The only certainty in politics today is that it will get nastier
Two things which once struck me as possible now strike me as probable.
The Conservative Party will not survive this present crisis in its present form; and there will be another referendum on the EU.
I say ‘another’ rather than a second one, because the next one will not be a simple Yes/No choice on membership: instead, it will be a decision about whether or not we accept the final exit deal (assuming there is one); or, which is also beginning to look probable, a vote on whether or not we want to leave in the absence of a final deal.
The ongoing implosion of the Conservative Party doesn’t surprise me. There has been a schism on Europe since Harold McMillan – Conservative leader and prime minister at the time – headed the UK’s application to join the EEC in July 1961. France vetoed the application.
But the questions raised by the initial application are still being asked by Conservatives today: what is the ultimate purpose of European integration; what damage does it do to UK sovereignty and independence; what is the UK’s role and clout if we aren’t members. It has been the failure to answer those questions which has left the party in its present mess.
David Cameron took a risk in 2016: he believed that a referendum would lance the boil while leaving the UK in the EU. But he made such a dog’s dinner of the Remain campaign that even ‘soft’ Leavers drifted to Leave. Hours after the result was confirmed it became clear that he hadn’t instructed the executive arm of the government to make any preparation for Leave. He thereupon took the easiest option available to him; he announced his resignation and fled the scene of his monumental arrogance and stupidity.
It was his failure to prepare for Leave which has pushed us into ‘another referendum’ territory. And it’s also the fault of the Leave side, too. At no point have they published a costed, thought-through strategy for delivering an exit strategy.
Boris Johnson is wonderfully inspired when it comes to the rhetoric of Leave; and Rees-Mogg is brilliant – albeit hopelessly deluded– when it comes to mauling Mrs May; but neither of them has simply stood up and said, “Here’s the alternative prime minister. It’s more than words and more than whinge. It is a strategy the entire party can get behind.”
There isn’t, in fact, a strategy which the entire party can get behind. And that’s why a formal split seems inevitable; irrespective of what happens next March.
No one – and I really do mean no one – has any certainty about what happens next. May is surviving on a wing and a prayer in Parliament. The grassroots are in revolt: although it’s worth bearing in mind that with a total membership of around just 125,00 it’s a mistake to assume that the grassroots is truly representative of the millions who vote for the party.
Labour have their own divisions – not least of which is that nobody knows what Corbyn really wants.
There is evidence of a groundswell of opinion having doubts and concerns about Brexit. House of Commons arithmetic doesn’t support either a hard Brexit, or no deal at all. Interestingly, for the first time since the referendum, a YouGov poll has shown slim majority support for another referendum. All of those factors make it more likely that another referendum will look like an increasingly probable option.
Another crucial factor in the mess is the role of the media. Well, not so much the role as the fallout from the very bitter spat between ‘old’ and ‘new’ media over what constitutes news. The ‘old media seems to think that its role is to provide balance: which means that each view has to be counterbalanced by another view. So if someone says the sun is shining, there has to be someone else saying it isn’t. It’s the task of the columnists to provide ‘opinion’; the primary task of the journalists is to go outside and look at the sky. There is a world of difference between journalism and opinion: and it should be recognised and preserved.
‘New’ media outlets tend to be more brutal. They don’t actually bother with the opinions of those who don’t conform to their worldview. They simply provide a platform for their side and only their side. You’ll rarely hear a counter-argument on these sites.
The new outlets like to portray themselves as anti-establishment, yet they tend to cosy-up to, or peddle the message of what they hope will be the new, alternative establishment. Many of them love Trump and Farage, entirely oblivious to the reality that Trump and Farage don’t actually give a damn about them.
I still try and look at both – all sides of a debate. I am open to having my mind changed. I am prepared to listen to the arguments of others. I am willing to acknowledge mistakes and wrong steers. So I don’t restrict myself when it comes to what I read or the programmes I watch and listen to. I don’t assume that everything I disagree with is ‘fake news’. I don’t assume that supporters of the ‘other side’ are just lying. I read. I think. I consult. I take soundings. I reach a conclusion. I take on board the reactions to that conclusion. I deplore those who work from the premise that “most people can be fooled some of the time, thank goodness”.
What we have seen over the past two years has been politics at its very worst. What should have been an honest debate about the most important decisions we have had to make since WWII has descended into the mire. Neither side believes the other. There is no impartiality, let alone a neutral space where considered debate is possible. Respect is a forgotten concept. Manipulation matters more than reasoned persuasion. Politics will become nastier and nastier.