James Kirkup

James Kirkup is Director of the London-based Social Market Foundation

March 11, 2019

There are many counterfactuals whereby Britain would not today be leaving the EU, but the cleanest and easiest alternative universe to ponder is the one where the 2016 referendum went the other way. Imagine Remain had squeaked a victory, perhaps by 52% to 48%. What would the Right of British politics look like today?

The most obvious point to make is that even without a formal process of Brexit underway, the European question would still dominate and perhaps even define politics and, to some degree, policy.

It is sometimes claimed on Twitter that David Cameron called the EU referendum in the belief that he would win it and thus unify the Conservative tribes behind him and EU membership. That is, in fact, unfair to Mr Cameron. Whatever else is true of his decision to call that referendum (short summary: by the time he called it, it was his only option; but he himself did a great deal to make the vote inevitable), he had no illusions about ever ending the Tory wars over Europe; he just hoped to quieten the issue for a while.

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Mr Cameron knew that if he won, the Tories (and other Right-wingers) that he defeated would neither forgive him nor consider the issue settled for a generation. The 1975 referendum gave birth to modern Euroscepticism, and besides, Leave campaigners in 2016 were clear they were prepared to fight on if, as they expected, they lost.

So even without Brexit, the Right would still be fighting about Europe, and perhaps more dramatically than today. A Remain win in 2016 wouldn’t have killed Ukip; instead, it would only have grown stronger, energised by the grievance of defeat, and very likely bolstered by significant numbers of defecting Tory voters and even MPs.

Today, instead, the Right and its divisions over Europe are still, just about, contained within the body of the Conservative Party. A 52:48 Remain win might well have led to divisions on a comparable scale but within two parties, Ukip on steroids and a Conservative Party suddenly shorn of its most ardent anti-Europeans.

How would the thinking of that remnant Tory party have developed? Start with immigration, which was, after all, the origin of the referendum. Mr Cameron called the vote because of the growth of a Ukip that had successfully forged the policies of liberal immigration and EU membership into a single weapon with which to wound a Conservative Party that tacitly supported both those policies without ever bothering to argue for them with the electorate.

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As George Osborne now admits in public, that is how Mr Cameron painted himself in a corner over the referendum. Several years of effectively telling voters ‘Ukip are right about immigration being bad but please don’t vote for them’ left him with no choice to call the vote, and then hamstrung his Remain campaign. His message then became ‘Ukip are right about Europe being rubbish but please don’t vote to leave.’

Having won a referendum for Remain and seen a chunk of its Ukip-inclined members leave, it seems at least possible that the Conservative Party after 2016 might just have decided to take a more honest and positive stance on immigration. After all, EU free movement would remain the affirmed foundation of British immigration policy, endorsed by the majority, so why not accept that fact and try to make a political virtue of it?

One of the oddities of the last couple of decades of British politics is that so few people on the Right have been prepared to make a positive case for immigration, or grasped the electoral gains to be had from doing so. Mr Osborne was hardly alone among senior Tories in understanding that an open migration policy, properly implemented and framed, delivers economic benefits and positions its authors to capture the votes of an increasingly diverse and open-minded electorate. But precious few on the Right have acted on those insights.

Of course, it’s not certain that in my 52:48 scenario, mainstream Conservatism would finally have embraced an open international labour market; as someone who takes a fairly liberal view on immigration, I’m probably showing some optimism bias there.

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It’s at least as likely that Conservatives after a narrow Remain win would choose once again to accommodate the nativism of Ukip rather than making the positive case for their own immigration stance. Perhaps this choice would come down to personalities and personal choices, and perhaps Boris Johnson would again be left to make a momentous choice.

Would Leave have won in real-world 2016 without the energy and respectability Mr Johnson brought the campaign? We sometimes forget what a departure the Leave campaign, with its warnings of Turkish immigration, was from Mr Johnson’s previous liberalism: as Mayor of London he supported an amnesty for illegal immigrants, and before the referendum became inevitable he was an eloquent advocate of an open-to-the-world Toryism.

In my alternative-world 2016, Mr Johnson would face a similar post-referendum choice to the one that confronts him now in this world: double down on the nativist rhetoric of the Leave campaign, or return to the open politics One Nation agenda he previously espoused. In both worlds, there would be an opportunity for him to attempt a historic shift in the British Right’s approach to immigration, to tell a story of a confident nation that welcomes talent from around the world, and of a broad-church party that celebrates anyone prepared to get on their bike and find work in Britain, no matter where their journey began.

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In today’s world, long-term questions about Tory thinking on immigration are unanswered, and will remain so for as long as Theresa May is in office. Absent clear leadership from politicians, voters are again setting the pace, repeatedly telling pollsters they are far more relaxed about immigration than politicians – on both Right and Left – tend to assume.

The electorate is open-minded about immigration, meaning leaders who make the case for it could prosper. Perhaps in the no-Brexit scenario, Right-wingers would finally take ownership for the open-borders, open-market policies that EU membership entailed, and offer that leadership.

Immigration is hardly the only issue where new Conservative thinking has struggled to grow in the shadow cast by the vast Brexit project. Probably the biggest subject to be neglected is the economy and the public finances. Until early 2016, austerity and the resourcing of the state were the defining issues in politics, and the Right had a story to tell: the aim was to balance the books and make the state live within its means again.

The economics of that story are questionable (states aren’t households and don’t need to balance their budgets in the same way) and it was always, in a sense, a short-term answer to a long-term question. Many Tories (and some voters) backed austerity to answer a crisis in the public finances.

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But then what? After the deficit was brought under some control, as now, what then? How big should the state be in the age of Amazon and the iPhone? And what should it do, and not do? It is just possible that without the existential challenges of Brexit dominating politics, Tories and others on the Right would be closer to answering those questions than they are today, where the closest thing politics offers to a coherent narrative on the UK economy is the one offered by John McDonnell.

You don’t have to agree with the shadow chancellor to concede that he offers clearer answers to those economic questions than almost anyone on the Right today. Recent Government travails, over knife crime and police numbers, and school budgets, confirm that there is effectively no Conservative narrative on the public finances: if the party even knows how much and what it wants to cut, it has nothing to say to voters about why.

The Conservative debate about a response to Corbynomics will only really get underway after Mrs May’s departure; without Brexit blotting out the sun, that debate would, in early 2019, be in full swing. And it might well be a clash between the mild market-scepticism of Nick Timothy’s 2017 manifesto (“We do not believe in untrammeled free markets”) and the turbo-liberalism of Liz Truss. In the alternative universe as in this one, the outcome of that debate is hard to call, but in the no-Brexit scenario, the Right might be rather closer to settling on its answer to economic populism than it is today.

That answer would, in an optimistic view, take account of millions of votes to Leave the EU; even in the no-Brexit scenario, more than 15 million voters would reject the prevailing British political-economic settlement at the ballot box.

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In this world, the sheer scale of the institutional project of exit has somehow blinded politicians of all sorts to the need to answer the political-economic questions raised by that vote to Leave; there is painfully little thinking about an economic model that would work better for Leave-voters and their communities. (Neither Mrs May’s sticking-plaster regional giveaways nor hard Brexiteers’ shallow chatter about Singapore come close.)

Industrial policy, regional policy, skills, training, social mobility, the concerns and status of non-graduates – all these are largely ignored by Conservatives fixating on the process of Brexit.

Maybe, then, in a world where the Right didn’t talk so much about the job of actually leaving the EU, it might have time and space to think properly about the millions of people who voted to reject the European and British order of things and the reasons they did so. Maybe.