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.

The Election From Hell

Ever had a nightmare where you’re driving along, and suddenly there’s a juggernaut ahead in the wrong lane, heading straight for you? There’s nothing you can do. There’s nowhere to go. It’s going to be a head-on collision….

That’s the European Parliament elections of 2019 in Britain. Motorway pile-up, train wreck, flaming Boeing smashing into a mountainside. This is where we are with a week to go, paralysed with fear, or manically laughing, as we count down to the inevitable conflagration.

Last night I attended a hustings meeting in Birmingham. As I have now learned, these meetings, once a mainstay of democratic politics in Britain, are now a bit too plebby for some of our politicians. Those snowflakes, the Brexit Party, don’t ‘do’ debating with others. It’s a pity. Election hustings were my introduction to the everyday business of politics. Even before I was old enough to vote I went to them. They were often rowdy affairs, in which Cabinet ministers had to sit alongside whoever was after their job, from a keen young opposition PPC being bloodied in a hopeless seat, to Screaming Lord Such and the Monster Raving Loonies. The candidates politely answered daft questions, suffered heckling akin to a late night comedy club, and thus were made to know the certain truth that in the polling booth we are all equal. But that was then, and this is now.

The absence from the platform of the likely ‘victors’ next Thursday is troubling. For all their talk of “we had a vote”, “will of the people”, “17.4 million people voted for this,” the Brexit Party is in every way a two fingered salute to the face of democracy. They are contemptuous of the norms of democracy. Although registered with the Electoral Commission as a party, they are described by their own leadership as a ‘company’, they don’t have members, they don’t have a policy platform, and they’ll accept money from anyone, anywhere in the world, just as long as it comes in quantities too small to require the identity of the donor to be made public.

And they don’t debate with other candidates.

Without the Brexit Party in the room, there was a sense, at the hustings last night, of both candidates, and the audience, being rendered marginal. Whatever the candidates said, and whatever we asked, the real politics was going on elsewhere. The electorate doesn’t own elections any more. Algorithms rule. Instead of campaigning and open debate, atomised voters are being groomed before screens.

Everyone on the platform looked glum, and most of the audience were pretty grim faced too.

The Tory, Dan Dalton, spoke first, the Change UK guy, Amrik Kandola last, in the opening section where each candidate made their party pitch. Second to last was the Labour candidate, Julia Buckley, who had the manner of a dog in need of rescue by the RSPCA, variously aggressive, and whimpering in anticipation of a beating.

She was right to be fearful, as she, or at least, her party, was the reason many of us were there. What on earth could Labour say in order to persuade us to give them our votes?

My greatest fear in these elections is the boost that it will give to the Brexit “Party”, opening the door to ever more time for them in the TV studios, shooting their toxic messages into the political bloodstream in time for a general election in which they might have serious numbers in Parliament. Only by denying them the top spot in the results can their rise be impeded, and, only Labour had the potential to do that.

I was prepared to take nods, winks, and code. But Buckley didn’t give us that. She gave us the Corbyn-McCluskey line in toe-curling detail. It was excruciating to watch her contortions. She offered the utterly fallacious argument that Brexit-voters were the poorest, most marginal in our society, and that Labour had to give these downtrodden millions their voice. Labour had to ‘bring the country together, to speak for the 52% as well as the 48%’. I found myself sitting on my hands to avoid the temptation of hurling my shopping at her.

I repeat her lines, because, although familiar to the point of nausea, there is, among the nonsense, a truth that few of us at the moment want to face.

Brexit is binary. But a healthy democracy capable of making sensible decisions cannot long be divided in this way. Moreover, this unexpected EP election is showing us how easy it has become to reignite Brexit passions, with all the rancour, and worse, that goes along with it.

If we want another referendum, People’s Vote, confirmatory ballot, call it what you will, we will have to counter the considerable forces of the Brexit camp, and win enough converts. Simon Kuper, writing in the FT (20/4/19) on the subject “How Remain can win a second referendum,” began with this:

  • Say sorry. This time, Remainers mustn’t lecture Leavers…says Ian Leslie, a communications consultant…”Never in the history of the world has anyone said, ‘You’re completely wrong,’ and the other person replied, ‘You know what? I am wrong.'”…. Instead, Leslie says the Remain campaign should admit to having overlooked mass pain and resentment. It should tell Leave voters: “Your vote was basically right in 2016. You were right to kick the elite in the arse, to say the UK needs to change, that London ignores the rest.”….Only after finding common ground can retainers broach the issue of disagreement: Europe.

