There are moments in film where a protagonist comes to a sudden, awful realisation. There is the moment in The Sixth Sense when Bruce Willis realises he's dead (late spoiler alert) or in The Others, where Nicole Kidman realises that she and her kids are actually ghosts, haunting their own home, when Charlton Heston realises that the planet of the apes is a post-apocalyptic planet earth, when Edward Woodward sees the Wicker Man and understands his horrifying fate or, most brilliantly, when Donald Sutherland reveals that he is also finally, and hideously, a body snatcher.
In the UK, we pride ourselves (or used to) on a more phlegmatic nature, not for us the hot-blooded, the dramatic, the noisy, upsetting, neighbour-bothering emotional incontinence. We prefer not to make a fuss, to have a nice cup of tea and a sit down (there is even an excellent website devoted to it, called nicecupofteaandasitdown.com). We suffer in silence, or, in the unforgettable Pink Floyd lyric 'Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way' which is a derivation of Henry David Thoreau's 'the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.' We mustn't grumble, after all.
In truth, this idea of Britishness has been outdated for some time now. Our public discourse and media culture has become every bit as noisy, desperate, attention-seeking and diminishingly substantive as that of any of our neighbours (with the notable exception of the USA, although they do appear to be administering something of a stiff corrective in recent days).
In politics, however, the trend to the intemperate is more noticeable in the extremes than in the everyday. When Jo Cox was murdered, it was a direct result of unforgivable mendacity and irresponsibility with rhetoric on the part of the worst figures in the leave campaign, but thankfully, it does not appear to be the start of a trend. When the PM lied to the Queen and prorogued parliament, it was appalling and scandalous, but one gets the sense that it wasn't something that the Tory establishment would be comfortable making a habit of. On the doorstep, it has become clear that the UK electorate has become far more politically aware, as a result of the EU referendum and of the ready availability of political discussion online and on 24 hour news channels, and yet, there is often a sense of what might be characterised as calm, perhaps a peculiarly British fatalism, a sense that 'what's done is done' and 'it'll all probably work itself out in the end'. On the campaign trail, I've lost count of the times I've been clapped on the back by hearty older gentlemen with some version of the sentiment 'don't worry son, it won't be that bad'.
And yet, in truth, the loss of our trade and movement rights within the EU will be desperately bad for hundreds of thousands of people in the short term, and millions in the longer term. Day by day, the news media is slowly revealing the undeniable, on-the-ground, real-life outcomes of our new relationship with the EU. It starts with a confiscated ham sandwich, and an empty shelf, then rotting fish here, rotting pork there, a few bands cancel a few festivals, a study abroad dream postponed or abandoned altogether, well-paid city jobs begin migrating to Dublin, Frankfurt or New York, a retirement in the Algarve is written off as a pipe-dream, a car-parts factory earmarked for Macclesfield ends up getting built in Rotterdam, the conference and event industry start hiring fewer UK speakers and experts as the red tape and additional costs become hard to justify. As the pound weakens, holidays get scaled down, imported goods become more expensive, our foreign-born friends begin to return home and our world starts to get smaller. Our reputation for financial probity and wisdom loses its lustre, becomes degraded, diminished. The use of the term 'decline', applied to the UK in this era by historians and economists, becomes commonplace. Good investments become middling, middling ones marginal and marginal ones loss-making. Smaller businesses and family-run enterprises become less viable and those considering starting a business begin to look elsewhere. International commitments are not met, promises broken, contracts not honoured and our soft power ebbs away in slow but just noticeable increments. We are looked to less and less as an honest broker in global affairs. Talk of the breakup of the United Kingdom becomes perfectly normal, and all this as a direct result of our failure to come to terms with the reality of 21st century Europe, and of our place in the world.
So there's the bad news.
Here's the good news. It's not too late to address this and to fix it, to lance the boil, cauterise the wound, to get better again, scarred but wiser. The fact is that the situation we find ourselves in, is entirely of our own making, 100% Made In England (not Britain), a whole-cloth home-made domestic crisis. It is also a crisis caused directly and exclusively by the failure of our politics and politicians. External economic and military crises are far tougher to address, but, happily, we are not in one of those, for the moment.
