Today I am making a speech on Brexit, the UK and Ireland setting out some thoughts on both Brexit and a Johnson premiership. You can read the text here below:
I want to begin by thanking Joe Mulholland for inviting me to take part in the MacGill Summer School.
We are on the edge of a momentous week in UK politics. In a couple of days’ time we will have a new Prime Minister, in all likelihood, this will be the candidate who has said that Brexit must happen by 31 October, deal or no deal.
If the result turns out as expected it will mean the testing of the proposition that the only problem with Brexit has been a lack of belief in the project and that all we need is a healthy dose of optimism and belief.
The stakes for both the UK and for Ireland are very high. So high indeed that I believe that the unity of the UK itself could be on the line.
I have been coming to this part of Ireland all my life. My parents were born here before they joined thousands of others in the wave of post-war emigration from Ireland. They settled in Scotland and brought up seven children. My dad worked on the building sites and my mum in a local authority children’s home. They could have gone to America and the issue was discussed, because at that time the question for many young Irish people was not so much if you would go but where you would go. They picked Scotland and on that spin of the coin I grew up with a Glasgow accent rather than a Brooklyn one.
We enjoyed books by Patrick MacGill when we were growing up. We were fascinated that someone from Donegal was writing about the kind of life as an Irish worker in Scotland that my father and so many other men of his generation had experienced.
“Can the centre hold?”
The title of this year’s summer school is Yeats’s “Can the centre hold?”
But maybe a sharper question is “Can the centre – or in my case the centre left – fight back?” against the mainly right- wing populism that has been winning elections and reshaping politics around the world.
What are the characteristics of this populism?
- It claims to speak for “the people” against “the establishment”.
- Advancing the people’s cause confers authenticity on its leaders as the voice of the forgotten, no matter how deep their private wealth or how right-wing their politics.
- That sense of authenticity inspires huge loyalty and forgiveness on the part of followers. Not for nothing did Donald Trump say “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters.”
- It despises compromise and trade-offs. The old question of how you would pay for policies is barely asked any more.
- It denigrates institutions. Judges are called “enemies of the people”. MPs are called “traitors”. The civil service is suspect because it’s not full of true believers.
- There’s a lot of looking back. Make America Great Again. Take our country back. Take Back Control.
- And its fuel, constantly topped up, is a sense of betrayal.
In the face of all this both centre left and centre right have struggled to respond with an appealing vision of the future that can capture voters’ imagination.
My contention is that a meaningful response has to answer the grievances of working-class voters whilst resisting the temptation to reinforce myths or to peddle dishonest arguments in return for a quiet life.
Brexit is in part – though only in part – rooted in how economic change affected different parts of the UK.
Overall, the UK was a winner from globalisation. Our language and creativity, our cultural reach and our place in the European single market helped us attract talented people and investment from all over the world.
But the economic impact of all this was unevenly spread. Whilst our capital city and other major metropolitan areas thrived, other parts of the country felt either left out of this story or in some cases even hurt by it.
In areas like my Wolverhampton constituency, there is a strong sense of loss about the industrial past and the pride and purpose than went with it. Factory closures and redundancies a generation ago left a legacy of higher than average unemployment, long term health problems and lower than average incomes. Added to that cuts in public services in recent years have degraded quality of life. The same story is true of many working-class communities elsewhere in the UK.
This is not to take a rose-tinted view of the past. Many of the social changes of the past thirty years or so have clearly been for the better. Few young women today would want to swap the choices and life chances they have for those of their grandmothers. And in any case there is no rewind button to a country and a world that isn’t coming back. But nostalgia can sing a seductive song. And there is no doubt that some parts of the country have found themselves at the sharp end of economic change.
Brexit provided a perfect outlet for the sense of loss. Take. Back. Control. An answer to the economic pain.
And alongside this was growing opposition to the free movement of people within the EU, a view that with the enlargement to 28 member states and net migration running at 300,000 per year, people wanted it to slow or in some cases to stop. All the way through, more migration to the UK came from outside the EU than inside, but Brexit still provided a mechanism for people to express their opposition to the levels of immigration taking place.
Pro Europeans took too much for granted in the years prior to the referendum. Not really believing we would leave, too little was made of the large degree of UK success and influence in the EU. Too much credence given to stories of Brussels bureaucrats pushing us around, with almost no attention given to the enormous advantages that single market access gave us, or the fact that those regulations often complained about had a large degree of British influence on them in the first place.
I understand the sense of loss and anger in many working class communities. Everyone wants a better life. But the critical point – which cannot be overemphasised – is that no one in Brussels ever stopped the UK from responding to industrial change. No one in the EU stopped us building enough houses, equipping people with new skills, putting in new transport links or doing what you need to do for areas hit hard by economic change.
And just as the EU was not responsible for these issues, so leaving it will do nothing to address them.
For that to happen, we need to offer people a better answer than Brexit. Last week, I proposed one element of such a plan with a new fund of £4.5bn a year – roughly equal to the net economic benefit from EU migration and paid for by foregoing planned cuts in corporation tax – which would be targeted at smaller towns and cities over a ten year period.
It could pay for new training opportunities, new housing, new transport links – the things you need for a better life. In short, we have to give people a chance not a grievance.
So the question is not just can the centre hold but, certainly for the centre left, can it fight back and deliver? And can it offer real answers rather than the pretence that Brexit would provide an answer to problems that were never rooted in our membership of the EU in the first place.
