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This week’s blog was bound to reflect the news this week – Brexit. I almost resisted the temptation to write about this, I feel worn down by it all, but there are just some things which need saying. However you voted, however you feel about what should happen, the whole process has brought to light some alarming issues about our political classes, the process of implementing policy, decisions made about spending of our taxes and the priorities of government. At the time of writing this, Parliament has voted against no-deal, for extending Article 50, there are threats from various ministers about resigning and confusion reigns.
To me, Brexit has felt like an exercise in placing ideology before country, on both sides of the political spectrum. It does seem Labour’s proposals do at least protect jobs and the economy, and respect the vote from 2016. I still think on balance we should remain, but I could live with a soft Brexit, and a government which addresses many of the reasons people voted to leave. On the right, however, thanks to the ERG (European Research Group) we have a situation where we are hurtling towards no deal – the vote to take it off the table is apparently not legally binding – or at best, a delay. At the time of writing this, Parliament has voted for delaying our exit, and Theresa May is planning one last vote on her deal, seemingly to secure a delay which the EU will accept as legitimate and worthwhile. The Brexiteers on the left and right seem to want no deal and WTO rules, for reasons I cannot understand, aside from serving their own prejudices and financial gains.
The vote itself and the campaigns on the leave side seem mired in corruption and questions over funding and tactics to mislead the public, so I do have to wonder why instead of the outrage at this, there is an acceptance this is the will of the public, and must be acted on. With this and the recent activities of Chris Graying (him again!), costing the tax payer over £500m with failed ferry contracts and privatisation of probation, and now Boris Johnson suggesting investigating historic sexual assaults cases is a waste of money, our political leaders seem to be normalising incompetence. They seem to be able to resist any sense of shame, remorse and criticism of their performance, which is simply staggering. In the face of evidence about this, it amazes me that they don’t reflect on this and the harm being caused. Perhaps I have too high expectations of MPs and I should not tar all of them with the same brush, there are plenty who do a good job, who have the interests of their constituents at heart and value their job as a public servant.
Another example of this normalising of incompetence is when MPs suggested this last minute panic and uncertainty is how all negotiations with the EU go. Well, I can then see why some people are turning against both Parliament and the EU – the anxieties created by this as clear, people have already lost jobs, moved, disrupted family life due to trying to manage the uncertainty. Attention towards domestic issues is diverted by focus on Brexit, blinding many to the well document harms of Universal Credit, increasing homelessness, climate changes and knife crime. I believe many are fed up and would take leaving just to end the discussion and re-focus on domestic needs, but I fear many don’t realise the further problems they may face if we were to leave without a deal. It is then surely the responsibility of MPs and our political leaders to inform the public, make it clear what the best options are and maybe even make an unpopular decisions for the good of their constituents. If I were an MP, I would be concerned about all of this and also the legacy of this – much like Labour having to continually shake of the label of irresponsible spenders, through being blamed solely for creating the ‘winter of discontent’ in the late 1970s. Both parties continuing to insist we press ahead with Brexit could be dealing with a similar situation. Younger voters in particular maybe more open to new political parties, less like to be loyal to either Conservative or Labour and may embrace the change that The Independent Group is promising.
To continue with a policy which is creating so many problems, costs, and mental health issues feels like leadership who simply won’t listen to those people they are meant to support and serve. The link to mental health has been make clear in an article in the Guardian reporting that British farmers have reached out to crisis networks due to the implications of Brexit – this is manifest in farmers being on suicide watch, and serious concerns about those not even trying to contact such services (Parveen, 2019). The article reports that farming is just one of many industries which will be hit hard by a no deal Brexit, and in a research study on the extent of this, those who voted remain are reporting heightened mental distress (depression, anxiety, feelings of worthlessness), while those who voted leave reported a ‘bump’ in life satisfaction (Powdthavee et al, 2019). I can only imagine how the further harms caused if more jobs are lost, the economy slumps and the reality of craving sovereignty and blue passports bites.
Yet I don’t really have to imagine this, it seems blatantly obvious that we are not prepared to leave the EU, more time is needed to come up with a cross party consensus and maybe even a further referendum to be clear this is what the people want. When any leadership disregards the concerns raised from so many sectors, their constituents and colleagues, to press ahead with a policy which will cause harm then we can really see just how normalised incompetence and placing ideology before country has become.
Dr Susie Atherton
Senior Lecturer in Criminology
Parveen, N (2019) Brexit and bad weather puts UK farmers at risk of suicide, say charitie, see https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/mar/03/brexit-and-bad-weather-puts-uk-farmers-at-risk-of-suicide-say-charities
Powdthavee, N., Plagnol, A.C., Frijters, P. and Clark, A.E. (2019) Who Got the Brexit Blues? The Effect of Brexit on Subjective Wellbeing in the UK, Economica, see https://doi.org/10.1111/ecca.12304.
