It is time for intolerance of incompetence

Another day, another screw-up in government. Aside from the malice and selfishness which characterise many of our current crop of leaders, it is becoming increasingly clear how completely and utterly incompetent they are. We saw pretty stunning levels of incompetence during the election campaign this summer, when our Prime Minister could not muster up anything more creative or interesting than “strong and stable” for weeks on end. But what has been going on over the last few weeks has caused even cynical me to shake her head in disbelief.

The Home Office sends out hundreds of threatening letters to EU citizens in error. Nothing happens. A Tory whip sends out a sinister letter to vice chancellors of universities demanding information on Brexit-related teaching, providing the Daily Mail with yet another enemy of people, those pesky Remoaner Universities. This earns him a half-hearted rebuke, but nothing serious. Boris Johnson condemns a British national to a further five years in an Iranian prison by apparently not bothering to read his brief on the case, by fundamentally not understanding that when dealing with countries like Iran, every single word has to be carefully chosen and weighed up. Nothing happens. Priti Patel engages in arguably treasonous behaviour by embarking upon a series of unofficial meetings with high-level Israeli counterparts without telling Number 10 or the Foreign Office. She is allowed to resign from her cabinet post, but remains an MP.

I find it remarkable that when government ministers display unforgivable levels of incompetence, all that happens is that they resign from cabinet. Michael Fallon has been another case in point — though this was more about immoral behaviour than simply incompetence. Are we not to expect higher standards from our MPs as well? Why should I continue to be represented by someone who has shown themselves to be unfit for public office?

And then to the most absurd display of incompetence of recent weeks: David Davis and his sectoral impact assessments. He first tells us that there are 58 very detailed Brexit impact assessments prepared, which are so sensitive that releasing them to the public would damage our negotiating position in Brussels. Upon being compelled by parliament to release them, because his case for secrecy is about as flimsy as the rest of the Leave campaign’s argumentation, Davis tells us that “it is not the case that 58 sectoral impact assessments exist.” Again, nothing really happens.

This is despite the fact that Davis is clearly misleading us because the assessments cannot exist and then suddenly not exist, unless they existed and were then forever shredded out of existence — which would make me seriously concerned about the contents. They must be so incendiary and undermining of the Brexit cause that they may no longer be allowed to continue to exist at all. It’s actually a perfect reflection of the way the government handles inconvenient truths these days: any facts that do not fit the Brexiter worldview are simply banished from existence, and if you speak of them then you are either a liar or a traitor to the country.

We are truly living in absurd times. In another pre-referendum world, any one of these displays of incompetence and disloyalty would have been met with a sacking or resignation, preferably from politics altogether. But Brexit has destabilised this government and the nation to such an extent that we must now tolerate this sheer incompetence, because losing half the cabinet in the space of a week really isn’t a good look.

And so Boris continues to embarrass us on the world stage and endanger British lives overseas, hardline Brexiters continue to put party over country, Davis continues to make a shambles of negotiations.

A responsible, competent government would have convened a cross-party panel of experts to establish a Brexit working group soon after the referendum. They would have worked out in detail what the likely impacts would be, what needed to be considered and resolved, and what we wanted from negotiations — if we decided to leave the EU at all. And then, only then, would the government have triggered Article 50.

Instead, the government continues to negotiate with itself instead of the EU, we are facing an EU ultimatum and a possible breakdown of talks, a leave date enshrined in law for no good reason and a growing threat of a no-deal exit with all the misery that will entail.

Davis’ assurances that we will have a “basic deal” on things such as aviation and radiation therapy show that he still does not understand that a deal with the EU is not just based on political will, which is in any case rapidly diminishing thanks to his incompetence and arrogance, it requires legal arrangements that need to be negotiated. The same goes for citizens’ rights and the Irish border, which are not simply mere technicalities that can be quickly resolved if everyone just tries a little harder.

It is time we stop tolerating this incompetence and demand a higher standard of skill and a stronger moral compass from our government and all of our MPs. Because this rot at the heart of Westminster will only make our nation poorer — in every sense of the word.

Recent DexEU response

Like many of you, I suspect, I was a lucky recipient of DexEU’s recent reply to a popular petition demanding a referendum on the final Brexit deal. I signed the petition mainly to register my protest at how the entire process is being handled, and less because I am adamant that there should be a second referendum — I would prefer our politicians to see sense before we ever reach this stage. I wanted to make the point that the way Brexit is being conducted is undermining our democracy and completely ignoring the wishes of those who wanted to remain, and even those who simply wanted a soft Brexit.

 

And the reply certainly lived up to my expectations of our current government — arrogant, blind, haughty, misinformed and with distinct authoritarian tendencies. What follows is a look at the text all signatories of the petition were sent — my favourite bits and my thoughts on this patronising and anger-inducing piece of garbage.

 

On 23 June 2016 the British people voted to leave the European Union.

 

Really? Thanks for reminding me. I temporarily forgot about that.

 

The UK Government is clear that it is now its duty to implement the will of the people and so there will be no second referendum.

 

Will you please just stop already with the “will of the people” nonsense?! Firstly, who are the people? Because last time I checked, an awful lot of the people voted to remain, and many others did not vote. Even more people were disenfranchised, especially overseas Britons, casting doubt on the validity of the entire exercise and certainly on the notion that this was the will of the “people.” And if you are referring to that slender majority of people who did vote, well even in that case, the “will of the people” is not an immutable, fixed thing. It changes over time. That’s the entire point of a democracy. Or, dear Tories, should we have a permanent Labour government with Tony Blair at the helm because that was the “will of the people” in 1997?

 

“… On 23 June 2016 the British people voted to leave the European Union.

 

You actually just said that a couple sentences ago, but thanks again for reminding me.

 

The referendum was the largest democratic mandate in UK political history.

 

This is meaningless twaddle. That is because it was a choice between two things. The vote to remain was the second-largest democratic mandate in UK political history. But as has been made clear, that mandate does not matter to this government, the 48% are irrelevant.

 

In the 2017 General Election more than 85% of people voted for parties committed to respecting that result.

 

Yet more twaddle. In our wonderfully archaic electoral system, we essentially have a choice between two parties. It so happens that they are both led by anti-Europeans, and many pro-Europeans will have felt forced to vote Labour to keep the Tories from winning in their constituencies. It in no way follows that 85% of people support Brexit, this line of reasoning from DexEU is an obvious logical fallacy.

 

There must be no attempts to remain inside the European Union, no attempts to rejoin it through the back door, and no second referendum.

 

Wait. A. Minute. Is the UK still a democracy? Erm, I think so. So I can bloody well attempt to do anything I like. I can attempt to remain in the EU. I can attempt to rejoin it through the back door — or the front door, for that matter — and I can attempt to lobby for a second referendum. How dare you tell me what I can and cannot attempt to do? As long as my actions are legal, you have no right to stop me attempting anything. And I promise, should you be so foolish as to take us out of the EU, especially without a deal, we will keep attempting to rejoin the EU over the long haul. And that is my right. You can label me “unpatriotic” as much as you like, but you will not take this right away from me.

 

The country voted to leave the European Union, and it is the duty of the Government to make sure we do just that.

 

Did the country vote to leave the EU? I had just forgotten that so thanks for reminding me

 

Rather than second guess the British peoples decision to leave the European Union, the challenge now is to make a success of it – not just for those who voted leave but for every citizen of the United Kingdom, bringing together everyone in a balanced approach which respects the decision to leave the political structure of the EU but builds a strong relationship between Britain and the EU as neighbours, allies and partners.

 

As parliamentarians, it is your duty to second guess the referendum result. Blindly accepting it and pushing the decision through without any real debate and any proper planning, regardless of the devastating consequences, is a dereliction of this duty.

 

A balanced approach? You have got to be kidding. Serious talk of a no-deal Brexit is not a balanced approach. You have never taken the concerns of Remainers on board, you have relentlessly made us feel like second-class citizens and traitors of the country. You have referred to our neighbours, allies and partners as “the enemy.” Do not insult my intelligence by pretending you are taking a balanced approach.

 

Parliament passed an Act of Parliament with a clear majority giving the Prime Minister the power to trigger Article 50 As a matter of firm policy, our notification will not be withdrawn – for the simple reason that people voted to leave, and the Government is determined to see through that instruction.

