What’s The Worst That Can Happen?

One week in to the 2019 general election campaign, and I have already turned off the television, tuned the radio to 6 Music, and my media browsing is fully focussed on cats. How did it come to this?

It’s the nastiness, of course. There is nothing too trivial to be weaponised, nothing so serious that it can’t be treated with absolute cynicism. It’s the politics of the ‘Sidebar of Shame’. Throw out noisy taunts, circulate memes in Comic Sans, “Your economic policy is too fat!”, “Your fiscal strategy is too ugly!” It’s hard for a voter to think straight when it’s less a question of competing parties trading arguments about policies, or offering rival visions of what they want the country to be, and more a case of a really bad Marvel movie. The Incredible Sulk meets The Invisible Man. The sort of film Hugh Grant thinks is much too loud. I’m with Hugh on this.

Let’s start with the racism, which saturates everything political right now. The anti-Semitism is real, and ugly, and has not been addressed effectively for far too long. The Islamophobia is real, and ugly, and there hasn’t even been a pretence at addressing it. But there are other racisms and hatreds being weaponised, too, those we scarcely want to look at. Why isn’t this a Windrush election? A Grenfell election? There’s plenty of tokenism about, but little systematic analysis of why some people’s life chances are structured to be lesser than those available to others.

There’s also the importation of some of the worst hatreds of Indian sub-continental politics into Britain. The brave and principled MP (now candidate) for Slough, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, who earlier this year was applauded in the Chamber for calling out Johnson’s racism, last week Tweeted this, “I urge my Hindu and Sikh British compatriots: don’t fall for the divisive tactics of religious hardliners, trying to wedge apart our cohesive community, circulating lies on WhatsApp. They won’t silence the likes of me, who will speak up for human rights.” It’s part of a clear Tory strategy of trying to woo the ‘Indian vote’ by BJP-ish appeals to communalism. David Cameron started it when he shared a stage at a BJP rally in Wembley with Narendra Modi. I thought then that it was dangerous for a British politician to lend the sheen of international statesmanship with an Indian PM with a long record of encouraging, even inciting, communalist anger, hate, even riots, sometimes leading to deaths. The Tories might legitimately see the growing Indian middle class as a new ‘vote bank’ for the party, but that shouldn’t be done by feeding the worst of bigotry.

As a voter I long for sensible, sober, secular elections, in which parties don’t shrilly rule out working with others, or lie on their election literature, or weaponise hate, or circulate disinformation, or take money from shady sources. I long for a news media that reports fairly, accepts honest disagreements, and separates news from opinion. I want to lower the temperature, and raise the excitement. A democratic event should be a festival of ideas, not a sewer stuffed with fat bergs.

Now for a nice cup of tea. In silence.

Trivial Politics for a Serious Age

When I started to write about the general election of 2015, I assumed that once the vote was over, I’d close the blog, and move back to writing about other things. But David Cameron won an unexpected outright victory, was committed to a referendum, and so I kept this occasional exercise in one voter’s observations from outside the bubble going. Barely four years later, and I’m looking at general election number three, Prime Minister number three, and a country that looks more fractured and unhappy than at any time in my life (and I lived in Yorkshire during the Miner’s Strike).

Today Boris Johnson stood outside No 10 and made an election campaign launch speech that was extraordinary. In expression, in content, in delivery, it was a speech that made no effort whatsoever to convey a sense of statesmanship, of leadership for the whole country, indeed, no sense that the country he was seeking a mandate to lead was in any way serious.

He began by saying, in a faux exasperated way, that he didn’t want an election. He was forced into it by MPs having the temerity to do their job of holding the executive to account. He reeled off, in a bored manner, a list of things the Tories were doing, naturally including building “40 new hospitals” (they’ve committed some cash to the refurbishment of six). He went into a riff, which he plainly enjoyed a bit more, accusing Jeremy Corbyn of plotting with the Kremlin to poison people in Salisbury. The only crime he forgot to mention was the killing of the Kulaks, but as he’d put that on the front page of the Telegraph, all bases were covered. It was a speech that insulted the intelligence of everyone who heard it, but what did that matter? He is World King.

What’s more, he’s a World King with “steel balls”, according to a hairdresser from Merthyr Tydfil interviewed by David Dimbleby for Panorama tonight (6th November 2019). For that’s the kind of country we are now. We’re hitting the point at which half of all young people will have degrees, but the media and political ‘elite’ thrust their microphones before, and take their political cue from, people who have been groomed to be coarse and emotional. A part of me wonders whether these ‘left behind’ people, those ‘citizens of somewhere’ about whom journalists and think tankers write books, have become so elevated in the ‘national conversation’ because if the media spoke to the pharmacists, the librarians, the teachers, the tech start-ups, the poets of small towns they might find that the public school/Oxbridge/London stranglehold on the published expression of ‘informed opinion’ was unearned?

