You can’t deny it – Boris Johnson is making waves up North

At least in rhetoric, Boris Johnson is hailing a dubious era of investment in England’s Northern hemisphere. Not unlike all those politicians that have gone before him, he has promised to splash out on education, the NHS and Northern transport, pledging a Northern Powerhouse Rail modelled on London’s Crossrail. He’s stated his intent to preserve and restore British Steel, a dominant force in the North East’s economy, while also turning Teesport into a ‘free port’ – thus gifting it with preferential trading arrangements. He’s even thrown in a commitment to improving provision for special needs education, which will give a small lifeline to local constituencies such as Durham, who earlier this year expressed a ‘debt crisis in SEND provision’ to the tune of £5.6 million.

These are hardly the dramatic bailouts the region would hope for: though they look like massive giveaways when compared with the stinginess of governments prior.

By conveniently rediscovering the Tories’ ‘magic money tree’ and pledging to divert a substantial chunk of it across Northern England, while making tangible commitments to a No-Deal Exit, Boris is doing something genius. He is appealing directly to the region’s staunch Lexiteers: left-wingers who want Brexit but rely heavily on public services. If austerity was the only thing keeping many Northern Labour strongholds semi-resistant to Conservative rule, Boris’s unorthodox political approach – and frank borrowing of long-held Labour manifesto pledges – may just clinch their support.

Of course, many other politicians, such as George Osborne, have made similarly blasé commitments which have failed to materialise. But Boris knows it’s different this time because of Brexit. Fed up with Labour’s lack of clarity on the issue – among the fact that all-but-one North Eastern constituency voted to Leave in 2016 – the region is perfect breeding ground for Boris’s new, patriotic, spend-heavy Brexit Britain. While the ‘Boris Bounce’ seemed muted in the Brecon by election, its impact in the North East is untested but guaranteed. This is mainly because of the region’s specific dynamics: high suicide rates, high unemployment figures, low immigration, a dominant age demographic between 40-55, a propensity to have voted Brexit and a history of voting Labour. Many Northern Labour MPs now fear a general election precisely because they know they might get turfed out. It doesn’t matter that Boris’s promises are most likely bluster and will damage the North East in the long-run. All he needs is to get his no-deal over the line.

In reality, Boris’s entire strategy will serve only to destroy the limited infrastructure the North of England has. The Confederation of British Industry has explicitly warned that the North-East will be hardest hit by a No-Deal Brexit because of the threats to its manufacturing industries and the region’s reliance on the EU as an export market. Bridget Philipson, Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland South, recently tweeted a snapshot of the economic damage no-deal would inflict on her constituency – regardless of the spending Boris has pledged. She said: ‘Brexit will not make Sunderland richer, more equal or more free. Around 60% of our exports go to the EU and, on a per job basis, we export more into the EU than any other British City.’ Later, she added: ‘Johnson wants my city and my constituents to pay the price for him to stay in Downing Street. A No-Deal Brexit was hardly mentioned back in 2016, but it will wipe out jobs and industry.’

So, then, as Boris continues to make waves up North, by showcasing his devout commitment to anti-austerity, a Brexit that ‘works for everyone’ and the burgeoning potential of the ‘powerhouse of the North’, he sacrifices ever more livelihoods for his own political gain. Who knows what the result of that will be?


I’ve got no problem with a People’s Vote campaign – just the campaigners

Last weekend was a biggie for Remainers: and didn’t the whole world know it.

A petition demanding the revocation of Article 50 – the process by which any country should wish to leave the European Union – gained enormous traction on national and social media; and a People’s Vote March raged through Central London demanding Brexit ‘be put back to the people.’

Admittedly, there’s nothing anti-democratic about a People’s Vote. It’s a feasible solution for breaking the Brexit deadlock once indicative votes have revealed which EU-exit route appears the most advantageous. But as a vehicle through which to overturn Brexit in its entirety? That’s anti-democratic.

It all boils down to an issue with the campaigners themselves. They’ve hijacked the People’s Vote as a bid for Remain rather than an opportunity to validate the initial result – and in doing so, they’re refusing to acknowledge the democratic will of half the population. And in doing that, they turn over that same half-population to the hands of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Initially, I hated Brexit. Why would my constituency, Gateshead, which relies on the EU for infrastructure investment, bite off the hand that feeds them?

But then I came to understand something that none of the People’s Vote Campaigners (PVCs) seem willing to grasp. A Leave vote might well have been disastrous, but it worked in making a statement. Though the PVCs may brand Leave-voters as political illiterates operating under the puppeteer-hand of the ‘far-right’, they can’t deny that they’ve definitely grabbed the attention of negligent governments and an over-mighty City service sector; who, for their part, appear callously oblivious to bitter regional divides.

