Candidates oddly reluctant to take helm of sinking ship headed for the rocks

Like the young woman from Glasgow, who raised the issue that will shape politics not only in Britain but the rest of the world for the foreseeable future – the climate emergency – I was not impressed by any of the candidates for conservative leader (and hence, prime minister) in last night’s debate; though it took some reflection to work out why.

I had, unusually for me, spent half an hour that morning voluntarily listening to BBC Radio 4 instead of switching to Radio 3 as soon as my wife was out the door because I found myself spellbound by Jonathan Sumption’s final Reith Lecture. Sumption, formerly a Justice of the UK Supreme Court, demonstrates that in an age of vacuous blether it is still possible to speak lucidly on complex matters, to be both intelligent and intelligible (unlike the current US president, who is neither). His subject was Britain’s unwritten constitution. His somewhat chilling concluding remarks are worth quoting in full:

‘Prophets are usually wrong, but one thing I will prophesy; we will not recognise the end of democracy when it comes, if it does. Advanced democracies are not overthrown, there are no tanks on the street, no sudden catastrophes, no brash dictators or braying mobs, instead, their institutions are imperceptibly drained of everything that once made them democratic. The labels will still be there, but they will no longer describe the contents, the facade will still stand, but there will be nothing behind it, the rhetoric of democracy will be unchanged, but it will be meaningless – and the fault will be ours.’ ( read full transcript here)

‘Meaningless rhetoric’ characterised much of what we heard from the five candidates last night: they were cloyingly polite to the selected members of the public who posed them questions, chummy amongst themselves – all first names and freely acknowledging each other’s worth (‘Saj makes a good point there’) but you would not have thought these were five men bidding for the position that would incidentally make them leader of the country –- the whole thing was curiously muted. They often talked over one another, producing an unintelligible gabble, but voices were not raised and there was no discernible passion. There was an overall lack of conviction, like a group of actors rehearsing a script that each of them knows is a stinker. They were, like the man swimming in a sewer, merely going through the motions.

 

It was only later, in a moment of sudden insight, that the reason for this curious lack of conviction dawned on me: each of them knows that, no matter who wins, they are embarked on a disastrous course from which they cannot turn back. It is quite possible that whoever emerges as victor will be not only the last Conservative Prime Minister but also the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

The positions put forward by the candidates in last night’s debate were neither to win the approval of their colleagues in the conservative parliamentary party nor for that part of the national TV audience that were actually watching (my brother texted me to say I was missing an excellent game in the Women’s World Cup between Brazil and Italy). They were addressed to the only audience that actually had a say in the matter, the ones who will ultimately decide, the conservative constituency associations (whose member ship totals around 124,000).

And each of the candidates knew that, in addressing that constituency, there were certain things that must be said and, more importantly, left unsaid. Brexit must be delivered, ideally by the 31 October. The only real question was who was best equipped to deliver it. The idea that it might not be a good idea at all and that perhaps we should think again could not be mentioned; nor could the fact that changing the British Prime Minister did not materially alter the situation vis-a-vis the EU: there is no scope for further negotiation of the withdrawal agreement; the Irish backstop cannot be removed or time-limited.

Only Rory Stewart came near to pointing out that there was no scope for further negotiation and no time to do anything by October 31st, but even he baulked at stating openly what all of them know, that leaving the EU is a bad idea that will harm the British economy, damage business and lose jobs as well as greatly weakening our standing in the world: any trade deal we try to strike as an individual country with any of the major economic powers – China, the USA, India and indeed the EU itself – will be negotiated from a position of weakness.

These things have been stated by members of the Conservative party, but only by yesterday’s men, the now toothless big beasts such as John Major, Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine who are very much fringe spectators, not active participants. The more generally voiced attitude expressed by the mainstream of the parliamentary party is that ‘we just need to get on and do it’ – a classic piece of political chicanery to take a phrase that resonates with millions of ordinary people and misapply it. There are a great many people (most of them women and mothers, I would venture) who are all too familiar with the daily necessity of ‘just getting on with it’, who know that, no matter what calamity has befallen, the daily necessities need to be attended to –children still need to be got up and fed and sent to school, money must be earned to pay the bills and put food on the table.

However – and this is the crux of the matter – they do not use that expression when they find themselves convinced that they have been following the wrong road for some time and that somewhere in the mist up ahead it goes over a precipice.

What you say then is not, ‘we must just get on’ but rather ‘stop! we are going the wrong way! we must turn back!’

What I saw last night, I think, was the  realisation dawning on all five candidates that the moment when any of them might have said that has passed: each is now committed to following a course that none of them believes in.

Remain in good heart

The general representation of the recent European election results shows a lack of penetration on the part of our media which has become sadly familiar. The election is presented as a remarkable triumph for the newly-formed Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage, which captured nearly 32% of the votes and won 29 of the 73 seats.

Leaving aside for the present the corollary that if less than a third voted for the Brexit party, more than two-thirds of the votes must have gone elsewhere, let us consider first where Brexit’s votes came from.

In the previous European election in 2014, UKIP, the party then led by Farage, took nearly 27% of the vote, winning 24 out of 73 seats, the result that terrified the Conservatives into making a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on EU membership. In the same election, Labour (20) and Conservative (19) took a combined total of 39 seats and had just over 48% of the vote between them, while the Liberal Democrats (1 ) Greens (3) and SNP (2) won a total of 6 seats and took nearly 17% of the vote.

