Dear Mr Johnson…

Dear Mr Johnson,

You have suffered from covid-19 – indeed, you were in intensive care and nearly died. For those days and weeks, you were in the same situation as tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of people in this country. Your special advisor, Dominic Cummings, was apparently in a similar position, facing a dilemma that many families throughout this country have faced.
It’s a shame neither of you learnt anything from this experience, or if you did that you hide it so well. Because according to you, Mr Johnson, Mr Cummings was entirely right to ignore the guidance that you and he helped put in place, perhaps more than once.
This guidance has caused hardship and misery to many, many people. From people who’ve been ill yet had to manage children, to others who’ve not been able to see family, to bereaved people who’ve not been able to say a final goodbye to someone they love – this guidance, these rules, have caused unimaginable hardship to many.
And yet we have willingly kept to it. Because we know, as we thought you did, how serious this is. Because we don’t want to get infected. Because we know that for these rules to work, everyone has to keep to them.
Mr Cummings clearly doesn’t believe that; he seems to believe that he can ignore those rules based on his “instincts”. And you seem to believe that he is right in this and that your need to keep him as an advisor over-rides any need to act as one of the people of this country, to show that we really are “all in this together”. If ever that phrase was true, it is utterly meaningless now.
How must people who have made huge, costly sacrifices in order to stop this disease spreading now feel, seeing what has happened, hearing you and your cabinet colleagues defend Mr Cummings? They have faced similar dilemmas with far fewer ways out, yet at incredible cost to their own health, physical and mental, and in many other ways have kept the rules. It’s hard not to think that they are better citizens than any of you.
For Mr Cummings to have made these trips is one thing. For you to not even show any understanding of why many people are upset and furious at this, for you to defend Mr Cummings without any suggestion that you think he might have done something even a little wrong is truly breath-taking. At the election in December, you won an 80-seat majority. Many people voted for you for the first time, believing they could trust you: on Brexit, yes, but implicitly on other things as well. You have shown that you do not deserve that trust, that it was utterly misplaced. You have shown what many of us believed all along: that being in power is the most important thing to you with little or no regard for the consequences of your actions to gain and hold that power. You have traded that trust just to keep hold of one advisor, an advisor you’re supposed to be the boss of. Mr Cummings will never be accountable to us, the public, but whether you like it or not you are. You may wish that this will all blow over and be forgotten about the next time we come to vote; you may be right, I sincerely hope you are wrong. Mr Cummings clearly should have been sacked or forced to resign, as other high-profile officials and advisors who have broken the lockdown rules and guidance have done. The fact that this has not happened shows you hold him in higher regard than the people of this country and all that they have given during this crisis.
Many people will now believe that you have no moral authority to enforce the lockdown rules and that if Mr Cummings can break them with impunity then why shouldn’t they. I hope they don’t, I hope that they prove themselves better than yourself and Mr Cummings and continue to act in responsible ways, recognising the mutual dependence we have on each other in order to overcome covid-19. But if they do, could you entirely blame them? Would you have the authority to blame them? All through this, I’ve felt that we have some personal responsibility as citizens: that even if the guidance or rules are unclear, we know in general what we are supposed to do. Mr Cummings’ actions, and your refusal to consider any sanction against him in spite of them, makes it clear that you don’t believe that, or that it doesn’t apply to him.
We needed a government and a Prime Minister who were effective, sympathetic and clear to guide us through this crisis, a government we could believe were on our side. Despite not voting Conservative, despite being so disappointed that you became Prime Minister and the Brexit has happened, I wanted to believe that you could rise to the occasion and lead a government with those qualities. Any hope you might have done that has been quickly eroded by the last few weeks and has been utterly destroyed by this weekend. It would be a small justice if those who happily voted Tory and rejoiced when Brexit happened changed their minds. You clearly have no particular regard for them.

A Brexit non-rant

So nearly two years ago (was it really that long?!) I went off on one about Brexit. And I still feel pretty much as I did then: that Brexit is a terrible mistake that will hurt this country hard and that the whole process from the referendum onwards has been handled catastrophically by most of the politicians involved in it.

But (and this “but” is going to go on a long time, so get a nice hot drink and settle yourselves down somewhere comfy).

There’s something else that’s equally, if not more, dangerous than just the financial and other implications of leaving the EU. Which is that during this whole Brexit palaver, we’ve lost some crucially important things: more than just our place in the EU, more than just whatever economic losses we may/will suffer as a result of that.

