The Grown Ups in the Room

Peter Russell, Scottish Fabian and one of the founders of our Future Choices for Scotland project reflects on Keir Starmer’s recent speech on Brexit:

There are two great problems in the world of political discourse in its current state. The first of these is the means of debate, which comes increasingly in the form of digital and social media. These are notably reliant on short forms (most notably 140 characters on Twitter) and allow dubious sources disproportionate authority. The best analogy for the latter is that of the transmission of information in the pre-Gutenberg age: the best way of finding out what was going on in the wider world was word of mouth in the tavern or the on the street corner.  In the post-Gutenberg age, it is very similar, just that the tavern is Twitter and the street corner is Facebook.

The second great problem is that we have come to live in a world of political polarities, dominated by binary choices. Scotland was a world leader in this trend with Yes and No in the independence referendum debate, leaving little room for Labour’s rational position of devolution within the UK. Now there is the danger that Labour again will become squeezed in the apparently Manichean struggle between Leave and Remain in the Brexit process.

Or so it seemed until Keir Starmer’s masterful contribution to the Brexit debate for the Scottish Fabians in Glasgow.

One of his most telling points was not in his speech (although that was excellent) but in his Q&A answer on the Single Market. He explained how he had been questioned by Andrew Marr on whether Labour’s policy was for the UK to retain Single Market membership, Yes or No?

In his answer to the Fabians, Keir explained that the answer was simply not answerable in those terms. First, there is no such thing as “membership of the Single Market“ to be in the Single Market, a country must be either a member of the EU or of EFTA. And in turn, there were difficulties in switching membership of one  of those to the other: for example, as the UK has voted to leave the EU to take back control, it would be absurd to join EFTA which has no control over setting Single Market requirements. And EFTA membership and indeed international trade treaties like CETA, all need international institutions to oversee them: the Tories objective of “making our own rules” is patently impossible and absurd.

As Keir told us: Unlike senior members of the Government, I have always appreciated that these negotiations would be fiendishly difficult. He went on in justifiably excoriating terms to condemn the Government in its rash and careless manner in its approach “ insulting to our EU partners, unrealistic in its expectations, impossible in its red lines, and fanciful in its timetable.   He related this last point to the issues for the Irish border, and to his experience in Northern Ireland as part of the justice process.

In contrast, he set out Labour’s reasonable and realistic aims: maximum achievable access to the Single Market and especially important for manufacturing  “ membership of a Customs Union which would allow the free movement of industrial components through multi-national supply chains. To achieve this, the rational position must be to keep all options only, with no prejudgement of whether the process involves what is cut out of current arrangements or whether it starts out from a blank sheet and builds up from there. It is the outcome that matters, not the route to it.

And at the same time Labour’s objective must to achieve these through a process that would be acceptableas far as possible to both those who voted Leave and those who voted Remain, and which would be inclusive of the Scottish Parliament and the devolved Assemblies of Wales and Northern Ireland. In other words, a Brexit for the Many not the Few, based on jobs and the economy, for those who wondered what that means.

What is more, a Brexit founded on co-operation with the EU and within the UK, and with pragmatism and theinterests of British employees and employers at its heart. In short, it should be everything that the Tories’ process is not.

That there is a need to fulfil the role of Grown Up is symptomatic of the way in which modern discourse isconducted. However, it is criminally negligent of the Conservative Government to conduct itself in such an irresponsible way in negotiations which have at stake the whole future of the British economy and the prosperity of its people.

In adopting an intelligent and nuanced position, Labour is rejecting the abbreviated, ill-informed and polarised attitudes which dominate much of the debate, and in doing so offers to indeed be the Grown-Up in the Brexit process.  I am sure that I am not the only one who came away from Keir Starmer’s presentation extremely glad and heartened that Labour has chosen under his direction to do so.