Britain’s always been a country where posh dilettantes have been indulged, but it didn’t matter so much when behind the scenes there was a strong administrative infrastructure holding everything together, and not just Whitehall, but right across the country. If the PM was a lush, the secretary of state an indolent know-nothing, it didn’t matter when Sir Humphrey Appleby was there to keep things ticking over nicely. Ditto in the town and county halls of the nation. But decades of deliberate deskilling, of outsourcing, of just cutting, has hollowed things out so much that the clowns in charge are now exposed. It makes sense that to provide them with cover, the rest of us should also be ‘represented’ in public discourse by the loud, the shouty, the aggressive and the irrational.

So here we are. Day one of the election. The PM lies on live TV. The Brexit Election (2.0) is being fought by the Leader of the Opposition on a “Don’t mention the Brexit!” ticket. The third biggest party in parliament only contests seats in a place with just over 5 million of the UK population of 66 million. The fourth biggest is pitching a ‘moderate’ message of refusing to work with anyone else in any conceivable circumstances. Meanwhile the party that most scares the ruling Tories is the party with no members whose leader is too scared to contest a seat himself. I once did a training course in how to write for ‘continuing drama’ (soaps to everyone else). Our first piece of advice was to start at a pitch of unbearable intensity, and to ramp it up from there. That’s British politics right now – high emotion and a complete absence of credibility.

In my everyday life I meet, work with, intelligent, competent, highly skilled, pragmatic, forward thinking people of high seriousness. All over the country these people quietly get on with making most things work. They don’t derail rape trials, suppress inconvenient or embarrassing reports, pretend that the major issues facing them can be ignored, or pretend to be things which plainly they are not. Being caught out lying carries costs, failing to deliver a task has consequences. Real life is a bloody responsible business.

But British politics right now? I know it’s full of good people trying their best, and often succeeding. But they’re not the ones in charge. And until they are, I don’t see an easy way out of here. I just hope this election proves me wrong.

Election Fever? (Really?)

British politics is now characterised by endless noise. It is a fake battleground of loud bangs, sudden flashes of light, thick, choking eruptions of smoke, and a terrain of glooping mud through which we must trudge, never knowing, seeing, in what direction we are heading. Front lines move inches at excessive toll.

For politics has become a permanent election/referendum campaign in which no actual governing has happened since 2016. That we now have a vote date in December doesn’t necessarily change that. The odds are that it’ll merely prolong the stalemate.

But we can’t go on like this. There are too many urgent questions that can’t wait until we’ve sorted out who is going to occupy No.10 for a couple of years, or less. Brexit, of course, that maggoty corpse of a mandate, needs to be interred, but the state itself, and its capacity to make and deliver policies upon which people’s lives depend, needs to be nursed back into health. And somewhere in this mess stirs the answer. But it won’t be where all the noise is now.

That noise is intemperate, viciously partisan, short-termist, highly aggressive, and almost entirely focussed upon the wrong things in the wrong ways.

Is the electorate equally up for all out war? You’d certainly think so, if the surly audiences of Question Time, the raging phone-in shriekers, and spittle-flecked vox poppers are any guide. It’s a wonder we’re not installing flame throwers in the front garden, and hiring wolves to patrol the streets.

But we’re not. When Mark Francois claimed that the country would “explode” if we hadn’t left the EU by 31st October, I’m sure he probably believed it. Certainly more than his leader ever desired a a deathbed in a ditch. I write this on 1st November, and, from what I can see, the bins got emptied this morning, the buses still run down the High Street, and the odd jogger is still braving the rain. Nothing “exploded” at midnight .

There are just under 46 million voters in the UK. That number has been declining, fractionally, but a recent surge in people seeking to go on the electoral roll may have made a difference in the last few weeks. 17.4 million voted to leave the EU in 2016, though the age profile of those voters suggests that the number is now smaller, but even if it is the same, that’s little over a third of eligible voters. It’s hard to believe that even 10% of that number are angry enough to “explode”, as if they were, they’d have been able to mount marches of the size of those staged by the non-combustible Remainers.

The point is, the noise is coming from very few people, but it has the assistance of the ear-splitting amplification system that is the British media.

That includes pollsters. Polls are growing ever less reliable. This is not so much through partisanship, though clients may commission polls for slanted reasons, but because polls are political players, influencing opinion as much as they record it. That’s possibly even more true for focus groups, which turn people into lab rats. I saw a report last week of an experiment in which rats were taught to drive tiny perspex vehicles. Rodent Top Gear is entertaining, but it’s not what rats do in their natural habitat. Ditto voters.

