In a series of three pieces, Atul Hatwal sets out how hard Brexit can be fought in the coming years. Today he looks at the political tactics needed to control the debate
The unwritten story of the past twenty years of British politics is the triumph of the nutter. Or at least, those who were once commonly described as such.
I started working for the Labour party in the mid-1990s. Back then, the Maastricht rebels – the political forbears of today’s Brexiteers – were regarded as fringe loons yearning for pre-Suez Britain, while hard left refuseniks such as Jeremy Corbyn were similarly dismissed as deluded Bennite voices from a long dead past.
In possibly the quote of the decade, John Major’s press secretary, Tim Collins, described John Redwood’s supporters in the 1995 Tory leadership contest as the “swivel-eyed barmy army, from ward eight at Broadmoor.”
How times change.
Many centrist words have been expended bemoaning the triumph of yesterday’s nutters, not enough understanding why they have been successful.
The journey from margin to mainstream for Brexiteers and hard left alike has been driven by a common political tactic, a tactic which pro-Europeans should repeat in the fight against hard Brexit: co-ordination between ultras and moderates.
Campaigns to move opinion on big issues are won by tag teams. Ultras and moderates working together, wittingly or otherwise.
Ultras are needed to yank the Overton window – that narrow range of ideas which constitute the acceptable range of debate at any one time – from its resting place. Moderates then intervene to legitimise the shift.
The cycle is well established.
First, the ultras say or do something arresting that is outside of the mainstream and are condemned as heretics. Then comes the rationalisation where moderates enter the debate, validating the underlying content of the ideas expressed if not the explicit nature of their presentation and finally, after several turns of the news cycle with multiple op-eds, bloviation, repetition and normalisation of the original ultra position, the centre of debate shifts.
The Maastricht rebels were ultras who created the political space for slightly more moderate Eurosceptics such as William Hague and Michael Howard to move the Tory party to the right on Europe, generating a momentum that David Cameron could not or did not have the courage to stop.
The net result is that the majority position in the Tory party of 2016 is to the right of what the Maastricht rebels were originally calling for.
Ed Miliband was content to allow people like Len McCluskey and hard left outriders to attack Labour centrists and trash the record of the last Labour government from the left. Miliband’s acquiescence simultaneously shifted the centre of Labour politics to the left and reconnected the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell with mainstream debate in the party.
The leftward momentum generated under Ed Miliband overwhelmed his political heirs at the 2015 and 2016 Labour leadership elections with the net result that Labour is firmly in the grip of the hard left.
Politicians like Ken Clarke, Anna Soubry, Caroline Lucas, Nick Clegg and David Lammy have emerged as outriders for the pro-European cause, starkly setting out the scale of the impending economic calamity. Journalists such as Ian Dunt, Matthew Parris, Matthew D’Ancona and David Aaronovitch make the unapologetic case against hard Brexit.
This group is growing and at the vanguard of the fight. Their passion and toughness, despite the opprobrium heaped upon them, establishes a bulwark against the momentum towards hard Brexit.
However, their efforts will be in vain unless more moderate pro-Europeans legitimise and validate what they are saying.
The easy option for moderates would be to criticise the outriders. To deride those MPs calling for more time and information about government plans before Article 50 is triggered.
There would be approving articles from Brexiteer commentators about the sensible centre turning away from shrill pro-EU voices that are divisive and alienate the public.
But this just plays the hard Brexiteer game.
One of the defining characteristics of the behaviour of mainstream Tory Eurosceptics when talking about the Maastricht rebels was a non-aggression pact. There might have been personal differences behind the scenes but there was rarely any criticism of the cause.
When the pro-EU outriders stake out a position, moderates need to move in behind them.
For example, if a politician such as David Lammy says he will vote against Article 50 because of the economic catastrophe of rushing into Brexit, moderates shouldn’t condemn him but instead talk about the real issues he is raising and the risks for their constituents from what is in prospect.
Their position might be to vote for Article 50, but the key is validate the issues David Lammy has forced onto the agenda by saying something as striking as that he’d vote down Article 50.
Similarly, if Nick Clegg calls for a second referendum, moderates shouldn’t dismiss the idea out of hand but instead make the politically obvious point that whatever the final deal concluded by the government, it will have to demonstrably secure public support, whether at an election or a further referendum.
Once again, the key here is that the underlying point made by Clegg – that public support is a pre-requisite for the deal and cannot just be assumed – should be endorsed.
The 1990s Maastricht rebellion offers a template for how the parliamentary process can be used in a time of small government majority, to focus attention on a single issue. Pro-European MPs should return the complement.
The longer the political debate focuses on the economic consequences of hard Brexit, even though this will be contested by both the government and hard Brexiteers, the more the reality of the economic threat will seep into the public consciousness and slowly the terms of the discourse about the shape of Brexit will shift.
It’s the same basic rationale that Vote Leave successfully applied when sticking to their £350m figure on savings from leaving the EU.
The greater the controversy, the more an issue is debated, the more likely the central idea – if not the specific detail – cuts through to the public’s decision-making process.
Moderates are temperamentally inclined to avoid conflict. There will be plenty of abuse for those who do not dance to the Brexiteer tune and while the ultras will bear the brunt of the attack, there will still be torrents of anti-EU bile for all involved. But it will be a price worth paying. As Matthew D’Ancona eloquently set out earlier this week, it’s time for liberals to toughen up.
There was a memorable scene in the West Wing, which bears re-watching for moderate pro-Europeans. Bruno is talking to Sam, explaining why he is so frustrated with the timidity of so many his party,
“And instead of saying, ‘Well, excuse me, you right-wing, reactionary, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-education, anti-choice, pro-gun, Leave It To Beaver trip back to the Fifties’, we cowered in the corner, and said, ‘Please. Don’t. Hurt. Me.’ No more.”
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut