Orcadian Column 29/3/19

Orcadian 29/03/19

I shattered my record last week by delivering five parliamentary speeches in just three days.  More remarkable than the eclectic variety of topics covered, ranging from land reform to the Men’s Shed movement, was the fact that at no point did I mention the word ‘Brexit’.

In some respects, it felt like an act of denial: the equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and yelling ‘nah, nah, nah, I can’t hear you’.  At the same time, it was rather therapeutic.

Even so, there is no escaping the reality that Brexit continues to dominate our political landscape: a black hole into which endless parliamentary time disappears.  Yet, it felt like something changed this week.

Not only has the Prime Minister been forced to abandon her self-imposed Brexit deadline of 29 March, but it is now clear she heads up a government in name only.  Mrs May has lost control of her Cabinet, whose members no longer feel bound by ‘collective responsibility’ and openly plot to oust her.  She has lost control of her parliamentary party, where Jacob Rees-Mogg and the European Research Group now represent a party within a party.  And she has now lost control of parliament, which voted this week, in the richest of ironies, to ‘take back control’ of the Brexit process.

What the consequence of all this will be, nobody knows, but it reinforces the impression that neither the government nor parliament is capable of resolving the crisis the country faces.

All of which adds to the significance of a million people from all over the country taking to the streets of London at the weekend to demand a final say over the Brexit shambles.  With many thousands more joining protests in towns, cities and communities the length and breadth of the UK, it made for a vibrant, uplifting contrast to the rather dismal band of Brexit supporters rallied by Nigel Farage for his ‘Betrayal’ march from Sunderland to London, or from Sunderland to just outside Sunderland, in the case of the bold Nigel.

Meanwhile, a petition calling for a halt to the Brexit process has attracted nearly 6 million signatures, with support rising at a truly unprecedented rate.

Neither the march nor the petition themselves, of course, justify overturning the 2016 referendum result, but they do signal a tangible shift in momentum and mood.  Along with the impasse at Westminster, they also represent the most compelling case yet for asking the British public if the Brexit now on offer meets their expectations of what was promised or their aspirations for the future. 

As for the Prime Minister, any lingering sympathy due her on a personal level was extinguished by her statement to the nation last week. Rather than accept responsibility for the mess created by her own stubborn and reckless approach, Mrs May asserted that MPs are to blame for the mess and that she is ‘on the side’ of the British people. Not only was this an outrageous distortion, but the inflammatory language risks fanning the flames at a time when the country is deeply divided and some MPs have even faced death threats.

It will also do nothing to improve a political discourse that has become increasingly poisonous over recent years, and not solely in relation to Brexit. Lurid evidence to that effect was provided this week in Edinburgh’s Sheriff Court, where former Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale is defending herself against a defamation charge brought by nationalist blogger, Stuart Campbell, founder of the Wings over Scotland website. 

Whatever ruling the sheriff eventually makes, the tweets and comments by Mr Campbell that were read out in court illustrate perfectly the bile he has gleefully poured into the political debate in this country for years. Such ‘hate speech’, on whatever side of the argument, has no place in the debate over our constitutional future.

Whether on Brexit or independence, we must find ways of debating our differences, passionately and robustly, without the need to brand those who disagree with us as liars or traitors.  Apart from anything else, it’s fairly ineffective in persuading people to change their minds.

As the late Margo Macdonald once observed, “they may be my political opponents, but they are not my enemies”.

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