How to Stop Brexit (And Make Britain Great Again) by Nick Clegg, Bodley Head, £8.99
Even at the height of Cleggmania, I never understood the appeal of the then Liberal Democrat leader. Nick Clegg performed very strongly during the prime ministerial debates of 2010, but his default position was to define his party against Labour and Conservative “excesses”. Little wonder the Lib Dems failed to assert themselves in five years of coalition government.
In How to Stop Brexit Clegg appears to have found the sense of purpose his party lacked when in power. His new book is an impassioned lament against the lies of last year’s Leave campaign, and a practical guide for anyone wanting to halt the national calamity Brexit is fast becoming.
The arguments for revisiting last year’s vote to leave the European Union are familiar enough. Prices are rising. Businesses are relocating. Britain is losing influence on the global stage. Brexit represents a victory for ‘male, pale and stale’ tabloid editors and their hedge fund manager allies over liberal, internationally-minded millennials: “an unforgivable act of generational theft.” The fact that Theresa May and David Davis have proved so inept in dealing with their European counterparts only underscores the hollowness of the promise that Brexit would allow Britain to take back control of its destiny.
The Labour party occupies a central space in How to Stop Brexit. It is the focus of some of Clegg’s fiercest criticisms. It is also held up as the best hope for bringing about a reconsideration of Brexit. On both points (and though it’s no longer fashionable to say so), I agree with Nick.
Too many Labour politicians remain trapped by the belief that the ‘will of the people’, as expressed on 23 June 2016, cannot change and that Brexit must be enacted. All the Labour party can do, they argue, is to make Brexit work – though what that means in practice is anyone’s guess. Others prefer to say as little as possible on the subject, instead turning their attention to the much simpler task of attacking the enfeebled prime minister and her divided cabinet.
Both positions display an ignorance of a rapidly changing political context. Insisting that Labour, should it be elected to government, would have a duty to deliver Brexit ignores the fact that the surge in the Labour vote in this year’s general election came from disaffected Remain voters. Equally important, the shift in public opinion against Brexit is most pronounced among C2DE voters: the very people some Labour MPs fear ‘betraying’ are those most likely to have changed their mind.
By the same token, avoiding Brexit to concentrate on exposing Conservative disarray ignores two obvious realities. First, the impossibility of negotiating a successful Brexit deal is precisely why the Tory Party is in such dire straits. Were Labour in government and committed to delivering Brexit, it would find itself in a similar situation. Second, Labour has scored several notable victories against Conservative austerity in recent months. But if Britain crashes out of the EU in March 2019, austerity will be prolonged and Labour’s transformative manifesto pledges will be undeliverable.
Winning over Labour MPs, therefore, is the most urgent task if a Brexit catastrophe is to be averted. To do this, Clegg advocates a simple course of action: “join the Labour party and make your voice heard.” Once the first step is achieved, Clegg sets out various ways new members can make their views on Brexit known: raising the issue at local meetings, writing motions, ensuring Brexit is debated at Labour conference.
When parliament votes next autumn on the terms of the Brexit deal, it will decide the future direction of the country for a generation. Therefore, winning over MPs is the primary task at hand. And for this, Clegg advocates not only regular emails and letters, but monthly visits to MPs’ surgeries. In his experience, “few things have as great an impact as people forcefully explaining themselves in person.”
The last section of the book, entitled ‘Making Britain Great Again’, drifts a little too far into wishful thinking. Clegg hopes the rise of the populist right across Europe will encourage EU leaders to review rules on freedom of movement. In exchange for membership of a reformed union, Britain would commit to greater cooperation with European partners on defence and foreign policy. But if the conclusion feels like an afterthought, it is probably intended as such. Clegg’s main intention is to persuade people that stopping Brexit is both desirable and possible – and on these measures the work must be considered a great success.
Will the next few months see a major influx of ‘Remaintryists’ joining the Labour party? I for one certainly hope so. The party’s current position, of saying as little as possible about the biggest issue since the Second World War, cannot continue. Time is running out for Labour MPs to recover the courage of their convictions on Brexit. Efforts to help them do so – even efforts made by our political opponents – should be wholeheartedly welcomed by the Labour movement, while there is still time to change course.