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Speech – Why I find it impossible to ‘get behind’ Brexit, and why MPs and business need to fight harder against it

Posted on 21 September 2017 | 2:09pm

Text of speech to CBI dinner, Ely Cathedral, this evening

So you’re thinking why is he wearing a kilt? You’re thinking … he’s not going to get his bloody bagpipes out is he?

There are two reasons I am in a kilt. One is that in common with Gordon Brown, I hate black tie. And if you wear a kilt, nobody notices if you’re wearing a nice Jeremy Corbyn red tie. Only mine is done up…

The second reason is that identity is so important to all of us. I was born in Yorkshire. But I support Burnley, and that makes Lancashire part of my identity too. My parents were both Scottish, and since they died I feel my Scottishness more than ever. I am above all British and I am also European, even more so since June 23 last year, since when I have felt the loss of something important to me, to you, to all of us, and especially the next generation.

And here is a thought for you … Name a country, any time in history, democracy or dictatorship, that built success by governing against the interests of young people?

So I speak to you tonight as a Yorkshire-born, Burnley-supporting, Scottish British European, proud to be all of those things.

I am a Remainer. I am a Remoaner. I am a Remainiac. I am a Re-intend to bang on about this until hopefully we can stop the madness of the hard Brexit policy being pursued by the government and used as a tool in yet another Tory leadership psycho drama.

I was speaking at Methodist Hall this morning, to heads of sixth form colleges. I walked down Whitehall. I bumped into a minister who was on his way to the cabinet meeting in Number 10. I don’t hate all Tories and this one I actually quite like. I asked him what the hell is going on? Search me, he said. I asked him where it would end … no idea.

We live in strange, alarming times.

Here is another question for you … what do the CBI, the IMF, the OECD, and the Governor of the Bank of England all have in common? The answer ought to be that they are all significant, respected economic players who made strong and clear arguments against Brexit. What they also have in common is that fairly sizeable sections of the population choose not to believe anything they said on the subject.

Yet those same disbelievers lapped up scare stories warning that tens of millions of Turks were heading our way when they’re not, that our Army is disappearing when it’s not, and that we would get 350m more every week for the NHS when we won’t. And why do they believe such things – because they happen to fit an opinion on which they have already decided. Believe what you believe, and shout. Disbelieve anything that challenges it, and shout even louder. This is the new campaign landscape in the era of the social media echo chamber where believers hunt out the views that reinforce those they already hold, and disbelieve everything else.

So in this era of disbelief Jeremy Corbyn becomes Labour leader because he doesn’t look like what people have come to expect of a Labour leader. Boris Johnson gets within a step of Number 10 because though most people sense he is a chancer, ‘he makes me laugh.’ Nigel Farage becomes an influential figure by deliberately cultivating an image rooted in the idea that he should never, by his own admission, be allowed anywhere near real power. Most spectacularly of all, a rich elitist such as Donald Trump can seemingly become the voice of the downtrodden and the anti elitist in America by having as the topline on his CV for President… ‘I’ve never been a politician.’

I did an event with Rory Bremner recently. He said he felt his worst enemy had given him three box sets. Trump. Brexit. Corbyn. He didn’t to watch them. Just know they end.

Show of hands …

Optimistic/pessimistic … re Trump Presidency?

Re Brexit?

To quote Michel Barnier, ‘the clock is ticking.’ In a rational world driven by clever leaders making rational decisions, that ticking clock would be a spur to make the right decisions for the long-term. Instead, as unintended consequences come crawling out of every corner, it is serving to underline the economic and political folly of Brexit, and the near impossibility of the negotiations; yet alongside it all, the determination of our politicians to make it happen, whatever the cost, whatever the damage to Britain, grows rather than diminishes.

MPs march with varying degrees of fear and dread to the Brexit Gates they know portend doom for their constituents, but dare not tell them, as many voted for the journey we are now on.

There remains within the EU a desire for the UK to pull back. But there will come a point – it has not yet been reached, but the clock is indeed ticking – when they realize hard Brexit really is going to happen. Then, charming, urbane Barnier becomes the Barnier better known in EU leadership circles, playing very hard ball to protect Europe’s interests. Macron and Merkel then see and try to seize advantages to them and to the EU of our departure.

