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Brexit Anniversary

22 Jun

If a week is a long time in politics, then the last year seems almost like a decade – so many seismic events and unexpected twists and turns. And somehow, here we are, one year on from the EU referendum, a time to reflect on what has happened …

As chance would have it, last year, on the day after the referendum, I was booked on the train to Scotland.  I’d forced myself to go to bed at 2 a.m., when the first signs that Leave might swing it, had begun to emerge.  It was still a surprise to find that that was what had happened, as I scrambled to get the last of my stuff together, and headed out the door later that morning.  The atmosphere on the train was unusual – a lot of thrown-together people looking slightly shell-shocked and talking in hushed tones into their mobile phones.   As we powered through the country, there were patches of flags from either side of the debate – the mood seemed one of surprise.  The news was still sinking in.

When I eventually got to Edinburgh, my first stop was the pub.  Scots were juggling the results of two successive referenda – one over independence from the UK, one over membership of the EU. I got talking with a bunch of people having an after-work pint and chewing over the day’s news.  They were a mix of Yes and No voters in the Scottish referendum, but all said then, in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum, that given a choice, they would vote to leave the UK in any second referendum, and seek Scottish membership of the EU.  Unlike in England, the subject of Ireland, the border and the peace process came up quite soon in conversation.  My unrepresentative little vox pop confirmed a picture of urban Scotland as firm Remain territory. I’ve often wondered if the people I met have changed their minds meanwhile, as the falling oil price and political turbulence in the year since, has seen support for a second Scottish referendum apparently diminish, and a desire for stability (ha!) become perhaps stronger.

What else has changed in the year since, concerning Brexit? In some ways remarkably little – in spite of the triggering of Article 50 and the recent snap election, we are only slightly further on in our progress towards exit.  When thinking about what will happen with reciprocal rights for UK and EU citizens living in each other’s countries, or overall freedom of movement, or being in the Single Market, I’m often reminded of that round in the QI panel show, where they ask an obscure question, and all the contestants wave a paddle in the air, signifying that ‘Nobody Knows’…. The form of Brexit we will eventually experience remains up in the air, and the complexities of disentangling ourselves from laws, supply chains and regulations often seem to be intensifying rather than resolving.

In other ways, things have changed quite a bit – the vote to leave has led to a greater understanding of divisions and inequalities in the UK, with analysis of voting behaviour showing fault lines between urban and rural populations, highly educated people and school leavers, older and younger voters.   UKIP is basically a spent force, and the recent election, paradoxically perhaps, heralded a return to two-party politics, as the Brexit vote made for a complex set of interactions with broader party allegiances. In the snap election, Labour capitalised on frustration with the consequences of social inequalities, while the Conservatives emphasised the importance of leadership on Brexit, in an electoral strategy which imploded around the failure of leadership demonstrated in the campaign. They won the election, but lost their majority, and are now all too aware of issues around Ireland and Brexit…

One year on, we have election winners who have lost, and losers who scent victory next time – which could well be considerably sooner than anticipated by the Fixed-Term Parliament Act.  Theresa May has just been  in Brussels for a dinner with the European Council, where she was looking to outline Britain’s negotiating position in more detail.  It seems that she may be aiming for Brexit a la carte. Funnily enough, we don’t have a ready English phrase for that – unless perhaps it’s cherry-picking – which is something we need Eastern European seasonal migrants to do …. There’s no chance of an all-you-can-eat buffet of options on Brexit terms, so can we hold out for some Chef’s specials? Brexit is often discussed in terms of having our cake and eating it, but we have yet to discover what proof of pudding is in our eating ….

 

 

We’re going on a Leader Hunt (with apologies to Michael Rosen)

18 May

We’re going on a leader hunt
We’re going to catch a big one,
I’m not scared
What a beautiful day!
 

Uh-uh!
Brexit!
Long complex Brexit.
We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
Oh no!
We’ve got to go through it!
Best deal! Best deal! Got to get the best deal!

Chorus: We’re going on a leader hunt…
 

Uh-uh!
A leak!
A massive growing leak.
We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
Oh no!
We’ve got to go through it!
Splash splosh! Splash splosh! Splash splosh!

Chorus: We’re going on a leader hunt…
 

Uh-uh!

A Sofa!
Comfy TV sofa.
We can’t go over it,
We can’t go under it.
Oh no!
We’ve got to go through with it!
Small talk! Small talk! Empty, empty small talk!

Chorus: We’re going on a leader hunt…
 

Uh-uh!
Numbers!
Complicated numbers.
We should go over them.

We can’t go under them.
Oh no!
We’ve got to go through them!
Stumble trip! Stumble trip! Stumble trip!

Chorus: We’re going on a leader hunt…

Uh-uh!
A media storm!
A swirling whirling media storm.
We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
Oh no!
We’ve got to go through it!
Who? Who? Who? Who? Who? Who?

Chorus: We’re going on a leader hunt…

Uh-uh!
A polling booth!
A narrow gloomy polling booth.
We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
We’ve got to go through with it!
Criss cross! Criss cross! Criss cross!
WHAT’S THAT!
One nose!
Two ears!
Two eyes!
IT’S A LEADER!

Quick!
Back through the polling booth!
Criss cross! Criss cross! Criss cross!
Back through the media storm!
Who? Who? Who? Who? Who? Who?
Back through the numbers!
Stumble trip! Stumble trip! Stumble trip!
Back through the sofa!
Small talk! Small talk! Empty, empty small talk!
Back through the leak!
Splash splosh! Splash splosh! Splash splosh!
Back through Brexit!
Best deal! Best deal! Got to get the best deal!
Get to our front door.
Open the door.
Up the stairs
Oh no! …….

Let’s (not) have a heated debate …

20 Apr

After the political box of frogs that was the UK 2016, here we are in 2017, with a new General Election to look forward to.  Why, I hear you ask?  Well, a dodgy looking economy during and post- Brexit negotiations, a poleaxed major party of opposition, and a 20-point plus poll lead for our so-far-unelected Prime Minister, might go some way to explaining that, alongside a ruling party which needs to be held together with a larger majority, before the going gets too rough …. But what I want to talk about is Theresa’s May’s decision not to take part in a TV leaders’ debate.

Pretty small beer given all of the above you might think.  And some commentators argue that TV debates aren’t really of great interest to many, that they demean serious discussion, that they are traps for leaders to be caught out by a bad camera angle, an slip of the tongue, or – god forbid – an actual  member of the public.  But I’m with Angus Robertson of the SNP who said yesterday in Parliament that it was unsustainable in the 21st century to have a Prime Minister who refuses to face her opponents on television; with Caroline Lucas who argues that with so much currently at stake it is shameful for the Prime Minister to turn away from a medium which reaches many of the ‘unusual suspects’ among voters – notably the young; and, on this occasion, with Jeremy Corbyn who asked the Prime Minister why, if her record is so strong, will she not step up and defend it in a debate?

Theresa May justified her refusal to take part by saying that she would be going around the country talking directly to voters, and that that was what mattered.  But then she also justified her decision to call an election on the grounds that the country was united behind Brexit, but those pesky Westminster opponents were not.  This is hall of mirrors stuff – in fact, as many have pointed out, other parties supported the triggering of Article 50 and have not stood in her way.  Meanwhile, out in the country there remains a range of opinions, hopes and fears about what the negotiations with the EU will hold, and what the outcomes will be for our collective future.  There are also deep concerns on the domestic issues of struggling public services, housing shortages and stagnating wages. By not taking part in a multi-party televised debate the Prime Minister rather looks like someone who wants to avoid or stifle any awkward questions – the exact opposite of acting democratically, which has always been her claim.

And there is another dimension to this: the Prime Minister is a woman, and one who has made a point of her credentials in encouraging other women in her party to stand, and valuing women taking part in political life.  Women in politics are often held to a different standard from men, and face particular obstacles to being taken seriously in debates, and to speaking out in spite of sexist commentary or sometimes overt hostility.  Historians like Mary Beard have pointed to the long timeline of silencing powerful woman.  For a woman in her political prime like Theresa May to shrink from open argument, seems a very poor message to send on female power.

Maybe May herself realises there is some risk and folly in not openly facing her opponents.  For it’s now reported that she would consider other formats, such as a question time session with voters, to be broadcast in the run-up to the election.  That is something – but it still falls short of a debate with opposition which lies at the heart of open democracy – political arguments are active things, they do not speak for themselves, but are shaped in discussion, and through being countered and criticised.  If the Prime Minister is seeking the public’s trust, and is looking to change some minds, she should have the courage to stand up and fight for her views.  Or maybe she just takes her majority for granted …

 

 

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