It was said of the Thane of Cawdor that “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.” Well Britain may not be an ambitious murderer driven to evil deeds by superstitious prophecies (though some on the Remain side or in Continental Europe might well think otherwise). And it has not left anything yet. But two months on from the referendum, the swift defenestration of one ruler, his replacement by the well-shod Rosa Klebb of the Tory party and some efficient blood-letting, what can we discern about how Britain is thinking about the consequences of its vote, about what comes next?
Other than repetition of the largely meaningless “Brexit means Brexit” phrase and vague attempts to distinguish between “Soft” and “Hard” Brexit, so far there has been much talk about the mechanics of departure (when to trigger Article 50, should a Parliamentary vote be held, who will make the decision – May, by all accounts), Labour have absented themselves from the debate and the LibDems are pretending that it is still 18 June and they can still win for the Remain cause.
And there has been an assumption amongst some that, because Article 50 will not be triggered for some time, nothing, for the moment, is changing. A false and dangerous assumption: businesses large and small will make plans. If they do not know what the likely outcome of Brexit will be or even what the government is looking for then they will make their own best/worst case assumptions and plans. Long before any exit has been formalised, we will likely see an impact.
“What does Britain want?” has been the question from European leaders. And some of them (the latest being Matteo Renzi) have sought to tell us what we cannot have. Well, what do we want? And how should we approach the negotiations?
We could treat this like a divorce: a protracted, intermittently painful, detailed haggling over who gets what and on what terms, until bored and exhausted by the hand to hand fighting, we retire from the scene, bruised and trying hard to convince ourselves that all things considered the settlement hasn’t been too bad. Meanwhile the bewildered children look on, wondering what the hell is going on.
Or we can be bold and set out a clear vision of the sort of Europe we want to see and what our own role in that Europe should be. A strategy for Europe, an intellectual Marshall plan for Europe, a vision of Europe that other European states, that the EU itself might find attractive, European policies for co-operation which are in the interests of others as well as ourselves. A strategy for Britain’s role in Europe of the sort that has never really been attempted in the last half century. Not the defensive, reactive approach of “you must give us this if you want to sell us cars/cheese/handbags” countered by the equally defensive “you must let people in if you want to sell to us”. But a new generous, open settlement between Britain and its neighbours, between Britain and the EU, which preserves the best of the European ideal and gets rid of the worst.
The moon on a stick, I hear you cry. Certainly. An a la carte choice. Yes – and what’s wrong with that? And hard detailed negotiating will be required. But better this than the craven, penny pinching, what can I get out of this and to hell with the others, zero sum approach which has largely constituted Britain’s European strategy over the last half century. A Britain that had a clear and positive view of itself and its role in Europe and in the world, a (dare I say it) more Gaullist Britain willing to put in the hard work to come up with policies which work and explain them might be more able to get a post-Brexit settlement that worked and had most peoples’ consent.
What are the chances? Not good.
May’s instincts to reserve decisions to herself, to discourage debate are not promising. The inability to explain the grammar schools policy does not suggest a government able to think things through and convince voters. Labour are unlikely to trouble the government. The EU’s own obstinacy and apparent refusal to consider that its own actions and approach may have led to its rejection, its apparent belief that states must be kept in the EU for fear of the punishment they will face outside will not help. A fear that if we reveal our hand others will take advantage, a fear that there’s no point asking because we won’t get may cripple our negotiating tactics.
But still. It was said of another people once that they “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”. The decision to leave this organisation after 43 years because it was not or was not perceived to be working for us is an opportunity to reset Britain’s role. We should not miss it, as we have missed so many European opportunities in the past. Let’s see whether next week’s Tory party conference shows us a government able to be bold and imaginative in setting out what Britain’s future could be.