The importance of ideas

“What the years since the Brexit referendum have shown is what happens when political leaders are forced to implement a decision which they do not believe in and do not understand: they make a hash of it”

Manchester Square

This is where you should be expecting to read about the United Kingdom’s future prospects as we regain our independence as a fully sovereign country at the end of this month. Sadly, writing with 37 days to go until March 29, what will happen remains wholly unclear. Will we leave the EU as scheduled but on WTO terms, without a deal? Will Theresa May’s deal, or rather some version of it, be approved at the last minute — probably too late for the necessary legislation to be enacted — with Labour votes? Or will the government ask for an extension of Article 50 as negotiations drag on and there is no parliamentary majority for any outcome? All remain possibilities — although what can now be ruled out is a second referendum or a general election before March 29.

What the years since the Brexit referendum of June 23, 2016, have shown is what happens when political leaders are forced to implement a core decision which they do not believe in and, what is more, do not understand: they make a hash of it. May campaigned for Remain and, just as David Cameron before her, made the crucial mistake of believing that pro-Brexit sentiment was very largely a product of fears about immigration. Tackling free movement, they both believed, would on its own dissipate anxieties about the burgeoning European state among all but a small minority of the electorate and, perhaps more importantly in our parliamentary system, Conservative MPs. They were wrong. It has been May’s consistent aim to deliver a Brexit that would tackle free movement while keeping as much as possible of the status quo in respect of our relations with the EU intact — and keeping the Conservative Party united in the process. Her tactics have so far been to delay every decision as long as possible and somehow hope that something will come up to square these aims. That game is now entering a very dangerous phase.

Similarly, Jeremy Corbyn has tried to play a complex and opposite game. In keeping with the traditions of the far Left of the Labour Party, Corbyn has been a consistent critic of European integration since his election as an Islington MP in 1983. Corbyn has voted against every extension of European power at each opportunity, seeing the EU as a bosses’ club which would prevent the implementation of socialism in one country. He is indeed correct to think that the full Corbynista agenda is incompatible with EU membership. The only European policy Corbyn is strongly in favour of is free movement. The manoeuvrings of Corbyn and his clique have clearly failed to keep Labour together, with the result being the emergence of a breakaway pro-European party.

What is more surprising is how long the Labour Party has held together over Brexit. A strong argument can be made that if Corbyn had properly campaigned for Remain the result would have been different — a Labour leader putting his all into the Remain campaign would surely have swung some loyal Labour voters and brought others out to vote, perhaps enough to turn around a 52/48 margin of victory. What the 2017 general election showed is that Corbyn’s lack of campaigning zeal in the referendum was not due to him being incapable of such efforts — the Labour leader was more than capable of campaigning when it mattered to him. Yet many of Corbyn’s young supporters are as enthusiastic about EU membership as they are about Corbynism. This contradiction could never last unscathed.

A monthly magazine such as Standpoint is not the place for instant reaction to developing events such as this month’s Brexit shenanigans, but what we can offer is a considered overview of the more important, overarching trends shaping current events. R.W. Johnson does just that (page 24) with his magisterial overview of Britain’s relationship with Europe over the last 150 years.

The role of magazines of ideas is more important than ever, as there are few other places where informed observers can make reasoned arguments at length. Richard Cockett’s 1994 book Thinking the Unthinkable is the seminal account of how the work of think-tanks helped to create the Thatcher revolution. Without the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Centre for Policy Studies the Thatcher revolution is very unlikely to have happened. Cockett argues (page 34) that the think-tanks have failed to provide an intellectual agenda for today’s politicians tackling Brexit and other issues, and have become marginal to public life. The think-tanks will counter that many of their employees have moved on to serve as special advisers to Ministers or indeed to become MPs themselves. They are right — but that is not influence, it is a career ladder. The most hyped think-tank of the Cameron years, Policy Exchange, can only unambiguously claim credit for one policy achievement­­: directly elected Police Commissioners, not exactly a policy to catch the public imagination or, indeed, a great success in practice.

With Brexit there is an unholy alliance between ultra-Remain journalists and campaigners, such as the Observer’s Carole Cad-walladr and the website OpenDemocracy, and some of the technicians of the Leave campaign, to claim that the result was swung by underhand social media tactics. There is no evidence for this but both sides go along with it for their own purposes. Similarly, left-wing critics of think-tanks, such as the Guardian’s George Monbiot, invest them with sinister influence and power, which the think-tanks are more than happy to play along with. It remains for magazines such as Standpoint to explore the ideas that matter.