This is true. The core of the Leave vote consists of older people, especially men, who mainly live in the south and in rural and small town England and have homes without mortgages, and generous pensions. They are Tory activists and voters. We won’t easily win them over. But the portion of the Leave vote that ought to be open to persuasion are the minority of Labour Leavers who did believe the lies on the bus about the NHS.

But Julia Buckley, and too many of the people around the Labour leader, are saying the right things in the wrong order. The first task is to find a means of stopping Brexit, which most likely involves a new vote. That’s the point at which to link resistance to Brexit to addressing austerity and regional decline.

One candidate did say the right things in the right order, and that was Ellie Chowns, the Green candidate.

But all the candidates had turned up, and they sat together, poured water for their opponents, or repositioned microphones, as companionable democrats, even the UKIP man, Derek Bennett, whose politics seem to have sprung, inexplicably, from the effects of Nigel Lawson’s VAT hike. Phil Bennion, the Lib Dem and a former MEP, seemed more hesitant than I might have expected, as though still bruised by losing his seat in 2014. Change UK’s Amrik Kandola, was an impressive speaker, and his message of a need for change in British politics won him some fans with the group of people I eavesdropped on on the bus going home, even if they still hadn’t decided who to vote for.

The real restiveness was in the audience. There was a lot of barely repressed anger in the room. Probably because of the elephant that wan’t in the room – The Brexit Party.

This Is Brexit

A spectre is haunting Britain. Bloody Brexit, that inescapable, all consuming black hole of madness that has made fools of 64 million people.  The world is laughing at us.  Not just at MPs in their sodden, rat-infested ‘palace’.  Not just at the mean and charmless void that is the Prime Minister. Not just at the official Opposition, who in their desire to let the Tories own Brexit have also permitted all Brexit narratives to be crafted by the Tories, so that the public has no consistent counter-story to explain our descent into chaos.  From the New York Times, to concerned emailers in Kabul, everyone is laughing at the lot of us.

Brexit means Humiliation.

There is no good way out of this nightmare.  The damage done by this Brexit thing is deep, wide, and enduring.  There is no quick political fix that can finesse the problem away.  A whole army of spin doctors cannot pass this debacle off as anything other than the suppurating double-incontinence of the Conservative and Unionist Party, a party which is neither Conservative, nor likely to preserve the union.

It is clear that the wretched Theresa May wants merely to wind up the first three years of Brexitism with a withdrawal agreement hastily passed by Parliament to give her the satisfaction of claiming ‘Job Done’.  Even if that should happen, it won’t be any such thing.  It will merely usher in the next dismal phase of this unending hell.  Other politicians in her party, and in Labour, want to do something similar so that they can ‘move on to talk about other things’ that the voters are concerned about.  Good luck with that.  It’ll never happen.  It cannot happen.

For one thing, Brexit has stripped away the curtains that once hid the truth about Britain after 40 years of Thatcherism.  We see clearly now the damage done by that ideology to our institutions, to our economy, to the social fabric, to our capacity for competent government.  For now, many people remain too Brexit-addled to accept that truth, but that delusion cannot long endure.  And there must be a reckoning on all this, if only to rebuilt the basic capacity of the state sufficiently to totter on into the uncertain, shadowy future.

Britain is an island, but it isn’t ever going to be Singapore. It’s not going to be an agile city-state of the educated young, with a government untrammelled by the messy unpredictability of democracy.  Not even the most free-markety Brexiters can possibly think that likely.  Even if they manage to slough off Scotland and Wales, they’d still need to get rid of most of the rest of England to have a chance.

With less migration, our ageing country will be increasingly sclerotic.  There are no sunny uplands to Brexit.  It is contradiction incarnate. It will never please its advocates.

Moreover, Brexit has shown the truth that the Conservative Party is no longer a mass party with a wide social base and strong support in business.  When a front runner to be the next Tory leader can say “Fuck business”, when a former minister can speak of ‘cultural Marxism’, when most of the former membership of an extreme populist party, UKIP, can decamp to the Tory associations in the shires to pursue an aggressive policy of capturing the Commons (leaving their former brand to the likes of Batten and Yaxley-Lennon), this is not the party as it probably was from around 1870 to the mid-1980s.  You don’t have to be a fan of Corbyn to see that the real threat (threat? reality) of extremism in British politics comes from the hard right which has captured the hollow shell of the party of Harold Macmillan, and the tiny clique of hedge-fund billionaires and oligarchs for whom it is presently convenient to bankroll them.

