So all the men have slunk away or been kicked into touch, and we are left with two women who would be Prime Minister of the UK. And the responsibility for selecting the person who will be tasked with for pulling us out of our worst crisis since the Second World War falls upon 160,000 members of the Conservative Party. In other words, a quarter of one percent of the population.
If I was going to characterise this tiny elite, I would describe them as latte-sipping, wine-imbibing, gin-and-tonic-swilling, dinner-party-hosting, middle-class, prosperous folk mostly concentrated in the South of England. Nigel Farage’s “decent people”, in other words. Many of them are relatively elderly. Some are deeply reactionary – those who haven’t defected to Farage’s party, that is.
Actually I haven’t really got a clue who these people are. A few hints are to be found in the attendees of the annual party conference, and in the interviews of ladies drinking coffee in country town high streets. Then there are the young ones who seem to grab most media attention – braying, bullying Tory Boys. Yes, I know I’m being unfair. There are good, sensible and sincere people in every party. But one thing’s for sure: the voters in this election are not my tribe. I have never voted Conservative.
As if the horror of Brexit was not enough, we now have to endure two months of non-stop coverage of an election in which I, and fifty-nine million other people with a stake in Britain’s future, have no say. In addition, we face the prospect of a Labour leadership contest in which Jeremy Corbyn – assuming he resigns and stands again – uses his supporters to kick sand in the faces of those beastly, Blair-loving MPs who dared who dared to defy the will of the proletariat. Enemies of the people. Well, enemies of the hundred and fifty thousand people who support Corbyn anyway.
Corbyn doesn’t speak for me, any more than do Theresa May or Andrea Leadsom. And in case you think that makes me a supporter of UKIP, who are also having a leadership contest, I would rather eat a cyanide sandwich than associate myself with that rabble.
I did consider paying my three pounds to become a member of the Labour party with the express intention of voting against Corbyn, or any other member of his benighted shadow cabinet. I’m sure he’s a decent and principled person, but he reminds me of the goat that was supposed to be dinner for a tiger in a Russian zoo, and ended up making friends with him – for a while. The epitome of someone not in control of his own destiny.
Anyway, I couldn’t sign up to such a ridiculous piece of political manipulation. I don’t want to be anybody’s fifth columnist. Since I can’t bring myself to support the Greens, the Liberal Democrats or the Monster Raving Loony Party, I guess that makes me truly non-aligned for the first time in my life.
So who would I vote for, should the political establishment be graceful enough to give me the opportunity? The Dalai Lama, perhaps. The Archbishop of Canterbury. Sir David Attenborough. Mary Beard. Brian Cox. David Beckham even. Yes, I know – this is getting ridiculous. But are they not “decent people”?
If you think I’m raving, you may be right. I do feel as though I’m in the middle of some awful nightmare. I just want to wake up and for all the nonsense that has transpired since June 24th to be revealed as a dream.
But it isn’t just a nightmare, is it? This country, my country, has suddenly turned into a cauldron of witch-hunters, liars, political ideologues and racist xenophobes. It’s as if something has polluted the water supply and driven us insane.
Yet away from the front pages of the newspapers, we’re soothed by the prozac of summer. The Welsh football team sweeps away our memories of the brain-frozen England team. Andy Murray is in a Wimbledon final again. And we’re all thinking about our holidays, even though just about anywhere we go beyond our borders will cost us at least 20% more than we thought it would two weeks ago. The dawn chorus still rings out at sunrise, and my friendly robin still comes to visit me in the morning.
Best perhaps, to focus on the eternals of life – love, hope and friendship. Our capacity for doing good. Tolerance, generosity and kindness. They may be in short supply at the moment. But sooner or later we’ll leave the asylum and settle down to a new normal.
I welcome the prospect of another woman prime minister. But to be honest, I don’t care if our next leader is man, woman or Klingon. Whoever gets the job needs to bring with them a large capacity for common sense. Right now we’ve landed on a ledge halfway down a cliff. Will she throw us down a rope or kick us, screaming, onto the rocks below?
Chilcot disturbs me. Not because of the rationale for the report, or even because of the conclusions.
What unsettles me is the reaction to it. It seems that the attention of the print and broadcast media, the politicians, the social media Greek chorus and the families of the armed forces personnel killed and injured are focused almost exclusively on one person: Tony Blair.
