Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Independent Group: New wine, new wineskins

This is the first blog post I have written since the end of 2016. There was a damned good reason for this hiatus, and a similarly good reason for breaking it.

Over the past two and half years, I have become so profoundly disillusioned with the state of British politics that I came to the view that I had no longer had anything useful to say about it, beyond expressing a generalised sense of despair at the direction in which both main parties were leading us.

The kind of One Nation, social democratic politics which I have believed in all my adult life - belief in a market economy allied to social responsibility and care for the less well-off - seemed to go so out of fashion that those of us who espoused such views felt, at times, as though we were speaking to a brick wall.

So while I am not so naive as to imagine that yesterday's launch of The Independent Group will solve everything, it is both a necessary and a brave move if we are to rescue our broken politics and provide new hope for the millions of voters left politically homeless by the toxic combination of Corbynism and Rees-Moggery that appears to dominate the current UK political scene.

Falling out of love with political writing and blogging was not something I ever thought would happen to me. I had always wanted to be a political journalist, and for a decade I had a ringside seat at Westminster covering the Major and Blair governments, a period in British political life which, for all the critical analysis we subjected it to at the time, now seems like a veritable golden age.

Even when I decided to leave Westminster for a different kind of village life in 2004, I continued to write about political developments on this blog and in various newspapers until my weekly Newcastle Journal column finally ended in the autumn of 2015, the week after Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader.

That column came to an end as a result of the necessary budget cuts that have affected all regional newspapers as they grapple to come to terms with the digital age, but to be absolutely honest the timing was entirely serendipitous, because if The Journal had not made that decision for me, I would have had to have made it myself.

So thank you, former Journal editor-in-chief Darren Thwaites (whose decision it was) for sparing me the ordeal of having to write weekly column after weekly column about the self-inflicted catastrophe that is Brexit, and the self-indulgent farrago of arrant nonsense that is Corbynism.

There is a single underlying reason why neither main party is now capable of representing the sensible, silent majority of the British public. It is because both main parties are now controlled by memberships which bear absolutely no relationship to society as a whole.

It is, after all, the reason why we have Brexit.  If Boris Johnson had not calculated that the largely Eurosceptic Tory membership would never elect him as Conservative leader unless he joined the Leave campaign, he would never have joined it, and Remain would, in all likelihood, have won the 2016 referendum.

Okay, so Leave won, and for the past two and a half years Theresa May has tried valiantly to steer a course which gives effect to that outcome without wrecking the British economy or destroying the precious Union which since 1707 has made Britain a country that is far greater than the sum of its parts.

But she has been consistently thwarted throughout that time by a combination of Brexit Ultras for whom nothing less than a complete severing of all ties with the European Union - whatever the cost to the British economy - will be enough, and a games-playing opposition leader determined to exploit the situation for party-political advantage, again irrespective of the cost to economic prosperity and in particular that of his own party's natural supporters.

At the end of the day, I expect nothing from the Conservative Party.  It exists to defend the status quo and in our society that means defending the uneven distribution of wealth and privilege which seems to characterise Britain far more than other European nations.

I do however expect something from the Labour Party.  I expect it to stand up above all for the interests of the people for which it was founded - those least able to stand up for themselves.

In his handling of Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn has failed to do that.  He has been content to play parliamentary poker with Mrs May in the vain hope of either precipitating a general election (he won't) or somehow persuading the Prime Minister to back an outcome that would split her own party (she won't).

In so doing, he has led us perilously close to the disaster of a no-deal Brexit, an outcome which even Corbyn must know will hit his own people the hardest.

I do not share the view of Chuka Umunna and others in The Independent Group that the best way out of this morass is a second referendum.  It would simply exacerbate the bitter divisions over Brexit and - unless the result were of the order of a 65-35 majority for Remain - would not actually settle the argument.

No, I think we now need to get Brexit over and done with and build a new pro-European movement from the bottom up in the hope that a future, more enlightened generation realise that it is where Britain's destiny ultimately lies.

But I agree 100pc with the group's analysis of the state of the Labour Party as currently led. It is self-evident that Jeremy Corbyn is not fit to be Prime Minister, and in saying that openly yesterday, the group was merely verbalising what most Labour MPs already know.

Although Labour under his leadership has espoused some laudable policies, notably on tuition fees and rail renationalisation, he cannot be trusted with either the nation's defences or its finances and that is reason enough to disqualify him from occupying Number 10.

The obvious lesson of the past two and half years in British politics is that the party system is broken, probably beyond recall.  One Nation Tories and the social democrats in Labour's ranks now have far more in common with eachother than with the lunatic fringes that have taken over their respective parties.

A realignment of British politics which reflects these changed circumstances is now long overdue. As the Bible puts it, new wine is not poured into old wineskins, but into new wineskins.

For this reason, I hope that The Independent Group can quickly grow beyond its origins as a Labour breakaway to embrace like-minded people from other parties, and none.

For those of us of a centrist persuasion, politics may just be about to get exciting again.  And hopefully, I might now have something more useful to say about it.