Labour’s Five Brexit Myths


In politics, as in life, it is always dangerous to believe your own vanities or succumb to myths because blind belief is so much easier than rational analysis.

So too with Brexit and Labour as it stares into the infinity of an era of opposition without seats in Scotland and with a voter base that is no longer automatically on tap as it was in the 20th century and up to the end of the last Labour government.

            Myth No1: Brexit is over - Leadership candidates who were in the shadow cabinet fall over themselves to proclaim that Brexit cannot be revisited, cannot be challenged and it was all Jeremy Corbyn’s fault because he listened to his ageing advisors whispering 1970s Tony Benn nostrums about socialism in one country in his ears. The plain fact is that Brexit was mishandled from 24th June 2016 until October 2019. Shadow cabinet members who signed off on the absurdly confusing and contradictory policy based on a mixture of hokey cokey and sitting on the fence bear co-responsibility for the way Brexit turned into a weapon against progressive politics and a gift for Boris Johnson.

            Myth 2: Now we must all forget about Brexit and Europe - This is short-sighted. In 2014 I wrote a book Brexit; How Britain Will Leave Europe. I could not persuade any comrade in the PLP or trade union general secretary I had worked with to take the danger of a Brexit vote seriously. The Guardian comment pages were full of bilious attacks on Europe from Sir Simon Jenkins or Owen Jones advancing his concept to Lexit. Little wonder Labour Party activists were confused. Yes, it would be nice to pretend Europe can go away and Labour has no obligation to draw up an inventory of its failure to make any case on Europe in the last ten years of opposition. That won’t wash.

            Myth 3: Brexit will fade away - I argue in my new book Brexiternity. The Uncertain Fate of Britain (IB Tauris), launched this month, that we will be enmeshed in Brexit political issues for some years to come. I am happy to come to any CLP or Labour meeting to explain why – just contact me via LME. The Tories are going to fall apart over their internal contradictions on Europe. Labour should be exposing them. Sajid Javid's line that the UK will shun the Single Market, the Customs Union and reject any alignment with Europe is crazy and bring British capitalism to its knees. 

            Myth 4: Johnson is master of politics for at least a decade - Not so. He presides over a badly divided country where there was no majority for Brexit of any sort, let alone his Farage variety, either in opinion polls or in the ballot box. His majority is smaller than that of Margaret Thatcher in 1987 or Harold Wilson in 1966 - Both prime ministers were ousted within 3 or 4 years respectively. Johnson is vulnerable, especially if his extreme version of Brexit implodes.

            Myth 5: The EU is over for Britain - This is just silly. For centuries the defining relationship in British history, independent of empire, colonies or the English speaking world, has been how we relate to Europe. Brexit is a version of isolationism. The belief that if the UK just turns its back on Europe and all problems are solved is childish and ahistorical. On the contrary. Brexit is a historic wrong-turning. Britain is part of Europe. With Ireland, we are the western island nations of Europe. A future progressive politics can no more turn its back on Europe than we can on the world.

By Denis MacShane - former Labour Minister of Europe. His latest book is “Brexiternty. The Uncertain Fate of Britain” (IB Tauris-Bloomsbury)