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J’Accuse! The guilty men and women of the Brexit debacle

Afer this humiliating failure for our political class, we need a new constitutional settlement. 

Roll up, roll up for the Brexit blame game, it’s waiting to take you away.

Not since Robert Walpole became the first prime minister 298 years ago has this country seen such a prolonged and deep political crisis. Not since the struggle between Catholic and Protestant factions calmed in Britain (if not in Ireland) after the 17th century has there been so much deep intolerance, hatred and violence simmering just below the surface. Whatever happens in the next few weeks and months, we can confidently expect the anger and aggression to deepen still further.

Hundreds of books will be written about why Britain’s relationship with the European Union became so deep and divisive. In truth though, it is not hard to see why. Membership of the EU goes to the very heart of national identity and people’s sense of personal security. It is not just about what people think or where they perceive their economic interest to lie; it is about who they are. It is precisely because people’s views on the subject are often not based on reason that we find it so hard to understand and respect the views of each other.

To me, and I suspect many New Statesman readers, remaining in the EU, for all the disappointments with aspects of it, was a no-brainer. When Britain entered the EU in 1973, it was known as “the sick man of Europe” and had a stagnating economy marred by an inflexible manufacturing sector and labour disputes. By the time it voted to leave, Britain had become a dynamic service-based economy, the fastest growing in the G7. It led the world in soft power, London was the number-one capital in the world and Britain had acquired a reputation as one of the most creative, open and tolerant nations on earth. Why risk all this? How could the EU be such an incubus if all this occurred during Britain’s membership? This was the argument that No 10 should have made during the referendum campaign. But to others, membership looked very different. They either don’t see the truth of these facts, or they believe that other factors such as the purity of national sovereignty trump them.

This was a national quarrel long in the making. To blame David Cameron for calling the referendum misses the point. The issue would not have gone away. It would have broken through the nation’s political crust to explode in 2020 or 2025, and possibly even more dangerously for the suppression. The best we can do is to civilise and shape the anger, and ensure that not only the settlement with Europe but the British constitution emerges in much better shape. Because, by the early 21st century, the British political settlement that emerged after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 had become fundamentally no longer fit for purpose. As with the United Nations, it needs radical reform if our nation is to be preserved and to flourish.

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Like many Remainers, I have been repeatedly disappointed by our politicians over the previous 40 years for failing to negotiate a settled “outer rim” status for Britain within the EU. We could have removed ourselves from the drive to ever greater political and economic union, but done so in a way that allowed us to benefit from the trading, cultural, social and security benefits of belonging to a bigger club as the world re-pivots on to a new bipolar axis.

The 2016 referendum was a chance to have conducted a civilised national debate about the issue that had been the dominant divide within the Conservative Party since Britain’s first application in 1961, and an increasingly divisive issue within the Labour Party. Instead of a high-minded and empirical debate, No 10 chose to personalise the campaign, focusing on narrow economic factors while seeking to demean those on the other side. “Stop demonising Brexiters: their side is full of good people who have serious concerns about the EU,” I wrote to Cameron’s team in early June 2016. “We hear you,” the message came back.

But they didn’t hear me. They intensified their pugilistic, distorted and negative campaign still more as polling day approached. “Project Fear” was a stupid schoolboy error that brought discredit to Remain. Thursday 16 June was the last moment when sanity could have been re-established. On that day, shortly before 1pm, Thomas Mair shot and fatally stabbed the 41-year-old Jo Cox. She was the first sitting MP to be murdered since the Conservative, Ian Gow, who was assassinated by the Provisional IRA in 1990. Cox’s murder was utterly shocking and should have been a wake-up call to the dark forces that were in play. But after a brief pause, the referendum circus rolled on, and exactly a week later Vote Leave won by the slim margin of 51.9 per cent to 48.1 per cent.

