The lesson of political history is keep fighting for what you believe in – including Britain in Europe
Posted on 17 July 2016 | 3:07pm
Thanks for all the positive feedback for the piece I did for the second issue of The New European, an extract of which I posted a few days ago, and the full version of which you can read below.
The New European is a ‘pop-up paper’ which was launched into the UK national market with just nine days of planning. The spur was the EU referendum and the feeling that there had to be a voice given to the 48% who feel dismayed and angry that the country voted to leave the EU.
The editor Matt Kelly describes is as ‘an eclectic mix of expert voices all linked by a sense of loss about what just happened, and a celebration of why we loved Europe so much in the first place.’
It’s a weekly paper, published on Fridays and on sale through the week for £2, and available via subscription here and also as an app on both the android and Apple stores. The plan is to run four issues. I hope there are more. I hope too that the idea I propose at the end of this piece, in a memo to Theresa May, gets serious consideration. One thing is for sure – the vote has happened and must be respected. But the consequences, and the future decisions they will require, are far from clear, and there are going to be more votes, not least in Parliament, and possibly also in the country, ahead. Thanks for reading, and thanks to The New European both for coming into being, and for giving me so much space!
Can someone point me to that part of our great unwritten Constitution that says if you lose a vote you must immediately agree with those who won it?
Cast your mind back to the Scottish independence referendum. 55-45. A defeat for the YES campaign. Did the Nationalists overnight go ‘oh well, hey ho, we’re all Unionists now’? No. They accepted they lost the vote but declared that the fight for the cause they believe in goes on. The way they fought that fight contributed towards their success in the subsequent general election. Now the mess of the EU referendum means they may yet reach their goal, even more quickly than they imagined when that referendum was lost.
Or take something closer to home, my political home at least. When New Labour was in a long and winning (remember that?) ascendancy, did Labour’s Bennites put their hands up and say ‘sod it, might as well give up now’? If so, how the hell did Jeremy Corbyn become leader? And now that he is, have all those who see he cannot lead given up on the idea that he must be replaced? Far from it.
Similarly, did Nigel Farage, when he was in the small minority dismissed by David Cameron as fruitcakes, racists and loonies, vanish amid his succession of crushing electoral defeats? No. He kept on keeping on, until one day, alas, he won.
The lesson of all political history is you keep fighting for what you believe in.
So to all those who think the UK has made a decision of epically bad and dangerous proportions in voting to leave the EU – and they now include plenty who voted Leave – I say ‘do not give up the fight to make sure we are spared the consequences.’
Ah, say those who still believe they did the right thing, echoed by the same right-wing lying newspapers which helped lay the ground for Brexit, and the same right-wing lying politicians who helped take it over the line, but ‘the British people have spoken.’ Indeed. But can someone tell me what we actually said? Every Leaver I speak to seems to say something different.
In the Mad Hatter world of UK politics, and its dumbed down, personality obsessed media culture, where Dave v Boris morphed immediately to Theresa v Andrea and Jeremy v Angela, with the occasional broadsheet look at something called ‘policy’ or (perish the thought) ‘ideas’, we are now beginning to have the debate we didn’t have during the referendum campaign itself.
That is because after all the mind numbing speculation and the near meaningless slogans pre June 23, (take back control of what, precisely?) things have actually happened to bring home the reality of the Brexit decision and its implications. Business people and tourists have seen what the weak pound virtually every economic voice in the world warned of actually means. The decline of our political power has become visible in every humiliating encounter between ministers and overseas counterparts. And how nauseating has it been to see the chief cheerleaders of the Brexit Lie Machine – the Sun, the Mail, the Express, the Star, the Telegraph – filling their money advice pages with stories of Brexit’s impact on the cost of holidays, phone calls, food – oh no, not coffee too! – and the effect on pensions and savings. All those things the Leave Lie Machine dismissed as ‘Project Fear’ now unfolding across the same pages of the papers which lied the most. Let’s hope the foreign, tax-dodging media owners and their lying editors, get more of the kind of direct action treatment Paul Dacre’s neighbours to his vast EU-grant-supported Scottish estate have decided to mete out.
The Lies involved in the campaign are among the reasons there is now so much buyer’s remorse. I have been involved in some tough campaigns in my time, where claim and counter claim get pushed and tested to the limit by politicians and media alike. But never one in which one side, perhaps inspired by Donald Trump’s success in winning the Republican nomination in the US presidential campaign, made a strategic decision to build its campaign around blatant, provable untruths. £350m a week goes to the EU. No it doesn’t. We can build a new hospital every week with the money. No we can’t. Turkey ‘is joining.’ No it’s not. There ‘will be’ an EU Army. No there won’t. We can have different immigration and customs policies without the need for a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. No you can’t. We can be out of the EU but still in the single market without extra cost if we fancy it. Ditto. Even when the £350m figure was established as a lie, on they went with it, no shame, no backtracking, the more people talked about it the happier the Leave liars were.
