Uniting the North against Brexit

180726 Unite the North against Brexit logo

The North voted for Brexit

In 2016, the North of England voted for Brexit, and we must not forget that.  The UK result was 52/48 for Brexit, but the vote broke 54/46 in the North West, and 58/42 in Yorkshire and the North East.

The places in the North that voted for Remain were Manchester/Trafford/Stockport, Liverpool/Sefton/Wirral, York, Harrogate, South Lakeland, and – by a whisker – Newcastle and Leeds.  Every other district in the North voted for Brexit, with the most economically deprived areas voting overwhelmingly for it.  Hartlepool in the North East, Doncaster/Barnsley/Rotherham and Hull in Yorkshire, and Blackpool and Burnley in the North West all voted by over two-thirds to leave the EU.

Hard Brexit is suicide for the North

Yet it is becoming very clear that the places that voted for Brexit are the places that will be hit hardest by a hard Brexit.  The figures from Birmingham University’s work are frightening: Leave voting areas across UK will be 10-50% more exposed to risk to jobs and income than the Remain voting areas.  Much of the North’s manufacturing industry depends on integrated European supply chains and markets; if we leave the single market and there are any form of border delays, these companies will be in big trouble.  Not just Airbus and Nissan, but many more, will leave.  All that would be left of Northern manufacturing would be the warplanes, submarines, missiles and bombs of the death industry.

But hard Brexit doesn’t look good for any part of the North. Birmingham University’s analysis is that higher education, science, professional services, architecture, computer programming – all service industries based in Northern cities that export to the EU – will be clobbered.  Well before exports dry up, we will go into economic crisis and government’s tax revenues will collapse.  At that point, any government, even one with John McDonnell in No.11 Downing Street, will be in big trouble.  With a Tory government, austerity cuts to make 2010-2015 look like a picnic will follow.  With a Corbyn government, there will be warfare in the bond markets.

If you think the NHS, welfare benefits, public sector services can’t get much worse – just wait and see.

Fox and Farage want this

What is bizarre is that a crisis is what Tory and UKIP Brexiteers like Liam Fox and Nigel Farage want.  They are paid front men for UK and US ‘disaster capitalists’ who are after easy money. They want all public services privatised, so they can make easy money.  They want to remove all protections against the exploitation of workers.  They want to cut all taxes and regulations holding back the City of London as an offshore finance rogue state.  The ‘shock doctrine’ is that an economic crisis is needed so that these things can be brought in as emergency measures.  And they also want a crisis so they can make easy money by betting against the British economy and then picking up distressed assets cheap.

Liam Fox has already signalled to Donald Trump that Britain will sign a trade deal that will open up the NHS to American healthcare corporations, and our food supply to unlabelled food additives, chlorinated chicken and worse.  When we are desperate enough, Trump will collect.

Trump’s recent visit has made perfectly clear what his geopolitical aim is: to destroy the European Union as any kind of rival to the USA, and to rid the world of any example of a place where workers’ rights and a decent welfare state can be seen to succeed.

Is stopping Brexit practical?

In the two years since the 2016 referendum, much has happened in the world, and we have found out much about the actual hard practicalities of Brexit.  It’s time to take stock and dump theories that have been disproved, and dreams that can’t now come true.

There was and is a principled case for British sovereignty, and an undeniable case that the EU is an imperfect institution.  But we now have to face facts: that we are naked in the negotiating chamber and Brexit has turned Britain into the world’s laughing stock. If we walk out of negotiations we walk naked into the cold North Atlantic Ocean, and the sharks are already circling.

In a world splintering into ruthless, rival political blocs, Hard Brexit is national suicide.  It will leave us utterly at the mercy of Donald Trump.  If you are a patriot, your duty is to stop it.

Meanwhile, Soft Brexit is an utterly pointless, slower form of national humiliation.

And ‘Have your cake and eat it’ Brexit is a joke.  Don’t fall for it – off Theresa May, or off Labour.  It’s not on offer, and it’s not going to happen.  We can threaten to walk out of the negotiation with the EU, and plenty of people seem to like that idea before they give it any serious thought.  Hard Brexit will completely hammer the North, destroying jobs, businesses, public services, savings and pensions.  Walk away from the talks and ‘crash out’ Brexit will do all of the above, plus no planes in the skies, no food in the supermarkets and no medicines in the pharmacies.

