This is one of the most crucial weeks in modern British history. We have a prime minister and cabinet who understand the stakes in terms of our future independence. But the forces fighting them — some of them sincere, many of them cynical — are fearsome. There are risks in proceeding with Brexit. But there are far greater risks in abandoning it.
This endless crisis has led to widespread criticism of British politicians of all hues, some of it justified.
Boris Johnson has already decided on his election message: vote for me and get Brexit, vote for anyone else and get Jeremy Corbyn. He will ask voters: who can you imagine negotiating best with Brussels? Me, or Corbyn?
Clear as the message may be, the Prime Minister is risking everything in this contest. He could lose it all: Brexit, his premiership, the party, the works. He could go down in history as the shortest-lived occupant of No.
Supplies of Brexit invective are now almost exhausted. While the Prime Minister is denounced for denouncing Remainers as ‘collaborators’, his denouncers denounce him as a ‘tin pot dictator’ in need of a ‘rope’ and ‘lamp-post’.
Of all the bellicose hyperbole, however, it is the battle cry of ‘Stop the coup’ which is the loudest this week.
There are plenty of charges which can be levelled at this government.
A general election looms, the outcome could go almost any way and those who normally offer themselves as experts are seized by panic. Parliamentarians, journalists and academics who previously exerted a degree of control over policy, debate and knowledge — or flattered themselves to think they did — worry their grip is being loosened. Behold gatekeeper anxiety: political and media elites locked in a feedback loop of despair.
If truthful reporting risks increasing tension between communities, should it still be published? Do journalists have a social duty to repress certain topics which are unhelpful? These questions tend to separate free societies from those countries where the press is muzzled. In Britain, there has been a tradition: readers decide what is acceptable. But that tradition is under threat, not just from politicians but from the press regulator itself.
Next year I will begin my fifth decade as a working journalist. As a writer, as an executive — and now as the chair of Index on Censorship — I have always tried to encourage honest, thorough and professional reporting and analysis of the UK’s ethnic and religious minority communities. Unless all our citizens share in a common understanding of our nation, the prospect of an integrated society will remain a distant dream.
‘Why would anyone want to destroy something so beautiful, then stuff its poor lifeless body to keep as some kind of macabre trophy?’ In her first speech after moving into Downing Street, Carrie Symonds, the PM’s girlfriend, chose to attack trophy hunting. ‘A trophy is meant to be a prize, something you’re awarded if you’ve achieved something of merit that requires great skill and talent,’ she said.
As newlyweds in our late twenties, my husband and I decided to move from a crime-ridden (if trendy) London postcode to a picture-postcard village within commuting distance of the capital. We bought a rather run-down cottage which we imagined would be the perfect canvas for our aspirations: island benches, plantation shutters and lashings of Farrow & Ball. We’d get the house done and have some babies.
As you glide in to land at the airport outside Algiers, the landscape resembles that of Tuscany: a coastal plain laced with vineyards giving way to low hills filled with chequerboards of olive groves and slopes of newly harvested wheat fields. Beyond rise blue mountains with windbreaks of holm oaks where storks glide into land on their nests atop the minarets of the village mosques. It was while walking in these hills, a week into our Algerian holiday, that we came across a most unexpected discovery.
‘Barristers’ speeches vanish quicker than Chinese dinners, and even the greatest victory in court rarely survives longer than the next Sunday’s papers.’ So wrote John Mortimer in Rumpole of the Bailey. While no doubt true, a barrister delivering a well-honed speech is still something to behold. They are the last defenders of a rhetorical tradition that our politicians have all but given up on. Many QCs still use Cicero’s principles of oratory: to teach, to entertain and to move.