But since the vote three very important things have happened. First, the full scale of the lying has been exposed. Second, by contrast, the sober reality of the Remain warnings is becoming equally clear. And third, the people who made this all happen vanished after the event. So not only have we voted for a pig in a poke; in scenes even George Orwell would have struggled to make sense of, the head pigs who created the mess immediately ran away to leave others to clean it up. The Prime Minister who decided to hold the referendum. Gone even earlier than he expected when he announced he would resign. Chancellor George Osborne. Gone. The deadly duo of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Leadership ambitions up in smoke. Farage. Gone. Andrea Leadsom. Her fall from leader-in-waiting as rapid as her rise.
Of the many sick ironies of recent events surely one of the sickest is that a campaign supposedly all about ‘we the people’ deciding who governs us, rather than ‘unelected elites’, set up the election of a new Prime Minister by 0.3 percent of the population, the largely old, white, utterly undiverse and unrepresentative section of the population that makes up the Tory Party membership. And in the end, even they didn’t get a vote. We got a new Prime Minister by a process of voluntary leadership euthanasia by incompetence as Johnson, then Gove, then Leadsom went up in the flames still burning from the fire they had set alight. If it had happened in Africa or Latin America we’d be trotting out banana republic headlines. Having been to Latin America last week, may I say much of the rest of the world sees us today at best as a country which has opted voluntarily for decline, at worst a global laughing stock.
Politics across the entire landscape has rarely been more fluid. Changes as yet unthought of may hove into view. There is time for the recent outbreak of national and multiparty madness to calm down. We can all have a say in this. By keeping fighting for what we believe in. In these circumstances, the political road to Brexit is littered with road humps and crossroads where choices have to be made. So is the legal road and good luck to all those lawyers doing their best to unpick the catastrophe the Brexit Lie Machine has delivered.
Meanwhile, a little note to our new Prime Minister, Theresa May. I wish you well. It is a very tough job. I have seen that up close. I note you have said ‘Brexit means Brexit.’ I note too that you think the Fixed Term Parliament Act means you can govern without a specific mandate from the people until 2020. On verra, as we multilingual Europeans say. You may find it less easy- and even less helpful – than Gordon Brown did (and at least people knew he was likely to replace Tony Blair when TB was elected in 2005), to resist the pressures for a national poll. I do not see how the politics of the situation will allow you to cruise to 2020 while negotiating the most important decisions in modern UK history with a mandate as PM that came not from the people but from Tory MPs many of whom had lied their way to a result the consequences of which they then left to you.
Your job now is to lead the country through very difficult times and make decisions in the national interest. You must put those decisions before Parliament. The job of MPs is to assess them in the national interest and in the interests of their constituents too. Whatever you decide will not be as simple as the ‘Brexit means Brexit’ formula. I suspect you will quickly see that Brexit as it was sold by the Johnsons and Farages will be impossible without enormous economic damage to the country you lead. If you conclude that Brexit means there is no realistic way of staying inside the single market, which you decide is a fundamental part of our economic future, then you should say so and fight for us to stay in that single market. If you don’t, but a majority of MPs feel they cannot support an outcome that sees us outside the single market, then they should fight for what they believe. You may well end up being attacked from right and left alike, but if you have the real economic national interest as your guide, I doubt very much you will be in a rush for the exit door. You will rarely be more powerful than in these early days. You should use that power to buy time and show calm, measured leadership.
From me, herewith an idea that you and your team might want to consider. Do not trigger Article 50 quickly. There is no need to do so immediately and sensibly you have not said that you would. Instead go into discussions with fellow EU leaders (without your foreign secretary, whose appointment has gone down like a global dose of the Zika virus) and explain as follows: the British people have voted to leave the EU. You want to negotiate the terms of exit, and David Davis is around to help. However as you must lead the whole country, not just half of it, you want in this process to represent those who voted Remain too (and the many Regrexiters who voted Leave and wished they hadn’t.) So in addition to discussing terms of exit, you would like to explore the possible terms on which we might stay, including another look at immigration, which is of concern not just in the UK, and some of the other issues which emerged as problems for Remain during the campaign. Might freedom of movement become freedom of labour, for example? Fight for CAP reform, and completion of the single market, in areas like energy and digital services.
Then come back to the country and put those options to the British public. The terms on which we leave. And the terms on which we could remain. A real choice of real options, rather than the fake choice between a Johnson nirvana of more money for the NHS, Independence Day, cuddly toys for all; or a hell of Brussels bureaucracy, mass immigration and straight bananas.
This would not be a second referendum on a question that has been settled on June 23. It is a new referendum on a new question which flows obviously from the first one, and from the appointment of a new PM. And once that decision is settled, that might be the time for a general election. We are, after all, a Parliamentary democracy. I accept that your fellow EU leaders have said there will be no informal talks until Article 50 has been triggered. But they will be fascinated to get to know you, you have a bit of time to play with, and if they sense you are serious about exploring options both in and out they would get over that insistence fairly quickly. I know there will be serious Tory Party management issues. But hey, plus ca change. That is how we got into this mess. Leadership is needed to get us out of it.
Good luck. These are not easy times for leaders in any country in the world, but especially those, like the US and the U.K., which really are living in the post-fact, post-reason world. I don’t know you well. But I do at least get the sense you won’t be driven by the mania of the modern media but by cold headed analysis of the options. Options are what the country needs right now. A leader who sets them out, and leads a debate that rises above the awful level of the one we have just had, would be doing the country and the world a massive service, showing leadership and winning respect, mine included.