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Remainers are running out of time to stop Brexit

Though Tony Blair's warnings have been vindicated, he and others are fighting a losing political battle. 

It took Brexiteers 41 years to secure and win a vote on the UK leaving the European project. Remainers have less than a year to achieve the reverse. It is this gnawing awareness that explains Tony Blair's energetic New Year intervention. As the former prime minister writes: "2018 will be the year when the fate of Brexit and thus of Britain will be decided. 2017 was too early in the negotiation. By 2019, it will be too late." 

For Remainers, who wish to stop Brexit (not merely soften it), the uncomfortable truth is that they are losing. Public opinion has shown intermittent signs of Bregret. The number who believe that the UK was wrong to vote Leave has outstripped those who believe it was right. But there is not now, nor has there ever been, a consistent majority for a second referendum. When offered a menu of options by YouGov, 40 per cent of voters backed the government’s current stance, while 12 per cent preferred a “softer” Brexit. Only 18 per cent supported a second referendum and just 14 per cent wanted Brexit stopped. Like British holidaymakers stuck in a poor hotel or on a rainy beach, voters appear resigned to making the best of it. (Some reasonably ask whether Blair, who was famously sensitive to public opinion, would take the same view if in office now.) 

This is in spite of Remainers being vindicated on many fronts. Though the UK has avoided the recession that the Treasury and others forecast, it has gone from being the fastest-growing G7 economy to the slowest. Real wages have fallen for the last eight months and Britain is forecast by the OECD to have the worst wage performance of 32 advanced countries. 

The government, meanwhile, has been forced to back a post-Brexit transition period of two years (during which nothing will change), accept a divorce bill of up to £39bn and agree to maintain "full regulatory alignment" in key areas in the absence of a solution to the Irish border dilemma. The Leave campaign's promise of £350m a week for the enfeebled NHS is now a hollow joke (indeed, Britain is estimated to have foregone precisely this amount). 

But the losses and pain are too incremental, too diffuse to transform public opinion. Until there is greater movement, Labour will not back a second referendum (though it has not ruled out the possibility) and MPs will be reluctant to vote against the government's expected Brexit deal. The Liberal Democrats, who have backed a new referendum, are still polling at subterranean levels. Centrist parties are "launched" and never heard of again. It is symptomatic of Remain's weakness that many of its most forceful advocates - Blair, Nick Clegg, Andrew Adonis, George Osborne, Michael Heseltine - are outside the Commons.

There is also no guarantee, as Remainers privately acknowledge, that a second referendum would be won. "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. Rather than staging a new vote, some are alrady resigned to beginning a long campaign to rejoin the EU. Though much can change - and public opinion has never been more volatile - Remainers are short of that most precious resource: time. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge