John McDonnell realises Brexit will allow politicians to think freely again; when will others catch up?

John McDonnell realises Brexit will allow politicians to think freely again; when will others catch up?

I find it hard to think of a politician with whom I have fewer ideas in common than John McDonnell, the hard Left shadow chancellor and erstwhile heralder of the alleged “bravery” of the IRA.

But, credit where it is due, McDonnell has become the first senior figure in the Labour Party to grasp an obvious truth: leaving the European Union is going to flesh out Britain’s emaciated democracy, bringing with it the possibility of implementing policy ideas that would have been impossible while we were locked in a federation of more than two dozen states.

Most of his colleagues in the Labour Party are either still in Brexit denial phase, Brexit limitation phase or at best a truculent “I suppose we will have to hold our noses and go along with the voters” phase.

But McDonnell has noticed that a paradigm shift is taking place, observing: “We must embrace the enormous opportunities to reshape our country that Brexit has opened up for us.” This utterance reportedly gave colleagues such as Sir Keir Starmer, Labour’s official Brexit spokesman, a fit of the vapours.

But how true it is and how welcome to see a senior Labour figure grasping the basic fact that Brexit will be a massive boon for national democratic sovereignty.

There are all kinds of ideas which can now be advanced for incorporation in manifestos of parties of both the left and the right that would previously have fallen at the first fence of “not allowed under EU law” in the past.

Of course, the very considerable hurdle still faced by such parties is the challenge of actually winning the support of sufficient British citizens to get them elected. But that, after all, is what democracy is all about and surely it is better that a far wider range of policy propositions have now become do-able, at least in theory.

Take, for starters, reform of VAT. Britain will no longer have to seek special permission of the European Union to remove the tax from items such as female sanitary products. When I suggested, while UKIP economic spokesman, a higher rate of VAT on luxury items I was only able to do so because UKIP was fully in favour of leaving the EU.

But once we are out, any party will be free to scrap VAT altogether and create an alternative sales tax with variable rates designed to dampen the usually regressive nature of such levies.

Another policy area wide open for new ideas is the field of higher education finance. One of the things that prevented a graduate tax rather than top-up fees being taken up by Labour in the 2001-05 Parliament was the problem of EU students, to whom Britain would have to offer the same financial assistance as its own students, being likely to flit to a different tax jurisdiction after graduation, thereby dodging the charge altogether. That constraint will be gone now.

Or what about renationalisation of the railways – a long-cherished dream among many on the left? There is debate about whether this would be outright impossible or just very difficult while we are in the EU. But there can be no doubting now that a left-wing party could stick this in its manifesto for 2020 if it so wished.

I have just given a few examples here of what I assume Mr McDonnell might have in mind. If you are firmly from the right of the political spectrum perhaps they will make you shudder. But equally, if you are firmly from the right of the political spectrum, recent election results will probably give you confidence that you can advance your own rival ideas and win the support of more electors for them. That is the simple beauty of democracy. And we are getting it back.

EU membership constrained our freedom of action across vast swathes of policy areas. It was widely reported in the early days of the 2010-2015 Coalition Government that ministers of both its constituent parties were shocked at just how severely their choices were limited by EU law. And what is true for innovative policies from the right or the centre also holds true for innovative policies from the left.

The more McDonnell’s point is appreciated within the Labour Party, the less its leading lights will try and hijack the Brexit process. They will instead be diverted into thinking up exciting new policy ideas to present to the British electorate – a much more constructive activity.

So, perhaps for the first time ever, I find myself uttering a little cheer for a shadow chancellor who makes Jeremy Corbyn seem like a centrist sell-out by comparison. I look forward to hearing his ideas – and then picking them apart.