I think we’ve lost the ability to listen to others with a different view. This may just be me spending too much time on Twitter and the Guardian’s comments section, neither of which are hotbeds of calm, rational, well-thought out debate and discussion. But so much of what passes for debate in this is two sides shouting at each other, two sides who think they know what the other side is saying and responds according to that, not necessarily according to what they’re actually saying. Labels are flung at each other (“Remoaner”, “Brexiteer”, “traitor”, “racist”, “elitist” etc.) with wild abandon as if to do so immediately nullifies the other side’s arguments.
But no one’s listening to anyone else in the heat of these debates. None (or very few) of the remainers are trying to hear and understand why people voted Brexit. And none (or very few) who voted for Brexit are trying to understand why so many of us who voted Remain are so upset about what’s happening and would want to stop it.

There was an article in the Guardian before Christmas which addressed some of this. It was commenting in part on how the film It’s A Wonderful Life might have some lessons for us in these polarised times, about the virtues of not being self-righteous, so certain of your own views that you refuse to listen to others. And it also referenced a Twitter thread by the author Frank Cottrell-Boyce on why walked out of a Dylan Moran gig after jokes the latter made against people who voted against Brexit. The article’s point was basically that these binary divisions between Leave-Remain are simply unsustainable and damaging to the country. Predictably, the comments were full of the same old arguments about Brexit and, I’m slightly ashamed to say, Remainers making the same old “bigot”, “racist”, “stupid” comments about Leave voters. Very few of them were willing to take any step towards any sort of reconciliation with the other side.

(Stephen Colbert, the US comedian and late-night host, made a similar point in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump in this video.)

The thing is, though, assuming Brexit happens, we are going to have to live together in whatever arrangement this country ends up in; there’s no way around that. And at the risk of sounding overly-simplistic, or like a politician vainly appealing for unity after spending years promoting division, we’re sooner or later going to have to somehow work out how to do that together, if only to try and make the best of a catastrophic job. And name-calling, self-righteousness and all the rest of it are only going to make that infinitely harder. Or, to put it another way: we Remainers may be proved right, but we’ll suffer for it as much as those who voted leave.

There’s something else we’ve lost as well, or at least badly messed up. I mentioned above both sides not listening to the other side, as if even to acknowledge any concerns, however wrong they may be, is to somehow give them a validity we believe they don’t deserve.
The flip side of this is the argument that if we don’t leave the EU, then the wishes of the majority (or that poisonous, incorrect phrase “the will of the people”) have been ignored; they haven’t been listened to because what they said hasn’t been carried out – even if no one can define what has been said.

But the referendum result hasn’t been ignored. The government has spent the last two and a half years trying, very badly, to implement the result. To listen to someone doesn’t mean you have to do what they say all the time. One can listen, but disagree or set out your reasons why you’re not going to do why they asked.
And to listen to someone who’s views you profoundly disagree with isn’t to necessarily say, “actually you’re right” as many Remainers seem to fear. Better listening, actually more respectful listening, might actually be to hear and understand the other’s point of view, and then explain why you disagree, why you believe them to be wrong. To take one of the main drivers of the Brexit vote: you can listen to someone’s views on the apparent dangers of immigration and still disagree with them, try and explain why you think they’re wrong.
But in the current climate, to do that is either to give something a dignity it doesn’t deserve or, from the other point of view, to ignore what they’re saying – even if you’ve spent time carefully listening to them.

What’s the way out of this? I don’t know. One frequent comment on that Guardian article that had validity was that it’d be a help if politicians did that.
But perhaps we can’t leave it to them; as the late, great Simon Hoggart pointed out, most politicians’ horror at “politicising” a terrible disaster or such like is mainly because they didn’t think to do it first; it’s almost in their very nature (a few honourable exceptions aside).
No, I think ordinary folks are going to have to do this. Perhaps they/we are: if you know where this is happening then please let me know in the comments! But sooner or later, someone’s going to have to let down their defences, take a step out of their self-righteous bubble and listen to and acknowledge the other side’s view, however wrong they believe that view to be. Because the alternative is that the divisions keep growing and growing until we reach a very dangerous place – if we’re not there already.

As Stephen Colbert put it, we’re in danger of overdosing on politics in a very unhealthy way – and it’s poisoning us.

(And if you are going to comment – keep it civil!)

The inevitable Brexit post…

Hello, it’s been a little while…

So, this is it. Theresa May has signed the letter, and the two years of negotiations to take the UK out of the European Union begin.

