The UK economy and society have well know and long standing challenges which threaten the health, wealth and well being of UK citizens.Climate Change is possibly the most destructive rising force but there's also the challenges raised by the current technological revolution (necessitating business evolution to avoid business extinctions), high household debt (the most likely cause of the next UK recession), the NHS only just surviving (due to low funding with ever increasing demand for services), poor education (UK having the 'most illiterate teenagers in the developed world'), rampant in-equality and one of the worst qualities of life for citizens measured in Europe.
'The will of the people' is one recurring excuse (explored by this site here) but it originates in a very dishonest form of populism that both leaders have been pedalling for a year wherein they a) devalue the views of the population who clearly disagree with them (half of the population becoming persona non-grata, irrelevant to the politician's ambitions) and also b) warp the EU referendum result into an outcome (leave the single market) that evidence shows the strong majority of people do not want.
That's not in doubt; most UK people wish to stay in the single market. Right from the start of the EU 'debate', Brexiteers like Gove, Hannan and the official leave EU campaign, sold Brexit on the basis of the UK staying in the single market; a ComRes/BBC poll found that 66% of the UK population want to stay in the single market and NatCen research found that 90% believe the UK should stay; the public desire to stay in the single market is clear, and impact predictions show the people to be wise on this point (the harder the Brexit, the worse the outcomes for the UK).
So the Will of the people is clearly just an excuse, and we need to look elsewhere for each politician's motivations. Let's start with Mr Corbyn.
Corbyn's main complaints about the EU seem to be that
- EU workers come to the UK and work for lower wages than he would like UK workers to be paid,
- That EU Membership might stop his hopes to use public money to re-invigorate manufacturing (via state aid)
- That he may not be able to re-nationalise utilities and transport (as he said on Andrew Marr's programme, "I think we have to be quite careful about the powers we need as national governments." and "[Single Market Membership] has within it restrictions on state aid and state spending").
- Having a highly motivated mobile workforce available for just-in-time low paid manual labour is a huge boon to any economy (In 2014 research estimated that EU workers "gave the economy a £4.4 billion boost" per annum as reported in the telegraph) and it is genuinely not clear which UK workers would replace the EU ones. The UK already has low unemployment and it is very difficult (often disastrously so when week-to-week existence is hand to mouth) for unemployed UK citizens to stop benefits, work a few days, and then restart benefits).
- So business models for UK businesses who've been relying on EU migrant labour for decades (i.e. 11% fall in EU workers going to Cornwall recently reported) are being destroyed (leading to businesses failing) and the hostile environment to EU workers is affecting more than low skilled temporary staff, with firmly established, highly skilled UK resident EU workers leaving at an alarming rate (one NHS related example here).
- Brexit is also damaging the sectors of the economy (services and consumer spending in particular) that the UK must rely on, until Mr Corbyn constructs his manufacturing nirvana, leaving less wriggle room for any such innovation.
- All of which seems very likely to lead to lower productivity (already poor per UK worker, compared to leading EU countries) and lower tax take.
- Technology progress since Corbyn entered politics (an MP since the early 1980's) means that an isolated country can't perform as efficiently as one that is a member of a frictionless trade bloc: re-organising supply chains to be smooth and quick has been the engine - the obvious, recurring go to 'quick win' - for profits in many sectors over the last few decades and leaving the EU is likely to enforce inefficiencies on supply chains (thereby disadvantaging the UK manufacturers that Labour is supposed to be helping: he might well simply be creating serious inefficiencies into which a labour government would uselessly pump public money).
- There's also a fear that Corbyn wants to create state monopolies (Nationalisations do happen in EU member countries but constructing state monopolies is much more difficult whilst a member, so it is possible monopolies are his motive for leaving) which, along side increased union influence, would threaten the high productivity tools that technology and globalisation have granted to businesses (agility, flexibility, just-in-time supply chains, gig based employment: freedom to make profit in other words, which might become threatened in a more controlled socialist UK. Needless to say, social justice is crucial (and arguably has been neglected under the Tories) but it has to co-exist with profit generation/efficiency.
- Detailed study of the steel industry issues and opportunities are out of scope for this article (there's a useful starter here) but it is clear that the industry could be helped, whilst the UK is inside the EU, using a variety of tools which do not breach EU rules. Labour seem therefore be trying to use a sledgehammer (leaving the EU) to crack a nut explosively when much safer options exist.
On the whole, these types of goals seem to be unnecessarily risky - the damage being done by Brexit will make any national improvements that much harder to implement (like attempting to rescue a person from quick sand by first pushing them much deeper).
One other significant risk is that by co-operating with the Tories to enable Brexit*, Labour has opened the door to a hard right bonfire of regulation, rights, and responsible business principles.
* in case an explanation is needed, an actively campaigning pro EU opposition leader would likely have created a pro EU outcome in the referendum, and certainly wouldn't have recklessly supported Article 50.
It has been a huge gamble, with no visible signs that Corbyn understands the risks he's taken (although some of the unions have noticed, here for example), and the UK might end up swinging - at each change of parliament - from extreme left to extreme right and back again. EU membership provides stability by taking the edge off the possible extremes, which is good for businesses, families and the economy; Corbyn has helped moved the UK much closer to chaos.
