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7 April 2017

Melvyn Bragg: Once a Remainer, Theresa May has adopted the excessive zeal of a convert

There is no parliamentary opposition, and therefore a government that can do what it wants unless it steps on the corns of the Conservative cabal that has done such damage. 

By Melvyn Bragg

If Gordon Brown had not been too nervous to go for an election to make himself an elected prime minister, none of this mess would have happened. If Ed Miliband had not set up the foolish cheap subscription to the Labour Party and then failed to fight a decent campaign, none of this would have happened.

But here we are. No parliamentary opposition, and therefore a government that can do what it wants unless it steps on the corns of the Conservative cabal that has done such damage. David Cameron was too cowardly to face them down and then too unforgivably incompetent to organise the resulting referendum in a way that could have caused the least instead of the most harm.

What is most curious about Theresa May is that she was for Remain. She would therefore have been in the minority – of 48.2 per cent! What is more curious is that this minority, almost as big as is mathematically possible, has simply laid down its arms. And the Prime Minister has adopted the excessive, obstinate zeal of a convert.

Theresa May has abandoned any principles she had in supporting Remain. Among her colleagues and certainly among her supporters are those who lied to the British people and then blustered and bullied them with the help of a section of the press. I still think that there was enough deeply questionable about the manner of the conduct of the referendum to warrant a second run. I don’t think the British public was given full access to the facts now emerging in such a chilling procession of sad negatives. But it is this minority that is most troubling.

You could argue that most of the good things about this country have come about through the determined and persistent action of minorities. Minorities have changed the constitution, led to the abolition of the slave trade and then of slavery itself, brought about universal suffrage for men and then for women, and as we look around today are pushing for humanitarian reforms in areas of homosexual law, disability and mental health. Minorities have made us.

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But why did we lose a muscle for minority action when we needed it so urgently? Did 48.2 per cent seem too big or too unwieldy to bring to the battlefield as a coherent fighting force? Were the Remainers cowed by the bludgeoning of the Leavers who somehow made of the referendum a holy writ, not to be challenged in any way? We have developed a plural democracy that, among other things, is based on the two great ideas that every so often we can chuck out an overweening or clapped-out ruling party, and that for democracy to work it needs an opposition.

Sadly, we seem to have an opposition neither in the country nor in parliament itself. The Labour Party has missed the chance to temper, alter and perhaps change completely what many of us think to be the biggest misjudgement in our peacetime history, with consequences that will damage this country for at least a couple of generations, very possibly more. We will be beggars at the feast, without meaningful power for good in the world.

We Remainers might be wrong about that but I’ve heard enough to convince me that the Remainers keep winning the arguments again and again. Where is the Brexit strategy? How does it intend to get us out of Europe without at the least  severely damaging this country? What does it intend to do instead of having access to the great trading area of Europe? Believe in a few promises from  President Trump? Whistle in the dark in China or India while grossly insulting both nations by making it increasingly difficult for their students to come and study in this country (as visitors, not immigrants)?

Everywhere you look, there seems to be the deliberate creation of fog for want of clarity. Why did we – you, me, us – not get together, move as a massive minority, march, lobby, be active, be as angry in public as so many Remainers are and continue to be – not angry and bitter and even despairing in private? Where were Wilberforce and his supporters? Where were Emmeline Pankhurst and her supporters? Where were the rest of us?

The Eurosceptic Tories grabbed a victory through hyperactive bombast. The rest of us blew it through inactive incoherence. It will be seen as the greatest act of self-harm in our peacetime history.

There was no reason to make it a straight majority decision; 55/45 would have been accepted after the usual farrago. All it needed was resolution on the part of David Cameron and he seemed to have none. And all it needed on the side of those who were defeated was to show in that defeat a resolution similar to that which stretches back centuries and brought victory out of defeat by pressing the urgent rightness of their cause at every opportunity. We blew that. We didn’t show up for the fight.

Does that mean that in some way we have softly surrendered to the will of the majority, however slight that lead is? Is there disillusionment with any idea that opposition outside parliament (vide the mass marches against the Iraq War) can have the slightest influence? Did that begin the corrosion? Or does it go back to the Parliamentary Labour Party, which stepped aside from Jeremy Corbyn, hoping that he would go away, and has since been too feeble to regroup and assert authority?

I’ve heard in parliament many fine speeches and voices from the Remain side. I’ve read well-argued commentaries in newspapers and magazines. What stopped all this cohering into activism and challenging the Prime Minister on her lack of principle over her previous convictions? How nobler if she had stuck by them.

Melvyn Bragg is a writer and presenter of “In Our Time” on BBC Radio 4

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This article appears in the 29 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition