Those of certain political vintage will recall the US tennis player John McEnroe bellowing at unfortunate umpires that they ‘could not be serious’ whenever a call went against him. Golden ageism comes to all of us and we should be wary of it – but have we ever been ‘blessed’ with such a collective group of political leaders who ‘cannot be serious’?
Brexit is a toxic issue, full of contradictions and causes that play havoc with our traditional political structures, narratives and tribes. It is simultaneously ‘the greatest act of national self harm’ and the ‘greatest leap to national freedom’ ever made. There is no easy or quick way out of such extreme polarisation. But even the devilishness of Brexit doesn’t excuse the inept behavior and actions of our political leaders. From David Cameron’s initial gambit to call a referendum that should never have been called, to the latest and endless pontifications on a ‘government of national unity’ that will never be, too many politicians have revealed a sad mixture of incompetence, hubris, cowardice and cynicism. The best meant well and tried hard – but have not been good enough. Only two groups exempt themselves and pass the serious test. Sadly, the first are the hard core Brexiteers, who are deeply ambitious, competent and horribly serious. The second are those Labour MPs who looked to do a deal with Theresa May.
The rap sheet for the rest is lengthy. It starts with the acceptance of the ludicrous binary referendum on an issue of mind-numbing complexity, and with the failure to consider any threshold guiderails to the vote. It continues of course with an utterly pathetic remain campaign. All errors born of complacency, where so many ‘representatives’ revealed the fact that they were far out of touch with those they claim to represent, as they didn’t see the result coming. Then in the shell shock of the Leave mandate, Article 50 was invoked and set in train the very No Deal so many MPs now claim to be horrified by. And yet they made No Deal possible by starting a process they couldn’t or didn’t want to control.
Along the way few seriously analyzed the deep reasons for Brexit vote (though Compass, the organisation I direct, tried) and few attempted seriously to persuade Leave Voters to reconsider (Caroline Lucas at least tried). All leaders played party political games – seeking electoral advantage – ignoring the national interest. Like it or not, and I don’t, the country voted for Brexit. It did so by the slenderest majority. So the most accurate interpretation of the vote, that every political leader said we must abide by, was and probably still is, the softest of soft Brexits. This would have lanced the Brexit boil. Sure, the hard Brexiteers would say it wasn’t enough but given No Deal wasn’t even on the table three years ago, it would have delivered the mandate, minimized any economic damage and kept a loose but meaningful relationship with the EU we could eventually have built on.
But too many Remainers followed the pattern of the hard Brexiteers and refused to do what you sometimes have to do in politics – compromise. Indeed, in trying to square party, national and European interests, compromise was the only way out. There were numerous points along the way where a deal could have been struck, but instead, Brexiteers played hard ball – predictably – and so, in mirror image did Remainers. It was all or nothing. Theresa May’s deal – rejected by so many – now looks pretty good?
Any sympathy for the Labour leadership in trying to seek a deal that at least honoured the result wore thin quickly when it became apparent they weren’t trying to actually do a deal but bring down the Government. A strategy that still laughably relies on Tory MP voting against their own PM and installing the socialist Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street. It was never going to fly. It took Corbyn three years to reach out to other party leaders to try and build an anti No Deal coalition, as he finally did last week. And why, if it was meaningful, wasn’t the offer to talk made in private and not released to the press? Because it’s not a serious attempt to do any such thing. It’s another ploy, another PR stunt, this time seeking to reveal the Lib Dems as Yellow Tories and all-round running dogs of capitalism. Despite the fact that in the messy and complicated real world, there are scores of seats where only they can defeat actual Tories and help put Labour back in office.
If Labour was serious about stopping No Deal, then it’s fine to say that Corbyn must be considered as a caretaker PM. But if it’s really about stopping No Deal, at all costs, the, equally, Labour should be open to other options for a caretaker PM that a majority of MPs could unite behind. But it clearly isn’t. Indeed, if Labour was serious about winning an election it would be instigating, at the very least, the kind of non-aggression pact with the Lib Dems that worked to devastating effect in 1997. But they are not because that’s not the game. The game is to expose anyone who isn’t a devout Corbynite, to maximise the share of the vote, not the MPs, and to keep control of the vanguard party.
With Labour the choice currently seems to be either Corbynism that can’t get us out of this mess, or the vapid centrism that helped get us into it. Left wing hopelessness is better than its right-wing variant. But it’s still hopeless. To distract us we are left with caricature class announcements to ban grouse shooting – just in case anyone hadn’t yet clocked that Boris Johnson is a toff. Meanwhile well intentioned Remain and Reformers only become serious when they can show how the EU can be desirably and feasibly reformed.
The Lib Dems are reduced to shouting ‘bollocks’, and think you can be serious when you give leading jobs to MPs who have been in three different parties in the space of a few months. The best of the rest either offer fantasy solutions or retreat to local battles and siloed issues. Almost everyone means well and does their best. But it’s just not good enough. It’s just not serious.
The only people who are really serious and are seemingly succeeding, are the hard Brexiteers and Dominic Cummings. And they have set a trap that everyone from Corbyn to Ken Clark seems happy to walk into, the trap of being on the wrong side of a parliament versus the people standoff. The Brexiteers won’t believe their luck that their opponents are pontificating in public on who should be leading a ‘Government of National Unity’, set on overturning what a majority of people voted for three years ago and still hasn’t been enacted. Despite the Yellowhammer leak, I suspect the public look on with incredulity at such shenanigans and just want Brexit done. Pollsters Opinium recently recorded 46% wanting to go ahead with No Deal if the Withdrawal Agreement isn’t passed, with only 29% wanting Brexit cancelled if the WA fails again.
It cannot be by accident that progressive politicians have failed to find serious ways of this mess. There is something about the system and in particular about progressive politics that leaves us so bereft. The system encourages short termism, tribalism, and a winner takes all mentality. It punishes compromise and a future that is negotiated not imposed. It is a system in which the right thrives. And yet progressive politicians don’t, it seems, want to change the system just put themselves at the head of it.
It seems roaringly obvious that it’s the political system that must be changed and that Brexit is just a symptom of its manifest failures. But that’s the Catch 22 of the moment. Even the best people in the system become the system. Those who know how to lead in the 21st century, to compromise and be serious, to have both a vision and plan for it, tend not to ‘go into politics’ and instead locate themselves in civil society, start-ups and social enterprises. The political task is to overcome the gap between seriousness and power and start to build the cultural, intellectual and organisational foundations on which the causes of Brexit can be addressed, and the ethno-nationalist right finally taken on. It is time, in short, to get serious.
Neal Lawson writes for openDemocracy in a personal capacity.