The need for 'narrative'

Labour needs to devise, and agree, a vision of the changes we wish to bring about in our country in

George Orwell's essay on Politics and the English Language many moons ago warned politicians against the overuse of clichés and dead metaphors. He argued that political discourse at the time suffered from two problems: a staleness of imagery and a lack of precision. I expect he would find the situation has worsened ten-fold if he were to read and listen to some of our discussions at the conference, and in particular, the use of the word 'narrative' to describe the lack of a guiding direction for the party.

This was made plain to me when Andrew Neil's first question as I sat trembling on the Daily Politics set yesterday was: 'so Progress has called for a new narrative', what's that when it's at home?' I had to concede that this was not a particularly audience-friendly word for sure, and suggested that a better way of expressing it to the viewers at home would be to say that the government lacked a story. Oasis after all, didn't write 'What's the narrative, morning glory' ...

So why, after accepting that Orwell would thumb his nose at the word, and its poor translation to the wider public, do I think that 'narrative' is still a good shorthand for describing what is desperately needed at the moment? The first reason is that simply coming up with a better 'story' about what the government is doing or has done, won't be enough to reconnect to the public and win a fourth term. Using the word 'story' suggests we are talking about something fictional rather than factual. The actions of Prescott et al are definitely needed to motivate the troops and to make sure we remember that elections can't be won without action on the ground. But what the troops are crying out for is a distinctive and enervating 'narrative' to be able to relate to voters on the doorstep. A bit more PR with a few touchstone words which resonate with the public won't achieve their 'go fourth' ambitions.

The second reason is that the word narrative is one of the few words which relates how future events might unfold. So it's not about simply regurgitating Labour's successes over the last 11 years, and certainly not the endless list of statistics and schemes which David Miliband criticised at Progress's Rally on Sunday. Instead Labour needs to devise, and agree, a vision of the changes we wish to bring about in our country in the next decade and how we will achieve them.

Which brings me to my third reason for sticking with this graceless word. In creative writing at school, you were told to remember the narrative - the beginning, the middle and the end. And it is precisely this progression through the process of determining what Labour is going to offer the public at the next election which is missing at the moment. How we will get from where Britain currently is, to where Labour thinks it should be in the years to come. This is something which Progress has been working hard on and last week we launched the first of a number of interventions (http://clients.squareeye.com/uploads/prog/documents/Role%20o...) which we hope will help the process of debate. I can't apologise in the future though if we're still bemoaning the lack of a narrative - it's the only word in town.

Jessica Asato is Deputy Director of Progress and a Member of the Fabian Society Executive.
Getty.
Show Hide image

The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.