Conventional wisdom tells us if we don't know our history we're doomed to repeat it. But in politics the risk of fighting yesterday's battles means we should treat historical lessons with caution - and remember that the “will of the people” can change quickly.
There is no algorithm for politics. Political campaigns should come with the same health warnings as investment products: past performance is no guarantee of future results. While the polling industry on both sides of the Atlantic appears to have undertaken some soul-searching lately, this comes too late for campaigners and voters who based their decisions in the EU referendum or US presidential election on the industry's predictions. It also appears not to have chastened Theresa May in her rush to the polls based largely on… the polls. Models may improve, but electorates and behaviour can also change relatively quickly, making attention to margins of error and grains of salt vital.
If political leaders can't rely on polls to tell them how the electorate is likely to behave, they may revert to more traditional sources of wisdom. Like many countries, the UK is endowed with a political class that likes to pepper its speeches with references to history. Boris Johnson will fit in the Greeks, Romans and Churchill on an average day, but appears undecided as to whether it's the Peloponnesian War or Gallipoli he's fighting on the Brexit front. More seriously, should politicians ever rely on historical analogies in their thinking? Arguably, Tony Blair wouldn't have got involved in the Iraq war had he not been thinking about the outcome of the Kosovo intervention. As Lawrence Freedman so expertly explained at the Social Liberal Forum conference on July 15th, the 'Responsibility to Protect' idea that emerged from experience in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s was undermined by the Iraq war, with direct consequences for Syria. Each time, politicians appeared to be fighting (or not fighting) the last war.
The risk of seeking guidance for current behaviour in past events increases where the present is so unprecedented. This is undoubtedly the case with Brexit. In less than six months, Theresa May went from calling for Britain to remain in the EU to calling for it to leave not only the EU but the single market, customs union and Euratom. The Labour party now also supports leaving the EU, but is split on staying in the single market. The Liberal Democrats have gone from explicitly supporting continued EU membership to calling for a second referendum – although it’s not yet certain what the options would be in such a referendum. These confusing positions reflect a widespread angst amongst politicians that they will be seen as undemocratic if they oppose the result of the 2016 referendum. This is a particularly strange view for opposition parties to take. Both Labour and the Conservatives are ‘fighting the last war’ by adopting positions which they think won the referendum. What we need are clear-sighted policies dealing with the present and future – over which any form of Brexit will cast a long shadow.
Many voters and MPs, both Remain and Leave, have doubts about Brexit. Many also appear to be under at least one of two delusions. The first is that Britain staying in the single market while losing all of its influence over EU law and policy would somehow be an acceptable solution. This imagined half-way house, even if it were a possibility in the negotiations, would be neither comfortable nor democratic. It might even be worse in the long term than a complete exit from the EU, for the simple reason that Britain is not Norway and never will be.
Britain has almost always exercised disproportionate influence within the EU, partly because it has had distinct positions on everything from product standards and animal welfare to financial regulation and enlargement. It has often managed to find allies on these issues within the Council, but losing its voice there along with its Commissioner, civil servants and judges on the European Court of Justice would oblige it to accept rules made and enforced by others. On this point, the hard Brexiteers are right. Where they’re disastrously wrong is in the idea that Britain outside of the EU will gain power, prosperity, independence or social cohesion. The EU protects Britain from a lowest-common-denominator world that will only exert more downward pressure on wages, regulations and living standards.
The second delusion is that it’s too late to stop Brexit. The electorate thinks there's no way out because of politicians; politicians think there's no way out because of the electorate. Someone has to play their cards first. Tim Farron did try to play the anti-Brexit card during the last election and it was largely a damp squib; that election turned out to be about public services and deep mutual fear by Labour and Conservative voters of the other side. In such circumstances, the centre ground was not seen as a place of safety by voters, it was seen as a dangerous no-man's land leading directly to enemy territory. That particular election will never happen again. The Conservatives will do everything possible to hold on to power, and by the time they lose it Brexit may have happened. The longer we wait to identify a way out of this mess, the harder it becomes to reverse course.
What is needed now is unmistakeable leadership, not just a call for a second referendum but a call for Article 50 to be revoked. This is surely the role of a party whose membership ranks swelled in reaction to the referendum, and which can make the most credible claim to represent the pro-EU position. Others such as Tony Blair and Nicola Sturgeon are already starting to occupy this ground, while Corbyn’s Labour Party and May’s Conservatives are hopelessly divided. The danger is that the Liberal Democrats are learning the wrong lesson from the last election and touting a more ‘pragmatic’ option that would damage British democracy for generations to come. It is both the Liberal Democrats' opportunity and our obligation to strongly and clearly oppose Brexit, and not allow recent history to cloud our judgment.