So let’s look not at where all the noise is coming from – politicians, media, and the ecosphere of politics – and concentrate instead upon the 45.7m.

Most of them do not live along the M62 corridor. Few live in Workington. Under 62,000 live in Gareth Snell’s Stoke-on-Trent constituency. The seaside towns of the east coast of England are not vast metropolises. Older white men without degrees are numerous, it is true, but there are still more women.

Women, I suspect, will be the source of change. Not city school-run mums in Range Rovers, nor Millenial tech entrepreneurs, nor shiny haired vegan vloggers on Instagram, nor any of the stereotypes of modern womanhood visible to politicians and advertisers. It’ll be Brenda from Bristol and her friends.

All across the UK there are women, often unglamorously middle aged, who are holding communities together. They are volunteers in libraries, or the minimum waged managers of charity shops in small towns, or those running food banks, or whose hard earned OU degrees have given them thankless administrative jobs keeping half-dead local services going.

These women are ‘doers’. They know how to run things, how to manage tiny budgets, how to care for the people and things around them. They’ve become adept at managing bureaucracy, of getting social care for dependents, or assessments for children with special needs. They know what difference functioning government makes, and what harm underfunded government does by commission or omission. They could well hold the key to this election.

So don’t get distracted by the noise, enraged by the deliberate provocations, and look instead at those in whom the Westminster machine sees nothing of interest. If this election is to resolve anything, it will be because a party manages to speak to those people, especially the women.

Walking In The Rain

I’m not a reluctant marcher. If anything, I’m a demo veteran. But I’ve always felt a little bemused, slightly semi-detached on anti-Brexit demonstrations from the very first I attended at Tory Party Conference in 2016 in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, and the ascension of a triumphant Theresa May (‘New Iron Lady’ – Daily Mail).

My ambivalence puzzled me. I would look at my fellow marchers with curiosity. Who were there people? So white, so middle aged, so middle class? On the first big London march I tried to fit in better, donning a yellow top and a blue jacket and scarf, but I felt a bit daft.

Perhaps it was the proclamation on placards, and in snatches of conversation, that others felt their identity to be European? I didn’t feel particularly European. Except when I remembered, with a jolt, giving an interview to the distinguished Scottish journalist, Arnold Kemp, many years ago, declaring that I felt more connection to the institutions in Brussels which provided a lifeline to regions like mine, than I did to institutions in London which were hell-bent on the immiseration of the North. My identity, like those of the people around me on the march, was a mass of latency and contradiction. “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

But finally, on Saturday 19th October, I think I came to understand the source of my unease with the anti-Brexit marches.

There was melancholy in the air this time. There were fewer home-made banners and placards. The Open Britain/People’s Vote campaign were thrusting free tee shirts and placards at people from boxes on street corners, like something from the end of a car boot sale. And yet here we were once more. I counted at least six coaches from Daniel Kawczynski’s Shrewsbury, a similar number from Nadim Zahawi’s Stratford constituency. The coaches from Aberystwyth set out at 5.00am, and the Scots had travelled overnight. The Met Police won’t issue estimates of numbers any more, but a German news helicopter overhead was able to calculate that an estimated 2.2 million marchers were on the streets.

And that is the problem. The vote in 2016 looks in retrospect like a very temporary episode of mass hysteria, in which ‘Brexit’, a magic word, an incantation summoning forth the solution to any problem, a healing of any ill, an excision of any source of grievance, radicalised and mobilised a narrow, but significant, majority at the ballot box. But it didn’t create a Brexit movement.

Nigel Farage can raise millions of dollars from his billionaire contacts, but he daren’t form a real political party with local branches and a collectively agreed policy platform. Too risky. The people just aren’t there in sufficient numbers. They’ve given up trying to organise official demonstrations. Their ‘Jarrow March’ was a desultory Ramblers outing.

As for the Tories, they’ve had a membership fillip from the middle class elements of UKIP rejoining the party, but it’s hardly a mass movement.

It can be too easy to blame the media for all our problems, but Brexit voters were an exotic new thing to an over-centralised press and broadcasting establishment, exciting and dangerous. They saw Trump rallies in rust belt towns screaming “LOCK HER UP!”, and wanted a bit of that. TV audiences were ‘cast’ to ensure the constant presence of red-faced intemperates, and viewers and readers were groomed to know what to say to any roving vox pop mic in Stoke or Grimsby. “We voted.” “It’s democracy.” Latterly, “Just get on with it”. But for all the heat and noise on Question Time, there is no significant Brexit mass membership movement.

Not so for the Remainers. The millions who march, the local groups and their Saturday ‘Mood Boards’ in hundreds of High Streets, the six million who signed a petition to Revoke when enraged by the arrogance of Theresa May. The numbers are demonstrably there for a huge movement.

