A loss for liberalism

By June 27, 2016



Among my very early memories are those of the 1997 election. It fell not long before my sixth birthday and, for weeks before and after, fixed to our large living room sash windows were two A5 stickers. Bright yellow lettering on a bright red background read: ‘Labour’. My dad belonged to the local party, and I would help him deliver leaflets round the tree-lined block on which we lived at the edge of Nottingham city centre.

I had no idea what was on the leaflets, of course, though remember being disappointed by my first glimpse of John Major. I had had an image in my head (and still do now, and wish I could recall the subject and setting of the statue on which it must be based) of a bronze figure, wearing a waistcoat and a wig, and holding a lightly unfurled scroll under one arm. I had thought that’s what prime ministers looked like, encouraged by the imperious name of the incumbent. It’s a handsome image for any latter-day politician to match, I’ll admit, but the fall from it, and to the colourless, spectacled person of Major, mightn’t have been quite so far.

I remember once asking my dad what the difference was between Labour and the Tories, and him replying: “The Tories want to look after rich people. Labour want to look after everybody.” I recited this line to him recently, and said I realise now that my five-year-old self took this to be a quite literal and exhaustive summary of British politics. “In that case,” he said, “you took it exactly as it would have been meant.”

All this is to say that my very first awareness of politics came with a victory I had known was imminent, and some vague feeling of being glad things had turned out the way they had. Those of us for whom the intervening years were formative got used to the world following roughly the course liberals would have wanted it to, a fact that explains much of what has happened in the days since the referendum: the disbelief at the result, the protests, the lingering feeling that Brexit can still be avoided.

The truth is that for many of us Remainers the surprise on Friday morning was not the nature of the result so much as the fact there was a result to speak of. We expected to secure a remain vote and get on with what was already the most strange of parliamentary terms. Had the referendum gone the other way, it would by now be as if it had never happened, and we would barely even have appreciated the fact. It has long been said that, for the centre-left, comfort has bred complacency, and perhaps it is because we had it so good for so long that we have now suffered a defeat greater than all our victories.

To leaflet Edgware Road for Remain on polling day, as I did, was easy work. From young, white collar professionals to European nationals to the patrons and owners of the Lebanese restaurants that flank the street, the response was one of support. When just at the peak of rush hour it began raining heavily, a passing commuter forced a pink umbrella, which I have still, into my hands, already overflowing with soggy leaflets and reams of markedly popular stickers.

But I learnt quickly that a caucasian male approaching with paint on his jeans was unlikely to accept my offer of a leaflet advertising the growth, jobs, and workers’ rights for which we have Brussels to thank. More likely he would posit that I was joking. These are the people whose respect New Labour lost, who told me on doorsteps that they used to vote Labour but now vote UKIP, and who swung the referendum.

I had a long and friendly but mutually fruitless conversation with one construction worker concerned about the prospect of Turkey being granted EU membership. He insisted that when in 2014 he returned to work from his Christmas break, he found that the newly-established right of Romanians and Bulgarians to work in Britain had forced the hourly rate he could charge down from £15 to £10. He didn’t want the same thing to happen again.

It is now besides the point that only a handful of migrants arrived here in the first week of January 2014, and that only a tiny percentage of those that eventually did come would have been construction workers offering their services in London, and that Turkey isn’t going to become an EU member any time soon. The point is that that man wasn’t interested in listening to defences of liberal policy because he didn’t think its designers or proponents were interested in listening to him.

Only in a climate of mistrust could Michael Gove have gotten away with declaring that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, a line that I hope and expect will stay with him like a regretted tattoo. Only after decades of badly countered rhetoric about ‘bureaucrats’ and ‘elites’ (a word that meant very little even before it was appropriated by Old Etonians and Alleynians) could Boris Johnson have convinced working people that it was he who hoped to deliver them more control over their lives.

Those on the Right now posing as scourges of wealth inequality and big business in the European arena are the same people who would have bitterly opposed any attempt by domestic governments to protect workers from the worst pressures of globalisation. Yet here they have staged a partly successful attempt to shift blame for the evisceration of once-thriving industrial towns from the Right to the Left.

I have often made the case that it is to Britain’s credit that this is the dominant strain of Euroscepticism here. Look elsewhere in Europe, I would say. Le Front Nationale has only just gotten round to expelling its holocaust-denying founder. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders has repeatedly called for the Koran to be banned – Party for Freedom, indeed. Having been awarded a slot on Question Time, the openly racist Nick Griffin never recovered from his own success. We are, on balance, remarkably accommodating of other people and cultures. Had Britons not been convinced that each new arrival makes it harder for them to pay their bills, attacking the principal of open borders would be a much harder task in this country.

I still believe all of this. But as I watched Nigel Farage make his nasty, bullish victory speech in the early hours of Friday morning, claiming this was a win “for real people…, won without a single bullet being fired,” I felt my case weakening. A politician might be judged on whether he is emboldened or moderated by success, a country on what it makes of his choice. Farage must now be said to have failed this test. If Britain is to pass it then we liberals must stop taken our victories for granted, and become willing to engage in a very worthwhile quarrel in which we, for the first time in a long time, will be the underdogs.

Unless a snap election is won by a pro-EU bloc, this result must be respected. To ignore it would be to pour cement into the vents of a volcano, and thus intensify the eventual and inevitable release of pressure. But we can argue for the maintenance of the closest possible ties with Europe, just as Eurosceptics argued against closer integration throughout the years for which Remain led comfortably in every poll.

If we are to minimise our losses, we must stop being afraid to articulate the very real instincts that motivated so many Remainers. The battle for Britain’s head pitted the supposed economic and cultural costs of immigration against the economic benefits of single market membership. But the battle for her heart pitted the value of national sovereignty against a quiet, empty void where an impassioned championing of internationalism and fraternity should have been.

Filed under: Politics