There is no doubt about it: British politics is about to enter very choppy waters indeed as we come to the end of the preliminary part of the process of exiting the European Union. I say “preliminary” because even if (and it’s a very big “if”) a withdrawal agreement is finalised with the EU and passed by the House of Commons, there will then be detailed negotiation of the future relationship which will go on for many months.
Of course, there is nothing inevitable about this Brexit process that should dictate we leave, which is why The Independent is campaigning for a vote on the final Brexit deal. No Brexit is better than the appalling, chaotic Brexit we are seeing and the people should be the final arbiters of what happens next – not elites in Westminster.
In this column last month I bemoaned the state of British politics after a torrid summer. Since July more information has arisen exposing Brexit for the disaster it is. Boris Johnson kicked off the next Tory leadership election – which is already underway, albeit unofficially – by offending Muslim women. Meanwhile institutional antisemitism continues to pervade the Labour Party, leaving it hamstrung when we should be destroying the Tories for the damage they are wrecking across the country.
I was attacked by Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, for pointing all this out, neatly illustrating that neither party’s establishment is prepared to acknowledge the need to fundamentally change their behaviours. Unless they do this, they cannot properly meet the huge challenges we face as a nation.
We were told Brexit would solve all of the country’s big challenges by Johnson and co. The big story coming out of the summer was that the many problems we have as a country – that led a majority to vote Leave in 2016 – simply will not be solved by Brexit. Here is a small selection of what we have learned during the parliamentary recess.
At the beginning of August, a group of international academics and scientists published research in the official journal of the US national academy of sciences telling us, such is the damage we have already done to the planet, even if countries now succeed in meeting their CO2 targets, human-induced global warming could put us on an “irreversible pathway” to “hothouse earth.”
This entails the climate settling at around 4-5C above pre-industrial age temperatures (its 1C above now), hotter than at any point for 1.2 million years. This would lead to seas up to 60 metres higher than now, melting ice caps and parts of the world becoming simply uninhabitable. When was the last time you can recall a leading UK politician providing any leadership on this issue on the world stage given the urgency of the situation?
This news was followed by Shelter’s release of research showing that since 2011, rent in England has increased 60 per cent faster than wages, with a declaration by the UK’s chartered surveyors that private sector rents could rise still further by 15 per cent by 2023. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors said that government tax changes to buy-to-let investments are responsible and driving small landlords out of the market.
Whatever the reason, this country is still building woefully few homes to buy and there are not nearly enough homes to rent at affordable prices. The intervention by the new communities secretary, James Brokenshire, in the middle of August provided few substantial answers on any of this. Instead he received much derision for coming forward with insubstantial policy proposals devoid of any extra funding.
When surveying the UK economy and the need to change our economic model, Shelter’s research on housing was the starter to the main course dished up by the Office for National Statistics a few days later which, yet again, underlined the stagnation of wages since the global financial crash. As Ben Chu has pointed out, the ONS figures showed we are witnessing the curious case of an economy with a jobless rate that has sunk to four per cent – its lowest level in over 40 years – and yet wage growth continues to slow when you would expect the opposite to occur. Which of our country’s leaders galvanised the country into action on this during the warm summer months and provided a credible way forward?
And we will need the extra tax revenue to the exchequer that this increased employment, alongside rising wages, could bring, not least because of the growing costs of our ageing population. Last week the Lancet told us that the number of those aged 65 and over needing round the clock care is set to increase by a third between 2015 and 2035. How on earth are we going to pay for all of this? There is no consensus in Westminster on how we address the social care crisis now, never mind an ageing population in the future.
An overheating planet, a dysfunctional housing market, stagnant wages and a social care crisis are not an exhaustive list but just some of the policy areas where we have learned something new since the recess started but the Westminster establishment seems too impotent to respond to as the summer break closes.
To the extent there is any response, the populism of left and right – resurgent in both main parties – proffers simple, black and white, tweetable answers to all these problems, inferring that centre-left people like me should stop moaning and get with the programme. The truth is, the answers are not black and white; they are incredibly complex and need modern answers. But British politics has little bandwidth to address them given the huge distraction which is Brexit – a project which certainly provides no solutions and will actually make these problems harder to address.
That is why it is incredible that both main parties should end the summer continuing to sponsor this calamity. The go to excuse for doing so is the so called “will of the people”, as expressed two years ago. Yet, however people voted back then, they did not vote for this Brexit mess; what they did want was change and for the country’s big challenges to be tackled. So while we will all be convulsed by the drama, the ups and downs of the negotiations and the Brexit votes in the Commons these next few months, it is vital we do not take our eyes off the ball when it comes to tackling these big issues. It is clear, whatever the establishments in both main parties may say, that we need change at home and abroad. Whatever happens with Brexit, the status quo is not an option.