Reasons to be Cheerful

 

 

There are none. This is the omnishambles of all omnishambles, as Malcolm Tucker would say. The Brexit result  had my teenage daughter  wailing “They’ve F*cked my Future” over her breakfast,  and  my son  is scurrying  around trying to  establish  whether my wife’s Irish forebears entitle him to  a passport.

It’s dismal alright. And it’s unknown. And it seems no good can come of it.  The demographics are striking – a grand coalition of the old, less well educated, less well off has delivered a momentous result.  Whoever thought it was a good idea not to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote (Clue:  it was the man who has just announced his resignation).

But in all the fog, upset and bitterness we have to have hope. We are entitled to search for some solace. Here’s where I think it can be found;

First, this is going to be a long process, with multiple chances to intervene and mollify the eventual outcome. Patrick Wintour’s summary of what now happens in practice is an excellent overview.

Second, the Conservatives are split – irreparably in my view. Even their hard-wired instinct for power will not be enough to paper over the cracks. Given part of the divide is over style and attitude; there are opportunities for some new alliances and to push the case for an alternative government.

Third, this seismic political shock should act as a catharsis over some issues the left has grappled with for years. The practical as well as ethical argument for votes at 16  is surely made.  Our current campaign tools seem to have proved ineffective – again. So we need to examine how we communicate.

And we need to recognise that the UK is fractured even more than the Conservative Party, and have a response to that.

In my view this response  needs to  be  a federal UK –  well actually more a federal England given  I expect  Scotland  be  independent in 5 years and back in the EU  in 10,  and  Wales and Northern Ireland already have devolved assemblies. My blueprint for a post referendum settlement is here.

Fourth, we have to re-orientate our political thinking to a more UK-centric view. We can see what will come in terms of a “Brexit” recession and budget.  We need to build and sustain the narrative now on an alternative, inclusive tax and investment policy as opposed to the default of more cuts signalled by George Osborne days before the vote.  We need to turn attention to the realities of trade with the rest of Europe from outside the EU.

Fifth and probably most importantly, irrespective of the misplaced anger a majority of voters seemed to direct against the EU, we must remember the words and deeds of Jo Cox.  “We have more in common than that which divides us”.  There is much we cannot change, but   we do have control over our thoughts and actions.  This is a time for emphasising our common humanity.

I am sure that many voted Leave with honourable intentions. But the campaign   was hijacked by the nasty brigade who played the oldest trick in the political book – “you’ve got problems and they are all the fault of people who are not like you.”

So we pick ourselves up, we dust ourselves down. We make sense of the new reality as best we can.  And we stick to our values and redouble our efforts. There has never been a more important time for decency, determination and hope, and these are all things we can deliver, irrespective of the Brexit vote. “You got to have hope” is a good maxim.

A New Settlement for Post-Referendum Britain

 

Whatever the outcome of the EU referendum, the future of UK politics looks more uncertain than at any time in living memory.

The Conservative Party is irreparably split. The bitterness of the campaign has been astonishing.  The fault lines in personal relationships across the party are deep and, I suspect, unbridgeable.

It is hard to see the Prime Minister staying in office for long. But although  we  have become used to  the notion  of  a Johnson/Osborne/May  fight  to be the next  occupant of No 10,  could any of this troika  reunite the Party?  I think not.  Eurosceptic Conservatives have much in common with   UKIP, and could command a healthy vote in any election – possibly around 25%.

But we have seen a resurgence  of  what  we used to call “One Nation” Toryism, – those such as  Sarah Woolaston and Baroness Warsi  who  have  publicly rejected  the  acerbic  traits  of  colleges.  The impressive performance of Ruth Davidson – both in the Scottish elections and the EU campaign could be the catalyst for a move back to the centre, which would itself have a strong electoral pull.

So we have the real prospect of  a  staunchly  right  wing  Conservative/UKIP  block,  and  a  reasserted  One Nation grouping.  But as we look to the left of the political spectrum we see challenges there too.

Jeremy Corbyn is firmly in control of the Party machinery. Labour’s share in recent elections is generally improving.  But the party’s message is struggling to be heard and its core vote is vulnerable, outside of the South East particularly, to UKIP.   The party’s collapse in Scotland and  redrawn  Westminster constituency  boundaries  make  it  much  harder  for the Party  to  win a majority.

In this scenario, for both a fractured Conservative party and a constrained Labour one, constitutional reform makes increasing sense. Would not a “leave”   result would create an unstoppable momentum for Scottish independence and may even loosen English-Welsh ties?  London will surely vote Remain, and is becoming ever more distinctive to other parts of the UK.  But the devolution  of  powers  away  from  central  government (the so-called “Devo Manc”  model)  has been enthusiastically  embraced –  not least by  Labour  who  see it as   an opportunity  to  address the  imbalance of political  forces  at  Westminster.

The level and spread of regional autonomy in the UK could soon cross the Rubicon. So the question  must be  how to  ensure that  the exercise of  devolved power  is  by directly  elected representatives who  reflect  the political views of the  population.  A new constitutional  settlement,  especially one  in which  old political  power blocs  have changed,  could make  proportional representation not only  desirable  but necessary.

The future is of course unwritten. The post-referendum landscape will inevitably be different, and we can’t leave it to others to shape it. The opportunity to shape a new constitutional settlement – that takes the heat from the referendum campaign and produces something effective, enduring and empowering – is one we must take.

This piece also appears in The Huffington Post

 

The Immigration Debate – A Lightning Rod for Discontent

The immigration debate has been hijacked by those who claim to want a dispassionate treatment of the issue, but in reality have a distinct, fixed view.