In the present election, UKIP won no seats and took only 3.56% of the vote, a drop of over 23%. If we assume, not unreasonably, that Farage’s Brexit Party has effectively replaced his earlier UKIP party in the eyes of his followers, then his gain in this election amounts to 5 seats (29 against the 24 of UKIP last time) and a vote-share increase of nearly 5% (just under 32% compared to UKIP’s near 27% last time).

At the same time, the combined Conservative (4) and Labour (10) share of seats fell to 14, and their combined vote (8.68+14.08 ) to just under 23%, a loss of 25 seats and 25% of the votes.

Since there are strong Leave factions among both Conservative and Labour voters, it is reasonable to assume that Farage’s gain of 5 seats and 5% in 2019 came from them.

At the same time, three parties which had an unequivocal pro-Remain stance – Liberal Democrat (16 seats, 18.53% of the votes) Green (7 seats, 11.1% ) SNP (3 seats, 3.34%) took a combined total of 26 seats and 33% of the vote, an improvement over their 2014 showing of 21 seats and 16% of the votes.

In fact, every party with an unequivocal pro-Remain stance improved their share of the vote (with the exception of Sinn Fein, fractionally down) and combined to take a total of 29 seats (the additions being Plaid Cymru, Sinn Fein and the Alliance party, 1 apiece) and some 39% of the vote (with the addition of Change UK and the SDLP, who took no seats).

By comparison, Brexit’s gain was, as we have seen, largely UKIP’s loss, and even with the addition of various sorts of Ulster Unionist, the unequivocally pro-Leave vote amounted to around 36%.

So, Remain in good heart. There is not now, nor has there ever been, a majority of the British people in favour of leaving the EU.

 

Speech for an imagined leader

‘Mr Speaker, it is past time for someone to tell the truth to this House, and the British people, in the face of the tide of falsehood that has engulfed us since 2016.

Much has been made in recent months of the fact that 80% of the electorate voted in the last election for parties that made a manifesto commitment to honour the result of the referendum. Leaving aside the fact that it has been the norm for the past hundred years for the great majority to vote for the same two parties, let us start by doing something that everyone here on a daily basis claims to do yet few if any have actually ever done, namely, respect the referendum. 

If you respect someone, you pay attention to what they tell you – the same rule, I suggest, can be applied to referendums.

What the referendum of 2016 tells us is that the majority of the electorate – some 62% – expressed no desire to leave the European Union. In other words – despite what many in the House have asserted to the contrary – there was not then, nor is there now – nor indeed has there ever been – a majority of the British people in favour of leaving the European Union, an institution from which this country, along with all our European neighbours, has benefited economically, culturally and in terms of national security for the last 45 years to an extent that far outweighs any drawbacks, real or imagined, that may be attributed to it.

That is the truth that this House must acknowledge.

While we are on the subject of telling the truth, let me say in passing that the 2016 referendum was not, by any measure, ‘the greatest democratic exercise in our history,’ whatever others may claim. Numerically, more people took part in the 1992 election – 33.6 million; proportionally, a far greater percentage of the electorate – 83.9% – voted in the 1951 election, and indeed the 2016 referendum, at 72.2%, is very slightly below the average for UK votes from 1918 to 2017. 

2016 is not even the greatest single-issue vote in our history, short though that history is – there have only been three such. In 1974, some 17.4 million people – 43% of the electorate – voted to remain in Europe; the same number voting to leave in 2016 was less than 38% of the electorate.

I mention this only because day in and day out, members of the ERG and their cronies assert this falsehood and media commentators uncritically repeat it; as recently as last week, the Prime Minister herself broadcast the same false claim in her speech to the nation from 10 Downing St. It is no light matter to mislead the people in this fashion, and those who do so should be ashamed of themselves.

So just before it is too late, Mr Speaker, let us now agree that, in what was not, in fact, the greatest democratic exercise in our history, the overwhelming majority of the British people did not, in fact, vote for Brexit: the reverse is true. Only a minority – 17.4 million out of an electorate of 46.5 million, a population of 65.5 million – expressed a desire to leave at that time.

Mr Speaker, I would suggest that the figure now is smaller still, since the reality of Brexit has begun to dawn on everyone: it does not mean 350 million pounds a week for the NHS any more than remaining in Europe meant 80 million Turks joining the EU – two falsehoods that can be directly attributed to a leading member of the ERG, the member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip. It has not proved ‘quick and easy’ – as the member for Wokingham said it would – because, contrary to what he claimed, the UK did not ‘hold most of the cards in any negotiation’. Nor has the Free Trade Agreement proved ‘the easiest in human history’ as the member for North Somerset said it would. On the contrary, two and a half years of misdirected effort has seen us arrive at a stalemate that makes the government and this House look ineffectual to the point of ridicule.

In the meantime, billions have been spent – and some of it misspent – in preparing for the no-deal scenario that most are agreed will be economically disastrous for the country and will leave our citizens considerably worse off than they ever were in Europe. In anticipation of this disaster, large-scale enterprises are abandoning us in droves, while businesses that cannot afford the luxury of removing face the prospect of chaos and possible ruin as we cut ourselves off from our largest single trading partner – and all because no-one in this House has had the courage to give the lie to the oft-repeated claim that this is what the British people voted for.

Mr Speaker, they did not.

And if the Prime Minister is sincere in her intention to break the deadlock – and she may be – then she could do worse than to heed the wise words of the member for North East Somerset,  spoken in this House, that ‘we could have a second referendum – that it might make more sense to have one when the renegotiation is completed’.

Mr Speaker, there is one further falsehood we need to expose and then we are done. The referendum of 2016 was not – as some in this House have foolishly asserted – like a football match or similar contest where the winner takes all. Its nature is quite other – to quote Commons briefing paper 7212  (which I take it you are all familiar with, since it gives the background to the European referendum bill)  ‘It does not contain any requirement for the UK Government to implement the results of the referendum, nor set a time limit by which a vote to leave the EU should be implemented. Instead, this is a type of referendum known as pre-legislative or consultative, which enables the electorate to voice an opinion which then influences the Government in its policy decisions.’

That is critical: the value of the referendum is as an index of public opinion on a specific matter; in itself, it is nothing – its worth is entirely in what it points to. But what does it point to? From the outset, some have maintained vigorously, even violently, that it tells us that the British people – and always they use that all-encompassing phrase, so resonant of national unity – that the British people, rather than 17.4 million of the British people, who number 65.5 million –  that the British people voted to leave the EU.

Yet strangely, the same people who are so keen to assert that the British people voted to leave the EU are adamant in their refusal to allow the British people any further say on the matter. Why is that?

If you claim that leaving the EU is what the British people want, why would you shy away from the easiest means of demonstrating that your claim is true? Surely, at this critical time, you should be clamouring for a second referendum which – if what you say is true – would serve only to confirm the first?

Aye, Mr Speaker – there’s the rub: a second referendum would indeed confirm what the first has already told us, that the great majority of the British people have no desire to leave the European Union.

The reason why we must have a second referendum – a People’s Vote, if you like – is not that the people have changed their minds, but that they still think the same: that despite the dishonesty and venality of some sections of the press (and, I am sorry to say, of this House) and the pusillanimity of those in this House and the media who have failed to challenge the false narrative promoted by the Brexit propagandists, the British people are still convinced that we will be far better off remaining in the European Union than leaving it.

And, unlike those yammering on the benches opposite, that is a claim I will gladly put to the test. Let us ask the British people what they want – without delay.’

Time to stop this ‘Carry on’

Careless talk, as the war time poster tells us, costs lives.
9781844861293 It may not have reached that point yet, but there is no doubt that what the Prime Minister sloppily calls ‘the Brexit process’ has been bedevilled from the outset by much talk that is careless and some that is down right lying.

And as for Fougasse’s warning that ‘you never know who’s listening’ – well, in our case, we know who isn’t.

It is not ‘the Brexit process’ that the British public are tired of, nor are they deeply frustrated (as Mrs May seems to think) by MPs’ failure to support her deal. What they are tired of is the sorry concatenation of errors and misjudgements, most of them made by the Prime Minister personally, which has seen her commit the country to a timetable it could not hope to meet by prematurely invoking Article 50 – something that she did not need to do – then calling a General Election (again, something she did not need to do and indeed said she would not) in the mistaken belief that she would increase her majority, only to find herself reliant on the goodwill of the DUP; then, having committed the country to an unrealistic course and weakened further her ability to deliver what she had promised, instead of admitting failure and accepting responsibility, she simply carries on.

It is ironic that ‘Carry On’ – best known as the title of a succession of uniquely British film farces – should have become Mrs May’s sole strategy. It becomes apparent, on the promised date before Christmas, that her Withdrawal Deal will not gain the support of Parliament; her solution? Postpone the vote and carry on. When the vote is held and she suffers a defeat of historic proportions, what does she choose to do? Carry on. When, unsurprisingly, the same proposal meets the same fate a second time, what does she think it best to do? Carry on. When the Speaker points out that parliamentary precedent does not permit her to put to the House the same matter that it has already rejected, her highly original solution is to carry on.

Last night, in response to the Prime Minister’s attempt to blame the crisis on everyone but herself, one Brexit type said that to delay ‘would be a betrayal of the 17.4 million’ (who voted for Brexit). Up and down the country, people must have been urging the the interviewer to make the obvious response –‘yes, but what about the 48 million?’ that is, the remainder of the population – the great majority of the British People so often invoked in this debate but so little heeded – who have expressed no desire to leave the European Union but who will suffer the consequences of the government’s insistence on heeding only the wishes of an ill-informed and misguided minority. Sadly, with the ineptitude that has characterised the great majority of our political journalists, the interviewer failed to raise the point.

If there is one thing to be singled out from the great many that the British People are tired of, Mrs May, it is your contradictory insistence that leaving the EU is something the British People want and your refusal to give them any voice in the matter. Of course, you are not alone in that – the entire Brexit camp claims to be acting to implement the will of the people yet are curiously unwilling to put that claim to the test.

What they know, of course, is what the referendum of 2016 has told us all along – that there never has been a majority of the British People in favour of leaving the EU: at most, only 17.4 million – 38% of the electorate, 26% of the population – wish to do so; I think it highly likely that the number is even smaller now.