 

Did the people vote to leave the EU? You are right to remind me, because I am very stupid indeed and had forgotten this fact since the last time you mentioned it. The truly frightening thing about this particular section is that it says that no matter what happens, no matter how bad this Brexit thing gets, no matter how devastating the consequences for Britain, we will carry on with it because “the people voted to leave.” We simply no longer have the right to change our minds or ask for a change in direction. That sounds an awful lot like authoritarianism to me.

 

Both Houses of Parliament will have the opportunity to vote on the final agreement reached with the EU before it is concluded. This will be a meaningful vote which will give MPs the choice to either accept the final agreement or leave the EU with no agreement.

The people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe. We want a deep and special partnership with the EU. We aim to get the right deal abroad and the right deal for people here at home. We will deliver a country that is stronger, fairer, more united and more outward-looking than ever before.

 

Argh! I had again forgotten that the people had voted to leave the EU. Thanks again for reminding me DexEU! You are such a good friend for making sure I don’t forget this important thing. I mean, I am liable to forget the event that this entire omnishambolic mess is based on.

 

A country that is stronger? The World Bank has predicted that a no-deal Brexit will see UK trade in goods plummet by 50% and by a staggering 62% in services. In this world, how on earth will the UK be stronger? We are already weaker as a result of Brexit, and it hasn’t even happened yet.

 

A country that is fairer? Being a member of the EU guaranteed our basic rights to things such as paid holiday and maternity leave. It ensured we upheld basic environmental standards. It did not stop the British government from adopting policies that would have helped to reduce inequalities: a failure of domestic politics has made our society unfair. And leaving the EU will only make this worse, as we inevitably end up having to dismantle our system of rights and standards to be able to compete economically.

 

A country that is more united? I can barely dignify this with a response. We are more divided than ever. Theresa May could have come to power promising to heal the divides caused by the referendum, but every day her government has been in office, their rhetoric has only increased these divides. Hate crimes have soared since the referendum, in the permissive environment that it created. And don’t get me started on the issue of the Irish border.

 

More outward-looking? Sorry while I step out for a moment to have a good laugh. In my lifetime, we have never been more inward-looking. Major global issues are being debated and resolved without our presence. We no longer speak for Europe on the UN Security Council, as that role has now fallen to France. We have no bandwidth to conduct creative foreign policy because every bit of resource is consumed by mitigating the fallout from Brexit. Foreign talent is leaving the island in droves. Jobs are being relocated to the continent. More outward-looking?!

 

Department for Exiting the European Union

 

DexEU, your words are nothing but empty promises and platitudes. Please stop lying to me. Stop patronising me. Stop telling me to shut up and put up. Because I won’t, because you are ruining my country and I won’t sit idly by and let it happen.

 

 

Brexit and the manipulation of language

In my last entry, I quoted liberally from Orwell’s essay on Politics and the English Language in support of my argument that imprecise language is contributing to a debasement of our political discourse and pulling the wool over people’s eyes. Orwell wrote in this essay that a lot of political speech and writing was “in defence of the indefensible.” As a result, political speech was littered with euphemisms, platitudes, metaphors and “sheer cloudy vagueness.” I believe this explains rather a lot of the political language that has emerged from the Brexit camp, most notably the tagline to “take back control.” We still do not know what we are taking control of. Instead, we know that things seem pretty out of control. We also know that there were never £350 million a week to take back, that Turkey is not even remotely close to joining the EU and that the process is not going to be “easy.”

We all know that politics is full of spin, but this campaign and its aftermath have opened up our political discourse not just to imprecision, but above all to dishonesty and outright lies. Language is distorted in a way to make these lies sound truthful. The inevitable pain of Brexit is masked in a rhetoric of glory, triumph and confidence. And if you dare expose these lies, this farce, then you are a Remoaner at best and unpatriotic at worst. The Brexiteers are already setting up the Remainers as the next scapegoat after the EU — it will eventually be our fault that Brexit is not turning out to be a roaring success.

