The reaction I have heard since Theresa May’s big set-piece Brexit speech this week is actually far scarier than the contents of the speech itself. Theresa May outlined, in a clever if poorly delivered speech, basically what we already knew (or feared). We have then taken it upon ourselves to fall about the place like the sky is falling, unless the Germans come and save us from our own stupidity. In short, we don’t seem to get it do we. The Brexiteers won the war last year, but if we continue acting like this, they will surely take the peace as well.
This cannot be wholly put at the door of a useless opposition (although that certainly makes matters so much worse). Rather more, it is that we on Remain side seem to have learned nothing about what the referendum result should have been telling us, and the lessons for the future that is was spelling out. For all that we derided May for her stupid ‘Red, White and Blue’ Brexit nonsense, we are really the fools for dismissing it out of hand, and if we go on pretending that deriding the UK and praying to the great gods of Europe to save the day, we will be finally be committing political suicide.
I fear we are already heading down this road. In our not unreasonable lament, and in the miles of column inches dedicated to telling the UK why we are all so bloody stupid, we are getting ever more swept up in a sort of reverse jingoism that is every bit as toxic as the original kind. We laugh at the Daily Mail’s headlines of naïve optimism, but nod sagely as the German press mocks us and peer down their noses. We laugh at the Brexiteers as they say all will be well, but we hang on to every single word that EU politicians say about our impending doom, alsmot gleefully willing the very worst to happen so that at dinner parties we can say ‘I told you so’. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think Brexit is a political and economic disaster, but it is happening, and if we don’t get with the programme, we will all be left behind.
Perhaps, underneath it all, that is the plan though. If we are left behind, we can mourn and wail in our ivory towers and blame the stupid country for shooting themselves in the foot. But, my god, what a pathetic response that would be, and not worthy of the idealism and principles that the Left is meant to stand for.
A key element that contributed to the remain defeat was that the Leave side was able to capture the flag, and one should never underestimate how strong a motivating force a flag can be. The leavers were able to sell their narrative in terms of how strong, free and brilliant Britain could be, if only we shook off the shackles of Europe.
Now, we know this was a mixture of gross-exaggeration, misinterpretation and downright lies. However, the positive message that it communicated was infectious. Look at the campaign literature, or remember the billboards. Whilst remain was represented by the clinical blue and yellow stars of Europe, leave was painted draped in the union flag, and they deliberately sought to evoke the spirit of the great underdog nation that always turns the tables in the end with the famous Dunkirk spirit.
This idea of the bulldog, Churchillian identity is in the British DNA, undeniably so, and tapping into it was a key victory for the leavers. And this symbolism matters as much today as it did during the campaign. The flag remains on the field of battle, but not only are we not trying to pick it up, we seem actively trying to distance ourselves from it, and from all other potentially positive arguments that go alongside it.
I honestly think that, to some people, including far too many on the modern left, engaging this type of messaging runs against some odd sense of moral superiority they have instilled within themselves. Too many of us look at the red, white and blue as if it has no meaning, or that it means something we would rather it didn’t. This couldn’t be further away from the majority of people in this country if it tried, and especially from those that still identify themselves as the working class.
Quite apart from anything else, this is truly awful politics, and if we keep employing it, we are in very deep trouble. As an aside, it is quite telling that the one MP who has spoken the most about positively framing our politics with a shared national identity is at this very moment standing down, and many in our party are crowing in delight as a consequence.
On Brexit then, we need to accept the reality of the situation we face today, and then work towards putting a positive case forward for the things that mater the most to us, and what needs to be safeguarded. This is definitively not what is happening at the moment. Instead, we have an opposition bitterly divided, with a leader who is both unwilling and incapable of challenging the Brexit narrative in any way (let alone positively), and we have so many good, intelligent people still walking about in a daze and saying that we are all going to hell in a handcart.
That may be true, but in the spirit of solidarity, and in the spirit of comradeship, it is up to us all to pitch in and mitigate it for those it may impact the most. This must, must, must include framing our arguments and our demands in a way that is appealing to everyday people around the country, and not just hip journalists on twitter. It means picking up the mantle and making it run in our direction, not theirs.