To understand this, we need to go back to the start of why we sought to establish closer relations with our European neighbours (*feel free to skip this part).
The UK looked to join the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC), collectively the European Communities, or 'EC', following many years of looking across the channel with envy at the progress our neighbours were making, economically and socially, as the UK was struggling to come to terms with decolonisation, economic stagnation and extremely troubling and volatile industrial relations. That is to say, it became apparent that joining the EC was clearly in the national interest in a purely mercantile sense. And so things stayed for decades. The British largely ignored Europe, knew little of European politics and less about developments in the transformation into the European Union, with three notable exceptions.
Firstly the British came to understand the EU as a laughing stock and a scapegoat through the tireless work of UK press, including, notably, our current Prime Minister in his time as Brussels Correspondent for the Daily Telegraph.
Secondly, as the UK grew wealthier, hundreds of thousands of people took advantage of freedom of movement rules to live, work, buy property, marry and retire in European countries. Renew's own Deputy Leader Carla Burns found her French husband in this way, and her story is replicated amongst many thousands of families in the UK and Europe today. These people number in the region of 1.3m, represent all classes and backgrounds and does not include people such as myself who spent years working in Europe before returning to the UK.
Thirdly, the British began to understand the EU as the source of, and the reason for the new migrants to the UK, especially the unexpectedly large numbers who arrived in a relatively short amount of time following the accession of the E8 mostly Eastern European countries in 2004.
Various governments, political parties and media owners since then have found it politically or financially expedient to blame the EU for home-grown and domestically-generated issues, and this climaxed with David Cameron's calamitous decision to fend off nativist sentiment (as evidenced by UKIP's showing of 3.1% of the GE vote in 2010, growing to 12.6% in 2015) by promising to hold a one-off in-out referendum on our EU membership in the event of an unanticipated Conservative majority. The rest is history.
A return to EU membership is currently unrealistic. It would involve numerous trade-offs that would not be saleable to significant chunks of the population, including those that were perfectly happy with the old (and now dead and gone) terms of our previous membership. Adopting the Euro, losing our opt-outs and rebates, committing to closer political union and the broader European project, all of these things are fundamentally unacceptable to enough of the electorate to make them politically toxic, at least for the time being.
So, short of rejoining, how might the worst of the effects of the referendum be mitigated in a way that respects the political realities of a country bitterly divided, but nonetheless suffering from a self-inflicted wound? How might British people and businesses be accommodated in a way that looks first and foremost to the national interest?
The status quo is unacceptable, going back to the past is unthinkable, so what is the honest approach to the future? Well, how about that most (supposedly) British of proposals, the compromise? Fighting to regain our freedoms in a very specific and targeted way, that is all about the interests of UK people and businesses and not about the EU or European identity.
Whilst remaining as a non-member of the EU, the UK must negotiate an arrangement that restores both Freedom of Movement to 66m UK Citizens and restores frictionless trade in both goods and services to UK businesses (as promised by the Government and by both sides of the referendum campaign).
These goals can be achieved with a combination of, (for example) Bilateral Agreements on Freedom of Movement with EU (and also non-EU) states, or by joining the Single Market, or by joining the Customs Union, or by joining EEA/EFTA or by building a UK-specific bespoke deal with the EU, as, for example, Switzerland has. The method is not important, but the result is. Done correctly (i.e. not by our current Government) this approach would respect the referendum, appeal to remainers, appeal to the business community and also appeal to leavers whose lives are beginning to be affected by Brexit.
We are now at that point in the film where the country comes to a sudden, awful realisation. There is a moment in 2021 when the nation realises that our current deal with the EU is not fit-for purpose, that we are haemorrhaging cash, goodwill, opportunity and honour. The question is, are we the protagonists, who can turn the situation around and save the day, or are we the audience, watching the horror unfold, peering through our fingers? Let's be the former; it's time for something new.
Have a great week,
James and the Renew team