Jess Phillips got into politics with a plan to show the public MPs were not ‘all the same’. But, she says, she now realises that showing your personality as a politician is a mistake. Fear of a public backlash is what turns MPs into the ‘line driven robots’ we find so frustrating, she argues, so we should no longer complain about them
Read Jess Phillips’ interview with Rachel Cooke in The Observer Magazine on Sunday
It looks increasingly likely that November’s election will be fought by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. But in a campaign that has turned conventional wisdom on its head – could there yet be a twist in the tale?
Joining Tom Clark this week are Geoffrey Kabaservice, author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party; and Guardian political writers Gaby Hinsliff, Gary Younge and Ewen MacAskill.
Also this week: a secret plan to cull hundreds of local Conservative associations came to light this week: 650 could become 60 or 70 “super-associations” in what is being written up as a power grab by the centre. Added to that, David Cameron has recently told MPs to vote with their “hearts” rather than listen to their associations on the EU referendum. But how rebellious do Tory grassroots really feel?
Geography has always had as much to do with international affairs as economics or ideology ever have. So perhaps it is the symbolism of being a staging post on the old route between London and Paris that explains why Amiens is a place where Britain and France – so often economic and ideological rivals – meet and do deals. When the British and French leaders meet in the northern French town, as they did on Thursday, practical politics always seems likely to win out over even the deepest ancestral suspicions.
That was certainly the case when the two countries signed their compromise peace treaty in Amiens in March 1802, in which Henry Addington’s British government bowed the knee to Napoleon’s European conquests in the hope that economic prosperity and commerce would revive. In fact, the deal only lasted a year because Napoleon – incapable of banking his gains – always wanted more.
France and Britain have not fought a major war since Napoleon’s fall. But they frequently still look askance at one another’s actions and motives on the world stage. Nevertheless, a 21st-century version of solid Anglo-French pragmatism was on show again in Amiens yesterday, when David Cameron and François Hollande met to proclaim the stabilising importance of the Anglo-French alliance within an enduring European Union in which both sides want Britain to remain.
These summits take place so regularly these days that it is tempting to dismiss them as largely decorative. But yesterday’s was significant. It has already become one of the cliches of the Brexit debate that Germany and France are desperate for Britain to remain in the EU, to provide a stability whose absence might otherwise send the union spinning off into wider instability. What is not said enough is how remarkable a turn of events this really is, especially in the case of France.
Ever since British exit from Europe became a realistic possibility, there has never been any doubt that Germany would be a pivotal player in the negotiations leading up to any deal; or that Angela Merkel might even play a significant role at some stage in the referendum campaign. Merkel has many problems – not least the migration crisis and difficult regional elections later this month – but it would be surprising if the chancellor did not make an intervention in the Brexit debate before it is over. If she does, few would dispute that she will get a serious hearing.
Hollande’s France, though, has been another matter. From almost every point of view the French president might seem an improbable partner for David Cameron’s efforts to win the vote in June. As a socialist politician in an era of centre-right ascendancy, as a believer in state action in an era of neoliberalism, and eclipsed by Merkel at the heart of an EU of which France and Germany were for so long joint leaders, Hollande might seem to have little to offer Britain’s complacent and careless prime minister.
It wasn’t so long ago that no one in the British government had a kind word to say for the French president or his policies at all. Hollande was seen in London as a man presiding over a failed economic model and to be suffering the electoral consequences of his own weaknesses. At the G20 summit in 2012 Cameron openly mocked French tax policies, causing great offence in France.
Back then, the idea that Hollande might be treated during the referendum campaign as an ally almost on the level of Merkel or Barack Obama (who is coming to Britain to make his opposition to Brexit clear, perhaps next month) would have been for the birds.
True, even now Hollande is the least likely of the three major leaders to have much impact on the British public’s thinking about Europe. But he is important because France is important. And there was no mistaking the devotion to one another’s cause in the run up to the Amiens meeting, with Cameron calling Britain and France “proud allies”, and with the two leaders due to announce a joint deal on drone development which underlines the core reality that Britain and France remain Europe’s two leading players in defence and international security.
Nor was there any mistaking the boost to Cameron from yesterday’s carefully timed Financial Times interview with the French economy minister Emmanuel Macron. Macron, a key figure in Hollande’s move to the centre following disastrous municipal elections in 2014, is a French minister whom London likes. His readiness to reveal that France might abandon its migrant controls in Calais if the UK voted for Brexit, to offer a red carpet welcome to Paris for bankers fleeing London if Britain votes to leave, and his insistence that the EU would focus on cutting UK trade links rather than renegotiating the new ones that Leave campaigners claim would be on offer, were all music to the British government’s ears.
