It’s where you place the blame

Politics beyond Brexit

Brexit is a constitutional crisis. Climate is an existential one. It’s important to get that clear before diving into my childhood affection for Peanuts cartoons.

One of my all time favourites involved Charlie Brown (the doggedly persistent but incompetent organiser of an ever-failing kids baseball team) coming off the park after another trashing defeat. Lucy (his ‘maybe’ childhood sweetheart) wrapped a comforting arm round his shoulder:

“Never mind, Charlie Brown,” she consoled. “Just remember this. It doesn’t matter whether you win or whether you lose… It’s where you place the blame.”

This is the key to understanding Boris Johnson’s Brexit negotiating strategy.

The practicalities of incompetence

You didn’t have to wait for rejections from a succession of European leaders – or look into his half-baked proposals – to grasp that nothing in Johnson’s Brexit approach ever made any sense.

Much attention has been given to Boris’ opposition to an extension of the Article 50 deadline. Few seem to grasp that organised incompetence lays at the heart of his plans. Boris has always relied on a nonsensical timetable to screw things up. This is boring, but massively important.

Realistically, the deadline for the a final draft of UK proposals was Friday 11 October. By then the EU had to start translating (and circulating) the UK’s offer in the 24 languages required by Member States. States then needed to digest it before the European Council meeting on 17-18 October.

The UK is racing towards this deadline. It won’t make it. Nor will it leave Member States time to consult their own parliaments (which many are legally obliged to do). An Article 50 extension is the only lifeline.

Brexit: the Never-Ending Story

Johnson has known this was a charade all along. His “Brexit: just get it done” slogan is merely tub-thumping emptiness. Brexit is a never-ending story; one whose next stage negotiations could drag on forever. A No-Deal departure wouldn’t avoid this. Extending Article 50 simply avoids the recognition coming as part of an economic car crash.

Throughout this process, Boris has never had a strategic plan. It has always been about where you place the blame. The EU, Labour, One-Nation Tories, Lib-Dems and nationalists, Parliament as a whole – Boris isn’t bothered where the blame lands…as long as it’s not on him. Personally, I hope the EU have the sense to throw Britain a long (even open-ended) extension of Article 50. Why should they chase artificial deadlines which we can never meet?

Breaking the spell

The worst thing about the Brexit debacle is that it has blinded parliament to the bigger issues laying siege to it. September’s global climate strikes saw populations addressing the huge, existential crisis politicians still largely try to avoid.

In every country, on every continent, people have been peacefully taking to the streets. Over 500,000 turned out in both Berlin and in Montreal. The 1.5 million turning out in Bolivia took this to a different level. And now Extinction Rebellion’s mass occupations of Central London are taking it a stage further.

What they all have in common is the simple, science-based observation that ‘slow track’ options for change are no longer a credible, survival choice.

Today’s economic system is terminally screwed. Labour has to recognise this and get behind a Corbyn/McDonnell agenda of radical, transformative change: massive change that must be delivered within the coming decade. In political terms, this means the next 2 parliaments. It is a challenge as much to the way we think as how we vote .

At the Labour Conference, several union delegations were desperate to ‘composite’ systems change resolutions into longer term non-binding propositions. Those currently occupying London’s streets weep, wail or laugh at such folly. The planet will not go walkabout ’til we wake up to what the climate emergency means. It requires a new economics; one that cleans up the future, not props up the past. To do the latter makes Labour’s ‘delayers’ as much of a part of the problem as the Tory ‘deniers’.

Watching London’s climate protesters play cricket in Parliament Square, turning College Green into a mini-forest and handing city streets back to pedestrians was more than a nostalgic novelty. It tied directly into other countries’ programmes, where cities are giving priorities to people rather than cars.

Amsterdam and Copenhagen have extensive car-free zones, with Amsterdam planning to become Europe’s first car-free city. Madrid will ban cars from 500 acres of its city centre by 2020, and aims to reduce daily car usage from 29% to 23%. In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo declared that a petrol-free Paris could come earlier than her pledge of 2030. Already diesel cars are banned and only 1 in 10 Parisians use their car to go to work. In 2017, Berlin began to shift its priorities from cars to bikes; constructing a dozen bike super-highways, all at least 13 feet wide and blocked off from cars.

In Copenhagen, 50% of journeys to work or study are by foot or bike. At least 13 other major international cities are heading in the same direction; putting public (clean) transport systems before all else. To top it all, 10 EU Member States are pressing 2030 as the phase-out date for petrol/diesel cars across the whole of Europe.

Back home, over 1,000 XR climate protesters have been arrested for trying to do the same to London streets. The contradiction should not be lost on us. What is becoming policy elsewhere counts as criminality at home. Such is the state of British politics.

Nature doesn’t fare any better. The Tory conference made great play of promising to plant 1 million trees. It’s a derisory figure, within a pitiful government track record. Ireland, in contrast, will plant 22 million trees a year… for 20 years. If Labour doesn’t better this in its next manifesto, it too will look several sandwiches short of the climate picnic. Everything now is about scale and pace, not licks and promises. Even Boris Johnson’s dad endorses XR’s ‘2025 zero-carbon date’, proudly putting himself amongst the ranks of the “uncooperative crusties” his son so keenly denounces.

Britain’s Rubicon moment

The coming State Opening of Parliament threatens to be a distraction of comedic proportions. A government without a majority will offer a programme it can’t deliver, within a Budget it will not be in control of. MPs may take little notice of the programme, focussing more on whether Boris will ask for an Extension of Article 50 or not. The bigger ecological upheavals about to re-shape our entire future may barely get a look in. But these forces will determine the outcome of the next election.

As climate protesters set out their tents and blockades around central London, it seemed fitting that beneath the road sign directing visitors towards the ‘Cabinet War Rooms’, XR activists had blocked the road with a ‘Climate Emergency’ banner. This is what the next war is all about. And the answers to it will be neither military nor conventional.

Old-style economic expansionism (with social justice built in) will not win the hearts, minds and votes of the generations driving today’s Climate Emergency movement. Defending polluting industries won’t do so either. The only answers to libertarian delusions on the Right will be found in a fundamental rethink of economics itself.

Labour must embrace a new politics of ‘limitarianism’; a just and inclusive economics that lives within earth’s limits. To avoid a crashing climate breakdown, Britain has to cut its carbon emissions by over 20% a year…for at least the next decade. To do so we will need new industries that deliver more but consume less, markets that sell non-consumption not over-consumption, environmental obligations that put back more than we take out, and a genuine re-founding of democratic engagement… from the bottom upwards.

Across the country, whole communities have given up waiting for politicians to take this lead. The messages from the streets are stridently unambiguous: “If change isn’t radical, it isn’t relevant.” and “If we’re not shaping the change, don’t expect us to vote for it“.

The next election will be a Rubicon moment for British politics. Lucy may be proved right. In the absence of transformative (climate) choices it will degenerate into where you place the blame. Many may refuse to play. There would be more losers than winners. What we won’t be able to say is that we weren’t warned.

Alan Simpson, October 2019


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