Tough on Brexit, Tough on the Causes of Brexit – we have to do both
December 10th, 2017 | Posted in Uncategorized
I was delighted to accept an invitation from Nottingham University’s Centre for British Politics to wrap-up their 2017 series, How Britain got hung: Exploring the 2017 General Election, Brexit and beyond. Below is the text of my talk, which I gave on Friday 8th December 2017 in the Portland Building on the main campus.
Well, today’s early morning agreement between the UK and the EU on stage one of the Brexit negotiations is an important moment – and marks a turnaround for Theresa May. The detailed shenanigans of the last few days have been hard for most people to keep pace with and follow. But what won’t have gone unnoticed is her determination and effort to make progress in honouring the voters’ majority decision to Brexit. I often say that voters don’t hear what politicians say, but they do notice what they do. Today is a classic example of that.
I’m billed to talk about the House of Lords and how it will shape the outcome of Brexit. And I promise I will. But I first want to step back and talk about the social divides that Brexit exposed. Because bridging them and tackling the causes of Brexit is being lost in the debate over the kind of Brexit we negotiate.
Saying that, last week I was pleased when Alan Milburn, the chair of the Social Mobility Commission, published his latest report and said it showed the causes of Brexit are real and that the government needed to be tough not just on negotiating the terms of Brexit, but on the causes of Brexit too. His report identified that 60 of the 65 areas most in need of social mobility had voted to leave the EU.
To me this proved what I had long believed, that we can’t tackle the causes of Brexit without delivering Brexit, and vice-versa.
So I was surprised and disappointed when only a couple of days later Alan Milburn resigned his post explaining it was because this Government lacks “bandwidth” to tackle the causes of Brexit whilst they are so tied up negotiating the terms.
It would have been so much more powerful if instead he had stayed to argue against those who seek to isolate Brexit and to campaign for as much change as possible to right the wrongs his reports have uncovered – with the aim of establishing a new kind of “certainty” that has the confidence of ordinary people as well as big business.
As he didn’t, I’ll return later in more detail to what I think moderate politicians like him, determined to address the causes of Brexit, need to do differently. But first, I’m going to re-tread the steps taken by Theresa May when she became Prime Minister in June 2016.
I should say that, as one of the Cabinet ministers who didn’t survive Theresa May’s first reshuffle on her arrival at Number 10, I’m not beholden to her. But I was nonetheless impressed when, in my mind, she threw a rope ladder across ‘the chasm’ which the referendum had exposed and edged her way over to the voters on the other side. Her speech on the steps of Number 10 showed she understood why so many injustices had caused Brexit, and that she would leave the comfort of the ‘elite’ side of the chasm in order to fix the problems of the people situated on the other side.
But once she got there, instead of building a stronger bridge for other political and business elites to follow her across, she whipped the rope ladder up from behind and insulted them with her “citizens of nowhere” jibe.
To be fair to Theresa May, I think she had to be dramatic in demonstrating to voters (regardless of whether they’d voted leave or remain) that they were right in wanting things to change. Joining ‘their side’ (regardless of whether or who they’d voted for in the past) was essential to gaining their confidence that she could be trusted to handle the difficult and complicated decisions if things really were going to change.
So I assumed – as presumably she did too – that at least some people in positions of power on the ‘elite side’ would understand that they needed to do the same and would find their own way of crossing the chasm to the ‘other side’.
When they didn’t and it became evident some would take every opportunity to disrupt Brexit (eg the Supreme Court case; the battles over the Article 50 Bill), Theresa May called a General Election.
Obviously that back-fired, badly.
Having gained the confidence of voters and so much personal support by that stage Theresa May could afford to be big and bold. But instead of an election, with hindsight I think at that point she should have thrown her arms open wide and in the national interest called on politicians from all parties, public figures and big business leaders to join her in forming some kind of “change-movement” to deliver Brexit and a new order to address the causes of it.
Anyway, that didn’t happen and once the General Election campaign got under way, Theresa May and the Conservatives appeared to forget that for voters Brexit was and always will be less about Europe and more of a means to change. It’s hard to find anything positive to say about the Conservative campaign. And the day that Theresa May declared “nothing has changed” was totemic and fatal.
The young, highly-educated voters were taking Jeremy Corbyn seriously long before that point. But Theresa May’s ‘continuity campaign’ alongside Corbyn’s radical and revolutionary programme for change made him interesting to some people who hadn’t taken him seriously before.
In the end, the general election became about ‘change’ to the voters for whom it was meant to be about Brexit, and it became about Brexit to those for whom it should have been about stability.
The result – in addition to a hung Parliament – is an even bigger chasm between ‘them’ and ‘us’ and new fractures emerging all over the place.
So now what?
Well frustratingly, still too few ‘elites’ have followed Theresa May across that chasm. I genuinely struggle to think of any big names. And even those who are campaigning tirelessly on important injustices – such as Andrew Adonis on vice-chancellor salaries – are diminishing their efforts by not conceding and moving on from the referendum result.
Maybe they’ll do enough good work that eventually their refusal to accept Brexit won’t matter, but time is running out. Because doing good is not good enough. Us moderates (or centrists if you prefer) need to find ways of expressing where and how we have previously gone wrong. And continuing to debate the outcome of the Referendum which was decided by voters is – metaphorically or literally – evidence to voters of the unwillingness of elites to do that.
