0832 GMT January 18, 2020
The Chinese proverb is “be careful what you wish for”. My own adapted version is “be careful what you vote for”. I make no apology for having devoted so many columns to what on Thursday became the lost cause of Remain. The pro-European cause in the UK has, alas, suffered from a colossal failure of leadership. The failure to make the case for our EU membership goes back a long way, as does the drip-drip of the vile anti-European campaign in the Murdoch press, and the obvious suspects in other sections of the media.
The sequence of events was well brought out in Denis MacShane’s prophetic book ‘Brexit – How Britain Will Leave Europe in 2015’. (What lies in store is outlined both in MacShane’s latest volume, Brexiternity, and Sir Ivan Rogers’s recent magisterial lecture at Glasgow University.) As MacShane wrote in 2015, “The referendum on Europe is not on the benefits or cost of EU membership, but a wider protest about economic and social change which appears inside Britain to produce as many losers as winners.”
It was always easy to blame “Brussels” for policies that became controversial, even when those policies were initiated by successive UK governments themselves. One of the leading perpetrators of lies about Europe was, of course, the Telegraph’s former Brussels correspondent himself: Boris Johnson.
Johnson is such a master of what his putative hero Winston Churchill called “terminological inexactitudes” that nothing he claimed during the campaign or the morning of his victory can be taken at face value. “One-nation Conservatism”? Governing for the interests of those northerners who have “lent him their votes”? Pull the other one! How does that compare with his plans for deregulation, closer alignment with Trump’s America, and the opportunities for profiting from Brexit to which his financial backers look forward?
As Rogers said in his Glasgow lecture, Johnson’s claim that we will “not suffer any downside in terms of market access into easily our biggest market for goods and services … is clearly untrue. It does not get any truer through endless repetition.”
The nation has been the victim of a gigantic con trick on the part of the Leave campaign. The nonsensical propaganda about “getting Brexit done” was finally too much for the counsellor in the British Embassy in Washington who resigned recently because she could no longer face peddling a misleading line.
But back to failures of leadership: Jeremy Corbyn’s failure was on an epic scale. Reputedly a Leaver himself, he made a huge mistake in thinking that, by equivocating over the referendum, he could somehow please those supposedly natural Labour voters in the Midlands and the north who had voted Leave in the referendum. The election showed that too many of them merely laughed in his face.
It seems that the election was also a referendum on Corbyn. There has been, and will continue to be, endless speculation about the reasons why the electorate distrusted him even more than Johnson. But historically there seems to me a simple, fundamental cause, whatever the deficiencies in Corbyn personally.
In the early 1980s the sensible center of the Labour party fought the extreme left — then known as the Militant Tendency, not Momentum — and saw them off. The late Denis Healey played a crucial role, as did Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley. And the moderate left in Britain and continental Europe watched the failure of President Mitterrand’s experiment with “socialism in one country” between 1981 and 1983 and learned the lesson. Among those who learned the lesson was Mitterrand himself. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown also took note.
Alas, this time the extreme left captured the Labour party, with the results we now see. For reasons that I fail to understand, Corbyn and his allies, such as Seumas Milne, believe that the EU is some kind of capitalist conspiracy. Despite the many doubts about Corbyn himself, if he had not equivocated and campaigned vigorously in favor of Remain and a referendum with no ifs or buts, there might well have been a hung Parliament and deals which could have contained Corbyn’s wilder plans. Also, the hapless Jo Swinson should not have made the strategic mistake of ruling out the second referendum her party had previously espoused.
However, we are where we are. The Brexit and Conservative party is going to “deliver” Brexit. But so far from “getting Brexit done”, the election result means that Brexit has only just begun. Is the British public bored by Brexit talk? I am sorry, but there is a lot more boredom in store, and goodness knows how much economic damage from leaving the single market — the creation of which was, ironically, considered by Kenneth Clarke as Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievement.
* William Keegan is the Observer's senior economics commentator. This article was first published in the Guardian.