Basically, the dominant voices are of those who want him hung, drawn and quartered. Nothing else and no one else seems to matter as much. Not the planning (or lack of it). Not the inadequate Snatch Land Rovers. Not the disastrous decisions by the Coalition Provisional Authority that arguably created the conditions for the chaos that ensued. Not the fact that war would have taken place with or without Britain’s participation. Not the fact that if there was an arch perpetrator of the war of aggression against the saintly Saddam Hussain, it was one George W Bush.
Do we see calls for Bush to be taken to The Hague and tried for war crimes? Is he required to check with his lawyers when travelling abroad to make sure that a prosecutor in his host country is not liable to arrest him, as opinion suggests Blair will have to do?
Tony Blair, according to Chilcot and by his own assertion, did not lie to Parliament when making the case for the war. He claims that he – and his colleagues, it should be remembered – acted in the best interest of his country. Unfashionable as this opinion is, I accept that he didn’t lie, and I believe – unless the details of Chilcot can subsequently convince me otherwise – that he acted in good faith.
My belief in Blair’s motives doesn’t imply a lack of compassion for the bereaved relatives, as well as for the millions of Iraqis whose lives were destroyed by the conflict and its grievous consequences. I, and surely everyone else in Britain who has followed events in the Middle East before and after the 2003 war, feel deeply for them.
Perhaps now is not the time to make a few supplementary observations that might upset a few people. But here goes anyway.
First, the political motives of Jeremy Corbyn in condemning Blair seem pretty transparent to me. Tony Blair is at fault. The Labour MPs who voted with him in 2003 are at fault. I, Jeremy Corbyn, didn’t vote with him. Many of the current MPs who want to get rid of me as leader did vote with him. Ergo their views on the current leadership should be discounted. Ergo I should remain in place because I have been given a mandate by the party, not the MPs. And, by the way, the “Blairite faction” should be rooted out of the Labour Party by any means necessary, including intimidation by the membership and ultimately deselection. They bear the mark of Cain.
I’m sure Corbyn would not publicly condone intimidation, but I feel confident that he would privately acquiesce in it if achieves the end result he desires. Am I being overly cynical in suggesting that he – or at least his praetorian guard – sees Chilcot as his means to hang on to his office? Subsequent events will surely prove me right or wrong.
Second, there may be reasons for incompetence on the part of the politicians, generals and civil servants, but no excuses. Each owe a duty of care for our armed forces. But the fact is that those who serve as soldiers, sailors and airmen know when they sign up that their profession is riskier than others. To put it bluntly, they know that they can be killed or wounded in action. If we were to examine each and every conflict involving British troops from the Napoleonic Wars onwards, we would find equally reprehensible failures of political and military leadership, of logistics and of tactical command. There were no inquiries into the Somme, Arnhem, Suez and Helmand. Perhaps there should have been.
Today’s wars – at least those involving Western powers – are carried out in the full glare of media coverage that didn’t exist at the time, say, of the Somme. The seeming destruction of Blair’s reputation will surely make any Prime Minister extremely leery about proposing any kind of military action at least in the near future. They will be fearful of the consequences – not just of the war itself, but for their personal reputations.
All well and good, you might argue. That’s central plank of Chilcot – that these decisions should be rigorously justified and expertly planned. But the trouble about some wars fought in the face of aggression – be it real or implied – is that they are fought in reaction to events. Some events can be foreseen to the extent that the military can make contingency plans, which basically what NATO has been trying to do since 1949. But others come out of the blue. Stuff happens.
So my concern is that we don’t put measures in place to prevent another Iraq so stringent that they prevent us from reacting with military force to ANY situation. If our future is to become a nation of conscientious objectors, then that should be a matter of debate even more profound than the one that is currently taking place over EU membership. It raises the question of why we need to be a member of NATO, and why we need to maintain a military capable of doing anything beyond protecting our borders from small-scale, non-state incursions. It would also call into question the viability of our domestic defence industry, on which thousands of jobs depend. If we don’t buy the weapons we build, why should anyone else? And if we are no longer to be part of the European Union, will we be content to see ourselves not sheltered by any alliances than those motivated by trade?
If that’s the future we see for ourselves, fine. But we should walk towards it, not stumble upon it as an accidental consequence of Chilcot. I don’t see such an extreme outcome taking place. But then again I didn’t see the Leave decision coming either.
