Burns and Clarke In Conversation
It has been 5 years since the EU referendum threw this country into a new and unforeseen period of tumultuous division. The aftermath has finished the careers of 2 Prime Ministers (and counting), a Labour leader, a Lib Dem leader and countless MPs. It saw the launch and swift collapse of TIG/Change UK, the rise and fall of Dominic Cummings, the political awakening of millions, a record-breaking string of political marches and now a new TV channel.
What to make of the last 5 years?
JC: Carla, you and I were both roused politically by the referendum. For me, the morning after the result, I made a promise to myself that whatever happened next in politics, I would stand up and get properly involved (little did I know what I was in for). Was there a moment when you said - 'This is it. I'm getting stuck in', or was it more of a process?
CB: I have always been socially conscious but never particularly politically active - so for me the referendum was the tipping point into action - it was definitely a "right that's it, I have to do something" moment the day after the referendum. The hardest part for me was standing against Labour - I've always just rather lazily voted for them and it blew my mind when they didn't call out Brexit for what it was (for me it was crystal clear it was a far-right attempt to destabilise Europe and allow the richest in the UK to reduce the responsibilities that the EU placed upon them) - I couldn't understand why something was so obvious to me but not to a serious political party. I get that they had to address the concerns of those who voted Brexit but simply nodding along and agreeing instead of being honest really left me feeling let down. What has been your lowest point so far? (We will be more upbeat later!)
JC: Lowest point? I suppose it was Brexit night itself. 31st January 2020. Brogan and I from the Renew office took a video camera down to Parliament Square with the intention of interviewing the people who were there to celebrate and find out how they felt, what they thought and why they were really there. In the end, it was pure carnage; the rain turned the square into a muddy swamp and wherever we saw camera crews they were surrounded by drunks bellowing abuse. We did manage to talk to a few people who were very polite, but simply parroted platitudes about sovereignty and how everything would work out ok in the end.
So how about the biggest impact of Brexit for you? The one that really motivated me (and still does) is the fact that millions of young people have been denied the opportunities that you and I had, to live and work in Europe. The fact that this was brushed under the carpet or deliberately mischaracterised as 'middle-class people wanting Freedom of Movement for their homes in Tuscany' makes my blood boil. The opportunity to work abroad was always a way for working class kids to grasp new opportunities and transform their lives. I saw this during my time in the Netherlands. The fact that this has been taken away, and, crucially, not replaced with anything, is unforgivable in my book. I believe you feel the same way about France?
CB: Oh absolutely - I spent a year in France as part of my degree and I met my husband there and he came back to England with me - there was minimal bureaucracy and it was pretty straightforward. So many other young people on my course were from working class backgrounds and who grasped the opportunity to live and work in Europe. Stuff that we took for granted has been stripped from the next generation and it is utterly shameful. It makes me worry about the footy too - so many friends are big football fans and who follow their team (Liverpool, obvs) across Europe via all kinds of routes across multiple countries - I wonder how easy that will be now?
Who has been your post-referendum hero? Who has really stood out for you? There's a few for me - Steve Bray, who has literally dedicated his life to calling out the Government publicly, day in day out. Femi has also impressed me with his tenacity, intelligent debate and good humour - what about you?
JC: Oh it's a tough one. I might go to the other end of the scale and pick a Conservative, Dominic Grieve. I saw him speak many times and he is absolutely on-point, clear, concise, direct, confident and fair. He has been absolutely excoriating in his criticisms of the Prime Minister, not just over Brexit, but also for debasing the role of PM, weakening our democracy and normalising all sorts of tawdry behaviours and practices. If only just a few more Conservative MPs had the backbone to stand up against the mob, we might have escaped the worst of this. I wonder if Bray and Grieve have ever met properly? I'd love to be a fly on the wall at that dinner party..
Heroes come in all outfits...
How would you evaluate the efforts of those opposed to Brexit from 2016-2020? The pro-EU MPs of various parties, TIG/Change, the People's Vote campaign etc. For me, I think the PV was quite harshly criticised, given the scale of the task and the numbers of people they managed to get out on the streets. Looking back, I think Labour, in particular, were a massive let down. If they had the courage of their convictions, we might, at least have managed to retain the Single Market and Customs Union access.
CB: The efforts ended up being seriously diluted I think. And the focus was very much around what we were trying to avoid (food shortages and the like) and not about what we needed to embrace like the huge advantages that we experience by being part of a bigger picture. It was brought home to me at some of the later marches where it was apparent that different factions were not marching together and were distancing themselves from each other - the irony of separate groups seeking to encourage people to be part of something bigger but letting ego get in the way. Ego has been a huge barrier to progress in this country. Fully agree re Labour - either incompetent or wilful but both unforgivable. The Single Market and Customs Union are critical aren't they - what else would you like to see us retain if it were within our gift?
