If the title of this post brings to mind the airy optimism of the Carpenter’s song about the rosy beginning of a romance, think again. It’s about Brexit! In fact it would be more analogous to Karen Carpenter’s first diet that would lead inexorably to her eventual tragic death from anorexia.
If you are fed up with Brexit, and I imagine many of us are, we should bear in mind that this really has only just begun. Because, unless we simply revoke Article 50, every other outcome means we have years of negotiations ahead of us. And judging by the three years of negotiations that we have already been through, it ain’t going to be pretty and it will be divisive in an already divided nation.
Like most people, I find it almost impossible to keep up. I am writing this bit as I wait for my bus on the morning of Thursday 28th March (and this bit on my way home!). I have already listened to two podcasts about Brexit that are already out of date as they speculate about which alternative Parliament would vote for (Spoiler alert: they voted against them all!) Yesterday we had what should have been momentous occasions, Theresa May announced that she would resign once her deal got through and parliament “took back control” by voting against any of the potential alternatives to May’s deal. (Note from the evening: I have now listened to two more podcasts that are also out of date by the time they come out.)
So we had the spectre of a Prime Minister promising to fall on her sword if she is successful in doing literally the one thing she has attempted to do in her time in office. Presumably this also means that if she fails to do that one thing, she will stay on. This is mad – you succeed – you leave, you fail – you stay. This is, remember, after not once, but twice being on the receiving end of record-breaking defeats, the likes of which would have meant a Prime Ministerial resignation at any other time. Once again we can see how this whole process has been driven primarily by the need to manage the Tory party. For the last thirty years every single Conservative Party leader, both prime ministers and leaders of the opposition have been brought down, in part, by this obsession about Europe that had little to do with the EU itself and much to do with jockeying for power within the party.
The cynicism of the likes of Boris Johnson was plain to see. He has consistently said that May’s deal was an appalling deal and voted against it twice. But now that there’s a chance that the one thing he does care about, his becoming Prime Minister, might come about if the deal goes through, suddenly he is going to vote for it.
Time for a Boris Johnson anecdote me thinks. As I am sure I have mentioned before, name-dropper that I am, the Johnsons are old family friends of ours. We all lived happily in the same district of Brussels when my father and Boris’ worked for what was then know as the EEC or the Common Market. These were the heady days when we first joined the project that was so obviously bringing peace and prosperity to its member states. I was a kid then and not aware of the implications of all of this but it was fun to share a playground with other kids of multifarious nationalities. Though I would have to be honest and admit that playground fights at the European School did divide along national lines. For some reason, us English-speakers (our class was made up of British and Irish kids and we fought side-by-side) always seemed to be pitted against the Danes and the Italians. In the case of the Danes, this was a bad idea as they tended to be rather big. I remember being thumped by a large fellow who was probably related to the berserker who held the bridge at Stamford Bridge against the army of Harold Godwinson. Anyway I digress, back to Boris, or Alexander as we knew him then, this was before he had adopted the sobriquet that allows him to be one of those politicians who are known only by their first name. The Baxters and the Johnsons went on holiday to some Belgian holiday camp, I can’t remember the details as I must have been about five at the time. What I do clearly remember is my treatment at the hands of Boris. He is five years older than me, making him about ten. We were on a seesaw together and being much bigger than me, he could hold his side down and keep me up high. I probably thought this was quite fun for a bit but then he kept me there and kept me there until he suddenly released his end and I came crashing down. I smashed my face against the seesaw bar and got a bloody nose and probably some dented pride. He thought this was hilarious. He was a bully then, just like he is a bully now.
As Polly Toynbee wrote in her recent column, Theresa May will be remembered as the worst Prime Minister of our lifetime… until the next one. We will be led by one of two plucked from a truly dreadful rogue’s gallery by Conservative politicians and then the final selection will be made by the members of the Conservative Party. The membership numbers, which they keep secret because it is so embarrassingly low, is believed to be somewhere below 150,000. So we will be going from the Referendum, which many people like to boast was the biggest act of democracy in British history, to having a Prime Minister chosen by what can only be described as a cabal. I saw some wit on Twitter describing the unseemly scramble for the leadership of the Tories as being like Game of Thrones but everybody is Joffrey (he is the very blonde, sadistically evil one who stands out for his nastiness in a show full of nasty characters.)