What’s more, that nascent movement is stuffed full of the sort of people who run things, who know how to do things, who can make speeches, and organise events, and probably run councils, and stand for election.

But we have not become a movement. We know what we are against, and so we can cheer platform speakers who run the breadth from a former Defence Secretary who was the persecutor of the Women of Greenham Common, to Ken Livingstone’s young treasurer at the GLC. A Red/Green like Caroline Lucas can share a stage with people who were recently Tory ministers. But that leaves the question, what are we for?

Stopping Brexit, obviously.

But that’s no longer enough. Brexit is a consequence, not a cause of our broken politics. There’s no return to the status quo ante.

On Saturday I’d mostly marched close to the head of the demonstration, and managed to complete the distance before the rain came down. Like Superman, I took shelter in a red phone box, emerging from it in something like a cape (actually an orange plastic rain poncho). But as I looked through the panes of that box at my fellow marchers, some well-prepared for the weather, some drenched, I thought that what we really need is what isn’t yet there, and perhaps can’t, won’t be there.

We need a philosophy and agreed principles, potential leaders with a clear vision of the necessary direction of travel, and the organisational means to develop a practical programme, and to popularise it more widely. The existing parties in various ways don’t come close to that, and I’ve no illusions that the millions who march, or who support the anti-Brexit movement, all share the same outlook.

But it’s hard not to think that the ranks of PV marchers, XR activists, anti-fracking campaigners, and others will provide the seeds of an urgent new politics fit for the global challenges of this century.

How can we make it happen?

Why Fear Matters (sadly)

I’ve attended two local protests in the last few days. The second, on Saturday 31st August, was one of many all around the country. I signed a petition, too, within hours of it being posted on the Parliament website, when it stood at around 100,000 signatures. It passed a million within 24 hours. I marched in the capital with a million fellow citizens. None of this appears to have much troubled the media, and it hasn’t given the government a moment’s pause for thought. The question is why such protests have had so little effect?

Try thinking of what might have happened if the street protests, the marches, the petitions, had been the work of people who voted to leave the European Union?

A Question Time audience of a million people outside the gates of Downing Street. Spontaneous protests of radio phone-in stalwarts in towns and cities across the UK? 2,500 Leavers turning up on the Promenade in a seaside town of perhaps 12,000 inhabitants? Can you imagine the press reaction to that?

There would have been panic in Westminster, Cobra meetings, alarm across the land.

Two obvious questions arise from this. One is the question of why the Leavers have never matched our protests in frequency and scale?

They have surely tried. Soon after the 2016 vote Arron Banks was said to have offered to pay for free buses and free beer for pro-Brexit marchers, but even such inducements couldn’t attract the numbers that would matter. (Remainers mostly pay their own way.) The recent attempt, fronted by Nigel Farage, at reenacting the Jarrow March attracted fewer people than a regular Sunday afternoon with any local Ramblers group. The Brexit Party Ltd has regular rallies attracting up to a few thousand attendees paying a fiver to gawp at Farage and his band, but press coverage has suggested than some attendees are groupies who travel to each event. In any case, the numbers amount to rather less than the average footfall in our public libraries. Most Brexit voters, one must conclude, aren’t especially committed.

The other question is why do our protests seem to have so little political impact?

The answer to that, surely, is that power does not fear us. They fear the carefully selected Question Time audience, but they don’t see us as any kind of threat.

My guess is that they don’t fear us, because they know us. We have taught them, or their children. We tend them when they are sick. They’ve worked alongside us in the jobs they did before going into politics (I was struck, at last Saturday’s protest in the rain, by the number of umbrellas bearing the names of prominent law firms). They assume that they can take us for granted, because we have too much to lose to start tearing up paving stones, and hijacking buses to make barricades. None of us has ever assassinated a Member of Parliament.

It’s a basic psychological response to others. If they seem like ‘us’, we relax, we don’t fear them as dangerous strangers. I’ve often thought that politicians on the election campaign trail look like people in a state of perpetual terror. They really are frightened of voters. Just not us.

So, sadly, we need to make them fear us. We need to invent forms of protest which cause them alarm. Like the Extinction Rebellion protesters, who in reality are probably also often the educated, urban middle class, we need to find forms of action that surprise and discomfort the powerful.

In short, we need to frighten the Bejesus out of them!

Any ideas?

Blue Jacobins

Every day it is Year Zero. Certainties ripped up, constitutional niceties consigned to the dustbin. All that is solid melts into air.

At least, that’s how they want us to feel. But who is “they”? And what is their purpose?

