The Truth About Brexit

Before the vote that crashed the economy, David Cameron, the man responsible, said that in the event of a Leave vote, he would stay on to start the negotiation process.  So a full hour after the official declaration of the result, he stepped  into Downing Street and stood down as PM, leaving the negotiations to his unknown successor.  Why?

We now know the answer to that question.  He told US Secretary of State John Kerry that he resigned because, when it came to Brexit, “I don’t know how to do it.”

Old Etonians are not given to self-doubt. Self-pity, maybe, but doubt?  What Cameron was saying, in effect, was, “It can’t be done”.

This is why, when we hear politicians on all sides saying, ‘forget about a second referendum,’ and ‘the vote can’t be ignored,’ we should take it with a pinch of salt. Even in the case of the impressive Theresa May, where we get a sort of ‘plan’ to implement Brexit, by establishing a department of state, headed by a Leave campaigner to oversee the process, we should be sceptical.  For Cameron is right – no one knows how to do it.

Technically the process ought to be possible, providing we chuck several billions of pounds at the problem, most of it ending up in the pockets of lawyers and consultants. At the end of this long and complex process we could leave the EU – providing that we don’t mind leaving without any kind of ‘deal’ to facilitate trade.  Basically that amounts to losing everything.  It’s a pricy option, but it probably is do-able. The derided ‘experts’ see that way out as costing around 800,000 jobs.

The ‘options’ being bandied about by pro-Brexiters – variants on access to the single market without free movement of labour – are not going to happen, whatever soothing noises have been made by one French minister who will lose his job in next year’s elections.  In any case, there are 26 other countries with a veto. Let’s face it – we have no options.

Therefore it comes down to a very simple choice.

Choice one.  We may as well implement article 50, forget about negotiations, except around peripheral matters, like who picks up the health care bill for UK pensioners in Spain, and resign ourselves to chaos and uncertainty for years at the end of which Britain is smaller (probably literally so, with Scotland, possibly even Northern Ireland, gone), poorer, weaker. How long do we hang on to membership of the UN Security Council and other tokens of our former glory after that? But those are problems for another time.

Choice two.  A bit politically awkward this. I suspect it was Boris’s option, before he got shafted by his ex-mate Mikey. But choice two is, as John Kerry put it, “to walk back from Brexit.”

Realistically, choice two is the only viable option.  But it takes more political guts than most of our politicians have to say so openly.

May’s plan looks clever.  Who might head The Department of Brexit? Gove? Johnson? Iain Duncan Smith? Chris Grayling?

My money would be on Johnson or Iain Duncan Smith.  Johnson would string it out until everyone had forgotten about it.  Duncan Smith would make a dog’s breakfast of it. Like IDS’s universal credit system, it would never happen.

All this assumes that we live in a one party state.

What if the opposition got its act together?  I know what this ought to look like.

Talk of Labour pacts with Greens, Lib Dems, SNP and Plaid Cymru are all very well, but they won’t happen. The SNP has no interest in a UK-wide pact, and the English nationalism sparked by the Scottish referendum, and fanned into a bushfire by this one, won’t take kindly to a major political role for Nicola Sturgeon and her deputies. That’s simply where we are.

But a serious pact could – and ought – to be made now with the Lib Dems and the English and Welsh Greens.  It would be to fight the next election on a pledge to have a new settlement based upon the restoration of local government and regional devolution (the slogan could be “Taking Back Control”), a new electoral system, a new role and composition for the second chamber, and investment in infrastructure alongside an industrial policy to rebalance the economy.  Measures against climate change, including green energy and serious investment in flood defences, could produce a programme that could appeal to a wide section of the electorate, if it was dressed up with some catchy slogans.

But this can only happen if, as a starting point, Labour accepts the inevitable – that the voting system must change, and that Labour will probably never again be a single party government (nor would the Tories).

The Lib Dems would have to pledge – in blood, probably, given their previous broken promises – not to enter into a coalition to prop up the Tories.

There’d need to be deals on seats, too. But this might be easier than in the past, if UKIP is sniffing around Labour’s former northern heartlands.

This pact – let’s give it the working title, Unity for the Common Good – would need to be up and running by the end of this year, in the event of a snap election.