It sounds very dramatic – but the reasoning is fair enough. That’s why I can’t quite wage war on Brexit the same way the PVCs have; and why I’m getting sick of sanctimonious marchers who think they’re doing the country an ounce of good by giving up their Saturday to wave around some cardboard.

Still, I’m fully aware that the North East is better off in the EU than outside of it. Left to the government alone, the North East will starve. The Confederation of British Industry has already bemoaned the scale of economic loss the region would be exposed to under a disorderly EU departure. But it’s really saying something when, despite knowing all this, people are still willing to make such a huge sacrifice to have their decision heard and implemented (with very few people who voted Leave actually changing their minds, regardless of what PVC-sponsored YouGov polls tell you).

Quite frankly, the People’s Vote campaign has become a self-sabotaging mess. Rather than argue, reasonably and democratically, for retention of reformed EU membership in order to enhance regional prosperity, level out national inequalities and hold a clearly-delusional government to account (you know, things which might actually persuade people to change their minds) – the selling point of the People’s Vote appears to be an immediate return to the status quo. The very thing that everyone voted against.

From up here – the status quo looks like a situation where affluent Southerners retain easy access to their continental homes, regain the £10,000 in value knocked off their London-properties, and avoid those inconvenient strikes on the Eurostar. But in that scenario, the North-East still receives no cultural funding or infrastructure investment, and former mining communities continue to be left to their own devices with minimal revenue support-grants from the government.

Nowhere is this alliance between the PVCs and well-off clearer than in the selection of allies they have chosen to champion their cause: Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston, Justine Greening, Dominic Grieve and Michael Heseltine – all Conservative (or formerly Conservative) MPs that have willingly supported austerity.

These are individuals that have consciously, in part, manufactured the divide that now exists between London and its peripheries. So, how are they supposed to fix it? Their love for the EU, weirdly enough, doesn’t outweigh the damage their party has waged on its own people. There’s something particularly disturbing in the way Michael Heseltine, former front-man to Thatcher, noted in his PV March speech that Maggie would be turning in her grave if she were alive to witness Brexit. Everyone cheered in response. Does that mean we now remember her as a sagacious Europhile, more so than as the architect of devastation in the very places that voted to Leave…?

And then, there’s the genuinely unforgivable assumption by PVCs that young people unanimously voted to Remain – with the consequence that non-university educated electors have been virtually ignored.

The PVC’s youth contingent is exclusively represented by young people of Our Future Our Choice and For Our Future’s Sake (OFOC and FFS). Unfortunately, while they might be eloquent and informed, both groups are hopelessly metropolitan organisations that claim, incorrectly, to speak for ‘young people’ as though they were one, singular, homogeneous, degree-level-educated and Erasmus-appreciating mass. Which, as we all know, they aren’t.

And rather than reach out to older people in deprived areas, who have seen their communities disintegrate around them – and have been led to believe this stems from immigration and open borders rather than by governmental neglect – the PVCs have paraded snobbish placards around the streets of London: taunting half of the electorate with tasteless witticisms that seem to suggest their bigoted stupidity.

One such placard boasted: ‘52% Pride and Prejudice; 48% Sense and Sensibility’. Hmm, maybe take a look in the mirror?

Labour MPs, for one thing, should not give into the PVC’s demands, but embrace what their constituents asked for (and with that I nod my hat to Emma Lewell-Buck, MP for South Shields). With a support base of which almost 70% voted to Leave, Labour’s proposal of retaining access to the customs union and ‘close alignment with the single market’ is the best option to pursue, lest they risk further entrenching a toxic national divide which is in nobody’s interests to perpetuate.

Ultimately, a People’s Vote should be a free-vote: where consensus from all sides of the political spectrum can be found regarding how to leave the EU. Currently, however, its proponents are damaging its credibility by way of their obstinate elitism – those same traits they so fervidly criticise when found among Brexiteers. And for that reason, the PVCs will never have my support. Not that they want it, anyway.

Brexit might just be a productive disaster

Two nights ago, in a widely-acknowledged ‘blame game’, Theresa May backhandedly suggested MPs were at fault for the Brexit stalemate – and that she alone shares the public’s ‘frustration’.  The day after, Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom, in her well-publicised feud with John Bercow, criticised the Speaker for telling Tory MP Sir Peter Bottomley to ‘grow up’ as he loudly heckled Labour MP John Cryer – who dubbed Theresa May’s performance the night before as ‘one of the most contemptuous statements I’ve ever heard’. This came on the back of news that opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, stormed out of a cross-party meeting because Chuka Umunna, The Independent Group’s standing representative, was present when, in matter of fact, ‘he wasn’t a real party leader.’

