A Tale of Two Speeches
I’ve listened to two speeches in the last few days. One motivated me to redouble my efforts to support a cause I’ve long supported. The other left me depressed and worried about the future direction of our country. It was a rather dry lecture from a philosopher that gave me hope. It was the Prime Minister who gave me cause for worry. Prof AC Grayling told an audience in Bristol that Brexit was a national emergency to which we should respond with all forms of peaceful resistance. Theresa May set out her Brexit plan and it’s much harder to bear than I feared.
After losing my seat in the 2015 general election it would have been easy to have melted into the political background. But the calling of the EU referendum meant that I quickly rediscovered my political mojo. I threw myself into campaigning for a Remain vote in Bristol. I worked with Liberal Democrat colleagues but also was one of the founders of Bristol Stronger In. Working with people from other parties and none was uplifting. But in the early hours of 24th June I was despondent again. The ballot papers in front of me showed that Bristol had voted comfortably (62%) for Remain and my former Bristol West constituency had done so with an emphatic 80% vote. But the TV screens at the counting centre told a different story. Once again I was to leave a count just after dawn with a heavy heart.
What came next took me by surprise. First there was an influx of new members into Bristol Lib Dems. Then I was asked by a Labour member if I would meet with some people who wanted to fight together against the madness of Brexit. In the last six months I have been involved in the growth of a small band of people meeting every Friday evening to plan protest rallies, a march and petitioning. Some of the core group were political animals, most were new to politics. Now Bristol for Europe has over 2000 signed up supporters. At our Saturday street stalls we meet people with a real worry about where our country is going and a desire “to do something” to stop a hard Brexit. There’s also the occasional row with an unforgiving Leaver, which livens things up!
Hundreds of people have turned out to our rallies on Bristol College Green to hear speeches from me and Labour and Green Party representatives. We brought Bristol City Centre to a halt with our march, well supported despite the torrential rain. Last night we held our first evening speaker meeting. I was sceptical as to whether people would turn up to listen to a philosopher and what’s more, pay £5 to get in. But the Lantern Room at Bristol’s Colston hall filled to its 250 capacity and we could have let in many more. The lucky audience got quite a treat.
Prof Anthony Grayling is a well-established philosopher and media commentator. He is Master of the New College of Humanities, a London college set up as a result of the reforms put in place by Vince Cable and David Willets during the Coalition. Being his own boss clearly gives him the freedom to speak clearly and fearlessly, without the “on the one hand and then on the other” guff we often gets from academics worried about institutional reputation.
Grayling certainly spoke his mind. Each sentence was “like a perfectly crafted arrow” directed at our government, as someone put it to me in the bar afterwards. Grayling speaks with a soft voice so a velvet fist might be a better description of his duffing up of Theresa May, her government, the Labour Party and indeed the majority of the political class. His main charge was of the cowardice of Parliament to stand up for its own sovereignty. The referendum was advisory. MPs had been told so by the (superb) House of Commons Library. Now every letter he writes to MPs, asking them to do their jobs, is met with replies of “the country has voted” or “the people have spoken.”
But Grayling believes that the people have not spoken, at least not in sufficient numbers to force MPs to capitulate and wave through Brexit. He quoted the statistic that only 37% of “those given the opportunity to vote” had supported the Leave option. He went on to say that the opportunity to vote was denied to millions of people who would be profoundly affected by the outcome. These included 16 and 17 year olds (many of whom had voted in the Scottish independence referendum) plus EU nationals living in Britain and many British ex-pats living elsewhere in the EU.
So on the basis of an advisory vote that excluded many people and showing minority support for Vote Leave, Grayling said “Britain is being hustled out of the EU with undue haste” by Theresa May’s government. He went on to say that we are all “being hijacked by our own government!”
Grayling believes the rush to the Brexit door is a national emergency. In a democracy those of us who disagree have the right and the responsibility to offer peaceful resistance. He offered three approaches. First, bombard all MPs with letters. He believes MPs and Ministers eventually crumble under the weight of correspondence from angry constituents. Governments, he said, were like the Wizard of Oz, all sound and fury. But behind the Whitehall curtain lurk some less formidable people.
Second, there’s the recourse to law via the courts. At the time of writing we await the Supreme Court’s verdict on whether MPs must be given a vote on the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the opening of our departure negotiations. His third suggestion was less orthodox. He would like to see various forms of civil disobedience. He was not advocating a general strike, as had been reported in the press. Indeed, he joked that many of us in the audience probably did things that might not be missed by the public if we went on strike. Perhaps he thought we were mainly academics…
There is something in Grayling’s third suggestion. He pointed out that the communist regimes in Eastern Europe crumbled in the face of civil disobedience that often started with a regular city centre gathering of dissidents that grew into an unstoppable force. I have explored this with Bristol for Europe colleagues at this week’s meeting. Watch this space!
However, my personal experience makes me doubt the impact of Grayling’s plea for mass letter writing. This may once have been true. In my early years as Bristol West’s MP I read most of the incoming letters. That was because they were usually paper based and signed by a constituent. But soon the volume of emails became too great for me to read more than a selection. The staff team read them all and drafted replies that came from me. Once the likes of 38 Degrees started to bombard MPs’ offices with standard emails and repetitive phone calls I think MPs became immune to the force of numbers and saw it as simple bullying. The Wizard needs a different approach if we are to avert being blown away in a Brexit twister.
After the meeting I advised Anthony that it was far more effective to meet MPs in person, in their surgeries or Central Lobby. Remain supporting MPs will appreciate the personal encouragement. Leavers or those Remainers resigned to the finality of Brexit, need to see the whites of the eyes of constituents whose lives will be blighted by Brexit. He promised to incorporate this advice into his next talk.
Grayling gave me renewed determination to resist Brexit. On Tuesday morning I listened live to Theresa May, speaking at Lancaster House. My mind flashed back to 2014 when I spoke in the same room, as Communities Minister welcoming the President of Bosnia. I spoke of how a war ravaged Europe had come together, how the communist East was now in the EU and that the Balkans were now joining too. Peace and economic prosperity are the huge achievements of the EU.
Theresa May’s vision was rather more bleak. But at least she finally gave us some details of her plan. Her words were so damaging that she has had even more of an effect on me than Grayling. We know now that we are to jump out of the Single Market and probably the Customs Union too. Yet the Prime Minister says she wants a comprehensive free trade deal with the EU. Is she really so blind to the fact that our existing arrangement is the best deal we could possibly hope to secure? She went on to say that we would refuse to abide by European Court rulings on trade rules and that we would not pay (like Norway and Switzerland) for market access. This is a cake and eat it negotiation opening gambit. It will surely be met by a giant raspberry from the other 27 EU members.
So Theresa May’s new mantra is Brexit means Hard Brexit. Those of us who think this is a dangerous threat to the liberties of our citizens and will undermine our national prosperity, cannot stand idly by. Hard Brexit must be met by Hard Resistance.
A shorter version of this blog was published by Lib Dem Voice at http://www.libdemvoice.org/a-tale-of-two-speeches-52995.html