What kind of politics do we need? Between left and right populism, it’s perplexing that there’s nothing inspiring emerging from the middle ground.
Is part of the problem that current hopes of an alternative are invested in something called centrism? There’s nothing to lift the spirits in that term. It suggests a bland splitting of the difference between the extremes or, worse, nostalgia for the discredited status quo ante.
Opposition politics in the UK are in a sorry state. The Labour Party is in the grip of a far-left cult which is not much interested in parliamentary democracy. Since the General Election, those in the Labour Party who don’t favour Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership have gone quiet – perhaps buying into the myth that by not losing the election as disastrously as everyone expected, he somehow won it instead. Because the moderates expressed their lack of confidence in Corbyn on the grounds of his unelectability, they are now shouted down by those who crow about Corbyn’s apparent popularity. What has been lacking is a principled critique of what he stands for.
Why do I write so much about politics? Because there’s an inescapable link between our political situation and the way organisations are led. It’s a moot point whether organisations align with the prevailing political discourse or whether politics is shaped by the interests of organisations. At the moment, it’s politics that’s making the running. There’s a broad consensus across the political spectrum that, whatever path Britain takes in relation to Brexit, it needs to become more inclusive. There’s not much agreement (nor even much in the way of ideas) about how this is to be achieved. But I fear many organisations don’t yet grasp the demands it will place on them to overcome the alienation and social fracturing that blight large parts of the country.
Brexit is shaping up to be the object lesson par excellence in how not to lead in complexity. First this week we have seen the Government’s negotiating strategy (if one can call it that) for getting to Phase 2 of the Brexit talks blown to pieces by its negligence of the Irish border issue. Then the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, admitted that the Government had made no assessment of the impact of Brexit on the various sectors of the economy, despite having previously insisted on several occasions that such assessments were in hand. So the Government is navigating what is the biggest peacetime challenge that the UK has faced in generations, not just with no real understanding of what its impact will be but no attempt to understand. It’s almost as if the truth would be too frightening for ministers to know.
Since the result of the Brexit referendum, nearly six months ago, I have found it hard to write. I spend too much time reading about developments and not enough time ordering my thoughts. As a consequence, this blog post covers a lot of ground and will be split into three parts.
But there’s a more subtle reason for my writer’s block: my mood swings. This month, watching the Supreme Court display Britain’s constitution working properly, I’ve been able to think that we might find a way through the challenges ahead with good sense and collegiality. But having seen – amid the broader global context of political upheaval – the intolerant and hysterical reaction to the earlier High Court ruling on Article 50, I experience a foreboding about what the Brexit vote might unleash.
I don’t think I’m alone. The foreboding extends beyond the cosmopolitan bubble I inhabit in London. I see it the eyes of visitors from northern cities. I heard it amid the chat of scores of More United supporters who turned up from far afield to campaign in the Richmond Park by-election for openness and tolerance.
I counted myself lucky to be on holiday and out of the country during the week after the referendum result. The atmosphere was clearly febrile as I watched events unfold from afar. As someone who voted Remain, albeit with serious misgivings, I was prey to a constantly shifting range of emotions, and still am to a degree. I was surprised however, to find an old friend of mine who works for a Labour frontbench MP texting me to say how ashamed she was of England.
This set a whole new train of thought going for me. Whatever else I felt about the result, I did not feel any shame whatever about how England – as opposed to London – had voted. I couldn’t for a moment feel any sense of shame that the poor and disadvantaged who have suffered most from the financial crash in 2008 had vented their spleen on the establishment, even though I believe such venting to be misdirected. But the poor and disadvantaged don’t make up 52 per cent of the population or anything like it. While I am prepared to believe there was a degree of xenophobia at work in the vote to leave, I believe it far more likely that there was a grudging resentment – which I share – at the high-handedness of the EU (particularly in the Commission) and the woeful lack of any democratic accountability.
Britain’s vote to leave the European Union is easily the most cataclysmic political development of my lifetime. I have spent the last days stunned and despondent; absorbing the news more than making sense of it.
Although I count myself thoroughly European, it was not a foregone conclusion that I would vote Remain. It is self-evident that the EU, as an institution, is ossified and dysfunctional, incapable of addressing the seismic challenges it faces with the Euro or of mustering an effective humanitarian response to the refugees arriving at its borders. Conceived to heal division, the EU has become a wrecker of social democracy that has engendered extreme right-wing politics across the continent.
Such concerns did not persuade me, though, of the prospectus for leaving. That Britain’s economic interests lie in being part of the EU is a no-brainer. A bigger consideration for me was the case for staying engaged in Europe’s conversation, trying to keep it’s project for co-operation on the road. As the referendum campaign unfolded, the xenophobia and hatred stirred up by the Brexiteers dispelled any notion that there might be a decent argument for leaving.
“Democracy, said Camus, is the system that relies on the wisdom of people who know that they don’t know everything.” This observation, by Philip Collins in The Times (£) this morning sent me scuttling to consult Camus’ reflections in more depth.
Collins was giving a very measured response to the day of infamy which saw the murder of the Labour MP, Jo Cox. I hadn’t heard of Jo Cox before yesterday. But in our age of political disenchantment, it seems especially poignant that she appears to have been – as my friend, Simon, who broke the news to me, put it – a fabulous advert for everything we all want: an engaged, democratic, local, committed politician.
We’ve been in business for just over three years now and in all that time we have consistently championed the idea of socially responsible business. When we started we were sure we were onto a winner. Our credentials in understanding and communicating the idea of social value opened doors. But we quickly realised that, much as people liked to talk, no one was much interested in spending money on this. As in the world of business, so in the world of politics. All the party leaders have talked about the need for a more socially responsible, less predatory capitalism but so far nothing has come of it. We are still, for instance, five years away from the Vickers report on banking regulation being fully implemented, and there are many who argue that it goes nowhere near far enough. Meanwhile, executive pay continues to rocket while the great majority see their incomes lagging inflation.
Tempted as I often am to throw up my hands up in despair, something happened just recently that encouraged me to think that change is on the way, though it will take time to be fully realised. When I’m not working for Vogel Wakefield, I have an unpaid role as a priest at St. Mary the Virgin Primrose Hill. A few weeks ago I preached a sermon on the subject of money by way of launching a money season at the church. Inspired by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s campaign on payday loans and in conjunction with the Centre for Theology and Community, our aim in the money season has been to support individuals in reflecting on the ethics of making and spending money, and to encourage the whole church to identify local needs that it can help address.