by fugitive ink
Let me preface what will necessarily be a personal, subjective yet sustained pre-Brexit lament with a slightly alarming confession.
In 2001, I worked for several months on Iain Duncan Smith’s leadership campaign, and then for a few more months in the Leader’s Office at CCO. As a lifelong Tory who voted ‘Remain’ and who parted company with the party in September 2016, part way through Theresa May’s ‘citizen of the world’ speech, I now heartily regret this brief chapter of my life, realise it constituted monumentally bad judgement on my part, and wish it had never happened. Sorry, everyone.
My reason for reminding the world of this embarrassing interlude, however, has less to do with some random masochistic-exhibitionist personal quirk than it does with insisting on a more general historical point regarding Britain’s rupture with the European Union, which Theresa May has announced that she will trigger tomorrow.
Here it is: in 2001, even a famously Eurosceptic, ‘right wing’ campaign conducted first within the parliamentary Conservative Party, then within its grassroots, did not envision prying the UK out of the EU. It did not envision hard Brexit. In its darkest, weirdest, most extreme moments, it did not even begin to imagine the sort of enormity that Ms May will perpetrate on Wednesday.
Since leaving the Tory party and joining the ranks of the politically homeless, I have learned a lot. One of the things I have learned is that people from what might broadly be termed the mainstream left sometimes have some very strange notions about what goes on within what might broadly be termed the mainstream right. This isn’t intended as a criticism, by the way, so much as a rueful reflection; the right also misses plenty about the left, as I have discovered over recent months, including unexpected reserves of practical good sense, historical subtlety, humour and pragmatism.
Be that as it may, let’s clear up a few possible misconceptions about the IDS leadership campaign.
For a start, we were not all monsters, bigots, fascists or otherwise card-carrying evil people. Some of us were surprisingly normal. Indeed, to an extent that might surprise many, our campaign office — a few extremely messy, loud, computer-cluttered rooms in a small Lord North Street early Georgian townhouse — ‘looked like Britain’. Without going into detail, members of the campaign team were variously female, gay / bisexual, from religious or ethnic minority backgrounds, young as well as old, from different parts of the UK and the world beyond, possessed of wildly varying degrees of education, family wealth and social status. Like the Tory party itself, we were a broad church, and a tolerant one, too.
But the campaign was also a broad church in terms of political orientation. Sure, there were one or two people, all apparently charming in other ways, whose proleptic concerns regarding halal meat or ‘political correctness’ would now set alarm bells ringing. But there were also several of us who, like me, were long-time supporters of free migration and confessional diversity. There were people whose personal experiences of the NHS, state education, long-term unemployment or social exclusion were reflected in political convictions rarely associated with the (post) Thatcherite right. Social conservatism wasn’t very obvious, full stop. We spent a fair amount of time laughing at Edward Leigh behind his back, because he wasn’t really one of us.
I am also reminded, writing this, of 9/11, which took place during the leadership campaign, unfolding in its incomprehensible visual horror on the televisions tucked into the corner of the noisy Lord North Street offices. We had several people in the office with strong links to the USA, as well as several people far too young to have grown thick-skinned regarding the prospect of terrorist violence on our own shores. It was an emotional day, which we were probably lucky to have experienced amongst a group of friends. At the same time, though — and I am only spelling this out because it may come as a genuine surprise to some of my new-found pals on the left — I also recall a fairly bitter argument that evening with a fellow Tory who made a strong case, at a time when survivors were still being pulled from the burning wreckage of the Twin Towers, that the West in general, and the US in particular, had done a lot to bring this nightmare upon itself. He went on to be one of the few people I’ve ever met who opposed the Iraq war from the start.
The Duncan Smith campaign was avowedly Eurosceptic, but even here, there was plenty of variation. At the Parliamentary level, of course there was a hard core of long-time Europhobes — I mean Bill Cash and his ilk — if only because the one solitary thing anyone knew about Duncan Smith in 2001 was that he had been a Maastricht rebel of sorts. But the campaign team tended to regard these people as, well, blinkered, faintly embarrassing loons, definitely with an agenda of their own, to be kept at an arms’ length. More central were younger Europsceptics like Bernard Jenkin and Owen Patterson, who — at the time, anyway — were both less obsessive and more pragmatic. But then there were also people like Dominic Grieve and Oliver Letwin, whose views regarding the EU were always more obviously nuanced.