Language is also manipulated to dehumanise anyone who disagrees with the set path or is merely seen to do so — look no further than the Daily Mail front page branding our top judges “enemies of the people.” And let us not forget how language has been used throughout human history to dehumanise “the other”, anyone who differs from the majority. This happens anytime a politician uses the word “swarm” to refer to a group of migrants, when leaders label anyone with a migrant background “foreign” without any consideration for the multitude of reasons and motivations for people to come here and the many positive contributions that migrants make to this country. It happens anytime the media refers to “us” and “them.” History shows us that the gap between dehumanising words and actions is precariously small, and anyone who believes in a liberal, free and tolerant nation needs to counter this language as soon as it emerges, lest we endorse it by our silence or inaction.

All of us have to play our part in reversing this trend of dishonesty and obfuscation and in bringing facts and clarity back into political discourse. Whether you voted Remain or Leave, hold the Brexiteers to account. Ask them constantly where the £350 million a week for NHS is. Ask them why they never told us about the tens of billions we will pay just to exit the Union. Ask them when Turkey is joining. Ask them why your holidays have become so much more expensive. Ask them why there are no longer enough nurses in the NHS, no workers to pick our fruit, no staff available for care homes. Ask them why your wages haven’t gone up. Hold them to account for their lies, so that it no longer pays politically to deceive the British people. Because this deception goes far beyond the issue of Brexit, it threatens to undermine the very fabric of our democracy.

Dishonesty and language in British politics

With Boris earning a deserved rebuke for restating his £350 million lie again, I have been thinking about the levels of dishonesty that marked the campaign and everything that has followed since. Because we are still being fed lies every single day by our government and by the Brexiteers, who still cling on to the notion that behind the Brexit wall lies a land of milk and honey. I have yet to hear anyone be truly honest about the trade-offs and sacrifices that will result from Brexit. And I have yet to hear just one single convincing argument about what will be better outside the EU. Trust me, I’ve looked. I’ve read pro-Leave articles, spoken to Leave voters and tried to pick apart government proposals on Brexit. Not. One. Argument. Most of the supposed benefits are based on fantasy, delusion or downright lies.

I do not need to repeat the most damaging lies here, including the fact that we already could control immigration as EU members, but we chose not to. Rather, I want to reflect briefly on what the growing levels of dishonesty and the distortion of the English language is doing to our political and civic discourse.

I am far from being the only one to think about this. In 1945, George Orwell published his essay on Politics and the English Language, in which he writes, “[the English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” He picked out two main flaws among his contemporary political writers, the “staleness of imagery” and the “lack of precision.” He argued that political orthodoxy “seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style” and that when listening to politicians “one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy.”

This surely strikes right at the heart of what is wrong with our current political discourse. It is the perfect characterisation of our Prime Minister, who carried out the most dismal election campaign by never veering from her “strong and stable” platitudes. And even now, all she is doing is “getting on with the job of government”, while we pursue a “red, white and blue Brexit” for a “global Britain.” What does any of this actually mean?!

Take the “Global Britain” strategy of the Foreign Office, headed by none other than Mr £350 Million A Week Johnson. When quizzed about how our future relationship with the EU might look, he answered that the UK would be “a flying buttress, supportive of the EU project, but outside the main body of the church.” Boris may not be lifeless or stale, but he certainly lacks precision. Our foreign policy priorities must adjust to the new reality of Brexit, but the “Global Britain” strategy retains many of the same old pillars: global stability, peace and order, free trade and projecting our values. However, in the context of an ever-shrinking Foreign Office budget, how can the UK successfully deliver on all of these foreign policy aims without any EU support?

Or does “Global Britain” mean forming closer ties with illiberal regimes, promoting trade with certain countries at the expense of human rights? We have seen the PM travel to Turkey and Saudi Arabia and hold hands with Donald Trump. Meanwhile, Trade Secretary Fox has travelled extensively in the Gulf and countries such as the Philippines, where he appeared with President Duterte, who has overseen the most egregious violations of human rights in his country. Has the impending loss of our trading relationships with the EU and the rest of the world through the EU forced us to cozy up to regimes that are in many ways not aligned with our interests? Will we need to accept inferior trade deals with these countries just so that the government can claim — dishonestly — that Brexit has been a success?

Well over a year after the referendum result, none of these questions have even begun to be answered, at least not in the public domain. And I’m only asking questions about one single area of government. We have a similar lack of clarity and precision across all the vast policy areas which will be impacted by Brexit, from nuclear energy to the environment to labour rights.