All this is a reminder of the appalling danger that Cameron has courted by underestimating France and its socialist president since 2012, and by putting all his European eggs, such as they have been, in the German basket. France is certainly a troubled and in some ways a failing country, suffering from economic stagnation, high unemployment and political paralysis, and seemingly unable to deal with the challenges of migration and terrorism in a border-free Europe. But you don’t choose your neighbours and they don’t choose you. What’s more, in its own way, Britain is also a failing country, and so too, in some lights, is Germany.
What Cameron has discovered in the course of his EU negotiations, but can’t admit to, is that the problems of Europe are problems that Britain shares, not problems from which Britain is immune. That is why, when it came to it, he opposed the fantasy of an autonomous Britain that the Leavers still promise. It is why, far too late, he has discovered that European allies matter.
Britain and France will probably never entirely trust one another, for all sorts of reasons. Yet the reality, as the Amiens summit shows, is that Britain needs France more than Cameron and the Tory party in their stupid smugness ever supposed. Even more remarkably, Amiens is also an eloquent reminder that France needs Britain too, though most French politicians would probably do anything rather than admit it.
Rhodes Must Fall has failed. Rhodes Must Fall has succeeded. The statue high up on the wall of a college building on the High Street in Oxford will not be removed, instead receding into its former pigeon-spattered obscurity. But the student protest movement has sparked a valuable debate about how Britain deals with its colonial past. I think both these results are good ones.
It was a brilliant stroke of student activism to identify that obscure statue as the target. Every newspaper could print photographs of the honeystone facade in which it stands, looking Brideshead Revisited-cliché Oxford. Dave Spart biffs Evelyn Waugh.
Daily Telegraph readers would predictably chunter and international media pick up the story. The statue was just big enough to command attention and just small enough for there to be a sporting chance of something being done. In the event, Oriel College first said it was going to have a big debate about it and then, reportedly under pressure from donors, abruptly declared the statue would not be taken down – thus giving the Rhodes Must Fall activists an even better story. I foresee a bright political future for these guys.
Unlike the spreading student practice of “no-platforming” in the name of “safe spaces”, I don’t think there is much of a free speech issue here. As the Oxford historian David Priestland pointed out in a panel discussion I organised at the university this week, no one claimed free speech was being infringed when statues of Lenin were taken down across eastern Europe. Rather, this is a perfectly legitimate debate about the politics of memory.
But the Lenin comparison also shows up a difference. Lenin was a prominent symbol of a recent oppression of people in the country where the statue stood. So was a large statue of Cecil Rhodes that stood in front of Cape Town University in South Africa, until the original Rhodes Must Fall movement got it moved last spring.
But this Oxford Rhodes statue was neither genuinely prominent (I have lived in Oxford for years and never even knew it was there), nor a symbol of the recent, brutal oppression of most of those who live here. It is more like an obscure statue of Lenin somewhere in Russia today: a relic and a question to the former imperialists.
The debate about symbols is entirely legitimate, but the arguments for removing this particular symbol from this particular place are not strong enough. There should be a presumption in favour of the continuity of an ensemble of historic buildings in the centre of an old town.
More pertinent and practical might be to demand more Rhodes scholarships for African students, given that the money originally came from Africa. This is something that past and present Rhodes scholars from more privileged parts of the world should support. One of the student activists who spoke up at our debate was a Rhodes scholar from Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia). She said she regarded her Rhodes scholarship as a kind of atonement or restitution.
Like so many student movements, this one is both made and marred by its hyperbole. The current list of demands from Oxford’s Rhodes Must Fall movement starts with exhorting the university to “acknowledge and confront its role in ongoing physical and ideological violence of empire”. There is a huge amount that can be said about Oxford’s historic involvement with the British empire, including Rhodes, but implicated in current physical violence of empire? Where? How?
The truly liberal reaction is not to get distracted by this hyperbole but to listen carefully and engage with what the protesters are saying, while resisting anything that would make the university less open, free and pluralist. And they raise some important issues: the representation of people of colour among both faculty and students; the often subtle ways in which students of colour feel not wholly accepted in a university, even when there is no outright discrimination or racism.
Addressing these effectively, not just rhetorically, is quite complicated. There are people at Oxford who spend a lot of time trying to do so, but there is certainly more that we, and other British universities, can do.