Yes, the British People made a mistake in 2016 – many of them complacently assumed that the vote was a foregone conclusion, that we would never be so daft as to abandon something so self-evidently beneficial for something that we had no clear idea of (and we still have none).

But that was one mistake – given the myriad blunders that you have committed since, Mrs May, I do think you owe it to the British People – on whose side you claim to be – to give them the opportunity to correct it.

The petition I signed last night when it had around 160,000 signatures now has (about twelve hours later) more than 700,000 and rising steadily (depite an interval when the Petitions site was down, which I hope was due to nothing more sinsister than overload). It calls on you to revoke Article 50 and hold a second referendum.

https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/241584

I think it is time you listened to the People whose interests you have so signally failed to serve.

Brexit? it’s just a flesh wound!

I am grateful to my wife for drawing attention to this article by Giles Fraser,  ‘why won’t Remainers talk about family?’ , even if reading it did take me back to my days marking essays by adolescents whose ardour outstripped their capacity for reasoned argument: having conceived a notion, and decided that it must be right, they proceeded by astonishing leaps and bounds to alter and even invent the facts to suit their case.

Up here in Scotland we are rather a backward lot: we live far from London, so don’t get to see The Evening Standard, and we have forgotten who George Osborne is, so clearly we are out of touch with current trends, but it still came as something of a shock to learn that in voting Remain in 2016 (which our entire country, every council area, did) we were actually signing up to George Osborne’s neo-liberal project to destroy the family and community life by stockpiling our elderly relatives in care-home warehouses staffed by foreign nationals in order to persuade them that a quick trip to Dignitas would be a better option for everyone but especially the heartless uncaring young – ‘rootless Ronin’ as the writer quaintly calls them – who are abandoning their communities in droves in order to earn lots of money for themselves as far away from home as possible.

But no less a person than Evan Davis tells us that the author is ‘one of the most fluent critics of the remainer world view’, so there must be something in it, surely? Granted, ‘fluent’ is faint praise – nonsense can be fluent, after all – but what I have difficulty recognising is the ‘remainer world view’ that Fraser presents. In fact, the real insight he provides is how the Brexit worldview has evolved to cope with mounting evidence from every side that their chosen path will be disastrous.

Take that headline, for a start – what is the evidence that Remainers ‘won’t talk about family?’ The sole ground Fraser puts forward for this extraordinary assertion is that one person who supports Remain once wrote a newspaper article that failed to mention ‘family’ – possibly because it was about something else.  Writing in The Independent,  Luciana Berger (recently in the news for leaving Labour to sit as an independent MP) said that Brexit would be a disaster for the social care sector because with the number of older people needing care set to double by 2040, there could ‘28,000 fewer workers in the social care sector in England five years after leaving the EU’.

Fraser’s gripe with this article is not with the figures Berger quotes nor with the argument she makes but rather with the fact that it was not about something else: his complaint is that ‘never once in the piece did she mention the word family’ and that ‘the only way the piece related to family life and the mutual care that this has traditionally implied is through the idea that caring for a family member equals “lost earnings”’.

Without having the article to hand (it is unfortunate that Fraser gives no more detailed information about it than that it was written last year) it is difficult to judge how appropriate it would have been for the writer to make any mention of family or family life in a piece that was evidently about the impact of Brexit on the social care sector, nor how fair is Fraser’s implication that Berger sees caring for a family member solely in terms of lost earnings (unfortunately, in quoting the text he omits the words that connect the statement about there being fewer workers to the statement about loss of earnings). In any case, to proceed from the fact that someone didn’t write an article the way you wanted to the conclusion that ‘Remainers won’t talk about family’ is something of a leap.

It would appear that, confronted with yet another well-supported argument that Brexit will be a disaster for Britain in yet another sector and finding himself unable to to answer it (and it is noteworthy that he makes no attempt to deny any part of Berger’s argument), Fraser resorts instead to complaining about the way things are – ‘but people shouldn’t put their parents in care homes!’ – and takes off from there on an extraordinary fugue – in the sense of a flight from an unbearable reality – which concludes with the preposterous claim that ‘Remain is all about ever new opportunities for the rich. Brexit seeks a reclamation of something we have lost. The ability to stay put and care for each other.’

This is a most extraordinary piece of repackaging: all the privations that Brexit will bring are to be welcomed because we didn’t want to be rich anyway: it’s better to be poor and have your freedom (cue clip of Mel Gibson in Braveheart). But perhaps it is more like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who insists that he will fight on – ‘it’s just a flesh wound!’ – as his various extremities are successively lopped off. With each new damning proof of the folly of Brexit, defiance becomes the only available recourse. 

The Black Knight with his refusal to accept defeat could be seen as a parody of the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ so often evoked in relation to Brexit, with its bizarre implication that our entirely self-imposed choice to leave a democratic federation that has maintained peace and prosperity in Europe for over half a century can somehow be equated with a near-miraculous hairsbreadth escape from military rout by the forces of a megalomanic dictator – with actual guns, tanks and aeroplanes – intent on destroying all that we hold most dear.

Confronted with mounting evidence that Brexit will make us poorer and our lives harder, possibly for years to come, the Brexiter’s preferred response now seems to be the famous riposte of Londoners to the Blitz – ‘we can take it!’ – conveniently overlooking the fact that in this case, we have backed ourselves against the wall – no-one is pushing us – and the impending destruction will not be the work of enemy bombers but something we have wrought ourselves.

It is worth looking in detail at the picture Fraser paints, in the first instance to ask whether it bears any resemblance to reality, and then to consider whether all this is just a muddled rant or if it might be something more sinister.

The article is short on evidence and argument but long on anecdote and windy rhetoric; what passes for reasoning does not bear examination. Anecdotes are not evidence, but they have their place, provided they furnish a pithy illustration of some key point in the same way that an apposite quotation can, or a clever cartoon. Unfortunately, Fraser’s do not do this. His first makes a distressing human situation –the sad reversal of roles where the adult child must now look after the most intimate needs of a demented and incontinent parent – the occasion for a finger-wagging lesson on filial piety: ‘we don’t ask for state help in changing our children’s nappies, so why should we expect it in caring for our parents?’

Leaving aside the fact that there is a network of health visitors and midwives to give support to new parents, there are some serious flaws in Fraser’s anecdotal argument. Caring for a grown adult who has suffered a loss of mental and physical capacity is not much like looking after a baby: quite apart from the emotional demands, it can be physically taxing and even dangerous; even those who do have both time and means to devote to caring for a parent in decline are often forced to the reluctant conclusion that they simply are not equal to the task – they may well be elderly themselves and not in the best of health.

But for Fraser, ‘Children have a responsibility to look after their parents…It is the daughter of the elderly gentleman that should be wiping his bottom. This sort of thing is not something to subcontract.’ What are we to make of this? Are you only meeting your filial responsibility if you do it in person? Ought society not to have deemed it a common good to develop a state-supported system of social care?

Fraser’s ‘argument’ consists mainly in objecting to the way things are now then blaming it all on Remainers and, by implication, the European Union. It is worth noting that the principles of the European Union (including the famous ‘principle of subsidiarity’ that power should be exercised, not from the top, but at the lowest level capable of doing so) are drawn to a very large extent from Catholic social teaching, which sits rather oddly with Fraser’s portrayal of it as a heartless neoliberal capitalist scheme to destroy family and community values.

Fraser goes on, ‘Ideally, then, people should live close to their parents and also have some time availability to care for them. But instead, many have cast off their care to the state or to carers who may have themselves left their own families in another country to come and care for those that we won’t.’

Setting aside (once again) the lack of evidence that Fraser produces for his assertions, there are two points to be made here. One is the implication that just as we should stay in our community and care for our own, so those who presently do it should return to theirs and do likewise. That has a somewhat sinister ring to my ear – ‘they should all go home’ – and takes no account of the fact that the reason many of them are here is precisely to earn enough to support their families because the opportunity does not exist where they come from. The second point is one that Fraser goes on to develop in the next stage of his rant, the skewed idea that we have somehow developed the mechanism of social care primarily to free ourselves from responsibility, to allow us to shirk our duty and go off and earn money for ouselves.

This is illustrated by Fraser’s second anecdote, which is worth quoting in full, if only to appreciate the extraordinary leap he makes from it to the conclusions that he draws: ‘My GP friend also told me another story. Just before Christmas he did a home visit to an elderly woman, living on her own, but surrounded by Christmas cards. She proudly told him how well her kids had done, showing him the cards sent by her children living all round the world. “I never see them very much now” she explained. She was on her own for Christmas. They might Skype.’

Here is the lesson he draws: ‘This is what happens when that much over praised value of social mobility becomes the way we think about dealing with social inequality. Social mobility is very much a young person’s value, of course. Get on. Get out of your community. Find a job anywhere you please. Undo the ties that bind you. The world is your oyster.’

There seems to be a serious confusion here between ‘social mobility’ and, well, ‘mobility’, in particular moving to get work (is there a nod to Norman Tebbit there, perhaps, and his father getting on his bike to look for a job?). If a joiner or an electrician leaves his home town to work in the oil industry or on an overseas construction project as a joiner or electrician, that is not social mobility. Social mobility is a movement (generally upward) in social class or social status. It may be bound up with a change of occupation and might be facilitated by increased earning power but the commonest agent in my lifetime and perhaps still is education, which is not without its dislocating effects, as documented in Willy Russell’s admirable play, Educating Rita, or by Seamus Heaney in these lines from Clearances, a sonnet sequence dedicated to his mother:

Fear of affectation made her affect
Inadequacy whenever it came to
Pronouncing words ‘beyond her’. Bertold Brek.
She’d manage something hampered and askew
Every time, as if she might betray
The hampered and inadequate by too
Well-adjusted a vocabulary.
With more challenge than pride, she’d tell me, ‘You
Know all them things.’ So I governed my tongue
In front of her, a genuinely well-
Adjusted adequate betrayal
Of what I knew better. I’d naw and aye
And decently relapse into the wrong
Grammar which kept us allied and at bay.

But we must not expect such perceptive observation from Fraser:

‘This is the philosophy that preaches freedom of movement, the Remainers’ golden cow. [Golden Cow?? Does he mean Golden Calf? Sacred Cow? Golden Goose?] And it is this same philosophy that encourages bright working-class children to leave their communities to become rootless Rōnin, loyal to nothing but the capitalist dream of individual acquisition and self-advancement.’

(I do wonder if Fraser is familiar with the history of the working class and in particular the industrial revolution, with the flight from the land to the teeming cities, the Irish navvies coming to build canals then railways and hydroelectric plants, or the great transatlantic migrations from Europe to the New World: but then I don’t suppose he could blame any of that on George Osborne or the EU, and besides, aren’t those the good old days he wants us to get back to?)

Poor bright young working-class people! there is, it appears, no good reason for leaving home, and it is doubly shameful to do so in the hope of earning money or bettering yourself. You should stick around waiting for your parents to dement so that you can be on hand to wipe their bums. Nowhere does Fraser address the possibility that people might leave home because they have to, from economic necessity, and not because they want to; that they might do so precisely in order to support their families better than they can by remaining at home. Indeed, in a striking confusion of cause and effect, he attributes the decline of communities to young people leaving them, rather than vice versa:

‘robbed of their most go-ahead young people, working class communities become ghost towns of hopelessness.’

That is just nonsense. It is because so many communiuties have become ghost towns through economic decline that young people have to leave.

Fraser, like many who espouse the Brexit position, does not like the turn the modern world has taken. Well, as Philip Marlowe might say, I’m not too keen on it myself: I lie awake at nights grieving about it. For instance, the impoverishing effect of the banking crisis of 2008 has exacerbated the demographic imbalance created by the very success of modern medicine and the welfare state, so creating tension between young and old, the dwindling tax-base of younger people who must support a burgeoning older population in a pensioned retirement that they themselves are unlikely to enjoy; but I do not see that these undoubted ills of modern society can be blamed entirely on the European Union, nor that they can be cured by Brexit – save perhaps that the elderly might start dying sooner.

But Fraser thinks they can. In that, he epitomises the Brexit position: he attributes a general dissatisfaction, an unfocused resentment – ‘fings ain’t what they used to be’ – to a specific and visible cause: it’s all the fault of that European Union and those Remainers (one of the most paradoxical aspects of his argument is that Remainers are simultaneously characterised as a homogeneous group who think and behave in the same way and as self-seeking individualists who have rejected all community values).

Some of the leaps and non sequiturs he makes in pursuing his case  are breathtaking:

‘Always on the move, always hot desking. Short-term contracts. Laptops and mobiles – even the tools of modern workplace remind us that work no longer has any need of place. [do they? really?] All this is a philosophy that could not have been better designed to spread misery and unhappiness.’

All what? one may ask – and what is the connection between the first part of this paragraph and the concluding sentence?  Perhaps these things will get clearer if we read on –

‘Human beings need roots for their emotional and psychological flourishing. They need long-term, face-to-face relationships; they need chatting in the local post office; they need a sense of shared identity, shared values, mutual commitment. No amount of economic growth is worth sacrificing all this for.’

– or perhaps not. It is not mere pedantry to point out that one of the distinguishing characteristics of human beings, as indeed all animals, is that they do not, in fact, need roots; when we use that term metaphorically, it emphasises that we can form deep and lasting attachments for particular places that persist no matter where in the world we happen to be: the exile draws spiritual and emotional sustenance from his homeland perhaps even more than the one who stays at home. And apart from the curiously specific ‘chatting in the local post office’– not, I confess, a human need I had been aware of, myself – none of the others is necessarily tied to place as Fraser seems to want to claim. The notion that you somehow have to stay in the community where you were born or grew up in order to have ‘long-term, face-to-face relationships’ or to develop ‘a sense of shared identity, shared values, mutual commitment’ is just nonsense. It is certainly true that human relations are more important than economic growth, but they are not incompatible with it: you can have both.

I have quoted part of the final paragraph of this section already; here it is in full: ‘Because robbed of their most go-ahead young people, working class communities become ghost towns of hopelessness. And care homes for the elderly become ways to warehouse those who cannot be persuaded to make the trip to Dignitas.’

What is the word ‘And’ doing here? Does Fraser really believe that a direct consequence of young working class people leaving their communities is that ‘care homes for the elderly become ways to warehouse those who cannot be persuaded to make the trip to Dignitas’? On what is this entirely fanciful notion based? Does he offer a single shred of evidence to support it? Or is it perhaps just something he wants to be true?

The most striking part of the article comes at the end, and initially it seems a pleasant  surprise – unexpectedly, in an argument from a Brexiter, Muslims are held up as a positive example:  ‘We were eating in a Pakistani restaurant in Tooting. All around us extended Muslim families were sitting together, children and the elderly, aunts and uncles. It was a buzzy hub of a homogeneous society – the sort of society that the West sometimes criticises for being inward looking. “They must integrate!” comes the familiar line, which, in effect, means they should disperse, learn the values of progressive individualism.’

I find Fraser’s illustration problematic and, on a deeper level, disturbing. From its position in the article – it is the penultimate paragraph – this is evidently the vision to which he wants us to aspire, that ‘something we have lost’ which Brexit seeks to reclaim, ‘the ability to stay put and care for each other.’

Leaving aside the questionable accuracy of his implication – having family gatherings in restaurants is not, in my experience, a practice reserved to muslims – let us ask what the example is that he wants us to follow, that he hopes Brexit will bring. In describing the extended muslim family as ‘a buzzy hub of a homogeneous society – the sort of society that the West sometimes criticises for being inward looking’ Fraser seems to imply (unwarrantably, I would suggest) that there is a muslim monoculture and that ‘the West’, rather than condemning it, should imitate it.

I do not think that he means we should all, post-Brexit, convert to Islam: instead, he wants British society to be a monoculture, as he mistakenly supposes muslims to be and equally mistakenly imagines that Britain once was (I am a Scots catholic of Irish extraction who was born in a council house in Clydebank and went to Edinburgh university; I was raised in Perth, went to school in Dundee, raised a family in Edinburgh and Inverness – what community do I belong to?).

This monoculture should be built on ‘staying put and caring for each other.’ I have nothing against caring for each other, but the implications of that ‘staying put’ are rather sinister: we should all stay where we belong and look after our own. By implication, those who don’t belong here should go back to where they do and look after themselves, leaving us to do the same. The sentiments are chillingly similar to those expressed in these posters, which have recently been appearing in Italy –

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[The text is, from the top, ‘births at an all-time low’ ‘Italy needs daughters, not gay marriage and immigrants’ the hashtag is ‘income for mothers’]

Is that the vision of ‘the something we have lost’ that leaving the EU will reclaim?

A tissue of misinformation, non sequiturs and falsehoods, brought to you by HM government

In signing this petition (and I would urge you all to follow suit) https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/235138

I came across this extraordinary response, date 30 January and purporting to come from HM Government, though the fact that almost all the arguments it contains have been heard repeatedly before that date in the mouths of Jacob Rees-Mogg and his acolytes in the ERG* suggests that it actually originates from them.

It is, as one would expect of anything from that source, of doubtful veracity. I print it below with my interpolations and numbered links to fuller refutations of the arguments advanced made in earlier articles here:

( – but first let me declare my credentials as one of the Remainer Elite**, in contrast to multi-millionaire man-of-the-people Jake Mogg, educated at Eton and Oxford, investment banker and hedge-fund manager; I – an impecunious writer – was born in a council house in Clydebank and went to Lawside Academy Dundee, a state school, though I had the temerity to attend Edinburgh University)

‘The Government remains clear that we will respect the result of the 2016 referendum, and we therefore will not hold a second referendum.

A non-sequitur – where is the logical link between respecting the result of the 2016 referendum (which, arguably, they have not done anyway 1, 2 & 3 4) and not holding a second one?

The Government is clear that we will not have a second referendum; it’s mandate is to implement the result of the previous referendum.

It would help if the writers were literate: ‘it’s’ should be ‘its’; how can the 2016 referendum be the previous one if we’ve not had one since? Really, this does not inspire confidence.

The 2016 referendum delivered a very clear instruction to Government – to withdraw from the European Union.

This is certainly arguable. The only clarity that the 2016 referendum delivered was that (a) the country was divided and (b) only a minority actually wished to leave the EU (5)

Since then, this Government has remained committed to honouring that instruction, given to us through 17.4 million votes to leave the European Union – the highest number of votes cast for anything in UK electoral history.

As stated above, 17.4 million is a minority of the electorate (about 38%) and is only 26% of the population of 65.5 million, all of whom will be affected by leaving the EU for a great deal longer than the 5 years it takes to change the government by a general election.
The claim that this is the highest number of votes cast for anything in UK history is, depending on what is meant by it, either false or insignificant: it is certainly misleading. (6 ) and (7) 17.4 million in round terms is the same number of votes cast in favour of staying in the EEC, one of only three occasions in history that the nation has voted on a single issue. The fact that the 2016 figure is 0.18% larger than the 1975 vote is considerably outweighed by the fact that the electorate then was smaller, so that 43.35% of the electorate voted to remain in the EEC as against 37.4 voting to leave in 2016.

That result was reinforced not only by Parliament’s passing of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill with clear and convincing majorities;

again, a non-sequitur : the action of parliament subsequent to a vote cannot (retrospectively) reinforce the result of that vote. And the fact that parliament voted on weak grounds (given the actual result of the referendum noted above) is proof only of their poor judgement and lack of courage.

but also in the 2017 General Election, where over 80% of people also voted for parties committed to respecting the result of the referendum. In fact, both major parties stood for election on a stated policy to respect the decision of the people.

This is disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst. In every single General election in the past 100 years the great majority of votes have been cast for either Conservative or Labour; in 1918, it was 59%, the lowest combined total; in the 21 elections since 1931 – the first year in which the combined total exceeded 80% – the total voting either Labour or Conservative has exceeded 80% on 11 occasions (on three occasions it passed 90%).
It is true that last year was the first time since 1979 that the total had exceeded 80%, owing to the emergence of the SDP/Lib Dems as a significant third force from 1983 onwards, but all the same there is nothing particularly surprising or noteworthy about the fact that the majority of voters voted the same way they have for the last hundred years; to adduce that the percentage in the 2017 vote was primarily because the two main parties said they would stand by the referendum does not stand up to scrutiny, since it is a fact that both parties are divided on the issue, and a vote for one or the other cannot be construed as a vote to leave the EU (a point made by Sir John Major, who opposes Brexit but voted Conservative) (8).

The Government is clear that it is now its duty to implement the will expressed by voters in the referendum – respecting both the will of the British people, and the democratic process which delivered the referendum result.

As pointed out above, the British People amount to some 65.5 million people, of whom 46.5 million were entitled to vote in the 2015 referendum. 17.4 million is a large minority of the electorate and cannot be equated with the British People nor supposed to express their will. The referendum result as a whole expressed the will of the electorate, which – as stated above – was that they did not speak with a single voice on the matter and that only a minority of them wished to leave the EU.

The British people must be able to trust in its Government both to effect their will, and to deliver the best outcome for them.

This is a pious hope, not a logical argument. Nor does it address the reality we are confronted with now, where the government has misinterpreted the will of the people and is committed to an outcome which, if consonant with that misinterpretation – i.e. leaving the EU – will not be the best outcome and could well be the worst, if we leave with no deal in place.

As the Prime Minister has said: “This is about more than the decision to leave the EU; it is about whether the public can trust their politicians to put in place the decision they took.”

It is astonishingly arrogant of the Prime Minister to suppose that trust in her government rates higher than leaving the EU. We can rid ourselves of an untrustworthy government at the next election, which at latest will be in 2022 and probably sooner, but we will live with the effects of leaving the EU for a generation.

The Government therefore remains committed to delivering on the instruction and the mandate given to us by the British people – to withdraw from the European Union.

Again, this is a non sequitur – ‘therefore’ has no force here. And as has been pointed out many times already, no such instruction has been given ‘by the British people’. Only 17.4 million have expressed a desire to leave: what of the remaining 48.1 million who will also be affected, almost certainly to their detriment in the immediate, short, middle and probably long term? In any case, how can a desire to respect the will of the British people expressly preclude asking them what they would like to do now that the shape of Brexit has become clear? (9)

We continue to work to reach consensus on the deal we have negotiated, to enable a smooth and orderly exit,

Yet ‘the deal we have negotiated’ has already been rejected by an unprecedentedly huge majority in parliament. (10)

and deliver an outcome which betters the lives of British people – whether they voted to Leave or to Remain.

It does not look, by any credible forecast, as if leaving the EU will leave us better off than remaining in it; on the contrary, it looks likely to make things worse for most of the British people.

Department for Exiting the European Union’

As dictated by the ERG, I would suggest

*European Research Group, a pro-Brexit alliance of MPs – is it just my fancy, or does the initial resemblance to David Stirling’s LRDG – Long Range Desert Group, the forerunner of the SAS – suggest that the Haunted Pencil (as Mogg is known) sees himself as something of a latter-day Phantom Major?

**a curiously large elite, comprising many tens of millions. How many? why not find out by having a second referendum? My own guess would be between 25 and 30 million, but I’m happy to be proved wrong.

Was there ever such a fine piece of nonsense?

 
I am grateful to Caroline Flint MP for providing such a clear and succinct statement of the nonsensical ‘second referendum = betrayal of democracy’ argument that we hear so often.

Pause this clip after the opening sentence and ask yourself what exactly she is saying

“The breakdown of trust in politics if we try to turn this over by a second referendum will be hard to repair.”

It is one of those statements that have the ring of something forceful and definite, yet if we consider it closely – by asking what is actually being said – it turns out to be utter nonsense.

There are two undefined terms here – ‘we’ and ‘this’. What does each stand for?

‘this’ presumably refers to something that could be overturned by a second referendum and probably means the decision to leave the European Union.

‘we’ could mean either those who have it in their power to call a second referendum – politicians in parliament – or those who, by voting in such a referendum, might overturn the decision to leave the European Union – the British electorate.

But if it is the first, how could politicians turn over the decision to leave the EU by calling a referendum? All that does is afford the electorate a chance to have their say; it is up to the electorate what they vote for.

But if we take ‘we’ to mean the electorate, then Ms Flint is saying ‘if the British electorate try to turn this over by a second referendum, then the breakdown in trust of politicians will be hard to repair.’ That does not make a great deal of sense either, since the electorate cannot try to overturn the decision by a second referendum, though they might well overturn it by voting in one, should the politicians grant them the opportunity. But if they did that, why would a nigh-irreparable breakdown of trust in politicians result?

That, perhaps, is the nub of it – what Ms Flint seems to be saying is ‘If we, the politicians, grant the electorate a second referendum and they overturn the decision to leave the EU by voting to remain, then there will be a breakdown of trust in politicians that will be hard to repair.’ – but on whose part?

Should parliament belatedly decide to grant the people a chance to have their say on the grisly shambles that has resulted since the first referendum, I can well imagine that they will vote overwhelmingly to remain in the EU; after all, as I never tire from saying, the 2016 referendum showed that only a minority had any desire to leave in the first place. But rather than causing a breakdown in trust, such an outcome might begin to heal the breakdown that has already taken place.

No: the only people who will be disgruntled if the British people vote to remain in the EU will be the minority who want to leave, who thought – against all expectation and reason – that they were going to get what they wanted. But if the British people vote to remain, what grounds would they have for complaint? And who is Ms Flint, or any politician, to deny the British people that opportunity?

If there is anything that is undemocratic and liable to further destroy our faith in politicians, it is denying the people a chance to have their say now that the true shape of Brexit has emerged for all to see.