Finally, we should consider our faith – or otherwise – in our politicians. I find it ironic that our nation is consumed with the question of Tony Blair’s good faith at a time when lies and bad faith seem to have become common currency. I’m not just talking about my country, and the shameless embroidery that has been traded on both sides of the EU argument. In the United States, Donald Trump has made a career out of exaggeration and outright lies. Hillary Clinton’s reputation has taken a blow over her attempts to sex down the email furore.
In both countries there is a level of cynicism about politicians and mistrust of their motives that has not been seen since the end of the Second World War. The current crisis in confidence exceeds even Vietnam and Watergate on the US side. In Britain – at least in my memory – the only comparable event has been the miner’s strike and the three-day-week in 1973.
We should welcome the findings of the Chilcot Report, and the fact that it was commissioned in the first place. But the timing of its publication, by accident rather than design, means that there is yet another reason for us to be repelled by our political establishment. In the United States – perhaps because of an ethos of “my country right or wrong”, and perhaps because of the shock of 9/11 – the debate over Iraq has never been as damaging to George W Bush and his administration as it has been to Tony Blair and his colleagues.
Yet on both sides of the Atlantic, the cumulative effect of 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan and the 2008 financial crisis has been to replace prostitution with politics in the public’s perception as the world’s oldest profession. And distrust of politicians goes hand-in-hand with lack of faith in our political institutions. Faith in the integrity and sovereignty of Parliament in the UK, and in the effectiveness of the checks and balances enshrined in the US constitution.
The ability of the British government to trigger Article 50 of the EU treaty by royal prerogative rather than by Act of Parliament threatens to create dangerous paralysis in the months to come. In the US, many argue that partisan Republicans in Congress have repeatedly blocked legislation and executive actions put forward by the president, not on the merits of the proposals, but out of a visceral hatred of the president himself.
What makes the current situation extremely dangerous is that if reforms to political systems are needed, how can they gain popular acceptance if the politicians who propose them are not to be trusted?
Chilcot adds yet another brick to the wall of scepticism that currently surrounds public life in my country. Commendable though the headline findings of the report seem to be, will it ultimately help to make Britain less governable? That would be an irony, considering the sorry state of Iraq following the war it was commissioned to examine.
Yesterday’s publication was not about the destruction of one man’s reputation. That happened long ago. It’s far bigger than Tony Blair. It’s also about what kind of a country we want to live in, and how we wish to be governed.
And those questions are what we, and our cousins in America, should be thinking very carefully about over the next few months. We live in interesting times.
OK, enough about Brexit for the time being. There are things happening in other parts of the world that are worth writing about. In Turkey, for example.
The trickle of reports about an attack on Istanbul’s airport turned into a torrent. The grainy videos showed a sudden flash, people running for safety. Lives ruined, fear redoubled, and the inevitable reaction. All so familiar to cities – Beirut, Baghdad, Dammam, Sana’a, London, Paris, Brussels, New York, Dhaka, Jakarta, Kabul – that have experienced such traumas, some many times over. Wait a few days to comment on an attack in one city, and attention has shifted to another. Last week Istanbul, this week, Baghdad and Madinah.
Istanbul – sitting on the edge of Asia, suffered its latest attack in a week when we on the Western extreme of Europe remembered the Somme, where more than twenty thousand British soldiers died on the first day of the offensive a hundred years ago.
At that time, Britain was at war with the predecessor of the Turkish state. The Ottoman Empire, even after a century of decline, still presided over a land mass comparable to that of the present-day European Union. In addition to the current territory of Turkey, most of the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq answered to the Sultan and his government in Istanbul. Its population included Turks, Arabs, Circassians, Kurds and Armenians. Although the ruling class was Muslim, its people also embraced Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism.
We British, along with our cousins in Australia and New Zealand, think mainly of Gallipoli when we remember the war against the Ottoman Empire. We might also recall Lawrence of Arabia, and his part in the Arab revolt against the Ottomans in the Hejaz, now the western half of Saudi Arabia.
Before the First World War, for most British people the Ottoman territories were “faraway countries of which we knew little.” Wealthy travellers might visit Istanbul and Anatolia. Merchants would travel to the Levant for business. Pilgrims and priests would go to Jerusalem. And the occasional explorer would venture forth to the interior of the Arabian Peninsula.
