It has been an extraordinary and unprecedented time in British politics, with even those sitting in the House of Commons chamber struggling to keep a firm grip on what has been going on. Last week culminated in the rejection of a “no deal” outcome with the strange and existentialist spectacle of a beleaguered Prime Minister effectively voting against herself, and parliament pushing to extend Article 50. However, one thing is for certain: our country and Westminster still remains divided over the issue, as does the London Assembly.
I was disappointed to read a comment piece recently published by On London penned by my London Assembly colleague, Gareth Bacon, which urged Londoners to accept a form of hard Brexit to “lead the country to further greatness”. Firstly, I should make clear that I like Gareth, but not his politics, and I question his grasp of the challenges facing this city, the country and our political system now and beyond Brexit. It was an article that seemed to trivialise the serious concerns Londoners have about our departure from the EU. It also raised questions as to why he would, however inadvertently, align himself with views backed by unsavoury figures such as Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin et al.
Now more than ever, it is vital that we retain a calm and rational approach to Brexit that respects and follows parliamentary procedure. However, it is clear that we are in an endgame situation, where our options are becoming swiftly attenuated and the Prime Minister must now respect parliament’s rejection of no-deal, go back to Brussels, ask for an extension of Article 50 and then call a general election or, failing that, a People’s Vote.
In his 955-word diatribe against Remainers, the Mayor and, more obscurely, “the children of Blair”, my Conservative fellow AM waxed lyrical about the benefits that an ill-defined hard Brexit will bring to British democracy, but is perhaps unsurprisingly vague on the details. He draws ambiguous comparisons with the Suffragettes and Chartists, though it is hard to imagine which aspects of their direct action approach he’d support.
He’s even more unclear about whether he supports those ultras who would like to take us back to the dark ages. I suspect that our democracy would not be strengthened if parliament pursued a hard Brexit, which was not part of the Leave campaign, which ignores the needs of a significant portion of Leave voters as well as Remainers, and which will leave the next generation to pick up the pieces of a disastrous outcome that some were not even given the right to vote for.
His article also betrayed a lack of acceptance of basic facts. We had an advisory referendum, which resulted in an extremely tight vote margin, leaving a vast number of complex legal and economic implications to be untangled. We live in the real world, and any trade agreement we enter or leave comes with rules and conditions that must be negotiated.
In a healthy and progressive democracy, why would Brexit not be subject to an intense and protracted process of parliamentary scrutiny and some level of passionate dissent from the public? It is concerning that even amid the current tumult and confusion this banal, but fundamental truth needs to be reiterated – that as politicians it is our duty to protect our constituents and our country from unnecessary harm and risks. Gareth refers to Leave voters as “mostly optimists”, but politicians who have been elected to implement historic decisions such as Brexit simply cannot do so with their head in the clouds.
It is also worrying that he so nonchalantly derides the overwhelming number of concerns and warnings issued by financial experts and business leaders as “Project Fear” or letting the country down. As a member of the London Assembly, he will be well aware of the potential consequences of a hard or no-deal Brexit for the capital.
Firstly, our security could be put at significant risk in the event of a no-deal Brexit. We have heard warnings from the Met that they would lose access to key European criminal databases. There are also legitimate concerns that food shortages could cause riots, hate crime could spike in the same way it did following the referendum result and officers could be abstracted from London to police the Irish border. In the longer term, there could be consequences for the union of this country should it result in efforts to bring forward a referendum on Northern Ireland’s future in the UK. After all, the Democratic Unionist Party does not speak for all unionists – in fact, many people in Northern Ireland view Brexit as a threat to their security and their prosperity.
We could also see a huge shock to the City of London, integral to the UK economy, with major job losses in our vital financial services sector and businesses scrambling to move outside of the capital and the country altogether. Our NHS services in the capital would also be likely to suffer, with limited access to medicines and spiralling staff vacancy rates likely to get even worse. Tackling the housing crisis in London would become even more of a challenge as our construction workforce would be hit. We simply don’t train enough people in this country in the necessary skills to fulfil the needs of our economy.
With all these things in mind, would Gareth venture to repeat his claim that his preferred, reckless form of Brexit would resemble a “progressive step” akin to “Chartism and the Suffragette movement”? On this, I am with, as he puts it, “politicians like Mayor Khan”, who “cannot understand why anyone would ever want to commit such reckless self-harm”.
Len Duvall is leader of the Labour Group on the London Assembly.