Julian Priestley was one of the first generation of British EU Civil Servants, rising to become its Secretary General from 1997 to 2007. After his premature death in 2017, a number of his friends decided that a fitting way to mark his European commitment would be to establish an annual lecture in his honour. This lecture is designed to provide an opportunity for prominent speakers to contribute to the ongoing debate about the European Union in the United Kingdom and The European Movement UK is proud to co-organise the annual event.
This year’s Julian Priestley Memorial Lecture took place on Thursday 11th May at Europe House. It was hosted by Mark Mardell and given by Alastair Campbell with the title 'What one generation does, so the next can undo’.
Alastair Campbell is editor-at-large of The New European, author, podcaster ("The Rest is Politics") and former press spokesman of PM, Tony Blair.
For those of you who missed the lecture you can read Alastair's full speech here.
‘What one generation does, the next can undo.’
Thank you for inviting me to give the Julian Priestley lecture, in which I intend to look back at how we landed ourselves in the current Brexit mess, in the hope we can begin to think our way towards how we get ourselves out of it.
It won’t surprise you to know that Brexit, and the band of political charlatans and media cheerleaders who helped foist it upon us, features in my latest book, published today.
So when we agreed the date, what better, I thought, than a speech at Europe House to help keep Julian’s memory alive, and keep alive the hope of one day being back as a central player in Europe. Yet my publishers, as I shall explain, are not entirely happy with this great marketing masterplan.
Julian died within a year of the 2016 referendum, and, if I may briefly channel Victor Meldrew, he would not have believed the scale of the mess since, nor the accompanying denial of the mess; not have believed that a populist factionalised rabble was the governing party; not have believed that Britain, not Italy, churned through five Prime Ministers in six years. And, aware of my maladaptive competitiveness – an actual condition - he would not have believed that my main event on pub date was in a venue whose rules forbid the sale or signing of books. Hence, my publisher is a bit cross with me.
I am still happy to be here, happy to be among friends of Julian and of each other, and happy to focus on how we might progress from where we are.
At least I can draw on themes from the book, whose title speaks to the exasperation felt by so many in the face of politics: … But What Can I Do? I think Julian would approve of my conclusion – we must do what we can; we cannot be bystanders; and where we think something has gone wrong, we have not just the right, but the duty, to correct and reverse it.
It’s hard not to feel hopeless at times, facing the existential threat of the climate crisis; living in a Britain damaged by austerity; then Brexit; then Boris Johnson’s corrupted and corrupting leadership; then Liz Truss’s Kamikwazi economics; and now with Rishi Sunak, getting credit for being not as dishonest as Johnson nor as ridiculous as Truss, a low bar indeed.
A plug for someone else’s book – ex-Venezuelan politician Moises Naim. The Revenge of Power analyses political leaders who gain and wield power through 3Ps . . populism, polarisation and post-truth. Putin, Trump, Modi, Orbán, Erdoğan, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Chávez, it’s a long list … For a UK citizen, the shaming thing is that, as Naim puts it: ‘The most unexpected victim of the 3P wave has been Britain, yet to recover from the carnival of populism, polarisation and post-truth that gave rise to Brexit…. Boris Johnson put Britain’s democracy under a level of stress it has not known before … showing that even the Mother of Parliaments is not immune to autocratic tendencies.’
It’s a chilling thought that when we had Trump, Putin and Xi Jinping as presidents, Johnson as prime minister, of the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, only France had a leader who was non-populist, non-extreme or non-dictatorial. And though several populists have been beaten, we are kidding ourselves if we think that means populism is beaten as a toxic political force.
At its heart populism is the separation of the population into the pure people and an elite working against their interests, with the populist politician offering simple solutions to complex problems. It is a con, because there rarely are simple solutions, and populists never ‘solve’ anything anyway; they just find new targets for blame. That Trump, Johnson, Farage and Rees-Mogg became populism’s poster boys underlines the extent of the conmanship - an inherited wealth billionaire narcissist, an Old Etonian Oxbridge journalist, a privately educated City trader, the Etonian hedge fund son of former Times editor Lord William, whose Sovereign Individual anti-democratic vision of the world features prominently in my new book.
