Andrew Marr wrote a piece. It didn’t pretend to be a work of genius, but I quite liked it nonetheless. As I read it, I took it as saying that although Marr had been a Remain voter (or perhaps abstained), since Brexit is now inevitable he wanted to have a go at thinking about how one could make the best of it from a left-leaning point of view (it was, after all, published in the New Statesman). I, as you would expect, disagreed with many of the left-leaning suggestions in there. There were also a couple of things Marr put rather loosely, with a Marr-esque flourish, but I understood that as style. When newspaper or political articles try too hard to be absolutely technically precise on every point at the expense of the odd rhetorical flourishing hand-wavy “you-know-what-I-mean” they quickly become dull and unread.
What I liked about it, and what I took to be almost the whole point of the piece, was its spirit. Its message was: “Brexit is going to happen, whether we like it or not, so we should think about how we can turn it into an opportunity – and here are a few ideas about how a centre-leftie might try to do that.” Good for him.
Alas, in certain parts of the Remain movement, this sort of constructive thinking is utterly verboten. To actually make some suggestions for a way forward post-Brexit! How dare you! That suggests you are accepting that it’s actually going to happen! We can’t allow that!
One standard tactic in such cases is to (probably deliberately) completely miss the point of such an article and instead to purport to point out “technical errors” that supposedly render any attempt to think constructively about Brexit impossible. It is not permissible to suggest that there could be anything, of any positive nature, that could be done post-Brexit that could not already be done better without leaving the EU.
Even if that were true – which it manifestly isn’t – it’s now irrelevant, because we are going to leave the EU.
Jon Worth wrote a (sadly rather long) piece which he claimed “took apart” Marr’s “argument”. I hadn’t been aware of Marr “arguing” anything other than that we ought to try to make the best of Brexit since it’s inevitable. Does that really count as an “argument”? What alternative could there be? Making the worst of it? And how does one “take apart” someone urging you to make the best of a situation whether you like it or not?
Jon was very pleased with his piece, and so offended that Iain Martin and I didn’t find it to be a masterwork demonstrating that Brexit is a terrible idea after all and we should call the whole thing off that he decided to write another piece complaining about us. To be fair to him, he’s not the only person to admire his piece. Many of the smart Remainer folk seemed to have liked it as well.
I wouldn’t have bothered to respond to his piece, since I don’t think it said anything much, but I need something to do for a few minutes to distract me from my cluttered twitter notifications timeline which is full of people complaining at me for not responding to Jon. So here goes…
By my count Jon gets 1,836 words into his post before he says anything that is even arguable, let alone correct. Most of the first part is taken up with his saying we might yet not leave the EU (tedious), that we might yet stay in the Single Market (good luck with that) and that Marr is obviously wrong to suggest that May’s establishing a Department for International Trade and saying in numerous speeches that she is seeking new trade deals means that May’s government is seeking new trade deals. Jon refers to this as “among the weirdest and most deluded parts of Marr’s piece”. What am I supposed to say to that?
Eventually, two full long newspaper articles-length into his piece, Jon finally gets to something amounting to a claim. Marr said that rail renationalisation is “back in play”. I suspect that Marr means both that it’s politically feasible in a way it wasn’t before and that the implementation of renationalisation will be easier than it would have been if we’d remained in the EU.
Ah, says Jon, but EU rules didn’t forbid nationalisation of the railways! “As for rail, this is an old chestnut – all the EU requires is the separation of network from operations, but both of these can be in the hands of the state.” Well, yes…in a sense. But the EU does require that operations compete with each other and are exposed to cross-border competition as well. So within the EU, “nationalisation” wouldn’t mean what Jeremy Corbyn would think it meant. And no political party in the UK would support nationalisation of the railways if it meant competing nationalised franchises competing with foreign franchises. So Marr’s at least arguably right in practice. But we can give Jon an “ever so clever, if not very useful” debating point here if he wants one.
Then more guff, then some pointless stuff attacking Marr for wanting a trade deal with the US (which Jon doesn’t actually oppose), then some stuff trying to appear clever about trade deals, then some nonsense about the FCO. Finally we come to another half-point: Marr made a passing remark about the funding of schools. Jon says: “Funding of schools? The EU has nothing to do with the funding of schools – education is a national competence.” I have no idea what Marr was referring to. I have a suspicion he just felt he should mention education somewhere as lefties like that sort of thing. Let’s give Jon that one (he sorely needs it).
Next Marr had said some pretty anodyne things about countryside management. Jon doesn’t like it, even though it’s blatantly obvious that when we leave the EU we will leave the CAP and that that will mean some changes to our rural policies. So Marr’s obviously right on the big picture. If Jon can’t see that, I can’t help him.
Similarly, we’ve obviously going to need some kind of replacement for the CFP. I don’t think Marr advanced thinking on that terribly much, but then I don’t think he was intending to. He was pointing out that there’s an issue there and floating a few thoughts to get us going. Why Jon felt that was something to “take apart” I have no idea.
Similarly, once more, we’re going to have control over our own VAT rate post-Brexit. Marr’s not wrong about that. But Jon appears so excited that he can spell “recupel” that he seems unable to grasp what Marr is saying.
Thus, but my count, in his epic 4,798 word vent – a good ten times the recommended length of an article on Iain Martin’s excellent website – Jon Worth manages one actual point (the EU doesn’t materially restrict the funding of schools, as far as I am aware) and one half-point (EU rules don’t strictly prevent renationalisation of the railways in theory; they merely do so in any plausible UK practice). In delivering this cornucopia, he magnificently fails to engage with, or even in any obvious way grasp, what Andrew Marr’s thoughtful and constructive (albeit certainly not world-shaking) piece was about, namely that Brexit is definitely going to happen; we’re going to be outside the Single Market and the Customs Union; so if centre-left thinkers want to be relevant to the actual UK debate then they need to come up with some thoughts on how to make the best of that.