No matter which way you voted in the referendum, this lack of clarity from our government is dangerous. It suggests, at best, that they do not know what they are doing and, at worst, that they do know what they are doing but do not want the public to know. It is therefore up to each and every citizen to demand answers from our politicians, and to force them to provide the clarity and precision that a policy course of this monumental consequence demands.

I am actually the patriot

Yes, I already know what is coming next, what will inevitably follow from the last post. The Brexiteers will accuse me of being unpatriotic. That I don’t believe in Britain. Well, frankly, I think the Brexiteers are unpatriotic. It is precisely because I am patriotic, because I served this country for most of my career and have seen what good it can do in concert with its European allies that Brexit has left me so heartbroken. Brexit has already diminished this country and weakened its economy. It has become more insular, small-minded, mean, closed, poor and xenophobic.

What happened to the Britain of five years ago, when we welcomed the world to our Olympics, when we showed off our sense of humour and joy and fun, when the world came together in our capital city and we were at its heart? Brexit has shut the door to all this. We have become a laughing stock with Boris at the helm of our diplomatic efforts and with a damaged Prime Minister supposedly at the helm of the rest of government. My sense from my international travels and reading local press is that the rest of the world pities us and cannot understand what we are doing. To boot, France is now the main European power at the United Nations, and the rest of the Eurozone is leaving our economy in the dust.

Ah, but at least we have our freedom and our sovereignty back! No more Brussels bureaucrats telling us what to do! But, hang on, what do we even mean by sovereignty? Does being sovereign mean that you can never strike agreements or join alliances? Because any agreement or alliance will require a certain sacrifice in autonomy in exchange for greater rewards — that is how any club works. You pool your resources for the common good, and in exchange, you abide by certain rules that you all agree upon. That is what the EU is. There aren’t any dictators sitting in a golden palace in Brussels telling us what to do. We sit in conference rooms and office buildings and talk, negotiate, discuss, compromise, agree.

The UK always had a very influential role in setting these agreed rules, because we were a strong European power and people respected our expertise and opinions. And in exchange, we were free to trade, to move, to exchange resources with our closest friends and allies. We shared our intelligence to keep each other safe, we cooperated in higher education and research to find cures for diseases and stretch the boundaries of science. We British had the freedom to learn about new cultures, to fall in love and settle and raise families across Europe, to take that job promotion in Paris, Barcelona or Rome. We were already free and sovereign in the EU! The collective failure of the Brexiteers to see this is just one of the many tragedies of Brexit and one of the many tragedies that is being inflicted upon the UK.

So, yes, it is precisely because I am a patriot that I oppose Brexit with every fibre of my being. I want to see a return to the open, tolerant and joyous country we were in the summer of 2012. When international connections were an asset, and not something to be ashamed of. Where I was free to move and love and travel across the most beautiful continent on earth, Europe.

No matter what happens at a political level, no matter if my government turns my passport blue and rubs out the words “European Union”, in my heart I will always be British and European. Because being both is not incompatible, it does not mean I have “split allegiances”, as Boris would accuse me of. I simply refuse to be a part of this Brexit tragedy and I will never sign up to the values that the Brexiteers espouse — my patriotic liberal metropolitan elite self won’t allow it.

I want my country back

I want my country back. And I also want to take back control. I’m not asking for complete control, just an iota would be nice at this point. Because right now, I feel like an alien in my own country and like I have no voice at all. Yes, I am a Remainer, a Remoaner, a certified member of the liberal metropolitan elite. I speak four languages, have lived in five countries and have been fortunate enough to travel to many more, and on top of it all, I live in Islington, that north London liberal stronghold. So despite my burgundy British passport, I am officially a citizen of nowhere, at least according to our current Prime Minister.

In another universe, the one that existed prior to 23 June 2016, being liberal and metropolitan and understanding other cultures and countries was actually seen as an asset. I felt that I could build links with other people, that I could advance British interests in other parts of the globe and that I could bring the best of what other places had to offer back home. Win-win, right?

Brexit is an attack on everything I stand for and my entire way of life. I can only begin to imagine how unwelcome EU citizens here must feel, but I can assure you, there are plenty of British citizens like me who feel similarly unwelcome and despairing, even if we do not face the threat of having to leave the UK.