And so we enter another week of soul-destroying pointlessness.  Votes, indicative or substantive, will be tabled, a government of people who detest one another will blather on for want of any other ideas, and, quite possibly, the imagination-free zone that is the top of the Labour Party will seek to bale out May in order to pursue the votes of some bigots in unfortunate towns who have already long deserted Labour.

There is a way forward.  The ‘quick fix’ of an extension to Article 50 to hold a referendum on May’s withdrawal agreement would not be the choice of any democrat keen not only to rescue us from Brexit, but to start the process of renewing and rebuilding our democracy.  But if it’s the best we can get, so be it.

A better way would be to recognise that where we are now, this Republic of Perpetual Omnishitstorm, will take a lengthy period to bring to an end.  We should revoke Article 50, and quietly promise our European neighbours that we will endeavour to be constructive whilst we sort ourselves out.

The next step would be a programme of consultation with the electorate across the country to find out what people really want from our collective social and political contract.  This must be far wider than merely what people thought they were voting for, when they voted in 2016.  It should aim to establish a new and explicit consensus about what it means to be a citizen, and what we have a right to expect from government.

At the same time, we need a constitutional convention to review our institutions of government at every level.  The state can’t function if some of its most essential tasks are outsourced to companies with no institutional memory, or the capacity to adapt to emergencies and crises.  Nor can a country of this size continue to be so over-centralised.

All of this requires new leaders, new political movements, and a hard-headed realism that we haven’t seen at the top for some time.

Are we up to it?

 

 

Beware the Wrath of the Remainers

In the endless, overblown tragedy that is Brexit, one recurring theme is the fury of the Leavers.  Politicians warn of social unrest, of riots, of massive, perhaps uncontrollable social upheaval should Brexit not be “delivered”.  The gilets jaunes, we are told, will seem as nothing besides the mobilisations of Hi-Viz Hartlepudlians, or the fluorescent folk of Stoke.

Given the immense latent power of these people, the sturdy Leavers massed behind their leaders, the buccaneering Brexiteers, how come they have not, over the last nearly three years, shown the slightest inclination to rouse themselves in unvanquishable number? They will, if stopped by reporters in the precinct, speak with throaty certainty about their enduring love of this Brexit thing. Albeit in diminishing numbers, they will still phone the shock jocks where necessary. But on any objective assessment, these people seem to have a very weak commitment to the thing they claim to want.

What we don’t hear about is the wrath of the Remainers.

The 48%, their ranks now most likely now past the 50% mark, have been the ghosts at the Feast of Brexitmania. Unimportant, taken for granted, the ‘losers’ who must ‘suck it up’, have been largely absent from the minds of both politicians and media since 2016.  Their protests, their marches, have been shunned.  Their constant letters to MPs have been dismissed by means of the insolence of a House of Commons letterhead bearing a photocopied generic letter, digested read: “You don’t matter”.

It is very curious.

It’s curious because of who the Remainers are, and what they have done.  If the vile 2016 referendum has spawned any sort of social movement, this is it – the Remainers.

‘Remain’ sounds passive, which is misleading.  For the ranks of Remain are stuffed with the people who have always ‘done things’.  The people who volunteer, who sit as magistrates, who do public service, who run the little platoons of society, from local environmental protests, to allotment committees and book groups.  Some of these things may be self-interested, some may be busy-bodying, it scarcely matters what the motivation may be.  The point is simply that these Remainers are people who are not inclined to ‘suck it up’.

From the day of the referendum result in 2016, Remainers have gone into overdrive.  Forget the well-funded PR efforts of the London-oriented campaigns which grew out of the official Remain campaign.  The coordinated efforts by millions of friends and strangers who came together, at first to share outrage, but very quickly to organise and to campaign is probably unprecedented in British political history.  There are party, and non-party groups, local groups who take their mood boards and banners to High Streets across the country, and there are rooted, organic groups everywhere.

This spontaneous form of activism has taken place largely outside traditional party, or trades union structures, and often in the teeth of hostility from those organisations.  It is a movement without buildings, a movement effectively without leaders, though it has its celebrities and its thinkers, as well as its own newspaper.  How can it be that such a movement is all but invisible in formal public life, and scarcely acknowledged by elected politicians?

Not that it matters.  For the power of the Remainer Movement will not dissipate after ‘Brexit’ is done, whether we leave the European Union or not.

We have been put through nearly three years of hell by the tiny clutch of right-wing obsessives and xenophobes who drove the duplicitous, divisive, and, we now know, fraudulent Leave campaign.  Listen to Remainers describe the agony they feel each day, the sick feeling in the pit of the stomach, at the destruction that this whole disreputable semi-coup has wrought.  We have watched our country become a third rate Mr Bean tribute act on the world stage.  Our credibility has shrunk even faster than our currency. And meanwhile people continue to try to run businesses when they don’t know what the rules will be in a month, they try to plan working lives that cross borders without a clue as to whether they can still work, or travel, or even live with their model, multinational families.  Three years of wholly unnecessary chaos.  We do not, will not forgive any of this.

There will be no Remain riots. 700,000 of us can march through London with scarcely a need for a police presence.  But do not mistake our good manners for passivity.

The people who did this to our country, and to our neighbours, will be held to account. Public inquiry, constitutional crimes tribunal, who yet knows that method will be used to examine the Brexiters’  motives, and to detail their offences against the country.  Only one thing is sure.  We will pursue justice.

There will be a reckoning.

The Magnificent Seven?

This morning I watched the press conference launching The Independent Group of seven MPs, with a calm sense of detachment.  Are they harming the Labour Party?  Undoubtedly, but rather less so than any TV appearance by Chris Williamson or Richard Burgon.   The average episode of Question Time damages Labour more than this clutch of defections.

So what are they up to, these Independents?  On the basis of the event this morning, it’s not even clear that they know.  Their decision to frame their leaving of Labour in personal, biographical terms was probably a combination of PR advice, that ‘stories’ people can understand work better than abstract principles or detailed propositions, and of an absence of a clear sense of what their Independent Group is for, and what it hopes, short and long term, to achieve.

Chuka Umunna was the only one in the group who seemed impatient with the touchy feely stuff.  He looked like a man biting his tongue. But what could be have possibly been biting back?

If the gamble is that a breakaway from Labour might be a means to prompt a breakaway from the Tories, as a precursor to finding more freedom to pursue Parliamentary tactics to stop Brexit, then excellent.  We haven’t got long, and if this was a means to shake up the parliamentary arithmetic to empower the Remain majority, so be it.

But looking at those MPs blinking tearily at the camera, it didn’t feel like either a parade of the principled, or a sharp shooting posse of political bandits waiting to shoot the lights out of the ERG.  It was mostly a nostalgia fest for a past I don’t remember with much affection.  I remember the overt blocking of prospective candidacies in the run up to 1997 on class and racial grounds, in pursuit of a party in the Leader’s image.  Corbyn has truly learned his craft from The Master (as Osborne and Cameron used to call him). Just the second time around as farce.

We will soon know whether The Magnificent Seven amounts to much more than a disappointing ride in a half term theme park.  Umunna, I’m sure, intends this to be the start of something else, but there was more strength in depth in the Gang of Four, senior former Cabinet Ministers all, who had a very clear sense of where they wanted to go (and still failed, and badly).  Umunna at least referred to a politics fit for the 21st Century, which, nearly two full decades in, we have yet to find.

Home Counties suburban centrism is no place to go.  Our problems are too big to shrink into the past.  We need audacious ambition fit for the scale and urgency of what faces us in the decades to come.

The Age of Nations has gone.  The city-region is the locus of meaningful politics now, forging alliances regardless of the old boundaries.  The big stuff needs to be done at a multinational, ultimately a global scale.  Climate change and its consequences, the automation revolution, an approach to money – income, taxation, investment – fit for purpose.

What it comes down to is something the Labour Party did recognise in the past.  The Five Giants – Want, Disease, Squalor, Ignorance, and Idleness.  But these aren’t open to resolution in one country any more, and certainly not if we fail to shake off the ideological shackles of the past.

Labour’s current tragedy is that some of the radical new thinking it is doing is starting to address these issues.  But it is doing so in a straightjacket in part imposed by our political system.  And also imposed by a failure of political leadership, and a woefully shallow talent pool.

Are the Seven Samurai going to be big box office?  I doubt it.  Neither is the party they left.

But if the Seven can break down the wall of fatalism in the Commons to facilitate short term cross-party work to stop the ERG in its tracks, I’d salute them for that.

Not holding my breath, though.