I was always confident Brexit would not in the end happen because I was sure the evidence would grow that it would be damaging to the country’s interests. And so, I believe, it is. But just as Trump has managed to win and survive despite being a proven liar, misogynist, mis-manager and generally awful human being, his achievements in inverse proportion to his claims of achievement, so the more the evidence emerges that Brexit may damage Britain, the more determined our leaders seem to be to make it happen. The facts are not allowed in the way. It is just going to be great, as Trump might say, as Johnson does.

He calls himself a historian. Here’s some recent history. One of Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievements was the UK gaining access to the Single Market. One of

John Major’s greatest achievements was laying fresh foundations for the Northern Ireland peace process.

As David Cameron polishes his memoirs in his posh garden shed, and Theresa May tries to handle the hospital pass he threw her, there is a clear risk theirs will be to destroy those two great advances of her predecessors.

I know how hard this is for MPs. A Labour MP friend of mine has one ward where almost nine out of ten voted Leave. But as we are a Parliamentary democracy, it is in Parliament that the mood of the country on this massive issue should be reflected. Can any MP, whatever party, however they voted in the referendum, honestly say that is happening right now? Of course the referendum happened, fact, we lost. That cannot be ignored. But one vote does not stop an argument as important as this, as the reality of what it means hoves so clearly into view.

Democracy is a process not a moment in time. If you believe something is a disaster, you have to say so. All of us.

If you were to take every MP, alone, into a quiet room, and say to them ‘OK, you don’t need to worry about the referendum result. You don’t need to worry about the politics of your Party. You just have to answer this question honestly … do you think Brexit is the right thing or the wrong thing for Britain?’ I reckon, there would be around eight out of ten saying it was the wrong decision.

And have you noticed how the Brexiteers no longer talks of the benefits to Britain that Brexit may bring, simply that the country voted for it and so we have to make the best of a bad job?

It is as though a physician has detected an illness, discovered that the illness can be cured, but the cure must be rejected because it predates the discovery of the disease.

I imagine this conversation with Boris Johnson.

It’s going to make us poorer, you know. Yeah, I know, says Johnson when his truth gene is twitching.

Weaker in the world too. For sure.

We could be talking economic meltdown. Yeah, I guess.

These imaginary trade deals can not really compensate for pulling out of the biggest market on earth, you know. No, I guess not.

You’ve seen the value of the pound fall, right? You know that is what the world thinks will happen to our economy. Right. Oh well.

When we had the referendum, we knew little about what Brexit Britain would look like. Now we are beginning to know more. The pound. Rising prices. The falling standing in the world. The investors making plans to move. The Irish border question unresolved. The rights of millions uncertain. The most complex negotiations imaginable in the hands of a Cabinet incapable of meeting for five minutes without splurging their differences through the media to the other side of the negotiating table.

The referendum asked people to take a leap in the dark. The lights are now beginning to come on.

As for Labour’s leaders – and to be honest I don’t know if Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell would be in the eight out of ten or the two out of ten – great he got so many young people to vote. But those young people need and want an opposition to fight hard Brexit not let the Tories off the hook. Two PMQs since the summer. Twelve questions. None on Brexit.

What does a ‘jobs first Brexit’ even mean, if the economy tanks as a result?

And the reason I find it hard to swallow the Corbyn Kool-Aid is that he showed in the election he knows how to campaign – so why did he go Absent Without Leadership during the referendum? It wasn’t just lack of effort, but a long-held dislike of the EU. But then, they should also honestly admit that a post-Brexit economy will be unable to deliver even a fraction of their grand manifesto promises. And who are our allies going to be if we walk away from countries where at least social democratic values run deep, even if the right currently holds more power than the left? Trump’s America? Putin’s Russia? The Commonwealth?  We all love Canada and Australia but our proportion of trade with them is tiny. India and China? Good for trade but there will be strings attached, not least more visas for their citizens. What happens to immigration concerns then?

It is not just government and Opposition who are failing, however. So are all of us who have opposed this Brexit madness from the off. Losing the referendum. Project Fear beaten by Project Lies. No positive message. I know it’s crap but I will make it less crap.

Now not a day goes by that I don’t meet people, or get emails from people, saying ‘I want to do what I can to stop this, how do I help?’ The fact that there is no clear answer reflects badly on all of us. There is a mass of opposition to Brexit, yet precious little co-ordination, and certainly not the urgency it needs. It is all a bit People’s Front of Judea. A court case here, a march there; here a campaign group, there a campaign group, here a businessman with a cheque book, there another, and usually big ego to match the bank balance, so no, not if he is involved, not if she is involved, so round and round we go. Lots of different groupings, no real campaign … er, the clock is ticking.