But, amazingly, we have a Get Out of Jail Free card, and all we have to do is play it.  ‘Have your cake and eat it’ EU membership is on offer.  It’s the deal we already have.  We can trade into Europe whilst keeping our own pound, which we can devalue or revalue against the euro as needed. We can keep our own border controls and continue to opt out of Schengen.  We can even have blue passports, if we want them.  It’s a great deal, negotiated over many years.  The Germans call it the British ‘extrawurst’ – the unfair, special treatment the British get over all the others in the EU.

That deal is still available, but our entitlement to it runs out on 29 March 2019, two years after we triggered Article 50, notifying our intention to leave the EU.

Yes, this nightmare can end, simply and painlessly.  The EU has offered to let us revoke Article 50 (and we have the legal right to do it anyway).  We can get Brexit off the TV news every day and the real and present danger to your livelihood and your family’s prosperity and security will just go away.  You don’t have to like the EU to see that this is the best available option.

But it needs a referendum

These hard truths were not fully known in 2016. Now that they are, we are free to change our minds if we want to, however we decided to vote in 2016.

The democratic vote of the 2016 referendum must be respected. That’s why any decision to revoke Article 50 must be supported by a referendum vote.  There are lots of options for how a referendum might be done, but we think that in all cases one of the options must be to leave the EU with the deal the EU will sign with us, one to simply walk away, and another to remain.

We believe that when arguing for Remain, we should not be arguing for going back to the way things were for the North in 2016.  We should be arguing that we can make the North a better place, but the change we need is democratic reform of the existing Westminster system.   The North needs to take back control and take responsibility for itself. Decisions for the North taken in the North.  More democracy, more investment, more hope – for all the North’s places and communities.

And, after all that, if the vote goes for leave, then we must leave, whatever the cost.

Many Brexit voters in the North are doubling down for hard Brexit  

Yet, despite the dire impact of hard Brexit on the North becoming increasingly clear during 2018, the Brexit voters of the North have not been changing their minds in vast numbers.  Although the polls are now showing that small majorities of people think Brexit is a mistake and if the referendum was run again, Remain would probably win, there has no drastic shift in public opinion.  This is why so many Northern MPs have been keeping their heads down as much as they can.

Why are people not changing their minds?  For many voters – leave and remain – there is a democratic principle at stake: if the voters return a decision, you have to honour it.  Even if, perhaps especially if, it was against all the advice and campaigning of the political establishment.  You can’t “dissolve the people and elect a new one”.  This principle, which is admirable and very much a Northern value in many ways, is the bedrock of support behind Theresa May (which seems immune to disaster after disaster for her), and is behind so much of the frustration and anger of the people asking “why can’t they just get on with it?”.

Some of the North’s Brexit voters are doubling down.  Those for whom stopping free movement of EU workers into UK was the key issue can see that the EU is not going to offer us a Brexit deal which delivers this without a price.  Those for whom sovereignty was the key principle can see that Boris Johnson is right that soft Brexit is a mockery: the UK would be rule takers who ‘pay with no say’.

As Theresa May’s Chequers proposal for Brexit inevitably is rejected by the EU and unravels, probably a large majority of voters across the North, leave and remain, will be highly receptive to a message that we are being bullied by the European Commission for daring to vote for something they disapproved of.  They have seen how brutally and dishonestly the EU treated Greece, and will be attracted to the message, ‘just walk away’.

Very many of them will rally to the flag, even if it is waved by Boris Johnson, whose ‘having your cake and eating it’ Brexit is so utterly discredited.  Yet very few of them, hardly any, will share the Fox/Farage market fundamentalist vision.  Very few of them will realise that these leaders are now desperate to make the UK a vassal state – a vassal state of Donald Trump.

Why is this happening?

There are many theories as to why voters in the pro-Brexit areas of the North do not seem to be ‘feeling the fear’ about the disaster that is about to strike.

Retired people by definition have no fear of losing their job and seem to imagine that their pensions, their spending power and their house prices will not be devastated by hard Brexit.  They think they can tighten their belts a little, and this will be price well worth paying to respect democracy and restore sovereignty.

There are also plenty of people who felt that as things could not get any worse for them, they might as well vote for a change anyway.  We should not forget that voting for Brexit mobilised many thousands of people in the North who had given up on voting and our existing political system.  For many, the sense of insurgency created by ‘the bad boys of Brexit’ was a rare moment of pure political optimism: despite everything lined up against us, we can win!  Telling people who are being exploited in crap, precarious jobs or experiencing the inhuman benefits regime to worry about hard Brexit doesn’t cut much ice.  It’s not news to them that Boris Johnson really doesn’t give a shit about them.  They don’t think the remainer establishment gives a shit about them either.

The majority who do feel they have something to lose, and would worry about their jobs and the public services they rely on, are certainly being ill-served by the mainstream media.  They are being systematically shielded from hard truths about the weakness of Britain’s position, and the risks being taken with people’s livelihoods.  It’s no good getting too angry about The Sun and the Daily Mail.  People have always taken what they want from those newspapers and the rest with a pinch of salt.  What is worth getting angry about is the failure of the BBC as a public service broadcaster, and the insidious impact of Sky News.  Complaining to the BBC is still an exercise worth undertaking – and it is equally worth complaining about the bogus approach to ‘balance’, or the hiding of hard truths, as it is complaining about out-and-out bias from the Tories running the Radio 4 Today programme.

So what can we do about it?

There are a good few organisations that have been set up to fight Brexit.  Having looked at what is on offer, we are impressed by the group Another Europe is Possible.  But, given our aim of uniting the North against Brexit, Northern Umbrella has decided to support Best for Britain.

Best for Britain is a non-party political campaign group that is only concerned with stopping Brexit, and has no other agenda.  It campaigns for a People’s Vote (referendum) on the final Brexit deal agreed by the British government with the EU, in which the option to remain is on the ballot paper (“Final Say, Option to Stay”).   It has no hidden agenda of seizing back control of the Labour party from Jeremy Corbyn, or of setting up a new centre party.

Its CEO, Eloise Todd from Hull, told the Hannah Mitchell Foundation’s meeting “Uniting the North against Brexit” in Manchester on 24 July 2018 that we have just three months to convince MPs that a people’s vote is the way out of the Brexit impasse.  Three months, half of which comprise the school summer holidays.  The other half comprises the party conference season.

We think that the best contribution Northern Umbrella can make is to try to unite the North in favour of the opportunity to vote on Brexit now we know what that means – for ourselves, our families, our communities, our region and our country.   We will try to persuade Northern MPs that they can only fulfil their duty both to their constituents and to the democratic principle by giving the people of the North such a vote.

What’s the specifically Northern regional dimension to any of this? 

Most of the above could have been written about any part of non-metropolitan England outside London.  Every English region outside London voted for Brexit, as did Wales.  The Brexit-voting manufacturing workers of the West Midlands are sleepwalking into exactly the same disaster as those of Sunderland.  The farmers and fishermen of Devon & Cornwall are going to get shafted by the Trump trade deal in exactly the same way as the farmers and fishermen of Yorkshire or Cumbria.

Those of us who have argued that there is a specifically Northern English regional identity, which we need to celebrate and strengthen, must come to terms with the fact that all three Northern regions are behaving in very similar ways to all parts of England outside London, and completely differently to Scotland.  The political thinker Anthony Barnett has written very persuasively that pro-Brexit is an English thing, closely related to perceptions of English identity, and the reluctance of the English to see themselves as a European nation among many others.

There isn’t space to go into that in great detail in this post, but it shows something of the challenge when aiming to unite the North against Brexit.  On the other hand, if we cannot persuade Northerners on either side of pro/anti-Brexit divide that we have more fundamental interests in common with each other than either side does with Jacob Rees-Mogg or Dominic Raab, then we can’t be up to much.

The next post in this series will argue that there was a Northern regional dimension to the Brexit vote, and therefore there should also be a Northern regional dimension to the campaign to stop Brexit.  Watch this space!

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4 Responses to Uniting the North against Brexit

  1. Really useful blog, thanks. It chimes with our own thinking that it is not enough to just stop Brexit. We need to offer a positive vision of how cancelling Brexit can actually unleash a radical change in how the North of England is governed. We cannot go back to how it was. We must reform Westminster, devolve powers and money to the North, make a serious commitment to investing in infrastructure, industry and culture outside of London. We have to show northerners that only stopping Brexit will open the door to making these reforms. Brexit will just plunge us deeper into austerity and greater inequality.

    If anyone is interested in any of these themes then we would strongly encourage you to come to the Great Northern Stop Brexit Conference in Leeds on 8 September. We are pulling together a fantastic array of speakers with a strong northern flavour and good Labour and Green representation. So far we have: Richard Corbett MEP, Julie Ward MEP, Jude Kirton-Darling MEP, Alex Sobel MP and Natalie Bennett, as well as Eloise Todd, AC Grayling, Will Hutton and many more. See http://www.leedsforeurope.org for details.


  2. Pingback: The tide turns in the North | Northern Umbrella

  3. Pingback: 2017 & 2018 – looking back | Northern Umbrella

  4. Pingback: The European elections in the North | Northern Umbrella

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