The demand that touches me most personally is for “decolonisation of curriculum” and, more broadly, for Britain to face up to its colonial past. My grandfather was a member of the Indian civil service, the small band of men who governed India under the British empire. I have spent much time studying the way countries such as Germany face up to difficult pasts, whether fascist or communist. Only recently did I start wondering whether there was not a little facing up to be done in my own family.
Obviously, I was aware that bad things were done by British imperialists. But I think it is true that one can study history in Britain, and live as a politically conscious citizen here, without being pressingly confronted with this legacy. The British memory of empire is, I think, quite woolly – and that also means soft on ourselves. Unlike in Germany, there is little agonising about what your grandfather might have done. In a very British way, we just don’t talk about it.
This feeling is reinforced by visiting an exhibition at Tate Britain, Artist and Empire. Although its subtitle is Facing Britain’s Imperial Past, the facing in question seems more like peering into something remote, exotic and half-forgotten than confronting something morally difficult. Inevitably, most of what is on display is seen through the eyes of those who were on top, not those who suffered underneath.
A painting by the black British artist Sonia Boyce is wonderfully entitled Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think Of What Made Britain So Great. Exactly so. That’s us. It’s not that we can’t find this out if we want to. There are plenty of good books by historians, including some at Oxford. It’s that on the whole we don’t feel urgently compelled to enquire. Or perhaps I had better just speak for myself: I haven’t, until recently.
So thank you, Rhodes Must Fall, for violating my safe space.
According to the UNHCR, in 2014 Syria was the main source of refugees in the world, and 95% of Syrian refugees were located in surrounding countries. Turkey held the largest number at roughly 1.6 million. It is worth noting that developing countries took 86% of the world’s refugees in 2014. The poor proved more compassionate and generous than the rich yet again.
In 2015 Greece became the main point of entry into the EU of refugees and migrants from Turkey; it is believed 850,000 people undertook the perilous crossing of the Aegean. In January and February more than 120,000 have arrived – far more than the same period last year. At this rate there will be millions of men, women and children who will risk their lives in shoddy rubber dinghies between Turkey and Greece in 2016. Up to 90% are likely to be from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
These are not economic migrants. There is absolutely no doubt that the wave of refugees and migrants into Europe is a direct result of the destruction of the three countries largely due to western intervention during the last three decades.
A bit of perspective is necessary at this point. The EU has the largest economy in the world, with a GDP of $18.5tr (£13tr) in 2014. Its total population is in excess of 500 million. A few million desperate people would hardly upset the overall balance, especially as the migrants are typically young and often well educated. Bearing in mind Europe’s moral obligation toward Syrians and Iraqis, whose countries were ruined in part due to European complicity, a rational and humane approach by the EU would have entailed safe passage, humanitarian aid, proportionate allocation across its territory, and help with integration. None of that has happened because the reality of the EU is quite different to the image it wishes to cultivate. Power politics, nationalism and even racism have gained the upper hand.
For a long time the EU has treated Turkey, Lebanon and other neighbouring countries as its outer border, a convenient depository for the human souls fleeing Syria. Things began to change in 2015-16, as Russian intervention in Syria sparked new brutalities. Turkey, aiming to crush the Kurdish independence movement, sought a “sanitary zone” along its Syrian border. Burgeoning refugee flows across the Aegean offered Turkey useful extra pressure on the west to accept this plan. Faced with this challenge, the EU failed to develop a coherent response and fell into disarray.
Some northern countries, including Germany, Sweden and Denmark, to their credit initially received substantial numbers of refugees. Other powerful nations, including France and the UK, kept very quiet. As refugee and migrant numbers swelled, however, the pressure from the extreme right and from nascent Islamophobia began to be felt even by Chancellor Merkel in Germany.
Since the beginning of 2016 the outlook has changed noticeably in the EU. In mid-February the so-called Visegrad group – Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary – effectively closed borders to refugees. A little later, Austria held a summit of the countries of the western Balkans – everyone except Greece – that also decided to restrict refugee inflows. The borders of Greece have been effectively sealed, turning the country into a dumping ground for refugees coming from Turkey. It is, of course, highly unlikely that the small EU countries restricting refugee access would have engaged in such momentous action without at least the tacit toleration of Germany.
The Greek state has certainly been inefficient in handling the refugee wave. Much of the burden of the emerging humanitarian crisis has fallen on international NGOs and Greek civil society. The problem is that the heavy flows across the water from Turkey might persist despite the closed borders with the rest of Europe. If, say, 150,000 people found themselves trapped in makeshift camps in the coming period, things could become very tense in Greece.
