I spent a fair amount of time in TV and radio studios being cross-questioned about my new book. Funny how the Brexiteers – so ready to claim they have a democratic mandate to do what they like – get jumpy if you throw democracy back at them. They are failing to deliver any of the utopian promises they made to voters, so the electorate has every right to think again. To this, I was accused by one Conservative commentator on daytime telly of “talking down” Britain. A bit like accusing someone who observes that it’s raining of talking down the weather. Absurd.
In the evening, I attended a reception at Buckingham Palace to support people who work in mental health, listening to a good speech by Prince William and a funny and moving one by Stephen Fry. Almost exactly ten years ago I raised mental health at Prime Minister’s Questions when Gordon Brown was at the despatch box as PM, and I was a newly elected Lib Dem leader. At the time, it was considered a “brave” thing to do – party leaders never raised mental health in the Commons. So it’s massive progress that mental health is now talked about openly in parliament, in the media, and even in Buckingham Palace. But the gap between words and deeds is huge. The taboo may have been broken, but the problems of poor mental-health provision still exist.
I travelled by Eurostar to Brussels and then Ghent, where I gave a speech on JS Mill to an audience of Flemish Liberals. Enjoyable, if a little surreal. The talk was preceded by a tour of the basement archives of Flemish Liberal history, with filing cupboards full of memorabilia – from speeches by Guy Verhofstadt, to ashtrays, key rings and, curiously, sponges with the Liberal party logo on them.
My earnest reflection on the modern relevance of Mill’s 19th-century liberalism (answer: his appeal to reason stands the test of time) was delivered in a hall in which there was also an avant-garde photography exhibition. I was flanked by a picture of two painfully contorted naked bodies on one side, and a pile of garrotted mannequins on the other.
The following morning, I caught up with some senior European Commission officials in Brussels, some of whom I’ve known for more than 20 years, from the time I worked there. One told me that the most striking moment in the Brexit negotiations so far was when UK officials asked whether the EU could provide Britain with “technical assistance” on how to process and transport nuclear materials, tasks presently overseen by Euratom (the European Atomic Energy Community). “Technical assistance is what the EU provides to some of the poorest countries of the world,” my friend told me. “Now the UK is asking for help like a developing nation. Wow.”
Off to the Wells Festival of Literature in Somerset at the invitation of Tessa Munt, the inexhaustibly cheerful former Lib Dem MP for the area. Everyone we meet warmly greets her as “Tessa”. “The snap election in June caught us on the hop,” she explains, “but we’ll be ready next time, and everyone can now see what a pig’s ear the Tories are making of Brexit.” Apparently her Conservative opponent told a teenage schoolgirl to “f*** off back to Scotland” during a campaign visit. I reckon he’ll get his marching instructions from Tessa soon enough.
Book festivals – like all festivals – have self-selecting audiences: bookish, broadsheet, generally older, and overwhelmingly anti-Brexit. The kind of audiences who love Barack Obama and despise the Daily Mail. I felt totally at home.
On the late train back I watched the last episode of Ozark, a superb ten-part Netflix series, on my laptop. It’s not for the faint-hearted – all about an outwardly normal middle-class family who end up having to launder money for a Mexican drug cartel in a rural lakeside community in Missouri. Intrigue, suspense, backstabbing, betrayal, and a high-risk gamble with other people’s lives which goes horribly wrong. Sound familiar?
My 13-year-old son groans when he learns I’m going to be a linesman for his football team’s cup match against local rivals in south-west London. We bicycle to the ground and I ask him – once again – to explain the offside rule to me. Every time I raise my flag during the game a chorus of protesting teenage voices shout at the referee. Did we shout at refs like that as teenagers? Much to my relief, the ref upholds my calls – but my son’s team still lose.
In the evening, my wife Miriam and I go to the Southbank Centre to hear Hillary Clinton being interviewed on stage by Jim Naughtie. Clinton has just published her account, What Happened, of the presidential election she lost to Donald Trump. She was relaxed and open – and angry, too. Everyone from Trump to Bernie Sanders, Vladimir Putin to Facebook, Republican donors to James Comey, got a mention in the roll call of people and events Hillary felt blocked her entry into the White House.
I have a small insight into the anguish of political defeat. Nothing like the epic scale of a US presidential election, of course, but crashing out of office after five years as deputy prime minister was still an abrupt collision with electoral reality. It takes some time to digest the reasons why things happen as they do – but, in the end, all you can do is stare defeat in the face, accept it, and move on.
There’s a limit to how much you can rake over the past. I wonder whether Hillary would have written the same book if she had given herself six more months to recover.
This article appears in the 18 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions