Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of Wales for Europe and the author of Unfinished Business, Journal of an Embattled European.
There are now only three months to go before this country is due to leave the European Union. Yet we may have only three precious weeks in which to alter course and to start back on the road to sanity and a serious application to the country’s real and manifold problems.
Buoyed by the Christmas holiday respite from Brexit, many will no doubt sigh at the thought of the resumption of Parliament’s raucous hostilities. But rarely has so much been at stake, or so tangled. Traditionally, in Parliament the house ‘divides’, but today there is division all around. There is a lack of clarity, too, about process, about substance and about options.
We have people calling for ‘non-binding indicative votes’ on options, as if deciding on a menu to put before wedding guests. Menu fixe, table d’hote or a la carte anyone?
Others want to convene a Citizens’ Assembly of 120 randomly chosen voters to give MPs guidance. But against the backdrop of a referendum, what store would we put on the voices of 120 people? Where would the voices of Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish be in such a group? Surely separate Citizens’ Assemblies would have to be held in each of the countries of the UK? And just how many should one convene in England, and where?
Such techniques can be valuable at the early stages of debates when trying to gauge nuances in public opinion, but at this stage, it would speak only of the collapse of the Parliamentary system.
Mr Corbyn, of course, would like a general election, but does not have the means to deliver it. It is time that he put aside the Monty Python script – “The time has come for a completely futile gesture” – and got down to the task of leadership. It is high time that he read the mood of his own party, which is overwhelmingly for remaining in the EU.
In this unprecedented moment of national decision, he owes them – and the country – clarity and realism, not shiftiness and tired ideological stances. The time to lay ‘constructive ambiguity’ to rest is long overdue, not least because he is not very good at it.
In a Christmas interview, he repeated the hoary accusation that European rules on state aid would scupper Labour’s plans – a charge that has always flown in the face of the evidence.
Several academic assessments of Labour policy proposals have long given short shrift to Corbyn’s claim. One such study concluded that of 26 specific economic measures in Labour’s 2017 manifesto, 17 do not even potentially fall within the scope of the state aid rules, while another seven fall within the scope of ‘block exemptions’.
This left only two proposals – for state investment and regional banks and for state-funded regional energy suppliers – that might have to be notified to EU authorities.
The fact of Germany and France’s much greater expenditure on state aid than the UK, and the existence of Germany’s profusion of state banks – the Landesbanken and Sparkassen – should surely allow Labour’s policymakers to sleep at night, as well as encouraging Mr Corbyn not to tell porkies.
A primary task for Welsh Government – the only Labour Government in the UK and now under new leadership – must be to put the maximum pressure on Labour’s UK leadership to set its face loudly and unequivocally against the costly displacement activity of Brexit, not to spurn Leave voters but in order to concentrate on the much more necessary and productive task of economic and social reform that we all need so urgently.
With non-binding votes, citizens’ assemblies and general elections looking unlikely, what are we left with? What is Theresa May left with, if she does not manage, against all odds, to get a majority for her supposed deal? Surely, it cannot be a precipitate ‘no deal’ exit?
Of all possible courses, this is surely the one that has the least support in Parliament, and the one that has created real and justified fear in virtually every part of the business community – the CBI, IOD, FSB, Chambers of Commerce and the Engineering Employers. It is also the course that was most certainly not on the agenda in the 2016 referendum.
Jeremy Hunt, one-time Remain voter says, with the zeal of the convert, that “We’ll find a way to flourish and prosper”, with not a word about how or when and seemingly oblivious to what his own government is actually doing.
Its extremely expensive contingency plans for crashing out read like the script for some dystopian disaster movie: the creation of an EU Exit Emergency Centre, a Civil Contingencies Secretariat, hiring of cross-channel ferries, warnings about crime and disorder from the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, medical supplies being stockpiled, every available warehouse stacked full as if we were preparing for a nuclear winter.
It’s everything except ration books and gas masks. This is not something to be planned for. It is something to be avoided like the plague – to be voted against without hesitation by every sane democrat. If it is an attempt to blackmail our MPs into voting for her deal, it will not and should not work.
It is in this situation that Theresa May must be made to see that a new referendum is the one course that is in the national interest. She may even prefer to put the incomplete deal she has negotiated with the EU to the country in preference to the certainty of seeing it defeated in the Commons. She has reversed her position on most things. Why not this?
At the very least it would mean that the first month of 2019 would mark out the year as the one where hope was rekindled.
This article first appeared in the 31st December 2018 publication of the Western Mail.