Gordon Brown: “This is a battle for the soul of our country”

26 06 19

For the past three years we have talked incessantly about what kind of Brexit we should have. But the European election results have raised an even more fundamental issue: what kind of Britain are we going to be.

For centuries, we, the people of Britain, have defined ourselves as tolerant, fair-minded, outward-looking and pragmatic.

But is this honestly the kind of patriotism that Nigel Farage stands for?

Is it not now time to look behind the now well-honed – and well-funded – image of the ordinary bloke who might buy you a drink in the pub – or, more likely, talk you into buying him one – and ask what kind of Britain Farage and those he now influences is threatening us with?

Nigel Farage speaking at an event in Europe

There are millions of people who voted Leave because they were concerned about their jobs, the state of our towns and our manufacturing, and the poverty and inequality across the country. And there are many who last week voted for the Brexit Party out of frustration over Brexit and a belief that the political elites were out of touch. But might they not think twice about voting for this new party again if they knew the full details of the kind of nationalism Farage espouses and come to the view that intolerance and isolationism are not an expression of their deeply-held British values but an abandonment of them?

Of course, there is no point in making broad claims and uttering dismissive phrases without looking at the facts: what we need is a close and forensic scrutiny of what we DO know about him.

“Make no mistake, we are now in a battle for the soul of Britain – with two views of our future competing against each other. And this is a struggle that will not be won in a day or a week.” 

He says that he – and the no deal Brexit he proposes – offers the only true and sure route to expressing our British patriotism today.

But when we dig deeper do we not find a toxic, divisive, intolerant ‘them-versus-us› nationalism more in tune with Le Pen and Putin – and the donors who appear to finance him – than the values of the British people?

We British pride ourselves in our tolerance – but his infamous pre-referendum poster depicting almost exclusively non-white migrants threatening our borders – men and women were, in fact, crossing from Croatia to Slovenia – was no aberration that can be dismissed as a momentary episode in the heat of the moment of a bitter campaign.

Farage is on record saying he feels “awkward” sitting on a London train next to people not speaking audible English – and this instinctive prejudice extends into many areas of our national life – from demanding local referenda for any new Muslim mosques – large mosques are ‘not necessarily a good idea’ he says – to the banning of lectureships and courses in European studies in our universities – effectively a ban on free speech – because they were, his party said, an avenue for pro-EU propaganda.

“And instead of calling out a catastrophic act of economic self-harm that runs wholly counter to the national interest, ‘No Deal’ by 31st October has become a test of patriotism that a panicked Conservative Party is obliging their leadership candidates to pass.” 

Not only are such views at odds with traditional British tolerance: they are also the opposite of what we the British call ‘fair play’. For Farage has promised:

  • To undo our anti-discrimination and equality legislation just at a time when antisemitism and Islamophobia are rising.
  • This at a time also when more and more appreciate why the ‘Me Too’ movement has had to be formed, undermine, gender equality laws such as a woman’s right to maternity pay.
  • To replace our NHS, the best example of fairness in action, with American-style private insurance – not to give the NHS the £350m a week the pro-Brexit posters promised to ensure free universal health care but to threaten to carve up the NHS, its dismembered parts sold off to his friends in the stock exchange.

What marks Britain out is not just that we are traditionally tolerant and fair-minded but that Britain’s island status has made us immersed – whether as traders, explorers, missionaries, diplomats or merchant venturers – in trade and diplomatic relations with the European continent and the wider world – a British people who are, generally, outward looking engaged with the world and internationally minded.

But the Farage brand of nationalism has us glorying in isolation, viewing every institution with the word ‘European’ or ‘global’ in its title as’ the enemy’ or as hostile territory.

A few days ago came the video featuring him and the Trump cheerleader, Steve Bannon, discussing, apparently with no hint of irony, a worldwide campaign against globalisation, to be waged through foreign funding of nativist movements.

Acting as if there had been no World War One or World War Two, these ‘populist nationalists’ simply blank out a century in which, because of conflicts starting in Europe, more than 100 million people lost their lives. Ignoring the obvious, that the European Union with NATO are the main forces for peace in Europe, they see no difficulty in reawakening divisive nationalisms and stirring up conflicts between nations.

But it is only because they have chosen to forget the massive carnage of two world wars caused by uncontrolled European nationalism that they can even contemplate a return to it, and it is now urgent that we expose this.

There is another characteristically British way of doing things: evaluating and dealing with challenges as they arise, a pragmatism that reflects the real world and how to get things done within it.

We know a lot about Nigel Farage’s prejudices but he is very guarded about his policies – from what he would do about the housing crisis and the plight of the squeezed middle and child poverty, our industrial future and protecting our national security.

Nigel Farage looking shifty

What’s more, there are deeply entrenched divisions in our country today – over immigration and integration, over sovereignty, over the ​​funding of our services – but does he raise them as issues to demonstrate an interest in bringing people together or in healing our deep divisions? No: he is far more interested in exacerbating and exploiting these divisions than in ending them.

So where does this intolerant, divisive inward-looking nationalism take us? It leads to targeting and then blaming and demonising immigrants, foreigners and anyone who stands in his way – and, of course, using language designed to induce uncertainty, fear and discord, rebutting any criticisms and countering any arguments with the now familiar trade-mark accusations of ‘betrayal’.

Nowhere is his prejudiced view of the world – and his attempt to hijack patriotism for his own ideological purposes even when what he proposes are against our national economic interest – more clearly exposed than in his claim that it is not patriotic to do anything other than leave with no deal on 31 October.

Here he is setting the terms on which the Conservatives will choose the next Prime Minister.

