I see a lot of people at the moment saying: “Why doesn’t Keir Starmer take a tougher, cleaner line about the EU”, or words to that effect.
Let’s just think about that.
Go back to the day after the referendum vote in 2016. I don’t know about you, but I had a couple of conversations with people in Whitehall. Over the next few days I got a bit more information on the reactions.
There was one overriding reaction. Shock. Just go back in your own mind and you will recognise this. Even the winners were in shock.
Over the next few weeks there was a consistent, underlying basis to the reactions of politicians, and if you put yourself in their shoes, it’s obvious why. They had launched, carelessly, an ill-considered “democratic” exercise over which they had no control, and now they had to cope with the result. (As an aside this one of the reasons I rate David Cameron as one of the worst British PMs ever, vying with Johnson for the title).
What could they do? The judgement of many was, if they cast doubt, in any form, on the outcome of the referendum:
- They would look as stupid as they actually were;
- Any backsliding on the result would lead to accusations that they were betraying democracy;
- British democracy could be fatally undermined.
This view was held in both the Tory and Labour parties. Though this is only supposition, I would be very surprised if there had not been some confidential contact at the highest level to sound out whether this was a common view.
Once the view was taken, I believe it was also passed on, again discreetly and only at the highest level to the BBC and probably other media organisations.
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The result, as we can all see has been a quasi-religious adherence to accepting the referendum result. We still have the aftermath today in the constant search for the “benefits of Brexit”, and the notable absence of Brexit as a major part of the explanation for just about all the problems we now face.
Which brings us to Keir Starmer. He leads a divided party. His party has lost traditional strongholds, and the polling tells him that there is still significant support for Brexit.
As they say, you do the math.
This is not to say I think Starmer has got it right. Indeed, I think his political judgement on this is off because of his fear. I have tried to show how he could adopt a different “tone” which could actually solidify support for Labour, without stepping over the invisible line.
Whether that is make or break for you is up to you. If it means you can “never support Labour”, fine. You’ve made your choice; look at the consequences and accept them.
I will end with this. If you believe there is a quick, easy way back into the EU, you believe in Unicorns, just as those who believe in the benefits of Brexit do.
You should do the first simple thing any political analyst worth their salt should do: put themselves in the shoes of those they are considering. Ask yourself the question: why would the EU have us back if nothing has changed?
For clarity, I do believe there is a way back, and regardless of opinions, I believe it is a road England will inevitably tread. Scotland may sprint ahead of us, and good luck to them if they do. But for England, the road is long, and hard, and involves admitting mistakes and making deep and lasting constitutional changes – not just one, but a whole set of interconnected changes.
The sooner that is realised, the sooner we get where we want, and need to be.
Simon is a former diplomat, and one of the team behind the Reboot GB campaign.