The UK doesn’t stand at a fork in the road – it stands at a trident. 2018 will be a momentous year for the United Kingdom. Despite Leave campaigners protestations to the contrary, there remain three fairly well defined options for the United Kindom:
1/ Hard Brexit
2/ Soft Brexit
3/ Remain in the European Union (EU)
I campaigned vigorously to remain in the EU and still believe that to be the best of the three options, despite the undisputed flaws that exist within the EU that need further reform. I was devastated by the EU referenduim result despite not being surprised by it after my experiences on the EUref campaign trail and witnessing for myself the deep alienation and anger of large sections of our communities devastated by austerity and economic insecurity. I am a democrat and therefore believe strongly that when we know what final options have been negotiated with our EU partners, the people of the United Kingdom should have the final say on the decision with remaining in the EU being one option on the ballot paper. In essence the ballot paper should reflect the three possible paths set out above:
1/ Brexit on WTO rules – no deal
2/ Brexit on terms negotiated with EU (likely to be a softer Brexit)
3/ Remain in the EU
I am not going to rehearse the detailed arguments for each which are being covered comprehensively by other commentators. Instead I would like to distill down to the essence from my remainer perspective.
Hard Brexit must be avoided at all costs. It will serve the rich and powerful well but set this country back decades economically and socially, damaging the majority of our people’s prosperity and risking the break-up of the United Kingdom itself. The poorest and most vulnerable are likely to be the worst affected.
A negotiated settlement with the EU is likely to require the UK to enter into an EEA type agreement giving access to the Single Market and Customs Union as EU negotiators are holding a firm line against the ‘have cake & eat it’ bespoke deal sought by May’s Government. For this to happen, the Labour Party would have to change its position from its present ‘Jobs First Brexit’ cop-out. Whenever tested in Commons votes, Labour has followed May’s fantasy of a ‘have cake & eat it’ deal. If Labour decides to lead rather than continue sniffing the air to detect a shift in public opinion, a positive soft Brexit compromise becomes entirely possible, could command a Commons majority and bring down May’s Government. An EEA deal has the best prospect of safeguarding the UK economy while satisfying a segment of the half of the country that voted to leave the EU in June 2016. It would solve the border problem in Ireland and satisfy the SNP’s demand to remain the in Single Market, minimising the risk of Scotland’s people voting for independence. It leaves future full membership of the EU far less difficult to achieve when, almost inevitably, demographic changes will give a majority in favour of EU membership in years to come.
Remaining in the EU, despite it being my strong preference, will only be a desirable and stable long term outcome if a significant number of Leave voters in 2016 change their minds and swing over to Remain in 2018/19. In my view, a very narrow majority in favour of Remain in any future ‘Final Say’ vote is likely to lead to anger, frustration and even deeper alienation among Leave voters and create a toxic divide in our society that will fester for years into the future. Although the Ireland border problem and the threat of Scottish independence may well have been solved and receded respectively, the fury of communities that feel they have been left behind will continue to permeate and taint political discourse in the country.
Whichever one of the three options this country pursues, one fact is clear. Any continued failure to address rising inequality, stagnating social mobility and persistent social exclusion will threaten the integrity and political stability of the United Kingdom. A hard Brexit would guarantee that these problems are exacerbated as the UK econmomy shrank and it faced exposure to the full forces of the globalised economy. Sheltered harbours are available if we choose them. The question is, will the leaders of either of our two major parties lead us to them or choose instead to steer us onto the rocks in stormy seas while singing the ‘the will of the people’ shanty?