And as far as that goes, it is worth remembering what it meant to be a Eurosceptic back in 2001. Recently, for complicated reasons not relevant here, I re-read Alastair Campbell’s published diaries, including The Burden of Power: Countdown to Iraq, the volume that deals with the period 2001-2003. Even as someone who was around at the time, I’d forgotten the extent to which the adoption of a single European currency was, even then, a live issue. Despite the ERM debacle of 1992, it really did seem like a possibility — even, if one was that way inclined, an imminent danger. It caused tensions with the Labour leadership. And it was the issue of the European single currency, as much as anything, that probably defined which way Tories jumped, at least after the parliamentary stages of the 2001 leadership election. St Kenneth Clarke, whom Remainers like myself now revere for his bravery and resolution, wanted the UK to join the Euro. Duncan Smith, very definitely, did not.
That was what Euroscepticism meant. Do you see, now, how far May has brought us?
Let’s be clear about this. No one, during the course of that 2001 campaign, was arguing that we should leave the EU. No one was arguing that we should give up the Common Market. True, a lot of us wanted a looser, less standardised, less integrated Europe. We wanted a Europe that was more about free trade, liberal rather than corporatist, not over-burdened with fiddly regulations and tolerant of historic differences. I suspect, if our core campaign team had been fast-forwarded into the future and invited to peruse a speech by, say, Emmanuel Macron, we would have found very little to criticise in it. Some of us very much liked the idea of EU enlargement, if only as a way to mandate that looseness, the lack of standarisation and ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ variety. Although free movement wasn’t the issue then that it is now, quite a few of us saw it either as beneficial in practical terms — a way to keep employment markets vibrant and energised, to make up for low birth rates or generally ageing populations — or, perhaps, as a first step towards some libertarian utopia of free trade and free movement more generally.
My left-wing friends will doubtless be appalled by some of these goals, but we can, perhaps, at least agree on the concept that continued British engagement with the EU served some sort of constructive purpose, both for the UK itself and for the world more generally.
What takes even more of an effort of imagination these days, though, is to think oneself back to how that leadership election ended. Duncan Smith won. And — even when it became clear, as frankly had been the case for some time before the votes were even counted, that Duncan Smith lacked the qualities of leadership and judgement to deliver on any of our hopes and expectations— we really thought we’d achieved something useful. We had, self-evidently, settled the issue of Europe within the Conservative party for a generation — perhaps even forever. By demonstrating beyond argument that a charisma-free, intellectually limited, personally disorganised and badly-staffed unknown could defeat all sorts of proper candidates, purely because he did not want further European integration, we had paved the way for healing our painfully divided party. As we all know, the only way to end a civil war is through the outright, unconditional, total victory of one side over the other. Well, we’d done that. Next, we could turn our minds to creating a party capable of responding to the existential challenge thrown up by New Labour, a bunch of pragmatic centrists who, as it turned out, were actually very good at governing …
Parenthetically, if anyone reading this thinks I’m totally bonkers — perhaps addled beyond repair by the sheer trauma of the experiences described above — you don’t have to take my word for this narrative. There’s an excellent article in Parliamentary Affairs by Richard Hayton and Timothy Heppell called ‘The Quiet Man of British Politics: the rise, fall and signficance of Iain Duncan Smith’ (9 February 2010) that bears out many of my contentions, as well as presenting some very sensible conclusions regarding its subject.
Let me borrow, though, two apposite quotations from interviews carried out by Hayton and Heppell, the authors.
Here is what May said to the authors of the article, presumably c. 2010:
There were a lot of people who voted for Iain because they thought he would be sound on Europe and would put Europe centre-stage. And he didn’t: one of the first things he did was to park Europe as an issue.
And here is a quotation from Duncan Smith himself:
I made an edict, ‘I will not speak about Europe’ … . I didn’t think there was any point in talking about it really, because I didn’t think there could be anyone in Britain who didn’t know what our view was. Ironically, it [the message] had got through on that one, which is, that we didn’t want any more integration and we thought that the level of integration that we were at now needed serious review … . I cleared up the position over the single currency, and in actual fact we didn’t discuss it again for the whole time I was there.
