Skip to content

Grief and joy in a green and pleasant land

December 15, 2019

The election’s over, thank goodness. The birds are still singing, even if in my garden the songs of native birds are drowned out by the screeching of parakeets – a metaphor in the making. The land is still green, if a little soggy.

My country is leaving the European Union. The prospect is easier for me to accept than it might be, because I don’t consider being a remainer defines my personality or any other aspect of myself. I just think Brexit is a mistake, and in the coming months and years we shall find out how much of a mistake. Or maybe not.

It’s much harder for Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters to accept that the Momentum project is probably all over as well. They put their heart and souls into Corbyn’s programme, and I suspect that Labour’s policies are far closer to their self-perceived identity than Remaining is mine.

For this reason, it’s probably counter-productive to ram down their throats the suggestion that their leader and his policies, as well as his equivocal stance on Brexit, were responsible for Labour’s demise. That opinion may be correct, but his supporters will take some time to accept it. Accepting that you were mistaken in your beliefs is not something that happens overnight.

The same goes for Donald Trump’s supporters and the Republican Congress members, who seem to have acquired a cult-like belief in their President. The more you threaten a person’s belief, in my experience, the more you harden it. It’s a defence mechanism.

What now? If you supported Boris Johnson, you will rejoice that the prospect of five years in power. You will look forward to the benefits of Brexit. If you were one of the voters in the Labour heartlands who elected a Conservative for the first time in donkey’s years, you’ve put your faith in a government that you hope will improve your neglected area. You have responded to Boris’s message of hope and optimism. I hope, I genuinely hope, that he doesn’t let you down, though not to the detriment of others.

For those who didn’t vote for the Conservatives, of whom I am one, the task ahead is to oppose. Not against logic, nor against measures that are self-evidently fair and beneficial. Opposition – beyond the remit of the political parties – means holding the government to account, questioning the implications of policies, questioning motivation and not hesitating to call out impropriety and illegality of any kind, including corruption.

There are tools available to us that are more robust than those available to those who oppose Donald Trump. A judiciary that over the past three years has shown itself to be genuinely independent, and will remain so unless Johnson chooses to politicise it. A civil service that is also by tradition free of political affiliation. Likewise, security services that have no political agenda.

Over the next five years we shall see what Boris Johnson is made of. Is he a clever but shallow showman interested only what’s good for him, as many have suggested? If so, he will be disappointed, because power for its own sake soon loses its sheen. A man who wrote two letters before the 2016 referendum, one in favour of remaining in the European Union, and the other in favour of leaving, as if preparing for either argument in an Oxford Union debate, is not necessary a man of conviction. And without at least some basic convictions, the grind of political leadership will surely bore him in the long run.

Is he an empty vessel, a receptacle for the political convictions of others? It’s perhaps unfair to label him as the creature of Dominic Cummings. He had a career before Cummings. Political leaders have always used advisers. The best used them as sounding boards and devil’s advocates. The worst – Theresa May for example – seemed incapable of their own original thinking and relied on their advisers for every new initiative. A person without principles or convictions hitchhikes on the ideas of others. Theresa May at least had a moral core that guided her beyond expediency. Has Johnson?

Whatever lies at Johnson’s core – tungsten or jelly-baby – we shall have ample opportunity to find out. No greater test of his abilities will come than when he has to deal with a crisis. It could be the consequences of Brexit. It could be something entirely unexpected. If he hides in a fridge, or delegates the hard decisions to others, his credibility will quickly evaporate. And if such a crisis were to bring him down, we would be left with a new Prime Minister who has not been tested by the electorate. At that point, wherever we are in the five-year term, there would be overwhelming pressure for another election, as Alec Douglas-Home and Gordon Brown discovered.

The next five years are fraught with peril for any number of reasons – Brexit, the rivalry between Russia, the US and China, instability in South East Asia and the Middle East, climate change and the stability of the United Kingdom itself. The men and women elected as the governing party would do well not to gloat over the woes of the defeated.

As for the Labour Party, the period of reflection promised by Jeremy Corbyn, if left in the hands of those who currently control the party, is likely to focus on practicalities rather than principles. Having fought for decades to grasp the levers of power, the ideologues who propelled Corbyn to the leadership will not give up that power easily.

Labour would do well to reflect on its hard-wired definitions of political purpose. In an age of atomised identity – leave and remain, North and South, big city and small town, England and the other nations of the Union – is it still relevant to speak of a working class, of the many and the few, of public ownership and a “Labour Movement”?

I don’t know the answer, but instead of obsessing over left and centre, and to past allegiances to Corbyn and Blair, Labour needs to focus on the here, the now and the future. If a “movement” inspired by ideological faith can’t attract the support of the electorate, how can the party create a coalition of beliefs, tailored to the likely challenges of the next five years, that will attract, if not always inspire, bus drivers in Consett and hipsters in Dalston?

To use a religious analogy, what does it take for Catholics, Evangelicals and traditional Anglicans to work together as Christians, or for Sunni, Shia and Ahmadis to respect each other as Muslims?

I suspect that most people who have voted Labour in the past have their own idea about what the party meant to them when they voted for it. “My Labour” in other words. I certainly do. I imagine that Kier Starmer, a former Director of Public Prosecutions and Denis Skinner, a former miner, do as well. Our belief systems are born of our life experiences and those of the communities in which we were raised. Each is different – in some cases radically so – but not necessarily incompatible. The successful political parties are those who find common cause rather than shared faith. Only then do they have a chance of power.

There will be plenty of opportunities for the new government to fall down holes they will have dug for themselves. What Labour needs to do, before it can resume the role of an effective opposition, is to think carefully about who “we” are, and to agree what it’s for rather than be defined by what it’s against. And most importantly, accept that what “we are for” will change as the world changes, rather than remain enshrined in an immutable scripture.

The same goes for the Liberal Democrats, who face an equally uncertain future.

I am of a generation that’s closer to the end of life than the beginning. I see beginnings all around me – a grandchild, the grandchildren of friends. I don’t know how many more general elections I will take part in. But what I do know is that I’ve had a good life, and I want the same for my kids, their kids and everyone else’s kids. For me, that’s not a belief. It’s a responsibility, even if in my case it’s imperfectly discharged.

If I get to vote again in a future election, my vote will go to whichever party can prove to me, in actions as well as words, that they share, and have the policies that can best fulfil, that responsibility. From that principle, everything else follows.

From → Politics, UK

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: