Unicorns romp through the Brexit debate. We have become accustomed to hearing their calling sounds on our current affairs programmes – instant technology solutions to border checks in Ireland, frictionless commerce with the EU 27 while operating outside the single market, rapidly made free trade deals with the rest of the world, a sovereign immigration policy that both significantly reduces immigrant numbers but keeps Britain’s employers happy – and more.
But the Conservative leadership contest is also frequently populated by what feels like the largest unicorn of them all, best spotted by use of the phrase “unifying the country”. (That normally should mean unifying the UK as opposed to England, but is not always stated, and must grate with millions of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people.) There are variations on the theme, but the stirring calls for mass togetherness are easily identifiable.
Unifying the population is a virile and seemingly desirable unicorn, embodying a noble enough aspiration, but what on earth does it mean? In current political debate it is self-evidently linked to Brexit. Here are some key soundbites from Team Boris – doubtless crafted by his uber-minder Lynton Crosby. In a Mail on Sunday article on 30 June Johnson wrote: “Now is the time to be resolute, to get on with Brexit and to bring the whole country together.”
The next day, the ever-bubbly Johnson convert Matt Hancock mentioned unity several times on Radio 4’s Today programme, declaring: “[Johnson] is best placed to deliver Brexit and then unite the country… with an optimistic agenda that will bring the country together.”
The idea of unity is lovely and very comforting. Jeremy Hunt knows that too – but this snippet, from his leadership website, takes a rather different tactical approach to the matter.
“When we unite we win… We need a leader who will bring our party and our country together – and knows that we can’t win elections by alienating 48 per cent of our country.”
Johnson would not wish to put his quest for unity like this – and indeed Hunt himself, once coshed for his softness on Brexit deadlines, has hardly made it a campaign leitmotif.
It is a very tall order to bring together a population of 66 million around anything serious, never mind about something as toxic and atavistic as Brexit. We might concede, even if reluctantly, that unity may be a necessary rhetorical fantasy. You would hardly wish to present yourself to the public as fighting only for the interests of a particular group. “We fight for the working class,” or “liberal internationalists” or the “landed gentry”.
But we might at least ask the candidates – and ourselves – some penetrating questions about how they’re going to get even vaguely close to unity nirvana. We have had a few clues. Johnson wants to combine public sector pay
rises with lower taxation (do I spot a frolicking baby unicorn?). Hunt wants to put more money into social care and defence.
There are other, sometimes more specific, hints. Hunt, for instance, would bring the DUP into the Brexit negotiating team. We all know why: it is not unreasonable of him to try to get a parliamentary majority for whatever his putative Brexit plan amounts to. But putting the DUP still further inside the Conservative tent will rapidly detach Northern Ireland’s Catholic population from your unity ticket – along with millions more in the UK who consider the DUP a bastion of reactionary politics.
Theresa May’s early Brexit persona (the lengthy “Brexit means Brexit” phase) did not talk much about national unity – though it did talk about the subtly different idea of the national interest. She tried to go it alone – and her late attempt to get a Brexit deal with Labour only succeeded in inadvertently bringing a lot of Conservatives together to speed up her downfall. Not quite the kind of unity she was seeking.
It is devilishly hard to obtain even a passable impersonation of political unity in a raucous democracy. How do you measure success? Would it be through Prime Minister Johnson’s approval ratings? (So perhaps anything further north than 51.9 per cent – to take a familiar figure not at all at random – would be enough?) Would Prime Minister Hunt declare victory for unity if there were fewer off-stage grumbles from the armed forces?
Might there be a referendum, perhaps three years after we have Brexited, to see whether we feel happily restored in our faith in a common enterprise?
We don’t know. The presenters of the heavyweight news programmes probably understand that the “unifying the country” stuff is virtuous, semi-compulsory blather. They don’t have the time to stop proceedings, and the grammar of these encounters – at least as currently understood by both broadcasters and politicians – doesn’t allow for the hot air to be gently coaxed back into the speaker’s mouth.
The lack of any discernible national unity about any number of issues is not, of itself, a problem. We are not likely all to agree on myriad things – how to tackle climate change, the appropriate level of taxation, how to reform
the police or provide better social care…
What matters is that most of us understand the processes by which decisions are made and, grudgingly, accept the outcomes – without resorting to violence. But maintaining such a consensus is not easy, and Brexit is putting a real strain on our agreement to disagree.
But we could make a start by asking Messrs Johnson and Hunt when, outside war, there was a golden era of national unity. Macmillan post-Suez? When Attlee created the welfare state? Or under Tony Blair before the Iraq War? Maybe none of the above – which does not mean these were all disastrous periods either. We just need a more realistic yardstick to understand political achievement and the limits of what politics can do. We need a better debate about this unity thing – but don’t hold your breath.
Mark Damazer is master of St Peter’s College, Oxford and a former BBC Radio 4 controller
This article appears in the 10 Jul 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The state we’re in