Could the battle of left versus right be a thing of the past?
So I’ve got a new MP; as I’m sure you will have heard, last week Zac Goldsmith managed to lose a majority of 25,000 in Richmond Park to be unseated by the endearingly gobsmacked-looking Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney. This has been widely interpreted as some sort of post-referendum referendum on the referendum, with Remainers seizing eagerly (and perhaps a little desperately) upon this result as, if not the end of Brexit, or even the beginning of the end of Brexit, then perhaps the end of the beginning of Brexit (I’m sorry; been boxset-bingeing The Crown on Netflix and have Churchill on the brain). Loath though I am to rain on this parade before it starts, cool your jets, guys – some points require clarification here…
First point to clarify is that YES, I live in the Richmond Park constituency, but before you go: ‘There, I told you everybody who ever worked for the BBC is a millionaire’ I should point out that I live in the poorest district of Richmond Upon Thames, although obviously that’s a very relative concept. It’s a bit like living on top of the highest mountain in Belgium.
Second point to qualify is that the Lib Dem victory isn’t quite the upset it’s being painted as in some circles; there is a lot of money in Richmond but even the wealthy parts are populated by successful actor and musician types as well as city boys and trust-fund layabouts, so there’s a big liberal-with-a-small-L bohemian contingent in the constituency, and indeed, before Zac’s victory in 2010 the seat had been Lib Dem since its establishment in 1997.
Third thing to qualify is that I think the backlash against Zac – the, if you will, Zaclash – had rather less to do with Brexit or indeed whatever stand Zac was or wasn’t taking on the Heathrow expansion, than with the residual revulsion left over after his appalling race-baiting mayoral campaign. The tone of that campaign came as a particular shock to Zac’s Richmond constituents, since, and bear in mind that it’s me saying this, he’d been a pretty good local MP.
For all that he’s not just a Tory but the son of the late Sir James Goldsmith, the lawsuit-slinging arch-nemesis of Private Eye and the man who, by founding the Referendum Party in 1994, created a lot of the europhobic momentum which would eventually propel UKIP to its current position, Zac’s conduct in office was eminently reasonable and whip-defyingly independent, as evinced by his increased majority at the 2015 General Election.
So to see him resort to such grubby Lynton Crosby-flavoured tactics in pursuit of the mayor’s job was disheartening to say the least and it’s not that surprising that it’s come back to bite him.
It’s also worth pointing out that apparently, the constituency went about 70% for Remain back in June, so even if this result WERE an anti-Brexit vote, it’s stretching things a bit to read anything into it with regard to attitudes across the country as a whole.
But we should cling to the fact that openly campaigning against Brexit – and risking the accusations of treason which the tabloids now routinely heap upon anyone who so dares – didn’t do Sarah Olney any harm and probably did her a deal of good. For, increasingly, it seems that all but the most stubborn of Brexiters are finally coming to realise that they were sold a bill of goods back in June.
And it seems to me that as we go forward into whatever kind of future awaits us (and one of the most depressing things about living through the tail end of 2016 is the widespread assumption that 2017 will be better through sheer dint of not being 2016 any more – time doesn’t care about arbitrary numeration systems, and the things that went wrong this year will be screwing things up for a long while to come), the battle to be fought in the years ahead will not be between ‘left’ and ‘right’, or liberalism and conservatism, but between FACTS and MYTHS.
The real political divide right now is not between ‘wings’ or even parties; it’s between reality and fantasy. Between those who can acknowledge and confront the real world in all its nuance and complexity, and those who cling doggedly to comforting simplicities.
The British people were sold a myth back in June; not that we could extricate ourselves from the EU – that may yet be possible – but that we could make ourselves freer, wealthier and happier in the process. 52% of us were seduced by that myth, and even now the hardcore Brexiters are still insisting that the myth be delivered as promised, even as it becomes more and more apparent that it is a myth; that those experts so sneeringly dismissed by Michael Gove were right all along. Leaving the EU will render us not noticeably freer but considerably poorer and consequently somewhat less happy than when we were in.
This reality is being tacitly acknowledged by those currently charged with implementing Brexit, as they seek, in increasingly surreal fashion, to construct some sort of post-Brexit arrangement which replicates the PRE-Brexit arrangement as closely as possible, while still being post-Brexit because Brexit means Brexit, remember?
So now we have proposed a truly risible state of affairs whereby, having quit the EU because we didn’t want to be a member state and it was costing a fortune, we end up paying the EU a fortune in order to keep doing all the things we did when we were a member state while definitely not being a member state any more. That’s like quitting the health club because £40 a month is a waste of money, but still slipping them £40 a month so you can carry on using the gym and the pool because you really like being able to use the gym and the pool; so it’s worth £40 a month really but you have *absolutely* quit the health club because it was a waste of money.
Anyone with a grip on reality can see this is absurd. But it seems not everyone does have a grip on reality and unfortunately a lot of politicians prefer it that way. Because if reality doesn’t matter – if it’s just a question of competing fantasies with no actual empirical ‘truth’ present in the market place – then gaining power is just a question of presenting the most appealing fantasy. It’s just about who can promise the most, without having to explain how those promises can ever be kept. Because hey, once you win and it all turns out to be pie in the sky, you can always blame the immigrants, or the gays, or whoever else is to hand (keep an eye on American politics over the next few years if you don’t believe that’s how it works).
So what do we do? The only thing we can do. Point out when the promises fail. Point out when the lies are exposed. Point out that reality has a habit of catching up with you however fast you run away from it. And that when things get really desperate, it is only by confronting reality in all its grimness that we get through it. For Churchill did NOT say ‘I have nothing to offer you save blood, toil, tears, sweat, unicorns, jet packs and limitless free ice cream.’