Brexit and 20:20 Vision


A lot of the articles at the end of 2017 asked what the UK’s role should be following Brexit.  Some see Brexit as the next stage in the UK’s loss of international influence; others see scope for a new role, resetting relationships with the US, other European countries/the EU and countries further afield.  There have been suggestions about the role the Foreign & Commonwealth Office can play in representing the UK’s interests overseas and how the arts, universities and even football can be key components of a soft-power toolkit.

These are all outward-looking initiatives.  How the UK presents itself to the world and keeps and deepens its friendships and influence will be important following Brexit.  But there also needs to be a clear vision of what post-Brexit UK will be like for the people who live here.

That clear vision is something the UK must decide for itself; in other words, it’s an internal matter.  I’m not encouraging excessive navel-gazing here.  It’s rather that the UK needs to decide what type of country it wants to be – for its citizens, not just in what’s presented to the rest of the world.  That approach – that vision – should be one a majority of citizens can sign up to and shouldn’t offend minorities to a point one or more will seek to overthrow it by constitutional or other means.

Secondly, it’s pretty much inevitable that there will be conflicting messages to the rest of the world unless there’s a broad consensus within the UK about what the country stands for after Brexit.  The current government doesn’t always appear to be singing from the same song sheet on the subject so it’s safe to assume that a miscellany of football teams, universities, schools and businesses of all types and sizes will have wildly different messages and approaches rather than something that’s recognisably from the UK.

Thirdly (and going back to the topic of the previous post), there needs to be a narrative to ‘sell’ whatever Brexit deal is reached to UK citizens.  That requires a narrative and you can’t put together a coherent narrative without a vision – in this case, of what life will be like after Brexit.

Part of the difficulty in setting that vision is that none of the political parties seems to have a robust vision that encompasses the whole of the UK; it’s arguable that some of them aren’t clear about what they stand for themselves.  I don’t have a soundbite vision to hand, but I’d say it should:

  • Offer something for everyone, something that’s relevant to them and that they can relate to;
  • Set out the values that will be our post-Brexit touchstones, the ones we’ll keep coming back to;
  • Be recognisable, not too novel or gimmicky;
  • Provide opportunities to everyone and to the country; and
  • Show how these will underpin how we deal with the rest of the world.

These are more inward-looking than outward-looking and that’s deliberate.  Carrying the people of the UK through the Brexit process together is more important than – and is critical to – how we present ourselves to the outside world.

A very British vote


I’ll come clean at the beginning:  I’ll be voting to remain in the EU.  I’m not a fervent Remainer.  It’s more that remaining seems to me the obvious thing to do.  But discussions with various people recently have made me try to work out why that is.

I don’t love EU institutions and I don’t agree with everything the EU does.  But I couldn’t say that I love all UK institutions and I don’t agree with everything any UK government has done or looks likely to do.

Working with other countries feels an appropriate way for any European country to operate in the 21st century.  That doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything and we don’t have to co-operate on everything, but being part of a larger club is more in tune with the way the world operates.

This is all fairly tame stuff.  There isn’t an ounce of passion in it.  But I do believe, fervently, that you shouldn’t create a vacuum and there has to be a very clear and detailed plan about what will replace something that’s taken away.  Vacuums will be filled and they might not be filled in the way that you want or the way that you’d sort of envisaged.  To give extreme examples to make a point, what happened when there wasn’t a detailed and carefully thought-through plan following the defeat of Saddam Hussein or the fall of Colonel Gaddafi?

Speaking to other people, I’ve been struck by three things.  First, how carefully people  said they’ve thought about whether to vote to remain or to leave.  Gut feel and instinct might sway people in the end, but cool analysis has played a part too.  Secondly, the reasons people have given are all very different and not what I’d have expected.  And finally, people say they intend to vote to remain in the EU for what are essentially pragmatic reasons – warts and all, to quote Jeremy Corbyn – rather than for ideological reasons.

