April 2, 2017
Half way through the American civil war, Abraham Lincoln wrote a mostly business-like letter to Congress that contains sentiments that eerily apply to the present day. “The occasion is piled high with difficulty,” he said, “and we must rise – with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
Those words – “think anew, act anew” – are the theme of the Convention on Brexit and the Political Crash, two days of debate, analysis and scrutiny on 12 and 13 May that will look at the threat to the liberal consensus in the west, as well as the numerous implications of Britain’s decision to leave the EU.
I am co-directing the Convention (ably helped by a committee which includes the European Movement, Compass, OpenDemocracy, More United and many notable individuals) with one overriding conviction – these new times, with their tension and strange insecurity, should not, in a free society, be met with silence. There has been too little discussion in parliament, virtually no opposition from Labour and nothing like enough inquiry into the enormous test faced by all of us, no matter how we voted last year, where we live or which party we support. Too often, the response of the executive and its outriders in the media has been to close down debate. Among the greatest threats to the national interest is this silence.
Another talking shop? We think not, for what could be more important than looking at the impact of Brexit on Gibraltar, on the whole of Ireland as well as the north, on Scotland, where another independence referendum is promised, and on England, where there is a powerful upwelling of English nationalism? What could claim our attention more than solid analysis of the staffing levels, costs and service of the NHS after the promised hard Brexit? And what about the need for a consistent approach to climate change, or our ability to produce food without farmers struggling with labour shortages and unfair competition? From the deliberations in the main chamber of the House of Commons since June last year, you might think that none of this mattered.
Less predictably, the Convention will be interested in the psychology of defeat and how people learn to oppose when their values and status have been so categorically rejected. The other side of that, of course, is the complacency that allowed politics in so many countries across the west to become unresponsive to very large numbers of people. As another American hero, Senator Elizabeth Warren, said when she concluded a speech in February, which squarely placed the blame for Donald Trump on economic factors and the crash of 2008: “This not the moment we asked for, but it is the moment we have been called to. This is our test.”
That particularly applies to my own favoured generation, the people who grew up in the years of the immediate postwar settlement, who watched the peaceful liberation of eastern Europe and benefited from increasing prosperity, but who, unlike their contemporaries in Latin America and the Communist bloc, never had to struggle for their political freedom, – which may just be one reason why we are where we are today. As much as this is a test for a new generation, it is also one for mine.
The Convention puts the decision to leave the EU into the wider context of the convulsions across the western world, with such respected speakers from the US as Anne Applebaum and Masha Gessen. And we will think about Russian influence across the west, too. There will be voices from all sides and every persuasion, because thinking anew and acting anew is also about listening anew.
We will have writers (Ian McEwan and Peter Frankopan), politicians (Caroline Lucas, Lisa Nandy, Kwasi Kwarteng, Nick Clegg and Dominic Grieve), and unabashed experts (Martin McKee, Anand Menon, Timothy Garton Ash, Eric Kaufmann and David Elstein), and all of them will dwell on the challenges of our new era. The one regret is that David Davis, my old debating partner in the cause of civil liberties and a key speaker in the Convention on Modern Liberty in 2009, says that he has too many commitments to appear.
I disagree with David and believe that the decision to leave the EU will be profoundly damaging, but the point of the Convention is not to re-run the arguments, or return to rancour and lies. It is to consider how to go forward: in other words, its spirit is progressive rather than regressive and nostalgic; it is about thinking our way to new solutions, which will include the big debate about the role and fitness of the old parties and the possible realignment in the centre ground. And it is surely right, and in the national interest, that everyone – not just the people who attend the Convention – considers how the British people and parliament are to be given the maximum say on the result of the negotiations.
One thing the Convention stands for is that the facts and the truth of these new times cannot be owned and manipulated by one side. It is, for instance, incontestable that EU workers bring enormous benefits in economic growth and service to UK society and that the country would be lost without them, as anyone working in the NHS, agriculture, the food industry, care of the elderly or hospitality will tell you. The point is that we can admit this at the same time as allowing for people’s worries about migration – the two thoughts do not have to be at odds.
A key session will be about how the established media deal with the fake news and the distortions that have propelled the rise of anti-democratic movements. Earlier this year, Geert Wilders proclaimed a patriotic spring for Europe. Well, we hope to take back the season and rededicate it to reason, facts, optimism and perhaps a new kind of politics. As far I know, our meeting at Central Hall, Westminster – in partnership with the Observer and openDemocracy – will be the largest of its kind since the referendum. It will come just a week after local elections in the UK4 May and four days after the presidential election in France. I have a feeling that it will be a very important moment.
The writer, John le CarrÃ©, was kind enough to give us an endorsement, which happens to serve as a pretty good summary of our aims and agenda. “The rhetoric and false promises are history, the hard questions remain. How do we repair the damage to ourselves, our constitution, and our European friends? How do we rebuild a future with our closest and most important trading partners? Who actually pulls the strings of national opinion, how do they do it, and why? The Convention has all the makings of an essential debate.”
The Convention on Brexit and the Political Crash will take place on 12 and 13 May at Central Hall, Westminster. The Observer and Open Democracy are media partners.
This article was originally published in The Guardian