The 2005 film V for Vendetta is notable for all sorts of reasons. It was disowned by the creator of the original comic-book story it was based on (Alan Moore who, in fairness, routinely disowns every film made of his work), it gave us scenes where – if you squint and turn the volume right down – it appears that Natalie Portman is actually acting, and its iconic Guy Fawkes masks gave us the defining image of the on-line community Anonymous. It also gave us this quote…
On the face of it it’s not a bad quote. It speaks of the virtue of democracy in the face of tyranny, which is surely a good thing.
Yet, 12 years on, we find ourselves living in a country where the government have fallen short of a parliamentary majority and the opposition feel they are within spitting distance of gaining one, both of them afraid of upsetting their people. Specifically, deathly afraid of upsetting the 17.4m people who voted for the UK to leave the EU.
We’ve all been on a voyage of exploration together in the 14 months since the UK voted to leave. We’ve been drawing a map of the possibilities that are open to us on leaving the EU. Could we locate the fabled £350m/week for the NHS (we could not), perhaps we can find the legendary deal that would give us all of the benefits of single-market membership, minus membership (we can not), or there’d be an easy path to greater free trade with the rest of the world, on our own terms (there is not), or discover a new empire out there, waiting to be forged (there isn’t one).
Like the Victorian explorers who set off into Australia’s interior, expecting to find a vast and bountiful inland sea, we have found only endless desert, where even scratching the most basic existence is a hardship. We needed to erase ‘Here be dragons’, we’ve found out that there are worse things than dragons.
But the polls do not move.
None of the polls I’ve seen – or run – since June last year put us outside the margin of error for returning the same result again. Some leavers feel that the campaign lied to them, but a similar number of remainers have shrugged their shoulders and decided that the people have spoken. I’ve seen people on-line complaining that we’re still talking about Brexit, when there are more important issues to discuss.
Like climate change, international trade seems too big to go wrong; it’s always worked in the past, it will always work in the future, other things are more important. Like climate change, there are enough outliers, on the fringes of respectability, delivering an alternative narrative, to keep those railing against the consensus in ammunition. Like climate change, any failing of specific predictions is used to infer the failure of all predictions. Like climate change, there is a general sense that, sure, somebody should be dealing with it, but those people are probably experts and there are more important matters for everybody else to worry about.
Like climate change, it may take a while to impact us personally, but when it does it’s going to be hard and possibly irreversible.
Ultimately all of this explains why there should not be a second referendum. A lot of people, on both sides, based their decision on factors which aren’t relevant (myself included; my ‘remain’ vote was predicated mainly on my belief that the people calling for leaving the EU – Farage, Gove, Johnson, et al – were the worse kind of stupid, opportunistic, political scum…which they are, but it’s hardly germane to our future political status) and then have either not followed the political classes on their journey of discovery about what leaving actually means, or have chosen to follow them through the prism of dubious experts, selling opium-pipe dreams.
Had their been a ‘shall we tackle climate change?’ referendum then, around the time that a bus was daubed with, ‘What do you want, polar bears or police-officers?’, we’d have realised the whole thing was a terrible mistake and that we were asking people to decide on something so far outside their everyday experience that there was no hope of a meaningful answer. We can’t make the same mistake again.
The way forward is for politicians to lead. They may have campaigned on promises and dreams, but politics is the art of the possible, and they must now assess what is possible. The EU isn’t going to give us everything we want. The commonwealth and the trading blocks of the US and China aren’t stepping forward with ready-to-sign deals, Empire 2.0 isn’t about to take to the waves. We now need to look to our MPs to assess the realities of what lie ahead and make a decision that is in the best interests of the nation.
It’s understandable that they’re scared to do this; the only argument the leave side has still intact is “But we voted for this”, and the polls suggest that half of the electorate would vote for it again, but it was parliament that voted to hold the referendum, parliament that voted to trigger article 50 – long before we’d decided upon our position – and parliament that voted to hold an unnecessary general election during an absolutely time-critical period. It’s now up to parliament to face the consequences of what they’ve done.
Certainly, many MPs would find themselves punished at the ballot box but, ultimately, they would be replaced. They are 650 individual jobs, about, say, 1/1000th of the number that are directly employed in agriculture in the UK – an industry that would be wiped out in Professor Minford’s optimistic hard-brexit report.
We’ll get new MPs. We’ll get new political parties, if necessary. Doubtless, unfortunately, it would breathe some new life into near-dead examples of both, but that’s where we are.
Ultimately we elect, and fund, MPs to represent the best interests of our nation. If the price for them doing that is their own personal jobs then that’s what they signed up for, but we cannot continue to see them driving the nation towards decades of ruin, scared of a shadowy mandate that calls for the impossible.
In 2005 and may have silently wished that our government was scared of its people, but now it is, and that should terrify us all.