In advance of Brexit negotiations really getting down to the nitty-gritty, British politics currently resembles an unruly works outing to a restaurant. Philip Hammond seemingly wants the vegetarian option. Liam Fox fancies coq au chlorine. David Davis keeps asking the waiter for another five minutes, while Boris Johnson insists on cake. Theresa May, meanwhile, is away, enjoying the pleasures of authentic Italian cuisine and presumably readying herself for the dread moment when the 27 remaining countries of the EU decisively begin kicking Britain around, and the inevitable becomes obvious: either it’s the set menu, or we’re out.
Even if the Labour party is metaphorically jeering at the Tories from a nearby table, its collective preferences – and let’s not forget: this is the biggest shift in both domestic and foreign policy Britain has faced since 1945 – are scarcely clearer. Polling suggests that its membership is still deeply attached to the remain cause. A lot of trade unionists feel exactly the same, along with a sizable proportion of Labour MPs. But as tensions rise, other parts of the Labour family are in a rather different place.
Mindful of their largely leave-voting constituencies, one group of MPs – shorthanded by their colleagues as “Brownites”, and including such notables as Tom Watson and Yvette Cooper – tilts in a more Eurosceptic direction. So, most of the time, does the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer, who increasingly has the fretful look of hitherto devout remainer who is having to manoeuvre his politics into rather distasteful places.
And then there is the leadership. As has been clear for a very long time – 40 years, or thereabouts – Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are instinctive Eurosceptics, whose half-hearted campaigning in the 2016 referendum was a matter of realpolitik rather than conviction, and who have now found their voice. For them, one referendum is enough, and the result is sacrosanct.
But that is only half the story. More than anything, they see in the Brexit moment a chance to slip free of the supposedly stifling limitations Europe places on the economic activities of the state. Once those have been sloughed off, Britain will be able to radically break from the free-market consensus of the last 30-odd years – and, perhaps, even the milquetoast Keynesianism that it swept away.
If anyone is surprised, they shouldn’t be. Well before the election, Corbyn and McDonnell were both in the habit of talking in these terms, even if official Labour policy – which remains in place – emphasised “retaining EU membership” unless a final deal was acceptable, and settling the terms of exit “potentially through a general election or referendum”. Now, even the single market was apparently ruled out: “There are directives and obligations linked to the single market which we would not want to see as part of a post-Brexit relationship,” said Corbyn in September 2016.
At around the same time, McDonnell said that: “Labour will take back the economic levers of power currently in the hands of the EU, such as over state-aid rules, and return them to the people.” Underneath such swashbuckling rhetoric was a straightforward argument: that even if Europe is more open to economic intervention than some people think, if Britain either remained in the EU or stayed inside the single market, there would be a range of moves – giving government help to industries whose closure would fall short of “a serious disturbance to the economy”, or appropriating assets without compensation, for example – that would breach its rules. From that, all else followed.
Archly referencing 1930s Russia, their detractors call this the “socialism in one country” position. If you were being more generous, you might characterise it as a stance born of a realistic understanding of how distant the EU now is from any social-democratic fantasies, the gravity of the crisis that began with the crash of 2008, and the idea that the rebirth of strong nation states is the only viable answer to it. Whatever, as evidenced by the recent sacking of the three Labour frontbenchers who voted for Chuka Umunna’s pro-single market amendment to the Queen’s speech, it has one crystal-clear upshot: that for now, the dominant Labour vision of Britain is bound up with what most of us would understand as a hard Brexit.
As all this has become ever clearer, a lot of people have felt increasingly angry. Given the fact that Labour’s recent electoral success was partly delivered by younger voters who were anxious about leaving the EU and set on somehow pushing the country in a different direction, that was only to be expected – though with the Lib Dems and Greens both pushed to the margins, whether that dismay will find any expression is an interesting question.
More urgent, perhaps, is the imminent party conference, and how hard Brexit sits with a whole range of influential people beyond the leadership, not many of whom can be maligned as the usual Blairite suspects. Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, says that, “If we leave the single market, working people will end up paying the price.” In the Unite union, there are said to be considerable differences of opinion between the general secretary, Len McCluskey, and a range of people who worry about where the party has now arrived.
This week, there have been other outbreaks of turbulence. Though McDonnell still tellingly talks about “tariff-free access” to the single market rather than membership, a visit to Wales found him rather hurriedly claiming that “the structures – whether we are in or out – are a secondary matter”. A few days earlier, no sooner had the ultra-loyal shadow trade minister Barry Gardiner kicked up the mother of all stinks by holding out the prospect of Labour supporting Britain’s exit from even the customs union, than a Corbyn spokesperson assured journalists that sticking with it had to be an option. In the wake of the staunchly Eurosceptic Corbyn interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show – in which he ruled out single market membership, and framed immigration from EU countries as the “wholesale importation of underpaid workers”, rattling even some of his most passionate supporters – it transpired that the shadow minister Andrew Gwynne had recently told a meeting of businesspeople that if the public mood shifts, so might Labour’s stance.
Notwithstanding that news about the new electric Mini being assembled in Oxford, a tangle of Brexit-related likelihoods and possibilities still looks unavoidably grim: stagnating wages, slow growth, pinched public finances, the exit of many of the big financial interests that currently furnish the country with so much of its tax revenue. In that context, Labour runs the risk of appearing to invite economic doom for the sake of ideology, and fixing its eyes on things that the awful results of a hard Brexit would render pretty much meaningless. Whither state aid for industry when there may be barely any industry left?
The danger of the leadership’s thinking so far is that it threatens to amount to an unappetising item yet to be added to the Brexit menu: the idea that economic rubble may be the perfect seedbed for utopia – otherwise known as Disaster Socialism.