People like me don’t seem to understand how much worse things may get.
After the EU referendum there were three main reactions among the middle class, metropolitan classes, almost all of whom had voted ‘remain’: First, shock and dismay; how could so many people ignore advice about what was in their interests? Second, rage and indignation; ostensibly directed at the successful tactics of the Leave campaign but with the more insidious subtext was that those who had supported that campaign were bigots, fools or both. Third, self-righteous piety; we who understand how things work and how they must be managed, now have to explain to the public the mess they have created and clear it up as best we can.
Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, Brexit voters are feeling equally righteous and increasingly impatient. In conversation last week with a Leave campaigner I innocently said something like ‘what people don’t realise about leaving…...’. ‘What do you mean ‘don’t realise’, she fired back. ‘Don’t you get it? Leave voters knew all the consequences. Why, at one meeting during the campaign a care worker with no GCSEs told me how she and her friend had been Googling tariff policy’.
As Brexit campaigners move to the next stage of their crusade to take back control they have developed their own argument: First, Leave voters knew exactly what they were doing and were quite aware of the difficult consequences; second, they and many disillusioned Remain voters have noticed how the economy hasn’t yet tanked and concluded that the Establishment once again lied to them in promising post-Brexit disaster. Third, when these same discredited experts say the bad news is yet to come, not only are they sticking to their scare tactics but they are revealing how they would rather Britain suffered than have to admit to be being wrong. Fourth, there is nothing standing in the way of the UK successfully going it alone tomorrow (half the world is queuing up to do trade deals with us) but a thinly disguised Establishment conspiracy to somehow wriggle away from Brexit.
When I tell people like me about the hardening views of most other folk they are incredulous. When I go on to say that, as a former political strategist, I believe the latter case is massively more powerful than the former they shake their heads and wander off to find someone more amenable. In vain do I point out that what is so clever about the Leavers’ world view is that to deny any of it means immediately being branded an out of touch elitist; as someone who has failed to adjust not only to the vote, but to the more brutal fact that Britain, or least England, no longer belongs to the likes of us.
In the days after the referendum the noise was all from indignant Remainers predicting that Leavers would soon be recanting in their masses and begging the old guard to get them out of the mess. Not only was this wrong but the momentum is growing steadily behind ‘leave now’. I predict that the liveliest fringe meetings at Conservative annual conference next month will have platforms demanding a fast and fixed timetable for withdrawal and denouncing anyone who disagrees as an enemy of the people. Already there are signs of Cabinet ministers briefing that they are in the ‘get on with it’ camp. The divide in the Tory party is moving from ‘remain’ or ‘leave’ to ‘out carefully and slowly’ versus ‘out now and bugger the consequences’.
These are dark and dangerous times for policy pragmatists and political moderates. Do we have anyone but ourselves to blame? Look at the Labour Party. The decision to challenge Jeremy Corbyn is starting to look profoundly ill-advised. Instead of being patient and waiting for his position to become untenable (which was, by the way, the implicit strategy of the trade unions), those who forced the election could provide Corbyn with a huge new surge of energy and legitimacy. You can already hear the response that will be made from now until 2020 by anyone who questions his leadership ‘how many times does he have to win before you respect Party democracy?’.
‘Why are the moderate Labour MPs finding it so hard to look more than one step ahead?’ I asked an insider. ‘How long have you got?’ he replied. ‘They lack leadership, whenever anything happens they start a conversation that goes round in circles before reaching an arbitrary conclusion, and anyway they are divided between the liberal progressive wing who focus on beating the Conservatives in the middle ground and many from northern working class constituencies who want a tough line on immigration to fend off UKIP’.
If you are reading this post on vacation in Europe, perhaps as you sip your chilled wine and gaze out across the Tuscan hills, my gloominess might strike a false note. Maybe it’s best then not to think too hard about the fact that you are holidaying on a continent managing a complex political civil war which could at any time break out into large scale and violent strife. Economic frailty and high unemployment, a continuing tide of desperate refugees, right and left wing populism, the random, terrifying, demoralising tactics of ISIS; all dry tinder waiting for a match.
It would be irresponsible to write a post like this without some idea of what should be done. I wish I could offer something concrete but it is hard enough finding a way to talk usefully about the problem. Instead I can only urge a greater urgency and new mind-set from those who think that, whatever its many faults and variations, it is still better to try to reform the democratic social market than to destroy it. What does this involve? It’s about a balance of different elements; none are enough on their own, but somehow we need to try to create a cycle of hope and unity to replace that of despair and division. It may sound like I am preaching to those in power, or seeking it, but, really, we need greater leadership everywhere.
Realism and humility: The establishment is in retreat for good reasons, we have stop pretending we know better. Those who feel they have been failed by the system must be heard and be seen to be heard. The angry and disillusioned must be trusted to understand and engage with the hard choices leaders face.
Responsibility: Reformists (as distinct from revolutionaries) must emphasise the things on which they agree. We must focus more on the health of the public realm than our personal or sectional interests. Those who seek to be honest brokers at a time of division must, at the very least, be honest.
Courage and clarity: People recognise and respect authenticity and bravery when they see it. True leaders – at whatever level - say what needs to be said however hard it is to say it. They put their neck on the line. They develop a strategic course of action and stick to it when things get tough.
Innovation and reasons to hope: Progressives (of the left, right and centre) must believe in progress. But warm words aren’t enough. We need to find clever, concrete, creative ways of bringing a better more humane future into the here and now.
It’s easy for me to say all this. Although I regret what I failed to do when I was closer, I am now on the far edges of power. At its best the RSA stands for some of what is needed – progressive, independent, inventive, willing to collaborate with anyone from Cabinet ministers to campaigning community groups. The way we try to work with our Fellowship stands for an idea of change done with people not to them. But as an organisation we could do much more, and sometimes I think we lack the sense of urgency these dark days demand.
August is a hard time to find readers. Maybe I’m writing this post to myself.
In part two of the Our Way Through essay series, Anthony Painter considers whether our current relationships with money, power and technology are helping or hindering society's progress.
A new CEO, a new format and new ideas – Andy Haldane marked his first day as head of the RSA in September with our first virtual Fellowship Townhall.
The public are ahead of policy-makers and, indeed, most of the business world. COP26 is an enormous opportunity to catch up. Global leaders should take it.