The second P, polarisation, is the creation and exploitation of division, using problems for political advantage rather than addressing problems for the common good, with culture wars a favoured manifestation. The bastardisation of ‘woke’ into a catch all term of abuse is another … Judges who question government decisions – woke. ‘Lefty lawyers’ who help asylum seekers– woke. Charities and NGOs, the National Trust for heaven’s sake – woke. Priests who speak up about poverty – woke. The Archbishop of Canterbury (great speech yesterday) – woke. Footballers who stand up to, or kneel down against, racism – woke. Hilariously, the right defend their anti-woke diatribes as being rooted in a love of free speech. Yet ‘woke’, and its ally ‘snowflake’, are used in practice to shut down free speech if it involves any questioning of the 3P approach.
The third P, post-truthery, is more than lying. It is the deliberate distorting of truth, so there is no agreed basis of fact, just tribes, emotions … and Trumpian ‘alternative facts.’ Putin too. It’s not a war, it’s a special military operation against Ukrainian Nazis, provoked by NATO. Those Russian agents in Salisbury weren’t poisoners, they were tourists visiting your lovely cathedral.
Leave’s campaign was run on untruths, and yet far from hindering them, the more the lies were called out, the happier they were. When David Cameron denied that Turkey was about to join the EU, Leave flooded voters with social media ads - last chance to repel the Turkish invasion. When the head of the Statistics Authority challenged Leave’s claims about Brexit securing more money for the NHS, this became further evidence of the sinister ‘elite’ (the Statistics Authority for heaven’s sake) at work. In both cases, they recognised the power of hot emotion over cold fact. And since most of the media preferred to report ‘he said, she said’ style, rather than holding claims and people properly to account via factual analysis, the falsehoods of the populist virus spread virtually unchecked.
The 3Ps not only gave us Brexit, but continue to deny its impact. With the Windsor Framework for Northern Ireland, we are asked to laud Brexit Tory PM Number 5 for trying to clear up a part of the non-oven-ready mess Brexit Tory PM Number 3 created, after he destroyed Brexit Tory PM Number 2 by sabotaging the deal she had tried to make after Brexit Tory PM Number 1 decided that having created chaos with his referendum he didn’t much fancy hanging around to clear it up. Meanwhile Brexit Tory PM Number 4 took £70bn or so out of the economy, and now like Number 3 travels the world lecturing people on leadership and policy solutions for the future. And these people think they deserve another term in power, to take them close to two decades, during which next to nothing has improved, and so much has worsened.
In a democracy founded securely on an agreed acceptance of truth and fact as its basis, Johnson would not be able to show his face in public, let alone send cronies to the Lords, knight his father, or trouser a quarter of a million dollars for after dinner anecdotes while we pay his bills for expensive lawyers to defend the lies of a proven and compulsive liar. The death of shame and the embrace of impunity are part and parcel of the 3P world.
No shame, no accountability in, within days of victory, ditching central promises. Not a hint of embarrassment when commitments that the UK would stay in the single market and the customs union were dropped. The promise that a border down the Irish Sea would be laid over his dead body broken, and he breathed on, to tell more lies. Yet, all the while, the charlatans and the cheerleaders insisted both that the very different Brexit emerging was exactly what people had voted for, and that it was going well. Anyone who suggested otherwise was at best a ‘bitter Remoaner’, at worst a traitor. All straight out of the polarisation playbook: extreme tribalism, ‘alternative facts’, demonisation of opponents.
We have to understand these changes to be able properly to challenge them. Since launching The Rest Is Politics podcast with Rory Stewart, with our motto of disagreeing agreeably, I have reflected a good deal on this. Social media has exacerbated toxicity in debate, and we all play a part in that, yes, me included, if we allow ourselves to be tribalized, polarised, when what we should try to do is explore objective fact, and seek to build support around common goals and solutions, often involving compromise, because there are shades of grey, complexities.
