March for a People’s Vote, 19th October 2019

The day-to-day of Brexit is well written up elsewhere. Maybe one day I’ll put a timeline up here. As a matter of record. After it’s all happened and we’re out, or in, and staying whichever way. But for now…

I’m on the march for a People’s Vote. It’s 19th October 2019.

I’ve not marched before. Hazel and I returned from Amsterdam 11pm on the 18th. 11am on Saturday 19th I’m on a train to Paddington. I walk across Hyde Park, and join the march at Hyde Park Corner. Some walkers resting. Banners and placards likewise. Looking down Park Lane: full of marchers as far as the eye can see. Looking east, along Piccadilly, likewise. A million? Maybe.

I head down to join them. Shuffling along. The pace reminds me of the last ½ mile of the London marathon, when you’re struggling along Constitution Hill, toward the Mall. Would we were so close to an ending. There may yet/will certainly be more political marathons before any level of sanity is achieved. As one placard has it: ‘I’m not leaving.’ Or as Steve Winwood sang, ‘keep on running’. Or another placard: ‘If you leave me now, you take away the biggest part of me…’ I hum that all the way back to the tube.

A batch of Labour cabinet members give short speeches. Keir Starmer the stand-out for clarity and apparent commitment. LibDems old and new. Ed Davey more punchy that usual. Jo Swinson gets her message across well. And others. David Lammy brilliant. Likewise Jess Phillips. The biggest cheers at the end for Dominic Grieve and Hilary Benn, fresh from the Commons debate, and the vote by 322 to 306 to withhold final approval for Johnson’s Brexit deal until the relevant legislation has been passed. And finally big cheers for the old warrior hero, Michael Heseltine. Hezza as lucid and passionate as ever.

More placards. ’Stop the coup.’ Yes, in a way, that’s what we’re facing. ‘Let us be heard.’ Not easy with so much of the press in Tory hands.

My favourite slogan before, and still my favourite: ‘If a democracy can’t change its mind it ceases to be a democracy.’

The marchers are a wonderful, worthy, uncomplicated bunch of ordinary folk. All ages, some serious, others chatting, having fun. A trumpet here, a rallying cry there. A single line of ‘Ode to joy’. Sudden unexplained surges of noise. Helicopters occasionally drowning everything out.

Talking of drowning. Rain starts on the Mall, continues as we head down toward the Cenotaph. Briefly heavy. But we walk on regardless.  Then big blue skies and dazzling sun. A big screen helps me keep up with the speeches. The crowd thins a little and I finally make it to Parliament Square.

A few placards are rather more direct: ‘Eurocrats not Brexit crap.’ Not quite sure we should be lauding Eurocrats, if we want to persuade waverers. ‘Bramm orth Bretmes,’ apparently (do I believe it?) a Cornish curse meaning ‘a fart to Brexit’.

Maybe my favourite: ‘Brexit is as shit as this sign.’ (On makeshift cardboard.)

Other favourites: ‘I’ve seen smarter cabinets at IKEA.’ Right on. ‘Only tectonic activity can take us out of Europe’. A simple geographical fact.

Yes, we are serious, but we have fun. Shouts of ‘Shame on you’ as Andrea Leadsom leaves the Commons, so I read. She reports she felt threatened. This is as I experience it a very unthreatening event. But the press of course pick up on her comments.

Blue berets with yellow stars around the edge are popular. A teddy bear atop a wooden pole. A labrador with a rag doll Boris in its mouth. ‘Honk if you want to remain.’ Not so easy on roads from which cars are excluded. A goose with a Euro flag in its beak: yes, I like that.  Some kind of vehicle moves slowly through the crowd, with a Boris mock-up in front, and a bigger puppet-master Dominic Cummings behind.

‘Hastings loves Europe since 1066.’ Really? But I support the sentiment.

And finally, ‘Plant molecular biologists against Brexit.’ As I would expect.

If I’d carried a placard … putting attempts at clever thoughts aside, I’d go with ‘keep on running’, or ‘I’m not leaving’. Keep it simple. Conserve energy.

We are in it for the long term.

Returning from the other side of the world …

Returning from two weeks away on the other side of the world (Chile) helps bring the reality of British politics into still sharper focus. Above all, the simple and basic incompatibility of referenda and parliamentary democracy. And the utter absurdity of our current politics. When an idea as ill-formed and unsuited to the task as Brexit is treated as immutable disaster inevitably awaits.

