Brexit: A complete catastrophe?

Eddy Wax 26 January 2018

Here’s a quick quiz question: is Brexit a) a “complete catastrophe” b) a “historically tragic moment” or c) “the most unspeakable toxic mistake”? If you are political commentator Ian Dunt, it is all three. In an impassioned talk at Christ’s college’s Davidson Nicol Society this week, he set out why, if things stay as they are, the country is effectively doomed.

In a nutshell, the Brexit negotiations come down to a choice between “all of the control or all of the trade”. Both are “terrible options” but he argues that both main parties’ strategies involve choosing control at the expense of trade, which would be particularly disastrous.

After his talk, Dunt told me how he imagined the UK would fare if we chose control over trade: “The poorest people become the even poorer, the communities who were expressing their alienation are now shafted even harder on the back of Brexit, and that opens up the potential for populist right-wing politicians to come back with even more anti-immigrant stuff.”

The future looks bleak but there is one alternative. If the Tories’ Withdrawal Bill is voted down, it would send a “spasm of chaos” through British politics, the results of which, Dunt says, are anyone’s guess. “But I would take the chaos rather than the certainty of impoverishing my country, any day of the week.”

The main aim of his talk, however, was to get to the bottom of Labour’s Brexit stance. After all, “It seems completely insane that any Labour party would be supporting Brexit.”

Dunt argued that the 2016 referendum brutally exposed a split in the party between the traditional labour movement and liberal voters which had been gestating for decades. Labour MPs are no longer coming up through trade union routes, and many Labour-voting communities now have an MP who cannot connect with them. Perhaps, he suggests, this has stopped them from being able to counter growing anti-immigrant rhetoric.

But on top of this internal split among its voters, Dunt believes there is another factor which is crucial to explaining Labour’s Brexit stance: Jeremy Corbyn’s personal Euroscepticism. Armed to the teeth with facts and figures Dunt took apart some of the beliefs which underpin the Labour leader’s view that the EU is essentially Neoliberal. Every economic policy in the Labour manifesto could be delivered under EU rules, he claimed.

Dunt, a ‘Remoaner’ if ever there was one, also railed against Corbyn’s opposition to the free movement of people across the EU. As a ‘lobby journalist’, who therefore spends most of his time in the House of Commons, he said an anti-immigrant viewpoint was now pretty much the consensus in Westminster. “Apparently, all Polish people who came here are plumbers”, he said, sparking some grim chuckles in the room. In a country with an aging population and a cash-strapped health service, Dunt countered the Labour leadership by making the case for immigration – but he was not done with Corbyn yet.

“Who’s in charge of Labour’s Brexit policy?” he asked. Between Corbyn, John McDonnell, Keir Starmer and even Seumas Milne, no-one knows who holds the central authority. But even if Corbyn is making the calls, it seems Dunt does not rate him highly as a leader.

After the talk, he told me: “I think [Corbyn’s] shockingly bad at public speaking, in the Commons or outside of it. And yet the evidence suggests he is one of the most galvanising, electrifying speakers in modern British political history. I can’t square it.”

An engaging speaker himself, Dunt clearly has a keen ear for the way we speak about politics and in his view, political discourse has become radically less meaningful since the Brexit vote. Having described Labour’s Brexit conversation as ‘meaningless, vacuous babbling’ in his talk, he accused Labour of going against the principles of their self-proclaimed ‘Straight-talking, honest politics’.

“The core thing that is cynical”, he explained, “is the desire to use language designed not to inform the public but to make them think that tonally something is happening, while you buy yourself, privately, more room for manoeuvre.”

As the author of a book on Brexit, the Editor of and a political commentator who regularly does the rounds on TV and radio, how much impact does he think his views are making?

“It sounds cynical but mostly it’s true: if there’s change it’s because you’ve influenced policy makers. But also, you might be able to provide a little bit more public understanding of an issue or help inform them so that they can discuss it in a rational way.

“And given that so much of the debate is now about identity and emotion, merely fixing it down in the world of evidence, and reason and demonstrative fact, seems to be to be a form of public service, even though I’m not entirely sure, on a day-to-day basis, that I’m influencing any real change.”