And finally, let’s have the authors’ own conclusion, presumably also written in 2010:
With regard to internal unity, Duncan Smith helped to create the political space for Cameron to flourish by making a significant contribution to ending the fratricidal struggle over Europe. Duncan Smith hardened the position on the single currency to one of opposing membership in principle, and reduced the prominence of the politics of nationhood in Conservative discourse. In doing so, he contributed significantly to the transformation of Conservative politics in relation to European integration, to the extent that it no longer appears to be the defining issue it once was. It is no longer the source of critical party management problems for the leadership, nor is it the cause of discordant displays of disunity. In a move that seemed barely plausible even a few months earlier, in January 2009 the personification of Conservative Europhilia, Ken Clarke, was assimilated with hardly a murmur of discontent into the shadow cabinet. The ‘harder but quieter’ position embedded by Duncan Smith has contributed to the Conservatives maintaining a broadly consistent and unified Eurosceptic position. The neutralisation of this deleterious subject is a hugely significant ideological change in the Conservative Party, perhaps even signalling the tentative beginnings of a genuinely post-Thatcherite narrative of conservatism based upon different priorities and issues.
The point, here, isn’t to mock the authors for getting it wrong. If anything, it’s to gauge the scale of David Cameron’s achievement in managing, only a few short years later, to destroy Britain’s relationship with the EU, split the Conservative party and jeopardise the future of the Union, just as it’s to marvel at May’s achievement in ensuring that each and every one of Cameron’s disasters are exacerbated and, what’s more, rendered completely irreparable.
After the leadership election, the core campaign team all gradually went our own separate ways. Quite a few of us vanished from politics, for all the usual reasons why people vanish from politics: the demands of work, families, real life, or simply growing out of it. It is strange to think, now, that it’s been a decade since I’ve had anything to do with anyone from that campaign. But in a way, that tells its own story. At the time, it felt as if we were friends who had a lot in common — but actually, maybe we didn’t at all. Or maybe I just didn’t have much in common with them. Even at this distance, the answer isn’t obvious.
And now let us fast-track forward a little, to circa 2008-2014.
A few years before the Brexit vote was triggered, I used have lots of conversations with the father of one of my son’s school friends — let’s call him John — about politics, and in particular, the UK’s relationship with the EU. John is a classical liberal, but such an agreeably humane and unpredictable one that I was never sure until I asked where he stood on anything: gun control (against), immigration (very much for), party politics (varies). I have fond, bemused memories of standing on an crowded No. 19 bus, trying to calm over-excited six-year olds and placate grumpy tut-tutting elderly female passengers, while at the same time John asked me extremely thoughtful and complicated questions about Hayek or Friedman (elder and younger, both, please), to which I could never do any sort of justice whatsoever.
Here’s the point, though. We used to talk about how we would vote if there ever were a referendum on membership of the EU. John, I am pretty sure, was always clear that he’d vote Remain. Whereas, taking seriously my pantomime role as the bad-tempered Tory opposition to John’s eirenic liberalism, I would first of all object to referendums in general — they’re mob rule! indirect democracy is the only non-disastrous form of democracy! etc, etc — before chickening out, slightly, and saying that I’d decide when the time came, if only because even then we both worried that the campaign would turn out to be not about EU membership per se, but about immigration. And so it transpired.
But it took a while for the choice to be framed in these terms, which allowed me time to wonder a little. Again, I am being more honest here than perhaps is entirely sensible, but be that as it may — I did consider, briefly, voting Leave. Why? Oh, all sorts of not very laudable reasons: an aversion to Cameron’s smugness, for instance, the faint tidal pull of all that history on the Eurosceptic wing of the Tory party, and the knowledge that EU trading rules sometimes genuinely made it harder to trade with developing countries which probably could have used the economic boost.
But there were reasons to vote Leave that never, not even for a second, made sense to me. For example, many old friends of mine, variously ranged across the conservative / libertarian spectrum, seem to have voted Leave because they somehow hoped that, in the absence of EU strictures, the UK would immediately adopt a policy of unilateral free trade, free migration, vanishingly low taxes and — I am not making this up — in the case of one very dear friend, building more space ports. This did not seem to me a particularly likely outcome. No government, of any type whatsoever, would ever be able to make any of that, err, fly.
And then there was the purely existential reason, more an emotional state than an argument, best articulated by another old libertarian friend who recently, in the midst of a massive rant about why he was supporting Brexit and Trump, insisted repeatedly that what was good about both was that they would ‘blow everything up’ — in essence, quite a negative, nihilistic case. I puzzled over this for a while until someone on Twitter accidentally explained it to me — that this line of reasoning only works if one assumes that, out of total global meltdown, amidst all the protectionism and subsidies and curbs on immigration, what will emerge will be that variegated libertarian utopia of free trade and free movement mentioned above. But as a gut-level Tory who quite likes all those time-tested institutions, as well as gradualism, compromise, good manners and a functioning economy — who, in short, doesn’t think that things are all that bad right now — the emotional state reflected by my friend didn’t resonate with me.
