“Feelings Matter in Politics, Too”: Douglas Alexander on British Politics in the Era of Trump and Brexit

 /  Dec. 4, 2016, 2:17 p.m.


The Right Honourable Douglas Alexander is a veteran politician in Britain’s Labour Party and has served in many leadership roles in the UK government during his fourteen-year tenure as a parliamentarian, including minister of state for Europe, secretary of state for international development, and shadow foreign secretary. Now, he serves as a visiting professor at King’s College, London, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, a senior advisor to U2 frontman Bono’s charity One, and a strategic advisor to the international law firm Pinsent Masons. Alexander is currently a fall fellow at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics.

Recent developments in British politics, many tied to rising nationalist sentiments in the country, have run in opposition to Alexander’s goals and vision for Europe. He was the chief election strategist for Labour Party leader Ed Miliband in the 2015 general election, in which heavy Labour losses forced Miliband to step down. That same general election saw Alexander, an opponent of Scottish independence, lose his seat in Parliament to a twenty-year-old member of the Scottish National Party, which spearheaded the 2014 independence referendum. Alexander was also on the losing side of the “Brexit” debate over the UK’s membership in the European Union, having advocated for the “Stay” campaign that lost by 4 percent of the vote to “Leave.” Alexander sat down with the Gate’s Nicholas Romanoff to discuss the future of transatlantic relations, Scottish nationalism, Britain’s departure from the EU, and the UK Labour Party in the era of Trump and Brexit.

The Gate: In the past week, Nigel Farage has suggested that he play a role in easing British relationships with US President-Elect Donald Trump. The two met for an hour in Trump Tower last Saturday. Sources in Farage’s office told The Telegraph that Trump plans to consult Farage, the UK Independence Party leader, on policy proposals before contacting UK prime minister Theresa May. What do you think Trump’s strategy is in cultivating this relationship with Farage so quickly after the presidential election?

Douglas Alexander: I'm really not very sure. Nigel Farage campaigned for Donald Trump during the presidential election. And the meeting that took place reflects the connection that was established during the campaign, but I think as the months pass it will be clear that government-to-government relations matter in international affairs and in the relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States. And my expectation is that in the weeks ahead, Theresa May will travel here to the United States to meet with the president-elect and that will no doubt establish a new relationship both for Donald Trump and a different relationship for the United States and the United Kingdom.

Gate: Do you foresee there being any long-term implications to this breach of standard diplomatic protocol, in which the president-elect has put pressure on a close US ally to replace their ambassador to the US with one of Britain’s opposition party leaders ?

Alexander: Well, I think everybody is coming to terms with a Trump presidency, and this strikes me as just one example of the president-elect bringing a very distinctive approach to the presidency. But that's hardly a surprise. Given so many of the things that he said during the campaign and actions that he's taken in the past, I think we all need to expect that this will be a pretty distinctive presidency.

Gate: Boris Johnson told reporters on Monday that “there’s a lot to be positive about” with Trump becoming the next president, that this is “a moment of opportunity.” With President Obama having warned before the referendum that a “Leave” vote would downgrade the “special relationship” between the US and the UK, and Trump proclaiming himself “Mr. Brexit,” is Johnson’s professed optimism well-founded?

Alexander: Well, Boris Johnson has never been my lodestar of common sense or wisdom when it comes to politics. He is a figure who, in the eyes of many, made claims during the referendum campaign that have already been undermined by reality, so I would take with a pinch of salt Boris Johnson's claims as to where opportunity lies and where peril lies for the United Kingdom. In truth, I believe Britain stands taller both in Washington, in Moscow, and in Beijing as part of the European Union. And it is a post-imperial fantasy on the part of some Brexiters to imagine that Britain will be as influential and prosperous as some of their claims during the campaign suggest.

Gate: Speaking at Oxford on Thursday, you attributed the Scottish Nationalists’ loss in the 2014 independence referendum largely to “their failure to provide credible answers to reasonable economic questions.” You spoke about MP Michael Gove’s comment that “we’ve had enough of experts.” Trump has also stated, “The experts are terrible.” Guided by both the “Leave” campaign and Trump’s success, who is to say the Scottish people will keep looking for credible answers to reasonable economic questions?