JC: Fair point. I was fascinated to hear Paul Stevenson, comms director for Vote Leave, admit on a podcast last week, that Leave could never have won without Corbyn as Labour leader. As much as people always like to look back at major events and pretend that everything was inevitable, it certainly wasn't in this case. It required a perfect wave of incompetence, hubris, mendacity and monstrously poor decision-making by figures in all parties for us to end up here. It's why we started Renew, not just to oppose Brexit, but to try and stop even worse things coming down the track. With regards to what I would like to retain, I'm really a pragmatist at this point. If UK citizens had retained their right to pursue happiness beyond our borders and if UK businesses were not hamstrung by self-erected trade barriers, I'd be pleased enough.
So, here's a question: what has most shocked or surprised you about the way politics is conducted in the UK, since you have been active with Renew? I would say, on the positive side, it's remarkably easy to participate in, if you are determined. On the negative side, I am constantly appalled at the low calibre of people who find themselves nominated as candidates for the major parties. Attending the vote-counts at various elections and observing the candidates and their 'entourages' has been a real eye-opener. At the Peterborough count I found myself sat opposite Farage and his toadies, wittering on about betting markets and 'liquidity unwinds' whilst the only other people in the room were a candidate dressed up as Elmo from Sesame Street and his mum. Only in the UK.. truly bizarre.
"Elmo not carrying weapons!"
CB: Yeah the calibre of people elected as MPs is pretty shocking and what people believe makes a good MP. I've been deeply disappointed with my own and he is far from the worst of them. The way the media circus manipulates the public has alarmed me too - the whole thing is just tied up in populism isn't it? The fact that people would sooner elect someone they can have a pint with than someone who would actually act in the best interests of their constituents. But I agree with you about it being relatively easy to get involved - the number of activists is actually quite small. But the big parties are very elitist - I know of people who have been reprimanded by their party for publicly fraternising with me, for example, because I represent Renew - it's crazy. There absolutely has to be a place in politics where people can converge around some core values along with some pragmatism and the recognition that we cannot let perfect be the enemy of good.
What are the values that mean the most to you?
JC: I suppose it just a simple one, Integrity. We often talk about being the right people, doing the right things for the right reasons, which is just another way of saying that we need to govern with integrity. In the UK, there is a giant chasm where political substance should be located. Our politicians need to believe in something and be prepared to make sacrifices for it. Power for its own sake is a slippery slope.
So, 5 years have passed and Brexit is still not 'done'. Trade deals are flimsy, inadequate or absent and the status of Northern Ireland and Scotland are looking increasingly unsettled. Where might we be 5 years from now, in 2026?
CB: In terms of where we will be in 5 years, I honestly cannot call it. We are showing all the signs of a state on the brink of failure and there are so many variables at play - the term VUCA (originally a US military term which has been brought into the business and management world) pretty much sums everything up - Volatile, Uncertain, Chaotic and Ambiguous. I read something today about how apartheid was brought to an end and the author described there being a tipping point when enough people cared - that's where we need to get to - collective caring for what happens to our country and in particular the next generation.
On a lighter note, if you were going to stand for election in character, who would you go for? It's Wonder Woman for me....
JC: VUCA sounds like a tactic employed by a dastardly Bond villain! Or, actually, the way certain geo-political state and non-state actors seek to destabilise democracies. Anyway, a character? Well, not Elmo, he's been taken. Buckethead and Binface have already been done. Could I dress up as Charles Darwin or George Orwell? I suspect Wonder Woman might win that contest..
The Dynamic Duo?
If we as Renew want to encourage more and better people to stand up and fight for a better Britain, what are we doing right and wrong and what can we do better?
CB: In terms of what we are doing right, I think consistently prioritising what is best for the country over our desire to grow as a party. We have dabbled in some popular stuff but have quickly learned that this just doesn't sit right with us. Continuing to have good quality conversations and acting with integrity is another one of our strengths - along with our considered positions and thoughtful approaches. Where we need to improve is on outreach - we need to talk to people who don't think like us - we need to build networks and relationships across the country, across activists groups and across smaller parties - we have a real opportunity to be an honest broker between many different collectives and I hope we can act in this capacity.
Final question from me - what do you think is Renew's priority for the next 12 months?
JC: So, starting from our Party Conference in September, we need to craft a distinct identity that clearly differentiates us from the legacy parties and carves out a place for us with voters who are looking for root and branch reform. All this work is underway, so after the summer we should have an array of tools at the disposal of all Renewers who want to help us recruit and grow the party.
Have a great week,
James and the Renew Team