We Must Fight This Retreat From Britain’s Liberal And Open-minded Traditions (or Who Will Save Us?)


WE MUST FIGHT THIS RETREAT FROM BRITAIN’S LIBERAL AND OPEN-MINDED TRADITIONS.  There, I’ve said it. In fact, by using capitals, I’ve SHOUTED it. Just like the UK’s Sunday Observer did – heralding a virtually full-page editorial under this headline by quoting large chunks of it all over their front page. It. Is. Clearly. A . Big. Deal.

And it truly is. The Observer opines that there is “a gross whiff of xenophobia” and “an inescapable undertone of racism and intolerance.”

The cause?  Brexit. Of course.

In the newspaper’s habitually excellent writing, the government are characterised as “wreckers. They are reckless. They are irresponsible. They know only what they do not like.” “There is a clear tendency……to interpret the referendum results as an unambiguous support for a divisive, right-wing agenda.

The newspaper is, if course, absolutely right.  But, to coin a modern idiom, “No Sh*t Sherlock”. Of course Brexit has been crucial in all this – part catalyst, part catharsis, part turbo-charged accelerator. Of course we  – surely including  some  who  voted Leave – knew in our gut,  what forces had been waited in the wings –  swivel-eyed lunacy legitimised, bedlam being brought  home. That’s why as we struggled to comprehend what we collectively had done on that June morning, a sense of disgust, incomprehension and fear gripped so many.

So yes, Brexit is bad, but Brexit is real and in that sense nothing has changed these past three months.  So just what is the Observer going on about?

Might it be the slew of announcements from the Tory Party conference?  It certainly was a busy week for them in Birmingham.  I reckon Jeremy Hunt  owes Home Secretary Amber Rudd a massive “thank you”  as  her musings on  how businesses should name  all their foreign workers   eclipsed his lambasted  proposals that we would end the “reliance”  of the NHS on foreign  doctors post-Brexit.

But as Ms Rudd’s ideas were discussed, dissected and disposed of, evidence of one of those post-referendum changes was apparent on social media.  Ok, social  media is  notoriously irrational, but comments in discussion threads about the echoes of pre–war Nazi Germany were certainly disturbing, although perhaps the comments themselves  recalled for me haunting texts like The Secret Purposes or Dominion .

But over the last couple of days, discussions with EU-born UK-resident friends has validated the on-line gloom (or is it vice-versa?). These are people whose roots here are established over decades, whose children were born here, whose contribution to our communities is objectively considerable. But they struggle to remain physically upright in the teeth of a gale of media-driven hostility, under a cloud of deliberately cultured uncertainty, clearly distressed and possibly depressed by the feelings of abandonment.

But this is not the target or destination for the Observer’s epic editorial.  Yes, Brexit is bad, the Tories are worse, and the third part is that Corbyn needs to lead.  He needs to lead because, goodness knows, we must have an effective opposition.

The Labour leader’s position on and contribution to the Brexit debate has been subject to many, many debates.  One thing I think we can safely assert is that his stance on this is not going to be changed by a newspaper editorial (however impassioned and erudite).

So has the Observer’s grand eloquence been to no avail?

I think not, and here’s why.

Despite my wry “nothing new here” assessment, the Observer raises two really important points.  This first, positively, is to link our struggles and debates today with those of over two hundred years ago when Thomas Paine wrote “The Rights of Man”. The connection is valid and timely and reminds us that these are not trivial matters and we are not the first generation to have had to deal with them.

The second, less positively, is that the Observer editorial could have been subtitled, as is this piece, with “Who Will Save Us?

Well, we have a right to expect good governance, and some laws to encourage that.  We have a legitimate expectation of strong leadership, and there can be no doubting the support for the leaders of both main parties from their peers. I believe too in an empowering state (along with, it seems, the Prime Minister). But ultimately, we cannot rely or expect anyone to do more to rescue us – if indeed we need rescuing – then we ourselves.

It is the behaviours we model, the way we act, the choices we make, the interactions we have with each other. We have (usually) direct personal control over these things. No-one can take that responsibility away. But it is also a huge opportunity and power for good.

How ironic that the most potent defence of collective ideals and values lies in individuals’ acts of affirmation, resistance, solidarity and common humanity. There still has never been a more important time for decency, determination and hope, and these are all things we can deliver, irrespective of the Brexit vote.

This piece also appears in the Huffington Post


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