The Ottoman Empire, to the extent that it impinged on our conscious at all, was the “Sick Man of Europe”. Its Balkan dominions had fractured into a set of belligerent nation states – Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria. The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a Serbian nationalist was the catalyst for the outbreak of the First World War. The Ottomans entered the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. The consequences were fatal for the 400-year old empire.
My interest in Turkey and its Ottoman heritage comes from two directions. I spent nearly a decade in Jeddah, the commercial capital of the Hejaz. For many Jeddawis, Lawrence was not just a remote historical figure. The parents and grandparents of people with whom I rubbed shoulders knew him. Some fought with him. Remnants of the Hejaz Railway that the Bedouin tribesmen attacked are still there to be visited in the desert. Many in the region think of themselves as Hejazi first, and Saudi second.
I’m also deeply interested in the Byzantine Empire. The last remnant of the eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople, fell to the Ottomans in 1453. The city we now know as Istanbul entrances me. Not so much because of the Byzantine traces – the land walls, Aya Sofia and other buildings from the period – but because of what came after – Topkapi, The Blue Mosque, the cafes, the markets, the bridges, the wooden palaces along the Bosporus.
I love the food, the music and the coffee of Turkey. I love the works of Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak. That doesn’t make me an apologist for fratricidal sultans, the Armenian massacres and the penchant of the present government for locking up writers. But it does mean that I look on the tribulations of today’s Turks with sympathy, not with contempt and condescension. And I don’t believe that people always get the governments they deserve. How could I, living in Brexit Britain?
Aside from the tragedy in Istanbul, I have two other reasons for thinking about Turkey at the moment.
A couple of weeks ago I went to a production of Terence Rattigan’s Ross at the Chichester Festival Theatre. Joseph Fiennes was superb in the role of the tortured T.E. Lawrence as he sought anonymity by enlisting in the lower ranks of the Royal Air Force under the alias of Aircraftman Ross. The play looked back at his career in the Hejaz with the Arab revolt against the Ottomans in the First World War. Whether Rattigan accurately captured the complex character of the hero with any accuracy is debatable. There was a post-show chat between audience and cast to which one or two people contributed who clearly knew a lot about Lawrence. One of them, for example, quoted a relative who served with him in the RAF, and who was convinced that he was not, as some biographers contend, gay. The discussion was almost as interesting as the play itself.
Overall, it was a compelling production, well-acted and directed. If I had a reservation, it was the portrayal of the Turkish protagonists. In the way that they were acted, they came over almost as cartoon baddies – sadistic and supercilious. Lines that could have been delivered otherwise were played for laughs. The effect made the production somewhat lopsided. The British – Lawrence, Allenby and Storrs – and Auda abu Tayi, the Bedouin tribal leader (played by Anthony Quinn in the movie Lawrence of Arabia) were believable. The Turkish governor wasn’t.
I suppose that was understandable. Rattigan wrote the play in 1960. It was a time when Britain’s other arch-enemy, the Germans, rarely had a sympathetic portrayal in the numerous war films that celebrated the defeat of Nazism. Good Germans, in the estimation of the dramatists, and so perhaps good Turks, were in short supply.
An antidote to Rattigan’s caricature portrayal of the Ottomans comes from The Fall of the Ottomans, Eugene Rogan’s history of the First World War in the Middle East. Historians tend to take a more balanced view of protagonists in major conflicts – or at least they do these days.
The Great War was as much a tragedy for the people of the Ottoman Empire as it was for the Western combatants. Famine in Lebanon, slaughter at Gallipoli and the death of between 800,000 and 1.5 million Armenians (depending on who you listen to) were major events. But throughout the period, there were other smaller but no less vicious encounters as the Ottomans sought to defend their territory on several fronts simultaneously.
Rogan is excellent on the doomed Gallipoli campaign, and on the woes of the Anglo-Indian expeditionary force in Mesopotamia that culminated in the British defeat at Kut. Both campaigns resulted from a perception that the Ottomans were the weak link in the Central Alliance, and that to take them out of the war would bring the overall conflict to an early close. Those who advocated the operations, Winston Churchill among them, were gravely disappointed. The Ottomans with commanders and logistic support from Germany, fought with great courage and inflicted damaging defeats on the British-led expeditionary forces.
