Let’s start with a bit of self-awareness. I am fully conscious, as I recorded last week following a gentle chiding from the velvet mouth of Mariella Frostrup, that I can be aggressive in debate, and sometimes perhaps overly dismissive of a contrary point of view. It explains why Tony Blair occasionally called me ‘Keano,’ whenever he felt I was in danger of going over the top, in the manner of Roy Keane’s memorable assault on Alf Inge Haaland (non football fans, look it up, though if you don’t know by now …)
I have enough capacity for self-reflection, too, to be aware, for example, that in a recent verbal brawl with Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain, most viewers were probably in agreement with his co-presenter Susanna Reid, head in her hands urging us both to calm down, and complaining that our Alpha Male slanging was not exactly helping the Brexit debate. She was right. On the other hand, the doubts I had following another recent TV exchange, when I suggested to Nigel Farage that he ‘own your shit, Nigel,’ instead of blaming everyone else for Brexit going wrong, evaporated by the time I was home. It was a fair point, and it took a bit of over the top rhetoric to make it.
So over the top is not always bad. Indeed, in any campaign, particularly one that is being fought as an insurgency, when it can feel like you’re pushing giant boulders up a steep mountainside – the People’s Vote campaign started as one such – I’m not sure you can do without it.
Think back just a few months. Government, Opposition, most of the media, were dismissive. ‘You’re wasting your time,’ those rare voices up for the fight for a referendum on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations were told, again and again. Public awareness of the campaign, not least because the media took its lead from the two main parties, was low.
Now fast forward to today. Few are unaware of the campaign, here and, in political circles at least, across Europe. Almost three quarters of a million marched in support of it three weeks ago, and a few days later the Independent’s‘Final Say’ petition reached its millionth signature. Rare, today, are the interviews or Parliamentary exchanges with Theresa May or Brexit ministers, when they are not asked about the People’s Vote campaign, their irritation appearing to mount each time. It formed an important part of the backdrop to Channel 4’s Brexit special on Monday, whose polling revealed significant support for another vote, and a majority for Remain should it happen. The eye-rolling of the young woman behind Nigel Farage may have caught the attention of social media, but it was the fear in the eyes of Farage, Cabinet minister David Gauke and Labour’s Barry Gardiner that was the real insight of the night.
We still have a long way to go. Mrs May continues, ludicrously given just how many people and how few politicians are involved, to dismiss the People’s Vote campaign all as a ‘Politicians’ Vote,’ an establishment plot (since when did the Cabinet, Whitehall and Parliament cease to be the establishment?) to thwart the will of the people. No, Prime Minister – it is precisely because so many people feel let down and unrepresented by politicians that the People’s Vote campaign has grown so quickly.
On one side of the Despatch Box is Mrs May, like her predecessor all too often putting Party interest ahead of the national interest. On the other side is Jeremy Corbyn, for whom Brexit appears to be a gigantic elephant in the corner of a room otherwise filled with well-meaning plans to end austerity, without reference to the fact the elephant will trample all over them should he become Prime Minister of post-Brexit Britain. And most of the media have relentlessly banged out the message that Brexit is happening come what may, and anyone who suggests otherwise, or fails to get excited about blue passports or Brexit-celebrating 50-pence pieces, is a traitor, a saboteur, and worse.
So over the top we must continue to go at times, to get heard, and to be understood, in the face of indifferent politicians and their echoing broadcasters and papers. Over-the-top-ness means keeping going with the same messages when you the messenger are sick to death of hearing yourself say them. So when a critic tired of me banging on about the People’s Vote asked me on twitter ‘when you fart, does it come out as “People’s Vote?”’, this was a wonderful moment, an encouragement that the message was getting through, an unintended exhortation to keep going. ‘Ppppppplsssss Vvvvvvotttttttte,’ I replied … when farting becomes campaigning, this is joy.
But now, back to self-awareness, and the ability to understand – thanks Mariella – that one’s critics may sometimes have a point. This time the critic is Iain Martin, pro-Brexit commentator, who said I had gone ‘bananas,’ for making a Brexit link to the recent four-nation hand-holding summit on Syria, with Turkey’s Erdogan, Russia’s Putin, Germany’s Merkel, and France’s Macron.
‘UK irrelevant,’ I tweeted. ‘We have chosen our own decline. Brexit.’
Martin replied: ‘This is anti-Brexit bananas on several levels. US not at the podium either. And the implication is that Germany is a leading security, intel and defence power, which it isn’t. Not everything is about Brexit.’
He has a point. But so do I. True, Germany is not as significant a military power as the UK. Also true, President Trump was not there. But the US President will have figured in their discussions, and he will have been in their heads. Does anyone seriously imagine that ‘what will Theresa think?’ was a major part of their meeting. That it even happened in that forum says something about how quickly the shared diplomatic anger over a Russian hit team’s murder attempts in Salisbury evaporated.