“They” are a changing cast, or perhaps a mutating organism in the body politic of Britain. “They” exist because there has been no real moment of reckoning that has consigned them to the past, or at least to the fringes where they can do no harm. “They” are snobbish and bitter at the rise of capitalism; “they” are resentful at the extension of the franchise to the middle class, to the working class, to women. “They” are appalled at the rise of organised labour, particularly when working class people enter Parliament, and then government. “They” deeply deplore the loss of an Empire they regard as a birthright and an embellishment, the ‘facts on the ground’ of Global Britain (TM). “They” chafe against the mere existence of a union of European nations, feeling deep in their hearts that it’s all a plot to bring them down, to steal their ‘specialness’, to tarnish their lustre. “They” have been with us at least since the Victorian age, perhaps longer.

“They” have been managed institutionally by the existence of a Conservative Party that has historically sublimated their fears and desires, channelling the passion of resentment and imagined loss into occupying a status, self-bestowed, of ‘natural party of government’.

But the Tory Party, as a kind of cultural hospital for the tortured psyches of people born to rule, and their supporters and acolytes, whether fawning courtiers, or chancers on the make, has fallen apart. It is no longer fit for purpose.

When I look at the real drivers of Brexit – the Owen Patersons, the Andrew Bridgens, the Bill Cashs, and their fan base – I see people for whom this is a “sceptred isle/This fortress built by nature for herself.” They see themselves as “This happy breed of men, this little world/This precious stone set in a silver sea”, protected “Against the envy of less happier lands”.

But they aren’t the leaders of Brexit. Brexit isn’t just about Tory melancholy. Brexit is the final stage of British Conservatism, in which its own internal contradictions, and those of the British Constitution, are meeting the world as it is, a small planet in the grip of multiple existential crises.

The shocking events this week, in which the executive seeks to remove the powers of the legislature need to be seen in this light. Shock and Awe tactics to delight the true believers, and to strike terror in their enemies.

But the Tories and their breakdown has come to affect the rest of the country, it’s brought the economy to the brink of crisis, it’s alienated our friends and neighbours, and made the country a place to be pitied. We have become pathetic, a country on the brink of a fire sale, a plaything of billionaires.

But it is also firing up many people to think again, and to think big.

This political fight is no longer about the 2016 referendum, and whether or not to leave the European Union. It is a battle for the heart and soul of the country.

The first casualty of Brexit was democracy. Those of us who voted to Remain in the EU, and who have fought to do so, have done a terrible job of helping to inform the wider electorate about the nature of democracy.

When I was part of a group of people assembling for a protest march against the prorogation of Parliament yesterday, I overheard two men who were simply passing through the square, and had stopped to stare at the people in EU-themed clothing playing ‘Ode to Joy’. They commented that we were the ones who were undemocratic.

This is a common attitude. That ‘the people voted’, and that is that. To seek to stop, to reverse that vote is ‘undemocratic’. It is a sentiment with a powerful appeal. It seems like pure common sense.

But this is a reality television version of democracy, where a vote is held, phone lines close, a winner is declared, and the losers can slink away in defeat forever. It is ‘democracy’ as a limited participation spectator sport. It is a debasement of democracy.

We need to explain that our outrage at an overreaching government shutting down parliament is because it is an executive act of arrogance against us, ‘the people’. When my MP, the person I send to represent the interests of my street, my ward, this part of my city, in Westminster, is locked out of her workplace, it is my voice, my neighbours’ voice, that is being silenced.

The Commons isn’t an annoying ‘talking shop’ getting in the way of letting a Prime Minister just ‘getting on with it’ – it is where every one of us gets to have a say in how we are governed. Democracy is never a ‘winner takes it all’ game. It is something in which winning is always temporary and provisional, and in which no voice is silenced so long as it can gain the votes of sufficient people.

The latter point – the value of votes – is a constitutional fault line made manifest by Brexit. People don’t feel that their votes count, because the system is inadequate to the multiplicity of shifting political allegiances characteristic of today.

The Blue Jacobins in government are uninterested in any of this. They probably aren’t especially interested in Brexit. They are revolutionaries driving through a political experiment. Some are believers in letting markets rip, others care only about being in power, still others have weird hobby horses about education, or the Civil Service, or the military. They are all thrilled by destruction, chaos, and the alarm of their foes. Revolutions are exciting.

They also tend to go wrong. The combination of charismatic leadership, unrealistically raised expectations in supporters, and wild ideas turned policies, will tend to end in tears and worse.

So as we try to defend constitutional niceties, explain representative democracy, and preserve the possibility of change happening in a planned, peaceful, rational way, we also need to think ahead.

The revolution is happening. We can’t go back. We have to go forward.

That means planning for what comes next. And it has to be big, ambitious, and inspiring.

