I have never belonged to a political party. Well, almost never. I joined the Labour Party for a short while, with the explicit intention of electing Jeremy Corbyn. I believed – and still do – that his policies were what the country needs at present. (It was the only time in my life where my vote has had any meaningful effect. Afterwards, my membership lapsed, as I felt the job was done, and the Party should not be further influenced by arrivistes).
For what it’s worth, I still think that move was successful. For all Corbyn’s subsequent disappointments, he has succeeded in shifting the national agenda to the Left. He put properly social-democratic policies back into the public arena. That may be his legacy.
But after the initial shock of last week’s election result, I have a problem. I have inadvertently found myself not disagreeing with a few of the things Boris Johnson has now said. I am entirely aware of the great likelihood that much of it is hot air, perhaps even intentionally so. I am not about to start trusting the man one iota. But more than that, as I said above, I am not and never will be, dogmatically partisan.
My political decisions derive purely from aligning my wishes and beliefs for my country with a party that says it will deliver them. It has never been a perfect fit; that’s life. Normally I have been best accommodated by the left-of-centre parties. But if another part of the political spectrum starts making noises that I agree with, why should I dismiss them purely on tribal grounds? Not doing so is surely the mark of a modern, independent-minded voter, and of politics working properly. A bigger failure was the tradition of voting tribally, according to generations of family loyalty, with one party sanctified and the others condemned purely as a matter of ritual.
In the last days, Johnson has reportedly said:
- The Conservative Party needs to change for good. Err, yes.
- The government’s newly-elected northern MPs need to “deliver” for their constituencies. Err, yes.
- That those northern votes are probably only loaned to the Conservatives. Err, yes.
- That he has “got the message” on the NHS and will enshrine higher spending in Law. Err, yes.
- That he will invest in rail transport and other infrastructure. Err, yes.
- That we need to come together as a nation. Err, yes.
- That we will shake up the Civil Service. Err, yes – with reservations over how and why.
It’s hardly a full manifesto-worth of agreement, and once again, I concede that what he says and what he does may well be very different things – but he would hardly be the first politician for whom that was true. Yet if what I perceive as the ‘right’ decisions are made for the country, does it really matter very much who makes them? Isn’t that the whole point of representational politics?
I have read much about the poor state of British government. There are plenty of authoritative, independent writers such as Anthony King who advocated a major overhaul of the Civil Service years ago. Its upper echelons have possibly been a major obstacle to change in Britain for too long. There was a reason so many politicians loved Sir Humphrey Appleby: they recognised the accuracy of the character. For all that Appleby has a point (below) surely the prospect of dismantling such pillars of the establishment ought to appeal to the Left?
There are clearly big risks – not that the nation now has much choice but run with them. Regrettably, matters such as electoral reform are probably once again out of the question for the time being: Johnson hardly has the incentive to look at it.
And then there is the matter of Brexit. On this, I am resolutely and implacably opposed to Johnson’s past direction of travel. It is a defining matter; even alone it ensures that I will never actually vote Conservative.
But that does not imply there is nothing to be done. It pays to listen to your opponents. The much-despised Dominic Cummings is no fool, and he may have a point when he claims that the Remain movement inadvertently hardened the likely outcome by making compromise more difficult. Johnson is now largely free of the need to pander to Nigel Farage and his own hard-liners too, if he so chooses. There is some evidence to suggest that he is not a hard Brexiter by instinct. As a teacher, I know there are times when you have to put your foot down, to over-state your case.
There have been a few other noises from Conservative MPs about recognising the depth of feeling of pro-Europeans. That itself is progress. Sometimes, in order to achieve (some of) your objectives, it is also necessary to give some ground in order to allow your opponent to come towards a mid-point. So there is perhaps still a slim chance that Brexit will be soft, which while still objectionable, is less so than the other type.
An underlying tenet of the Remain campaign is presumably that it values European ways of doing things. When it comes to politics, the ‘European Way’ involves talking to your opponents, trying to find consensus and compromise, metaphorically holding your nose – and working with them where possible. That approach was also defended by the Left over Corbyn’s contact with various rebel groups.
By contrast, the stubborn tribalism seen in the Brexit conflict – which involved a bunker mentality on both sides – did nothing more than perpetuate the traditionally confrontational nature of British politics. It is all too evident where that has now led. For all that pro-Europeans portray themselves as compassionate, reasonable people, there has been a lot of talk that does not really fit that description, even if it didn’t quite plumb the depths of the Brexiters. No matter how much they feel they were forced into this, the ‘big’ thing to do now is to play a part in the reconciliation process. It will not be easy – but that is the European approach. The Far Right, in particular thrives on uncompromising attitudes from others; this somehow needs to be defused rather than stoked.
There is a need to start looking for places, no matter how slim, where agreement can be found. Perhaps the starting point is the relative consensus about the fundamental problems facing this country, irrespective of their attributed causes.
Pro-Europeans do not need to set aside their views; indeed they need to argue for them all the more strongly in future. Part of the European movement’s failure has been the absence of challenge to forty years of misinformation; that needs to change. But there is now a need to engage with the opposition in the hope that at least a tolerable compromise can be reached. Has Johnson just hinted at willingness?
There is a strong possibility that I am being too optimistic, born from nothing more than temporary relief at the removal of uncertainty. Fundamental beliefs need to be protected. Extreme caution will be very necessary. But I think we should not be too hasty to condemn developments that have not yet happened, which may be born more of fear and disillusionment than clear thinking – and we should also be ready to endorse positive actions if and when they do occur – even if they are a compromise on our ideal situation – and even – perhaps especially? – when they come from our opponents.
In this, I think the EU itself has been a model institution: willing beyond the call of duty to engage with a withdrawing UK despite its regret at the situation, standing firm on its own fundamental position – and seeking a workable compromise.
That is the modern European way.