Brexit has reduced our relevance in part because of what it says about us turning our backs on internationalism, and on our allies. But it has further reduced it because other leaders know how virtually the entirety of UK government bandwidth is taken up with Brexit. And, whether we like it or not, most governments around the world – Trump and Putin included – do believe that in choosing Brexit, we are choosing our own decline.
This ‘what will so-and-so think?’ point is not to be underestimated. It is an important part of diplomacy. I was in Paris last week speaking at a seminar on negotiation (Ireland, Balkans, TBGB kind of thing), and found myself telling the story of François de Callières, a French diplomat in the court of King Louis XIV, who wrote a practical guide to diplomacy, De la manière de négocier avec les souverains, translated as ‘The Art of Diplomacy,’ and much of it still resonant today. His belief that negotiators should negotiate continually, and his emphasis on harmonizing interests, are in part what led to the Ambassadorial system adopted worldwide. Patience, the ability to listen, and to show respect to those on the other side of the negotiation table, are likewise as relevant now as three centuries ago.
But he made one other observation worth recalling in the context of Mrs May’s current travails, and Iain’s Martin’s fears for my political sanity. Great negotiators, said de Callières, ‘saturate your mind.’ The same goes for campaigners. Mrs May is not inside the minds of her fellow leaders in the way she needs to be to set the agenda in negotiations (Brexit), and to be making the most of UK strength in the world (Global Britain– remember that one?)
We campaigners for a People’s Vote likewise need to learn from de Callières, and get inside Mrs May’s mind and inside the minds of other MPs tempted to support whatever deal she brings back to Parliament, when they know it will damage the country in general, and, Labour MPs, poorer areas in particular. ‘Saturate their minds.’ The grimace that crosses Mrs May’s face whenever the People’s Vote is raised suggests we are making progress. The anger I confronted in a Labour MP who had been called out for threatening to back a deal she knows will not address the issues that led many of her constituents to vote leave, but make them worse, similarly shows MPs understand they are facing a genuine and difficult choice, with no pain-free option.
So we have to keep going. And it may mean going a bit OTT from time to time. With so few politicians prepared to tell the truth about what Brexit actually means, it is for the People to keep speaking that truth unto power. Saturate their minds – that means writing, emailing, calling, using any encounter to make sure they understand – if they help this Brexit happen, and if (more likely when) it all goes wrong, the villains will not be forgotten.
Momentum – no pun intended, but that too – is definitely with us. Last night, speaking at a British Medical Association awards dinner in London, I tested the mood among the medical fraternity – around half a dozen among the few hundred raised their hands in support of Brexit and the way Mrs May was handling it. Several echoed the fear that the NHS faces an existential threat as a result of Brexit.
Meanwhile, two and a half years on from the vote that was meant to signal clarity about our route to the sunny uplands of post-Brexit Britain, the Cabinet still cannot agree a strategy, the EU negotiators have barely budged from the position that was set out from the off, and the so-called ‘deal’ Mrs May thinks she can get bears little relation to the Brexit promised by the Brexiteers, leaves significant questions about our trading future unanswered, leaves half of the country asking ‘what is the price of this?’ and the other half, especially if we are to stay in some kind of EU Customs Union indefinitely, asking ‘what’s the point?’ Many of us are asking both those questions.
Mrs May, when asked if people will be better off as a result of Brexit, cannot bring herself to say Yes, because she knows the answer is No. Barry Gardiner, in Monday’s Channel 4 programme, confirmed it is Labour’s view that Brexit will make us worse off. This really is a unique moment in our history, when both main parties are prepared to countenance a course of action that they know will make the country poorer. In the days and weeks between now and when the so-called meaningful vote takes place, the People must saturate the minds of the Politicians – so they are in no doubt that if they pursue a course of action they know will damage the lives and livelihoods of the people they serve, when that damage comes, the reckoning will be swift, and fierce.
The fear in the eyes of the Brexiting politicians was justified. They know there are risks the other way too, and I understand that. But this is one of those moments where the job of MPs is to step back and just ask the very basic question – what is the right course of action for the long-term interests of the country? I believe that will take them to a People’s Vote, with the option to Remain.
The next time someone like Piers Morgan hits you with a line like “17.5 million people voted for etc, etc…” , your response should simply be, “17.5 million people were lied to”
Can a nation where everyone is lying ever be considered a democracy? Is the freedom to make a choice in the absence of truth the same as making a choice in the presence of truth? The relationship between truth and democracy is rarely discussed yet it is fundamental, not only to what has just occurred with Brexit but also to what is occurring within our societies in general.
No democracy can exist on the basis of people not being lied to. Who decides whether we were being lied to? Freedom of speech means freedom to lie! Ultimately democracy rests on trusting the judgement of the majority of voters and those who wish to limit what those voters are and are not allowed to hear, 1984 style, simply do not believe in democracy.
Both sides lied in this referendum, just as both sides lie in any election, it’s the voters job to judge.
Should they not be allowed to vote? I for example having spoken to sooooo many teenagers and those old enough to know better, who do not know anything about WW2 or nuclear weapons, would ban all them from voting. I might ban everyone who doesn’t understand economics, which would result in a franchise 100th the size of that in the 19th century. Where does it stop?