On the Armenian massacres, he writes at some length not only about the event but also about the motivation. Armenian Christians had long agitated for a level of autonomy in the east of the Empire. When the fighting with Russia broke out, some Armenians joined their fellow-Christians and took up arms against the Sultan. The city of Van briefly rose in rebellion. It was fought over by the Russians, the Ottomans and the rebels, and changed hands several times. When the Ottomans finally regained the city, the triumvirate of Young Turks who ruled the Empire decided that the Armenians were unreliable subjects and needed to be dealt with.
Across the Empire, Armenians were sent on forced marches out of their main centres of population. Many died of thirst and starvation. Many, according to reports at the time, were killed by their captors. What was interesting to me was that despite the trenchant denial by the modern Turkish state that the Armenians were the victims of genocide, there were many accounts of what took place. Genocide and holocausts are emotive words. Successive Turkish governments have insisted that they were victims of war rather than of a deliberate act of extermination. Be that as it may, hundreds of thousands perished, and not at the hands of the Empire’s enemies.
Yet after the war, as Rogan points out, the victorious allies encouraged the new Ottoman government to put those responsible for the fate of the Armenians on trial before military tribunals. As a result, the three primary Young Turk instigators, who escaped to Germany, were sentenced to death in absentia. A small number of lesser perpetrators were hanged. The 1946 Nuremberg trials were not the first war crimes prosecutions of the 20th Century.
Another aspect that is little known by those who, like me, are not deeply familiar with the war in the Middle East is that the Ottoman leaders prevailed upon the Sultan, in his role as caliph, to declare jihad against the enemy powers. Throughout the war, the British were nervous at the effect the pronouncement might have on the loyalty of their Muslim Indian troops. Likewise, the French were concerned about their colonial forces from North Africa. In the event, there were desertions to the Ottoman side, but not in numbers that made a material difference to the outcome of the war. A reminder though, that the use of jihad in modern times didn’t start with Afghanistan in the 1980s.
As for the Arab revolt in the Hejaz, and Allenby’s campaign in Palestine and Syria, T.E. Lawrence takes his place in the narrative as an influential figure, but not as the principal instigator around which the legend of Lawrence of Arabia was built. Although the British encouraged and funded the revolt, it didn’t gain universal acceptance in the Arab world, let alone among the wider Muslim constituency. We look on the Middle East today primarily through the lens of faith – as a Muslim region with embattled pockets of Christians, and with a Judaic state sitting defiantly in the centre. Christian communities at the beginning of the 20th century were far larger, and many leading nationalists were driven more by ethnic than by religious considerations. It took Allenby’s army to tip the balance. His capture of Jerusalem marked the beginning of the end for the Ottomans in the region.
As part of the post-war settlement, the Empire was partitioned. The British and the French acted according to the notorious Sykes-Picot agreement and established their spheres of influence over the Levant, Palestine and Iraq. The British occupied Palestine and the Jewish immigration – sanctioned by the Balfour Declaration of 1917 – began. Thus the seeds of all the subsequent conflict in the Middle East were sown.
In 1923, Mustafa Kemal, the victor of Gallipoli, overthrew the Sultan, and Turkey became a republic. Kemal, now given the title Ataturk (father of the Turks), became its first president. Ataturk abolished the symbols of the Ottoman Empire – among them the fez and the veil. He disbanded the religious orders, banned Arabic script in the education system and established a secular state. He is so revered in Turkey that anyone insulting his memory is still liable to prosecution.
Rogan’s narrative ends with the abdication of the last Ottoman sultan. His account of the war in the Middle East is a heart-breaking story of political duplicity, civilian suffering, remorseless fighting, courage on all sides of the conflict. Hopes of a unified Arab Kingdom that fuelled the revolt in the Hejaz were dashed. Another kingdom, Saudi Arabia, emerged in the Arabian Peninsula. The sons of Sharif Hussein, the figurehead of the revolt, took their places as Kings of Jordan and Iraq. When finally free of Anglo-French domination, Egypt, Iraq and Syria led the surge of Arab nationalist sentiment, and the descendants of Ibn Saud, enriched by the mineral wealth that lay beneath the desert, consolidated their power.
The Fall of the Ottomans doesn’t explain everything that has happened in the region since the Great War. And the Ottoman Empire has a rich history that is well worth exploring if you want to understand why the Middle East has come to be as it is today. But he’s produced a clear narrative of a conflict overshadowed in Western European memory by the horror of the trenches.