Now for all the different formulations of how Brexit might be done, it comes down to an essential choice. Do you have a Brexit where the UK leaves the political structures of the EU but remains part of the economic system, which of course begs the question “what’s the point?”
Or do you have a Brexit which emphasises sovereignty above all else and therefore erects much more significant barriers for both services and manufacturing, in which case the question becomes “what’s the price?”
Soft Brexit, hard Brexit, Canada, Norway, Switzerland, Chequers – whatever the model – the question in the end comes down to that choice between what’s the point vs what’s the price.
The outcome of the Conservative leadership will decide that question in the direction of a harder Brexit – at best a Canada type Free Trade Agreement or possibly even a no deal exit.
And if you want a barometer of our politics right now, look at the normalisation of a no deal exit.
This is an outcome which the Government estimates would produce a hit of between 5 and 10% on GDP over the medium term.
In the North East, the estimate is a 16% reduction and my own region of the West Midlands a reduction of 13% relative to staying in over a fifteen year period.
The Office for Budget Responsibility talked just the other day about this leading to a £30bn a year hit to the public finances.
Ivan Rogers, the former UK ambassador to the EU, has warned of “disruption of a scale and of a length that no one has experienced in the developed world in the last couple of generations.”
But as we have discussed, it is populism’s method to dismiss warnings from Government, the Bank of England or any institution. All that’s needed is belief and optimism. Boris Johnson describes the costs of no deal as “vanishingly inexpensive” as long as you prepare. Be a happy warrior and all will be well.
But this is not a game. At some point the rhetoric will collide with reality. In the House of Commons Brexit Committee on which I serve, we have had week after week of warnings about the impact of leaving without a deal. Our main manufacturing organisation describes it as “economic vandalism”. The farmers’ representative called it “disastrous.” Similar warnings issued by spokespeople for the automotive and bioscience sectors.
The hardening towards a no deal is leading us to run enormous risks with people’s jobs and livelihoods.
Talking it up is one thing. Delivering it is another. Last week Parliament passed an important amendment to ensure that the new Prime Minister cannot simply bypass the Commons in going for a no deal exit.
A sceptic might say that the plan is not to talk up no deal in order to go for it, but instead to make more palatable a Canada style Free Trade Agreement which itself would have major damaging implications for our service industries and those industries dependent on multi national supply chains.
But what about Northern Ireland in all this? What about it’s position as the only part of the UK sharing a land border with the EU? What about the UK’s own commitment to avoid a hard border? What about the history between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland? Where does all that fit in in the discussion of supply chains and GDP?
Brexit is about more than economics, just as the EU has always been about more than economics. The EU was born as a peace project, with economic integration as the means to ensure the carnage of the twentieth century would never be repeated again. In that task it has been enormously successful. And over time it has become more integrated and emerged as one of the key economic players of the 21st century alongside China and the United States.
Leaving the EU would have been a challenging task for any unitary state which, had been a member for over forty years. But for a state made up of four constituent parts, two of whom disagree with the decision, it represents unique challenges.
And here we come to the question of identity.
The Good Friday Agreement is one of the proudest achievements of the Labour Government of which I was a part. For decades, politics in Northern Ireland revolved around the competing identities of the community there. A victory for one meant a loss for the other.
The Agreement deliberately rejected that binary choice. It was an agreement to disagree – to have structures which reflected, as the Agreement says, that people in Northern Ireland can choose to be British, or Irish or both.
The border is no longer a physical barrier but instead a legal and constitutional border. Still separate jurisdictions but as fellow members of the EU significant commonality in rules and regulations on both sides of the border. And of course forty years of European Council meetings helped normalise relations between the two countries. In relation to the economic and social questions which have a big EU focus, we found that more often than not we had the same instincts and sought similar outcomes.
So, no physical border structures; a new normality; thousands of people crossing and recrossing every day. I don’t have to tell anyone in this room how valuable all that is.
The overlapping identities of being British, Irish or both had found an accommodation.
Then came Brexit, fuelled by nationalism. And in the words of Canadian writer Michael Ignatieff, the tyranny of nationalism is that it forces people to choose. In a state built upon overlapping identities, forcing people to choose one identity over others can at the very least bring strain, and at the worst can set things back.
In Northern Ireland, the risk is that the process of Brexit upsets that delicate settlement of allowing people to be British or Irish or both. So this is not just about goods crossing the border. It is about identity too.
And in Scotland, where the referendum in 2014 should have settled the issue for the foreseeable future, Brexit is already leading to renewed calls for independence.
So take back control begs another, fundamental question – to what will we be taking back control? Will it be the UK as we know it or will that be put under such strain that we cannot be sure it will continue in its present form? It would be constitutionally reckless for the new Prime Minister to think he can pursue whatever form of Brexit he wants with no risks to the unity of the UK.
So we do stand on the threshold of a momentous week. And we will hear a lot of comment that Brexit will now be fine because it is in the hands of true believers.
But the difficulties encountered by this project lie not in a betrayal by those who have been trying to negotiate it, or in the unreasonable nature of those on the other side of the table. They lie in the choices posed by the project itself.
Whoever is in charge will encounter the same realities about the consequences of leaving.
Whoever is in charge will encounter the same parliamentary arithmetic.
And the implications for politics, for the economy and for the constitution will still be played out.