Last week I went to an “Anti Trump” demo in my local town and stood in the rain for an hour listening to the heckling from “the other side”. Laughter erupted when one of the women opposite shouted: “Trump doesn’t hate women. He’s married to a woman.”
The police where quick to intervene when the opposition ran at us, mainly to hassle a lady in a wheelchair.
At one point a reporter stuck a large green microphone under my nose and asked “Tell me why you are here protesting today”.
I mumbled something about Trump reversing decades of progress towards a more equal and just world by promoting division between people who in reality had more similarities and common cause than they had differences.
Scapegoating and simplistic approaches never solve complex issues and division between people is never the answer. As president of the USA Trump is a powerful influence and demagogues and dictators the world over must be delighted by his approach. When faced with any criticism of their record on human rights or civil rights they can point to Trump. If it’s OK for the “greatest nation on Earth”, it’s OK for us.
Brexit also seems to have been fuelled by division. I’ve been campaigning against Brexit for over a year. I was upset enough about the prospect of losing EU citizenship and my children losing the opportunities I’d had; and I was worried about the economic impact. But that isn’t what got me off my backside and out into the streets.
I was stirred into action by the rhetoric of the politicians: “will of the people”, “enemies of the people“, “traitors”, “citizens of nowhere” the exploitation of them and us and the disregard for facts and genuine dialogue. From my limited knowledge of history such an approach has never ended well – anywhere in the world.
The economic perils of Brexit are well documented – even by the government which is intent on forcing it through – but to me the real risk to the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland was the decline of democracy and undermining of social cohesion that policies based on such rhetoric produce.
I campaigned to protect my democratic right to oppose, to refuse to be intimidated or silenced, to hold the government accountable, to demand that the rule of law be maintained and not bent on a pretext of facilitating the ‘will of the people’ and maybe, as a consequence, to demonstrate it would be sensible to pause, define the objectives of leaving and how to do it and then hold a further public vote: now we have a detailed plan and understand the consequences is it this what you want?
In short, if we were going to remove the framework on which significant parts of the UK life, culture, personal relationships and economy were built at least let’s do it properly and not as an unplanned consequence of a political party gamble gone wrong and an emotive campaign which played on scapegoats, division and exceptionalism.
In my year campaigning I have found that there is much more in common between the people who voted Leave and those who voted Remain than there are differences, at least in my region, a well known Leave area. The majority do not see themselves defined by their voting decision in the referendum. A great many of the people I have spoken to out on the streets want what is best for the country and themselves and are not as heavily invested in delivering Brexit merely to be out of the EU as the politicians claim.
As a campaigner it has been frustrating to hear people say that they regret their decision to vote Leave but they will have to live with it because “that’s democracy”. Others have said they feel deceived by what they now consider the lies in the campaign, especially women who thought they were voting to help the NHS.
It is tempting to conclude that many people who still think politicians “should get on with it” no longer want to (or care whether we) leave the EU but feel they have to support Brexit simply to avoid betraying their vote and appearing to have been “forced to change their mind” or worse, “ignored by the politicians”. I’ve heard this even from some who are actively worried about the consequences of Brexit.
Yes there are still some vocal “we won and we won’t be denied our victory” proponents most of whom decline to give any example of what they expect to gain. I suspect these people will not change their minds but they aren’t the brave stiff upper lip people who are bravely sticking to their decision despite what they now fear because they believe that is the democratic thing to do. Despite their insistence that we survived two world wars so we can survive Brexit, most in this ideological group don’t seem to believe there will be any adverse consequences for themselves or the country. They are offering sacrifices on behalf of others they themselves never expect to suffer.
I can’t help but feel that Brexit in some quarters has taken on a life completely separate from the original question of leaving the EU.
Now Tory Party leadership candidates are vying to be as tough as possible on delivering Brexit. They claim it is the only way to save the Tory Party. Maybe they forget that most people in this country are not in the Tory Party and that opinion polls consistently show the country has changed it’s mind on Brexit and even those who would still like to leave the EU are not prepared to do it at any cost.
Some of the candidates even refuse to rule out proroguing parliament to prevent MPs stopping them forcing through a ‘no-deal’ Brexit – something they must know most people do not want (a ‘will of the people’ they no loner refer to) than let the people have another say. Others continue to pretend something better is possible.
If, once it was clear there were no net Brexit benefits – only net losses, pushing ahead with it was solely about honouring democracy then that too has failed.
The “will of the people” has been abused by an authoritarian, right-wing populist movement. It has facilitated the manipulation of the government into actions which left it in contempt of parliament and hell bent on implementing a change it knows will seriously undermine the international standing and the economy of the country and which was against it’s own policy.
Divide and conquer has been deployed and we now have a government too scared to tell the truth; a parliament too afraid of its voters to discharge its primary duty and which no longer know what it is accountable for; a people so boxed in by a narrative of betrayal that many think it is democratic and patriotic to continue with a damaging cause of action rather than change direction; a new political party with no members, no manifesto and zero accountability for anything – the antithesis of democracy – that is calling the shots.
We were persuaded to Take Back Control by the people who may yet take it for themselves. Beware what you wish for and be even more careful who you vote for.