The RSA uses cookies on this website. By using this website you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more read our cookie policy and privacy policy. More Info

It’s time to look over the edge

Blog 10 Comments

  • Leadership

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. 

Join the discussion

10 Comments

Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

  • The issue lies with the all-too-powerful political brand managers feeding an all-too-lazy media. People are all too easily put in simplistic boxes. There are no "Leavers" or Remainers". I defy any political analyst to accurately describe my motivations for voting "In" and yet believing there is much to be gained from "out".

    Life is made up of shades of grey and yet, focussed in, this will be made up of bits and black and white. The mistake is to try to seek to manipulate and reconstitute the picture in simplistic ways for political expediency.

    This may well have worked in the past. But the growth of 24 hour news (read 0.25 hours news and 23.75 hours opinion - helpful though that might be on occasions), along with the advent of social media, has led to a deep distrust in our political system by the people and a dangerous distrust of the people by our political system.

    Not that the control of branding and distrust of the people is entirely unique to politics.

    Honesty is certainly vital. As is courage. And I think. Matthew, you are heading towards the key point in your call for "realism and humility". Actually, I expect my politicians to know better. I elect them to take the difficult decisions, properly informed, not the easy ones. But our politics needs to find a new way to engage and inform the public.

    In energy and climate change policy, this drive lies behind EnergyUnearthed - a world-first International Festival of Energy and Climate Change that myself, supported by a few other Fellows, are seeking to establish in Cumbria. As with the EU referendum, as with much of our politics, energy and climate change "debate" has consisted largely of noise. Energy giants and government of one day on one side, pressure groups and governments of another day on the other, with the public increasingly feeling confused, And, again as with the EU referendum and much our politics, that confusion is turning to negativity, volatility and anger: "No to Nuclear"; "No to Fossil Fuels"; "No to Wind Farms", "No to Solar" ... in fact, "no" to pretty much any energy source and much of it stoked up via "Project Fear".

    EnergyUnearthed has no intention of driving that debate or adding to that noise. We will focus on engaging the public in a better understanding of the science of energy and climate change, taking a STEAM-powered approach using Arts alongside exploration of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

    This is not to say that that there won't be complex political decisions to be taken about future policy. However, at the very least, the public will feel more engaged and informed and less fearful of the unknown and more capable of adding an informed voice into the debate. It will, we hope, provide a more stable and realistic public base upon which politicians then need to be encouraged to humbly engage.

  • I suspect the easier part is to show that there are practical ways at community level to build and demonstrate shared values.   The head hurt comes from what is the direction of the nation at the top,  what can we (they) do to reduce that risk of wider strife and will those who lead  1)  see the need for that 2) be able to couch that in terms that make sense to as wide a part of the nation as possible. 

  • I'm sure you're right that we lack urgency, but we also lack a practical response. We simply don't have a map; our societal structures are operating to new rules that it will take time to understand. Perhaps in the meantime the best thing 'people like me' can do is to be present - not in enclaves, but in the major political parties. We need to join and engage in the debate. For so long we've been able to ignore politics that we've forgotten how to be part of it. We've scoffed at the Daily Mail, and expected our politicians to lie to the electorate. The power of Boris was that everyone knew he was lying. The power of Jeremy is that everyone knows that he isn't lying. We've got to get to the point where integrity is expected, demanded, and insufficient. That means women and men of integrity and intellect getting their hands dirty.

Related articles

  • The public are ready to go further and faster on net zero

    Anthony Painter

    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.

  • The levelling up conundrum

    Al Mathers Anthony Painter

    How can the government tackle the UK's chronic and enduring regional inequalities? We explore three plausible areas of focus for levelling up: economic development, social cohesion, and community power and identity.

  • Last word

    Matthew Taylor

    Our outgoing chief executive, Matthew Taylor, reflects on his 15 years at the RSA, how the organisation has grown and opportunities for the future.