Politics and the Vassal State: a game of two halves

You know a government is in trouble when it’s MPs start attacking each other with metaphors and acronyms. Gone are the days when MPs jousted with swords; when the lines dividing each side of the House were drawn just more than ‘2 sword-widths apart’.

This wouldn’t be much help today, not because MPs now have ribbons to hang their swords on in the Members cloakroom, but because all the duelling is all on the Tories own benches. The source of the conflict is, of course, BREXIT.

Brexiteers lunge furiously at their own Members negotiating an exit deal. They accuse Ministers of turning Britain into a ‘vassal state’ – independent in name only but entirely bound by EU rules (which Britain will no longer have a say in). Some of the neo-Cons prefer to call this BRINO (Brexit In Name Only); skipping past the ‘swivel-eyed’ descriptions from pro-European colleagues they have fallen out of love with. Today’s Conservative Party looks more like a send-up version of ‘Britain’s Got Talons’.

This is not the government’s finest moment.

On the other side of the table, EU negotiators scratch their heads in disbelief, wondering what the UK’s position will be this week … and how long it will last. Beyond these jousting tables, the British public also scratch their heads in disbelief … and dismay.

Of Freedom and Folly

Strip away the abuse and the situation looks even worse. Much of the UK’s BREXIT debate is mired in nostalgic self-delusion. British governments no longer send troops and fleets to discover new lands, open up new markets, subjugate indigenous peoples and pillage their assets. This power has long been handed over to corporations.

Brexiteers who champion Britain as the ‘land of the free(-traders)’ would still happily bind us into the WTO and NATO. The freedoms they want to protect are the freedoms enjoyed by wealth and power. We used to call this feudalism.

But what of the ‘vassal state’ crowd?

There’s much to take issue with here, too, but a word in their defence. We do not live in a world where independence is an answer to climate change, famine, flooding, freak weather or forced migrations. The threats to human survival require us to build safety nets, not walls.

However badly we’ve done it, this has always been part of the European DNA. Rescue it from corporate domination (and over zealous bureaucracy) and it may still be the place to start. But you have to deal with the ‘vassal’ jibe first.

Even opposing football fans would not describe Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool, Man Utd or Chelsea as ‘vassal’ football clubs. Sure, they are dominated by foreign ownership, but their involvement in European competitions doesn’t make them vassal clubs. They play by agreed European rules; introducing goal-line technology, financial constraints and changes in the use of substitutes by common agreement. That’s how international rules are formed. If you want to play, that’s just how it works.

If Chelsea tried to field 15 players, or Man City demanded their goal be 2 metres smaller than their opponents’, they wouldn’t get a game. Of course they could turn to the USA and negotiate a ‘bespoke’ football deal of their own. The reality, however, is that any deal with Trumpville USA would see higher end-posts on the goals, players wearing helmets and shoulder padding, and free to take each other out, with or without the (oval) ball. Back in Blighty, fans would be left asking ‘whatever happened to the national game?’

Reviving the national game

In football, as in politics, the best way of improving matters is to decide to play the game differently. This is what the Dutch did with their approach to ‘total football’. It is what Barcelona have done for years and what Hungary did to England back in 1953. They played a more skilful game, making others look out of date and ordinary.

My fortune (or misfortune) was to have been involved in schoolboy football (and maybe politics) at a time when we chased after all the wrong things. Our under-16 squads were always 10ft taller than the opposition. Schoolboy coaching was obsessed with ‘the long ball’. I can still hear the Yorkshire-accented tones of touch-line instruction,s bellowing “Get ‘t ball into ‘t box, lad!” But the days of winning by brute force and size were already numbered.

So it is with Brexit. Real answers will not come from getting government Ministers to be less lumpen with each other. My own team has to play differently. So it came as a relief to hear the Labour Shadow Cabinet is to have its own BREXIT away-day. This, at least, should be a more comradely occasion.

The challenge for Labour is to move beyond government banalities. It has to come up with a different game plan. At the moment it isn’t clear that Labour knows what this might be.

Apart from the crazies, most people in Britain want a positive relationship with Europe. Most want access to a European market, free of external tariffs or long, bureaucratic border delays. Most want a common framework for the pursuit of criminals, a pooling of medical research, and secure access to the best brains universities and industry are producing. But you don’t get these on the back of vague promises.

In defence of ambiguity, Labour can legitimately claim that since it has no place at the negotiating table it will always be accused of merely undermining the process. But if negotiations fall apart, and the Tories implode in disarray, Labour has to have an alternative credible offer for a snap election.

The pursuit of ‘total politics’

Labour would have no time to negotiate its own ‘bespoke relationship’ with Europe. The Party would have to decide whether to reject the Tory deal or not? It would have to tell voters whether it would accept WTO tariff terms or ask the EU to turn the Article 50 clock back to kick-off time.

It would have to say whether to advocate key EU rule changes and remain a member of the European club, or to do so as an isolated outsider; kicking a ball against the WTO wall ’til someone agrees to play with us. But if Labour is to offer a BREXIT alternative, someone has to spell out what it is.

This means a lot more than touchline exhortations of “Get ‘t ball into ‘t box!”

Tomorrow’s world of ‘total politics’ already cries out for recognition. It is a world that revolves around environmental repair, climate protection and circular economics. In football terms, it will be an economics (and politics) that rediscovers how to pass the ball around, nimbly and skilfully, rather than just hoofing it up the free-trade pitch.

Passing the environmental ball

Lots of progressive localities (and businesses) already recognise this. Carbon footprints are being reduced by replacing long distance supply lines with more local ones. Local labour agreements may be ‘technically’ illegal, but ‘just-in-time’ supply clauses work equally well – especially if they involve ‘2 hour delivery’ times.

UK waste disposal policies may be in critical disarray, but follow Sweden’s example (reducing tax on repairs by shifting it onto primary consumption) and we may help to slow the ‘everlasting consumption’ treadmill. Feed this into bio-energy from waste programmes and we may discover ‘clean’ solutions to both transport and heat problems. Localising food supply lines may do the same, in addition to addressing crises in flooding, drought and long term soil fertility. Doing so for energy could race us into the era of clean, sustainable local power systems.

These are the policies that will deliver tomorrow’s jobs, skills and (inclusive) security. It may be that the EU isn’t up for such a political sea change any more than the Tories. But maybe it is. Labour will not know unless it makes the offer.

Of course this would involve changing lots of institutional ground rules, but this happens in all sports. For Labour, the key is to approach tomorrow’s total politics with one simple premise: we must all re-learn how to ‘pass the bloody ball!’.

We may then be surprised by those who also want to play.

Alan Simpson

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