Friday 29 March 2019

Why I have changed my mind

Until now, the only thing that has linked me to Jacob Rees-Mogg is that his auntie was once my mum’s lodger.

But now we share something else. Like him, I have changed my mind over Brexit. Unlike him, however, I have not belatedly come to see the virtues of the EU withdrawal deal negotiated by Theresa May.

No. Having been unpersuaded until now that another referendum would be the best way to resolve the UK’s Brexit agony, I have now reluctantly come to the view that there is no other solution. I have concluded, in the words of the old slogan from my student days, that politics is too important to leave to the politicians.

I remain a firm believer in parliamentary democracy. I also remain deeply suspicious of one-off referendums, particularly those with no minimum threshold for an affirmative vote. (Was there really no one in David Cameron’s entourage who reminded him of the Scottish devolution referendum of 1979, when the law stipulated that unless at least forty per cent of the registered electorate voted Yes, devolution would not go ahead? In the 2016 Brexit referendum, only thirty-seven per cent of the electorate voted Leave.)

But if parliament is unable to make a decision, then someone else has to. And in extremis, it will have to be the electorate again. In theory, I would prefer voters to have their say in a general election – and there were murmurings at Westminster last night that a snap election might be Mrs May’s next cunning plan --  but with both main parties incapable of uniting around a coherent position on Brexit, an election is unlikely to make things any better. (If you’re of a betting disposition, a modest flutter on 23 May, the date of the European parliament elections, might be fun.)

Interestingly, it looks as if MPs might also be warming to the idea of another referendum. If we learned anything at all from the so-called ‘indicative votes’ circus on Wednesday evening, it is that more MPs support the idea of another referendum than any of the other seven options presented to them. There were also more pro-referendum votes than there had been for the government’s proposed withdrawal agreement when MPs voted on 12 March.

But it’s important to be clear: the ‘confirmatory referendum’ idea is based on the assumption that parliament will, eventually, approve the withdrawal deal – the referendum would then be to gauge whether or not voters approve of it as well. What happens if parliament fails to approve it? No deal, no referendum.

And here’s the rub: I still see no chance that the deal – not even one part of it -- will be passed. Not later today, not on Monday, not ever. The DUP is still only happy when it can say No, and Labour isn’t going to vote for a deal that could immediately lead to Mrs May stepping down and Boris Johnson or Michael Gove taking over as prime minister.

I’m not going to even try to speculate about what happens next. In the laconic words of a ‘government source’ quoted yesterday morning by the BBC’s estimable assistant political editor Norman Smith: ‘The options are not obvious.’

Oh, Sir Humphrey, of Yes, Minister, where are you, now that we need you in our darkest hour?

Whatever happens over the coming days, our political system will take years to recover. Because remember: this was meant to be the easy part. Nothing that has been negotiated so far even begins to answer the question ‘So what kind of trading relationship will the UK have with the EU in future?’ Given the importance of the EU to the UK’s prosperity – which means jobs, public services and economic growth – it’s not exactly inconsequential.

The truth is that our system of government has comprehensively failed us. It has even failed the arch-Brexiteers who set this whole wretched business in motion. Here, for example, is  the Conservative MP, Steve Baker, a Brexiteer even more committed than Jacob Rees-Mogg: ‘I’m consumed with a ferocious rage. I could tear this place down and bulldoze it into the river.’

This kind of talk is both grossly irresponsible and incendiary, because if democracy fails, what takes its place? History is not exactly encouraging, and we are in desperate need of political leaders who can begin both to rebuild our faith in parliament and to start work on creating a better system. As Gary Younge puts it in today’s Guardian: ‘We have a party that is not fit to govern, leading a parliament that is not able to legislate, elected by a system that is not fit for purpose.’

Theresa May has boxed herself into the utterly absurd position of being committed to resigning if she wins approval for her deal, but staying in office if she fails. Whoever replaces her is likely to be a far more enthusiastic Brexiteer than she ever was, heralding the prospect of an ever-worsening crisis.

Far better, I am now persuaded, to throw the question back into the lap of the electorate. Is this what you voted for? Are you sure? If they say Yes again, so be it. And if this time they say No, we can begin to rebuild both our politics and our nation.

But even if the UK does not leave the EU, things will never be the same again. We were never the most popular member of the bloc – and it will take many, many years to regain any of the esteem or trust in which we once might have been held. Let’s be honest: who’s going to take us seriously after the total balls-up of the past three years?

I have lost count of how many words I have written about Brexit since June 2016. Exactly two years ago, immediately after Theresa May wrote her ill-fated letter triggering the Article 50 withdrawal process, I wrote that the sadness I had felt after the referendum had now turned to deep anger ‘at the hypocrisy, dishonesty and sheer political cowardice that has characterised the response to the referendum result of both major parties … We have become a shrunken nation led by shrunken politicians.’