Summer of Lies

We have a new Prime Minister. We shout about the constitutional absurdity of his selection by a tiny group of mainly older, wealthier, white men. He’s given us a new government; not merely a reshuffle, but a ‘New Government’, as though he was fresh from a general election triumph, and keen to hit the ground running. The key ministers have us fuming – they are liars, cheats, dissemblers, people sacked for breaches of security, for freelance ops with foreign powers, they’re celebrators of the wildest fringes of neoliberalism, who, challenged to defend austerity, say in effect, “Let them eat chlorine-washed chickens”!

Thus we fume. I’ve done so, and if you are reading this, the chances are, you have, too. Every outrage seems like a gratuitous sprinkling of salt in our wounds. They’re acting as though they’ve won a huge victory, banished us from any likelihood of power, and yet, in reality they’ve the sliver of a majority, they are in hock to the DUP, and it’s entirely possible that, when tested, they can’t command a majority in the House of Commons. Why, in these objective circumstances, do they behave like Masters of the Universe?

Dominic Cummings, their strategist, has been quite open about why they act like an all-conquering army, keen to anger their opponents in the most egregious ways possible. As he said of their most notorious slogan on the side of a bus in 2016, the point of their campaign is to “enrage” their enemies.

So perhaps it’s time to step back from the enragement? Our anger is genuine, but it looks like we are being treated like Pavlov’s Voters, primed to respond on cue, dissipating our energies on pointless rage, whilst Dr Pavlov, newly ensconced in No.10, calmly gets on with ‘delivering’ a political revolution.

What is the appropriate response to these provocations?

Firstly, it’s August. Chill. It’s the Summer of Lies. Let them wash over you. The media’s big names, the politicians great and small, are on holiday. Their WhatsApp groups are probably still buzzing, but from poolside, or walking holiday, or island hopping. In the absence of a sitting Parliament, nothing can really happen, however many outrageous kites they fly in a complicit press.

Secondly, plan. Come the end of the month, it all kicks off again. They want us all to be exhausted, demoralised, spent, by the time the real battle begins. So deny them what they want. Tweet jokes. Post cat pics. Share recipes. But in the four weeks ahead, work out how to be most effective once the new political season starts.

We will need to draw on our reserves of anger. They have to be made to fear us. That means unity of purpose, and no party political opportunism or posturing. That’s hard, I admit. Our differences are real, and they are increasingly important when it comes to looking forward to tackle the really big, global crises that we need to turn to after Brexit. But for now, for the duration of this last, almighty battle, all guns must be turned on democracy’s mortal enemies, not our mere political opponents.

But for now, don’t rise to the bait. Turn the other cheek. Look away. Whistle.

Don’t give them what they want.

Fear and Loathing

What’s it like in the Westminster bubble right now? Probably much the same as it is in the world outside. It’s a time of hiatus, uncertainty, anxiety, and deep gloom.

But that’s the new normal. Today it feels like there’s another addition to that dismal lexicon – fear.

I’m writing this within minutes of the announcement being made about the resignation of Sir Kim Darroch as Britain’s ambassador to the United States of America. On one level, Darroch’s resignation comes as no surprise. The absurd and undiplomatic response of the elderly baby in the White House to the leak of confidential British Foreign Office cables might be said to have made the diplomat’s position impossible. Equally. one might suggest that Trump has a short attention span, and the ability to do a U turn in response to a little flattery (see how that other Kim, the “little rocket man”, became his best buddy). We could all just hang in there and wait for the President’s mood to shift.

For Darroch’s resignation owes less to the President’s fit of the vapours, and more to do with the current state of British politics. Darroch is said to have decided to resign after watching the ITV Tory leadership “debate” last night. The willingness, indeed eagerness, of the front runner to throw a Civil Servant under one of his primitively painted buses was the trigger for the Ambassador’s action.

When the history is written about this sordid period in British politics, the ‘Darroch Affair’ may well be a key chapter, rather than a footnote in the story of Brexit.

Let me stress this point. I am a woman in a city beyond London. I don’t rub shoulders with lobby journalists at the gym. On the rare occasion that I find myself at a dinner party, there is rarely a Cabinet minister, a top columnist, or a television pundit around the table. I am an ordinary voter, out of the loop, and piecing things together for myself.

The picture I’ve assembled from my consumption of political media is deeply troubling. I smell fear.

Not the fear of Brexit, whether it be by cliff edge leap, or life raft on a gentle sea. However horrible, if Brexit happens, one way or another we can survive it, poorer, sadder, more fractious, but mostly still standing. This is a bigger fear.