Enough about the Tories, what about our sovereign Parliament? For many, the Brexit vote was about wresting our freedom from the undemocratic clasp of the European Union and handing it back to what we like to style as the Mother of Parliaments. It is, of course, worth bearing in mind that half of this great seat of democracy is the unelected House of Lords. This chamber includes Bishops, making the United Kingdom, the only country in the world, other than Iran where the priesthood have official political power. Sitting alongside these defenders of the faith, you will find hereditary peers, because y’know, they were born that way. Speaking of which, the whole system works in the name of a Monarch. I am sure many of us think that the Queen is a lovely lady, who does a fine job, but she is hardly an example of democracy in action, is she?
So last night, Parliament, having voted twice against May’s deal, managed to engineer a series of votes to propose alternatives to this deal. The government was set against this series of votes going ahead, but Parliament heroically asserted its rights, its sovereignty, hurrah! And then proceeded to vote against each and every one of these alternatives. Oops!
And here we come to the problem of the referendum itself. Let’s remind ourselves of the exact wording of the question:
Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?
Some people still claim that this was a simple and clear question with a simple and clear outcome. But, Norway is not a member of the European Union and Gabon is also not a member of the European Union. Everyone is very keen on respecting the result of the referendum and obeying the will of the people but did that result mean we should not be a member of the European Union in the way that Norway is not a member of the European Union or in the way that Gabon is not a member of the European Union? (I chose Gabon randomly because it has a vaguely funny name and sounds a long way away, I could have gone for Turkmenistan or Niue.)
And that’s the problem of trying to slot a bit of direct democracy into a system of representative democracy. It’s the old square peg into a round hole conundrum – it doesn’t really work.
We have a system of representative democracy, in which we elect what we assume to be sensible people to do things more or less along the lines that we approve of, a bit more right-wing for some, a bit for left-wing for others. If they don’t act along these lines or don’t do what they promised they would do or at least without a good reason for not having done whatever it was, we can choose to chuck them out the next time and get a whole lot more in, who we hope will be more sensible. A referendum is an act of direct democracy where the people answer a question directly. Referendums are baked into some political systems, notably Switzerland, but not ours. Because they are one-offs and people might vote for all sorts of reasons on that one day, that aren’t really about the question being asked, they generally have a requirement that there needs to be a large majority to change the status quo. So you would have to win 60/40 for example to enact the change proposed by a referendum.
And before anyone points this out, I am aware that both main political parties fought the last election promising to respect the result of the referendum, but as the result of the referendum was unclear, see above, then what were they respecting? In fact, both their manifestos promised to respect different interpretations of the result of the referendum.
The difference between representative democracy and direct democracy is as old as democracy itself. Athens had a system where all the eligible voters, i.e. men (obvs!) and not slaves (even more obvs!) could turn up at the market place, the Agora, and vote on whatever was being debated that day, I am sure I am simplifying this. Whereas Rome had a system of representative democracy where the people voted for senators to take decision as they saw fit.
Direct democracy did lead to some fairly silly outcomes, like the Athenians sacking a general, Alcibiades, right in the middle of a war. Incidentally, Boris would have recognised a fellow of equally fluctuating loyalty in Alcibiades. Having been sacked by the Athenians he then joined up with their enemies, the Spartans. Then, when the Spartans also decided they could do without his services, he went off to serve the enemies of all Greeks, the Persians.
And the representative democracy of Rome led to deep corruption and eventually to an Emperor taking the whole thing over and leaving the Senate as little more that a quaint relic of the past. The Emperor basically appealed directly to the people and told them he knew what they wanted far better than the corrupted, self-serving senators ever could. If you want to imagine what that would have sounded like, picture Theresa May’ speech from the other day but in Latin, and not on the telly… and sounding actually convincing. Or maybe Hitler in 1933 when he decided that having won the election, there was no need for any more elections.
So what to do? I think I pretty much dodged my own question to myself in my last blog, so how about this:
- There’s already so much division and this country needs some healing.