Few people in Iraq are likely to remember the Somme. But they will remember Kut, the fall of Baghdad, their Hashemite king and the Gallipoli campaign in which their conscripts died alongside Turkish comrades. And, thanks in part to ISIS, they especially remember the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
Which takes us back to those who died, it appears, at the hand of ISIS in Ataturk International Airport, the gateway named after the hero of Gallipoli. As an admirer of Turkey and its rich heritage, I grieve for their people, just as I grieve for the dead of Baghdad, of Palestine, of Lebanon and Syria. The people of the former Ottoman Empire have paid dearly in blood over the past century for the accident of their geography – for their civilisation, their beliefs, their culture and their rich and diverse heritage.
The successors of the Ottomans are a proud and sometimes prickly people. The people of Istanbul are, Orhan Pamuk contends, suffused with melancholy – perhaps for good reason. But they are also kind, warm and creative. Turks don’t deserve to be demonised. Especially they don’t deserve to be used as a political football by the xenophobes in my country who have stoked up fears of a flood of Turkish immigration. In short, they deserve a break.
The referendum result, as we are told by those elements in the media that favoured Remain, is advisory. Meaning that it is not binding and has no force in law. Which means that Parliament can refuse to play along. Would it? Should it? There’s an interesting discussion on the constitutional issues in The Independent here.
Even though, as Michael Heseltine said shortly after the result, a majority of around 350 MPs opposed Brexit, it would take a great deal of courage on the part of individual members to put their jobs at risk by defying the “will of the people”.
Personally, I would like to have seen a different process.
Across the Atlantic, the founding fathers of the USA imposed a requirement that a change in the constitution requires a vote of at least two thirds of both houses of Congress to carry. I find it hard to accept that the change delivered by Brexit is of less importance than the 23 amendments, which include the abolition of slavery.
There is an interesting additional requirement in the US process. If Congress passes a constitutional amendment, at least three quarters of the member states must then approve it. If we had taken a leaf out of America’s book, we might additionally have prescribed that Brexit would not take place if more than one of the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – voted against it. The last two voted Remain. Therefore Brexit would have been scuppered.
It’s all very well to say that David Cameron should never have allowed the referendum to be determined by a simple majority. The fact is that he didn’t. But would it now be against the spirit of our democracy for Parliament to say “yes, we know a majority voted in favour of Brexit. But you, the electorate, entrusted us with the power to pass laws that are in the country’s best interest. We happen to believe, all things considered and in the light of subsequent developments, that Brexit is contrary to the nation’s interest”?
There is an interesting parallel in the Labour leadership crisis. 172 out of 229 Labour MPs have publicly expressed no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. They must know that he might well win a new leadership race, and that their own jobs might therefore be at risk at the hands of his vengeful supporters. Yet they are prepared to defy those supporters who overwhelmingly elected him last year.
So the question is, should we let our politicians act in what they think is the best interest of their party, as in the case of Labour, and their nation, in the case of Brexit? Or should they slavishly follow the wishes of the electorate even if they know that the consequences will be disastrous?
There will most likely be a new Labour leadership contest. If the new leaders of the two main parties are sufficiently far-sighted, they will debate the Brexit question at their autumn party conferences, or if necessary, at emergency conferences called as soon as they are in place. They should then call for a Leave/Remain resolution on a free vote in the House of Commons.
If Parliament rejects Brexit, the Prime Minister should call an immediate general election. Party positions should have been established at the conferences, but candidates should be free to state their own views on Brexit in the election.
The newly-elected parliament should then vote definitively on the issue.
Impractical? Complicated? Unacceptable because of the lengthy period of uncertainty involved? Maybe. But such a process would restore the primacy of Parliament and defuse objections that MPs voting against Brexit were ignoring the will of the voters.
And if the new leaders are in place by mid-September, an election could be held by mid-October, at which point Article 50 of the EU treaty could be invoked, or otherwise Brexit put to bed. Is a delay of twelve to fourteen weeks too much to ask before we take the final step? I think not.
Sharper minds than mine are working on ways to force a re-think. I hope they succeed.
Whichever way it goes, and especially if Brexit falls over, it’s equally important is that we address the concerns of the 37% of the electorate who voted Leave.