So it was that, well before the referendum campaign was properly triggered, I had become an unshakeable Remain voter. And in a way, that a was ultimately a Tory thing too. Just as there are institutions that have arisen out of historical accident, that no one would sit down to invent in exactly that way today — the British monarchy, the Union, the BBC — that, nonetheless, work so so much better than any of the alternatives as to be worth retaining, if occasionally requiring renovation around the edges, our EU membership seemed to me to be an existing thing that worked. Of course it wasn’t perfect. I never lost my conviction that it could do with a bit of liberalisation, decentralisation, a warmer embrace of its own internal diversity and complexity. But at the same time, on a more practical level, I could see that it did a lot of good, even in fairly trivial ways.
It was hard, for instance, to see much of a future for the City of London without continued EU membership — yet directly or otherwise, the City has done a lot to shape my London life, not only through what it contributes to our national income, but also by attracting so many talented, interesting, life-enhancing people from all over the world to that short muddy bend in the Thames. My son’s London-based school is a very international one, but even the parents who aren’t Europeans by birth are often here in the UK on EU passports. It is the EU that makes those connections with a wider world possible. If my son has grown up viewing news stories that take place in Japan, Syria, Turkey, Russia or Ukraine not as something abstract thing happening far away to strangers, but rather as events with very direct implications for his friends, this has a lot to do with the ability of people with EU passports to live and work anywhere in the EU. For better or worse, he is, by instinct, a citizen of the world, purely by virtue of having spent so much of his childhood in London. I think this is a good thing.
But our Norfolk life is shaped by the EU and its freedoms as well. Our brilliant local cafe here is staffed almost exclusively with East Europeans, who — like so many of the agricultural and service sector workers here — are seasonal visitors to north Norfolk. The cafe’s owner has been very open about why he employs so many East Europeans: British people simply don’t want these jobs. I worry about what will happen to the farms here, to the open fields and long views, when the UK has to formulate its own policies on agricultural subsidies and set-aside, agricultural research, environmental protection and the use of chemicals, in the context of weakened sterling, a badly diminished tax base and a government that seems to think the only thing rural people want or need is a political discourse informed by UKIP-lite borderline racism. There is also a fair bit of poverty in rural Norfolk — more than casual visitors to the chocolate-box tourist villages ever realise — and it’s hard to see how the economic shocks will do them, or the elderly with their fixed incomes, any favours.
But again, there’s more to it than sheer practicality. Here in north Norfolk, we are closer to the pretty red brick architecture and tiled roofs of the Hague than we are to Exeter, Cardiff or Edinburgh. As I have pointed out previously, Norfolk’s history has always had as much to do with Europe as it has the rest of the UK — perhaps more. If Scotland and Ireland decide they can manage without London, can East Anglia — which, despite all those ‘Leave’ votes, probably feels more alienated from London than it does from the EU — be far behind in the push to break free of it? Is this not just the end of some sixty-year experiment, but in fact the end of more than a thousand years of English history?
This particular strand of anxiety may seem to have little to do with the mechanics of Brexit, its practical challenges and its execution, but that is actually precisely the point. We all, as Maurice Cowling put it, have our own narrownesses, but surely May, whose fault hard Brexit is, has more narrowness than most.
Indeed, May could almost be defined by the things that do not interest her. She has shown no obvious enthusiasm for agriculture, industry, the arts, education, sport, science, ecology, economics, defence, foreign policy, social policy, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the judiciary and rule of law, our unwritten constitution or indeed our national or regional history. That leaves, basically, not a lot — just policing (although the police don’t like her, as she does not believe either in paying them or giving them much discretion), security (particularly where it involves curtailing personal freedom), deporting people (she’s a fan), deporting Islamists (she’s a huge fan), immigration (she’s not at all a fan), Tory party internal management and, lastly, winning elections — although it must be said that since becoming prime minister, her enthusiasm for a general election has not been very evident either, despite something like 20-point lead in the polls, a spavined opposition and a better economic picture than she is likely to see for the next decade or so.