This begs the question: are we right to feel totally pessimistic at the current state of affairs in our deeply divided political system? Are we right to despair at the hopeless cadre of our floundering leaders? The answer is yes and no. While it’s depressingly true that inequality is at its worst level for decades, public trust in political leadership is all-but-absent, regional prosperity is non-existent and nothing seems likely to change any time soon, it’s also the case that this fiasco could be exactly what Max Weber termed a ‘productive disaster’.

As a prospective political candidate that failed to get elected, Weber spent ages poring over German parliamentary systems. He was writing in the early 1900s – just before European affairs were about to take a nasty turn – and identified the most important feature of modern politics: that of perpetual conflict and struggle.

Instead of viewing politics as the profession of idealistic peace-keeping, he recognised that it is precisely because of the impossibility of total peace and prosperity that parliament can nurture and elevate genuine talent. Crisis, believe it or not, gives people a chance to shine and become creative, charismatic individuals (as well as weeding out the ones who haven’t got what it takes).

Most importantly – and nobody can deny this – Weber argued that political conflict is the only thing which keeps citizens politically educated and engaged: preventing individual liberty from being buried under unaccountable civil service bureaucracies (who do everything secretly, under the guise of specialised ‘officialdom’). The 2016 EU referendum, as we know, boasted an unprecedented turnout of 72.2% – with 33.6 million exercising their right to vote. In effect: Brexit has, for all the wrong reasons, forced us to become politically literate, and awoken us from our passivity.

Weber’s beef back in 1900s Germany was with Otto von Bismarck and the Kaiser: two Prussian Conservative leaders that had reduced parliament to bureaucratic shells – quashing all diversity of opinion and the space for new leaders to rise and gain prominence. Their mess-ups, unbelievably, caused even more grief than Brexit (like a World War).

Weber recognised the cynicism of his line of reasoning, but decided that WW1, in many respects, was an opportunity. The horrible, crushing defeat by the Allies – though awful for German citizens who had been humiliated on the international stage – killed off the Emperor’s uselessly bureaucratic rule, giving parliament a chance to assume greater power and dictate policy. It also afforded citizens opportunity to become a ‘nation of masters’: this being a people who cared about their political destiny and strove to shape it.

Weirdly enough, the model for Weber’s theory of ‘charismatic leadership’ was William Ewart Gladstone. Liberal British parliamentarian for over 60 years, and many-times over British Prime Minister, his proto-populist campaigns of the late 19th century rallied his electorate round to his cause – whatever that may be – and stopped the stagnation of parliament, society and culture in general.

By constantly changing tack – whether it be quitting the Conservative Party only to attack it from opposition benches, or crusading against Irish Home Rule and then crusading for Home Rule – Gladstone kept the political landscape alight with passion, persuasion and public engagement. His ability to flexibly bend towards voter sentiment was not seen as disingenuous tactlessness, but strength of his virtues as a parliamentarian.

Contrast the era of Gladstonianism with stagnating, rigidly adversarial political parties of 21st century Britain, beset with pointless in-fighting and a tendency to become bogged down by dogma, discipline and technicalities rather than national interest and voter opinion – something both parties are guilty of.

But already, we’re starting to see elements of Weber’s back-against-the-wall productivity coming to the fore.

We know that it is likely Theresa May will resign should her deal be defeated again, or possibly even before; and already, we know that scores of Labour MPs are unhappy with the Party’s current leadership. Tom Watson has delivered an urgent warning to Jeremy Corbyn to ‘reach out to all wings of the party’ or risk further alienation and even more defections to The Independent Group, while many other Northern and Midland Labour MPs feel the front-bench’s commitment to a second referendum is a betrayal of voter trust and direction. Emma Lewell-Buck was among a group of defiant Labour MPs that ignored Corbyn’s whip to abstain in a second referendum vote, already showing greater independence and a nascent disintegration of overly-partisan structures.

To many, this breakdown of traditional party-political edifices is worrying: but it is also an episode that history will look favourably upon. If through all this tired Brexit haze and broken-record rhetoric emerges new talent, new ideas, new opportunities and new thinking (and even if all of it goes to nothing and we end up with a second referendum and or a revocation of Article 50), you can best believe that people will, ultimately, somehow somewhere, be intellectually better off for it. In other words – let’s embrace Brexit, embrace radical change and embrace an historic recasting of an out-of-date political landscape.