It’s no longer about hard or soft Brexit – it's about a stupid or intelligent one

The Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has urged Labour to 'embrace the enormous opportunities' of withdrawal – instead of fighting to prevent its most damaging consequences

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The Independent Online

One of the clear messages of the past few days is that leaving the European Union is likely to lead to some loss of economic growth at least in the short term. It is quite possible that the forecasts of the Office for Budget Responsibility, and a week earlier the Bank of England, will prove too pessimistic. The immediate expectations of a sharp fall in economic activity after the Brexit vote certainly were. But the harsh truth is that no major forecasting body is suggesting that the UK will grow faster next year as a result of the vote than it would have done had the country remained a member. In the long run it may well do so. After all, the rest of the world is likely to continue to grow much more rapidly than continental Europe, and it would make sense to try to orient our trading relations towards fast-growing markets. But we are not yet in that position.

It is against this background that the shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has urged Labour to “embrace the enormous opportunities” of withdrawal – instead of fighting to prevent its most damaging consequences. There has been, predictably, a backlash among some Labour MPs, for this approach could be seen to be pushing for a hard Brexit, rather than a more cooperative approach to negotiations. Many individual MPs would lean towards the UK having the closest possible ties with the EU, though they are aware that in some 70 per cent of the Labour seats there was a majority for Brexit.

The most troubling aspect about this is the tone of the debate. Whatever emerges in the negotiation will be a compromise. It will be a compromise for the other EU members and a compromise within the UK. The Government has to find a way of satisfying the majority of the 48 per cent of those who voted to remain as well as the majority of the 52 per cent who voted to leave. As Theresa May herself acknowledged this weekend, this will be an extremely complex and taxing period, and at a personal level very challenging.

“Being brought up in a vicarage, of course the advantage is that you do see people from all walks of life,” she said.   

In a situation such as this, words matter. One of the depressing features of the past few months has been the language from senior European politicians, suggesting that somehow the UK should be punished for making this decision. It is depressing because it says something about the European vision that would have appalled its founders: that this has become a club that can only be held together by force.

But it is depressing too to hear the choice of words of some UK politicians. The speech of the shadow Chancellor could have been phrased more cautiously. Yes, the country must pursue the opportunities outside Europe vigorously. But those who support a softer approach should not be sneered at. In any case this is not really a debate about a soft Brexit or a hard one, any more than it is a debate as to whether the UK should be punished or not. It is about an intelligent Brexit or a stupid one. Our relationship with Europe will change. There is no reason why, on a long view, it should not change for the better. However getting from here to there means avoiding polarising language. Careless words may not cause lives but they can cause loss of economic opportunity.