I confess that I’m still slightly baffled by May’s handling of Brexit. She was elevated to her current position amid deafening sighs of relief from a nation simply grateful that she wasn’t Andrea Leadsom. Next came a rather bizarre series of cabinet appointments, wherein she purged plenty of perfectly good ministers purely because they had some sort of tangential association with her arch-nemesis, glib public school boy George Osborne. This looked petty, vindictive and also marginally self-destructive. Odder still, she gave the ridiculous Boris Johnson one of the great offices of state, despite the fact that diplomacy is hardly one of his more obvious strengths. At the time, hopeful commentators flagged this up as clever tactics, thinking that a grownup’s job would deprive the famously lazy Boris of the chance to cause her domestic political trouble. With hindsight, though, as with Trump’s appointment of Rex Tillerson, it may actually just have been an instinctive ‘sod you’ gesture directed at the whole idea of international diplomacy. Meanwhile to Brexit itself, she harnessed an improbable troika: shambolic and widely-hated Johnson; the unclubbable, increasingly erratic David Davis; faintly ridiculous and comprehensively disgraced Atlanticist Liam Fox. Again, those of hopeful disposition praised her tactical cunning, telling us that if Brexit failed, upon these three would would fall the opprobrium. Nonsense. If — when — Brexit fails, the dented careers of three slightly nere-do-well Tory politicians are literally going to be the least of anyone’s problems. No one will care. No one will care the tiniest bit.
My real suspicion, though, is that May still regards the whole subject of Brexit as a matter of party management, first and foremost. The important thing is doing what keeps Tory core voters on side, or perhaps attracts substitute Tory voters, or scares and coaxes the parliamentary party into a sort of grudging unhappy compliance, or at any rate prevents the sort of meltdown that saw off Duncan Smith. Here it’s not so much that the bigger picture doesn’t interest May, as that she is fundamentally unaware of it. In short, she has taken Cameron’s basic mistake and elevated it into the presiding idea behind an entire premiership. But while Cameron — a just-in-time PM, reactive and contingent, having in turn learned all the wrong things from Blair, while taking none of the moral seriousness or plain old hard work on board — at least created disasters with the elegant casualness of a patrician gambler, May is so very, very earnest in her careful ineptitude. She must have dreamed of that cabinet purge for years. She must have so, so looked forward to that Vogue profile. The spiteful sentiments in that awful ‘citizen of the world’ speech are doubtless authentic, and very near to her heart. Its message, after all, was that being anything other than ordinary — by being foreign, making lots of money, thinking in a way that is cosmpolitan rather than narrow and sectional — was bad, undesirable, traduces the will of the people.
Well, doubtless this stuff appeals to someone out there. Whether it will still appeal once the economy has tanked, unemployed people are forced into the sort of exhausting and unrewarding physical work they have happily left for foreign folk for years now, normal things have become very expensive (which is already happening), assets like property sag in value, real wages lag behind prices, public services struggle in the context of diminishing tax receipts and an ageing population, global instability coexists with our diminished military capability and some deeply rebarbative ’empire 2.0′ rhetoric, we’re in thrall to a failing superpower headed up by a psychopath, everyone who can emigrates and the UK collapses into a generation of malaise, social disorder and disintegration, remains to be seen.
I am not optimistic about Brexit. I am particularly not optimistic about the May-style hard Brexit. A better government could have put together a detailed, plausible plan for a very serious re-negotiation of the terms of EU membership — enough to address many of the genuine concerns of ‘Leave’ voters, whilst ensuring access to EU markets for UK goods and services, continued defence and security cooperation, a reasonable solution to the issue of a land border on the island of Ireland, that sort of thing — and then put that to the electorate in a general election this spring in search of a mandate for such negotiation. Instead, as everyone keeps saying, correctly, we are being forced to leap into the unknown, led by people who not only patently have no idea what they are doing, but aren’t even all that interested in finding out. Parliament hasn’t been given adequate opportunities for scrutiny, the Dacre / Murdoch press shouts down criticism whilst revving up the xenophobia that in the end constituted ‘Leave”s strongest electoral asset, and the rest of us look on in absolutely horror, apparently powerless.
Another confession: one of my most frequent nightmares involves being out on the shore at night, in the dark, where I can just about see in the ill-lit distance a massive wave approaching, which is going to kill everyone, but no one seems at all interested, or sometimes I simply cannot move or even make a sound. In real world political terms, that is Brexit. How can we make ourselves wake up?
Of course plenty of other people are interested — which is why we’re experiencing a re-configuration of the political landscape to a degree not seen for decades. If someone had drawn me aside in that Lord North Street campaign office in the summer of 2001 and told me that, fifteen years hence, I’d be listening with enthusiasm and a sense of warm confraternity to the words of Tony Blair, Lord Heseltine, Kenneth Clarke himself — well, I wouldn’t have taken that very seriously.