The referendum is over. Brexit has yet to begin. Yet Britain feels like an entirely different country this week. It’s as if a good proportion of us have taken a large swig of Trump kool-aid. The Labour Party is eating itself. Nigel Farage is hurling bar-room insults at fellow members of the European Parliament. And racists are placing poisonous literature in the hands of innocents.
How many of those who voted for Leave would happily turn back the clock to Wednesday so that they could place their mark elsewhere? A good few, I suspect. How many of the EU politicians and functionaries who so contemptuously brushed David Cameron aside in February are now regretting not being more accommodating? More than a few, even if they might not care to admit it.
As to the future, very few questions posed before the vote have so far been answered. The uneasy coalitions on both sides have disbanded, and it’s back to politics as usual, but with a nasty, vindictive edge.
Sitting in my comfortable suburban perch – my area voted 60-40 in favour of Remain, by the way – I feel like a vulture, waiting to pick at the broken dreams of the brave new Brexit world. But that would hardly be a satisfying meal. What matters now is where we go from here.
In the couple of days since I got home from France (see my previous post), I’ve talked to quite a few people, read plenty in the online and print media and thought of little else. For me, the near-term future boils down to the resolution of a few six key issues that I intend to discuss over the next few posts.
The first issue is the leadership gap.
David Cameron is on his way. Jeremy Corbyn, whether he stays or goes, is an electoral liability. Where are the big beasts waiting to step into the breach? I don’t see any beasts out there. A few dogs maybe. Boris Johnson – lovable, sly, unprincipled. Theresa May – icy, Margaret Thatcher’s mini-me. George Osborne, he of the killer smirk – damaged goods, even if history proves him right in his dire predictions. As for the rest of the senior Tories, none of them have the stature or the credibility of the Clarkes, Heseltines and Macleods of yesteryear.
On the Labour side, there’s no Gordon Brown, brooding in the shadows. The other big boys have gone – Blunkett, Milburn, Miliband the First. Of the current crop, Hilary Benn and the current front-runner, Angela Eagle, are probably the most electorally viable. Then there’s John MacDonnell, Labour’s very own Francis Urquhart, waiting in the wings, knife in hand. The rest of the potential candidates resemble the England football team’s forward line – good looking but as yet unproven when the chips are down. The reliable midfielder, Alan Johnson, has unfortunately retired from the team.
Not necessary a dearth of talent on either side, but do they have the experience to lead us through what is likely to be a bumpy ride over the next couple of years? Equally importantly, do they have the ability slap down Nigel Farage, who, back in the day when Britain’s public schools were famed for their robust put-downs, would have been referred to as a bumptious little squit. And do they have the qualities needed to hold the country together in the face of secessionist pressure from Nicola Sturgeon and renewed polarisation in Northern Ireland?
It’s no surprise that David Cameron didn’t fancy the job of dealing with the self-inflicted mess arising out a contest that never should have been imposed on us. But one thought does occur. Is he planning to hang around for a while in the hope that his party calls him back to “save the nation”?
And as for Labour, will we see David Miliband returning from exile at some stage to try and take the crown he must have felt should have been his when his little brother outmanoeuvred him? That might depend on whether the crown turns out to be worth wearing.
If I was a Conservative, I would probably go for Theresa May, who has managed to get through the ghastly referendum process without making too many more enemies than she had before. She also has a reputation for being tough yet pragmatic, which would serve her well in negotiations with the EU. On the Labour side, the parliamentary party seems to have settled on Angela Eagle as the alternative to Corbyn, at least for the time being. Longer term, I would say that Hilary Benn or David Miliband would have the best chance of restoring the party’s fortunes. Assuming, of course, that Labour as we know it still exists as a coherent whole by the time the Brexit negotiations have been concluded.
Whatever happens, given the mud that is bound to be slung in all directions for the foreseeable future, politics doesn’t look like a very attractive career choice right now for the ambitious young hopefuls working their way through a system that seems pretty much shattered. How many of them will change direction and seek refuge with Goldman Sachs? That would perhaps be the most significant fallout from the current debacle.
We need decent, honest and principled politicians. People like poor Jo Cox. And no doubt there are still some around on all sides of the House of Commons. But if you were faced with abuse on your doorstep, violence every time you made yourself available to your constituents, and death threats when you expressed concern about your leader, would you want to be a British MP in 2016?