The shame of being British

On the morning of 24th June, like many who had voted to remain in the EU, I felt a range of unpleasant emotions: shock, sadness, anger, dejection, despondency. I spent most of the day lapping up the anti-Brexit commentariat’s outpouring of indignant “well-good-luck-getting-out-of-this-hole” articles. ‘It will take an age to recover from this victory for the exit fantasists’ was the headline of Philip Collins’ piece in The Times. Damn right, I thought.

But one thing I did not feel on 24th June was ashamed of being British. Sure, I thought that, on balance, 17 million of my fellow countrymen had made the wrong choice – but not a morally reprehensible choice. I knew remarkably few Brexit voters personally, but from talking to those that I did know, I was well aware that there were respectable – in some cases, even admirable – reasons for voting to leave: a desire to preserve parliamentary sovereignty, a belief that immigration should be managed (which is very different from a belief that it needs to be abruptly stopped or even reversed), a legitimate sense that the European Project had taken several wrong turnings, that Brussels needed a wake-up call before it sleepwalked over a cliff edge. True, there was a certain bloody-minded desire to stick it to “the experts” among many Brexit voters, which I neither admired nor respected. And there was a troublingly cavalier willingness to vote without bothering to acquaint oneself with anything resembling a fact. The news that the number of people googling ‘What is the EU’ or ‘What does it mean to leave the EU’ surged in the hours after the referendum result was announced did cause me to despair somewhat.

But there was – and is – no evidence to suggest that more than a tiny minority of people who voted for Brexit did so because they’re xenophobic bigots who hate foreigners. There was – and is – no evidence that the British people voted en masse to turn their back on the world. There was – and is – no evidence that the Brexit vote meant that we, as a country, had become hard-hearted overnight and opted out of our humanitarian obligations.

So I felt no shame in the immediate aftermath of the vote. A bit of awkwardness, certainly: I was in Germany at the time and, for the next couple of weeks, I did feel compelled to explain to everyone I met that I had voted to remain. Incidentally, they mostly didn’t care. They were much more interested in laughing at me for the fact that England had just been knocked out of the European Football Championship by Iceland.

Even the spate of racist attacks in the weeks following the referendum – lamentable and horrifying as they were – did not make me feel ashamed to be British. I knew that they were the acts a very small handful of malign individuals. This was not behaviour that was condoned by the vast majority of British people any more than the appalling murder of Jo Cox by a psychotic madman had been.

So what changed? Four and a half months on from the referendum I do now feel ashamed to be British. Not because I’ve belatedly woken up to the true meaning of the referendum result. The Brexit vote was a legitimate populist protest (albeit, in my opinion, a wrong-headed one). Those who have missed out on the proceeds of globalisation and neo-liberalism for more than a generation had every right to revolt. But Brexit has been hi-jacked. This is no longer a populist movement. Instead the initiative has been captured by a small cabal within the British elite. Theresa May and several of her ministers seem hell-bent on wilfully misinterpreting the nebulous ‘will of the people’. They use the referendum result to provide political cover for policy positions that would be truly despicable were it not for the fact that they are largely rendered toothless by the government’s incompetence.

It was easy enough to say that racists in the street represent neither me nor my country. But, even though I did not vote for it, the government does represent me and Britain as a whole. That’s the point of government in a democracy. So enough’s enough.

It started with Theresa May’s refusal to rule out the possibility that she might expel citizens of other EU countries already resident in Britain. Even the pro-Brexit, centre-right Spectator called this position ‘shameful’. Presenting it as a negotiating position is no excuse. Remember Theresa, we – they – are people, not pawns in your pathetic game of chess with Jean-Claude Juncker.

Then came the news – in the midst of a US election campaign dominated by the loathsome Donald Trump, whose totemic policy, derided by every Brit I know, is to build a wall along the length of the Mexican border to keep people out – that our government was spending £1.9 million on (guess what?) building a wall at Calais to keep people out. The Americans will hopefully reject Trump on Tuesday, but we’ve already got a Trumpian government – and hardly anybody seems to have noticed, because they’re Trumpians hiding behind the impeccably respectable brand of the British Conservative Party. That’s perhaps the ultimate irony of David Cameron’s downfall: he did succeed in detoxifying the Tory brand, only to squander it and hand it over to a far nastier and more illiberal bunch than the original nasty party gang.

And then came this week’s clash between the government and the high court, surely the ultimate perversion of the Brexit so many Britons voted for. The high court justices upheld the principle of parliamentary sovereignty – the very thing that was at the heart of the positive campaign for Brexit – against the government’s determined efforts to push through its noxious agenda by executive fiat. Even now, instead of accepting this patently sensible ruling, the government intends to waste yet more time and yet more money appealing it.

The role of the press in all this concerns me too. While I take some comfort in the fact that I can categorically say that The Sun and The Daily Mail do not speak for me, I don’t feel entirely sanguine about the vitriol they spread. A healthy democracy requires a healthy press. A press that fosters informed debate and discussion, that holds the powerful to account by testing their assertions against factual evidence, that safeguards a public sphere defined by common values of decency and fairness.

The wanton vilification first of unaccompanied refugee children from the Calais camp allowed – in woefully small numbers – to enter this country, and second, of the three high court justices who ruled that the government must consult parliament before triggering Article 50 is a sign that a large section of the British press is no longer fit for purpose. The Sun, The Mail et al have transgressed their licence to operate. The doctored version of The Mail’s ‘Enemies of the People’ front page that has been doing the rounds on social media (in which the faces of the three judges are replaced by pictures of the owners and editors of the Mail, Sun and Express) seems to me to be spot on. Freedom of the press should not mean that powerful newspapermen on a pathological mission to undermine democracy go unchallenged. They have gone beyond the pale and deserve some form of official censure. But, of course, our Trumpian representatives wouldn’t dream of doing that.

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So where does all this leave us, apart from feeling angry and ashamed? In a one-party state (which is what Britain currently is thanks to Jeremy Corbyn and friends), it’s the enemy within that is more potent than the enemy without. That’s why I’m heartened by the resignation of pro-Brexit Tory MP Stephen Phillips. It may just be an early indication of an important realignment to come.

For the last four and a half months, the focus has been on the divide shown up by the Brexit vote. The 52% versus the 48%. Phillips’ resignation underlines the fact that Leavers versus Remainers is no longer the most significant divide in British politics. The Brexit camp has grown since the referendum, in the sense that many Remainers, myself included, accept that the referendum result must be respected. But it is now decisively fracturing.

On the far right stands the prime minister, backed by the anti-immigrant press barons, burbling her tautological mantra: “Brexit means Brexit means Brexit means Brexit means…” On the far left is a rump of diehard Remainers who refuse to accept the referendum result. In between these two camps is a nascent coalition that is representative of the broad mass of British people. It hasn’t got itself properly organised yet. It hasn’t got an agreed upon leader or a detailed manifesto. Its members are currently scattered across all the main political parties. But it needs to get its act together soon. I want to feel proud of being British again.

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