My hunch is that after a period of trying to get to grips with the challenge of Brexit, even a few Tories might breathe a sigh of relief to be let off the hook.

Alas, there’s a big obstacle in the way of it happening. The state of Labour.

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Puny Politicians Strut And Fret

Is there anything more dispiriting than the sight of our politicians bellowing impotently at one another, while all around them the world we have known crumbles into dust?

The unnecessary referendum has produced an unintended result, with all too predictable consequences; consequences which can be summarised as chaos without end.  So how did we get to this?

The referendum campaign itself is like a condensed, magnified version of the processes whereby Britain turned from settled social democracy to snarling instability.

We know that Cameron called the referendum as a device to quash the irritation of the Eurohating right of his party.  And why was he so certain that he would win?  Because he ‘knows’ how to win.

Cameron was trained in the University of Thatcherism in the 1980s, the decade that destroyed our country.  Margaret Thatcher did something daring and unusual in the 1970s on becoming leader of her party.  She appointed an advertising agency, Saatchi and Saatchi, to run the Tory election machine.

Before that time, political campaigning was left to politicians and party members on the ground.  There were posters, and TV broadcasts, and press conferences, but such things were minor frills.  Policies were decided by parties on the basis of what they believed, and what they believed possible, and then they went out and tried to convince voters that they were right.

The Saatchi brothers, and Thatcher’s particular guru, Tim Bell, had no patience for that approach.  Their recipe was Attack and Tempt.

Attack your opponents with ruthless ferocity with the intent to destroy them.  And use any means necessary, however irrelevant or dishonest. ‘Negative campaigning’ is nasty, and it is effective.

The Tempt bit is more subtle.  Sometimes referred to these days as ‘retail politics’, it is essentially about finding something enough voters say they like, and then offering it to them, even if it is essentially irrelevant to the central aim of the party or campaign.

Back in 1979, the ad men found in their focus groups that one policy (actually a Labour policy in areas with a surplus of public housing) was unexpectedly popular with voters.  Sale of council houses.  Go big on this, said Don Draper.  It worked, and he was knighted, enobled (well, Sir Tim and Lord Saatchi were).

Eventually Labour had to succumb to this method of doing politics, too.  New Labour, a classic branding exercise masquerading as a political party, refined the methods of marketing, and trained a generation of politicians in their way of working.

And so politics went from principle and public service, to the dark art of selling selling any old crap in shiny packaging.  Politics became a game, and that game was winning. Nothing else mattered. Not honesty, not integrity. Winning.

David Cameron knew that this worked.  He also thought himself the master.  Hadn’t he sold the lie that Labour “crashed the economy?” “Maxed out the credit card?” “Couldn’t be trusted with our money?”

He forgot one thing.  It’s the narrative, stupid.

The Leave camp had a narrative already up and running.  It wasn’t the one the official campaign originally wanted.  The brains behind the campaign were neoliberals – total globalisers, capitalism-set -free ideologues.  But their focus groups said voters didn’t buy that; indeed, it frightened them.  The narrative that had traction was ‘immigration’, and ‘control’.  The UKIP narrative, one given priceless free exposure for years thanks to Nigel Farage’s ubiquity on programmes such as Question Time.  So, like Thatcher and her council house sales, Leave took UKIPs narrative off the shelf and used it to cruise to victory.

But is ‘victory’ the right word?  Nigel Farage, this morning yelling abuse at elected politicians in the European Parliament, might think so.  But it looks like the wrong result for Boris and Gove.

The official Leave campaign had what we might call a ‘minimum programme’ and a ‘maximum programme’.  The max prog, or ultimate aspiration, was free markets around the world unhindered by nations, states, workers rights, or any other irritation standing in the way of capital. A hard sell.

But the minimum programme, of which the referendum campaign was a start, was to install a Tory leader and a party ascendancy more sympathetic to their ultimate goals.  Boris, in this respect, is less mastermind than figurehead.

They were too good.  Nothing could stop the runaway £350,000,000 bus.  Not squeamishness, not xenophobia, not even political assassination.

The thirty five years of political cynicism and unashamed manipulation came crashing to a head, releasing, giving licence to, the expression of the venom and anger that representative democracy is supposed to contain and dissipate.  Democracy, after all, is not dictatorship of the majority – it is a political culture which respects minority rights, and which enshrines the idea that no party has a right to rule in perpetuity.