On a similarly surreal note, since 2002 I have been working, on and off, on what is now a novella-length blog post with the working title ‘Unlikely heroes: in praise of Alastair Campbell’. In 2002, younger members of the congregation may need reminding, this title was joyously counter-intuitive, if only because a pretty broad swathe of people on the Left, more or less everyone on the Right, and most people in between regarded Blair’s combative, consequential yet enigmatic press secretary as anything but heroic. Today, however, at a time when anti-Brexit political leadership is sorely lacking — for our political leaders are, with the odd exception, my dream-people on the shore, cheerfully unaware of the wave about to sweep away their entire existence — Campbell (erstwhile busking piper in the south of France, writer of soft-core porn, tabloid journalist and professional friend of Sir Alex Ferguson) has once again reinvented himself, this time as the one man on earth with the relevant set of skills, contacts and personality characteristics necessary to take the fight to the Brexiteers. Strange days indeed.
It was Brexit, with hindsight, that eventually drove me out of the Conservative party. Heaven knows, it had annoyed me enough over many long decades. I was no great fan of the Maastricht Treaty, had my doubts about the prisoner release scheme attached to the Good Friday Agreement, and really disliked Michael Howard’s 2005 campaign, which was mostly about how awful immigration is. (From memory, Cameron was actually in charge of writing the manifesto for that one.) And indeed, I thought Cameron was a pretty rotten leader, with no particular obvious aim except the acquisition and retention of power as an end in itself — reactive and too easily spooked by the media — and arrogantly dismissive of the party membership, who are considerably less useless than most people assume. Well, as we’ve seen, I’ve got quite a lot of things wrong in my life, but I’m still happy to stand by that one. Yet as a wise friend recently remarked, all political parties are really coalitions. It seemed better to stay within the party and work to shift the balance inside it. I suspect that anyone who has engaged with party politics will understand this feeling all too well.
Theresa May’s 2016 conference speech was something different though, with its nudge-wink references to ‘citizens of nowhere’ and ‘global elites’ — not helped by Amber Rudd’s suggestion that employers should be made to publish lists of how many ‘foreign’ workers are on their payrolls, Liam Fox’s vision of a Britain redeemed by its sales of ‘innovative jams and marmalades’, or indeed briefings in which it became clear that the much-vaunted Great Repeal Act was in fact an enabling measure that would grant to the executive the power to delete laws (and hence rights) without recourse to parliament. With hindsight, it’s quite ironic that, back in 2002, party chairman May referred to the perception of the Tories as the ‘nasty party’. This stuff, though, excepting perhaps the bit about jam which was just silly, is more Nazi than nasty. Anyway I wasn’t going to associate myself with it any longer. I still have friends in the party, who are decent people, and I wish them good luck. But the Conservative party really isn’t my party any more.
By changing what is at stake in political terms, Brexit has genuinely shifted my politics. To the extent that left / right means anything these days, I am clearly some way to the left of my 2001 self. Part of that, no doubt, is the perfectly normal process by which normal human beings become a little less doctrinaire, a little more empathetic and pragmatic, as the years go by. We only have one shot at life — a realisation, I can promise you, that’s more obvious at 50 than it was at 30 — and so to take away someone’s chance to receive a worthwhile education, a satisfying career, adequate medical care, the scope for self-expression and self-knowledge, just for the sake of intellectual consistency or a higher ideology — well, that is a pretty unforgiveable thing to do, really. I do think that free markets tend to work better than state intervention, that capitalism is better than the alternatives, and that it’s generally good when government steps back and lets people get on with their own projects, as long as these don’t cause unacceptable harm to others — but at the same time I accept that there are grey areas galore here, that people who have made life choices based on expectations created by a welfare state really shouldn’t have to suffer arbitrary or unanticipated checks on those expectations, and that sometimes other things matter more than paying less tax.
And then there’s all the racism, xenophobia and free-ranging Little England bigotry that has somehow become entangled with the ‘will of the people’, so that monsters like Farage and Hopkins can now frame themselves as brave speakers of difficult home truths without everyone, of all possible backgrounds and nationalities, simply choking themselves on incontinent laughter. Today, this matters to me as much as matters of actual policy. It’s irresponsible for any serious political party to allow its tone, let alone its actions, to endorse the hatred of foreigners, or minorities, or anyone else.