Since then, a handful of MPs have done what they could to prove me wrong. Among them are Oliver Letwin, Yvette Cooper, Nick Boles, Dominic Grieve, Hilary Benn and Lucy Powell, all of whom have striven mightily to rescue something from the turmoil. One day, who knows, they may be deemed to have earned a place in the pantheon of parliamentarians who made a difference.

I just hope their efforts weren’t too little, and too late.

Friday 22 March 2019

A national leader who has risen to the occasion

The prime minister has won international admiration for the way she has handled the national crisis. She has found the right words, struck the right note, and she has brought the nation together in a way that few leaders can.

In many ways, it has been a masterclass in political leadership. Not only because of what she said but how she said it – she understood the nation’s need and responded in a truly exemplary fashion.

Oh, wait. No, surely, you didn’t think I meant … Did you? Really?

I’m talking about Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, whose response to the mass murder of 50 Muslims in two mosques in Christchurch last Friday has been, in my view, pitch perfect.

With just three simple words, she set the tone for the country’s remarkable national response: ‘They are us.’ It should become the ringing credo for all modern nations, the most powerful answer available to the populist wave that seems to be sweeping across the globe.

In countries as different as Brazil, China, Hungary, India and Turkey, leaders have set community against community, majority against minority. ‘We, the people …’ has become not a cry of unity but of division, the people against the elite, against the foreigner, against the enemy.

We even heard it in Downing Street on Wednesday night, when a very different prime minister sought to turn ‘the people’ against the very people they had elected to represent them in parliament.  ‘I am on your side,’ she said, apparently not having seen – or having chosen to ignore – the latest opinion poll suggesting that sixty per cent of the electorate would now prefer the UK to remain in the EU, and only forty per cent support the withdrawal deal that she has so painfully negotiated.

She also seems to have forgotten – or chose to ignore – that UK prime ministers govern only as long as they retain the confidence of parliament, not the other way round. It’s parliament that is supreme, not the prime minister. Her words, doubtless born of a belated realisation that she has boxed herself into a corner from which resignation is the only escape, were a disgrace.

If you haven’t already done so, look at the pictures of Jacinda Ardern, her head covered to respect Muslim custom, embracing the families of the Christchurch victims. Listen to her explain why she will never mention the murderer’s name – and marvel at the speed with which her government has moved to tighten New Zealand’s gun laws.

Suzanne Moore, writing in The Guardian, quoted Martin Luther King, who said that genuine leaders do not search for consensus but mould it. Ardern, she said, ‘has moulded a different consensus, demonstrating action, care, unity. Terrorism sees difference and wants to annihilate it. Ardern sees difference and wants to respect it, embrace it and connect with it.’

Why do I focus on New Zealand, this week of all weeks, with the clock ticking inexorably towards an event that I now hesitate even to give a name to? Because Jacinda Ardern has shown that liberal values have not died, that they still have a place in today’s world, and that – even as a nation faces its darkest hour – reaching out to embrace neighbours is not an unaffordable luxury but an essential response.

Yes, New Zealand is a small, generally peaceful country, unlike many of those where the wave of populism is running strong. But that doesn’t mean it can’t offer the rest of the world an example of how to adapt to the needs of a changing population in a rapidly changing world.

Like all successful leaders, Jacinda Ardern knows the power of words. Unlike many, she uses them to bind wounds, not to open them. She doesn’t talk of immigrants ‘swamping’ towns and cities (M Fallon, 2014); she doesn’t insult Muslim women who wear face-covering veils by saying they look like letter boxes or bank robbers (B Johnson, 2018); nor does she refer to migrants as ‘a swarm’ (D Cameron, 2015).

And when the President of the United States asks her what support the US could offer New Zealand after the Christchurch shootings, she replies that he should offer ‘sympathy and love for all Muslim communities.’

There isn’t much for liberals to celebrate these days – so let’s not miss this opportunity to celebrate a rare political leader who has genuinely risen to the occasion.

Friday 8 March 2019

A government of bigots?

Within the space of just a few hours this week, two Cabinet ministers have had to issue grovelling apologies after spouting gratuitous and offensive insults. A third should have done, but didn’t.

First, the Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley had to grovel after claiming that deaths caused by British troops and police in Northern Ireland during the Troubles ‘were not crimes’.

Which is (a) wrong, and (b) about as offensive as it’s possible to be to the families of those who were killed. Hence the grovel: ‘I am profoundly sorry for the offence and hurt that my words have caused. The language was wrong and, even though this was not my intention, it was deeply insensitive to many of those who lost loved ones.’