The Greek economy is prostrate after eight years of recession and six years of disastrous austerity policies. Unemployment is at 24%, there is deep poverty in urban areas, welfare provision has been ruined, and the state is malfunctioning. Greece lacks the resources to cope with large numbers of refugees in a humane and efficient way.
If the Greek borders remained sealed and the EU merely provides humanitarian aid to Greece to keep the unfortunates away from the rest of Europe, popular reaction in the country could become unpleasant. The Syriza government is largely discredited and Euroscepticism is in the ascendant. The reality of the EU has proven very different from the Europeanist ideology of “soft power”, civilisation, culture and all the rest. There is a growing demand across social layers to reassert sovereignty.
At the forthcoming summit on 7 March the EU will have one more chance to adopt a rational and humane policy toward refugees, thus defusing the nascent crisis within the union. The omens, however, do not look good. The EU is probably heading for major ructions. Soon we will know.
Name-calling, rubbishing, fearmongering, mendacity, xenophobia, talk of building walls and destroying reputations: that is just the Tory party.
At least America has seven months to recover from Trumpitis. Britain has to compress the modern politician’s instinct to polarise into four.
Today the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, of the anti-EU lobby, makes ill-concealed accusations against his boss, David Cameron. He talks of the pro-EU lobby deploying “spin, smears and threats”, of “bullying opponents … acrimonious conduct … desperate and unsubstantiated claims”. Translated from Toryspeak to Trumpspeak, that means: lying bastard.
Cameron came to the Tory leadership with a pledge, passionate at the time, to “detoxify brand Tory” of the Brussels plague. He would never find himself trapped in the predicament of his two predecessors, Lady Thatcher and Sir John Major, crippled by a government divided over Europe. His method was to promise a referendum on the EU – if only everyone would shut up.
Cameron broke that promise of a referendum first time round, and had to repeat it at last year’s election. He has now had to keep it – and it is sheer poison. He is precisely where Thatcher was with the pro-Europe wets, and Major with his anti-Maastricht “bastards”: he is trapped.
Not only does he risk losing a referendum in which, perhaps unwisely, he is recommending one side to the country. He is also handing his imminent successor a party that, whatever the outcome, will be seething with the same caustic fury now consuming the US Republicans.
The EU debate was always going to be a battle between the unreliability of facts and the certainty of emotions. It is an argument not over trade deals and statistics but over safety and risk, continuity and disruption, the established order and the little person.
In the circumstances, Cameron would have been well advised to treat the EU as a matter of conscience, like capital punishment. He should never have freed colleagues, or himself, to campaign for either side. He should have banned campaigning on pain of dismissal. But politicians cannot resist a fight, and his own belligerence and espousal of “project fear” have ensured the fight degenerates into verbal fisticuffs.
Cameron leads a deeply divided party, one split by political personality rather than policy. Given the inescapability of the referendum, his job was to diminish internal conflict in the cause of party and government unity, whatever the electorate decides in June. He has done the precise opposite. He has Trumped the campaign and will suffer for it.
We asked you as part of our new series, How it feels, in which readers discuss life’s big experiences. Here’s what you said:
‘I have always fallen for people who are unavailable’
I was a Christian until my early 20s, so I didn’t sleep with my boyfriend at university – otherwise he would have been the first. I haven’t been in a proper relationship since then because I’ve always fallen for people who were unavailable in some way.
I only recently fell in love properly for the first time. The man I’m with is older and damaged after a difficult divorce, so our relationship is moving very slowly. I haven’t told him I’m a virgin but I think he will be OK with it. He seems to accept me exactly as I am. I feel like we are soulmates.
The reason I have waited so long is because I didn’t want the first time to be a one-night stand (I’ve had a few opportunities that way, and while I am still a virgin I have done other things). Fortunately every man with whom I’ve been in any way physical has been very understanding and not pushed. Obviously they didn’t come back, with a few exceptions. One man hung around thinking he would be the first, but I realised it was because it would be a feather in his cap; he didn’t care about me. Anonymous woman, 42
‘I battle social anxiety due to my physical appearance’
I am still a virgin because of my crippling social anxiety, possibly due to my large facial growths. As a child I was often bullied by girls, so it took a good 20 years before I plucked up the courage to “get out there”. I still have not had a relationship that has gone to “that level”. Being a virgin isn’t something I dwell on day to day. Occasionally though, I do wonder what I am missing out on. It seems that sex is something our society is obsessed about, even though in reality I believe everyone can live without. Anonymous man, 49
‘I am still a virgin because I am very well endowed’
The reason I am still a virgin is that I am very well endowed. The ladies in my life have found it really hard to relax when it comes to having sex with me due to expecting intercourse to hurt them. I have been intimate in other ways, however, and even been in three long-term relationships. I know there are ladies out there that prefer a larger man, I just haven’t found them. After all, sex is about pleasure – if both parties are not experiencing pleasure during sex then it’s not a very balanced sexual relationship.