The issue is a pretty basic one. Tony Blair, of all people, framed the problem accurately when he suggested that ‘left versus right’ has been replaced by ‘open versus closed’ as the central dichotomy of our politics. The genius of this formulation lies in its flexibility, because ‘open versus closed’ can address itself to international trade, defence and security policy, foreign aid — but also to how we feel about the guy sitting two rows ahead of us on the bus and the language in which he is speaking into his ‘phone, that random woman in the headscarf who feels uncomfortable after the bad-tempered old Sloane Ranger tells her off because her baby’s crying, or even that old friend whose political views have become rancid and our uncertainty about whether to turn away or to listen and try to understand.
Maybe I have changed. There are moments when my present-day politics probably align more closely with Blair’s — minus all that casual tinkering with the constitution, which annoyed me back then and annoys me still — than with those of any other living politician. And I don’t just mean Blair’s politics now — I mean his politics back in the late 1990s, as evinced in Campbell’s diaries as well as my own rose-tinted, possibly inaccurate memories of them. Whatever else he may have done, and whatever he necessarily got wrong along the way, Blair created a centrist movement that wasn’t afraid of building bridges or speaking to genuine anxieties, he took the practical business of governing hugely seriously, and — although people who simply can’t forgive him for Iraq might want to look away now — I genuinely believe that he tried to do the right thing, rather than just the easy thing, or the thing that would please the media, or gain a few more votes at the margins. Also, he didn’t destroy the Union, or trigger our departure from the EU. So, well, that’s good too.
To what extent should I feel bad about having made a lot of mistakes in the course of my political life? Who knows. It isn’t always easy to make one’s own convictions, priorities and anxieties align with those of any single political party, especially when most political parties are themselves riven with internal conflicts and personal blood-feuds. In the months since Brexit landed me amidst a whole host of new, left-leaning allies — at least several of whom may still want anything to do with me after reading this — one thing I have discovered is a thick vein of low-intensity small-c conservative instinct operating under the surface of the mainstream liberal left. Which is to say, having grown up in a place where a vaguely progressive, liberal but gradualist way of operating is pretty normal, these people quite like that situation and want it to continue. Meanwhile, on the right, people who have grown up in similar circumstances but who self-identify as conservative often want to conserve exactly that same vaguely progressive, liberal but gradualist order. Corbynists can and do hate this; so does my old Conservative friend who embraces Brexit because it will ‘blow everything up’. Here in the centre, though, it seems strangely easy, armed with human empathy and good manners, to cultivate an expanse of common ground. So for the moment, anyway, I think I’ll get on with trying to do just that.
No degree of soul-searching, though, will now protect any of us against Brexit. There is no point in listing all the things that aren’t properly thought through about it, or the catastrophes likely to befall us as a result of May’s cynicism and lack of vision. One could go on about the loss of the customs union, or the issues relating to agriculture, clearing, air travel and transport, or the fact that we probably need to cough up £50 billion just for the privilege of leaving our current advantageous setup — but what’s the point? Fewer and fewer people the UK feel anything positive about Brexit, as even the ghastly Daily Mail now admits. A year from now, it will be interesting to see whether anyone has anything positive to say about it at all.
The economic consequences are already with us, in the devaluation of sterling and its impact on the price of imported goods, but as economic shocks of this kind invariably hit the poorest hardest — particularly those on fixed incomes — an increase in social inequality and instability cannot be very far behind. This, though, is not what worries me most as May gets ready to trigger Article 50. What worries me is that her small-minded inflexibility, coupled with her dim idea that walking hand-in-hand with Trump is in any way a suitable substitute for EU membership, will between them contribute to the collapse of the current sixty years of peace in Europe.
Again, history matters here. It is easy to forget what the alternative to peace looks like in practice. It is particularly easy for my generation to forget that peace isn’t simply the default setting for human existence.
Other, older generations — or people of similar vintage but from different parts of the world — don’t have this problem. My parents’ generation was shaped by war. Perhaps, for my generation, that is why the reality of war is so hard to grasp. Just as some of us have a blind spot for the architecture, the clothes, the ways of cooking and speaking and thinking about the world that seemed normal and right to our parents, or to friends of our parents — the 1970s dinner party food, the casual racism, the sexual mores of a John Updike novel — that hard-won gut-level understanding of what war actually means can seem seriously alien, even off-putting.