That’s why my heart sinks with each new Migration Watch report. Like the Taxpayers’ Alliance it seems like an organisation which uses a legitimate issue of concern as a Trojan Horse for a particular political view.

The latest instalment is a report asserting the UK’s population will rise by around 1 million every four years if we stay within the EU. The report was immediately contradicted by immigration minister James Brokenshire who essentially said “it’s more complicated than that.”

The recognition that immigration is indeed a complex issue was a rare and welcome admission by the Government. But there was, of course, nothing innocuous about the timing of the MW report, playing as it does to the defining issue of the EU referendum debate.

Migration into the UK is part of our past, present and future. In a global economy and with an imperial past how can it be any different? Richard Bean’s 2009 play “England People Very Nice” showed (controversially ) how successive waves of immigration have been assimilated into society, changing it along the way.

But as the Financial Times’s George Parker observed in an excellent article: “Immigration has become a metaphor for everything that is wrong with the country. A stick to beat politicians who break their promises, rather than necessarily a big factor in their daily lives”.

Those “big factors” are the things that are making our country so ill-at-ease with itself. As I said recently, many – very many – people in our country have urgent pressing issues that need sorting out immediately if not sooner.  Few decent jobs,  even  less  social or affordable housing,  well established industries changed  beyond recognition (from  privatization of Royal Mail  to  the  strangulation  of the UK fishing  sector),  the uncertainty brought about  by changes (either real or anticipated) in population.

It is entirely  understandable that this instability  generates fear – the fear of limited resources and opportunities being  even  more thinly spread,  which  then  gets  transformed  into  a fear and hostility  of strangers.  It is wrong to dismiss these as unimportant or imagined, but equally flawed to dress it up as something that it is not.

It is an old trick – turn immigration into the lightning rod of discontent. It plays on deep–seated anxieties and always ends badly.  And that’s the problem with the Migration Watch report and newspaper coverage like the Sun’s 27 May front page showing a Britain over-run with “migrants”.  These are not neutral acts (as perhaps Andrew Green would claim), and cannot honestly be held to encourage sensible debates on delicate issues.

The events of the last week have been truly shocking. The Sun’s head of PR, Dylan Sharpe made a point of tweeting a well-written emollient editorial, but some doubt its sincerity (and with that ‘paper’s track record, you can see why.)

Time will tell if we have really entered a new era. I hope we have. But until I see Parker’s article reprinted or reflected in the Mail or Express and Boris Johnson calling out the toxic and xenophobic of his  co-Brexiters, judgement is necessarily reserved.

Why I’m Voting Remain

Just  so  you know, I’m voting Remain in the EU  referendum. But I recognise the sincerity and the views of many who want a Brexit.

Let’s face it, many – very many – people in our country have urgent pressing issues that need sorting out immediately if not sooner.  Few decent jobs,  even  less  social or affordable housing,  industries changed  beyond recognition from  privatisation of Royal Mail  to  the  strangulation  of the UK fishing  sector, (although the suggestion that Michael Gove’s family business was wrecked by the EU  has been shown to be “codswallop“),  the uncertainty brought about  by changes in population.  It is wrong to dismiss these as unimportant or imagined, and blaming EU membership for failings mostly in domestic politics is worryingly attractive.

I’m voting Remain on the basis that progressive voices are louder as part of the EU than outside it,  that the social dimension to economic and industrial  policies remains stronger on the continent than here in the UK, that unrestrained by  the EU  the Tories will be even more destructive than they  are at present.

There is also that the EU will still be there if we leave and we can exert more influence from inside than out. And finally,  something  not spoken of enough – it is a much better  way  to  regulate international affairs than  the military carnage mainland Europe suffered in the  hundred years  that preceded the original Treaties of Rome.

I get that decent people with sincere beliefs will sway towards voting Brexit. But just look at the company that you would be in – some Conservatives have already switched sides because of the fantasists and xenophobes who dominate the Leave campaign.

I will name just two – Boris and Michael. Mr Johnson has been publically condemned for putting his Prime Ministerial ambitions ahead of any dignity or integrity.  And Mr Gove’s dog-whistle, fear –fuelled, deliberately disingenuous tactics belie the intelligence he reportedly has – and demeans the high offices of state he has occupied.

Yes, I know the Remain camp has a few characters of its own you might not want to spend time with – Michael O’Leary for one – but they do seem to be a minority.

But we don’t have to look very  far  to see where the isolationist, chauvinistic nationalism can lead us – Look at the rise of Donald Trump in the US and his response to the “Pulse” mass-murder which surely plumbs new depths.

But controversial and complex  as the EU debate undoubtedly is,  I think  there is a  another reason   why the debate has become some bitter and fraught. It is simply that our country is not at ease with itself.  The “haves” have too too much.  Too many survive rather than live. Politics seems remote, cut-off, insulated from too many. Politicians are seen as part of a self-serving establishment that includes mainstream media.  Political debate ping-pongs between the sterile and the toxic. The blame-game is everywhere and tribalism is rampant. Is it a surprise so many  are turned off?

Even if our politics is as grey and stormy as this month’s weather, this does not have to be a given. We can change things and there is an alternative. “No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.”  For “kindness” read humanity, tenacity, integrity, cooperation-not-conflict, for-the-many-not-the-few.

Whilst all those around us may lose their decency, we must never use that as a justification for abandoning our own. I believe  the EU referendum  is a defining moment for us – but what  happens after the vote (whichever way it goes)  will be even more important.