A referendum, on the other hand, if held to be binding, is dictatorship of the majority.  Authoritarian yearnings have been given expression, and they now have a voice and a means of organising.

So.  Economic crisis on a bigger scale than 2008. Political violence on British streets. Hatred of minorities. Angry, disenfranchised people who think they have, at last, voted for something to be done.  A perfect storm.

Cometh the hour, cometh the …what?

I couldn’t name a single political leader with the skills, understanding and reach to calm things, to soothe fears, to get a grip.  Nor is there any party with the unity and purpose to rise to the task.

This is bad.

Anarchy In The UK

“There ain’t no future in England’s dreaming…” was the refrain the year after the last referendum on the then EEC.  “Wanna destroy…” was indeed the cry. And so it is again. Only this time, it’s for real.

Britain did not vote for Brexit.  Even England didn’t vote for Brexit. The Brexit vote was a chorus of “No future…”, a vote for a past that never existed, a vote for Enoch Powell, a vote for Norman Tebbit, a vote for cricket tests, and tales of “wide grinning picanninies”, a vote for fags and booze, a vote for doffing caps, and rule by toffs. But, crucially, it was also a vote for host of other, new delusions.

It was never about the EU, not for the voters.  And yet it is now.

We are set to leave the EU.  David Cameron may think he is buying time by resigning to a timetable before invoking a Brexit. But his timetable is tight, and it only offers a choice to the Conservative Party, who will spend the next few weeks brawling over who will lead Little England instead of dealing with the crisis into which we have now plunged.

That is not good enough.  This matter is too big, too vital to our interests, to be the plaything of a party supported at the last election by around a quarter of the electorate.

There must be a general election to choose the team to negotiate with our neighbours in Europe.

Therein lies the next problem.  A snap election right now, in this atmosphere of hate, and political assassination, would probably let all sorts of monsters emerge further to stalk our unhappy country.

So this is what should happen.

Labour needs to get serious.  Immediately.  Corbin, too, should resign.

Jeremy Corbyn was necessary for Labour to realise its torpor and lack of connection with too many voters.  His political views and instincts are often right.  Politicians need to tell the truth, argue from principle, seek to persuade, not bamboozle in order to win.  His prescriptions are also often right, and popular.  Many, perhaps most of the Brexit voters want to spend more on health, renationalise the railways, bring control to the banks.  But Corbyn is destined to be John the Baptist to some other leader.  Labour must find that person quickly, unite around her, and bury the stupid factionalism that is left over from yesterday’s men and women, the children of Blair.  Labour must discover discipline and purpose.

Cameron is still PM.  Parliament returns on Monday.  Before Monday, he should have talks with Labour, the SNP, the Lib Dems, and others with a view to forming an interim government of national unity to steer us through troubled times until an Autumn or Spring election.  That government would have to unite all sides. The Cabinet table should seat Gove alongside Yvette Cooper, Andrea Leadsome with Tim Farron, Chuka Umuna and Caroline Lucas, and, why not some youth, Mhairi Black?

I am serious.  The question of when and how Britain leaves the EU was not decided by the referendum.  It is complex and technical, and needs to be done with maximum participation by all sides, not by a cabal drawn from one.

So the question for serious politicians, and those who care about this bitter, angry, troubled country, is whether they can be big enough, in this time of acute national danger, to throw off their partisanship for a short time and work together.

And after the election in six months or so?  Another referendum, of course.

This story has only just started.

Why Vote?

A vote isn’t a thing in itself, the possession of a citizen, to be used as he or she sees fit. A vote is much more than that. It represents our membership of a wider society; one in which I am as important as you, and you are as important as a banker, a judge, a premiership footballer, or the Prime Minister. It is the one thing that is distributed fairly in this society, and therein lies its power.

I’ve just exercised my right to vote in the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. The polling station is part of the local Catholic church, so one enters past a painted plaster Virgin Mary.  This doesn’t bother me, but I do wonder about the woman sitting behind the trestle table doling out ballot forms.  She’s the ‘mad cat lady’, often to be found on Saturday mornings on the High Street offering ‘spiritual healing’ as part of some evangelical church.  She seems happy enough. So she should.  We are all equal today.