For example, of course immigration is a huge issue, and it surely needs to be curbed in the wake of the vote, but how it is curbed as every bit as important as the principle. If we sit about moaning and yelling ‘racist’ at the ‘bloody tories’, we get nowhere, and fast. If we engage, if we outline what immigration system we think is not just fair but actually best for Britain, built from our own values, then we begin enter the conversation again, we become relevant, and we can actually get things done.
The first step to all of this, however, is of course, acceptance, and I wanted to briefly mention this problem as well. The Conservative Party Manifesto in 2015 stated there will be a referendum on our membership of the EU. They win that election, and then they enact this commitment. Parliament then makes clear that the result of the referendum will be accepted by all sides, and everybody nods along. The referendum takes place, and, stone the crows, Leave wins by a 4% margin.
This is democracy, I’m very sorry to have to say. ‘Oh yeah, but of course it was the media’s fault!’, we cry, ‘they told lies’. Firstly, grow up. If you can point to any election in history that wasn’t in some way tainted by allegations of, shall we say, exaggeration, then be my guest (and I invite you to look at some of the Remain exaggeration as well while you are at it).
We didn’t try and storm the barricades after every other election, even if we felt like it, and we accepted the democratic mandate that was bestowed – although I admit it is easier to accept democracy when you’re on the winning side. Also, I would advise us all to stop being so bloody patronising. People may not be as thick as many like to believe they are.
To so many of us intellectual middle class types, everywhere outside of the hip centres in our major cities can basically be visualised by populating the sets from Mad Max with the guests on Jeremy Kyle. The real UK is not like that, people are capable of thought and reason and of making a choice, even if we think it’s the wrong one.
That is the price of democracy, and it is what the left fought for, for so many years and in so many countries. I am sick of people basically saying that working class people are too thick to make the correct choice, which is why we, their betters, need to speak on their behalf. No, you don’t have that right, and it’s time to accept that and stand by your beliefs when the going gets tough.
Also, on this broader point, when did so many of us on the left give up on the necessity of democracy, in order to worship at the altar of high economics? The Liberal Democrats are perhaps the worst offenders in this regard, showing that they deserve neither the title ‘democrat’ in much the same way as they didn’t deserve ‘liberal’ when they went into Coalition. Tim Farron has called on us all to oppose Brexit, and the triggering of Article 50, on the curious grounds that it is against our economic interests.
I put it to the proponents of this argument that they are walking a very tight and dangerous tightrope indeed. In my opinion, socialism is in the best economic interests of the majority in this country, and neoliberal Tory economics is bad, should I therefore seek to overturn the last election on that basis? I take it that if given a choice between our current democracy or a dictatorship in which everybody in the UK was £3000 better off, these people would bite their hands off and surrender their democratic rights? I sincerely hope not. This relativism is dangerous and foolish, and I would urge the Liberal Democrats, if they put economics above democracy, to fly over to Davos, I am sure many over there would be very pleased to hear it.
Brexit is happening, and as much as I hate to say it, Brexit now has to happen. How it happens, however, is still up for discussion. I urge us all to engage with the process, and not to throw stones. So much of what to come is political, not economic, and at the moment it is in political debates and in political negotiations where the future is formed. We cannot let the right hold all the cards, and we need to get our act together and start painting a vision that people can look towards, and that they can buy into.
A positive Britain that actually might live up to some of the optimistic rhetoric that the Leave campaign spouted (but didn’t truly believe in). If they secretly want to get rid of our rights, let us not hide behind the European Courts or Angela Merkel, let us stand up and tell the people of this country that they are worth more than this government may want to give them, and make the positive case for why it is politically impossible for them to do us all down.
If we want to continue to have the best trading relationship, let us show how brilliant business in this country can be, and use those arguments to push for greater investment in areas where jobs and growth is the most scarce. If we want to keep our research networks open, let us show just how world-leading our science, university and innovation sectors are, and make the government boost spending on R&D.
Success comes in many different forms, and very rarely takes the form you may at first imagine. I didn’t want this, but what I want doesn’t matter when compared to the task that lies ahead of us. We need to grasp this opportunity and stop looking for excuses and ways out. There is a job to do, the left needs to play its part, or face the consequences.