A number of things have been coming together to make this potent ‘fear soup’. The normalisation of talk about the prorogation of Parliament. Former Prime Ministers making desperate interventions to try to maintain democratic conventions, using the courts if necessary. Watching Richard Tice on television actively trying to give the impression that the Brexit Party (Ltd) had a hand in the leak of diplomatic communications, without actually saying any incriminating words. Alan Rusbridger tweeting a “web of intrigue” from today’s Times showing all the links and interconnections between ‘journalist’ and hack for hire, Isabel Oakshott, and ‘people of interest’, British and foreign, in the advancement of the Brexit project. The look on Laura Kuenssberg’s face when she tried to question Alan Duncan about whether the key convention on having a politically impartial civil service was now being junked, and Duncan’s response, which strongly suggested that the whole game might be up for the British constitution within the next two weeks.

All these things, and much more, suggest something stronger than alarm, and almost a resignation that the ongoing slo-mo coup is past the point of resistance.

There doesn’t have to be a conspiracy for things to go this badly wrong. A confluence of weakened institutions, malign forces, chancers, the greedy and opportunistic, and myopic and inadequate politicians, in the context of a bored, disengaged electorate is probably enough for the perfect storm.

The question is: how bad can it get?

How Brexit Ends

We are nearing the end of Brexit. This is not a prediction that we will hurtle over the looming cliff edge on the 31st October, as desired by a shrinking band of fanatics. We may do so, of course, and equally we may not. But whatever happens, Brexit is breathing its last.

Alas, that doesn’t mean that Brexit will, as most of the general public appear to want, ‘go away’. The calls to “just get on with it,” that politicians and the media report, simply express exasperation, rather than any desire for Brexit to be ‘done’, other than in the sense of ‘over’. The waves of Brexity sewage washing through British politics will go on, perhaps for a decade or more. But Brexit itself has lost its political force.

Take the evidence. Forget tales of dodgy money, foreign interference, lies on buses. All those things happened, but they alone didn’t drive the 2016 vote. The fact that there was a high turnout, including the mobilisation of a sizeable group of people who didn’t normally vote, was stunning. 52% of the voting electorate did back Brexit. We don’t know all the reasons why, and we don’t know what they then thought they were voting for, but it was impressive.

Remainers found it difficult to know how to respond. There was a democratic dilemma. We knew that the decision was ‘wrong’, in the sense of being bad on every level, politically, economically, socially. It fuelled division and hate crime, it crashed the currency, is driving job losses, and it is badly weakening Britain on the world stage. But as Brexiters still plaintively say, ‘We had a vote….’

Hence the swift rise of the movement for another referendum. As fastidious democrats, we felt the need to seek the legitimacy that comes from adding more voting to the mix.

It was an argument that suited the immediate situation after the 2016 vote. ‘Now we know more….’ we said. It wasn’t the strongest of positions, given that most Remainers distrust plebiscites, but it seemed like the best means of correcting the mistake the country had made.

But times have changed. The 2019 European Parliament elections show that clearly. The Brexit Party, a limited company, not a party, but somehow licensed by the Electoral Commission to stand in the election, ‘won’ the biggest proportion of the vote of any party, much like UKIP had done four years earlier. But unlike 2016, they achieved their ‘victory’ without massively driving up turnout. They are no longer riding a surge. There is a sense of the tide now going out on Brexit.

Polling shows it, too. It would be a mistake to say that there is a massive movement of public opinion away from Brexit. Rather, the (false) hope and optimism of their successful 2016 campaign has been replaced, as pollsters BritainThinks reported last week, by pessimism, gloom, and a loss of confidence in politicians. There is no Brexit movement of any significance now, just a 100,600 or so Tories and subscribers to Farage’s company (with significant overlap between the two groups).

Moreover, few Brexiters make any great claims for their project any more. They manufacture fresh slogans all the time, but the potency of the new ones is weakening. ‘Let’s give £350,000,000 a week to the NHS!’ was pretty bold, and racily populist. ‘We’ll be fine on WTO terms’, or ‘GATT Article 24,’ simply don’t compare.

It all has the feel of a deflating balloon. The thrill is gone. That Brexit persists as a padlock upon British politics, preventing us from doing anything more productive is obviously a huge problem, but it isn’t the insurgency it once seemed to be.

So we have gone beyond the time for another referendum. We need instead to return to a far superior, indeed, more ‘democratic’ form of democracy – representative democracy. The machinery of our representative democracy in Britain desperately needs an overhaul, and at every level. But the principle stands. Representative democracy is a vehicle with room for all, and gears, and brakes. With representative democracy, if we take a wrong turn, we are able to correct our course. If the designated driver persists in heading for a destination we don’t like, we can select a new driver. It’s a system that doesn’t lead to the sort of constitutional chaos we now see in Westminster.

The sensible end to Brexit will be for opposition political parties to commit to a platform of revoking Article 50.

The stupid end to Brexit will be for a new Tory leader to find a way to leave the EU.

Either way, it’s the end of Brexit. It’s dying before our eyes.

