To get the tone right it has to come from the top

To get the tone right it has to come from the top

Cyclefree on why this is so important

During the 1983 campaign, Saatchi suggested a poster showing Michael Foot on Hampstead Heath with his walking stick looking like a scruffy old man and the caption “Even Pensioners are Better Off under the Conservatives”. Thatcher was furious, refusing to use it, calling it disrespectful and undignified.

Similarly, in 2005 Labour withdrew two proposed posters which were criticised for recycling, whether intentionally or not, anti-Semitic tropes in the way they portrayed Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin. (Darkly ironic this in light of the current Labour party’s difficulties with the same issue.) Both parties’ leaderships realised that while winning is the most important thing in politics, how one wins also matters. Tone matters, not just for the campaign but, more importantly, for how the winner governs in the years long after the details of the campaign have been forgotten.

And so, alas, to the referendum campaign. Whatever the arguments about Farage’s posters about Turkey or queues of migrants, even those in the official Leave campaign felt uncomfortable about them, and not simply because of factual inaccuracies (most election campaigns are full of statements which would hardly win the George Washington Prize for Truthfulness) but rather because of the unpleasantly chauvinistic message, all too horribly reminiscent of the way certain groups have been picked on in the past as the source of a country’s problems, without whom all would be sweetness and light.

Wishing to control immigration into a country is a respectable position which does not – and, critically, should not – depend on saying hateful things about those you wish to exclude. Indeed, doing the latter, as Farage did, coarsened and debased an argument which, more than many others, needs to be made from first principles rather than in ad hominem and abusive way. Equally, those who deplore how Farage made his arguments would do well not to give the impression that seeking to control immigration, ipso facto, makes a person racist or fascist or a Nazi. All countries (and associations of them, including the EU) have some form of control over who is let in, however unevenly enforced.

Even so, these posters might have been forgotten or implicitly repudiated if May’s government had in its first few weeks and months consciously sought to adopt a conciliatory, friendly and welcoming approach to those left bewildered (at the very least) by the result. And chief among these were the EU citizens who had come here, legally, in good faith, to work and contribute and their families, spouses, friends, colleagues.

Not to mention those who felt that there was no existential conflict between their identity as British citizens and as EU citizens and resented being forced to choose. As well as others from immigrant communities, who worried that they too might, if the wind changed, be picked on. In truth, everyone is in some way part of some minority. So when politicians start adopting a hard-line “us and them” tone it creates a nervousness in more voters than just those being explicitly targeted.

It should not need saying but the vote was, for many, a difficult and finely balanced decision. Calling those who voted to Remain “traitors” or “saboteurs” or implying that they had no loyalty to Britain by voting to Remain in an organisation, membership of which had been British policy for decades and was supported by every major political party, was not calculated to heal the divisions caused or exposed by the referendum. And even if some of those who voted Remain wanted to find a way to ignore or reverse the referendum result, it would still have been better to remember Churchill’s dictum: “In victory, magnanimity”. Or, ironically enough, the prayer that Thatcher quoted when first elected PM.

The referendum brought a fair amount of discord. There has been little attempt to bring harmony in its wake. Indeed, there has not been much realisation that this should even be attempted. Easy to blame this on the government’s small majority or on May’s fear of her ultra-hard Brexit wing or on the annoyance caused by those who disapproved of or wished to subvert the result or on the stupidly triumphalist tone of some of the winners. But the government should have been bigger than its opponents. It should have realised that implementation of a difficult decision in an almost equally divided country would require enormous goodwill from as many people as possible, both in Britain and abroad.

It should have sought to preserve the reality of Britain as a country which, for all its faults, has generally rejected nativist, race-based “blood and soil” concepts of belonging, rather than appear to give succour to those who seem to want to turn back to an era when there was an “Aliens” passport queue at British ports. It should have realised that its own long-term self-interest, let alone the country’s, required it to reach out to the voters of the future.

Perhaps Conservatives need to be reminded of what Burke told them – that society is a partnership not only between those who are living – let alone only those living who support your particular view of the world – but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born. The Tories may have forgotten this but the young, who turned away from them at the election, did not and are making their voices heard as loud as any newborn.

So, what now? It may be too late for May to do this. She has enough to do trying to implement Brexit. What of her obvious (at least in their own minds) successors? I will stick my neck out and say that none of them will do. They are already yesterday’s men and will be even more so at the time of the next election, leadership or general.

The next successful Tory leader, the next successful PM (the two are not necessarily the same) should – maybe ( if we’re lucky) even will – be the person who realises that reaching out to those who feel left behind by the referendum result is necessary, as necessary as implementing the wishes of those who voted to leave because they felt left behind. A person who can find a way of defining what a successful post-Brexit Britain might look like, who realises that the young will be those largely creating that Britain and can find a way to help them do so successfully.

A person who finds the right tone to speak to all the country and not merely those who vote for his/her party, who finds a way to answer peoples’ concerns about immigration, change, globalisation and all the rest without doing a bad impersonation of failed or toxic politicians of the past or nostalgically wishing life would go back to how it used to be.

A person who perhaps in themselves and their experiences until now embodies what a successful, prosperous Britain less divided than now might be like.

Perhaps something for ambitious politicians to ponder over their holidays?


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