A Plea to Step Forward and be Unreasonable

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There’s a quote that’s been doing the rounds a lot recently.  It’s generally attributed to George Bernard Shaw. But in this newfound world of fake news, it’s a bad idea to believe anything you hear attributed to anyone.

But fake attribution aside, all that really matters is that it was said by someone.  And I repeat it here:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

We are now some six months on from that ill-conceived referendum on Britain leaving the European Union.  And two-and-a-bit years on from the Scottish Independence Referendum.

Each referendum was championed by an unreasonable man. The then leader of the SNP, Alex Salmond made Scottish independence his life’s work.  Whatever you think of the economic folly of Scotland going it alone, you have to admire his dedication to trying to adapt the world to himself.

The Scottish independence movement lost the referendum by 45% to 55%.  But that hasn’t stopped Salmond and his successor, Nicola Sturgeon, from starting to talk up the prospect of another referendum. One that they hope will give them the result they’ve always wanted.

Unreasonable men – and women – don’t suddenly stop believing what they believe and bow to reason; don’t suddenly let a referendum result get in the way.

Nigel Farage too has form as an unreasonable man.

A different referendum but the same economic folly. The Brexit isolationists won their referendum by a narrower 52% to 48%.

But imagine for a minute that Nigel Farage had lost by a similarly thin margin. Does anyone really think that an unreasonable man – who has spent his life trying to bend the world to his way of thinking – would now bend to reason and accept that Britain’s place was in Europe.

Those are, to quote Kellyanne Conway, ‘alternative facts’.

Farage would have started campaigning for another referendum, just like Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond have done.

People with principle don’t immediately change their minds. And we should admire them for that.

***

Our new Prime Minister was in favour of staying in the EU. Until she wasn’t. Principle isn’t a big thing for her.

Almost immediately after taking control, she launched an audacious attempt to wrestle power away from parliament. She wanted to avoid debate on triggering Article 50, whilst giving herself sole power to decide what the country’s exit from the EU looked like. This wasn’t so much unreasonable as unjust. And illegal.

The Prime Minister was only stopped by a private individual, Gina Miller. Miller took the government to court to insist that the rule of law was followed. That Parliament was sovereign, not an unelected Prime Minister.

Miller provided more opposition than all the benches of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition put together. Miller used her money to sue and force the government to adapt to her way of thinking.

So why is Miller so alone. Why are there so few progressive people willing to step forward and be unreasonable and oppose leaving the EU?

***

There are two obvious possibilities. Labour MPs are afraid of losing their constituencies. And perhaps afraid of losing their lives.

On the second possibility, it bears repeating that a brave young Labour MP was brutally murdered – assassinated – by a far right extremist during the referendum campaign.

Those of us on the remain side were stunned into silence. Those on the leave campaign metaphorically stepped around the corpse and carried on campaigning.

The level of hate in this country has reached unprecedented levels. Many other MPs face vile abuse and death threats on a regular basis. You can forgive their fear.

But on the first point of Labour MPs losing their seats? Don’t they see that they have already lost?

With an unelectable and largely incompetent leader, upcoming boundary changes and problems communicating with what’s patronizingly called the white working class – Labour has never looked further from power.  Unless they do something bold these MPs have already lost their seats, just like they have already done in Scotland.

***

There is a third possibility though: that sensible progressive people; those who like to engage in debate on facts and reason – have an overdeveloped sense of fairness and reason.

They actually think they lost. And that fairness dictates we should agree to leaving – with all the damage that will cause.

I don’t buy it.

A 52-48 referendum is a narrow win. The country is essentially divided.   And the people who stand to be hit worst by Brexit are Labour’s natural constituency.

If, before the referendum, you believed the economic problems of leaving were vast and complex?

If you believed that one country trying to negotiate a divorce from 27 others, would only ever result in a victory for the many?

If you believed that Britain’s safety and economic prosperity were best secured through interdependence and collaboration rather than isolationism and aggression?

Then why cave in now?

Clearly you must believe that this unelected and unprincipled Prime Minister will fail to deliver a successful exit from the European Union.

And what will Labour say then?

When prices start to rise and jobs become scarcer; when human rights legislation starts to be repealed and environmental protections start to be scrapped; when the health service starts to crumble and Britons start to look abroad for jobs – what will we say then? That we went along with it?

We ought to be less reasonable.

We ought be saying that the referendum was a con. Introduced by a weak Prime Minister who cared more about appeasing his backbenchers than settling a point of principle.

We ought to say that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ doesn’t mean anything and that the new Prime Minister is out of her depth.

Most of all we ought to say that we support referenda when the battle is fair.

But – by God – this was a referendum fought on lies and deceit.

Not equal lies and deceit on both sides. But principally lies by Boris Johnson and Nigel Farrage.

It was a referendum skewed massively by an over-powerful and racist Daily Mail and their campaign of alternative facts and hate.

This referendum is as legitimate as Donald Trump’s ‘election win’.

We ought to be saying these things. We support a fair fight. And this was not it.

***

And when this house of cards comes crashing down. When Farage and Boris and May and Trump are gradually exposed, we’ll be there to say we have a better way.

The real worry is that when Theresa May’s Brexit plan starts to spectacularly unravel, Labour will have just been lame accomplices.

And when people then start to look for an alternative, they’ll only be able to find something more menacing and much worse. That’s when fascism really takes hold.

Those who based their political beliefs on evidence and facts and reason have been cowed into silence by an over developed sense of fairness.

It’s time we learned from the unreasonable men and women and started fighting for what we believe in.

It’s time we started to behave unreasonably. Just like Farage and Sturgeon.

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