Being a virgin later in life feels the same as being a virgin as a teenager. The only difference is, rather than worrying about being the odd one out, there are more things going on in the world to be hung up over. My friends tend to wonder why I haven’t made it my life goal to have sex. Especially now kids are being born in our circle of friends. I don’t particularly want children, so that point mystifies them in its entirety. Anonymous man, 32
‘As a gay woman in a small town it’s hard to meet people’
I am 41 and gay and have always lived in a small town with very limited access to any kind of gay community. Although I have been to a few gay clubs I have never met anyone there.
It wasn’t a problem until I was about 30; I always thought I just hadn’t met the right person, but as time goes on, meeting someone gets harder. It isn’t the lack of sex that I hate but the lack of a relationship. I miss having someone to talk to in the evenings, and it’s tough not having someone to make major life decisions with. It just feels like a whole section of my life I am missing out on.
What worries me most about sex is that I have no experience, I have never had to show my body to anyone and although I am in no way ugly I have never had to worry about things like bikini waxes, or staying slim for a partner. I don’t have to shave my legs if I don’t want to. But when I do finally meet someone, will my naked body be OK for my partner?
Also the actual act of having sex scares me – what do I do? I suppose any partner will have more experience than me and if they are caring they will tell me what to do without making me feel stupid, but it’s just getting over that hurdle. I’m not desperate to have sex, but when/if it happens I will need someone to be understanding and help me through my first experience. Anonymous woman, 41
‘I was a virgin until 42 – my first time was cosmic’
I was a virgin until 42, and there were several reasons: I was introverted, bookish, and strong-willed. I have always been a good Catholic, so simply decided a career in science and many rich friendships were preferable to marriage etc.
I had a happy and fulfilled life and career, and did much volunteer work which was emotionally fulfilling. Quite unexpectedly, at 42, I met a Catholic widower aged 68. It was love at first sight and we have just celebrated our silver wedding anniversary. My first time after all those years was odd; it was as if my reality shifted about half an inch in an unexpected direction. It took me a couple of days to adjust to the fact of it. My status as a person had changed: I no longer lived for myself alone. I had admitted another, whom I completely trusted, into myself, to share my being. That is cosmic and it was worth waiting for. Anonymous woman, 68
‘I am asexual, being a virgin does not bother me’
I’m asexual. I don’t experience sexual attraction to any gender and I don’t desire sexual experiences with others. I’ve been curious at times – the media makes such a big deal about sex so I’ve been curious as to whether it’s as fun as people say it is. But I also worry about sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.
I’m aware that [virginity at this age] is considered unusual, but it doesn’t bother me personally. There’s an asexual community online and we have regular meet ups, and I have a lot of asexual friends, so I know I’m not alone. Most of my friends and family have been very accepting, although some have found it difficult to empathise.
I’m personally not interested in romantic relationships at all, but if I was, I wouldn’t be too worried, because I know there are other asexual people out there and it is possible to meet someone who would be content with a non-sexual relationship. Anonymous woman, 40
‘I have given up hope of ever finding someone’
I am paralysed from the waist down, as a result of a congenital spinal condition. I am also taking medication for high blood pressure, which has robbed me of the ability to get and sustain an erection. Because I am disabled, I have always found it difficult to get into relationships. Constant rejections led me to the conclusion that women weren’t interested in me because of my disability.
What does it feel like to be a virgin later in life? There is still a great stigma around it. People take it as read that you are choosing to abstain from sex – often for religious reasons. Neither is true in my case. And the longer my virginity has festered, the harder it’s been to get rid of it. What woman of my age would want a man who has had no sexual relationships or experiences? Some friends know, but it isn’t something I advertise. I’ve given up hope of ever finding someone. It feels like I’m not allowed to be happy. Anonymous man, 47
Share your views in the comments. To recommend another area for our readers to talk candidly about please email firstname.lastname@example.org
At a time when the challenges for Europe are multiplying daily, never has politics been so disconnected from reality. Europe tries to lock itself down and EU member countries are at loggerheads over migrants. The reintroduction of borders, announced by many countries, is doomed to fail for lack of resources. Worse, it tramples on the very principle of solidarity. Europe is on the verge of collapse, yet we can’t even see what’s happening.