And that troubles me. Not that we are all equal at the ballot box – that is something hard fought for, and not yet won in all parts of the world.  I am troubled by apparent dislocation of the vote, the thing we do today, and the intricate and complex mechanism of democratic political culture.

The analogue metaphor is deliberate.Our democracy began to emerge in the age of steam, and there is still a ramshackle charm to it, with those trestle tables, pencils on string, and rough booths so unvarnished that they make an IKEA flatpack look like Chippendale.  But even a mechanical device, with observable moving parts that fit together, needs maintenance and care.  I fear that, as with so much of our great Victorian infrastructure, such as the railways and the sewers, we’ve neglected the political system.

In this referendum (a political device that is pretty contentious, especially for a decision as complex in its implications as this), at least all votes count equally.  But in most other elections, especially parliamentary elections, they do not.  A vote in a marginal constituency may decide which party forms the government. A vote in a safe seat  may as well be regarded as worthless (not ignoring Condorcet’s paradox here….).

First-past-the-post, the manipulation of constituency boundaries for party gain, and the whole existence of a tier of legislators without a democratic mandate (House of Lords), these things are a stain on our democracy.

Then there’s the party system.  It grew up piecemeal, and once made a sort of sense.  No longer.  The Tory party has money, but no members, Labour has members, but no money. Other parties either struggle, despite millions voting for them, or they wipe out all opponents, despite half of voters not voting for them (that’s Scotland, folks).  If you were sitting down to plan a democratic political system, even a committee of primary school kids wouldn’t come up with a suggestion as daft as ours.

Analogue has its aesthetic appeal, too.  Something that elevates it above the purely functional.  That is what, in this respect, we call political culture.  It’s the atmosphere, the courtesies, the manners, the boundaries, the liberties, that define how our politics works.

Since parties learned that it’s easier to ‘game’ elections, rather than to persuade voters; to bamboozle, rather than to inform; to abuse, rather than to debate, our political culture has coarsened to the point that ‘facts’, ‘reason’, ‘expertise’, have ceased to count for far too many of our politicians, and our citizens.  We know where that leads.

So why vote?

The answer is stark.  It’s all we have.

So pile them up. Turn out to vote in massive numbers.  And resolve that this is the turning point.  No matter what the outcome of the referendum, things must now start to change. Radically.

Feral Britain

We all live in a bubble. We complain about the Westminster bubble, the rich in their gated communities, the 1% with their Panama billions and their private jets, but our bubbles have consequences, too.

I don’t know anyone who plans to vote “Leave” in this referendum. I kind of know a few fringe political types who turn up at meetings, who might be ‘Lexit’, but I am inferring their position; I don’t know it.  I do sometimes overhear conversations on buses where mainly elderly people say they plan to vote to leave the EU, but they aren’t people in my own circle.

LBC commissioned a poll by YouGov which has found that 46% ‘leave’ voters believe that the government will rig the referendum. If the polls really are neck-and-neck, that’s perhaps a quarter of the electorate (around the proportion that voted for the Tories in 2015 – not that they’re the same individuals!) thinks that the Electoral Commission, local government, Returning Officers, and all the rest of the bureaucracy required to run a vote and count the results, are engaged in a conspiracy of corruption.

Elections aren’t perfect. We still vote using pencils and bits of paper which we count in hastily requisitioned leisure centres surrounded by TV crew and members of political parties who scrutinise the counters. It’s all very old school, but it is far less manipulable than computer software, or the voting machines of “hanging chads” fame.

Even so, there have been scandals.  There have been worries about postal votes requested in bulk for residents of care homes. At the general election, a van full of blank ballot papers was stolen. The Electoral Commission is pursuing allegations of fraudulent expenses returns against the Conservative Party, with other parties not yet out of their sights, either.

This is serious, and worrying.  But it’s a very long way from state control of election outcomes.

So why are there apparently millions of people who buy these conspiracy theories? And who are they?

I’d say, they are us.  Us in our bubbles.

The financial-commercial-entertainment-complex has an interest in keeping us segregated into mutually uncomprehending segments, fearful and suspicious of those not like us.  Especially when ‘those not like us’ are actually pretty similar.

Those who hate people on benefits, migrant workers, social workers, do gooders, are fixated on those who in lifestyle and income and level of security are most like themselves. They hate me, a poncy lefty, sitting behind them on the bus, more than they hate the guy in the back of the limo.

And we poncy lefties, we sneer at Sun readers, and Mail readers who aren’t so different from us, but rarely do we give a thought to the people who can buy a luxury super yacht with less consideration than we might give to purchasing a bicycle.

We are all trapped in our bubbles, snarling away, losing faith in democracy, and political parties, and collective action, and social solidarity.

This hateful referendum campaign has exposed the divisive, poisonous politics of the present in a way no general election campaign can do, and perhaps that is a good thing.  Forced to look at the swamp of nastiness in which we live, perhaps enough of us will recoil, and try to reach out to do things a better way?

The Good Politician

Yesterday saw the shocking murder of a woman in an ordinary, crowded British street in broad daylight. A parliamentarian stabbed and shot outside a public library. These things are not supposed to happen in our country.  But what of the woman who lost her life? The politician?

We’ve learned a lot about Jo Cox in the last few hours.  At least, I have.  This time yesterday I probably wouldn’t have recognised her name without a fair bit of prompting. She made enough of an impact in her year in office for me to have some sense of her existence, but no more than that.  It’s not her fault, nor mine, nor yours. Politicians. We don’t tend to think too much about them in the round.

But we should.  For their sake, and for ours.

It’s very easy, especially after the expenses scandal, to caricature MPs as duck-house owning, moat-cleaning, porn-subscribing spongers, remote from the real lives of their constituents.  This is not the time or the place to analyse the causes and consequences of that episode, but it did toxify voter cynicism about the motives and the experiences of the political class.  Yet a good MP is very likely to be different from her (or his) constituents.

Jo Cox is a case in point.  Born in the constituency, her West Yorkshire accent still intact, and by all accounts warm and approachable, Jo Cox was in reality most unlike the vast majority of her constituents.  Although the first in her family to graduate from university, something fairly typical of her generation, she was otherwise untypical in her pursuit of a career in the field of humanitarian aid work, both on the front line, and in the slipperier business of political lobbying.

Such work meant things which to most of us look improbable and glamorous.  Flying to exotic or dangerous locations, having international politicians’ numbers in your phone, being on first name terms with the powerful and influential, and having the huge self-confidence to argue your case in the highest places.  Not many people living in Batley and Spen have jobs like that.

When I first went north to live and work, there were still some coal mines left.  Labour MPs in the region back then were nearly always men who had worked in the industries that underpinned their constituencies – miners, steelworkers, shipbuilders.  No one suspected those men of swapping the pigeon loft for a duck house.

Yet they were, in their own way, also as unlike their constituents as Jo Cox was.  University wasn’t an easy or obvious route for a bright young person in the past.  But the organised working class had their own higher education system.  Trades unions were vehicles for learning.  They talent-spotted, singling out the brightest for office, sending them on the many courses which shop stewards and other ranks of leadership required.  And there was Ruskin College, and Northern College, and other formal places of learning.  Moreover, getting out of the pit, and on to the train to London for a meeting at the TUC was also pretty glamorous in its day.  I’m sure many an up-and-coming young trades unionist from Batley and Spen once walked through the streets of Bloomsbury with a growing sense that one day they might make it to Westminster.

The point is this.  A good politician understands and can connect with the lived experience of their constituents, but in other ways it may be best if they are exceptional people.  Exceptionally hard-working, exceptionally analytical, exceptionally articulate.  These gifts in the individual are then put at the service of those whom they represent.

The Jo Cox I learned about yesterday was the modern incarnation of the best sort of politician.  These are dark times, with deeply unpleasant undercurrents to our political expression.  The antidote to the nastiness must be people like Jo Cox.

Let us value, and praise, the good politician.

Hooligan Rampage In Europe

Hooligans are on the rampage again, reckless, tooled-up, shouting their mindless slogans.  Europe looks on, with a mixture of pity and horror, at these overgrown toddlers running riot.  Can no one stop them?

Yes, the polls look good for Alexander de Pfeffel Boris Johnson, man of the people and leader of the gang.  Ing-er-lund, indeed, as they say at Eton.