For politicians and big business leaders the reality is that the terms of Brexit remain their priority. They are locked in a battle to preserve as much of the status quo as they can. Some do so for well-intentioned reasons. But the longer they focus on the ‘terms’ without addressing the ‘causes’, the more that voters believe ‘elites’ are battling with ‘them’ for control and that nothing will change whether or not we leave the EU.
Most ‘ordinary’ voters have put the arguments of Leave and Remain behind them and they certainly don’t divide themselves in that way. Many have also dispensed with what political-party allegiance they had in the past. This week Ipsos Mori published some voter segmentation which is interesting for understanding the different groups who can be found on the ‘ordinary’ voter side of the chasm.
Rather than complicate things too much though, I’m going to stick with two distinct groups of voters who feel equally distant and cut-off from the political and business elite and are looking for things to change:
The highly-educated younger people who don’t like what many elites stand for (which to them seems to be money and profit above everything), and who want to challenge intellectually the economic and political theories the current elites espouse. At the same time, they also feel alienated from their older, less-well-educated neighbours whose social attitudes they consider retrograde.
And the non-graduates who also tend to be older and have battled through some difficult circumstances over several decades to achieve their version of success. Amongst this group you might find skilled tradesmen, small business owners, middle-managers, supervisors, factory workers, call-centre operators. They feel their experience is ignored, their hard work goes unnoticed, and the kind of attitudes and standards that allowed them to achieve their own successes have become diminished by the elites and now hold little currency for their younger neighbours.
If there’s one thing I would love to achieve is a greater bond and appreciation between these two groups. I think they share more than they realise. And the last thing anyone should do is try and pitch them against each other.
Indeed, we need a political leader who can successfully unite those two groups – because doing so is essential to creating a better, more equal future.
But how? Well, they’ll have to do three very big things:
(a) First, and with the help of many more elites, they need to create a more accountable version of capitalism so it spreads the proceeds of growth more widely. That doesn’t mean us all becoming poorer or introducing some version of socialism. I think a changed approach to capitalism has the potential to create even more wealth because it means using all of our talents. But it will mean the elite giving up some of their power and advantage. They will have, metaphorically, to cross the chasm to listen to and learn from the people there and work out with them what needs to change so everyone’s efforts are purpose-driven and rewarded more fairly.
(b) Second, shifting vested and entrenched interests on some sacred cows such as planning policy, how we fund expensive services such as social care, and our learning and education requirements in this modern world. In other words, alongside creating a more accountable and fairer version of capitalism, supporting people to accept difficult changes in order for important services to be sustained and social needs to be met.
(c) And third, articulate and live by a set of standards of behaviour which are common to everyone – and I mean everyone. One of the things I think we need more than anything else is a shared understanding of what doing the right thing means and confidence in one another that – regardless of our personal status – we’ll always back the people who do right and sanction the people who do wrong. [CapX published an article by me on this topic recently if you’d like to read more.]
So finally, I think this might be the moment for me to talk about the House of Lords and offer my views on what its role should be in shaping the outcome of Brexit.
First and foremost the House of Lords must honour the referendum decision.
Of course exiting the EU is complicated, the Government alone can’t and won’t get everything right and both Houses of Parliament have a legitimate role in scrutinising, debating and influencing the terms of the exit deal. But MPs and peers have to understand that the way they behave in this process is fundamental to what happens once we do leave the EU.
I fear that members of the House of Lords who have been open about their intent to derail Brexit have undermined some public confidence in the second chamber’s important scrutiny role on Brexit legislation. For me – and because of that – I think it’s important that MPs are exhaustive in their scrutiny of the Repeal Bill before it leaves the Commons and reaches the House of Lords. In other words, I want MPs to be clear that the form in which the Repeal Bill leaves the elected House is the form it should remain.
If that does happen it wouldn’t prevent peers scrutinising, debating and raising any legitimate concerns about the Repeal Bill. And if there is consensus for amendments arising from debate that should not present a problem. But it would be concerning if the House of Lords adopts an aggressive approach – even for just one round of ping-pong.
In normal circumstances I wouldn’t argue against the House of Lords amending a bill and asking the Commons to think again if peers believed MPs had got it wrong. But Brexit is different: it is a democratic decision made by voters and I would ask again that we don’t allow the causes and the divides it exposed to get lost.
More generally – but as part of the wider change agenda which I associate with Brexit –the House of Lords needs to continue its programme of incremental reforms, which in recent years have included the facility for peers to leave the House permanently and a stronger disciplinary regime.
Beyond that I believe the House of Lords also needs to reverse the trend for peers to be political in their motives and behaviours – which too often, makes the House of Lords indistinguishable from the House of Commons.
Frequently peers are locked in a battle to win, with opposition parties frustrating the will of the elected Government because they can; and the Government so focused on getting their legislative programme through at all costs they’re struggling to discern when to stop and listen.
In an era where people want and need more honest, frank debate from a Parliament motivated to get the best outcomes regardless of party politics – the House of Lords could be a shining beacon. But if the Lords increasingly displays the same vices as the Commons without the virtues of being elected it could eventually self-destruct. And that would be a real loss.
I’ll conclude now so we have time for questions. But my main message today is that the people of our country have rejected the status quo. Some of them expressed their verdict at the referendum and some at the general election. Either way, their message is clear: they want things to change.
Political and business leaders have a choice. We either embrace change at some short-term cost to ourselves so we can create a future which is better for everyone. Or we try and retain the status quo and have a version of change forced on us which might not be better and could be a lot worse than what we have now.