We need to move away from the La La land of fantasy; the land of “could”, “might”, “probable,” “possible,” “likely,” and towards a new Age of Enlightenment; an age of decision making and opinion forming based on factual information and rational conclusions. There was nothing rational about people in the Folkestone and Dover areas (indeed all of the southeastern coastal areas ) voting to leave when they were, and still are, benefiting from transfers on the NHS to the PAS de Calais hospitals for hip replacements rather than being placed on lengthly waiting lists for operations in this country. The remainers and Peoples’ Voters need to really get their factual arguments together regarding all the benefits we will definitely lose on leaving the E.U. and in response to the unfounded arguments put forward by leavers. Why are journalists still calling members of the ERG and other extreme brexiters “euro sceptics” rather than “europhobes”, which is what they most definitely are, while calling people like Dominic Grieve a “europhile”? In winning over peoples’ hearts and minds words matter as do substantial arguments.
“we will them fight on the beaches,
and in the ferry ports,
and in the train chunnels,
we will endure.
and Michael Barnier,
with their resolves,
WE WILL WIN,
in say 2058,
we’ll be zero…
Yes Terri May & BoJo?
When they told me the People’s Vote was people talking out of their backside I didn’t realise they meant this.
I have often struggled to understand the wisdom behind remainer actions, from as far back as Tony Blair signing Lisbon with no referendum, to the present day.
I find myself questioning the brains and sanity of seemingly intelligent people who spout ridiculous backfiring arguments for remain. And managed to turn what should have been a 65-35 win for remain to a staggering 48-52 reverse.
But i think I DO understand the people’s vote and the current panic and hysteria around it.
I think, unlike many remainers, Alastair has grasped the point that given the remain hysteria, after Brexit things even if things are bad, they can’t possibly be anywhere near as bad as remain have sold them to be. And so it will be hard for remain to retain credibility with the voters in a post Brexit referendum. Hence they must go all out for a pre Brexit referendum.
I like Alastair a lot and find myself quoting him or thinking how he and Blair would approach something in my own work probably on a weekly basis. But yes I shall hereby be bold enough to offer spin advice to the uks most eminent spin doctor!
Alastair, do you not think making a demonstrably poor argument on a point in which your side is weak, on which your point is weak, weakens your sides credibility and your personal credibility… which will only cause people to then doubt you even on the areas where you are strong? That’s how I see this “Brexit makes us internationally irrelevant” theme. You of all people should know, that when push comes to shove in international matters, Britain is basically the only Western European country who counts, in or out of the EU. In Europe Germany has money, France has guns, but only Britain has both money and guns… and the willingness to use them. What good were Germany or France to America in the last Iraq war?
I think the point about the doctors, while valid, is exaggerated. I know that in the professions, both my own and others, the peer pressure is enormous to be for remain and keep any Brexit opinions silent. Just as if you asked 500 dockers you might find only 5 or 6 brave enough to raise their hand for remain, even though many more support it.
As for the Frenchman recommending to negotiate harmoniously, I would be interested to hear Alastair whether you think the remain side did that in the referendum campaign or any time since? Of course, neither did the Brexit side… so is your advice to be more respectful, or to be even more outspoken?
However can I point out the main contradiction in this bma argument. They fear an “existential crisis” in the nhs. Meaning they fear we will not be able to hire enough cheap foreign nurses… and will have to, shock horror, pay to train up British nurses! And pay them a higher salary! Supply and demand and all that. And there we have the most capitalist, most right wing reason to be in the European Union, the reason the thatchers and tebbits backed our joining against the wishes of the left.
Even ken Livingston worries about the effects on banks and business!
Surely with this newfound support for arch capitalism on the right we can’t fail after Brexit, we will be the new Switzerland or Hong Kong!
I joke and digress, but seriously – the doctors complain about low wages forcing them to migrate to Australia – but all the negative consequences they predict for the nhs under Brexit should predict higher wages for them!
I hate to hear doctors speaking about economics. It makes me doubt their brains and judgement which is not what I want to be thinking when I go in for a consultation. I beg of them to read an economics book before speaking on economics.
Brexit is beyond a joke now, it has all gone very silly now, Ali.
See my 104 year Dylan Thomas vid I did for the 9th Nov, but on his 1953 death, in NYC, in an alley. x
i’ll be honest, i’m not sure any sort of deal will get past parliament. the far right ones won’t. the middle of the road muddles (which is kinda what the gov is trying to do) won’t. not leaving won’t either. nevermind the not really leaving but call it leaving, which probably has the best chance.
we are screwed and have been screwed since the vote. just a matter of how badly we will be when the dust settles. whenver that is.
“..and I understand that. But this is one of those moments where the job of MPs is to step back and just ask the very basic question – what is the right course of action for the long-term interests of the country?”
That’s easy to answer – to follow the wishes of the majority who voted and leave the EU – completely leave. If, once we’ve left totally, Remainers wish to campaign for the UK to rejoin so be it…..but not until after we have left.