During the campaign which gave Blair his first landslide, a campaign whose inevitable outcome made me sick, there was one certainty from which I, and the 12 other Britons who didn’t vote for To-nee, could take comfort. Every claim made in the 1997 election by the Labour Party was scrupulously checked, pre-release, by a committee made up of eminent academics, celebrity lawyers, the BBC and the Queen.
Only when the great and good said “Yes, this claim stacks up” did Labour permit themselves to make use of it in public debate. This hallmark of Blair’s first campaign remains the gold standard against which all subsequent campaigns have been measured.
No Labour government has ever won votes by lying about the NHS, for example; no Labour Prime Minister ever handed out seats in the legislature in return for bungs to the party, or quashed corruption investigations into arms sales then lied about the reasons for so doing. Mr Blair’s media operation was famous for not smearing his opponents, while the funding of the Labour Party itself remains a matter of national pride.
In the era of Blair, in other words, every election took place in a situation of perfect information being made available to every voter.
How very understandable, then, that opponents of Brexit should reach for Tony Blair to lecture the country on why its largest ever exercise in participatory democracy should be over-turned. If Tony says the results of the referendum aren’t to be trusted, and we should vote again — perhaps with Tony in charge of the booklets — then Tony must be correct. After all: he’s a pretty straight kinda guy, not some slippery charlatan with delusions of grandeur.
I am not being entirely serious. But I want to talk to the Remain voters tempted to nod their heads when their opinions are stroked by the public arch-remainers. I think they’re on the verge of an existential error, an error way more important than the trading arrangements between Britain and the EU.
Remain, since the Referendum, has been taken over by extremists. There’s A.C. Grayling’s self-important tweets; Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s bizarre and vulgar ranting about wine and skiing; that unelected Labour peer insisting that democracy means overturning a democratic vote in the wholly unelected upper chamber (an upper chamber, moreover, which has agreed to the Referendum Bill); and the weirdos on social media who champion the death of anyone who voted Leave. 2017 was not a year of calm and reasonable debate from the People Who Wanted To Stay.
How many Brexshitters went or are going skiing in Europe? How many own second homes there? What EU wines do they drink? We must be told.
— Yasmin alibhai-brown (@y_alibhai) December 31, 2017
In between the shouting, they forge ever more complex conspiracy theories about how Brexit was foisted on the electorate (Buses! Russia!) or ever more fanciful plans for how it might be stopped. Lawyers will prove that its legislative passage can be derailed, they pant at one another on Twitter.
Like their mirror-image on the extreme nativist Right, such Remainers commit the cardinal error of the extremist. They assume that an issue about which they are passionate is of supreme importance to everyone else. Neither Nigel Farage nor A.C. Grayling can conceive of a population whose response to the EU is “meh”: it is the defining issue of each man’s life.
Well, it isn’t mine. So may I offer some advice? Though right of centre, I think of myself as a liberal Tory, and not just because I live on lentils, sleep with a guy, and would rather eat cold sick than wear a suit to work. Here’s advice to the liberal centre, from a liberal Tory, about how to deal with your extreme Remainers.
Squash them; make them shut up; publicly denounce them. Fail to do so and they will destroy your movement. I don’t suggest this just because every word from Tony Blair sees another ex-Labour voter switch to the Conservatives (though it does), but because the liberal centre of British politics is too important to be owned by extreme-Remain.
Imagine that Grayling and his confrères succeed. A committee of Blair-endorsed lawyers manage to derail the final Bill, say, and a triumphant Lord Adonis takes to the airwaves to talk to the millions of other people who’ve never been elected to anything. “Now you know the truth about buses and Russia,” he might start his stirring speech, “I’m sure you’ll agree with me that you were a fool to vote Brexit. We’ll have another vote later, maybe, once I’m sure you all understand the facts.”
What would happen next? Do you imagine such an outcome would kill off populism? And if you think Brexit itself is populism — a huge democratic exercise, the conclusion of which is to leave a bunch of not-terribly-brilliant committees called “the EU” — then I’d suggest you’ve read too many opinion columns, and not enough novels.
Should Lord Adonis and A.C. Grayling succeed, real populism is what will come next. For that reason, friends on the liberal centre-left: stop them.