My brilliant essay
When I was studying for my A-Level in Government and Politics, I was set a title for an essay that, for the first and only time in my school career, actually excited me. It felt like this was what the previous six and a half years had been pointing to. I almost made the whole ordeal of secondary education worthwhile. The title was this:
Elections in the United Kingdom provide a choice only between different kinds of liberalism.
This was in early 2008 as the Liberal Democrats were strong in the polls and David Cameron’s modernisation project was in full swing within the Tory party. Labour hadn’t yet tacked left with Ed Milliband and then lurched headlong towards the far left of Jeremy Corbyn. The statement was absolutely true, and I felt an inner movement compelling me to communicate my agreement as forcefully as I knew how.
I wrote an essay in response. And it was quite an essay. I forget precisely how long it was, but it was several times longer than the stated word limit and the most substantial piece of writing I had prepared until I wrote the dissertation for my degree. I had a lot to say.
I assume that I made a good case, because my teacher gave a copy to everyone in the class as a revision aid. To my horror, he sent a copy home to my parents along with a letter telling them how brilliant I was because he (rightly) assumed that I wouldn’t have given them any of my work myself.
(That’s how I recall it, anyway… though with the passage of time I fear that I have mis-remembered the more positive aspects of the reception of my magmum opus.)
My feelings about the referendum
I’m not massively hung up on an A-Level Politics essay. I didn’t put too much stock in my literary prowess eight years ago, and I have definitely got over the compliment since then. I tell this story because I feel in a similar inner movement and compulsion regarding the EU referendum, and along very similar lines to the question I was set as a 6th Form student.
A lot has happened since 2008, when I lamented that our choice in elections was between different kinds of liberalism. Now, we have a hard-left leader of the Labour Party; we have a large third party (in terms of vote share) in the form of UKIP. In other words, we have more choice than we did eight years ago.
And yet… and yet the feeling that there is a “Westminster bubble” or “elite” divorced from the concerns of “normal people” has reached boiling point. With the results of the referendum this morning, it’s clear that the feeling has bubbled over.
And I am thrilled by the result.
What I am not thrilled about
The debate has been vicious. It has been packed with lies and misinformation on both sides. It has been undignified and at time disgusting. (David Cameron threatening war and Nigel Farage’s infamous immigration poster are two obvious examples that will reverberate through our politics for years to come.)
This upsets me, because I believe in a free market of ideas. In the hands of noble leaders, those ideas are expressed honestly and rationally. What we have seen over the past few months is that that the major currencies of our marketplace of ideas have become hype and fear and hate. I am not at all thrilled about this.
What we learned from the TV debates
But there is hope in the midst of this. We might have seen ideas traded in these unpleasant currencies, but the British people knew what they were getting. During the TV debates, many commentators lamented the contempt studio audiences showed for their political leaders. I disagreed. The debates showed that the public were willing and able to push back on the more lurid arguments put forward by both sides of the debate.
By the end, “Project Fear” was a national joke. Six months ago, it would have been unthinkable that a serious political interviewer would ask the Prime Minister a question like “What comes first World War Three or the global Brexit recession?” It would have been even more unthinkable that the audience would respond with laughter. David Cameron overplayed his hand and the people called his bluff.
Likewise, the slogan “we send the EU £350 million a week; let’s fund our NHS instead” that was emblazoned on the side of the Leave campaign bus was obviously bogus. It is unedifying to see such a transparently untrue statement being used as the headline figure for a serious political campaign. But the British people saw through it; the only people caught repeating it were part of the official Leave campaign.
I believe this referendum campaign will be something of a tipping point in British politics. Hopefully, finally, our political leaders will recognise that they can’t get away with false fears and fabricated statistics. It’s not just about truth; it’s about maturity. It has been said recently that the era of “spin” has been replaced by the era of “post-truth politics.” If that is so, may it be short-lived! I am optimistic that truth and maturity may have a renaissance in public life.
Boring, predictable people
The main reason why I voted to leave the EU (and, I believe, an important reason for many millions of Leave voters) is that it is the single most powerful thing a British voter has been able to do for decades at a least. Our politics needed a shake-up; I voted to shake things up
As I wrote about in my A-Level politics essay, elections in the UK offer little real choice. This is partly a result of our electoral system, preferring candidates who can garner majorities or at least large minorities. Therefore, candidates who want to win join large parties, and parties that want to win tend to focus around the centre-ground. This is a fantastic system and serves us extremely well. We get the governments we deserve, and I am very happy indeed with how it works.