It’s obvious what’s in it for Boris.  He wants to stick it to Dave. He wants to be the man in No.10.  He’s calculated that this is the quickest route.  Whether he believes in any of it is irrelevant. He gets to be Mr. Big.  The little details – like running the country, managing an economy hit by the blowback from a Brexit, soothing a divided nation, the poison of xenophobia still coursing through its bloodstream – can be left to others.  That’s how Boris has always operated.

What’s in it for the others?  Gove will get a big job and, like Osborne, will probably have free rein to do what he likes across all departments of state.  Think Gove and education, but let him loose on Health, DWP, Energy, Transport, and everything else at the same time. Cameron once called Gove a Maoist.  This will be a Cultural Revolution, in which the ‘intellectuals’ (the despised ‘experts’) will be despatched to a collective farm in Ambridge.  The Tory ‘girls’ will probably get the odd crumb, though they may be disappointed.  As for Gisela, she either crosses the floor, or she’s out of the door.  Either way, she’s ruined.

But there are other people in this story, too.  Not the backroom chaps running the show, though they will get rewarded, and handsomely.  I’m talking about the Brexit voters.

A smaller number of them, the UKIP and Tory rank and file, will, by and large, like what they get.  For them it is all about the rhetoric, and that won’t let up.  As ‘trade deals’ fail to be renegotiated, as the Germans condescend to the Brits, and the French sneer, so this portion of the public will sit back, confirmed in their beliefs.  Well, it won’t be their jobs that are lost.  Or perhaps it will be their jobs on the line, but we know who they’ll blame, and it won’t be themselves.

Then there’s most of the rest.  The people whose inchoate sense of unhappiness and grievance is being mobilised by the Brexiteers. What will happen to them?

They are being sold an easy answer to a complex set of questions.  Brexit won’t get shot of immigrants.  Brexit won’t give them a secure and decent home.  Brexit won’t get their kid a school place where they want it.  Brexit won’t make GP appointments easier to get.  Brexit won’t make care available for the vulnerable and the elderly. It will probably make all these problems worse.

And then what?

Hooligan rampages. They never end well.

Vote To Leave The Solar System

This referendum might as well be a vote to leave the solar system. We’re already in a state of zero gravity.  The pull of reality, the steady anchor of facts, the solid earth of all we know and understand is long gone.

The characters are straight from Sc-fi.  The smooth replicant that is the Prime Minister has malfunctioned.  The Boris monster and his creator, the sinister Dr. Gove prowl around their lair, tended by their creepy housekeeper, Gisela. The Farage spider has six legs, each clutching a pint and a fag.  They ride around in the Liemobile, its garish paintwork embellished with porkies.  Sc-fi, maybe, but of the sort created by Gerry Anderson.  You can see the strings.

And yet it is working. The Question Time audience, the hand-picked ‘balanced’ crowd at the ‘debates’, the vox pops on radio and television, all present a dismal parade of suspicion, sullen negativity, and simmering hatred.

And what do they hate?  Everything.  Politicians, foreigners, journalists, experts.  Fact-checkers are everywhere, and still people clamour for ‘facts’ – which they then ignore.

So where is this all heading?

The best hope we have is that most people are not like the assorted malcontents cast as TV audiences, and that, in the modest privacy of the polling booth, they will vote to stay on Earth.  It could still happen.

The worst scenario is four more years of Toryism with the volume turned up.  Boriszilla stomping around providing the distractions whilst Gove, the Robespierre of this mob, plans The Terror.  How long before Madame NHS is forced to lay her neck down at the guillotine?

Because that’s the plan.  Their ‘own  side’ now say so openly on television.  John Major last Sunday, Amber Rudd last night.  A coup is happening before our eyes, and there seems to be nothing we can do about it.

Brexit means –

  • A new Prime Minister
  • A recession
  • A weakened currency
  • Rising unemployment
  • Privatisation of the NHS
  • Rising homelessness
  • The removal of most workplace protections on hours of work, unfair dismissal, safety, maternity rights, provision for those with disabilities, age discrimination etc.
  • The further concentration of public spending on infrastructure for London and the South East.

