Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street special adviser, where he worked under both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works at Portland, the communications consultancy.
The debate on Brexit is about values far more than it is about individual policies and trading models.
Lots of people voted to leave because they wanted more control over their lives and communities – and believe the nation state is the best method to realise that ambition. Lots of people voted to remain because – while they understand the pull of the nation – in an era of borderless technology and globalisation it is not worth taking an economic leap in the dark.
Quite a few people (surveys differ, but somewhere between a fifth and a third of the country) were undecided between these competing value systems. On balance, they moved into the Leave column on referendum day because of a very effective campaign run by some very talented pros. The research at the time showed a decent level of flux in voting intention in the final 14 days before 23rd June 2016.
If socialism versus free market capitalism was the values battleground of the late 20th Century, the nation state versus borderless co-operation is the argument of the early 21st. The referendum was an expression of this, catalysed by a separate Conservative obsession with the EU that is almost religious in its fervour and which existed well before the debate was popular or relevant.
There are trade-offs in this fiercely contested values debate. Although many would argue Nigel Farage is a charlatan, he probably summed up the conundrum best when he said in 2014:
‘I’d rather we weren’t slightly richer, and I’d rather we had communities that were united. I think the social side of this matters more than pure market economics’.
A demagogue is usually good at speaking to the nub of a problem.
Funnily enough, the grassroots membership of the two major parties have broadly shaken down to either side of the debate – and tend to inhabit the strongest poles of each. A lot of the Conservative Party rank and file nowadays fall into the category of ‘nation state backers’ (tinged by the historic aversion to the EU set out above). Labour’s membership in this new Momentum age is comprised primarily of ‘global co-operators’.
However, the voting coalition of each of the major parties is much more complicated and affected by decades of historical brand associations for each. As the Tories found to their cost last year, you can talk about a bright new future where Britain takes back control and limits immigration– but it is still very difficult to persuade a 65-year lifelong Labour voter in Bishop Auckland who agrees with you to put their cross in your box on election day. This, coupled with a lousy election campaign and a number of unforced errors from Conservative high command in those hot days of May and June 2017, is why we have the hung Parliament we have.
This is the context through which we should view the Chequers compromise and the quiet nervous breakdown that is infecting a certain section of the Conservative Party. After two years of calibrated platitudes, the Prime Minister has tried to do the right thing and bring definition to the trade-offs involved in leaving the EU – which were not included on the ballot paper. She has decided, after much deliberation and exhaustive requests for alternative credible plans, that the economic dislocation inherent in a salami slice break from the EU is not a price worth paying for full and complete control of our sovereignty.
The trouble is that this simply doesn’t chime with the values of many in the Conservative grassroots, a certain section of the Parliamentary Party – and one would imagine a significant portion of people who voted Leave.
So what’s the way through all this?
Politically for the Conservatives, there is a way through but it involves a level of strategic foresight that is difficult to apply when you are in the middle of events. Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.
In the long-term, I think it’s sadly inevitable the party will have to realign in some way – probably after March 2019, but this is a very moveable feast. The ‘betrayal thesis’ taking hold makes a UKIP Mark Two likely.
There will be those who say the Conservative Party has got through 200 years of existence through ruthless pragmatism about dealing with the world as it rather than how we would like it to be. It’s always fine in the end. This is how previous values divides over the generations and centuries have been bridged.
But things are different now. It’s harder to persuade political actors – and for that matter many voters – to compromise when so much of our discourse about great matters of state is digital. It’s harder to change your emotional beliefs when you only share and engage with the content you like, follow the people you agree with – and can disagree aggressively without having to look at someone in the face (part of the reason why I think David Davis and Boris Johnson psychologically couldn’t face resigning in the room at Chequers).
In this world, you end up with special advisers blocked for a job becoming Brexit martyrs, factually incorrect resignation letters being described as Churchillian in their ambition, and judges following due process being described as ‘enemies of the people’.
The challenge for the Conservative Party will be to contain this split in a way that is commensurate with electoral success. I will return to this in the future, but I suspect the best way will be to allow a certain number of strongly motivated ‘nation state backers’ to detach – while keeping as many of the rest in the tent as possible through the prospect of winning elections and keeping an extreme Labour Party out.
The Conservative Party should in turn use this new found freedom to colonise as many of the ‘global co-operators’ and undecideds in the middle as possible. Discipline and good manners will be critical here, as will charismatic leadership. Critically, so will personally relevant policies that improve people’s lives and answer the challenge of how liberalism and free markets can materially improve people’s standard of living in today’s world. Otherwise the whole thing could get existential very quickly.
And what about the future of the country, which is infinitely more important than political strategising?
In terms of the end destination of Brexit, I am still not sure – and anyone who tells you they are is lying to you. Turning away from values and back to policies and trading models, I suspect the most likely end state in 15-20 years’ time will be a form of ‘EEA minus’ that allows an imperfect fudge between economic solidity and some greater control of our borders. With which precisely no one other than the civil service will be happy. But by then the political tectonic plates may have shifted to the extent– and the argument of the nation state versus global co-operation may have moved on – that asking the question again in a referendum may be a less divisive and gut wrenching prospect than it is now.
As the Irish historian Roy Foster once put it: ‘history is not about manifest destinies but unexpected and unforeseen futures. The most illuminating history is often written to show how people acted in the expectation of a future that never happened’.