A snapshot of the chaos of Brexit

A few months after the referendum I gave a conference paper where I suggested that Europe has been so important to the UK for so long that the referendum and its result had had a profound effect on the British political system, leaving it struggling to cope. The week of the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos has provided a striking example of this.

The systemic problem

In the background of that paper was the thought that stable systems need some form of containment. That applies at lots of levels, from a small child feeling safe in the containment of its mother’s arms, through to people feeling an anxiety over immigration feeling the need for a country’s borders to be enforced to make them feel safe. Containment is particularly important when people feel vulnerable. It can be about actual physical needs, but is much more about managing anxiety. Some of this will seem irrational, but it makes sense if it is thought of as managing anxieties that are hard to express. Immigration is a good example because the economic evidence that it helps the economy, boosts living standards and doesn’t cost people their jobs doesn’t communicate at the same level as the raw emotional fears in people for whom life is uncomfortably fragile.
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Responding to Labour Remain

Recently a friend and Liberal Democrat activist showed me an email from Labour Remain — formed at the start of 2018 and claiming significant support. This comes on the back of a survey showing that 78% of Labour members disagree with Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to a referendum on the terms of Brexit How should Liberal Democrats respond?

European and British flags.

Brexit is a profound threat to British values, the economy and the very integrity of the United Kingdom. In that sense it needs us all to pull together.

The country is in a crisis. We have been so intertwined with the rest of Europe, for so long, that the referendum result has had a deeply destructive effect on public life. Parliament seems paralised. Andrew Adonis has written of a Brexit-induced “nervous breakdown” in Whitehall. The Conservatives and Labour seem massively dysfunctional. There are stories of moderate councillors in both parties being de-selected. Most of the pro-Remain majority in the Commons is silent or vanquished. My excitement over the formation of Labour Remain is more than a little tempered by the lurch to the Left in their recent National Executive Committee elections and stories of MPs being threatened with de-selection. Faced with Brexit, ths has all the wisdom of re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. We need to think differently.

For Liberal Democrats, the enormity of the task can make us escape to the local. That’s always been important to the party, but it can become a displacement, making us fail to engage adequately on the ground with Brexit and its consequences. That short-changes the nation, deep principles in the party, and the many people who have joined us since the referendum. It’s worth remembering that a recent poll put support for Remain at 55%, with even greater support for a referendum on the terms.

In some parts of the country this will be sounding so obvious that it doesn’t need saying. But there are many places which, a few years ago, would have struggled to campaign in more than a handful of wards, but have seen their membership increase three or four fold since 2015. This makes all sorts of things possible in addition to that targetting.

If we were going into a General Election, there would be the inevitable need to target. Instead, faced with the slow-motion car crash that is Brexit, it’s time to help shape the resistance. That means putting the case for a referendum on the terms, and also helping people through the painful realisation that the Brexit they voted for is not what is emerging.

We can have the biggest impact in places where people will be surprised to hear from us. This is about making a difference — directly, by swaying opinion, and indirectly by pressure on sitting MPs.

It can be a shock to a local party that’s used to thinking of itself as small and now finds it has 400 members, but on those numbers, a typical constituency would need each member to deliver little more than 100 leaflets and contribute a couple of pounds to the printing to reach every door. It’s a powerful statement of conviction on Brexit to be delivering regularly in constituencies we are unlikely to win.

Going alone like this is not to undervalue Labour Remain, but it does avoid getting sucked into Labour’s struggles. The best way to put pressure on Labour and the Conservatives is to stick to our values and push against Brexit, helping to turn the tide of public opinion that will bring those parties with it.


This was originally posted on Liberal Democrat Voice, 18 January 2018

The survey showing Labour supporters disagreeing with Corbyn is here.

Mental health realities… and Donald Trump

A couple of things have come across my radar recently which highlight the stark realities of life for people with mental health difficulties. By contrast, Donald Trump’s behaviour is distasteful by most standards, but questioning his mental health doesn’t help people with real mental health issues — or excuse his behaviour.

Yarnbomb by TigerChilli

Shortly before Christmas came the news that the High Court had ruled that changes to the rules around Personal Independence Payments for people with mental health conditions were “blatantly discriminatory”. The conclusion won’t have been a surprise to people involved with mental illness, and the decision was good news, but the facts that it had to go to court, and that PIP is needed to support people with poor mental health, highlight some of the grim realities.

Later the same morning, I crossed the footbridge by Jesus Lock in Cambridge where there were some striking pieces of “yarn bombing” — effectively knitted sculptures — by TigerChilli. In themselves they were striking, but what particularly caught my eye were two phrases on the accompanying text: “For those of you living with depression or illness, missing or mourning a loved one, caring for a sick relative, or if you simply find this time of year difficult”, and “To the courageous woman I met last year who said ‘The sunshine’ yarnbomb saved her life and prevented her jumping off the bridge, I thank you for sharing this with me. I am extremely moved by this.” The yarnbomb sculptures and the words speak volumes.

I’ve had those two experiences in mind in the recent media debate around Donald Trump’s mental health. This sparks an immediate worry. At the best of times it is not easy for someone to seek help over mental illness. Fearing that they will be seen as “like Trump” makes this much worse.
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