There is, we are told, more joy in heaven over a sinner that repenteth so those of a Brexit-supporting disposition should raise a glass to Sir Keir Starmer for his recent speech. The general of Remain’s long guerilla war to stop the country leaving the EU has emerged, blinking like a Japanese soldier finally leaving the jungle, into the post-Brexit world. The Labour leader has announced that his party will no longer seek to rejoin, nor will it seek membership of the Single Market or Customs Union.
The move is not, however, without risk for him. Much of his party (and its electorate) is strongly Europhile. How will they take his move to the Dark Side? Nor is publicly recanting your view on the defining political issue of the past decade necessarily a good look for a self-styled, strong-and-stable man of integrity. Might those, on the Corbynite left, and Brexity right, who look at his record and see a brylcreemed chancer whose only deeply held conviction is whatever is most likely to secure his political advancement, actually have a point?
But that, surely, would be uncharitable.
Let us, instead, take Sir Keir at his word, and celebrate what his latest position tells us about British politics. For it shows that, despite the ongoing drama, the system is still capable of making progress. The Conservative Party may still be arguing with itself, but on the most divisive issue of the past few decades, the country as a whole appears to have moved on.
Like the Hegelian dialectic beloved of Marxists and pretentious students everywhere, politics consists of two opposing positions (thesis and antithesis) which are then (ideally) reconciled into a synthesis which then becomes the thesis of the next stage. Margaret Thatcher considered Tony Blair to be her greatest achievement because he combined her free market ideology with Labour’s historic preference for redistribution, creating a new approach which preserved her legacy.
If we take him at face value, Starmer is attempting a similar move. There is hard Brexit, and there is Rejoin and he is attempting to unite the two, retaining the legal fact of the country’s departure from the EU, while attempting to reconcile Remainers by giving them more of what they want. Labour’s conversion also blows a hole in Boris’ potential argument that only he can guarantee that Brexit is not reversed. If only Richard Nixon (a politician whose reputation for integrity was less than absolute) could go to China, perhaps only renowned Europhile Sir Keir can go to Brussels.
But if his new approach is politics working as it should, a glance around the world shows how increasingly rare this is.
Rather than progressing through a process of compromise, American politics seems stuck in increasingly vicious circularity. Take the Mexico City Policy, a result of the Helms Amendment, which bans the use of federal funds for abortion overseas. It was enacted in 1984 by Ronald Reagan, repealed by Bill Clinton, reinstated by George W Bush, repealed again by Barack Obama, and finally (to date) brought back into force by Donald Trump.
Nor is it just the thorny issue of abortion. Trump ran for office on a platform of repealing Obamacare – perhaps the last major domestic policy achievement of any President. That he did not do so is a reflection of a lack of political nous and then the loss of his legislative majority. Much of the early days of the Biden Presidency consisted of the signing of a battery of Executive Orders undoing the Executive Orders of the Trump Presidency, some of which themselves rescinded earlier policies. Neither have much in the way of substantive domestic achievements, save overturning those of their predecessors. If a Democratic Congress passes Federal abortion legislation, no doubt the Republicans will run on repealing it. So opposed are America’s thesis and antithesis that they can never come together to form a synthesis.
But if American politics is circular, then in France is positively static. Emmanuel Macron’s recent loss in the legislative elections, and an opposition that seems keen to oppose, hold out little prospect that the President will be able to continue his (relatively tepid) programme of reform. At the moment, it seems unlikely that he will even be able to leave his successor much in the way of policy to unpick. The antithesis formed by the unholy alliance of far left and far right prevents his thesis from ever coming into being. Which doubtless rankles with a man often thought to see himself as one of Hegel’s ‘world historical individuals’.
Sir Keir is a lawyer and so we should be careful that his recent announcement does not contain some as yet unseen elephant trap such as dynamic alignment which would serve as a de facto if not de jure rejoining of the EU. But if he keeps to the spirit as well as the letter of his speech, he will show that Britain’s much maligned democracy is still capable of uniting opposing positions in a way in which others, increasingly, cannot.
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