It is difficult to accurately convey what Brexit feels like. How it has ripped me apart, torn up my identity, made me less proud to be British, made me feel sorry for my European friends and sad for my fellow British citizens, many of whom will end up bearing the brunt of our nation’s inevitable decline towards second-rate status. I do not understand how to even begin choosing between my Britishness and my Europeanness — the two are just elements of what makes up my varied identity, elements that have melded together to form who I am. Brexit is forcing me to choose, but I cannot, it’s completely impossible. It feels like being asked to split the blue and yellow colours out from a green bucket of paint: you know there is blue and yellow in there, but they are forever fused.

As a result, since the morning of 24 June 2016, I have been in a state of some confusion, constantly torn in different directions and trying to make sense of the steady stream of incomprehensible madness coming out of Westminster and much of the press. Sometimes I feel like I must be living in a parallel universe. For how can our politicians, who are supposed to know better, be taking us down this path of destruction and be condemning us to a future of struggle and irrelevance?

Everything feels out of control. Whether you voted Remain or Leave, surely we can all agree that the government has no plan. No plan at all. And seen from here, Brexit has already inflicted irreparable damage to our country’s reputation, the fabric of our society and the pillars of our democracy. We need to come together to stop any further damage and to reunite this deeply divided nation. We need to fight to get our country back.

Why we aren’t giving up

I’m not going to lie (unlike Boris and his mates) — the thought of giving up the fight is sometimes tempting. It’s all just too difficult. We have a cabal of incompetent and delusional political leaders in charge of the process, they are going to make a complete mess of it and we are now condemned to a less than bright future outside of the EU. A small, friendless island floating off in the Atlantic somewhere, possibly minus Scotland and Northern Ireland, shouting into the void: “Please do a trade deal with us! We have Stilton!”

But we cannot just give up. We Remainers need to keep up the good fight, support one another through the tough moments and wave the blue flag with the yellow stars. We might be able to stop the worst excesses of Hard Brexit if we stay loud and united. There are already signs that some Cabinet ministers are realising that we will not be able to thrive outside the single market. And even if not, even if we go down the hardest of hard routes, there is still one very simple reason to stay involved: we are on the right side of history. Even in the darkest moments of these long, arduous months since 23 June 2016, I have held on to the thought that when all this is history, I will be able to tell anyone who asks that I was a Remainer, that I fought for what I believed in, that I wanted Britain to stay connected to Europe, to be strong and proud and open. I can look at myself in the mirror and know that I am doing what I can, even if it is a mere drop in the ocean, to stem the horrible tide of Hard Brexit.

What is it that we are doing as Islington in Europe? We are keeping the conversation going: organising street stalls, hosting public debates at Union Chapel, attending meetings and conferences, leafleting, organising support for marches and coordinated protests — you name it, we’re there. And we are not just working in pro-Remain Islington. We are also talking to the Leavers in their strongholds. It’s not always an easy conversation to have — I have been called everything from a Nazi to a traitor and in between — but these exchanges really matter. We want to convince them — through debate, through argument, through sharing experiences — of the merits of staying in Europe, or as close as we possibly can.

We are also taking practical and meaningful steps: writing letters to our MPs, writing letters to our newspapers, coordinating with other pro-European groups and movements across the country. We are also organising regular events for EU nationals to obtain free legal advice from our immigration lawyer volunteers. We want our European friends to know that we want them here, that we value them and also that we care about them as people, whose lives are being plunged into needless and callous uncertainty over Brexit.

If you’re one of us, a proud Remainer and a citizen of Europe, there is so much you can do to help. Email us, tweet us, find us on Facebook. Come to our meetings, write letters, do as much or as little as you like, whatever time you can spare, from home or elsewhere. There is a role for everyone. And together we will be so much stronger and we can raise our voices against this madness. We all have moments of pessimism and thinking we might as well just get on with the misery, but we have to resist these moments. We have to keep fighting. We want to be on the right side of history — the side of peace, unity and collaboration, the side of openness and vibrancy, the side that stood up to being insular, to turning our backs on our friends and allies, to racism, to mean-spiritedness.

Get involved!