“I have taken great care not to deride, bewail, or execrate human actions, but to understand them, ” the great philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote in the Introduction to his Political Treatise, unfinished when he died in 1677.
This seems the best attitude to take towards Britain’s departure from the European Union (EU), which began on Friday last week but won’t really finish till the end of the year.
Brexit hasn’t just polarised British society and, for a while, paralysed the political system. It has deeply divided the left.
These divisions continue. On social media you can find left Remainers blaming Brexit on what was largely the phantom of Lexit—the regrettably small and weak anti-capitalist opposition to the EU. You can also find supporters of Lexit blaming Remainers for Labour’s defeat.
I have my own very definite opinions on the issues both sides are abusing each other about. But these arguments seem to me largely beside the point now. The most important thing about the protracted political struggle since the June 2016 referendum is the outcome.
Boris Johnson won. It’s worth underlining this, because a lot of people underestimated Johnson, myself included. He proved himself to be more than just a bumbling opportunist with a long history of expressing repellent views.
He used the Brexit impasse to seize the premiership and then manoeuvred the opposition parties into an election that he won handsomely by promising obsessively to “get Brexit done”.
Thanks to this Britain has perhaps the most right wing Tory government ever. The old pro-European “wets” who held Margaret Thatcher back and eventually forced her out have been purged. And, by refusing to remain aligned with the EU’s regime of trade regulation, this government is going for a much harder version of Brexit than was ever envisaged under Theresa May.
There has been a lot of talk that Johnson would soon unveil his commitment to a much softer version of “One Nation Conservatism”.
But last week the Financial Times reported that Johnson and his chancellor of the exchequer, Sajid Javid, have ordered cabinet ministers to cut their budgets by 5 percent. So austerity isn’t over after all. These plans may be designed to free up cash to deal with a disruptive exit from the EU single market.
So this is the immediate future. What this means is that all sections of the left have suffered a defeat. Those who campaigned for a second referendum to reverse Brexit have lost. But so too have those of us—including Jeremy Corbyn when his party let him—who argued for a progressive break with the EU.
The people who are likely to pay are the same working class people who have already suffered grievously during the past ten years of Tory rule.
We can and will recover from this defeat. We have suffered far worse ones. By breaking loose from the EU, Johnson is pursuing a risky course at a time of growing economic and geopolitical instability. His luck will run out, maybe quite soon.
Recovery requires careful and sober thinking. We need to understand better why we lost. In particular, why were the Tory right able to see off the most left wing leadership that Labour has ever had? Brexit was important in this, but to understand why some Labour Leave seats tilted towards the Tories we need to dig deeper and further back in time.
But this isn’t an exercise in academic history. We have to fight to hold back the Tories and the racists—and all this against the horizon of accelerating climate chaos. On all these issues there is far more than unites the different fragments of the left than divides us.
I’m not saying we should just hold hands and sing Kumbaya. Understanding what went wrong and mapping out a strategy for the future inevitably involves disagreement and debate, perhaps particularly over Labour’s future course. Clarity comes through argument and the struggle of tendencies, not consensus.
But the blame game is becoming a tedious and repetitive waste of energy. It’s time to move on and prepare for the very tough battles that lie ahead of us.