On the last day of 2018, it’s interesting to go back to blog posts on Northern Umbrella from the last two years. And as soon as possible in the new year, there will be a post looking forward to 2019.
The very first blogged post on this site was on 20 December 2016, looking forward to 2017. Looking back at it, some things have not changed: the prediction that the Brexit talks would go badly, because they could not possibly go well, has stood the test of time, as has the prediction that the Brexiteers would blame everybody but themselves for this predicament and quickly start crying ‘betrayal’.
Yet other things have changed a lot: the idea that UKIP’s Paul Nuttall would be built up as Labour’s nemesis in the North seems almost comical now. But it was serious at the time.
On 20 December 2016, this blog said: “…the money and the media have got Paul Nuttall all lined up. Prepare for the deluge.” On 21 December Copeland’s young, healthy and locally-popular pro-nuclear Labour MP Jamie Reed took the highly unusual step of quitting mid-term as an MP, for no apparent good reason. On 13 January, Stoke Central MP and Peter Mandelson-protegé Tristram Hunt suddenly announced he was also quitting, forcing a by-election in the city known as “Britain’s Brexit capital”. Suddenly Jeremy Corbyn’s revitalised Labour party was fighting for its life in by-elections for two strongly pro-Brexit Northern seats*. (*For Northern Umbrella, Stoke counts as being in the North when it suits us.)
But Labour’s pro-Corbyn members worked very hard, Paul Nuttall turned out to be Walter Mitty and, funnily enough, it was the personal appeal of Theresa May to Brexit supporters that split the anti-Labour vote and saw UKIP well beaten in Stoke on 23 February. However, the Tories won well in Copeland, and the rapid evaporation of UKIP that followed was doubtless the key factor in persuading Theresa May to announce her snap general election in April.
The 2017 general election result was arguably a bigger surprise than the 2016 Brexit referendum result. Against the odds, it turned out Jeremy Corbyn’s message of justice, respect and common decency was popular, especially among the young. The North was a big part of that – anybody who saw the crowds watching Corbyn speak stood on a fire engine outside the Tyne Theatre Newcastle, or outside St George’s Hall Liverpool, or at Tranmere Rovers’ Prenton Park, knew that Corbyn was connecting with young Northerners in an incredibly positive way. Such was Corbyn’s success, that the astonishingly vicious and dishonest personal attacks on him by New Labour politicians and media pundits stopped, for as long as five minutes.
However, looking back at the original Northern Umbrella post, its main message was that the North would remain “vulnerable to the propaganda onslaught” of the London media for as long as it had no independent region-wide media of its own. Back in August 2014, when Robin McAlpine of Scotland’s Common Weal spoke to a meeting in Preston organised by the Hannah Mitchell Foundation, he said that those supporting meaningful regional devolution for the North of England would be better off setting up a new independent Northern news source than setting up a new political party.
Unfortunately, as of New Year’s Eve 2018, that lack of a North-wide independent viewpoint has not changed. In Scotland they now have the Common Space website and The National daily printed newspaper. In the North, despite local successes such as Sheffield’s Now Then or the Salford Star, other than the valiant Big Issue North, we still have nothing independent of the increasingly dodgy BBC.
Northern Umbrella relaunched in June 2018 with the mission of “uniting the North against Brexit”.
Looking back at the report of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation/Best for Britain meeting in Manchester in July, it is remarkable to see how much has been achieved in five short months in the battle to change the Brexit debate, and yet also how much has stayed the same.
Paul Salveson’s key point was that the North needed to wake up to the fact that Brexit is almost perfectly designed to devastate the strongest and brightest sectors of the North’s economy. Natalie Bennett’s key point was that the North’s biggest democratic and constitutional problem was the broken Westminster system, much more than the flaws of the EU.
Best for Britain Chief Executive Eloise Todd’s key point was to say that although everything was going wrong for Theresa May in the Brexit negotiations with the EU, 10 Downing Street’s UK media manipulation operation was clever and actually going quite well. Downing Street’s objective was and is to frame the Brexit choice as either the Government’s Brexit deal or to leave the EU on 29 March 2019 with no deal at all. Central to the strategy was and is to ‘disappear’ Remain as a credible or viable option. Eloise told us that only people power would be able to counteract this media operation.
All three of these key points have been steadily sinking in across the North, which is among the parts of the country where people are changing their minds fastest about the wisdom of going through with Brexit.
On 23 September, many thousands marched in Liverpool in favour of a “final say” referendum on the Brexit deal, with remain as an option on the ballot, and – despite the best efforts of Len McCluskey – the Labour party conference voted overwhelmingly to change its policy to leave that option open.
On 20 October, hundreds of thousands marched in London in favour of the final say referendum. The march was reported by the BBC et al for one day’s news cycle, but its real significance – that the tide of public opinion has turned and a consistent majority now want to remain in the EU – was not. Not by much, admittedly – the country is still deeply, deeply divided – but by a bigger margin than the Brexiteers brandish as the unchallengeable “will of the people”: 53/47.
More generally, people are having second thoughts in massive numbers. This is what people thought in August:
Do you agree or disagree with the statement ‘Brexit is an historic mistake and only now people are realising it’?
- Agree strongly/tend to agree 44%
- Disagree strongly/tend to disagree 30%
- Neither agree nor disagree/don’t know 25%
On 14 November, Theresa May came out with a statement that is actually true: that there are now only three options left on the table – her deal, no deal or no Brexit. This first mention of the No Brexit option by the Prime Minister was a major step forward in the campaign for Remain.
On the same day, Donald Tusk made it perfectly clear that No Brexit is not only an option that remains a possibility, it is the EU’s preferred outcome: “The option we are best prepared for is No Brexit”. Yet the meaning of both May and Tusk’s statements was not properly discussed. Instead the media gave and continues to give acres of newsprint and hours of coverage to politicians pretending that Theresa May’s draft withdrawal agreement can be renegotiated.
Here’s the truth: there are no good options in the shambles we have got ourselves in. But withdrawing our Treaty of Lisbon Article 50 notification and remaining in the EU is by a country mile the least worst option, and, as Donald Tusk has said, by far the simplest of the available options to do. This was massively reinforced by the European Court of Justice ruling (in response to a case brought by Scottish Green MSP Andy Wightman, doubted and ridiculed by many) that the UK can unilaterally revoke its Article 50 notification.
Amazingly, as at 31 December, despite so many disasters, the strategy of disappearing the Remain option is still alive and still lies at the core of the way the BBC is covering the issue. In the next two weeks, in the run up to the vote in the House of Commons the propaganda to portray Theresa May’s abysmal Brexit deal as the only alternative to the chaos and pain of a ‘crash out’ Brexit will resume.
The only way to counteract this is still people power, and we need to come out of our corner as fast as Barry McGuigan as soon as the bell sounds to start round 2,019. More on this in the next blog.