Towards Beachy Head

Glen Newey

Some elections are landmark events. As in 1918, 1945 or February 1974, they're called not simply because another lustrum has elapsed but because some major issue requires resolution ('What will postwar Britain be like?'; 'Who governs Britain?'). Brexit is obviously the big issue overshadowing this election, but there's far less distance between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn on Brexit than between her and Kenneth Clarke or Michael Heseltine, dinosaurs bedded in the Euro-swamp where May herself still languished not a year ago.

The Tories and Labour don’t disagree on leaving the EU. Either could campaign on the slogan: oldthinkers unbellyfeel Brexit. Last year's referendum 'debate' awakened the thoughts that neutrals are likely to have when there's a cup-tie between, say, Chelsea and Manchester United: how unfortunate that one of these sides has to win. On the strength of the dismal campaign, nil-nil would have flattered both. Remain had no thoughts worth registering about how the dysfunctional Euro-behemoth might be restructured, and Leave was no less vacant about how Brexitland would work after quitting the EU. Now the vacuity of the referendum threatens to transplant itself into the general election campaign.

May, a leader whose 'strength' runs to an ability to spin on a sixpence – over Brexit; over last month’s budget; on having an election this year – appears to be in for a landslide. A Sunday Mirror poll had the Tories on 50 per cent. Apart from grabbing the chance to trounce Labour by calling an election now, May presumably reckoned that if she waited till 2020 the Tories might be spattered by the turd-to-turbine prang of the Brexit deal.

If this was her worry, it's probably overdone: in the short term, at least, any such deal, no matter how crap, can always be branded as spoilsport Eurocrats stopping us proud Brits from chucking our rattle out of the pram – indeed, for these purposes, the crapper the better. Cue red-top fury when Britain can't get full single-market access while stopping free labour movement from the continent; when it can't claw back its post-referendum EU budget contributions, or gets surcharged for leaving; when Brussels expects treatment for EU citizens in the UK similar to Britain's demands for its expats in Europe; when the terms seem to jeopardise security co-operation, interoperable healthcare, and so on.

For his part, Corbyn made warm noises to Andrew Marr on Sunday about Britain's not becoming a North Sea version of the Cayman Islands. Labour's manifesto won't come out till next month, but Corbyn doesn't seem minded to hold out for free movement, as opposed to guarantees for non-British EU citizens already in the UK. Labour has some sensible policies on reversing the free school fiasco, inequality, low pay and mitigating sado-austerity, though there's little chance that the manifesto will pledge to cancel the white elephant of Trident's replacement. But the policies will struggle to get much of a hearing over noise about the leader.

Since May called the election, the idea has been floated of a 'Progressive Alliance' that might even extend to standing left-unity candidates in seats where splitting the non-Tory vote will let the Conservative candidate in. This idea was a non-starter even before Tony Blair gave it his kiss of death at the weekend. Since, in England, the non-Tory vote mainly comprises Labour and arch-Remainer Liberal Democrat supporters, something coherent about Brexit would have to be said to attract both lots of voters, and it's far from clear what this might be.

It's said that the support of the 48 per cent of the country who voted to stay in the EU is there for the taking by parties like the Lib Dems who backed Remain. This is folk psephology. YouGov polling suggests that more than half of the 48 per cent now think that Britain should get on with Brexit. This, besides heartfelt apathy about the EU, may explain Corbyn's stance. The trouble for him and Labour is that the public will think, now the satnav's been set for Beachy Head, there's nothing to be gained by changing the driver.


  • 25 April 2017 at 9:59am
    Simon Wood says:
    Few people will be prepared to follow this thread to the edge, piper or no. Everyone is feeling as half-hearted as the referendum result that spread the national malaise in the first place, this disease, over the whole land right to the Lear-like crumbling edges of the falaises.

    Perhaps people are in two uneasy minds, too, about Labour's idea that you have to pay to vote - you have to pay to become a grass-roots member to elect an unelectable leader - which is like taking zero hours contracts and the whole narrative of the neoliberal project, as they call it, to the very edge of greed - you have to pay to vote Labour these days, your own comrades' democratic redundancy notices are being delivered round town by taxi, your MPs are given written warnings.

    There is probably a feeling that votes and elections are coming so thick and fast that il faut cultiver one's jardin - that pilates, knitting, colouring-in, anything is better than joining in this farce.

    What a superb sound it would be, the waves lapping at the bottom of the cliff, the only sound in the silence following an election where not a soul cast a vote - no way, no pasaran, no mas, no man, not on your Nelly.

  • 25 April 2017 at 6:01pm
    SuZ says:
    "the neoliberal project, as they call it..". What do you call it?

  • 25 April 2017 at 8:07pm
    whisperit says:
    As soon as the referendum result was in, Labour abandoned the 48%. "There Is No Alternative" proclaimed our Iron Lady, and Labour agreed, colluding in the headlong flight towards the triggering of Article 50. So now it's plucky Britain against Johnny Foreigner again, and the call goes up for us get behind Our Boys in the Brexit Army.

    Combined with chronic cynicism, the result is, as Glen Newey says, an electorate that shrugs in disgust at the politicos, "Let's leave them to it".

    Beyond the usual class, it seems the only ones enthusiastic about any of it are the political editors at the BBC, hugging themselves in glee at the disarray in the ranks of the Corbynites (a mixture of hard men and young people *who didnt do PPE*) who thought they could muscle in on their territory. That May's "Hard Brexit" and "If we don't get what we want, we will just walk away" is even more vacuous than Labour's muddled state is of little interest. Order will be restored.

    My only hope - and it's a feeble one - is that a comprehensive defeat might prompt the Labour Party to reassess it attitude to PR and to progressive alliance with the Greens and nationalist parties (although even there TB's intervention has already slipped a cyanide capsule into an already unpalatable...oh, I don't know. My metaphor gone to buggery. You know what I mean...)

  • 25 April 2017 at 8:09pm
    Simon Wood says:
    I would call it, "folks being folks."

    I was hoping that Corbyn would really steward the Labour Party, but he's come out with the usual "narrative" and other bullshit bingo words. His only idea is that there has to be injustice, else he'd be out of a job.

    How does a country like Britain handle globalisation? That is the question. Globalisation is just folks being folks. When countries put up walls, the life of their people dies.

    Why shouldn't poor countries be stakeholders in the world?

    Why is Labour suddenly the nasty party?

    So many questions.

  • 27 April 2017 at 12:33pm
    woll says:
    polling figures on numbers who support or oppose brexit seem to vary. a recent poll in the independent puts those in oppisition in a clear majority:
    it would reasonable to assume that european sympathisers will rise as the difficulties and consequences of leaving become clearer, and as increasing numbers of younger people become eleigible for the vote.
    hence presumably the desperate rush to election?

  • 29 April 2017 at 9:24am
    streetsj says:
    I have no evidence for this but I read Theresa May as a natural leave voter who was very low key during the referendum but was loyal to Cameron who she (along with most people) expected to win.

    • 2 May 2017 at 9:58pm
      Coldish says: @ streetsj
      Exactly so. Thank you, streetsj. She may have been worried about the minority of pro-Europe MPs such as Kenneth Clarke who might have pulled the hard-brexit rug from under her heels.

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