Alexander: Well, there were really three fundamental policy weaknesses that the referendum campaign in 2014 exposed. Firstly, there were genuinely heroic assumptions about the level of the oil price to try and balance the Scottish budgetand since then we've seen a collapse in the oil price. Secondly, the issue of what currency an independent Scotland would use, with the rather incredible claim being made that there would be an involuntary currency union with the rest of the United Kingdom. And thirdly, the issue of automaticity of European Union membership, where Jose Manuel Barroso, who was then EU commission president, made clear that Scotland would not be a successor state and member of the European Union if it seceded from the United Kingdom. Each of those policy challenges has, if anything, become more challenging in the months and years since 2014, and that's why there hasn't been a single opinion poll since 2014or indeed since the Brexit vote on the twenty-third of Junesuggesting that a majority of Scots want independence.

Gate: How do policy-makers and activists on both sides of the Atlantic combat this ongoing assault on independent expertise?

Alexander: I think it's important to match evidence with emotion, not simply to rely on facts but to recognize that feelings matter in politics, too, and that's a task of political leadership. If you look to the north of the United States in Canada, we see in Justin Trudeau a politician who is highly literate in the politics of symbols and the politics of emotion, as well as delivering a fairly progressive policy agenda. So I think the challenge on politicians is to match emotion with evidence and to match facts with feelings in their campaigning and in their governing in years ahead.

Gate: On November 3, the High Court ruled that an act of Parliament will be required to trigger Article 50, which would formally begin the Brexit process. If upheld, do you see this ruling actually leading to a “softer” Brexit then would have otherwise been negotiated?

Alexander: Well, I think that the decision that was reached by the High Court was an important challenge to the mindset of the British government, which suggested that once the vote had happened on the twenty-third of June there should be no meaningful role for elected representatives in the British parliament. There's a certain irony to that approach, given that so many people emphasized the importance of the British parliament during the "Leave" campaign. But my expectation is that even if that ruling is upheld by the Supreme Court, there will still be a majority within the House of Commons who will vote for the triggering of Article 50. So I think it will not stop the Article 50 process being initiated, but it may delay it as a result of the need for primary legislation.

Gate: Prime Minister Theresa May has said that this process by which she would have to get parliamentary confirmation would hamstring her ability to negotiate the best Brexit possible for the British people. Do you think that there is merit to her argument?

Alexander: I think the problem for Theresa May is that she is rapidly losing the benefit of the doubt. For two or three months, she asserted that Brexit means Brexit, and people were willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. But as a document leaked from the government only recently in the United Kingdom evidences, there is a growing sense that the government is disunited, incoherent, and unclear on its negotiating tactics. So rather than finding a reason to blame Parliament, I think the most immediate challenge for the prime minister is to ensure that the government gets its act together.

Gate: In regards to that document which was leaked, how do you think Theresa May's office should go forward in responding to its release and the concerns that it has raised?

Alexander: Well, it seems to me they've spent a great deal of today disparaging the document rather than addressing the challenges. What the document reveals is what many of us have suspected: that there is division within the British cabinet, that you have incoherence in the positions being adopted by different government departments, and that the challenge of Brexitprobably the biggest legislative and policy challenge confronting a British government since the end of the Second World Waris at risk of overwhelming the capability of the government machine. So there's a real urgency, I think, to Theresa May recognizing that a different approach is required and that if she attempts to retain all decision-making within Downing Street, it will undermine the ability of Cabinet government to work effectively in the face of a very considerable challenge facing the government in leading the negotiations.

Gate: Do you think that the release of this document will ultimately put pressure on her to increase the capacities of her administration to handle such a situation?

Alexander: Well, I doubt that it was what Theresa May wanted to read in the newspapers when she woke up and had her breakfast this morning, but it's very rare for documents leaked from government to change government policy. I think why this document is significant is not that it has been released, but simply the truth that it confirms: that we have a government that is not very clear on what it is doing and is struggling to get its act together.

Gate: Earlier this month, you told The Guardian that it is increasingly likely that Brexit negotiations would yield a “transitional arrangement that would in reality last several years, and define the future relationship between the EU and the UK.” What might such a deal look like, and, in particular, how would it transition into a more fully-fledged agreement?