He does occasionally makes more sensible noises than the Tories (he recently said the UK might stay in the single market) but the Labour party's apparent attitude to Brexit ('shsss, don't mention it or we will lose supporters') means it is very hard to judge when they are being honest. On the bright side though, at least Corbyn's approach can be understood using a traditional political ideology (fairly extreme Socialism).
May has proven much more resistant to analysis.
When May was appointed to the PM role, a feeling of relief was tangible in the UK. Some of the potential candidates for Tory leader seemed to be terrifyingly incompetent or media baron lap dogs, but she had campaigned (slightly) for remain so maybe she would be a sensible administrator who would help the country calm down?
Not so much, it turned out. "Brexit means Brexit", she un-helpfully parroted, and then re tasked the phrase "the will of the people" into an excuse for various attempts to subvert UK democracy through a range of badly implemented innovations. What could possibly have been motivating her chaotic approach?
It was at first possible to presume, as has been suggested by various commentators, that she was just the puppet of the half-hidden right wing forces who are cited as the driving forces behind Brexit (planning to profit from the chaos (money makes money, especially in times of change), to increase their own influence, or to avoid EU legislation on tax avoidance).
The strategic approach adopted to negotiations (bluffing with a hand that everyone knew was awful, angrily blaming the EU for anything that went wrong in the UK) meant the most logical conclusion was that May's government was genuinely going for no deal (to enable the hard right's zero tariff economy) with blame for the subsequent destruction being placed squarely - with the assistance of the most rabid tabloids - at the door of the EU.
That's still possible, but people with simple beliefs ("deliver zero tariffs, job done") are much more confident than May in debates. She argues weakly, if at all (relying largely it seems on memorised sound bites), with non of the (increasingly) deranged conviction of the more public spokespeople for this leave-at-any-cost approach, and when put under pressure (pre-2017 election) she responded with a scatter gun approach of extreme right wing policies alongside attempts to take the more left leaning centre ground.
Those far right forces are obviously a pressure on May (as are the Unions on Corbyn), but there's another theory which might explain some of the more random or chaotic behaviours: is the UK Prime Minister at heart, an old fashioned little Englander, deep down motivated by the impossible task of restoring the 'old days' when everything, according to folk memory, was better?
Anthony Barnett has published interesting work in which he perceives an 'intellectual void' in May (particularly ideologically) and he suggests that the void has been filled with a world view based firmly on the very limited perspectives advocated by the tabloid press, particularly he argues, that of the Daily Mail.
A conglomeration of those world views might lead to a (very generalised, from Burnett's work) personal belief that "Britain is inherently magnificent, British people unassailably superior to other nationalities, especially when the British people respect completely the British government, and if it weren't for outsiders trying to pull the UK down, the UK would definitely soar magnificently into global leadership and world domination, just like the good old days".
If you imagine Brexit is being led by someone influenced strongly by those views, which simply do not stand any evidence based examination (meaning rational arguments for them in debates, as May might have discovered, simply can not be formed), then the results you'd expect would be roughly what the UK government has achieved: with no discernible plan they issue vacuous threats, pursue abortive charm offences, deploy banal assertions that everything will be fine and Brexit will be easy, followed by quietly backtracking on every posture as reality dismantles each illusion that they construct.
Each person is a multifaceted jewel of course, comprised of infinite influences, so this article is overgeneralising out of necessity. However, adopting some combination of those two factors - shadowy, influential, right wing persuaders and a tabloid based world view - seems to have value as it moves us from a position of reactive surprise after each action by the UK Government (wherein every move they make seems to be satirical), to one where their actions become more comprehensible.
We should take time to acknowledge that both May and Corbyn are in complex positions for which neither of them are perfectly suited, working within a system (UK democracy) which has obviously become corrupted, being inside that system - between them for circa 60 years - for so long that they don't seem to notice how morally deficient (a not uncommon situation for UK politicians) and ill advised their actions are. So we should remember to have compassion for them: to a significant degree, they are doing their best rather than deliberately trying to hurt the UK.
They are hurting it though, exposing they UK to certain and unnecessary economic, cultural and societal damage through reckless negligence (collaborating to instigate article 50), manipulation of public opinion (by both of them claiming more mandate for change than the referendum could possibly have given), by attempting to avoid any debate that would challenge their extreme perspectives on Europe (denying a Brexit vote at the labour party conference for example, or the Tory refusal to issue briefing documents) and by attempting to line up fundamental ideological changes at the same time as invoking all of this Brexit damage.
And the national pain is at imminent risk - as uncertainty grows, the workforce leave, investment and consumer spending stalls and businesses re-locate - of escalating with exponential speed.
If these negative impacts of Brexit are to be curtailed, as the key exit bill debate and vote looms, UK MPs of all parties are going to have go outside the party political box to seek sensible balanced voices on Brexit. The alternative, MPs in slavish pursuit of their leader's out dated political dogma (left and right), seems likely to end in disaster.