I have experienced too often the frustration of presenting people with firm evidence, facts, data, only to discover it’s not enough. Time and time again, your interlocutor doesn’t want to listen, because they don’t trust you, because you are not in their tribe. But on our side of the argument, it is not just because we are disputing their facts as well as arguments. The problem sometimes is that we are unable even to understand or appreciate what the other side cares about, or what makes them anxious. That does not help our cause.
Leave seemed to offer a break with an unsatisfactory and insecure present; they sold hope of security, savings, self-confidence, independence, along with nostalgia for a time when, it was claimed, we had those assets in abundance. It is important to understand that many among the 52percent who backed Leave did so out of optimism for that different future, not racism or stupidity. Of course they should have disbelieved the lies of Leavers purely on the basis of the record of people like Johnson and Farage. But the instinctive distrust in the elite was real, and the Leave campaigners exploited it while the Remain campaign at times confirmed it. That Leavers were lied to and let down so comprehensively should not be held against them, for they are key to getting the country unstuck.
David Cameron was sure that if he focused on hard economic fact, he would win the day. That approach, he believed, was what had helped him oust Gordon Brown, and win the referendum in Scotland in 2014. But he had not reckoned with how quickly the landscape was changing.
A few years earlier, Brexit barely figured in public debate. Even the most Eurosceptic of the Euro-sceptics talked of being ‘in Europe, not run by Europe’. They weren’t saying ‘out’. Cameron was sufficiently confident in his position to dismiss UKIP as ‘fruitcakes and loonies’. What he didn’t appreciate was how powerful the ‘fruitcakes and loonies’ were becoming, within his own party.
The Leave side saw that people had very different reasons for voting for Brexit. Sovereignty. Immigration. The NHS. State of the nation. Animal rights! Whatever. Leave just needed the numbers. Data laws broken. Funding laws broken. A blind eye turned to Russian interference. Cameron instructed the Remain camp that he did not want to see ‘blue on blue’ attacks, thereby allowing Johnson, Cummings and Co to peddle their lies and fantasies untroubled by effective rebuttal.
Cameron cannot say he wasn’t warned. Chancellor George Osborne was strongly against holding the referendum. Both François Hollande and Angela Merkel warned Cameron that in holding a referendum on anything, let alone such a contentious and complex subject, a government risked being punished for other issues. Cameron, wearing what Hollande called ‘son masque arrogant de sérénite’, assured them he knew what he was doing. As to the huge concessions he was confident of securing to sell back home, on that too Merkel and Hollande warned he was overstating the possibilities.
From a populist polarising perspective, Leave’s messaging was faultless. ‘Take back control’ fed the false sense that we had lost it in the first place (John Major and Tony Blair both pointed out that they cannot recall a single thing that they wanted to do as prime minister which ‘Europe’ prevented them from doing). Labelling the hard economic analysis of the Remain side as ‘Project Fear’ was powerful strategic rebuttal, as it allowed Leave to evade engaging with realities, and instead focus on the motives of the messenger.
Had the Leave campaign spelled out openly the length and complexity of the exit process, the costs en route, the loss of rights and access, the damage to trade and diplomacy, the risks to stability in Northern Ireland, and all the other things they denied would ever happen, knowing those denials to be false or fantastical or both, they know they would not have won. They had to win on one basis, govern on another, and hope that the people, opposing politicians and the media would move on in time. Their hopes have been largely fulfilled as regards parties and media, with both main parties and most of the media reluctant properly to address the elephant in the room: the huge damage Brexit is already doing, and what needs to be done to fix it, given it has taken at least a 4 per cent chunk out of the economy, and consequently at least £40billion out of revenues for public services. Thankfully, the people are not necessarily moving on with the same alacrity. Reality is catching up and, not for the first time, the public are ahead of the politicians and the media.
Prices would fall, not rise, remember. Yes, people do remember. The pound would strengthen, not weaken. Trade would grow, not shrink. We remember, Rishi. We remember it all.
A quickly agreed trade deal with the United States would be a major win. Four Brexit prime ministers later, we’re still waiting. And when Brexit was exposed as not being a done deal at all, but barely half-baked, it all became the fault of the Europeans, who, according to UK negotiator David Frost, had exploited our weakness.
Another post-truth strategy is to deny any link between cause and effect. A labour market shortage, or a staffing crisis in the NHS and care homes created by EU workers heading home - ‘nothing to do with Brexit’. Supply chain disruptions, food shortages - ‘nothing to do with Brexit’. The sustained depreciation of sterling - ‘nothing to do with Brexit’. A stand-out moment in the Tory leadership elections came when Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak were asked in a TV debate whether they believed the enormous queues at Dover had anything to do with Brexit. They raced to see who could be first in denying any such link. This gaslighting was especially stunning because the previous question was about how they would differentiate themselves from the lying of the Johnson era, and both said that we would always get the truth from them.
In normal times, politicians who lie or fail to deliver on their promises get their comeuppance. Johnson has, in that he is out of office, but has he been held fully accountable? No. Have the Brexit lies and crimes been properly punished? No. And are we still living with their consequences? Yes, and so will future generations unless we sort out the mess.
Time to wheel out Nelson Mandela. ‘Everything is impossible, until you make it happen.’ One of many political quotes that I have on my office wall.
Sadly, the Brexiteers are entitled to have that on their walls too! They fought for it – a tiny minority at the start, some dead by the time it happened – for years. They knew they needed a referendum, so fought for that. They got it. They showed how change once thought unthinkable can become the status quo. They won.
With the populist virus still rife in the Tory Party, Labour insisting they will ‘make Brexit work’, the Lib Dems also largely silent on it, it would appear to be settled political will that the Brexit decision cannot be revisited. It is quite something that today, a return to the single market we were assured we would never leave is a red line not just for the Tories but also Labour.
But if converting the country to Brexit was possible, so is restoring it to sanity. People by and large accepted the result. They gave the government the chance to show it could work. They gave them time. They gave them power on the promise of the oven-ready deal. But bit by bit, despite the propaganda in Brexit’s favour from the cheerleaders, reality is catching up, and eventually, politics will have to confront it. More and more have learned through direct experience – businesses large and small, farmers, fishermen, food importers and exporters, people trying to run public services, academics, artists and musicians, students, travellers, holidaymakers, name any sector you like – that Brexit is damaging lives and livelihoods and reality is exposing the lies and false promises as exactly that.
There are the frustrating inconveniences – like, when it took me forty minutes at a French post office to complete the paperwork needed to send a gift to our daughter in Scotland. But there are also the ones that are causing enormous economic damage. When former Bank of England governor Mark Carney pointed out how the UK economy fell from being 90 per cent the size of Germany’s economy in 2016 to 70 per cent in 2022, Tories immediately condemned him as a bitter Remoaner – that one again – and blamed Covid and the war in Ukraine, dodging the obvious fact that Germany, and all other countries, were hit by those events too.
So those who believe Brexit was an appalling mistake should take comfort from that Mandela mantra. I for one am not moving on until the lies and the crimes have been fully exposed and understood, and those responsible held fully accountable. We must never stop calling out the damage Brexit is doing to our economy, society, culture and our standing in the world. We must continue to point out that Brexit was a decision made by one generation, in response to a campaign led by a now utterly discredited leader, Brexit PM Number 3, actively supported by the man sitting in Number 10 today, Brexit PM Number 5, that will affect all generations to come. The younger generations whose future has in so many ways been spoilt and indeed stolen have every right to fight to have the decision revisited. At the absolute minimum they deserve to have the specific problems Brexit has created revisited in a way that will help promote the prosperity the politicians promise. If change can be for the worse, it can also be for the better. So yes, press for the public inquiry. One day it will come. Impossible, until it happens. And yes, press to get back to some kind of sane relationship. With the current regime, it feels impossible. But change comes to those who fight for it. Impossible, until you make it happen.
Remember too: fights are easier when you have right and sense on your side. Who in their right mind doesn’t want to resolve the border issue in a way that protects peace on the island of Ireland? Which scientist or researcher isn’t already aware that we need to get back into the Horizon research and innovation programme? Which teacher is yet to see the damage already done through exit from the EU’s Erasmus Plus programme, or the denial of visas for school exchanges? Which border official or lorry driver or SME now believes the promises that there would be less not more red tape if we left? I could go on and on. So could you. So could all of us. And we must. And we will.