The UK is leaving the European Union.

The UK is leaving the EU.

I still can’t quite get my head around that sentence. It just seems weird (as well as catastrophically wrong). We’ve been part of the EEC/EU all my life, it’s just been normal to me that that’s how things have been. It’s not been a bad thing, I can’t think of any time when I’ve thought “damn you, EU” and shook an angry fist in the vague direction of Brussels. To think that in two years’ time that won’t be the case just seems strange.

But leave we will, assuming that the negotiations don’t go pear-shaped and we end up not leaving (well, a man can dream, can’t he?). And if Theresa May and the right wing of the Conservative party get their way, it will be a hard, non-Single Market Brexit.

I actually, genuinely don’t understand it.

I don’t understand why David Cameron called the referendum in the first place. Sure, if you asked people if they wanted a referendum, they answered “yes”. But my understanding is that when people ranked how important EU membership was to them, it never ranked as a particularly important issue. Essentially, then, we’ve been railroaded into this by a few people for whom leaving the EU was an obession. Cameron appears to have been frightened by them and so called the referendum.

Which he lost. And then ran away from. And Mrs May took over. And that’s where things get interesting, and more than a little depressing…

The aftermath of the Referendum

Now we get to the part that makes me even more puzzled and, if I’m honest, slightly sad and angry about: what happened between the referendum result and the triggering of Article 50 that happened today.

The result of the referendum was close: 52-48. This was by no means an overwhelming majority in favour of Brexit; this was a close call.

But somehow, this got taken up by those most in favour of Brexit and labelled “the will of the people”, as if this was a unanimous, or near-unanimous, vote in favour of leaving. It wasn’t; nowhere near it.

But the loudest Brexit voices were the ones that prevailed. Only the bald fact that Leave won the referendum mattered. That 48% who voted against – over 16 million people – didn’t count. The people had spoken, the narrative went, with one voice: we want out.

Now, you might think given the closeness of the vote, that a wise and sensible government would tread cautiously. The outcome of the vote, and the sheer divisiveness of the campaign, showed a country that was deeply split, almost down the middle. Surely, in these circumstances, the best thing to do was for Mrs May and the government to seek consensus, to move slowly, to try and work to bring on board those of us who had voted Remain. There would no doubt be some, perhapd many, who would refuse. But that was no reason not try. If Mrs May was serious about the “Unionist” part of the “Conservative and Unionist” party she boasted she belonged to in her speech on taking up office, surely reaching out to Remain-voters, seeking to include them and their wishes and preferences in what came next would’ve gone a long way to healing some of those deep divisions.

In a similar way, Mrs May could’ve respected the fact that Scotland voted Remain and worked closely with Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government to find a way of dealing with Brexit that could have accommodated them. This was surely especially important, given the fact that the SNP would surely be looking to use the Brexit vote as a trigger for a second referendum (which, of course, they did; and while I fervently hope Scotland stays in the UK, I can’t say I blame them).

And in dealing with the EU post-referendum, surely seeking to maintain the best possible relations with the 27 countries with whom we’ll have to negotiate was the best way forward. The message to Brussels and those 27 countries should surely have been, “While we intend to enact the result of the referendum, we recognise it is vital for the UK and the EU to come to the best possible agreement to allow us both to flourish after Brexit. We therefore intend to work closely with our partners and friends in the EU to ensure that what emerges from the Article 50 negotiations will be as mutually beneficial to us all as possible, allowing us to continue to work closely together post-Brexit”. Or even just, “sorry! It’s not you, it’s us”.

But, no.

Brexit became “the will of the people”, as noted above. Ardent hard-Brexiteers, such as Boris Johnson and Liam Fox, were appointed to the cabinet in key positions. Theresa May tried to ignore her previous pro-Remain sentiment and made hard Brexit her priority: “Brexit means Brexit”, apparently. She needlessly sidelined and antagonised Scotland and paid little or no attention to Northern Ireland. The Conservative Party conference that autumn at times represented a giant two fingers stuck up at the rest of the EU. No one in the government showed any appreciation of the deep divisions in the country, or the effects that rushing headlong into a hard Brexit would have on Scotland and the rest of the EU.

Labour’s response

Surely Labour could be relied on to stop this? I mean, they campaigned in favour of remaining, didn’t they?

Sigh.

