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The Prime Minister's role: to unite the country
21 Aug, 2019

Your ideas for reconciliation? 

London4Europe Committee member and former Home Office senior civil servant Michael Romberg believes that the divisions – and the causes of divisions - in the country will persist long after the referendum, whatever the outcome. Our campaign can aim to alleviate them. We can also – behind the scenes, and in our individual capacity as members of political parties – urge the parties to adopt policies that would heal the country. These should be on the theme of a better version of “Take back control!”.

The first blog in the series sets out the problem - winning is not enough; companion articles show how we should conduct the campaign; and specific policy proposals for the political parties to consider.



Key task for the post-referendum Prime Minister: unite the country

Academics increasingly refer to the divisions in British society as a sort of "civil war”. That is a little dangerous. The Germans have a saying “Man soll den Teufel nicht an die Wand malen” [one should not paint the devil on the wall]. Describing an adverse scenario can make it more likely – a superstition most of the time but a real issue when talk can normalise political dangers.

We do not have a real civil war like in Syria or England’s C17th.  But such a highly fractured, disappointed and pessimistic society brings risks that matters could take a turn for the worse.

And can do so in slow burn. After the death of General Franco, Prime Minister Suarez, an ex-Francoite functionary, had successfully dismantled much of the Francoist state and built a functioning democracy. Yet it was six years after the Generalissimo’s death, when the initial euphoria had turned into a series of separate discontents held by all sides, that a civil guard colonel sought a golpe de estado by storming Parliament.

One of the best books I know about radical political change was written by novelist Javier Cercas about the coup attempt “The Anatomy of a Moment”; I commend it to you. Cercas focuses on the three men who did not dive for cover when the civil guards stormed the Parliament. They were brave then, but their careers had shown compromise and flaws. The London Review of Books: “for Cercas’s is the story of the definitive victory of the prosaic over the epic-poetic in Spanish politics, the story of flawed and grubby politicians representing a flawed and grubby population somehow triumphing over national saviours with glorious visions, funny hats and submachine guns. But it also shows that self-styled national saviours keep on coming even when you think you have done with all that.

Spain’s pact of forgetting – the informal refusal to talk about the civil war and the Franco era – was a means to get through the post-dictatorship and establish democracy. But it also left issues to fester.

There is no good way of getting from civil war to lasting peace. We can look at Northern Ireland where the Good Friday Agreement bought peace in a sense at the expense of justice.

But we should be quizzing political leaders on their plans for reconciliation after the referendum.


None of our political leaders is addressing national re-unification

The Prime Minister is fixated on delivering Brexit: “Do or die”. His last opponent for the Conservative Party leadership was in much the same position, though with slightly lower rhetoric

Nor had the two contenders for the Liberal Democrat Party leadership really addressed unification and healing. Ed Davey’s big idea was the decarbonisation of the economy: as the gilets jaunes and fuel duty protests tell us that is a divisive policy when put into practice. Eventual winner Jo Swinson would “build an economy that puts people and the planet first; harness the technological revolution for Britain’s future; rally a liberal movement to stand up for our values and against the forces of populism and nationalism.”. Which is fine but a bit thin on content – and in its third limb the imposition of a Remain victory rather than a unifying programme.

Jeremy Corbyn says he is unifying the country. But his claim is risible. He bases it on proposing a customs union with the EUmaking permanent the temporary arrangement in Theresa May’s deal which Corbyn otherwise opposes on party political grounds.  His desire to talk about something other than the difference between Remainers and Leavers is a transparent attempt to avoid discussing Brexit. His policies are not only the conventional socialist version of politics as usual but also intensely divisive. His followers see (or saw) him as the messiah. But we can see just how divisive he is: Conservative Party members - who would be willing to see the UK break up, the economy tank, their party destroyed in order to deliver Brexit - would nonetheless give up on Brexit if that sacrifice was necessary to stop a Corbyn government.

We do not have a figure who could manage the reconciliation, the Nelson Mandela of British politics. We need to find one.


Plan for the reconciliation afterwards

We need to think how we can re-unite the country through a mix of real and symbolic acts.

In Scotland, after the referendum the churches held services of reconciliation. Though that was not without controversy – and as an atheist I see no rôle for religion in society – but churches exist so perhaps they could do this useful act.

It is hard to think what would be useful: a Festival of Britain was Theresa May’s planned celebration of Brexit. A Festival of Europe would be a victory not a reconciliation.

All ideas welcome. Please send them in so that we can publish them as a blog:   [email protected]




The London4Europe blogs page is edited by Nick Hopkinson. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author, not necessarily of London4Europe.