Nearly three years later, we are little clearer about how we will leave the EU or our future relationship with it. Eighty-one per cent of voters now think the government is handling negotiations badly, according to recent NatCen polling. In the short term, our economy is holding up, but the miasma and battles of the past three years have meant that the government has taken its eye off the ball of many pressing issues such as housing, education and crime, while achieving, it would appear, little or nothing. Above all, little planning has taken place for how to bring the nation together after this, and how to heal the divides. During the Second World War, government had for several years been engaged in planning economically, socially and culturally for post-war Britain. Today, the cupboard is bare.

We have to analyse who has been responsible for this national humiliation, which easily eclipses any other crisis since 1945, including Suez in 1956, the devaluation of 1967, the IMF crisis in 1976, Black Wednesday in 1992 or the Iraq War in 2003. As Winston Churchill said on the front cover of Guilty Men, written notably by Michael Foot but published in 1940 under the pseudonym “Cato”, “the use of recriminating about the past is to enforce effective action at the present”. There is a place, he was saying, for apportioning blame.

Cato’s 15 targets in 1940 were the British politicians who appeased Nazi Germany and failed to do more to rearm Britain in the 1930s. Guilty Men rode a tide of national anger that shaped popular and scholarly thinking for 20 years, but is now seen as jejune and unbalanced. The risks of the blame game are significantly greater in 2019 than in 1940 because our national energies are not being expended on fighting a common enemy: given the right inflammatory material, fanned by our febrile social media, uncontrolled blame can turn citizen against citizen and community against community.

Stability in our island nation hangs today on the slenderest of threads. Labour MP Wes Streeting’s response to Theresa May’s tone-deaf appeal to the nation on Wednesday 20 March, in which she appeared to be encouraging the country to turn on its parliamentarians, should be heeded: “Her speech was incendiary and irresponsible. If any harm comes to any of us, she will have to accept her share of responsibility.”

The menacing messages and death threats received by former Labour MP Luciana Berger, former Conservative MP Anna Soubry and Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle, attacked in his own constituency in Brighton, show Streeting’s caution is well placed. Why do we tolerate this violence and hatred, and why is it disproportionately targeted against women? It is deeply troubling. The more we tolerate the venting of hatred and blame, the more those of unstable or hate-filled minds will be tipped into violence. How many deluded figures have been inspired by the far-right extremist who killed 50 in Christchurch in March to enact similar acts of hatred on our own shores? Blame can be a dangerous game.

So we must be very careful apportioning it, and do so only with circumspection. Just a few names are singled out here, all people of power. Prime among those guilty of the sin of deceit is Dominic Cummings, who came off lightly in James Graham’s television play about Brexit, The Uncivil War. So consumed was Cummings by his cause that he lost all sense of what was true and fair. For the sin of distortion, blame is primarily placed on press moguls, whose newspapers for many years painted the EU in a relentlessly disparaging light, prime among them being Rupert Murdoch, the Telegraph owners the Barclay brothers, and Paul Dacre, former editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail. Those cheeky bad-boys of Brexit, Nigel Farage and Arron Banks, knowingly whipped up fear of immigration in pursuit of their goal.

Some rich people piled money into the Brexit cause out of personal greed, callously disregarding that the least advantaged in the country would be the most likely to suffer. For a deficit of leadership Jeremy Corbyn must be named for singly failing to define a clear and principled strategy for Labour on this crucial issue, favouring gamesmanship. David Cameron too failed to lead the nation as a statesman, choosing instead a negative and belittling campaign devoid of values that offered no grand vision of how remaining and being a world power would best guarantee Britain’s future strength and security. The establishment at large failed to heed the growing concerns of the disaffected across the country, to the loss of all.

But the standout candidate for the sins of gloating, hubris and frivolity is Boris Johnson, the amoral MP for Uxbridge who believes he is the spiritual heir to Winston Churchill. He failed Remainers, moderate Brexiteers and the nation.

