It’s become common to demand that Labour take a clearer stand against Brexit. Such demands, I fear, forget Wittgenstein’s point – that a clear picture of a fuzzy thing is itself fuzzy.
I say this because there is a genuine dilemma here. On the one hand, it’s clear that Brexit will be a horrible, impoverishing, mess. But on the other hand, it’s what the voters want.
Many, of course, don’t feel this dilemma. Those who regard Brexit as a good thing in itself – an assertion of British sovereignty - are willing to bear the economic cost (or are wilfully blind to it, or hoping to shift it onto others).
And on the other side, some centrist-managerialists are relaxed about ignoring voters’ preferences.
Those of us who regard empowering people as a central plank of leftism don’t, however, have this luxury. This, I think, makes Labour’s apparent confusion over Brexit understandable; it’s the product of a genuine conflict of values. Maintaining this ambiguity is, I think, a least-bad option: I prefer to call it “constructive ambiguity” rather than “weaponized vacuity”, to use Ian Dunt’s phrases.
Brexit is above all a Tory mess. Labour’s right to want to avoid it as far as possible.
You might think a solution to this is to want a second referendum. It’s perfectly possible that, once they get a clear sight of what real Brexit actually means, voters will reject it.
Personally, I’m not sure. The first referendum was a despicable, dishonest spectacle. There’s no reason to suppose a second would be better. Quite the opposite. Brexiteers might be more desperate next time around: backfire effects and asymmetric Bayesianism warn us that partisans don’t change their minds when confronted with discorroborating evidence, but rather double down and become more dogmatic.
What’s more, a Remain win would not kill the issue. It’s quite possible that some sort of European “crisis” in the future will trigger claims from Brexiteers that things have changed to justify a third referendum. We’d then have a hokey cokey policy towards the EU: in, out, in, out, shake it all about. I find this a horrible prospect. Blair is bang right to say Brexit is a “massive distraction”. It steals cognitive bandwidth from more important matters. I’d like to see the issue killed for good, and I don’t think a second referendum would achieve this.
There is, though, perhaps a bigger problem here. Brexit has highlighted some fundamental problems with politics. I’m not thinking here merely of the fact – important though it is – that we lack the state capacity to manage the process. I fear instead that we lack the tools to deal with the issue.
What I mean is that many political issues are matters of degree: more or less government, more or less equality, more or less freedom and so on. Politics is then a matter of tweaking dials a little.
Brexit, though, is different. It’s a binary issue: in or out. And it seems we can’t settle this matter. This might be because the stakes are incommensurable - sovereignty versus (some) prosperity – and as Alasdair MacIntyre said, we have no way of weighing such claims against each other*. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that political partisans are fanatical narcissists.
Perhaps this leaves just one hope – that Brexit will fade as an issue only when its supporters, being older than average, die off. To paraphrase Max Planck, civilization progresses one funeral at a time.
* I confess to not understanding the appeal of Brexit here: Brexiteers have never satisfactorily told me what I will be free to do after Brexit that I can’t do so now. But this might be because I have too prosaic a mind.