No, they didn’t. Jeremy Corbyn wanted to be nuanced and to show himself as anything but an uncritical supporter of the EU (especially given his previous anti-EU stance). But he just came across as lukewarm and not caring. While arguments still rage about how effectively he campaigned (and the point is well made that Labour voters voted largely in favour of Remain – a point we’ll come on to shortly), it has to be said he helped contribute to a sense that the pro-Remain campaign was half-hearted and more interested in poiting out the dangers of leaving the EU, rather than positively making the case for staying in.

Then Corbyn appeared to call for Article 50 to be triggered now, and praised Gisela Stuart for her role in leading the Leave campaign. Really? What kind of message does that send to Labour MPs and members who campaigned for Remain, as they thought their leader was, and who were left devastated by the result?

Then came the Parliamentary bill to trigger Article 50. And we must pause here and consider the supreme irony of Brexiteers who had campaigned for the UK Parliament to be sovereign once more (which it was anyway), opposing one measure that would ensure that sovereignty was a reality.

But back to Labour. They put up all sorts of amendments designed to protect the rights of EU citizens still living here, ensure that Parliament got a say on the final deal etc. They were all rejected. So, having seen these presuambly crucial amendments voted down, did Labour vote against the bill on the grounds that, while they respected the result of the referendum, to support Brexit in this way would go against what the party believed to be important?

They did not. They were whipped into voting in favour of the bill.

I cannot believe the immense stupidity of this decision. Still. Labour was cowed by that “will of the people” line, forgetting that 48% of the vote was for remaining; forgetting that between 60-70% of their own supporters had voted Remain – and were now effectively unrepresented by their own party. Theresa May now had and has a free hand. Corbyn and Labour have said “the fight starts now” (ha!) and of the tests that the eventual deal must pass in order for them to accept it.

But it’s too late. It’s. Too. Late. They’ve given May and the hard Brexiteers a free hand. How can they oppose it now? In voting in favour of Article 50, even without those amendments, they’ve effectively said “go ahead, Theresa, do what you will”. If they raise a squeak of protest, or try to vote against, they’ll be laughed at: “why didn’t you vote against Article 50 in the first place” is the obvious retort, “it’s too late now”.

Corbyn blew it. Big time.

Wither Remainers?

So, effectively, the 48% – 48%, a huge percentage – who support Remain are unrepresented. The Lib Dems, always a pro-EU party, are making a lot of noise and rightly so; the Greens are pro-EU. But aside from them and the SNP’s MPs, that’s still considerably less than 100 MPs giving any voice to the concerns of those who voted Remain. In a democracy (which doesn’t mean “winner takes all”, despite what many Brexiters seem to think), for 48% of those who voted to be effectively told, “sorry, you lost” is unthinkable.

There are two messages that have been directed at Remainers who dare to speak against what’s happening. One is, “You lost, get over it”: as if the fact we lost one vote means we should shut up forever (because when one party loses a general election, they just nod everything the new government does through… oh wait: they don’t!). The other is something along the lines of, “we need to pull together, put aside our differences, and all work together to make Brexit work.”

Well, sorry, it doesn’t work like that. You can’t spend nine months rubbishing 48% of the electorate, telling us we’re “Remoaners”, traitors, unpatriotic, that our votes don’t count… and then suddenly expect us to forget it all and come on board with something we profoundly disagree with. If you’d wanted us to be on board, you should’ve respected us, listened to us, worked to understand why we voted the way we did (48% =/= a “liberal, metropolitan elite”) and try and include our deep, deep concerns in formulating your Brexit plans.

UKIP (grrr…)

Of course, the bogey-man (or party) in this are UKIP, who have gained a power and influence on Brexit and the British political scene far beyond their support in the country. Until the weekend, they only had one MP. Their figurehead (even if he’s not their leader any more) has never won a UK parliamentary election. And yet the Tories and Labour act as if UKIP have this vast power to destroy them. Every action the two main parties have taken since the referendum has been with at least one eye on UKIP in general and Nigel Farage in particular. It’s been utterly astonishing to see the two parties work in such utter fear of such a small political party, simply because their former leader is good at pretending to speak for the ordinary people of the UK.

And if I say any more about UKIP, I might say something I’ll regret…

So I’ll leave it at that. This isn’t a systematic analysis of why we’ve come to this point, it’s not an unbiased account: I want us to stay in the EU and I hope beyond hope that something will happen in the next 2 years that will make that inevitable. It’s a part-rant, part-expression of utter disbelief at what has happened and the incredible (in the literal sense of that word) decisions, mis-steps and mistakes that have been taken since the referendum.

Thank you for reading it.