Another One Bites The Dust

Another Tory PM falls victim to Brexicide. For Brexit devours all who actually try to ‘deliver’ it, to use the verb of choice for those who think that Brexit is a fully formed ‘thing’ that can be carried on a velvet cushion and presented to an awed and grateful electorate. But Brexit isn’t deliverable. It’s a contagion, a delirium, and it kills those who touch it.

Theresa May touched Brexit. Did she believe in it? Her Brexity detractors say no. May, they say, simply saw Brexit as a means to the premiership, and the ‘delivery’ exercise as a delicate process of damage limitation. This seems disingenuous as a description of why May laid her hands upon the Brexit Thing.

Of course, Brexit’s assassination of Cameron was May’s golden chance to be PM, especially after the fall of Boris Johnson in 2016. But the Brexit Thing itself then looked like a prize worth having. On a high turnout more than half of the electorate voted for Brexit. That included most of the Conservative base, plus UKIP, and a chunk of Labour. It was the Philosopher’s Stone of politics, turning base, messy coalitions, and narrow, tenuous wins into a vista of permanent Tory rule. May and her team grabbed it, held it close, and, strong and stable, they recited the magic incantation, ‘Brexit Means Brexit’.

It worked. May and her Brexit-Tories soared in the polls. So why, and so quickly, did they start to sputter, and splinter, and crash and burn?

The conventional view now is that the problem was Theresa May. That she is a poor communicator, a wooden campaigner, a charisma-free zone. Some say she has no guiding philosophy, no firm principles, and so was easily captured, whether by Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, or by the Civil Service. Put someone else in charge, this view goes, and all will be different.

And it is true. She isn’t a good speaker. Nonetheless, the lack of oratorical gifts didn’t stop John Major pulling off an unlikely election victory in 1992. David Cameron could chillax on stage, and talk without notes or autocue, but few of us can remember a word he said. Ever since the time of Margaret Thatcher, herself a poor platform speaker, the Tory Party has finessed the weaknesses of its leaders and its programme by using the finest, fanciest political marketing tools available. That Lynton Crosby couldn’t halt the precipitate slide in the polls in 2017 was not primarily the fault of the candidate, but of the product. Brexit.

Brexit gains its potency from its unattainability. The current surge in support for the limited company posing as a political party – The Brexit Party (TM) – stems from it presenting as an insurgency against ‘elites’, ‘insiders’, ‘the metropolitan bubble’, even ‘the deep state’. Brexit, in this context, is more ‘code word’ for a deity that cannot be named, than a tangible policy. If Farage and company (Ltd) ever got near to having to ‘deliver’ Brexit, they’d probably fall apart – or more likely, divert attention to something else whilst quickly doing something that looks very like May’s orphaned ‘deal’.

Which leaves the question on this day when Theresa May resigned – would she have been any good as PM if she hadn’t been the Brexit PM?

We have her record at the Home Office to guide us here. The conventional wisdom is that the Home Office is the graveyard of political ambition. That May survived there for so long is evidence of her hard work and tenacity. She was brave, the first Tory Home Secretary to stand up to the Police Federation. She did things that weren’t designed purely to please the Tory grassroots, like questioning the use of ‘stop and search’. These things suggest that she might have been a very successful Tory PM in other circumstances, especially with a cheerleading press on her side. The Mail, remember, hailed her at first as “the new Iron Lady”.

But an alternative reading of May’s time as Home Secretary suggests someone hard-working and tenacious, yes, but also blinkered, unimaginative, and given to following orders. She took far more seriously than its author, David Cameron’s pledge to cut net migration to the “tens of thousands”. This produced the Hostile Environment with its staggering cruelty, in which people who’d lived, loved, worked and paid taxes in Britain all their adult lives lost jobs, homes, were imprisoned and deported, and in some cases were denied medical treatment, or lost their lives. And this monstrous policy didn’t even work in its own terms. Even the steadfastness against the demands of the police now looks more like a minister determined to meet the Chancellor’s demand to cut, cut and cut again. May is a person who does what she’s told, and seems to lack the imagination or empathy, or political instincts even to question it.

So would a May premiership, sans Brexit, have been about addressing those ‘burning injustices’ she once spoke about on the steps of Number 10?

Probably, but in her own terms. The only actual policies she set out were for a return of grammar schools, and the unpopular ‘Dementia Tax’ to part-fund social care. Her first Education Secretary refused to work on the former, and the newspapers shouted down the latter.

We aren’t losing a good prime minister on 9th June. We aren’t even losing someone who, in more auspicious circumstances might have been a successful PM.

The only positive thing that can be said for Theresa May is that she genuinely did try to follow the electorate’s narrowly won demand for Brexit, only to die, politically, in the process. That, and another simple truth.

Whoever comes next is likely to be worse.