I helped start up The New European, it’s doing OK, but we are the ones kidding ourselves if we think our sales can fight the Brextremist Lie Machine of the Mail, Sun, Express, Telegraph.

Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Major, David Cameron, all make contributions to national debate. TB gets stuck in and shot down in a fit of messenger shooting every time, but where is the urgency and passion of all those who have known leadership of the country and who know the damage that is being done? When is Cameron going to stand up and be counted? This was his referendum. He cannot surely just walk away from the mess he bequeathed to Theresa May. But of course it is the leaders of today and tomorrow who need to step up most of all.

What about business? There is barely a business in the country, small or large, that thinks this is anything other than a total catastrophe. Yet the big firms keep their heads down, like they did in the referendum, and the representative business bodies continue to operate an ‘on the one hand, on the other’ approach, not wanting to upset ministers despite those ministers doing fundamental damage to their members’ interests. I understand why. I understand the risks of going against the government. But this is serious time. Some issues are too big for business as usual.

Then the trade unions. They exist to fight for working people. Working people whose jobs and living standards and rights at work will get shot to pieces if the hard right hard Brexit view prevails. They are good at campaigning too, some of them. Where are the campaigns now, when the need is so urgent?

As to the goal of any campaign, it has to be that with the lights going on, and the picture becoming much clearer, it’s only sensible at least to keep options open, to have another look; not a second referendum, but a first referendum based on actual knowledge of what Brexit will mean in pounds, pence and power.

If they really are confident in the future for ‘Global Britain,’ why so scared to put their evidence for it to the test? Answer – because they are not confident at all. And if you want a glimpse of what Global Brexit Britain actually means, take a look at the tweet I posted this morning, of Mrs May speaking to swathes of empty seats at the UN yesterday. You didn’t see that on the supposedly anti Brexit BBC.

We lost two months of the 24 planned for the post Article 50 negotiations to the ludicrous election. We lost a few weeks to August. But as the political season resumes with the Party Conferences, we had better have got our act together. All of us. Or else this thing is happening.

And then, even though millions of the 17,410,742 who voted Leave did not vote to shrink the economy and lower living standards, did not all vote to leave the single market or the Customs Union, or damage the reputation of our universities and science base, or damage the City and lose the passporting by which our firms can do business Europe wide, or stigmatise firms which hire talent from abroad, or make foreign doctors and nurses without whom our NHS will collapse feel no longer welcome, all of those things will come to pass. Because we let them. Because we let the liars win. Like they won in America. But at least with Trump, there will be a chance to kick him out. There is no going back on our madness, not in our lifetime, if we let it happen now.

Brexiteers – and some Remainers – tell me I am wasting my time, it is going to happen, I should use my energies to try to help make it a success. But I cannot get behind something I believe to be so wrong, so incompetently handled, so against the interests of the next generation. I see no happy ending in this. I may not be wholly confident in thinking it can be stopped. But I am totally convinced it should be. And it is anything but anti democratic to say that in a democracy, people have the right to change their minds, and change course. I hope we do.

 

  • Quantum

    delete opposing views all you like , you still need to change the record and stop lying to the British people.

  • I completely agree with all of this. We must not just coordinate the anti Brexit teams, but cooperate in the national interest

  • Francis Lovering

    I couldn’t agree more Alastair

  • Bill Sinclair

    “Then the trade unions. They exist to fight for working people. Working people whose jobs and living standards and rights at work will get shot to pieces if the hard right hard Brexit view prevails. They are good at campaigning too, some of them. Where are the campaigns now, when the need is so urgent?”
    Well, they would likely be more vocal now if you and your mate, Tony, had not tried so hard to emasculate them and deny them a voice in public discourse.

  • stigW

    Mr. Campbell: I read your piece in the Guardian, in which you suggest that the PM should state that Brexit simply cannot be done. Do you realize what you are implying? That this country is in the grip of foreign government, as surely as if we had lost in 1942. Au contraire, we can extract ourselves, but now. In a few years, withdrawal from the United States of Europe WILL be impossible.

  • Julie Harrison

    I agree that there’s not enough coordination between anti-Brexiteers, but plenty of people came out and protested in the street. Why don’t you try and collect supporters online for your own leadership? You must know all the people who could give it a financial boost to kickstart it.