Europe before 2016 was a low priority among voters. Wild promises, a billionaire-owned right-wing press, and a presumption that equal time to argue a case (a prerequisite of a referendum) equates to equal merit in argument, turned it into the issue of our time. Attempts by a lunatic fringe (is ‘lunatic’ unfair?) of the Tory party dating back to the immediate post-Thatcher era have crystallised in the activities of the European Research Group, and the party is now split between free-traders who supped at Ayn Rand’s table at university and have never grown up (the student right and student left have much in common), and an overly-loyal mainstream which has allowed itself to be pulled right with hardly a protest. ‘One Nation’ Tories have been left stranded.

In one-time Attorney-General Dominic Grieve’s words, ‘Most oddly [Brexit] has been demanded by Conservative Leavers in the name of restoring “traditional” government… Yet to achieve all this [supposedly ‘restoring parliamentary sovereignty’] they demand that the principles of democratic representative government should be abandoned.’ (Prospect, March 2019)

The mainstream support for Mrs May is craven. (Again, is ‘craven’ unfair? How measured should we be in our language, where the reality out there is so dire?) However inadequate to the task the Chequers statement, and however inferior the EU withdrawal agreement is to our current arrangements, party members fall into line. Loyalty to the leadership comes too naturally, and a presumption that others ultimately know better than they do, a uniquely Tory form of deference, are part of the party DNA. The leadership is pulled to the right, and party members are only too happy to move with it. One Nation Tories might as well be in a different party.

Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen, all of whom resigned from the party last month, faced up to that reality. In their resignation statement they referred to a ‘redefinition’ of the Conservative Party, ‘undoing all the efforts to modernise it’ …. ‘a dismal failure to stand up to the hard line of the ERG’ … a shift to the right ‘exaggerated by blatant entryism’.

‘We haven’t changed, the Conservative Party has … we find it unconscionable that a party once trusted on the economy is now recklessly marching the country to the cliff edge of no deal.’

Dominic Grieve is on the same wing of the party, but more a traditionalist. ‘Pray that we may be quietly governed’ are words from the Prayer Book which to his mind should apply to government as well. His instinct is to intervene less, where others believe that ‘some shaking up and disruption can be beneficial to furthering social progress’. (Beautifully phrased!) But ‘quiet government’ is no longer policy. ‘The Conservative Party has a problem. It is no longer conservative.’

Grieve does, however, show a little more sympathy than Soubry and her colleagues toward Mrs May, ‘whose career has been intimately bound up with the grassroots of party membership’. (All the more reason to show leadership, one might argue.) Some may predict the Conservatives will break up as a party, but ‘I certainly have nowhere else to go’. Whether that might preclude him from resigning the whip and becoming an independent Conservative, who knows.

So what about the other side of the Tory argument? Not quite the ERG wing, but those more inclined to be libertarian that interventionist?

Altruism and opportunity, working together, are core to the beliefs of Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, as an article in Prospect magazine (March 2019) makes clear. Both wings of the party, and most of the electorate, could connect with that.

And yet … Javid still reads the courtroom scene from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead ‘twice a year’. The Fountainhead, as anyone following American politics will know, is notorious.  In the courtroom scene Howard Roark asserts that ‘the man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves…’ ‘The “common good” of a collective… [was] the claim and justification of every tyranny that was ever established over men.’

Nelson Mandela nonetheless is Javid’s hero, and he accepts more of a role for government (in house building, for example) than he once did. ‘Altruism is one of the reasons I’m in government – the most important part of my job is to help those who find it hard to help themselves.’ On the other hand his driving purpose is ‘opportunity’. Government, taxation, regulation can all get in the way, so less of the first two, and smarter versions of the third.

Where does this leave us? With the idea that pursuing opportunity for yourself you create opportunities for others … You may feel for others, but acts of kindness toward them are not always in their best interest. … We all (privilege or parenting notwithstanding) have the same start in life.

That is, of course, a massive over-simplification. But somewhere here lies that key distinction between One-Nation Tories and the libertarian, Randian wing. Javid hovers between the two.

