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Dear Liberal Democrats – you are so much better than this

Saying 'Bollocks to Brexit' won't make the problem go away – it just further debases the debate.

Neal Lawson
13 May 2019
The leader of Liberal Democrats Vince Cable holding the party manifesto for the forthcoming European Elections
The leader of Liberal Democrats Vince Cable holding the party manifesto for the forthcoming European Elections
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SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images

Dear Liberal Democrats,

My hearts sinks at all sorts of now daily encounters with how awful our politics has become – the debasement, the cruelty, the almost total absence of generosity, compassion, care and yes love for each other. The binary, the black or white, the them and the us – a world, it seems, where there is nothing to learn and everything to shout about.

But I’ve been tipped into writing about this not by Tommy or Trump nor any other populist of the left or the right, but by your party – a party that I expected so much more from. Your EU manifesto entitled Bollocks to Brexit just fills me with sad despair.

I’d hope you would have had a Danny Baker moment and would be expressing regret as soon as someone had hit the print button on a title that sounded like a bad idea – one that had got through five election committees with everyone thinking it was a bad taste joke from the typesetter whilst waiting for the grown up headline to be inserted. But no, a t-shirt slogan sold by street vendors eager to make a profit from irate Remain marchers, is the official title of your European Election Manifesto 2019.

It’s not that I’ve had a humour bypass. I think fun is a really important aspect of politics and we don’t get enough of it. But there is a huge difference between being funny and being uncaring and offensive. We know exactly who this is aimed at and how it will make them feel. Everyone who voted for Brexit and everyone who still wants it – will know that this means bollocks to them. Those that were ignored, marginalised and humiliated will be ’othered’ even more by this. People who don’t deserve a debate, a discussion, who are beneath being listened to – all they are worthy of is a dismissive and crude ‘bollocks’.

Flushed by your local election success, which was deserved for sticking to your European guns, you have now decided to join the dumbed down debate. To beat them you have joined them. But now there are no go areas. No language that is too coarse. There is no moral high ground.

Look, Brexit is a monstrously difficult issue. The referendum was shockingly conceived, but beneath it brewed a discontent in our nation that was going to emerge at some stage. And it was never simple. Europe smashed the Greeks for daring to break the austerity stronghold. Europe pooled sovereignty but not democracy. Migrants were left to literally sink or swim. There was a bit of 52/48 in anyone who felt the contradictions in an increasingly supranational project that refused to face up to its lack of legitimacy, accountability or sometimes morality. That’s no reason to leave – but its every reason to question, think and embrace the complexity, while reaching out to those who never felt the benefits of the European project.

Like most of us, you went along with the referendum, because you thought Remain would win, but then recoiled at a result that told us two things; what a terrible campaign Remain ran, and how out of touch we are all with our country that we didn’t see the result coming. It was a campaign that saw three million vote who never do, in the most proportional election we have known in a generation. For once they knew their voted counted and they used it. An election in which many of the powerless, the ignored and ridiculed said their sense of sovereignty and control mattered more to them than their jobs.

Along with others, I’ve campaigned for years for a more democratic and social Europe, with little interest shown by Labour or the Liberal Democrats. Democratic globalisation is the only future we have, but it has to be socially orientated and it has to be reconciled with nationalism. It’s fiendishly complicated to square internationalism with domestic democracies – but that is the path we have to take.

So campaign for a second referendum – make the case. But do it with style and care. Saying bollocks won’t make the problem go away - it just fuels those that won’t just say bollocks back but are likely to kick you in them.

Tyranny, said Albert Maysles, is the deliberate removal of nuance. But the path to populism and tyranny isn’t really made by the extremists but by those willing to forget, conveniently, that means always shape ends; that if you live by the sword you die by it. Extremism takes a solid grip when those that know better take short cuts.

I’ve always been a defender of your party – despite the coalition, that awful AV campaign, and despite the Orange Bookers – because I know the good and decent people in your party are just like the good and decent party in every progressive party. I know too that the spirit of liberalism is critical to any future politics. Liberalism, not in its deformed classical economic sense of Milton Friedman nor the claims to the mantle ‘classical liberalism’ made today by the likes of Ben Shapiro and Carl Benjamin, but in its openness and its belief in the progressive potential of every individual. A liberalism that writes no one off.

My Liberal Democrat friends, the party of Keynes, Beveridge, Grimond and Kennedy, the party of social liberalism and of tolerance, you are so much better than this. So if you want to be liberal rebels, then please in future be kind.

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