Brexit doesn’t mean –

  • Less immigration

So that’s what we’ll be voting on in a couple of weeks.  To ‘remain’ as a sad little island governed by a failing PM and Chancellor, OR to ‘leave’ our capacity for rational choice and to become a sad little island governed by neoliberal zealots who don’t care about the country just as long as their mates can turn London more fully into a tax haven laundering the money of kleptocrats, despots, drug dealers, and arms dealers.

Don’t say we weren’t warned.

 

Holidays In 1975

The last referendum on British membership of the European Economic Community (now the EU) was in 1975.  And 1975 was another country.

I learned this salutary fact when watching a very useful evening of television from that year on the BBC Parliament Channel last night.  The Seventies have been trashed in recent times as part of the Thatcherite, and the the neoliberal project to erase all memory of social democracy, Keynesianism and the welfare state.  The Dominic Sandbrook view has prevailed; that the era was one of national decline, public squalor, pompous prog rock, and bad fashion.  But that wasn’t really what I saw last night on my holiday in 1975.

First of all, let’s take the referendum campaign of 1975.  A long Panorama programme was devoted to a discussion between the ‘out’ campaigner, Tony Benn, and the European idealist, Roy Jenkins, then both Cabinet colleagues.  The Sandbrookites tell us that the atmosphere between the Labour right, exemplified by Jenkins, who would go on to found the Social Democratic Party, one of the forerunners of the Lib Dems, and the Labour ‘hard’ left represented by Tony Benn was poisonous.  And that that poison would keep Labour out of power for eighteen years until the blessed Tony Blair embraced the great god ‘Markets’. Well, it didn’t look much like that to me.

From the midst of the 2016 referendum, a noisy confection of post-truth junk politics, the 1975 debate takes on the air of the senior common room.  David Dimbleby, the chair of the debate, looked in reality like an undergraduate caught between two professors.  He scarcely said a word.  Jenkins and Benn were entirely capable of discussing the issue without any mediation by a journalist.  Neither man raised his voice, talked over the other,  or was anything other than polite.  Yet the discussion was robust, based upon mutually agreed facts and anchored by positions of principle.

Contrast that with the witless nonsense that passes for ‘discussion’ today.  Indeed, contrast it with the arguments about the format for TV debates, squabbles about who will, or will not appear with whom, and the rest of it.  In 1975 they simply explained their positions, engaged in a proper argument, and let the voters decide for themselves.

And that might have been it, had I seen nothing but the Panorama programme.  But there was more.

A debate filmed in the Oxford Union shocked me.  Barbara Castle was one of the speakers (for the ‘out’ side).  A previous speaker, Jeremy Thorpe, had made reference to his own time as President of the Oxford Union.  Castle, anticipating a hostile audience, and plainly a little nervous, went into fight, not flight mode.  She opened by saying that when she was an Oxford undergraduate, women weren’t even allowed to become members of the Union.

For if the current referendum noise is dominated by Tory men, in 1975 merely being a woman in politics and public life was a challenge on a scale unimaginable now.  Castle was fiery, witty, determined, but also unmistakably besieged.  When women with opinions get flamed on social media these days (we all do), it’s a minor comfort to think that one’s attackers are losers hiding behind screens.  Castle had to take all the crap up close and personal. (I should add that I was tweeting as I watched this. Another person on Twitter – Matthew Bailey – responded with what I think was a photograph of a page from Castle’s diary indicating that she was indeed rattled.)

She wasn’t alone.  The interviews with Margaret Thatcher from 1975 also revealed quite a vulnerable woman, confident in her views, but far from the Iron Lady of later repute.  Thatcher had just beaten Ted Heath to the Tory leadership; an act of chutzpah that appalled the patricians who had for so long dominated Conservatism.  What came  to mind as I watched Thatcher’s interview, and other aspects of the media treatment of her in 1975, was Jeremy Corbyn.

That’s right.  As with Corbyn, the political Establishment, including the media, was incredulous.  How could a serious political party elect a woman as leader?  She didn’t look like a leader, sound like a leader, command respect like a proper leader.  The condescension was palpable.  I’m not saying that Corbyn will ‘do a Thatcher’ and win the next election, going on to become the dominant figure in British politics, but I am saying that there are some surprising parallels.

