Brexit blues, principles and food on the table
Sometimes you just have to get stuff off your chest. Sometimes you simply have to wallow in your misery. It may not be articulate and it usually isn’t pretty, but it does feel good when you’re finished. Well we’ll see.
So, Britain has spoken. It seems that, albeit by a relatively slim margin, we have chosen to take a decisive step into the past; a world of isolationism and the faint stench of nationalism, masquerading as patriotism. We are heading into uncharted territory, but we can be certain that the road ahead will be bumpy and there are battles to fight and communities to defend.
Many of those who voted for Brexit last night may have felt they were rejecting the status quo and giving the establishment elite a kicking. In reality they will be rewarded with more of the same in the form of austerity; only this time the cuts will be deeper and even more vicious. They may have wanted to rid themselves of out-of-touch politicians, but the post Cameron Tory Party is likely to be even more remote and unconcerned with their plight.
Already some in the Labour movement are gripped with panic at this setback, choosing to turn on each other, rather than confront the problem and fight the real foe. Some are genuinely despairing, while others are opportunists eager to seize their moment.
Take the proposed vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn, in the wake of Brexit, for example. Their timing couldn’t be worse. Although I shouldn’t be too surprised. If not today, they were always going to take their chance.
Life is seldom ordered and calm; at least not for long. The world is a dynamic and challenging place that constantly confounds and frequently disappoints. You can, if you choose, acquiesce to its whims, take the line of least resistance, court popularity and revel in the acclaim that follows. In doing so you risk being blown off-course by every storm or duped by those who would flatter to deceive.
I’m reminded of Kipling’s ‘IF’, written as a recipe for manhood and virtue, but a powerful guide for all those who seek to lead and aspire to change the world for the better.
“IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise…”
To live and breath this ideal requires vision and principle. It takes a commitment to a cause and an acceptance that while you may make minor adjustments on your path, your ultimate destination remains constant. History is full of these people. You don’t have to look too hard to find them. They are the ones who change the course of history or achieve great transformations in society, or in our thinking and understanding.
I have always sought these people out as sources of inspiration, role models and beacons. While they may adapt, or even sacrifice their approaches, their strategies or their tactics, they never give up on the principles that guide them. In doing so they are never blown off-course, but maintain a life-long consistency that is truly inspirational.
I’m thinking of the likes of Mandela, of Tony Benn, those Liverpool Councillors who fought Thatcher in the 1980’s and of the late Terry Fields MP, who chose jail in solidarity with his constituents who couldn’t pay the Poll Tax. Of course I would class Jeremy Corbyn in this category, a man who has found himself consistently on the right side of history in a career that spans decades and promises to deliver much more if allowed to do so.
Closer to home I also think of my own parents. My Father was a Catholic, my Mother a Protestant and member of the ‘Orange Lodge’. In the context of 60’s Liverpool, a time when sectarianism was more prevalent than it is today, this must have been the ultimate in rebellion.
I don’t know who to admire more, my Dad for having the stones to bring home a Protestant girl, my Mum for upsetting the Lodge or my Grandparents for deciding that none of this was a problem. I guess that their principles of love, compassion and wanting a better life for their children trumped religious denomination.
As I write I am also struck by memories of my own journey into rebellion. Given my parent’s nonconformist ethos and the fact that they had both grown up to be Trade Unionists and Labour supporters, it should come as no surprise that my insubordination took on a political form. However, it may surprise some to learn that this seemed to bother my Mum and Dad at the time.
I realise, now that I am a parent myself, that they were probably just acutely aware of their own sacrifices in the pursuit of values and the cost of that. I’m sure the last thing they wanted was for their son to go through the same trials. After all what is the point of sacrificing for your kids, if they end up fighting the same battles you have fought all your life?
Anyway, I must have been about 17 or 18, give or take. After not really trying my best at school I found myself raging against a world I didn’t really understand. My thoughts and ideas were all over the place and I hated how inconsistent my ideas and beliefs were.
After leaving secondary school, I had decided to “get my head together” and work out what I actually believed in. I ended up reading everything from general spiritualist rubbish and The Bible to the brilliant Carl Sagan and left-wing texts. A process that led to me starting an argument with my despairing parents, and declaring that I was a Marxist and an atheist to-boot.
My memory of the encounter is hazy, but I’m sure they looked at me with a mixture of bewilderment and amusement. I imagine they were also wondering what career opportunities there were for Godless Communists.
What followed was a discussion about principles and pragmatism. “Principles are great son.” I remember my Mum saying. “But they don’t put food on the table.” My Dad agreed with her and then rolled his eyes, when I told him I’d rather starve than sell-out. I’d say that sort of stuff all the time back then. I actually meant it too.
As I look at the world today, at the chaos, the hunger and poverty. When I consider the level of division in society and the rise of intolerant ideologies, I think of my own life’s journey and that of my parents. My rage and idealism, which once burned fiercely, eventually fizzled out. Though I have always considered myself a Marxist and a Socialist, for a long time I became disillusioned with politics. Instead of starving for my principles, I chose to put food on the table. I thought it was a case of one or the other.
Recently I saw a photo of my Dad on ‘twitter’. It had been posted by one of his comrades. He was standing at a podium addressing the GMB (Trade Union) congress. He’s 70 now. His hair is no longer jet black and lines have gathered around his eyes; but he’s still up there fighting, encouraging and cajoling others to fight for a better world. Then it hits me.
He’s never taken a hiatus from politics like I did. In all the years since that conversation in my youth, he had remained steadfast. Even when it became necessary to go on strike to win better pay, or prevent the erosion of his working conditions. The man who had warned me of the dangers of idealism had never flinched, even when that meant him going without.
My mum, sadly no longer with us, was no different. Despite her warnings about letting principle get in the way of the material things in life, I can’t remember her ever lecturing my Dad to knuckle down and give in when times became tough. She never castigated him or the Union for their principled stand. Instead she would support him both morally and materially. She would produce meals from meagre supplies. Our bellies were never empty.
Family and friends would help out when things got particularly difficult too. It was their principles that put food on the table, not pragmatism. Opportunism may bring temporary advantage, but there is real value in being principled you just have to realise it’s a long game.
With the Tory Party in disarray and with a terrible storm coming in the form of even more vicious austerity, we have never been in greater need of a leader with principles and a positive vision of the future. Someone who dares to speak their mind, even if it makes them unpopular, or leads to them getting knocked down – only to get right back up again. All of my life experience tells me that this is so.
Unlike my parents, when opportunists in the Parliamentary Labour Party tell us that principles don’t put food on the table, it’s because they actually believe it. For them they can see no use for anything that doesn’t deliver power, but power without principle is useless. You can do nothing meaningful with it. Conversely when you’re moved by powerful principles, anything is possible.
So hold your head Jeremy. Let them lose theirs, this is a long game.