Others can, have and will blame a whole range of people. Theresa May is in the sights of many (a worrying metaphor). To others, it is parliamentarians or the Commons Speaker, John Bercow, who are most in the line of fire. To others it is the civil service, including its late head Jeremy Heywood, who died just before Christmas, and chief negotiator Olly Robbins who are the targets. The EU, above all the unholy trinity of Jean-Claude Juncker, Michel Barnier and Donald Tusk, are on the hit-list of many. To the Full English Brexit tendency, such as the European Research Group, anything less than a full-blooded Leave is a betrayal. If their romantic ideal of a return to Britain in the 1950s, or 1850s, fails to materialise, all are guilty – all bar them.

Roll up, roll up for the Brexit blame game, it’s waiting to blow you away.

 

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Britain badly needs statesmen of deep humanity and imagination to steer us into the next phase of our history. The first Truth and Reconciliation Commission was held in Uganda in 1974, which sought to bring together the deeply divided country to inquire into the disappearance of its citizens since 1971. Most famously, South Africa’s commission was formed in 1995 in the aftermath of apartheid. We will need figures of the stature of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu if we are to heal our nation after Brexit is over. We will need to seek the truth about the deceits and dishonesty that have taken place, but without retribution, and in the spirit of building a new nation.

Because nothing less than rebuilding the nation is required. We need to reunify around a common set of values. At present, it is hard to say what beliefs if any unite a fisherman in Newlyn, Cornwall, a computer programmer in Cardiff and a social worker in Inverness. The strong possibility is that Scotland will become a separate nation within the EU: if, however, it is to remain part of the UK, much more has to be found to unite us. Leaving the EU nudges Ireland two green clicks further towards reunification, and we will need to work hard to build new bonds of friendship in that tortured relationship across the Irish Sea. The Queen has been a major unifying force for nearly 70 years. Not for much longer. What then? Only with her death will we realise the full loss of her cohesive force.

Britain needs a new constitutional convention, the likes of which we have not seen since for 330 years. As the historian David Starkey has argued, such a new settlement is required to determine whether we should be a parliamentary or popular democracy. As we approach the 200th anniversary of the Great Reform Act of 1832, we must ask why we still require the electorate to travel to polling booths to vote, and explore how the new digital technologies allow altogether more immediate ways of ensuring that we have a living democracy.

Next year marks the 150th anniversary of William Gladstone’s reforms establishing the modern civil service. It has served the nation extraordinarily well, and as with our independent judiciary, we should guard it against politically motivated attacks from hot-headed partisans. But both the judicial and executive branches need to be better representations of British society today, and the civil service needs to ensure it is stronger in long-term and proactive thinking. The game-changing issues of artificial intelligence, global warming and future employment need to be more deeply understood and anticipated than at the present. Brexit was yesterday’s battle, fought with yesterday’s weapons. Parliament too needs root and branch reform, above all to the upper house, if it is to serve the country properly.

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Britain is at its most precarious point since the threatening days of 1939-40 when Nazi invasion was a real possibility, or the winter of 1916 after the abject failure at the Somme to achieve its objectives. We have trashed our Prime Minister, now a diminished figure, without any clear understanding of who might succeed her or what their fresh policy prospectus might be. In December 1916, David Lloyd George replaced the failing Herbert Asquith while holding a new plan for winning the war. In May 1940, Churchill replaced the failing Neville Chamberlain with a determination to take the war to Germany. In January 1957, Harold Macmillan replaced Anthony Eden after Suez, again with a new plan for national recovery.

Today, we have no one of the stature of Lloyd George, Churchill or Macmillan. And there is no plan on the table, or lurking underneath it. Our greatest folly would be to imagine that Britain is destined to remain a great, united nation and an economically strong nation. Italy, Spain and the Netherlands all rose and fell. So too might Britain. If we let blame run rife, we will rip ourselves apart. Three things are needed: statesmen, a truth and reconciliation commission, and a new constitutional convention.

Roll up, roll up for the national blame game, it’s dying to take you away. 

Anthony Seldon is the vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham and is writing the upcoming book “May at 10”, a history of her premiership

This article appears in the 29 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Guilty