Most of us, if we are pushed, want our MPs to be predictable and boring. We want relatively safe pairs of hands on the machinery of power. That’s what we vote for, and that’s what’s given us so much success over the past few decades. Yet it is difficult to influence boring, predictable people with exciting, unpredictable things. That’s why this referendum has been so good for Britain.
“Influencing boring people” could well be the headline of this whole episode in the history of our nation. It’s striking that most of the most interesting, exciting politicians in the country banded together to campaign for Leave. Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage, Kate Hoey, Frank Field… you might not like all of them – I certainly don’t – but you can’t deny that they are more interesting than your average politician.
Shaking the Kaleidoscope
Shortly after the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001, Tony Blair spoke passionately about the opportunity he saw for influencing the world for good. He said:
This is a moment to seize. The Kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us re-order this world around us.
In the same way, a vote to leave the EU is a massive shake of the Kaleidoscope. Just over half of us – the British people -have voted to shake things up a bit. We are hoping that we can re-order the world around us in a better way. Things will look very different to how they used to: that’s the whole point.
What this absolutely will not mean is that the Kaleidoscope-shakers will dominate politics. I do not want Nigel Farage to be responsible for the machinery of government; it’s comforting that our boring, predictable electoral system has awarded UKIP just one solitary MP. But I am very pleased that people like him can influence the boring, predictable people who are in control of government.
Cavaliers and roundheads
The best summary of all this that I’ve read came from Martin Vander Weyer in the Spectator last week. He began his column undecided about where to put a cross on his postal vote. In his conclusion, he invoked the language of the Civil War to express the mood in the nation:
Brexiteers are cavaliers, hooligans, believers that chaos can lead to something better. Me, I’m a roundhead, a rationalist, an internationalist, a believers in co-operative muddling through. The pen hovers again, then swoops. Reader, I voted Remain.
I am pleased to have woken up this morning with the cavaliers having edged the roundheads on this issue. But I am also pleased to know that most of the people who are going to meet around the Cabinet table on Monday are roundheads, and that the nation will elect more roundheads in the next General Election whenever that comes.
The cavalier / roundhead language is helpful to a point, but it fails to recognise that most of us are roundheads most of the time. There are some full-time “hooligans” (like Nigel Farage) but not many.
Instead just over half of the British people have joined me in what I am going to call “safe subversiveness.” Leaving the EU is indeed a subversive act: every expert body and the full force of the political establishment urged the UK to remain in the strongest possible terms, but we have voted to go anyway. Yet it is a safe subversiveness, trusting the future of the nation to the same MPs and expert bodies as before. We have voted to re-calibrate them, modifying them to operate in a different way to before.
To put it another way, we had an election last year in which just under 4 million people voted UKIP. Personally, that’s not something I would consider doing, but it’s a respectable choice. There was no groundswell of popular feeling towards a UKIP government. That would have been an unsafe subversiveness, handing power to a party demonstrably unfit for public office. But it didn’t happen.
The results today show that there are 12 million anti-EU voters in this country who don’t consider the EU a significant enough issue, or didn’t believe enough in UKIP’s programme for government, to vote for UKIP at the General Election last year. Given the opportunity to express their views on the EU at the ballot box in a safe way, they did so.
Some will accuse me of political vandalism. They would be wrong. I voted to leave not just because it was a subversive thing to do, but also because I believe it is in the best interests of our nation. The issues around our economy, immigration, international co-operation and so on are vitally important to the future of our nation. I believe decisions around those issues should be debated, influenced, decided upon, and held to account by the British electorate.
A stronger democracy is healthy for the nation, but so too is an ability to respond to events independently. For all the doom-mongering about the economic prospects for Britain outside the EU, nobody recognised that a nation able to set its own economic policy would be more agile than a nation bound to a bloc of others, dependent on their interests. In social concerns, in war and peace, and in the economic field, we will now have freedom to react to events swiftly and decisively, and with the full accountability of parliamentary democracy.
Power and responsiblity
The majority of us voted yesterday for power. We cannot blame the EU for our woes any longer. There is no bogeyman metaphorically binding our hands. With power comes responsibility. I am looking forward to a more grown-up politics where we take responsibility for our actions and are able to express our judgment on those actions at the ballot box.
The safe subversives have spoken. The Kaleidoscope has been shaken. Now the boring, predictable people can re-order the world around us before the pieces settle.