Alexander: Well, the reason I made those comments is because the most recent and most comprehensive trade agreement reached by the European Union was the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement that was reached with Canada. It's not yet implemented. It took seven years to negotiate, and it excludes services that comprise 79 percent of the British economy. So my sense is that during the prescribed twenty-four months of the Article 50 procedure, it will be a huge challenge to try and reach a final agreement governing the trading relationships between the United Kingdom and the remainder of the European Union. Frankly, I think it's more likely that, in insurance parlance, we'll have temporary cover. There will be a temporary agreement put in place to govern trading relations between the United Kingdom and the European Union from around spring 2019. That itself will be a big challenge, but it seems to me a slightly more straightforward challenge than trying to conclude a comprehensive and final agreement within those twenty-four months.

Gate: On November 10, you said that the “the operation and the timetable of the [Article] 50 process were specifically designed to put the leaving country on the back foot.” If that’s the case, why would the EU agree to a “transitional arrangement,” thereby setting a precedent that the Article 50 timetable is actually more flexible?

Alexander: I think because Europe has an interest in sustaining trading relationships with the United Kingdom, albeit one that is constrained by politics. But if it were feasible to have a temporary arrangement, perhaps involving continued payments by the United Kingdom for access to the single markettime will tellthen there is probably more scope for negotiating a flexible temporary agreement than a flexible permanent agreement. And if European leaders are able to hold out the prospect of a different deal in the long term, they may have more negotiating flexibility in the short term on the temporary agreement.

Gate: How might the growing strength of Euroskeptic parties across the continent factor into both these considerations with the transitional arrangement and then more broadly the EU's negotiating approach to Brexit?

Alexander: Well, there is a rather hopeful view in Britain that the Brexit negotiations would be conducted with some very wise German businesspeople. The reality is that Brexit will be negotiated with twenty-seven governments and parliaments across Europe, so there will be politics on both sides of the English Channel, and, rightly as you recognize, a fear of the rise of populism and a fear of the contagion effect of Brexit will weigh heavily on the minds of the European Union negotiators. That will impact and affect the terms of any temporary agreement, but it will undoubtedly impact and affect the terms of the final agreement as well.

Gate: There are arguments that assert the biggest battlefield for British negotiators is actually going to be in the World Trade Organization and not in the Brexit negotiation itself, mainly because of the number of factors that need to be satisfied. Do you agree with that assessment?

Alexander: Well, in order for Britain to reestablish itself as a full sovereign member of the WTO, we'll be required to deposit our commitments with the WTO and secure the unanimous support of every country in the WTO. So you can construct scenarios whereby potentially Russia, or even a country like Argentina, could object to Britain's full membership in the WTO. As a citizen of the United Kingdom I hope that that doesn’t happen, but that remains a possibility. So there are some potential barriers in the way to Britain negotiating within the WTO for new trade agreements with others. But it's important also to recognize that there is a sequence here. Britain is only able to reestablish itself as a full member of the WTO when it leaves the common tariff area of the European Union, and that means that, effectively, the Article 50 negotiations will be concluded before the WTO becomes the platform on which Britain agrees to trading relationships with the rest of the world.

Gate: With all of these developments in Theresa May's handling of Brexit and of course the referendum vote itself, how would you evaluate what Labour's strategy should be going forward and its prospects electorally?

Alexander: Well, Keir Starmer has just taken over responsibility for speaking on Brexit within the Labour Party and seems to be doing a pretty effective job in holding the government to account. But Brexit is only one issue that is confronting the Labour Party and the Conservative Party at the moment. The opinion polls are not kind to Labour right now, and that's why I think it is important in the coming months that Labour sets out a clear, convincing, and compelling agenda to the people of the United Kingdom to challenge a Conservative Party that, at the moment, feels relatively confident that it can win the next general election and govern Britain for the next decade.

Gate: If you were to unilaterally write that agenda, what would you assign top priority? What is Labour's strongest point going forward?

Alexander: Well, having been involved in writing manifestos in the past, it's never a unilateral effortit's always a collective endeavor. But I think for the Labour Party, a commitment to combining policies for economic growth and social justice would need to be at the heart of that manifesto.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Nick Romanoff