I really like Maajid Nawaz as a pundit. I think he is an interesting addition to a commentariat that can often feel boringly samey. A self-identifying Muslim who is a proper liberal and not only happy to criticise what he thinks is wrong or at least not working in the Islamic world but has taken to doing so as one of his driving missions. A liberal who is not swayed at all by the “liberal orthodoxy” of the present moment, one that often feels anything but liberal; this is unfortunately a real rarity. Maajid is someone who is happy to reach out to people way outside of his own politics and have a genuine debate with them, which in this day and age is little short of miraculous. His current campaign to raise awareness of the plight of the Uyghurs is downright heroic.
I say all this because I heard something on Maajid’s show yesterday that I need to pick up on. And in a sense, it was because Maajid said it that I felt it needed addressing; if what he’d uttered came from a pundit I respected less, I would have just ignored it. Also, it gets to the heart of what I think is wrong with the pro-European movement in Britain at present – and conversely, what concessions that same movement should and definitely should not be making.
First of all, here’s what I agree with Maajid on in regard to British pro-Europeans. Yes, Remainers are too stuck in a civil war footing, with a desire to demonise anyone who still sees Brexit positively. There is a focus on living in the past, trying to re-do 2016 only this time with a different result. Although Maajid didn’t touch on this, there is a nutty, conspiracy theory element to the extremes of Remainer thinking that has crept in over the last couple of years, the ultimate recent example of this being the embarrassing “Boris fake baby” phenomenon on social media. We’ve got Remainers acting even worse than the right-wing conspiracy fruitcakes they pretend they are better than. The need to constantly fight with Leavers, to declare them either corrupt in some sense or totally stupid, is a losing formula that has totally backfired on the pro-European cause in Britain.
However, where I disagree with Maajid comes down to two things. One, I don’t believe that Remainers have to accept that Brexit is a good thing or even accept that it is a permanent thing. While it is now going to happen, I don’t think Remainers should chuck in the towel on the basic principle of what is best for the country. Remainers need to accept the result was democratically legitimate and stop going on about the Russians or some other such nonsense as the cause. However, the fact that people voted for something in 2016 by a narrow margin does not make it a good idea even if it makes it democratically necessary in the short term.
The second thing I disagree with Maajid on is to what degree Remainers could hope to shape a “liberal post-Brexit Britain”, lest Remainers be excluded from such a discussion – or indeed, the parameters of such a concept. For a start, Remainers are being excluded from the conversation and that’s not going change whatever happens. If the entire pro-European movement tomorrow said that they accepted Brexit and were ready to talk about a liberal post-Brexit Britain, it wouldn’t change a thing. The reality is, Britain is playing chicken with a European Commission that knows it has the upper-hand, not only because it is the much bigger market but because the UK has essentially offered them a six-month extension that they don’t have to reciprocate. The British government seems to have decided to drive as fast as possible toward the cliff in the hopes that the Commission changes its mind, with seemingly very little serious thought given to what happens if this doesn’t turn out to be the case. Nothing short of the parliamentary Conservative party deciding they don’t want to play this game any longer and expunging Boris will possibly change this – and I shouldn’t have to point out to Maajid that there are not many Remainers in that parliamentary party any longer.
What is meant by a “liberal post-Brexit Britain” anyhow? A lesser pundit would have uttered the phrase and left it there, but Maajid elaborates. In turning our back on the EU, we should look to “forging closer alliances with the Five Eyes nations”, which are USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and of course, us. And here we get to the heart of it. This sets up a debate that is ultimately a false one; an idea of post-Brexit Britain that has been trumpeted by Brexiteers from long before the referendum campaign that not only doesn’t stack up, but falls down completely when you examine the last four years and indeed, global realpolitik with any sort of objectivity.
Let’s start with America. The discussion around a trade deal with the US in Britain tends to centre on either how amazingly close this is to being realised with no context as to what it would involve; from the other end, how it would involve chlorinated chicken and other such horrors. Both viewpoints are false – the truth is, a trade deal with America is extremely unlikely, or at least, extremely unlikely any time soon. America tends to drag out its trade deal negotiations over long periods of time for a simple reason – it is simultaneously the most successful economic and military power in the history of the human race, not to mention being the size of a continent, thus is doesn’t strictly need to do trade deals with anyone unless it feels it will either 1). increase its soft power in some very desirable manner or; 2). be so economically lopsided as to disproportionately benefit Americans. So, the US trade deal as a reason for Brexit being a good or even a bad idea is a red herring. As scientists like to declare when someone is way, way off: you’re not even wrong.
Then we come onto the three other Five Eyes countries: Canada, New Zealand and Australia. None of them have shown particular interest in some new Five Eyes shaped trading future; they want it as a defence and intelligence sharing arrangement and nothing else from the looks of things. Some of this is led by America – were the US much more into the whole idea of the Five Eyes as a real trading bloc and leading from the front, it might be different. Yet have we seen no evidence of this. This is where British exceptionalism kicks in: the idea that we can be the catalyst for such an arrangement, even if the US is blasé at best about it. We can’t – America really are just much, much, much, much more influential in this equation than almost anyone in this country is willing to admit. Wishing Suez didn’t happen isn’t a good excuse for willing on another similar incident, only this time one where the rest of the world cares a whole lot less.
In the absence of American leadership, all that’s left is national interest, which doesn’t involve the other three Five Eyes countries giving Britain concessions that were difficult to concede in order to gain access to the largest trading bloc in the world in the first place, all to a country who has acted for the last four years like launching Empire 2.0 was either the conscious or unconscious plan. Canada refusing to roll over their trade arrangements with the UK recently caused a confused flutter in the Daily Express and didn’t even get traction in most of the remainder of the UK press. It’s like there is wilful denial going on around this issue.
To summarise: yes, Remainers should stop talking about how 2016 was fixed and how Britain is basically North Korea. No, that does not mean Remainers should just go along with Brexit and admit that it was a good idea. Brexit is about to get real at the end of this year; if Remainers can stop going on about Russians and fake babies, it has a chance to change some minds if no deal really is as bad as a lot of us think it will be. If Remainers can stop picking fights with Leavers for no good reason, I believe at least 20% of Leavers are up for grabs if the pro-European approach changes, weird as that may seem from where we sit now. Even if we this doesn’t occur, it still won’t make Brexit a good idea. Which is ultimately, more than any other reason, why Remainers shouldn’t back down from what they ultimately believe in.
I have a book out now called “Politics is Murder”. It follows the tale of a woman named Charlotte working at a failing think tank who has got ahead in her career in a novel way – she is a serial killer. One day, the police turn up at her door and tell her she is a suspect in a murder – only thing is, it is one she had nothing to do with. There is also a plot against the Foreign Secretary and some gangsters thrown into the mix while Charlotte tries to find out who is trying to frame her for a murder she didn’t commit.
Also: there is a subplot around the government trying to built a stupid bridge, which now seems a charming echo of a more innocent time!