Natalie Bennett: Brexit isn’t our real problem, but a distraction we can’t afford

We can't fix our other problems if we're dealing with Brexit chaos

What will the year 2019 bring? The immediate question is if Brexit will happen, possibly when, and possibly what kind?

But there’s been enough electrons spilt on that, and as soon as parliament is back sitting, they’ll be flooding from a screen near you again, so I’m going to unveil a different side of the crystal ball.

For the UK is clearly in a state in crisis, of which Brexit is more symptom than cause.

The year of 2018 finished with the now traditional high street bloodbath, often through the intensive care ward of hedge fund asset-stripping, the sucked dry bodies stacked into a morgue packed with “household-names-now-gone”. “It is the internet,”cried the analysts, with truth. But that’s far from the complete story.

For its also a story of a nation that after the 2007-8 financial crash created an economy that is like a haphazard collection of huts built from rotting driftwood on an unstable sandbar in a “cyclone alley” sea.

The decisions about those structures, their location and designs, were made by a model banana republic, one in which voters were disenfranchised, 68% of them ignored while the remaining 32% decided who’d govern, with the job of building handed over to the Ponzi model of outsourcing, its workers driven to desperate shortcuts by the tyranny of the bottom line.

You might remember in 2010 George Osborne talking of rebalancing the economy towards manufacturing. That didn’t happen.

Instead, the UK rebuilt on consumer spending, on rising house prices driven by financial pump priming, with the rich scooping up the benefits of quantitative easing and all too often stuffing it in tax havens where it sits, frozen and useless.

Investment, in manufacturing, in productivity, in essential infrastructure like cycle paths and bus services, didn’t happen, was even cut back.

Austerity, that policy to make the poor and disadvantaged pay for the greed and the fraud of the bankers, was applied with thumbscrews, tipping more and more children (and adults) into desperate need and cutting off any hope of them developing to their full human potential.

Hard to do, when you’re desperately balancing three zero-hours contracts with care for the young and the old, whose services have disappeared.

And workers, seeing the real value of their wages fall, borrowed simply to keep their head above water – putting in money for essentials that the government and employers refused to provide.

And this in a natural world in which life is increasingly bludgeoned with pesticides and choked with supermarket plastics, the soils smashed to smithereens by farmers desperate to meet the costs of “productivity” and the air filled by corrupt car companies with poisonous fumes.

Holding it all up, more or less, for the more prosperous parts of the country, was rising house prices, that only made it more difficult for the young to afford a room to rent, let alone be able to dream of a house to buy.

Entering a world threatened by ecological collapse, with great uncertainty about their future prospects, told that they had to compete ferociously against their peers from preschool age to be one of the lucky few to enjoy security, that generation suffers from epidemic levels of mental ill health,

Will 2019 be the year that all tumbles down? We can only hope not, for collapsing what we have now is not the way anyone would choose to proceed.

Those unstable beach huts are packed with the young, the old, the poor, nearly all of us, and should they be swept away by the storm, the human cost will be tremendous. No one can be sure they’ll survive unscathed, even those whose luxury yachts are anchored offshore in the bay.

But what’s certain is that things will not continue as they are. The inhabitants of the huts are well aware of the fragility of their position, of the insecurity of the most basic foundations of their life, whether they are focusing with Extinction Rebellion on the threat of climate change or with Disabled People Against the Cuts on the desperate harm done by the Work Capability Assessment and Universal Credit.

We need transformatory political, economic, social, environmental, educational policies – and they need to be instituted fast.

That doesn’t mean going back to the past; the world has changed and we can’t – and shouldn’t – build sprawling Sixties homes for nuclear families with cars in the driveway and wives waving off husbands from kitchens gleaming with shiny appliances that will mostly be used to heat processed TV dinners in plastic trays.

We need to build zero-carbon homes with great walking, cycling and public transport, solar panels on the roof and batteries in the cellar, ready to adapt and change for different family structures and ages.

The kitchens need to be filled with locally grown fresh fruit and vegetables, with everyone having the time to prepare and enjoy them together, with rich natural environments nearby to enjoy the clean air and the abundant wildlife.

That transformation, the rebuilding of huddle of beach huts as a stable, secure, cooperative community in which no one is left exposed to the waves, is a huge undertaking.

It is one that requires a peaceful democratic revolution in which the people take back control of their own communities, with powerful local government with the resources to deliver local needs, and are able to elect a Westminster parliament that reflects their will, in which everyone has a vote and a say.

But should Brexit happen, it won’t address those crises. The complexity of untangling 40 years of joint regulation, governance and relationships, and rebuilding something new, is something patently beyond the capacity of our current structures to manage, let alone simultaneously dealing with the economic, social, environmental and educational disasters.

There are many arguments for stopping Brexit, which is only politically possible through the People’s Vote. There’s the argument of democracy, there’s the argument of the corruption of the 2016 vote, there’s the argument of allowing time for reflection and information.

But above all there’s the fact that we can’t do Brexit and deal with our multiple crises. There’s neither the human nor institutional capacity, nor the political space.

Natalie Bennett is former leader of the Green Party and writes regularly for Left Foot Forward.

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