Some – populists and pessimists alike – are hoping all this means the EU is finished. On the contrary, it is only because of what remains of the EU that the situation is not a complete tragedy. Even if incomplete, we have external border controls and a monitoring system in the Mediterranean, albeit an imperfect one. We have set up returns and relocations, and we have set up humanitarian aid flows to NGOs taking care of migrants. In a new departure, there will even be emergency humanitarian aid for member states that need it.
The lack of European unity and of a genuine diplomacy does not prevent us from agreeing on one point: we have no chance of tackling the migration crisis if we fail to solve the Syrian crisis or restore stability to Europe’s backyard.
There is one key player which could help Europe to control the flow of migrants: Turkey – a country with whom the EU has had a long and ambiguous relationship. But neglecting our relationship with Turkey, creating a smokescreen around our real intentions, blowing hot and cold on Ankara’s European future, promising the moon and then retracting it: this duplicitous attitude has created the situation we have today, and we are now paying the highest price for it.
For a few weeks, however, everyone seems to agree strengthening our relations with Turkey is necessary to face three big challenges. The first is the fight against terrorism. Turkey, a bridge between the European Union and the Asian continent, is an almost systematic crossing point for EU citizens who join the war zones in Syria and Iraq. It is also through Turkey that foreign fighters go when returning to Europe.
Better cooperation with Turkey to strengthen border controls and to exchange information is therefore crucial. The second challenge relates to the migration crisis. Since the European commitment – on 29 November – to pay €3bn to Turkey to host migrants on its territory, no concrete action has been taken. And as usual, concrete and crucial decisions were postponed to the next EU-Turkey summit on 7 March. Why? Are we to wait, again?
Besides Turkey starting its plan to maintain migrants on its territory, it is urgent to make real progress on readmission agreements. Without these two prerequisites, migration pressure in Greece will explode. Efforts must be clearly mutual. Turkey must fulfil its commitments to the EU to reduce the flow of people. And Europe must be consistent, because to date, we do not recognise Turkey as a safe country. So why are we asking Turkey to host migrants and take back those we cannot keep on our soil because they are not eligible for asylum?
The third challenge is to find a solution to the war in Syria. The security and migration challenges are intimately linked to this five-year long conflict. Millions of Syrian refugees are now on the road to exile, and most of them are at the gates of Turkey. We absolutely must reconcile the two giants of this region, Russia and Turkey, to prevent another war in addition to the conflict in Syria. We too must reconcile with Russia, which has taken advantage of our procrastination to become a key actor in this crisis.
In a world where crises reinforce one another, we cannot seriously consider dealing with one of these challenges without embracing the others. The first step is the establishment of a clear and honest dialogue with Turkey, Russia, Syria, Iraq and regional powerhouses. And whatever we think of Bashar al-Assad, he is in the same position as Slobodan Milosevic was before him. Peace, as the current truce shows, also relies on him. This does not mean that he will not be accountable for his actions.
The EU-Turkey summit must be about courage and the responsibility of stateswomen and statesmen. Unerring political determination will be necessary to secure Turkish commitment and clarity, and to elicit from Europe a more truthful language towards Turkey.
In this unprecedented, inhuman and degrading crisis for both Europe and Turkey, the world is watching us and we watch helplessly, a moral and institutional sinking. Are we only capable of being outraged when tragic pictures appear in the press? Are we only capable of signing petitions? Are we only capable of minimal undertakings to salve our consciences? We have the democratic and material means to act.
Are we going to wait for another terror attack on our soil to cooperate and share our tools to fight against radicalisation? Are we going to wait for a xenophobic kindling, like in Germany, to make operational a migration policy worthy of our values? Is politics only on-the-spot reactions mirroring opinion polls, where decisions rest on the whim of popular decisions? I do not think so, or at least this is not my conception either of politics or of Europe’s grandeur.
