WE’RE in a jam today but there will not be jam tomorrow. I, for one, have given up trying to predict what will happen next week. Another Tuesday, another motion, another high tide and, yes, another potential Brexit deadline running into the sand.
So today, I wish to address not what might happen in the weeks ahead – but the challenge for our democracy and our political institutions in the years to come.
This is because, quite simply, very many of the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the European Union are going to be deeply, deeply disappointed. However we leave the EU, the problems that they identified as resting at the feet of EU institutions, and our membership of the Union, will not have been resolved.
Take the issue of ‘sovereignty’. That was the watchword. It is now possible to see very clearly not only what a mirage that was, but also how Parliamentarians most heavily committed to Brexit have turned away from their lofty word.
Couple this with the stark reality of what will follow once we break away from the European Union and its current trading arrangements, and you get that the prospects are bleak. The US has made it very clear – if we want a trade deal, we have to go along with their regulations or rather the lack of them.
We will, of course, also have to continue adhering to European standards and regulations if we want to sell into what remains of the European Union. This is where ardent Brexiteers really did mislead, not just voters but those businesses, including those in Yorkshire, who thought it would be a great idea to escape from the Brussels bureaucracy.
For many, their vote was about control of our borders. The rapidity of a changing world around them, of globalisation over which they have no control, concern about the impact of inward migration and the impact this has not just on cultural differences but of lifestyle, language and, yes, religion within formerly homogeneous communities.
The migration statistics issued 10 days ago are instructive of what might happen once we ‘take back control’ and continue to reduce dramatically the number of those coming in to our country from the European Union.
Already the impact of pending Brexit with or without a deal has had a dramatic impact. ‘Three cheers’ I can hear those committed to Brexit shouting when they see the news that the number of those coming in from the European Union has already dropped like a stone. Just 57,000 net intake up to September last year, and continuing to decline.
Pause for a moment before you cheer. The number coming into our country from outside the European Union has, in parallel, taken a massive upward trajectory, increasing to 261,000.
This, it might be noted, is the exact reverse of what happened when the expansion of the EU took place 15 years ago. The number of those coming from outside the European Union dropped and the number from inside the European Union increased.
Those who thought that men and women from very different backgrounds, with different ethnic and religious heritage, would reduce in numbers once we left the European Union are going to get exactly the opposite.
That is the logic of immediate trends, and Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg said very quietly that they were prepared to see this change happen: to welcome people from across the world – in their words because ‘race and colour shouldn’t matter’ – whilst dramatically reducing the numbers coming in from our European partners.
For many people who voted Brexit, it was the feeling of deep disaffection, alienation and of being ‘left behind’. They felt bureaucracies that didn’t listen, decisions that were taken at a distance and in a manner alien to those struggling to make ends meet. These communities have been labelled in the jargon as ‘towns’.
The answer from Theresa May is a pot of £1.6bn spread over seven years to try to compensate for the failure of governments of both persuasions to address fundamental underlying issues, and of course the impact of austerity over the last nine years.
This challenge to the two main parties is made more difficult by the fact that both are split down the middle. There is no clarity about the policies and programmes to tackle underlying grievances. And, sadly for those involved, I see no immediate future for The Independent Group. Many remain my friends but there is no sign of a strategy, no leader or no policy programme.
The challenge for my own party is that whilst I might be in favour of further social ownership of the railways and water, for the people in Pontefract or Rotherham this is an interesting irrelevance. For those in the Conservative European Research Group, these towns might as well be somewhere across the Commonwealth – to be visited only out of necessity.
There will be no one else to blame now. No distant bureaucrats, no ‘foreigners’ taking away our ‘sovereignty’. No one else but us. So watch this space. Politicians of all persuasions should turn their eyes to the future. Take off the sunglasses and appraise the clouds that are gathering. If we get this badly wrong, there really will be stormy times ahead.
David Blunkett is a Labour peer. From Sheffield, he held three senior Cabinet posts in Tony Blair’s government.