(This is the same Northern Ireland secretary, you may recall, who freely admitted last year that when she first took the job, she had no idea that nationalists in the province didn’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa.)

Then Amber Rudd – a former home secretary, no less, who you might have thought would have learned something by now about diversity and minorities – somehow managed to refer to the shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, who is by far the best known black politician in the country, as ‘coloured’ – an epithet that ceased being acceptable at about the same time as the Black and White Minstrel Show went out of fashion.

Ms Abbott rightly called it ‘an outdated, offensive and revealing choice of words.’ Ms Rudd immediately apologised for her ‘clumsy language’.

And then – yes, there’s more – Andrea Leadsom replied to a question in the Commons on Islamophobia by suggesting that the questioner, Labour frontbencher Naz Shah, should ask the Foreign Office, which gave the very distinct impression that she regards Muslims as, well, not really British.

A headline in The Times sums it all up admirably: ‘One day, three gaffes as ministers offend Irish, blacks and Muslims.'

What is it with these people? Are they stupid? Careless? Racist? And it’s not just Conservatives, either – remember the Independent Group and former Labour MP Angela Smith, who just a couple of weeks ago barely managed to stop herself referring on TV to people who are ‘black or a funny tinge’?

I recognise that not everyone chooses their words with as much care as a professional journalist or broadcaster. Sometimes even the best of people are caught out when the brain trips up the tongue – as my former colleague Jim Naughtie notoriously discovered when he mis-spoke the first consonant of Jeremy Hunt’s surname.

But this is something different. This is the tongue revealing what the brain forgets to conceal, or in the case of Karen Bradley, the tongue revealing the gap where the brain should be.

I think it also reveals something else. It reveals an appalling level of ignorance about the world beyond Westminster and the social circles in which too many MPs spend their lives. And although I hesitate to accuse anyone of bigotry without sufficient evidence, I think it’s at least arguable that these repeated ‘mis-statements’ or ‘clumsy language’ do reveal attitudes that should have no place in twenty-first century Britain.

Which brings us to out-and-out bigotry, against minorities of all descriptions, but in particular against Jews and Muslims. On Thursday, the equality watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, announced that it has embarked on the first step of a statutory inquiry into whether the Labour party is guilty of unlawful discrimination against Jews.

This is serious stuff – because the only previous occasions when it has taken similar action were when it ordered the British National Party to rewrite its constitution so as not to contravene race relations legislation, and when it found that the Metropolitan Police were discriminating against minority ethnic, gay and female police officers.

On the other side of the political divide, the Conservative party has now suspended fourteen members who are alleged to have published Islamophobic comments online. And the Tory party chairman Brandon Lewis has been accused of failing to act against several other complaints of racism and Islamophobia.

One Tory activist in Portsmouth, who came to the UK from Iran forty years ago and whose daughter is a British army officer, was quoted as saying: ‘People in the party feel able to be as racist as they wish now.’

Hardly surprising, is it, given that it was a former Tory foreign secretary no less – Boris something? – who wrote in a newspaper column last year that Muslim women who wear a face-covering veil, or niqab, look like letter boxes or bank robbers.

Sayeeda Warsi, who was both chairman of the Conservative party and the first Muslim woman to sit in the Cabinet, has accused Theresa May of ‘burying her head in the sand’ over the issue. ‘She doesn’t listen, she fails to acknowledge when there is a problem.’

So is there more Islamophobia in the Conservative party than antisemitism in the Labour party? I have no idea, and I’m not sure it matters. There has certainly been much more publicity about Labour’s in-house bigots, but there is a fairly obvious explanation.

As Jonathan Freedland suggested in The Guardian, it’s probably because ‘people expect much less of the Tories than they do of an avowedly anti-racist party such as Labour … if the Tory party is riddled with bigotry towards a minority, it hardly comes as a surprise.’

What I find so deeply depressing about all this is that it shines such an unflattering light on politicians and political activists who claim to be in business to make the UK a better place. If they are harbouring racists and bigots – and failing to root them out – I dread to think what might lie in store.

Because if you think this is just a handful of pathetic bigots sounding off and doing no real harm, ponder these statistics.

According to the most recent figures from the Muslim monitoring group Tell Mama, there were 1,200 verified anti-Muslim attacks in Britain last year, an increase of more than twenty-five per cent over the previous year and the highest number since it began recording incidents.

And according to the Jewish security group the Community Security Trust, there were more than 1,650 antisemitic incidents over the same period, a sixteen per cent increase over the previous year.

There should be no tolerance for bigotry anywhere, whether in the constituency meeting rooms of our two main political parties or on the streets and online where thugs think they can attack minorities with impunity.

And Cabinet ministers should learn how to talk about people who look different, sound different, or worship differently, without being offensive. It really isn’t that hard.