The reassuring sight of Michael Gove. The soothing presence of Simon Danczuk. The steadying hand on shoulder that is a social media update from Piers Morgan. All familiar things in a time of crisis, I’m sure you’ll agree.After all, when you’re in the pub, drunkenly opining about the latest political hot potato – something complicated to do with fracking, say, or the intricacies of prison staffing – how well do you really know the facts? Have you been to the library and dusted down the Howard League for Penal Reform’s 2006 report into youth imprisonment? Or have you, like most people in Britain, just glanced at the viewpoint the biggest plonkers of our age are supporting, and then gone with the opposite?
Jeremy Hunt. Louise Mensch. Dan Hodges. Like your old school friend Ian, whose world only touches yours these days via Britain First links on your Facebook feed and the occasional suggestion that we should “castrate muslamic paedos”, these characters serve a vital public service. They are political bellwethers, guiding lights who illuminate the incorrect pathmore accurately than any deeply held principle or bank of knowledge could. It is a depressing truism that, if it wasn’t for Iain Duncan Smith, this writer would have practically no political opinions whatsoever. I often have to ask myself who I trust more: my own intellect, or the opposite of whateverDuncan Smithhas just said to Andrew Neil on the Daily Politics?
Of course, a small number of issues can be decided from your gut alone. Such things as: should we allow people whose homes we have helped turn into a hellhole into our country so that they don’t have to fly back and be raped and tortured? I like to think that most people don’t need to see where Bill Cash stands on the issue in order to make up their mind (but just in case you do, he’s there for you, dutifully carrying out this public service). In general, though, when an issue leaves us confused and scared, we have for years been able to rely on the majority opinion expressed by this motley crew of throbbers to show us the righteous path.
Until now. Because now we come to perhaps the biggest crisis modern democracy has ever faced. June’s referendum on British membership of the EU is a crisis of democracy not because I worry whether or not we’re truly in control of how wide our bananas are, but because, for the first time in recent memory, there seems to be a general lack of consensus among the UK’s foremost bellwhoppers over what they think is best. Like the worst Stealers Wheel gig in history, you’ve got Oliver Letwin to the left of you and George Galloway to the right. Whose side am I on here, you think: Nigel Farage’s or George Osborne’s? Iain Duncan Smith’s or Theresa May’s?
You’re left stranded and forced to try to work through the issues for yourself, which – trust me – is a complete minefield. A vague sense that it is better to be part of a big gang rubs up against blurry concerns about the treatment of Greece until you’re forced to admit that you haven’t got a damn scooby. But with the bellend brigade splintered down the middle and scattered across both sides of the argument, the whole thing has descended into chaos. No wonder Jeremy Corbyn can’t seem to commit to a strong view: he doesn’t want to end up in a photoshoot with his arm around Nicky Morgan, does he?
You can start to get a bit desperate. What does Facebook Friend Ian think, after all? How about that sexy Greek economist who rides around on a motorbike – should I just go with what he’s saying? But what if what he’s saying is the same as what George Osborne is saying, turning everything you held to be true to dust?
To confuse things further, both sides are making all the same arguments, telling us that every conceivable area will be better if we vote for them. Trade will be stronger. Terrorism will be easier to fight. The clouds will be fluffier and bees will say: “Good day, sir.” Both sides have assured me in private conversations that only by voting to remain/leave can I guarantee that Liverpool will win the Premier League title in 2017 thanks to a Jon Flanagan overhead kick in the ninth minute of injury time.
Does this mean one side is lying? Or does it mean that nobody really has the faintest idea? Maybe it leads us to the terrifying conclusion that what UK politics really needs right now is more plonkers. You know, so that we can properly decide matters. They are currently trialling this in the US, and it seems to be working out OK. You definitely know where you stand over there. So I say that it is time for Britain to act. Because when the country’s leading sociopaths can’t all get together and agree on an issue, you know we are heading for the rocks.
“You wouldn’t believe how little gets done. We go through the motions, but it all gets sucked into the European vortex,” admits one notionally busy cabinet minister. I rather like the idea of the European vortex, a black hole into which policies and committees vanish in a shimmering swirl that might have come from the pages of Douglas Adams or the annals of Gallifrey.
Yet this is no time to be whimsical. There is, as this cabinet member went on to lament, plenty for the government to do. Take a look at the inventory of measures promised in the Queen’s speech on 27 May last year: free childcare, a boost to home ownership, expansion of the troubled families programme, enhanced devolution and much else. Committees meet, papers are circulated, the business of government proceeds, at least officially. But all the energy has been diverted elsewhere.