And what about yesterday? The realities catching up with the fantasies and the rhetoric behind the Retained EU Law Bill. Do you remember the silly Sunak video in his leadership election, as he fed the paperwork of 4,000 laws, which had been enacted with the consent of UK governments and Parliament, into a shredder? The promise was easy. The reality is hard. And even they have realised if they actually went through with the easy promise, they’d do even more damage to our economic and trade interests, create even more legal and commercial chaos. But of course they cannot admit that, so instead they have to blame civil servants, Dominic Cummings’ hated ‘blob,’ - another populist myth - for blocking them. No shame, no responsibility, no acceptance of their own role in this act of national self-harm. And what are ministers saying now: ‘We are still taking back control,’ said one to the BBC, ‘but are doing so at a more sensible pace.’ Seven years. I reckon in another seven years even Boris Johnson will be denying that he voted Leave. Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage will be last men standing, moaning that ‘if only we had done it my way …'
So, the politics of all this. Labour did pretty well in the local elections last week. So did the Lib Dems. Yet both are not as front-footed as the Greens, the SNP or Plaid with regard to their stance on Europe. Both could do even better in my view if they undertake, in their manifestoes, to say something like this. ‘We accept the result of the referendum. But Brexit as delivered, far from working, is daily damaging the real interests and needs of the people of this country, in ways large and small. Therefore, as a matter of urgency its workings must be reviewed and where necessary, new arrangements negotiated and put in place.’ The Tories will accuse them of wanting to take us back in – but they will say that whatever Labour say; and you know what, it won’t help them as much as they think. Au contraire. It is my firm belief that there are votes to be gained by those parties which call out the real bills of the Tories’ bungled Brexit, and link them to the cost of living crisis driving families and communities and public services to the brink. There often are votes to be had in doing the right thing.
What was Rees-Mogg’s job title again? Secretary of State for Brexit Opportunities. As short-lived as a Truss Premiership, or a Johnson promise to truth or fidelity. Because those realities are catching up, indeed accelerating. The trends in the polls on Brexit are one way right now. Labour would see that trend reflected in their own standings too, I believe, if they mounted a campaign, with vigour, confidence and relentless attention to detail, emphasising those real bills of the Tories’ bungled Brexit. Far from having nothing to do with Brexit, the cost of living crisis has an awful lot to do with Brexit.
A word about Mr Sunak. The media collectively appear to have decided that he is some kind of serious problem solver. I find that hard to accept when he puts Suella Braverman in charge of solving some of the most serious problems, yet on and on we are told he is the great technocrat, the numbers man who understands the economy. Yet his first big call in politics was to make the case that Brexit would deliver a high growth, dynamic economy. Unlike Johnson, he actually believed Brexit would be good for Britain. Here is a direct quote from him: 'I wasn't ideological about it...somewhat analytically I sat down and looked through the numbers’. Which numbers are we talking about? Growth? GDP? FDI? Inflation? The extra money for the NHS which the ABC of austerity, Brexit and the cost of living crisis has reduced to its knees. There is a campaign to be waged in that quote alone.
His first big call. Wrong. He got his next big call wrong too – as 2019 frontman for the campaign to tell us Johnson was the man to bring the country together.
Keir Starmer, though you and I might want him to go further, is at least not pursuing an ideological position. He knows there is much more to do to mitigate the worst damage being done by Brexit without re-opening the whole argument. I understand his reasons for not going further, but believe he can and should do so, not out of ideology but hard-headed, patriotic common sense. If the country is being damaged, we have to repair the damage and put something better in the place of the things doing the damage. And for reasons of politics too. ‘I skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been’ ... so said ice skating legend Wayne Gretzky. The puck is going to a very anti-Brexit place indeed.
To fight the next fight, if and when it comes, we need to look and learn with humility from our failure in the last one. By ‘we,’ I mean not just the original Remain campaign, whose leaders have admitted to many mistakes, but the People’s Vote. Because, as ABBA remind us, the winner takes it all, it has already been airbrushed into history as a footnote. But it was quite a thing while it lasted. From a standing start, PV organised three of the four biggest marches London has ever seen and, having started with about as many MPs as you could squeeze into a black cab, had won round close to 300 towards the end.
It was one of the most energetic and energising campaigns I have ever worked on, including May 1997 (when many among the team were not born).
But the fact is we lost. I hate losing, and have spent a lot of time thinking about why we lost.
Looked at purely through the OST frame I apply to campaigns – clear Objective, clear Strategy, adaptable Tactics – PV had a lot going for it. The Objective clear: A second referendum on the final Brexit deal. The Strategy clear: Persuading the public to pressure and persuade MPs to back a second referendum on the final deal. And we were pretty good on the Tactics too.
Ultimately, the whole thing fell down in the formal leadership within the campaign, and the erratic leadership of the politicians attached. The latter problem became particularly apparent just at the time when we had achieved momentum, and it proved catastrophic. The Liberal Democrats became seized by an absurd conviction they were on the verge of electoral triumph, so fell into the trap the Tories were laying for a ‘get Brexit done’ early election. The Scottish Nationalists, who had more realistic prospects of doing well, fell even more willingly into the trap. Labour had no option but to go along with it, and a Parliament in which momentum towards a second referendum was growing, voted to end itself and give Johnson the gift he wanted.
In any case, by then, the campaign had imploded. Chairman Roland Rudd, with the support of a board largely divorced from it, sacked the people actually running things, who were not just effective, but also a major reason for the motivation of the young team. You don’t win campaigns unless leadership, teamship and strategy are aligned and working together. We had the strategy, and we had teamship. Enough said.
I recognise that many, including Remainers, felt we were too extreme, and should have supported efforts to get a softer Brexit than the one we ended up with. Rory Stewart and I disagree agreeably about that regularly. I do see the point, but still think we were right to try to get that second referendum, and the way Brexit is playing out has strengthened my view.
We also became part of the problem we were trying to solve. While polarisation may have yielded us a support base of millions, it also hardened the opposition of the Leavers and Tories whose support we needed. We endlessly debated with prominent Leavers. They could fire up their true believers. We could fire up ours. But reasonable debate that might change lots of minds one way or the other? Not so much.
I discovered that one of our social media team was putting filters on PV’s Facebook ads which excluded anyone who watched Top Gear, played bingo, didn’t have a degree, or liked Piers Morgan. It was a good way to get clicks, likes and shares from your own side – but the opposite of how you reach out to opponents and persuade. These were exactly the kinds of people we should have been trying to win over.
Tom Baldwin, PV’s strategy and communications director, put it like this: ‘We had to get noticed, to get on the pitch. But to get noticed, raise the funds, get people marching, writing to MPs, we risked not just preaching to the converted, but really pissing off the people we were trying to convert.’
Barack Obama puts this very well. ‘This idea of purity, that you’re never compromised, always politically “woke” and all that stuff, get over that – the world is messy, there are ambiguities. People who do good stuff have flaws. People you are fighting may love their kids. The danger I see in young people, especially on college campuses, accelerated by social media, is this sense that the way of “me making change” is to be as judgemental as possible about other people and that’s enough. If I tweet or hashtag that you didn’t do something right, or you used the wrong verb I can sit back and feel good about myself: “See how woke I was, I called you out.” That’s not activism. That is not bringing about change. If all you are doing is casting stones, you are not going to get very far in changing things.’
Telling someone they have no right to a view is not a great opening gambit if you’re hoping to win them over. It’s why I don’t support the increasing tendency towards a cancel culture and the non-platforming of people with whose views a vocal group happens to disagree. Social media has done much to harm thoughtful public debate, culture warriors exploit grievances rather than engage with them, and yet I still believe that if you have the better argument, you have the better chance of winning. But, if you’re fighting a political campaign, you need more than that. You need to be able to persuade above the noise, and that noise is going to get a whole lot louder in the era of Artificial Intelligence. And it is in all of our interests, not least in order to defeat the 3Ps, that we actively seek to carve out space for persuasion and genuine argument, not just shouting and mobilisation.
