On political (ir)responsibility and Brexit

Today’s Dispatch from Brexit Britain comes from Kat. She grew up in Norfolk but did her undergraduate degree in Canterbury with a year abroad studying in Calgary, Canada. She has spent the last few years living in Manchester where she is currently studying for a PhD in Classics at the University of Manchester. Her research focuses on shapeshifting characters in ancient Greek myth and literature, including their depictions in art and connections with other myths and folktales.

Today, Theresa May announced that the meaningful vote won’t happen next week, but instead will happen by the 12th March, only 17 days before the UK leaves the European Union. This seems to be a good moment to consider irresponsibility in UK politics around Brexit. It may still be within the government’s grasp to leave the EU on the 29th March, as May stated today, but at this point it seems like this is dangerously likely to be in the form of an ‘accidental’ (to borrow Michel Barnier’s term) no-deal, dropping out rather than any sort of negotiated exit.

Brexit, and the way it has been (mis)handled by both the Government and the Labour opposition, is a disaster. As a British citizen, I’m faced with losing my right to live, work and travel in 27 countries, an opportunity which has been such a fixed part of my life that I’d never really questioned it until UKIP’s voices started getting louder. For Europeans living in the UK, this threat, along with increased xenophobia, is just as horrifying. But one thing that has become increasingly clear from the very beginnings of the Brexit debacle is that British politics is sorely lacking in responsible behaviour. The referendum was offered by David Cameron and the Tory party as a desperate, reckless attempt to sway potential UKIP voters without any real consideration as to how this would be taken by the public. No safeguards were put in place for this potentially catastrophic event; instead, Cameron seemed to be under the delusion that there was no need even for a real campaign effort, as Baroness Warsi has recently admitted. It’s not just the Tories, though: under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership the Labour party failed to come down on either side for far too long, leaving the Remain side vulnerable and voters unsure of their Party’s decision.

In the meantime, of course, Vote Leave were left free to ignore spending limits and the inconvenient matter of the truth when it comes to EU spending (with Gove, Johnson and Farage all lending support to the infamous NHS spending bus, an idea which they were quick to distance themselves from as soon as the count had ended. This isn’t just irresponsibility, but a deliberate and harmful attempt to play on people’s fears. It really baffles me that these lies and the illegality of the spending hasn’t been properly investigated – what is the point, I wonder, of having safeguards and laws, if certain groups can simply ignore them with no consequences (and of course, this extends far beyond Vote Leave…)?

Since the vote, things have only gotten worse. Cameron resigned, refusing to deal with the mess his party had created, a real insult to those 48% who voted Remain and all those on both sides whose future was suddenly uncertain. Theresa May stepped in, and has somehow managed to hold on to being Prime Minister in the face of what we could reasonably call complete disaster (votes of no confidence, infighting in her party, the list goes on), all the while presenting one bad deal after another, while sharks in the form of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg circle the waters.

The Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, has helped to perpetuate the harmful rhetoric we saw reflected in the ‘Go Home’ buses organised by May in her stint as Home Secretary, while the dreadful mishandling of the Windrush scandal has become horribly apparent. This hateful rhetoric has been used by May herself to describe EU citizens as ‘queue jumpers’, an apparent attempt to deepen the divide which was opened by the Brexit debate and the likes of Nigel Farage. All the while, attempts to reassure EU citizens in the UK have been botched, for instance the infamous ‘settled status’ app, only made available on Android phones.

Other headlines have seemed more suitable for The Onion than The Guardian. Dominic Raab, the Brexit Secretary, made headlines with his startling discovery that Britain is, in fact, an island, and within months of taking up his post the new Transport Minister, Chris Grayling – apparently keen not to be outdone in the race to incompetency – outsourced Britain’s post-leave ferrying to a company with no boats, and with terms and conditions copied and pasted from a takeaway website.

On the other side of the Chamber, the opposition has proven to be just as effective. Jeremy Corbyn, despite his apparent concern for the rights of EU citizens, has failed to offer any protection to them or to guarantee any rights for British citizens whose opportunities and jobs are on the chopping block, despite his own Party members calling for a People’s Vote. The very recent rise of the Independent Party shows just how much disruption Brexit and the series of bad deals we’ve been offered have had on the political system: change, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing, but with MPs defecting from both sides it seems to be time for a re-evaluation of Parliament and which parties really hold sway. Perhaps this loss of MPs and shadow cabinet ministers might be the push Labour needs to support a People’s Vote – but with just over a month until the UK crashes out of the EU with no deal (which really is a terrifying prospect), I’m worried that like Labour’s belated support of Remain, this will be too little, too late. Perhaps this is what Corbyn really wants – Britain trampled, angry with the Conservative Party, and ready to vote for Labour. If so, this is irresponsibility just as shocking as Cameron’s in calling the referendum in the first place, and is likely to have just as successful an outcome.

Through all this, of course, the real insult has been that the vote – even if it had not been a point of political apathy and illegality – was never binding. This isn’t simply a ‘remoaner’ complaint, either; plenty of people who voted to leave have since changed their mind – as is their right! Those who complain about a second referendum seem less than sure about the outcome this time, but democracy should not stop after one vote, and particularly in the face of such clear misinformation it would not be putting a limit on our democratic power to offer a second referendum (now that nearly three years down the line we can see the true cost of losing our EU membership on a national scale, of which Nissan’s factory closure is just one aspect). In fact, this is the only way to ensure that democracy is upheld.

Thankfully, though, it’s not all bad. One thing I could not have expected from the course of the Brexit car-crash was that I would be – albeit reluctantly – impressed by a Tory’s behaviour. But when Jo Johnson resigned, putting the UK’s interests above those of his political career, I was astounded. This is the sort of thing that really shouldn’t surprise us, but in an age where it’s become so clear that the majority of politicians do not have – and perhaps never have had – our best interests at heart, it’s a very small beacon of hope in the darkness.

Another thing that’s become clear, though, is that there are lots of us who are not willing to see the UK crash out of the EU and Brexiter lies go unanswered. More than 700,000 people marched in October for a People’s vote and more will march again in the next few weeks. I don’t know if we’ll get the vote – I truly believe that it’s the only truly democratic option, and I’m honestly terrified of the threat of losing my EU citizenship, and along with it the chance to move freely in Europe and to meet people doing the same. What I am sure of though, is that I don’t want to sit back and let this happen without a fight. This is not a Britain I recognise anymore, and it’s not a political system that I can believe in, but – hopefully – it’s one that we, and future generations, can change.

If you want to get active for a People’s Vote, join the Our Future, Our Choice campaign and For Our Future’s Sake campaigns. Both are campaigning for a People’s Vote, are aimed at young people and need volunteers!

The Put It To The People : People’s Vote March is taking place on 23rd March in London. Make sure you attend and bring your best placards! 

There are coaches going from Manchester – book your space here. It’s £30 with £20 back on the day if you provide valid student ID.

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