As the nation celebrates (or mourns, depending on your point of view) the resignation of Theresa May as prime minister, the one phrase from her speech with which most of the mainstream media appears to agree is the quote from Sir Nicholas Winton, that “compromise isn’t a dirty word”.
Let’s leave aside the fact that the prime minister whose sympathy for refugees seemed to be sub zero was trying to invoke her own name together with that of the man who organized the Kindertransport to save Jewish children from the Nazis, and also the fact that from a Remainer’s point of view what she had sought during her premiership was anything but compromise – allying herself with the Brexiteer camp and ruling out immediately the idea of a customs union and single market. Let’s also leave aside her uncompromising attack on “Citizens of Nowhere” and her decision to ignore the wishes of what is probably the majority of the country – Remainers and Leavers – who did not want the hardest of Brexits.
Instead, let’s consider the fact that she did try to work with the Brexit bully boys, who still harassed her out of office. Her forced resignation elicited the only real show of emotion from the inscrutable Prime Minister, so deeply upset was she by her inability to bring parliament behind her Withdrawal Bill. Even European figures such as Jean Claude Juncker expressed sympathy for her after her political demise – clearly realizing that whatever her faults, she was likely to be replaced by someone much worse who rather than seek a way out will likely try to engineer a hard Brexit.
With that in mind, when we talk of compromise, let’s look at who we are supposed to be compromising with and what we are supposed to be compromising on.
In a BBC radio confrontation after the European elections, Labour MP Stephen Kinnock eloquently and with impressive calm dealt with Suella Braverman, a breezy, blustering hard Brexiteer from Central Casting. Kinnock, who is married to former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt, is perhaps unsurprisingly an advocate of a Norway-plus type of Brexit, which would include customs union and the single market in order to both honour the result of the referendum and preserve British trade and jobs. As Braverman talked over him and tried to bulldoze him into agreeing with her that without exception all Leave voters had asked for a slash-em and burn-em No Deal Brexit, Kinnock persistently, repeatedly and slowly exposed her empty bluster and rightly quoted leading Brexiteers, including Nigel Farage, as saying before the vote that a Norway or Swiss-style compromise Brexit was perfectly acceptable. Kinnock, a thoughtful politician and a Remain voter, said that he feared a battle between the purists on both sides – Remainers as well as Leavers – could end up accidentally catapulting Britain out of the EU in the worst circumstances.
His point of view has great merit, and even among the staunchest Europhiles, such as Ken Clarke, there is a feeling that fighting Brexit altogether may be a mug’s game compared to damage limitation. The horse has, after all, bolted, they reason. We could try and catch it in the neighbour’s field or we could vote on whether to close the door while it runs out onto the road and gets knocked over by a lorry.
Making nice with the moderate leavers, therefore preserving a ‘compromise’ Brexit rather than allow the ultra-low tax, chlorinated chicken and ‘let’s be Singapore’ brigade to take over the narrative does make a lot of sense.
One major flaw is that as time has gone on, the prominent Leavers appear to have hardened their views. As with Braverman, they have retrospectively changed the narrative to a resounding victory for the hardest of Brexits (although to be fair, her personal Brexit was probably always thus, but now she seems to be including all the 52 percent – even those who have since died). Even born-again Leavers such as Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt are buying into this revisionist tale, as did May, who decreed that all votes for leave were for cutting immigrating and leaving all EU institutions. In reality, we have no idea what kind of Brexit the 52 percent wanted because at the time they weren’t asked. We only have reported comments to go on and even with the Leave leaders there was a wide spectrum, with very possibly a majority of those amenable to some form of institution – Customs Union at the very least. That all seems to be forgotten.
There is also another important point. Since the referendum, nothing has been published that seriously and successfully argues the case that leaving the European Union will make this country and its people better off in any way in this globalized world. Certainly, no advantage has been put forward that outweighs the almost certain disadvantages. The main argument now seems to be that ’people voted’. In 196x ‘people’ voted in a referendum to bring back hanging.
My guess is that now the most ardent leavers, who appear to be in pursuit of a much vaunted, mythical ‘sovereignty’, buccaneering trade deal-making, and cut-throat competition that involves lowering standards and abandoning values that any civilized nation would have thought were non-negotiable, will not in any case be swayed by facts or serious analysis.
In any case, all of the ‘compromise’ options have serious issues – and many turn the UK, once one of the senior, influential rule makers, into rule takers with little say. Leavers have for some time been saying, quite correctly, that this is worse than remaining. For a Remainer, what’s the point of supporting something that they know diminishes this country when the Hard Brexiteers will never accept it – which would be the only point of actually doing this.
The compromisers are supposed to be the grown ups, brushing away tribalism and bringing all sides together – but can they, in all honestly, really be brought together?
If there is anything short of a Hard Brexit now, would Nigel Farage, who has capitalized on his ability to stir up anger to such an extent that his Brexit party attracted around a third of the (very low-turnout) vote in European elections, end his 40-year campaign? His whole existence legitimized (and paid for) by his role at the helm of an insurgency, it’s hard to think that he would give up following a BRINO (Brexit in Name Only). Not when there is so much more mileage to be got out of this. Any Brexit that doesn’t deliver the milk and honey and unicorns that were promised (let you into a secret – there isn’t one that does), is surely likely to be met with forty more years of the betrayal narrative.
Yes, the Leave vote wasn’t simply made up of Brexit leaders – there are the people who voted for this. But without the rabble rousers who disastrously brought what was essentially a fringe issue in British politics to the centre, how many of them – or any of us – would have given membership much thought?
And if the Brexiteers aren’t silenced and satisfied, what is the purpose of pandering to them? Indeed wasn’t the whole rationale behind the enterprise launched by the unlamented David Cameron to shut them up?
A sensible, humane, prosperous future for this country, which can address the numerous, urgent global problems we now face such as the fallout from climate change, technology and globalisation, lies through continued membership of a club which is at least seeking the answers of the kind we might agree with. It might not be perfect, but nobody says it is. The point is, on the inside, we work together to improve a block which today’s global politics say it is imperative we belong to. We were in the driving seat, on the top table, and influential. We only don’t believe that because nobody has really tried to explain or sought to understand. So much of the UK media narrative around EU has been via amusingly alarmist articles about a perceived threat to pasties and sausages.
To my mind, the whole point of the Citizen of the World idea includes working together, mutual understanding, tolerance and, yes, compromise.
But on some issues, compromise isn’t a happy middle ground (to invoke the wartime appeasement scenario is crass, but since it’s used by Brexiteers to describe any form of negotiation with the EU I might suggest that would at least be more apt here than there).
In this case, ‘compromise’ involves agreeing to something that you believe is wholly damaging and goes against all your principles to get a result that diminishes your country and still won’t end the debate because the other side will still cry foul and declare betrayal.
In this case, ‘compromise’ does indeed seem to be a dirty word.