In normal circumstances the Westminster village would already be fizzing with speculation about George Osborne’s eighth budget, which he will deliver nine days hence. But these are not normal circumstances. The chancellor’s speech will be interpreted primarily as a spin-off drama, a subplot to the main event of the EU referendum campaign, in which Osborne will seek to restore his political position relative to Boris Johnson.
That particular task was made somewhat easier yesterday by the London mayor’s testy and decidedly wobbly performance on the Andrew Marr Show. If the Leavers are to prevail on 23 June, they have to be able to deliver straightforward, compelling answers to the obvious questions. In answer to an inquiry about the impact of Brexit upon the economy, it is not enough to say, as Johnson did, that the level of employment “might” fall (“Well, it might or it might not”). If the nation is to cut its ties with the world’s largest single market, there must be a plan in place to reassure those who fear for their livelihoods, for whom the bottom of Johnson’s “Nike tick” – the image he deployed to illustrate his economic projection, in an earlier interview – could mean the dole.
Worst of all was his attempt to explain away what was happening to him as evidence of BBC bias. To Marr’s perfectly reasonable questions he cried: “BBC claptrap!” God knows, the mayor can turn on the charm like no other politician. But this was the captious side of him, furious that Marr was not playing by the rules, or, more accurately, respecting his usual exemption from aggressive cross-examination.
This should be an early warning to Vote Leave, and the impressive duo running the campaign, Matthew Elliott and Dominic Cummings. Is it true that in politics, as was said of Iain Macleod and Harold Macmillan, one can be “too clever by half”? Let us hope not. I prefer a narrower maxim: namely that complex, over-nuanced political messages stand little chance of gaining traction, for the simple reason that most people have lives and do not agonise over the details that so absorb politicians and the commentariat. The overwhelming majority of voters are not afflicted by what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences”.
So: it was a smart move by Vote Leave to adopt pointedly optimistic language, resisting the Remainers’ charge that they are reactionaries and blimpish enemies of modernity. Iain Duncan Smith’s claim that escape from the EU would be “a stride into the light” may not persuade you but it suggests decent, progressive motives. It is a deft contrast to the Remainers’ warnings of the perils and uncertainties intrinsic to Brexit – a strategy the Leave campaigners scorn as “Project Fear”.
But the out camp has gone a step too far with its latest counter-strategy: namely, that, as Vote Leave’s website insists, “a vote to remain is the riskier option”. To put it mildly, this will not be an easy claim to explain on the doorstep given the high level of indifference towards the EU outside the factions and groupuscules of the Conservative party.
In yesterday’s Sunday Times, Michael Gove, a truly scholarly man as well as a talented politician, noted that “the far right is stronger across the continent than at any time since the 1930s – Golden Dawn in the Greek parliament are explicitly Hitler worshippers”. It was not clear from the report whether Gove was explaining the horrific rise of neo-Nazism as primarily a response to the depredations of the EU. It would be out of character for so subtle a thinker to attribute such a complex development to Brussels. I have too much respect for Gove’s intellect to believe that this is what he meant. Clarification, please?
Yet there is another undignified pattern of behaviour among the prominent Leavers. They present those who oppose them as bullies and themselves as victims. On Friday, Duncan Smith complained of “spin, smears and threats”. His fellow cabinet Brexiteer, Priti Patel, accused Sir Jeremy Heywood of “unconstitutional” behaviour, after he ruled on the forms of material concerning the referendum that will have to be withheld from cabinet ministers who want Britain to leave. Instead of thanking the PM for suspending collective responsibility over the referendum – so that she can in effect call her boss useless, a failure in the greatest challenge of his political career, and still keep her job – Patel says that his most senior official is stitching the whole thing up.
In similar spirit, Johnson has taken up the cause of John Longworth, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, who was suspended on Friday after he spoke in favour of Brexit (which 60% of his members oppose). No 10 concedes that its officials have routine contacts with the BCC but denies categorically that Longworth was the victim of a political assassination: or as Johnson put it, “crushed by the agents of Project Fear”. If it’s all an establishment conspiracy, it cannot be long before the Illuminati get a namecheck. Perhaps they already have.
None of this contrived paranoia will get the Leavers anywhere. If last year’s general election has a single lesson it is that simple, repetitive messaging works. The Remainers have found their message: Brexit is a leap in the dark, don’t risk it. The Leavers have energy, a stellar line-up and unexpected momentum on their side. They believe, with good reason, that they can win. But, unless they settle upon a single, unforgettable message, that chance of victory will disappear, with everything else, into the great European vortex.