Are we right to mock Theresa May, or is she caught in the impossible position of trying to deal with the wreckage of her predecessor’s mistakes, over Europe and in calling a referendum without planning for both possible outcomes, and the divisions in her own party?
Almost since the moment when she became Prime Minister it has been tempting to mock Theresa May. From her 2016 conference speech, when she seemed to have abandoned her previous support for EU membership and managed the meaningless “Brexit means Brexit”, through vacuous comments on the “will of the people”, to her performances as the “Strong and stable” “Maybot” in the 2017 General Election.
But is this fair? Her disastrous speech speech to the 2017 Conservative Party Conference begins to flag up another side. As it stands, she may well go down in history as the most unfortunate Prime Minister in a very long time. In the long view of history, she may get credit for courage in an impossible situation, and come to be seen as one of the high-profile victims of Brexit.
That conference speech said more than its words. Letters falling off a sign, someone playing a prank, and a nasty cough could be seen as bad luck. But things are rarely as simple as that, and it can be worth asking what is happening unconsciously in the seemingly-accidental.
Privileged access for big business to government in the Brexit process threatens to make it a “Brexit for the rich”, not the people who voted for it and already felt left behind.
The Independent for 26 August 2017 ran an article by Jon Stone and Joe Watts, based on a report saying that big business and banks have been dominating access to government over Brexit, while labour groups and NGOs have been marginalised.
Without access to the report itself, its not possible to verify its assertion, but at the very least it seems highly credible Last year I blogged about Brexit as a new “class war” in which it felt as if the wealth were grabbing the opportunity of Brexit to re-shape Britain in a way that exaggerates wealth divides.
Advocates of “trickle-down” economics will say this is fine: prioritise the key wealth creators and everyone gains. That didn’t work under Margaret Thatcher, and there’s little scope for it working now, except for those who are temperamentally-equipped to gain from a brutalising “each person for themself” mentality.
29 March 2017 was not a good day in the history of the U.K. It was the day when we took a wild leap into the unknown, chasing fantasies over reality. What Brexit actually means is hardly clearer now than when the referendum was called.
The prize for the most absurd Brexit comment on the doorstep in the first three months of 2017 goes to the person who said: “I voted Leave. We were fine before we went in and we’ll be fine now. It’s my children and grand-children I feel sorry for”.
The litany of lies from the Leave campaign should anger people: the £350 million a week for the NHS (denied the morning after the vote), the fantasy of a threat that Turkey would join the EU and flood us with immigrants (suddenly not an issue), the threatened end to free movement of people causing nurses to leave the country than burst of jobs, “take back control” turning into having to obey the rules others make in what Michael Hessletine has called “the greatest loss of sovereignty in British history“, and renewed pressure for Scots independence and Irish re-unification which brings the Brexit-related break-up of the U.K. much closer.
I’m increasingly conscious that one really important group has become invisible in the storm around Brexit: the people who actually voted for it.
Canvassing recently my ear was firmly bent by someone who voted Leave and is worried about the NHS. The promise of £350 million per week might have evaporated on the morning after the referendum, but her concerns have not. She’s not angry at the lie: for her this is just one more in the chain of politicians’ lies. The worry is real.
One of the memorable moments in Laura Kuenssberg’s documentary on the referendum had Leave voters in Sunderland saying “now people in London have got to listen to us”.
Instead we have a prime minister saying “Brexit means Brexit” and talking of the “will of the people”, but who reacted to being reigned in by the courts by bring a bill before parliament to give her huge powers in the Brexit process. This sounds like a land grab from No.10 rather than an attempt at listening.
I finished a recent blog post by saying that what we need now is wise leadership. Those words are haunting me. Doubtless there are some who want a leader to push Brexit through as fast as possible, and others who want a leader to stop it. We need something different. I am mentally contrasting the stereotype of the fascist leader, who whips up the darkest desires of the crowd, and the wise leader who enables people to be heard so that wisdom emerges rather than fear and mudslinging.
One of the ironies of the referendum campaign was the (unsubstantiated) claim that the EU is about to create a European Army. Yet as anti-federalists get jumpy about the tone of Guy Verhofstadt’s comments on closer co-operation on defence, Trump pushes for something similar. Has closer co-operation on defence just become a really good idea, and essential for the UK to be part of?
The sequence of events feels almost surreal. During the referendum campaign several former generals, including Lord Guthrie, came out in favour of Brexit, supposedly over fears that the EU is about to create an EU army. In the swirl of half-stories it was not clear what was actually being said: there has been shared policy on security and defence for a long time, which became the Common Security and Defence Policy in the Lisbon Treaty. Crucially, anyone with a grip on the different stories of EU member states would be aware that this is very complicated — particularly because of the anxieties in Germany about armed forces serving a purpose that’s anything other than defensive. A move as big as creating a fully-fledged European Army would also need treaty changes, which require the agreement of all the member states, so there is no chance of it happening without the agreement of the UK as long as we are in the EU.
His article deserves to be widely read and reflected on: at a time when the public discussion seems to veer between squabbles over who has the authority to give notice under article 50, the eurosceptic part of the media painting a wildly optimisitic vision of Brexit and a steady stream of stories highlighting the damage, it is very encouraging to see some serious reflection from the House of Lords, and from Andrew Duff.
Under the coalition government the Lords Europe Committee undertook a thorough review of the balance of competences between the UK and EU, only to see their report buried because it didn’t support the repatriation of powers. I fear their excellent work now is also in danger of being ignored.
I strongly encourage people to read the whole post, but key points include:
The 2016 Tory conference will go down as a landmark moment. I fear it will come to be seen as the signalling of a chilling new “class war”.
On the surface the language could be heard as optimistic, with talk of opportunity and investment and everyone benefitting, and “Hard Brexit” being tough but good.
But the scarcely-concealed panic should be ringing alarm bells. Austerity abandoned, money to be borrowed for investment in housing and infrastructure. That sounds like a Keynesian reaction to an impending economic catastrophe induced by Brexit. Is that catastrophe what people voted for?
One of the doorstep comments staying with me from the referendum campaign is: “I’m voting Out: we haven’t beaten the Germans in two world wars to give in now”.
The psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan talks of “chosen traumas” and “chosen glories”, as stories from the past get retold and shape collective identity.
The trouble is that how the events are remembered changes. The stories seem to be about the past, but also have a present-day purpose. At the celebrations of the bicentenary of the French Revolution, Margaret Thatcher pointed out that we had had a revolution a century earlier: she was quoting history, but also making a point about how she understood Anglo-French relations now.
My sense is that the two world wars are acting as chosen traumas — articulating a sense of the struggle — and as chosen glories, speaking of our success.
But the wars are remembered differently on the two sides of the Channel. Though things were tough, we didn’t experience invasion, fighting in our streets, occupation or brutal repression.
Beside the ongoing drama around Westminster, there’s an urgent task to be done among those who voted to leave the EU and are beginning to regret it. This is crucial for the country, and wise for LibDems as well.
I’m thinking of those taken in by false “promises” — there isn’t an extra £350 million a week for the NHS, or an end to free movement of people, Brexit doesn’t mean an end to fishing quotas, and “taking back control” now sounds like a joke. They were already alienated and this is not helping.