Perhaps campaigners should be focusing on that very British characteristic of pragmatism in the two months before the Referendum.

So, Mum, why do we have borders?


Borders have cropped up a lot recently – in the context of migration into, and within, Europe and when thinking about the UK referendum on remaining in the EU. And then a friend said at the end of last week that her kids – 18 and 16; born in the UK and still living here – had asked her why we have borders.

When I heard their question, I realised that the point wouldn’t have crossed my mind when I was their age. I was a child of the Cold War era, when borders separated goodies and baddies, East and West.  Borders demarcated Berlin and its two parts.  They were a legacy of empire and colonial pasts.  You got a stamp in your passport when crossing from one country to another, even within Europe.

And then came the fall of the Berlin Wall, accession of eastern European countries into the EU and NATO and the irrelevance of borders within the Schengen area. Travel became cheaper and easier.  Gap years were taken by more students.  Long-haul travel moved to something resembling mainstream.

Borders were fractured by the internet and made irrelevant by email and social media and those processes helped to foster globalisation. Most of us now have family or friends who are outside our home country.  Perhaps more importantly, we assume that we will do so.  Where someone lives isn’t so very relevant as long as we can communicate easily and on a regular basis.

I’d dearly love to spend an hour inside the mind of the average western European teenager, to see what they take for granted and what puzzles them. I suspect that the notion of borders to keep one group of people in and others out, to deny access and to preserve rights and to otherwise specify what’s mine and what’s yours is something many of them would struggle with.

But there are signs that protectionism, homelands and borders are swinging back into fashion. I can see the reasoning people are following, even though I don’t like that particular shift of the pendulum.

Borders are with us, but we need to be clear about why we have them, what’s important about them and the purpose we want them to serve. Above all, we need to avoid borders being barriers – to openness, as well as to travel; to movement of ideas, as well as to movement of people.

IT’S NOT ALL GREEK TO EUROPE – or the Politics of Everyone


“What we have at the moment in Europe are two political currents colliding and clashing … On the one hand, you have the traditional powers that be – the bankers, big business, the traditional political parties imposing their will from above – and on the other, you’ve got grass roots movements, people-driven, saying no to the status quo and with an alternative vision of society like we see in Spain, Italy and France.”

So said Katya Adler on the Today programme this week, talking about the Greek debt crisis and the upcoming referendum on the Greek bail-out package.

It resonated with the concept of everyone that I’ve written about before (see the entry in October 2014) – the idea that everyone’s view is equally valid and that everyone is entitled to have their say.

The comments in Katya Adler’s piece supported a wider case that disaffection with the EU is now infecting the whole of Europe. Whether that’s in the form of anti-EU backlash in the UK, protesters on the streets in Spain or other unease elsewhere, a common theme can be detected.

But I’m also sensing a wider issue: that the popular view of everyone (or, at least, anyone who voices an opinion) is potentially more valid than the view of traditional – and traditionally-elected – governments. It’s further fundamental questioning of the establishment.

I’m not clear whether this is a temporary trend or part of a longer-term and potentially seismic shift in political behaviour. It also appears to be more pronounced in some countries – Greece, Spain and Italy spring to mind – than in others.

There might, though, be a correlation between the level of austerity imposed by a government and the perceived authority of the popular response. In other words, the greater the sacrifices the government asks people to make, the more likely people are to consider that they therefore have a right to express their opinion, for that opinion to be recognised as valid and for their opinion to be taken into account.

If a government were to take account of the voice of the people and alter its stance, that austerity or other area of dispute would ease and the popular voice should then subside. If the government continues to think that it knows best and runs counter to the popular voice, tensions can build, resulting in the colliding and clashing referred to by Katya Adler.

So, should there be strong government, one which always knows best? Or should the government be the organ of the people, doing what the people have told it to do, even where that message is given on the street, rather than in the polling booths?

Would that be a pure and distilled example of democracy, a version of communism or a temporary aberration? I don’t know – and I also don’t know how this particular story ends.