The valorisation of a twisted kind of compulsory patriotism has driven out sense. Photo: Getty
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Tweeting a picture of a house is not an act of class warfare, whatever the Sun says

The way that Emily Thornberry has been treated, both before and after her departure from the shadow cabinet, shows that our political class is beyond repair.

This is me giving notice: the UK is a fucked state. Our political class is beyond repair, and the lazy slide into populist right-wing bigotry signalled by Ukip’s victory in the the Rochester and Strood by-election is probably irreversible. Not because Ukip are in any sense great, because Ukip are just the evil ventriloquist’s dummy from Richard Attenborough film Magic with a posse, but because everyone else in politics is terrible. Labour are terrible. The Conservatives are terrible. The Lib Dems would be terrible, but they’ve shrivelled to a vestigial appendage of the Tories and will soon wither and drop off. And most terrible of all is our political media, which has spent most of the last 24 hours hounding a Labour MP for tweeting a picture of St-George’s-cross festooned house with a white van in the driveway in the constituency of Rochester & Strood.

That’s all Emily Thornberry did. Just shared a picture, with the fairly redundant comment “Image from #Rochester”, presumably to aid those who thought an actual miniature terraced house had appeared on their screens rather than an image of one. Now, who knows what Emily Thornberry was thinking as her thumb swiped the tweet button. Maybe, deep in her secret soul, every pixel really was imbued with the subtext “Oh my word how common” – although since Thornberry was raised on a council estate, she seems an unlikely vector for snobbery. Maybe it’s a coded missive of anti-patriotism, and if you say all the words in the tweet backwards, you’ll discover the subliminal message “I hate the Queen, shit on the flag”.

It’s unlikely, sure, but is it really as unlikely as the following scenario? Thornberry spotted a house decked out as jingoism mansion in a constituency on the verge of electing a nationalist candidate, and thought, “Hey that tells us something about the political atmosphere, I’ll show it to my followers.” Oh no, that’s actually quite plausible. Never mind, though, because the cavalcade of bellendery that is the UK political news cycle was already in progress. First: the outrage! Oh the outrage. The mortified lobby journalists, grieving this assault on our national dignity. “It’s hard to think of much more toxic [than] mocking patriotism,” said Tom Newton Dunn of the Sun, who apparently hasn’t heard anything about those Westminster child abuse allegations knocking around.

Then: the desperately scrambled response from Labour! Which, Miliband’s Labour being Miliband’s Labour, has managed to be abject, craven and totally unsuccessful. Thornberry had to apologise, and then she had to resign her shadow cabinet position, because democracy is simply incompatible with tweeting a picture of a house. And Ed Miliband had to renew his man-of-the-people credentials, which he did by saying Thornberry had made him “angrier than he had ever been”. Yes, banking crises he can tolerate. Massive desecration of the public sector merely irks him. But snap a Rochester residential property, and by God you’ll see his mean side.

Sky News asked Miliband “how he feels” when he sees a white van, because really, what is politics about if not our feely-feely-feelings? “What goes through my mind is respect,” said Miliband, probably closing his eyes and clenching his fist with emotion. (My dad drives a white van for work. Do you know what goes through my mind when I see it? “Bloody hell, I wonder how many Dairy Milk wrappers he’s got in the footwell this time.”) But still the maw of news would not be satisfied, and the Sun drove Dan Ware, the occupier of the house – now rechristened White Van Dan  and with Dan’s white van, newly decorated in Sun decals, to stand outside Thornberry’s house and demand even more of an apology for tweeting a picture of a house.

In the run-up to the Rochester by-election, Ian Dunt pointed out that the story here was one of a left that had lost its voice. In the aftermath of the 2008 crash, we truly could have seen the “social democratic moment” that Miliband’s been so keen on invoking. People wanted redistribution – polling still shows that the public believes austerity has been unfairly implemented – and all that was needed a few years ago was for someone to show the electorate what fairness could look like in practice. But Labour failed, and in the breach of their incompetence, we got scapegoating and insularity. We got Ukip. Now look where we are: bigotry on the march and press-enforced compulsory patriotism. I don’t even want to think about where we’re going.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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The trouble with a second Brexit referendum

A new vote risks coming too soon for Remainers. But there is an alternative. 

In any given week, a senior political figure will call for a second Brexit referendum (the most recent being David Miliband). It's not hard to see why. EU withdrawal risks proving an act of political and economic self-harm and Leave's victory was narrow (52-48). Had Remain won by a similar margin, the Brexiteers would have immediately demanded a re-run. 

But the obstacles to another vote are significant. Though only 52 per cent backed Brexit, a far larger number (c. 65 per cent) believe the result should be respected. No major party currently supports a second referendum and time is short.

Even if Remainers succeed in securing a vote, it risks being lost. As Theresa May learned to her cost, electorates have a habit of punishing those who force them to polls. "It would simply be too risky," a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Were a second referendum lost, any hope of blocking Brexit, or even softening it, would be ended. 

The vote, as some Remainers note, would also come at the wrong moment. By 2018/19, the UK will, at best, have finalised its divorce terms. A new trade agreement with the EU will take far longer to conclude. Thus, the Brexiteers would be free to paint a false picture of the UK's future relationship. "It would be another half-baked, ill-informed campaign," a Labour MP told me. 

For this reason, as I write in my column this week, an increasing number of Remainers are attracted to an alternative strategy. After a lengthy transition, they argue, voters should be offered a choice between a new EU trade deal and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be a distant memory. The proviso, they add, is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms (rather than ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). 

Rather than publicly proposing this plan, MPs are wisely keeping their counsel. As they know, those who hope to overturn the Brexit result must first be seen to respect it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.