The old pre-2016 Tory party could accommodate both sides, just as long as they accommodated to each other. That tolerance of difference has been shattered by Brexit. The likes of Javid are, when it goes up to the wire, instinctively closer to the ERG, Soubry and company to that One Nation tradition.

Theresa May who studied geography needs that discipline (a better word than subject) laced, as it should be for all good geographers, with the wisdom of history. She’d then appreciate how the democracy and parliament in British history are inextricably intertwined. The notion of accountability in parliament is our single greatest contribution to peace and prosperity across the world. To try to wind the threads in a different way, and to assert that, whatever the circumstances, she has to deliver on the result of the referendum – they are foolish acts.  Where the foolish tread there is surely, and I’m thinking of both party members and supporters, no need to follow.

How many more crisis votes will there be?

More votes last night. Arguing as ever on the wrong territory.

The argument should not be, in any sane polity, ‘should we be part of the EU’, but what form that participation should take. Any organisation pulling together states with disparate backgrounds but shared interests will always be, in one regard or another, close to crisis, but likewise, always be looking to reform and develop itself. The EU is an ongoing project.

The UK is aiming to put ourselves outside that process. Without any other body with whom we could engage, which could act as a substitute. Not the old Commonwealth, or (God forbid) the USA. And at a time when ‘a new pattern in world commerce is becoming clearer’ (The Economist).

A key aspect of the slowdown (‘cross-border investment, trade, bank loans and supply chains have all be shrinking or stagnating relative to world GDP’) over the last ten years in globalisation is the increasing focus on more regionally focused trade, as wages rise and market size increases in developing countries. (‘Supply chains are focusing closer to home.’) Containerisation brought about a radical reduction in transportation costs, but that was effectively a one-off. Distance adds cost, and takes out of the equation just-in-time availability. Brexit is intended to take us in the diametrically opposite direction, trading with more distant, less reliable partners, over long distances with slower supply chains, and at the same time putting up barriers and souring relationships with our local hitherto partners.

And so to yesterday’s series of votes in the House of Commons, where attempts to delay the Brexit process to allow parliament more time to discuss alternative options, to avoid a hard Brexit, were all voted down, and instead a Tory amendment passed, backing a renegotiated version of the agreement with the EU – a renegotiation of the Northern Ireland backstop, which the EU has made it abundantly clear it is not willing to renegotiate.

It is hoped – assumed – imagined – that the EU will cave in, wishing to avoid the damage that a hard Brexit would cause to the EU as well as the UK. Having seen that there is a majority in the UK parliament for some kind of an agreement, the EU would find a way to circumvent the Irish border issue. There is a reported lack of unanimity among the leaders of individual countries: true or not I can’t say. But if the continuance of an open border is crucial to the EU and specifically to Ireland, I (and the mass ranks of commentators out there) can’t see how there can be any agreement which fails to guarantee absolutely that an open border will remain in place indefinitely. There is a patent absurdity here.

I may be wrong – maybe the EU will find a way to trim and compromise, with a show of politeness, and withholding their scorn in any public utterances. One way or the other, we will be back again in the House of Commons in two weeks’ time, for more votes. The assumption must be that the May agreement would again be voted on,  unchanged, in its current unamended form, and again be thrown out. Or May will pre-empt that by proposing some kind of Customs Union, backing down from one of her original red lines, those hostages to fortune she put up so foolishly shortly after she became prime minister.

She is meeting today with Jeremy Corbyn, who now says he is prepared to talk with her. Maybe he wants to explore how and when such a change of policy on the government’s part might occur, and in what circumstances the Labour Party, and Labour MPs, might support it. He will know now that he is not likely to bring the government down. When it comes to the crunch Tory MPs, even the moderates such as Dominic Grieve and Anna Soubry, will always rally to the flag.

Being a Tory MP, which requires a certain mindset, local constituency alliances, and a habitual and habituated tolerance of local opinion, instils loyalties which will survive crisis and sometimes override what common sense dictates. (Labour loyalties also run deep, but aren’t so tribal.)

That’s my take on current events, on what will come out of last night’s more ordered than usual chaos.

I’ll be away in the Southern Hemisphere, far from the madding crowd, when the next vote, or series of votes, come around. There will probably be a snow-capped volcano on the other side of the lake when I draw back the curtain the morning after. They are always the best kind.