There are very few ways in which the 1975 referendum compares to that of 2016.  It was called for the same reason – internal party management problems besetting the Prime Minister.  But in all other respects we are in another time and another place.

Our politics today has become like our financial services, dependent on algorithms, number-crunching, and, crucially, bare faced misselling. PPI politics, cynical and shoddy. Sub-prime politicians, taking us for fools.  I’ve no nostalgia to return to the misogyny, racism, homophobia and myriad other unfairnesses of the 1970s.  But I wouldn’t mind a bit more of its seriousness, and willingness to argue politics intelligently, from principle, and without a focus group in sight.

Another Europe Is Possible

Optimism, idealism, and realism.  It’s a lot to ask.  In the middle of a referendum campaign that feels more like a zombie apocalypse (Boris always looks like a bit of flesh is about to drop from him, whilst Gove seems prematurely mummified), optimism, still less idealism don’t come readily to mind.  And as for realism?  Let me eat cake – I don’t want to think about this stuff.

So I wasn’t in the most positive frame of mind when I went along last night to the Another Europe Is Possible rally.  It had been a day of polls suggesting a movement of opinion towards the ‘Kill The Foreigner Party’, and I’d frankly had it up to here with Daily Mail headlines and the Today programme. In my battered head I was screaming, “I’m a Nonentity, Get Me Out of Here!”

It is traditional at this point to say cheering, uplifting things about the packed rally, and how it lifted my spirits and renewed my resolve to make a difference. As a hack, I can craft stuff like that pretty well.  So I won’t.

Experienced campaigners make well-crafted speeches – so what? The venue wasn’t surrounded by OB vans, and those arguments that might move people are being drowned out by shriller, better-funded voices with a direct line to the media.

Cynicism?  Not exactly.  What I got out of the meeting was a shock of cold, clear realism.  And in a good way.

A man stood up to speak from the audience.  From where I was sitting I could see him clearly.  An everyman no one would look twice at in a crowd.  He said that he had a son of 25.  His son had children, worked as a van driver for a delivery company, and had the problems of the age – difficulty getting the kids into the same school; difficulty finding affordable and secure housing.  The son’s ‘job’ was, as is so often the case now, technically defined as ‘self-employed’, meaning devoid of secure hours, sick pay, holiday pay, pension, and all the other ‘rights’ we used to take for granted in a British job.  The man’s son was inclined to vote ‘leave’, as he was persuaded by the argument that immigration pressures were responsible for his difficulties.

The man then brought his own experiences as a young man into the frame.  He had voted ‘out’ of the EEC in 1975, on the advice of Tony Benn.  Had he been right then, and wrong now?

This, in a nutshell, is the problem of the left.  Working class young men in 1975 could expect to have a job with decent and rising pay, a home to rent or buy, and educational opportunities for their children from infancy to graduation without worry or cost.  Moreover, that security, and involvement with the trades unions that underpinned that safety, made it easy to be politically active.

In 2016 the ‘working class’ works hard, gets a smaller share of the national cake, and lives in ways which are atomised, individual, removed from collective consciousness.  The things we once didn’t need to worry about are now a constant, gnawing anxiety.  This is called a loss of power.  And powerlessness is by definition, not empowering. It is corrosive and destructive.  Hard to reach, hard to organise.

The Leave campaign have a well-embedded narrative to sell to the atomic poor. They say that faceless, arrogant, powerful people in some distant place are responsible for their plight.  That those people are sending ‘floods’ of ‘migrants’ to devour our jobs, and homes, and resources.

That these tales are lies is irrelevant.  They appear to make sense.  A picture of an inflatable on a beach in Kent on the cover of a newspaper is worth more than any demographer’s graph.

The Brexit right have institutions to underpin their stories and to reach out to millions.  Money, newspapers, pliant broadcasters.

Our institutions are poor and they have ever more limited social reach.  Trades unions, political parties, social movements, campaigning groups, they need to make connections to challenge the power of elites.  To connect together, to make the whole greater than the parts, but also to connect across national boundaries to build solidarities that Murdoch and his ilk cannot easily disrupt.

That’s why the man who spoke from the floor about his son was the most important speaker of the evening.  He described our problem.  Now we’d better get serious about fixing it, starting with getting all this Brexit nonsense out of the way.