Brexit: Clive Lewis vs Ellie O’Jones

Agitpod is a fortnightly podcast by Owen Jones and Ellie Mae O’Hagan

Agitpod is always annoying, but the Clive Lewis one put me off my cheese and salad baguette.

I listen to it despite the nauseating chummy banter because it’s a useful insight into the wobbly end of the Corbyn coalition — the panicky, one-foot-in-the-mainstream types who verged on calling for him to go last summer.

Jones and O’Hagan are probably decent people, but I don’t trust them. For years, I’ve watched them and journos like them mock the suggestion that working at the liberal end of the corporate press compromises them politically — only for them to prove themselves embarrassingly susceptible to media groupthink about Corbyn just at the point when the project needed loyal intellectual outriders the most.

But for once, the most frustrating thing about an Agitpod episode wasn’t them.

Clive Lewis is twice-elected MP for Norwich South and, in my opinion, about the best of Corbyn’s potential successors.

He’s funny, articulate, down-to-earth, switched on about the environment and the follies of endless economic growth, and broadly Corbynite, with a few odd exceptions.

But one of those exceptions concerns Brexit. Clive is, unfortunately, an evangelical Remainer.

I voted to stay in the EU, so did Jones and so did O’Hagan. But the EU is terrible. It’s a vast, ungainly, bureaucratic mechanism for the neoliberalisation of an entire continent. It’s got austerity hard-wired into it.

I plumped for Remain despite all that because I knew a Leave win would be a massive morale boost for the worst elements of British society, and give free reign to disaster capitalists in the Tory cabinet.

But listening to what turned into quite a spicy debate on the topic between Clive and his hosts, it’s clear he sees the EU as unambiguously good, and is borderline-irrationally fixated with Brexit.

In his view, June’s was a Brexit election — especially for young people. He says it ‘massively’ came up on the doorstep.

That’s strange and fascinating in of itself. I thought one of the most remarkable things about the campaign was how little Brexit featured as an issue. Then again, Norwich swung strongly for Remain — my constituency did the opposite.

Jones affectionately ribbed Clive for his Brexit fixation, labelling him a ‘Remainiac’ — then set out the stall for left-wing Remainers who nevertheless aren’t marching around London with blue berets and 48% t-shirts on: we wanted to stay in, we tried, we failed, and now it’s just not practical to ignore the result.

Clive challenged the suggestion he wants to ignore the referendum — he accepts that Leave won and Remain lost. But he compared it to Trump’s victory, or a hypothetical capital punishment referendum won by the hang-‘em-and-flog-‘em brigade — a candidate or a cause can win a democratic vote and still be morally wrong.

By Jones’s logic, he suggested, Americans fighting against Trump’s attempts to abolish Obamacare should just give up and respect the fact he won an election.

But Jones countered that there’s a key constitutional difference between a routine election and a referendum.

Normal elections are cyclical — you choose the government for the next four years, and if you don’t like what it does, you’ve got a chance to get rid of it when that four-year term is over.

Referendums, on the other hand, are supposed to be once-in-a-lifetime — the electorate’s definitive judgement on whatever they’ve been asked to consider.

Clive’s riposte was actually quite persuasive — millions of people voted in the Brexit referendum without really knowing what they were voting for. As such, he thinks there should be a second referendum when the final Brexit deal has eventually been hammered out.

Personally, I’ve got no problem with that — and agree with him that, really, something as momentous as Brexit should’ve had to get 60% of the vote to pass.

But what’s so frustrating about Clive’s Brexit stance is his bullish refusal to accept even the mildest criticisms of the EU as an institution.

Jones and O’Hagan dared state what, for many of us, is blindingly obvious — the EU is a neoliberal organisation. Clive didn’t like that one bit.

“What’s neoliberal about intervening in markets?”, he argued, citing EU regulations protecting the environment, workers’ rights and other issues.

But the hosts rightly shot him down for being extremely selective. The EU crushed Greece and Syriza, said O’Hagan. Jones brought up instances where EU pro-competition rules had proved massive obstacles to egalitarian, social democratic policy-making.

Clive was almost petulant in response — taking their nuanced arguments about the pros and very demonstrable cons of EU membership and reducing them to a crude caricature.

I don’t know whether he was deliberately misrepresenting their views, or just got swept up in a heated moment, but he reacted as if they were genuinely suggesting that ‘Brexit’s good, Europe’s bad’.

From someone I like and respect — and who I still think is about the best future leader the movement has — it was incredibly depressing behaviour.

But, unfortunately, I think it’s representative of the sort of black-and-white thinking demonstrated by a lot of die-hard Remainers.

I don’t know why Brexit seems to bring out the worst in people, but it does — if you’re firmly in one camp or the other, at least.

Rational thinking and cool, sober analysis goes out the window — and in its place, you get angry fanaticism, accusations of treachery and worse. I think it’s going to be a long few years.

Just a brief final note on Brexit. I understand it’s important, and will probably hit living standards, particularly those of the poorest.

But it’s remarkable to me — and, to be honest, actually faintly repulsive — that in a world where tens of thousands starve every day, so many privileged, intelligent people have chosen Brexit as their hill to die on.

Agitpod is a fortnightly podcast by Owen Jones and Ellie Mae O’Hagan. You can listen to the Clive Lewis episode here.