you call that statesmanship? I call it an emotional spasm.
Whoever accepts the post of foreign secretary in the May administration will know that quote from one of the most memorable political speeches in post-war Britain. George Osborne is being tipped for the post — if it is him we can celebrate a brave man.
With the Labour Party dysfunctional, failing to provide opposition, May has adopted policies put forwards by Ed Milliband before his failure to win the last election led to his resignation. The Guardian reports today that she has also adopted his slogan about a “country that works for everyone rather than a privileged few”.
For her proposal about workers in the boardroom we need to dig further back in labour history. The system which supported German post-war industrial resurgence was put in place with the help of British trade unionists led by Vic Feather, later General Secretary of the TUC. The Tablet, in a 1987 article, commented:
… it is one of modern history’s crueller ironies that the reconstruction of the West German system, on the ruins left by Nazism and war, from which its excellence today derives, was carried out with the help of British TUC advisers led by Vic Feather.
If May succeeds in this ambition she will have done something which has not been done by any of the post-war British labour governments.
Jeremy Corby has accepted May’s policy of Brexit means Brexit (“We have to respect the decision that has been made“) as, seemingly, has a majority of the parliamentary labour party. His stance on the importance of maintaining the free movement of people, now seems to be the most fruitful area for opposition to the new government.
But would even that survive the removal of Corbyn as leader? The opposition can hardly survive a new leadership battle at a crucial time in British politics. Even with the summer recess coming up the opposition needs to be hard at work on its strategy not squabbling: the new government will certainly be doing its preparation.
At present the SNP, the Lib Dems and the Greens are providing real opposition but they cannot fill the vacuum created by a fractious (and irresponsible) labour party.