He has deemed what is the only ‘true’ Brexit – a No Deal (in contrast to the referendum when a Norway deal, he said, was a Brexit option) – and imposed his arbitrary definition of true patriotism – you betray your country if you do not leave by 31 October.

This is what Faragism has come to: to take what is fundamental to our nation – to be patriotic, to be democratic, to be clear about what sovereignty means – and to claim he is the only person who can be trusted to define what these defining characteristics involve.

And instead of calling out a catastrophic act of economic self-harm that runs wholly counter to the national interest, ‘No Deal’ by 31st October has become a test of patriotism that a panicked Conservative Party is obliging their leadership candidates to pass.


The dangers of a No-Deal Brexit

British and EU flag bunting

The facts of what happens with a No Deal have been set out not be me but by the Cabinet Secretary in a 14-page document. It will mean a 10% increase in the price of foods, long hold ups in components reaching our manufacturers; bail outs needed by businesses; a likely recession on the way; and the threat to public order, the Northern Ireland peace settlement and the integrity of the Union.

And the economic reality is that we have to – and want to – buy medicines, food and goods and services from other countries, and need a two-way relationship with those with whom we buy and sell (and thus trade deals) – and so any announcement in a fit of pique that we are going for a no deal can only be the prelude to a worse deal agreed from a weaker position.

But talking up No Deal means renouncing the chance of a positive post-Brexit relationship with the continent and our major economic partners: it is yet another example of an inward-looking, isolationist and dogmatic approach that has no economic logic and is an act of economic self-harm that runs counter to the British way of doing things and our long-term national interest.

So now is the time to get this harsh but necessary truth about the nature of Farage’s thinking and intentions across to all of our citizens and to draw a line in the sand: to call on the tolerant, fair minded, decent, patriotic majority of British people, who include millions of Leave voters as well as Remain voters, to speak up against the hijacking of our patriotism and this descent into the heart of darkness.

For what is now at stake is far bigger than Brexit: it is a fight against intolerance, prejudice, xenophobia and the manufacture of division.

“Make no mistake, we are now in a battle for the soul of Britain – with two views of our future competing against each other. And this is a struggle that will not be won in a day or a week.” 

But I believe that, despite last Thursday’s result, the British people can be persuaded to say clearly, ‘not in my name’: his intolerance does not represent us; in his prejudices he does not speak for the majority.

This is not Farage’s country, not Farage’s Britain. And I believe that when they see the facts, the vast majority of the British people will say that his intolerance and isolationism is not an expression of their deeply-held British values but a desertion of them.

And so, the new fight in Britain is not so much between those who in 2016 voted Remain and those who voted Leave – there are millions of Leave voters who will not subscribe to extremism – but between those who support Faragism as against the tolerant, patriotic majority who will not in my view remain silent.

Hundreds of people at an anti-Brexit protest outside Westminster Palace, London

Make no mistake, we are now in a battle for the soul of Britain – with two views of our future competing against each other. And this is a struggle that will not be won in a day or a week.

Winning this battle will take time and its outcome cannot be predicted with certainty – but I know one thing for sure: we will never reunite as a nation unless we walk away from such intolerant nationalism.

To the next Prime Minister – and indeed to all candidates for the Tory leadership – I say you have a fundamental choice: to run against him or race to the bottom with him. For when it comes to this toxic them-versus-us nationalism,  no Prime Minister, indeed no candidate for such a national office, can be permitted to equivocate on what is unequivocally wrong.

What is the way forward? For three years, the government have said we have to resolve the narrower issue of Brexit before we could resolve the broader issue of the future of Britain.

They said that we had to agree the details of withdrawal before we could tackle all the problems that led to it.

They said we had to negotiate the act of departure before we could even think about Britain’s future relationship with Europe.

But the opposite is true: we cannot be clear on what kind of Brexit we want until we are clear on what kind of Britain we want.

There can be no stable agreement on a European exit without first agreeing what kind of long-term relationship we favour with Europe and the world and, to achieve that, we have to decide what kind of Britain we want to be.

And in my view it is only by reminding ourselves of our shared history as an outward-looking and tolerant, fair-minded people that we can rediscover our national unity and move forward again with sufficient strength to meet and master the challenges ahead.

Conservative leadership candidates Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt looking nonchalant during the leadership TV debate
Handout/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Even I now harbour the hope that the British people will think again about what Brexit really means and what we need to do differently.

And the road to defeating Brexit starts with clarity about what kind of Britain we are seeking to build.

First – and immediately – all parties need to stop the pretence that no deal is anything other than a bad deal and be honest that it can only be the prelude to a worse deal.

Next: if we are to restore trust which Farage is so busy undermining, we have to show we can address the very real problems that led people to vote Brexit in the first place – and I, and no doubt many others, have very specific proposals on how we can manage migration, protect British sovereignty, deal with the low pay economy, resuscitate our towns and regions and develop modern manufacturing strength.

But third, and perhaps even more important, we have – even now, at this stage – to take the debate outside the Westminster bubble and beyond a deadlocked parliament and bring the British people back in to our confidence by listening to them – through region by region public hearings – what in Ireland were called citizens’ assemblies – where we encourage a honest debate on all the specific options for our future to see if we can build a new consensus across our country in advance of a final vote by the British people.

It is a recognition of the brutal truth: that if we do not find a way to bring the British people together, our union of four nations is at risk of falling apart.

But if we engage with each other we will, I believe, find the British people are far more tolerant, fair minded and less inward looking and less dogmatic than those who have hijacked patriotism, turned it into petty nationalism and today dominate our politics with such disastrous results.



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