As things stand, it is hard to foresee whether or when there will be a next time. It won’t be any time soon, because our own country feels stuck, and the EU will want and need to be sure that if the UK ever does try to return, its political class will not be in the state it has been this last decade. Added to which, if the 3Ps lead to a President Le Pen, or further Orbanisation in the East, might the will of some of our own people be dimmed?
In Belfast for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement I was talking to former Irish President Mary McAleese. She compared Brexit to a flesh-eating disease, necrotising fasciitis, and said that since 2016 it has been like "pulling a tooth with 10,000 roots".
‘I harboured a hope that somehow, the United Kingdom would step back from the brink and recommit to the ideal of the European Union, in my view the greatest and the noblest political undertaking ever envisaged and realised in human history. That's a description that is unlikely ever to be attached to Brexit,’ she said. Not wrong.
Brexit was both a symptom and even more so a cause of UK decline, and I regret to say that was fully on display in the contrast between the two legs of Joe Biden’s recent trip to Ireland North and South.
Pictures matter on these occasions, and I have rarely witnessed anything quite as shambolic as Biden’s arrival in Belfast, with Rishi Sunak hidden behind ‘The Beast’ Presidential limo; then the cringey photocall in what looked like a Costa café, Sunak silently sipping his tea, with not a flag in sight (weird, given the Tories rarely go anywhere without the Union flag in the background.) Sunak did not attend Biden’s speech at Ulster University. His pooled clip after their bi-latte meeting was lame; ditto the photos released by the Number 10 photographer. Then Biden was off to the Republic where the mood was electric, the pictures outstanding, and he seemed to grow in energy, saving his best speech for last, a late-night open-air address to thousands in the cold of County Mayo.
Of course his family heritage was an important element. But there were other inescapable truths at play here. The first is that, whether we like it or not, the UK is not as important, or as powerful, as it once was, and Brexit has accelerated that. The ‘special relationship’ risks becoming an irrelevant cliché or a historical relic, unless we really work at it.
The second is that Biden, first elected to the Senate more than half a century ago in the era of Nixon and Heath, has more experience of dealing with other leaders than perhaps any politician on earth. He saw through Johnson the moment he met him; he was publicly and privately scathing of Truss; and for all the ballyhoo surrounding Sunak’s Windsor Framework, Biden did his bit by giving considerable time to the Northern Ireland parties in Washington, but promises that the government would revive the institutions ultimately came to nothing. And both during the visit, and since, Sunak and his Brexiteer ministers in Northern Ireland, Johnson campaign manager Chris Heaton-Harris, and self-styled Brexit hardman Steve Baker, have given very little sign of having a plan to get the Stormont show back on the road.
Ireland, by contrast, looked confident, vibrant, and at ease with itself. The third inescapable truth is that their membership of the European Union, despite their geographical isolation post-Brexit, is a big part of that. Far easier for the Brextremists who are largely responsible for our malaise and decline to indulge in anti-Irish tropes, or claim, pathetically, that Biden ‘hates Britain’, than confront that hard-to-face reality.
For the fight we need for all these realities to force real change, I have invented a word, coined for a chapter heading in the book, Acquire Persevilience.
Perseverance = keeping going when things are difficult. Resilience = recovering, and emerging stronger, from setback. Put the two together and you have persevilience. We are going to need a lot of persevilience to reverse the damage of Brexit.
I cannot pretend, given the Brexomerta of the main parties (another made up word, that one by Neil Kinnock), that reversing it is going to happen any time soon. But given the persevilience shown by the Brextremists, over decades, the title of my lecture in Julian’s memory to some extent takes inspiration from them, as well as from him: ‘What one generation does, the next can undo.’
On June 23, 2016, we chose our own decline. We either accept that in a wave of ‘it is what it is’ indifference, cynicism and apathy. Or we fight to reverse the decline and get our future back. I suspect I know what that means for most in this room, and I know what it would mean for Julian Priestley.
We may not yet know the when, or the how. But we know the what we need to achieve. It is impossible, until we make it happen. Reality is catching up fast on Brexit. As it does, be inspired by another Mandela quote on my wall: “A winner is a dreamer who never gives up.”
If you prefer, you can watch it here.