Now that Johnson has his majority the formality of Leaving the EU is getting an easy ride through parliament and we know the UK will leave the EU on 31st January 2020. Despite the “Get Brexit Done” slogan, so successful in the 2019 General Election, it doesn’t mean Brexit is done. The Vote Leave campaign now in government must now deliver in the real world.
It remains to be seen how Johnson and his team will square the circle of his campaign’s mutually contradictory promises but early signs are that he will not even try. In public, at least, he continues to deny hard issues and he is busy putting in place his facade of Brexit done: no more mention of it by his office, closing down the Department for Exiting the EU, refusing to give interviews to journalists who challenge him.
Johnson has a reputation for putting his own interests first so presumably he has calculated that the political risk to him of abandoning the Vote Leave promises is low. We have to hold him to account.
None of us likes living in a divided country
Now the Prime Minister is asking that we all come together. None of us likes living in a divided country but it was the Leave side which split it. May’s government, including Johnson, then ignored and excluded those who declined to “believe” in their Brexit, thus entrenching division.
Brexit supporting media branded anyone questioning or holding the government to account as traitors and saboteurs. Mrs May described those who valued EU citizenship or who lived outside their country of birth as citizens of nowhere. The government condoned xenophobic and even racist behaviour and encouraged opponents to be described as unpatriotic and undemocratic.
If, after nearly four years of denigrating us and ignoring our views, Johnson is serious about healing a divided country, then he has to take the first steps towards reconciliation. He has to acknowledge that those he has alienated and cast aside, those he has branded as anti-democratic obstructing the will of the people, are themselves part of “the people” and hold a legitimate position within a true democracy.
We don’t need to like the answers but we do need valid answers
Winning a General Election or a referendum does not make the winning policies right, sensible or practical. Winning an election does not turn wishful thinking into a viable proposition. The losers are not obliged to accept the winning side is right nor abandon their opposition.
A government with a strong case for Brexit would not be worried by challenging questions. It would have answers; answers to show it understood the issues, that it had considered the needs of all stakeholders, and that on balance its actions are in the national interest – even if some people don’t like it.
The opposition doesn’t need to like or even agree with the answers but it can demand that they are sound and properly address the questions asked. A government that redefines legitimate scrutiny as obstructing the will of the people is on the slippery slope to authoritarianism. It can never bring the country together it can merely drive its opposition underground.
A festival of Brexit does nothing to bring the country together
If Johnson is serious about bringing the country together he has to end his divisive policies. He must dismantle the hostile environment, stop scapegoating those not born in the UK and end racist and misogynist dog whistling. Above all he must recognise the opposition’s right to oppose and step back from the tyranny of the majority approach. His has to become a government for all the people not just the people who support it.
A festival of Brexit sends exactly the opposite message. It celebrates the removal of valuable rights from its citizens, a reduction in the places we can call home. It cheers as success the disruption wilfully inflicted on millions of families. It applauds deliberately reducing opportunities for younger people. It repeats the message: you are not one of The People, you do not count, your views are irrelevant, you are vanquished and we delight in your loss.
A Prime Minister serious about a festival to celebrate Brexit can not be serious about bringing the country together.
Reconciliation requires a recognition of the damage done
Coming together implies the need for reconciliation. Reconciliation requires that the parties recognise and acknowledge the damage and pain they have caused to the other. It must lead to an agreed and viable plan for building future trust and confidence between them.
Johnson does not seem close to beginning a reconciliation process. Brexit is not done and his actions suggest that keeping his supporters on side is more important to him than reconciliation. His government cannot afford to be seen to acknowledge that Brexit, rather than the opposition to it, has caused any damage. While the leaders of the Leave side, many now cabinet ministers, are still misleading their own supporters there is no chance of the country “coming together”.