- The longer this all goes on, the worse it will get.
- We can only really start healing ourselves “after” Brexit
- So we might as well start the healing process as soon as possible.
- Pretty much any outcome will piss a large swathe of people off.
- Only one outcome will actually bring an end to the whole process, revoking Article 50. (No Deal will not bring an end to anything – we are going to have to negotiate trade deals on a case-by-case basis with every nation on the earth, so far I think we have successfully negotiated deals with, amongst others, the Faroe Islands and, I think, Niue, and this time I am not using it as an example of a faraway place, it really is one of the few places on earth that we will have a trade deal with as of, well… today if it all really goes tits up.
- So let’s revoke. Alright, alright, of course I know that will mean a shitstorm. But No Deal would be a shitstorm of a different nature but a shitstorm nonetheless. Every other outcome would be more of a shifting of the shit tectonic plates – less immediately devastating than a shitstorm but more consequential in the long term. Maybe the shit tectonic plate of this Sceptered Isle will reattach itself back onto Gondwana.
- What we need to heal ourselves is a common enemy. There is no better way to unify a nation than to turn their ire away from themselves and onto a perceived other. And as luck would have it, we have just such an enemy at hand – climate change!
- Brexiteers love to evoke the Blitz spirit, confident that the plucky Brits will pick themselves up from a good hiding from the Hun and survive happily on meagre rations of turnips and rabbits.
- But with climate change we can have all that blessed suffering and more, with the added advantage of not actually having voted for it!
- So let’s try and coalesce around a common cause, to fight a threat that will genuinely blight the existence that we know and hold dear in a way that the European Union never did. If you were worried that your passport wasn’t blue anymore, how much more emblematic would it be to see the White Cliffs of Dover crumble into the sea. (…maybe, what with being cliffs and all, they would be the last thing to crumble into the sea. I was being poetic!)
So there you have it. Revoke Article 50. Get over it. Come together to fight climate change. Create jobs that are both meaningful and well remunerated, carrying out essential work, like insulating buildings to make them more energy efficient. Create local jobs that mean transport distances can be shortened as more produce is produced and made available locally. Evoke the kind of “Dig for Victory” spirit of the war, where people were encouraged to grow their own food in all sorts of innovative ways. And there are some brilliant innovations on food production that deserve to be rolled out. A Green economy would create all sorts of jobs that could avoid the kind of race to the bottom of employment conditions that the gig economy does not. Again, if that whole “backs against the wall, Dunkirk” spirit is what turns you on, we can call up all sorts of war-footing metaphors to stir the spirit in this existential battle against the forces of darkness, like literally against the forces of darkness as the planet burns!
So c’mon folks, who’s with me? Over the top we go…. aaaargh.
Enough of that! What of the family? As it happens, we have a teenager in the house, as Otto turned 13 on Saturday. We do get a lot of Ava-Jane on this blog, well it is kind of supposed to be about her, but I am sure that she, more than anyone, would want me to salute Otto on this milestone and make sure he got his deserved recognition in a blog about her. She is his greatest fan, and he does have quite a lot of fans. And he is her greatest fan and she has lots of fans too. Being the sibling of a person like Ava-Jane is a strange mix of a massive privilege in life and a weighty burden. Otto is very appreciative of the privilege and carries the burden lightly. AJ is truly fortunate to have him as a brother as he is so attentive of her. Today, Fo had to change the dressing on AJ’s feeding tube and this gave AJ a nosebleed. Otto was demanding that Fo call an ambulance, and he has a point, you can’t be too careful with Ava-Jane. I also owe Otto a debt of gratitude. When he was tiny and Fo was really not well (you can read about it in some of my early blog posts) and I had quite a lot on my plate, he was the easiest, coolest baby imaginable. You put him to bed and he would slumber all the way through until the next morning ready for a feed. So cheers Otto, happy birthday. (I added a picture of him and AJ from years ago to spare his teenage blushes. And got his approval before posting the above. I am not sure where the cut off should be when you should ask them before you post stuff about them is, but I reckon somewhere around 13 would be about right – they should own their own social media.)