Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Plans for Brexit and a post-Brexit UK

In leaving the EU, let us support the Byrne Plan and the Brown Plan: apply to join the European Free Trade Area, use a points system for immigration with a "green card" for EU citizens, and enforce agreements that guarantee the rights of British workers; devolve further powers to the Scottish Parliament including the ability to sign international treaties, and set up a constitutional convention to federalise and decentralise the United Kingdom.

We are now confronted with the prospect of Theresa May's "hard" Brexit - not only outside the EU but outside the Single Market, and going it alone in a world where trading blocs are increasingly essential for all but the economic giants of the USA and China. Those who led the Leave campaign are now in charge of the negotiations on behalf of the UK, and it looks like it could result in the worst Brexit for all of us.

Yet there is an alternative. Let us look at what has been suggested recently by two Labour Party figures, Liam Byrne and Gordon Brown. But before that, two acknowledgements should be made.

First, neither Byrne nor Brown speaks for the current Labour Party leadership (although Brown does have the support of the leader of Scottish Labour). That, though, has no impact on whether or not their proposals have merit, and in any case The 48 Movement stands outside the party political fray in an attempt to unite the country.

Second, we have previously said that the UK may have to leave the Single Market to end free movement of people. That, however, does not put us on the side of those who vilify immigration and spread hatred; and the tone of the present Labour leadership under Jeremy Corbyn on this issue should be applauded. Here is point number 3 of our eight-point plan:

End free movement of labour from the EU (exempting Ireland), even if it means we cannot be members of the EU Single Market, and bring in a new system where EU and non-EU migration is treated equally, while ensuring the UK is a friendly and welcoming country.

 Are we not, therefore, also advocates of a "hard" Brexit? To address that question, consider what I will call the Byrne Plan, which also concedes that the free movement of workers from the EU would end after Brexit (using language I do not agree with, as I will discuss towards the end).

Liam Byrne's opening suggestion, however, is that there should be a second referendum on the "final deal", which he argues for after pointing out that Tony Blair is right to say the British people are entitled to change their minds. Given that context, Byrne's proposal implies another Leave/Remain referendum, because asking the same question again would be the only way people could express a change of mind.

While being able to change your mind - or, indeed, not change your mind - is an important democratic principle, it does not follow that we should just keep on asking. Where does it end - a referendum every year asking the same thing, to allow for people changing their minds? Nonetheless, a case could be made for the legitimacy of another referendum based on having new information once a Brexit deal has been negotiated, but it is not clear whether we could stay in once Article 50 has been triggered (an issue which may have to be settled in court).

Moreover, to have the fullest information we would have to wait until all negotiations were completed - including all trade deals, which could be a decade or more away. Only then would we know the true "final deal" for Brexit. And imagine the anger that would understandably be felt by a segment of the population who already see themselves as sidelined and ill-treated, and whose victory in the referendum would be taken away from them if we did not leave the EU.

As I have argued previously, I think we should leave. Then, once it is established that we will leave, it will be much easier to focus on the manner of leaving. The aim of The 48 Movement is to uphold the outward-looking, inclusive values of those who voted to remain, and that applies to the deal we negotiate with the EU.

My main concern is for the health of our society. The UK's democracy is at risk - as are similar democracies across the world - and we must be prepared to show people that they get what they vote for and then we all live with the consequences, as America is discovering with Donald Trump. That we should not fall for simplistic slogans is a tough lesson but a necessary one. This may sound like I am saying I want a catastrophic Brexit to "teach the voters a lesson"; but it is in all our interests to hope it goes well - or at least as well as it can, given that I believe our interests would have been much better served by voting to remain.

While we should certainly argue for the best outcome, we must also strive to reengage those who have become disengaged, and who are often characterised as politically "apathetic" when it is more likely they are disillusioned and disaffected: a mood of simmering anger and hostility combined with a feeling of powerlessness. It is therefore tackled, in part, by showing people who feel that way that they do have power - but not by bulldozing the rights of others, and not by allowing that power to be grabbed instead by populist politicians.

As Lib Dem leader Tim Farron never tires of pointing out, nobody voted for Theresa May's version of Brexit - because it wasn't on the ballot paper. The referendum only made the decision that we should leave the EU, without establishing anything else, so her Government has no mandate for imposing its view of Brexit on the UK. And as SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon also never tires of pointing out, Scotland voted Remain. I will return specifically to Scotland, and to what I am calling the Brown Plan, shortly. As for what else Brexit could be, Liam Byrne suggests the British people want "free trade, strong borders and rights at work".

His first step towards those goals is applying to join the European Free Trade Area. Its current members are Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein and, as the name suggests, it is a free trade area not a political union. The UK would initially be outside the EU Single Market - but with the consent of the British people we could join the Single Market in the future, perhaps with a similar deal to Norway. As Byrne says, Efta "frees us from any mandatory cooperation on fisheries, agriculture, home affairs, defence or foreign affairs - but affords us the flexibility to fix our own terms with the EU". Because it would not require freedom of movement of workers, we could set our own immigration policy.

Byrne's next proposal, then, is for a points-based immigration system. He says people from EU countries already living here should be given full citizens' rights, and suggests a "green card" which "would let EU citizens visit Britain with ease and apply for a job once here - but only if the job has first been offered to a British citizen". He adds that students and scientists should be outside this system - and I would like that to be extended to all academics, so that our universities would be unaffected. Meanwhile, low-skill jobs would be subject to immigration quotas.

I take issue with Byrne's rhetoric of "strong borders" though, because it plays into the hands of anti-immigration populists and xenophobes. It promotes the notion of having to "defend" our borders against an attempted "invasion". The reality is that the vast majority of people who come here contribute enormously to our country - and, for instance, help keep our NHS running - and should be welcomed and valued.

Finally, Byrne suggests we remain within the Council of Europe and what we calls its "centrepiece", the European court of human rights - "set up to police the postwar system" after the Second World War, and not part of the EU. Byrne says: "Now we need to use the council to enforce agreements such as the European social charter, which guarantee world-class rights for British workers."

These three proposals would help to achieve many aspects of our eight-point plan. There is one major concern they do not tackle and which I have touched on already, though, and that is the renewed calls for Scottish independence. Brexit is, to those of us who want to keep the UK together, a risk - but also perhaps an opportunity. For a solution let us turn to the Brown Plan.

Gordon Brown calls for far-reaching new powers for the Scottish Parliament, including: "the setting of VAT rates, the power to sign international treaties, and controls over agriculture, fisheries, environmental regulation, employment and energy." He also wants a constitutional convention to establish the basis for a federal UK, and this has the support of Kezia Dugdale, Labour's leader in Scotland. His proposal has the twin merits of furthering devolution and providing the opportunity to resolve the constitutional mess England has been left in. And as Labour MP Alison McGovern has argued, a "more federalised" system could end the "anachronistic and suffocating centralism" of our country.

It's nice to end on an optimistic note.