I am reminded here of a dear friend’s father, a kind, intelligent and very likeable man now suffering from dementia. For several years now, whenever I have a chance to talk with him, within minutes the conversation has come round again to the same subject. He grew up in a city on the south coast of the UK during the Second Wold War. The city in question was very heavily bombed. He, and people whom he loved, endured some truly horrific experiences. He grew up in a world where people who mattered to him could, as quite a normal thing, be blown to unrecognisable, unrecoverable fragments overnight. I have known this man for decades, but it is really only since dementia has taken hold of him that the war has come to dominate his conversation in this way — yet it must always have been present in him, somewhere below the surface, and there is something very profound, moving yet terrible about the way it now seems to define him. Reduced to a stripped-down version of the complex, engaging and funny person he once was, it’s as if all that matters is communicating to another generation a single great fact — not that war is evil, which might be easier to accept, but rather that the Germans were evil — perhaps even that the Germans are evil.
Along similar lines, my mother always had a very ambivalent relationship with Japan. On the one hand, in common with more or less every civilised human being ever, she loved Japanese gardens, Japanese flower arranging, the formal asymmetries of Japanese art, and kept a well-worn copy of the Diary of Lady Murasaki by her bed. On the other hand, she absolutely hated the Japanese. The reason for this paradox was not hard to understand. Born in 1930, she was the daughter of a colonel in the US Army Air Corps (latterly the USAF), and I think it is right to say that the great love of her life was a US serviceman who had experienced horrific things as a prisoner of the Japanese during the war — experiences that damaged him, and in the years following the war led to his early and violent death.
In a far more watered-down way, these attitudes turn up in Lord Heseltine’s recent comments about how Brexit is wrong because, as he put it, Germany, having lost the Second World War, cannnot be allowed to win the peace. Born in 1933, three years after my mother, this veteran pro-European must always have been motivated less by warm affection for our near neighbours than by anxiety about what they might get up to, left to their own devices. And indeed, those old enough to remember the heady days of German unification will also recall those who, like Lady Thatcher and my mother, greeted the new state not with optimism, but with genuine foreboding. While I celebrated the demise of East German communism, the unlocking of all that marvellous potential, another generation saw only the potential for further German aggression, more violence, more deaths.
These attitudes trouble me. I don’t agree with them. It seems wrong — it always did seem wrong, even when I was a child — to hate a whole nation, particularly when so many of its people were born long after whatever actions generated that hatred in the first place. So it’s easy for me to assume that my lack of hatred is some sort of default state, while the hatred itself is an add-on occasioned by a particular set of bad experiences. It doesn’t take much imagination, however, to turn this particular cosy liberal certainty on its head, and wonder whether my own vision of Germany — a place I tend to associate with W. G. Sebald’s sense of humour, Gerhardt Richter and Anselm Kiefer, Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert’s Der Lindenbaum, Kraftwerk, Jurgen Klopp’s boundless charm, and a very good company from which I bulk-buy cat litter as well, of course, as the endless positive qualities of a number of actual German friends — may not itself be the product of an historical experiment which is, alas, about to come to an end.
May is no historian. I doubt she has ever paused to consider whether her nation’s pervasive myth of the Second World War is in fact an excuse to avoid thinking of something else entirely, which is the way in which Britain first gained and then lost an empire. I doubt she realises either that empire really wasn’t at all about free trade — pretty much the exact opposite, in fact — or that far from our own shores, memories of empire might still generate resentment and anger rather than a warm sense of shared history. My son, whose London-based school is so very international, has grown knowing that there are plenty of different narratives of the Second World War out there, not least because when he was six or seven and first discovering Second World War history, his friends included boys from Ukraine and China, as well as the proud and articulate descendant of a founder of the Indian National Congress party. (Hint: Indians often see Britain’s contribution to the war as distinctly unhelpful, while Ukrainians believe Britain’s involvement was so marginal as hardly to signify at all.)
Once again, I doubt May has had my son’s advantages in this respect. I doubt that May is very interested in Dresden, or the repatriated Cossacks, or the sort of Second World War references that might not raise a cheer from the floor at Tory party conference. And for all these reasons, I doubt that May understands the value of peace, the potential for it to go wrong at any moment, the true horror of what happens when the alternatives to peace start to play out in practice. That, surely, is why she can be so casual in her willingness to throw away our EU membership, in search of another few years in power, a few more ill-deserved votes. She literally has no idea how high the stakes here are.
Well, we all make mistakes. We all mythologise bits of history, improve them in the telling or simply forget them altogether. But in some cases, this matters more than in others. And when May triggers Article 50 tomorrow — something she doesn’t have to do, and indeed could decide not to do, because we all change our minds and think better of things sometimes — it is going to matter a lot, for all of us.