“The Convention: Think Anew, Act Anew – Another Vote is Possible” in London on 11 January 2019 was a masterpiece of the art of conference programming: so many things that needed to be said were matched with the right people to say them, in a mixture of set-piece speeches, panel sessions and literary festival-style intellectual conversations.
It seems odd to write a report of a one-day political conference and call it a masterpiece, as if it were a review of a play, or any other work of art, but if someone has managed to produce a masterpiece, then why not? The first person to write an artistic review of a rock gig probably felt the same way. And with the Brexit countdown clock standing at 77 days, The Convention was exactly where one Northern pop legend felt he needed to be at this moment in his country’s history, so maybe political conferences are the new rock ‘n’ roll.
The Convention was organised and put on at short notice by author and journalist Henry Porter, and Open Democracy’s Anthony Barnett. There were an almost mindboggling 11 panel discussions and 5 speeches in the day’s programme, providing a rich banquet spanning up-to-the-minute information and deep insight.
The venue was the beautiful 1920s circular hall of the Emmanuel Evangelical Church, Westminster, just a few streets away from the Houses of Parliament. A large congregation of the Remain faithful, perhaps 300 or more, had paid their £5 and assembled at short notice. With the stakes high, just four days before parliament votes on the Theresa May Brexit deal, the promises of salvation written in a circle on the dome of ceiling were somehow reassuring.
A real strength of the event was that for once Scotland and Ireland got their fair share of the spotlight. But a Northern Umbrella review of the event must note that, Jarvis Cocker notwithstanding, there was little or no specific North of England perspective, or indeed any English regional perspective in it. Just like it would be too easy and wrong to criticise a Remain activists’ event held on a Friday daytime for being largely attended by the retired middle class, it would be too easy and wrong to criticise the organisers for the lack of a specifically Northern voice at this event. Despite the fantastic efforts of Leeds for Europe and other organisations in putting on the Great Northern Stop Brexit conference in September 2018, the fact is that since 2016 the North has not organised itself often enough as the North, and it has not made enough of a noise to make the absence of a distinctive place for it on the platform of an event like this unthinkable. That is something Northern Umbrella exists to try and remedy.
The Lucas Plan
The event began with a keynote opening speech by the UK’s sole Green MP Caroline Lucas, entitled “How do we ensure that Project Hope overcomes Project Fear?”. It could be called a landmark speech. She asked and answered three sets of questions:
- How do we address the very real grievances that led so many to vote for Brexit in the first place? Those living in communities with proud histories, but which have been hollowed out by de-industrialisation and decades of neglect, compounded in recent years by an ideologically-driven assault on public services in the name of austerity?
- How do we make staying and fighting for the Europe we want a pathway to change – to a society that isn’t just less grim than what we have now, but is genuinely fair, green and fulfilling? How do we inspire people with a vision of the way membership of the EU can make a positive and practical improvement to their lives? How do we ensure that Project Hope overcomes Project Fear?
- How do we renew our democracy? How do we genuinely take control? How do we shift the framework entirely and hand power to people not just for one vote, but forever, so that our country can unite around a new settlement that gains popular consent across the Brexit divide?
Here is the full transcript. The message of ending austerity with a green new deal of investment in people, places, public services and a green economy, allied with a constitutional reform programme for the UK including devolution and proportional representation is exactly the one that Northern Umbrella supports. And the messenger, the transparently in-good-faith, compassionate and passionate Caroline Lucas, was perfect.
It was described as “the speech the Leader of the Opposition should have made the day after the Brexit referendum on 24 June 2016”. Lucas’s desire to be radical about addressing the injustices underlying the Brexit vote and building the country anew, whilst rejecting the fantasy of Lexit and simply wanting England to take its place as a normal European country, is an agenda that chimes perfectly with the deep beliefs of the many thousands of young people who poured into the Labour party after Jeremy Corbyn became leader – the kind of people now organised under the banner Another Europe is Possible.
An understandable but nevertheless serious weakness of the event was that those young pro-European Corbynistas – so far from the doctrinaire, sectarian lefty bogeymen the Remain centrists can imagine them to be – were not represented in its audience. Hopefully they will see Caroline Lucas give pretty much the same speech at Another Europe is Possible’s London rally on Monday 14 January, and hear her distinctive call for real democratic modernisation in England.
Labour – right and left – is institutionally incapable of acknowledging why a Westminster General Election with first past the post voting for single member seats, with the result decided in a small number of randomly-located marginals, is fundamentally such a depressing rather than energising democratic experience, and why therefore more people are not clamouring for it. But the young Corbynistas do get it, and they do want to change it.
The other two setpiece politicians’ speeches were by Conservative remain rebel Dominic Grieve and the SNP’s Joanna Cherry.
Grieve appeared in the hall and received a standing ovation before he had said a word. A genuinely self-effacing Tory gent of the very old school, he seemed surprised and touched by this reception – almost looking over his shoulder to see who the audience were cheering for. The ovation was a nice gesture by an almost exclusively non-Tory audience: the Tory remain rebels are under a lot of pressure as traitors to their own tribe, and need to feel the love from a Remain audience. His speech was good, whilst also reminding us that here was a man thrust into the limelight, rather than seeking it.
Joanna Cherry, MP for Edinburgh South West, was an important addition to the line-up, reminding everyone that the SNP is Westminster’s third largest party as well the Scottish government. Scotland has been treated with contempt at every stage of the Brexit process and is rightly furious about being dragged out of the EU against her will. Yet, despite the fact that no-deal Brexit chaos would make the SNP’s ultimate goal of Scottish independence almost a certainty, the SNP was nevertheless working hard for the Remain cause. Economic disaster was in nobody’s interest, in Scotland or the rest of UK.
Love, prosperity and culture
The rest of the morning was rich in information, with talks and panel sessions covering: news from the campaign frontline, Peter Kellner on the latest opinion polls, freedom of movement, the practical issues around organising another referendum, and understanding the thinking of “remainers now” – people who had voted leave in 2016 but had now changed their minds. Tara Connolly, just off the plane from Belfast, made a speech bringing home what a massive blow Brexit could be for Northern Ireland, despite it having voted convincingly for Remain. Young people there have grown up with peace and no border as normality, but it is all now stupidly being put at risk.
There is no space to review all the sessions in detail, so a few general impressions and memorable moments will have to suffice.
Overall, what was striking was how welcome the voices of non-politicians and in particular women, genuinely were. The combative approach, and (God forbid) the ‘mansplaining’ style, were not completely absent but they really did feel like yesterday’s thing. One of the best things about the conference was that Alistair Campbell, and all the poison he would have represented and introduced, was not there; it would be nice to think that one of the masterstrokes of the organisers was deliberately not to invite him.
Almost all the memorable moments were from women. Eloise Todd of Best for Britain, so clear, so straightforward and practical about what we have to do, and how we should go about doing it. Germana Canzi, one of the 3 million EU citizens denied a vote (and generally demeaned and insulted by the country which they have made their home and make such a massive contribution to), spoke eloquently but it was a throwaway comment of her’s that hit home hardest: “we hear how the BBC Today programme speaks about us too, you know”. So utterly shameful. For Emma Knuckey, a deeply sensitive health worker who voted for Leave partly to get more money for the NHS, it was this treatment of her EU citizen colleagues as pawns in a game that was the emotional driver for rejecting the Leave message and switching to Remain.
Jessica Simor QC’s session was entitled “The true cost of the end of Freedom of Movement on love, prosperity and culture”. Perhaps best known as a tenacious battler of Brexit thugs and liars like Andrew Neil and Daniel Hannan on Twitter, this remarkable title seemed to liberate her and her panellists to rise above the usual fray and be calm, thoughtful and compelling. The key message was: the only achievement of Theresa May’s Brexit deal is a negative one -to remove our freedom to live and love across borders. Laura Shields, one of the 1.4 million British citizens living abroad in the EU, made the telling point that freedom to work in the EU had been the making of so many working class Brits, not just the luxury of the elite. The £30k annual income restriction the UK has said it will impose on incomers to the UK had been noted in the EU, and would be reciprocated, she said – dealing another blow to Britain’s terrible record of declining opportunity for working class kids.
The morning session ended with a star turn from Jarvis Cocker. It barely matters what exactly he said, his overall message was that England just needs to stop the faking and be more at ease with itself. What Theresa May really needs more than anything else, is a dancing lesson from Jarvis.
The afternoon session
The afternoon session involved no fewer than five panel sessions and two in-depth conversations.
The five panels covered how a fresh referendum can avoid the cheating and lawbreaking that characterised the first one; an “EU reality check” – whether UK would in fact be welcomed back by the Europeans if we chose to remain; how to avoid the deep divisions a fresh referendum is predicted to open up; how the Remain campaign in a second referendum campaign should be done; and finally, whether another British politics is possible.
The two conversations were really fascinating, and would alone have justified the conference fee: Scotland’s Lesley Riddoch talking to the Irish Times’s Fintan O’Toole and Open Democracy’s Anthony Barnett on “The strange passions of Brexit: what has got into the English?”; and Amanda Chetwynd-Cowieson talking to novelist Jonathan Coe and broadcaster James O’Brien about “Fact, Fiction and Brexit”. Sadly, no space to review them all; instead, highlights.
Power corruption and lies
The panel contributions that stuck in the mind were from Open Democracy’s Adam Ramsay and The Guardian’s Carole Cadwalladr on their investigative journalism into the funding of the 2016 campaign. They made a great Mulder and Scully double-act: Ramsay cool and calm, Cadwalladr sparkier and disarmingly unashamed to say how shocking and upsetting it has been to her to discover the depths of the darkness and dishonesty revealed when you start to shine a light on the British establishment, the super-rich and the real rulers of the world.
Adam Ramsay made the straightforward logical statement that Britain could not set itself up as the money-laundering capital of the world, and not expect dirty money to start infecting its politics. He and Carol laid out how dark money had unlawfully been routed through the DUP; how Arron Banks was more likely a conduit than the source of the biggest single campaign donation in British political history; how the whole scandal is being shut down and ignored by the police and the BBC. He matter-of-factly noted that Italian investigators of the mafia say from bitter experience that they find Britain to be the world’s most corrupt country.
An Englishman, a Scotswoman and an Irishman
Perhaps the single most impactful session of the day, certainly from the Northern Umbrella perspective, but also in terms of audience engagement, was the question of what has got into the English. The immediate political practicalities of stopping Brexit were swapped for an overdue delve into the national soul.
Both Fintan O’Toole and Anthony Barnett have written brilliant and insightful books on this: O’Toole Heroic Failure: Brexit and the politics of pain and Barnett The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump. Both locate Brexit in the damaged national psychology of the English. After the session, copies of both flew off the bookstall.
Chair Lesley Riddoch is one of the leading thinkers and doers of the remarkable political and intellectual renaissance that swept Scotland during the independence referendum of 2014. Reproducing the thinking in her book Blossom: what Scotland needs to flourish in a way appropriate for the North of England, is essentially Northern Umbrella’s mission.
Fintan O’Toole is every inch the Dublin literary figure, a worthy successor to a long line of such intellectuals. Lyrical, urbane, he might have swallowed the Blarney stone, not just kissed it. But his message for the English is brutal, as getting the hard truth from an old friend can be.
Basically, he has perfectly diagnosed the psychology behind the support for Brexit. In his book, arrow after arrow hits bullseye, and an exposed nerve. His central thesis is that Brexit is essentially the result of the English overindulging in self-pity, taking a perverse pleasure in imagining themselves oppressed. The babyboomer generation have taken a bad turn in response to their guilt at their own failure to maintain and develop the welfare state established after the war by their own parents’ heroic generation.
Engaging a keen Brexiter in argument cannot the same again after grasping O’Toole’s ideas, as was experienced by Northern Umbrella immediately after the conference when chatting to a Brexiteer couple in the Marquis of Granby pub.
Anthony Barnett is a gentleman and a scholar, who separately alighted on the same essential insight. The English must drop their delusions of grandeur before they can move forward to the real destiny, to take their place amongst equals as one of the nations of Europe.
Their nerves jangled, the audience woke up and responded well to Riddoch’s keen appetite to pin down new insight in the best Q&A session of the day. Can the English move forward without having to live through a painful and humiliating Brexit disaster? Must every generation crucify its own Christ? answered Fintan O’Toole, quoting George Bernard Shaw.
Lesley Riddoch noted that the energy in the room was very reminiscent of Scotland during 2014, but it is coming very late in the day: why didn’t this discussion happen in 2016? And she specifically identified that the English regional dimension was missing from the debate.
The gauntlet is thrown down to Northern Umbrella to explore these deep questions of identity and national/regional soul. Watch this space.