‘It’s not too late to save Brexit’, Boris Johnson proclaimed in his resignation speech on Wednesday 18th July 2018. But what sort of Brexit are we really talking about? Well if you are confused, join the queue. There’s hard Brexit and soft Brexit and one might suggest every type of Brexit imaginable if it scores political points. There are calls for another referendum and a referendum on the final deal and probably a referendum on a referendum. With all the furore around Brexit it’s easy to forget what it was the British people were voting for in the first place.
As I recall, and I stand to be corrected, it was control of immigration foremost, they didn’t want any of those nasty little foreigners coming in here, taking our jobs and scrounging off the state whilst abusing the NHS. Then they didn’t want to be told what to do by Brussels and they didn’t want to be paying Brussels billions that could go into the NHS. We only had to look at increased waiting times for doctors’ appointments or the fact that we couldn’t find an NHS dentist to prove beyond doubt that immigration was out of control. Scattered in amongst this was the opportunity to be great again, masters of our own destiny and to shatter the manacles that have held us back for so long.
The rhetoric smacked of xenophobia but above all else, it aligned with historical parallels where the others are to blame for the state of a nation. The instant response of people facing difficulties is to find a scapegoat. Net migration has been a political hot potato for decades, duly made so by politicians and the media. The papers report it as if every person that comes into the country is of little value and yet people fail to look around. Who’s going to pick the crop this summer, who’s going to look after old people in nursing homes, who’s going to clean the hotel room, who’s going to do your dentistry or save your life in the operating theatre? Don’t make the mistake in thinking its British people because there aren’t enough of them that are prepared to be paid peanuts for doing menial work and not enough of them highly skilled enough to enter into medical practice.
The problem is that the ideas that so many people had about Brexit have been nurtured by politicians and newspapers alike. I rarely agree with Alister Campbell, but his comment about Paul Dacre the outgoing editor of the Daily Mail as a ‘truth-twisting, hypocritical, malign force on our culture and politics’ certainly has ring of truth to it. But its not just the papers, it wasn’t that long ago that Theresa May as Home Secretary was lambasting Europe about Human Rights legislation and the fact that she couldn’t deport Abu Hamza, a hate preacher. Anyone with a bit of savvy might have worked out that you can’t pick and choose human rights according to political whim and votes. There’s a suggestion that we could have a British Bill of Rights, a bit like Human Rights but maybe with a proviso that the government and its agencies don’t have to abide by it if they don’t fancy. A bit like Pick ‘n’ Mix, only not as sweet or tasty. Theresa May as Home Secretary promised to bring immigration down but as so much of the media hastily reported, failed to do so. Then there’s that Brexit bus proclaiming we would save billions that could go back into the NHS. What a wonderful idea except that nobody mentioned there were debts to be paid first and as every good householder and economists know, the books have to be balanced. Fanciful notions filled people’s heads, Boris and Nigel Farage are very persuasive, and president Trump thinks Boris will make a good leader. A real vote of confidence. So, what we ended up with was not so much a narrative about the benefits of staying in Europe and there are many, but a narrative about how Europe was to blame for the state of the country. Government did their job well helped along by right wing lobbyists and pseudo politicians.
And I wonder, just a little bit, whether the country would have voted as it did armed with all the facts and cognisant of all the ramifications. Boris is right, its not too late, its not too late for the government to ask the nation what it really wants, its not too late to put their hands up and say we were wrong.
Not long after starting my new post at the University of Northampton, I one day remarked ‘you know, I do feel a bit sorry for Theresa May’, or words to that effect. Well, my colleagues were shocked and stunned, clearly I had touched a nerve. But you know what, they were absolutely right to feel this way. Let me first explain myself. I was reflecting on the challenges she has faced as Prime Minister overseeing our exit from the European Union and the seemingly constant questions over her legitimacy and capability as a leader. She had faced a humiliating election result on top of everything else and was criticised for holding Donald Trump’s hand as a symbol of her courting favour with someone many find…..distasteful. So, I thought, she must be feeling attacked from all sides. Also, I did definitely say I was feeling ‘a bit’ sorry for her. However, my colleagues’ reaction did make me think about this view. They pointed out her decisions had led to this and, as it turns out, they also reveal a pattern of behaviour which reinforce their views, not mine. When you examine this from her time as Home Secretary and as Prime Minister, there are numerous examples which show her limitations as a leader.
Let us start with Theresa May, Home Secretary. In 2010, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition promised to tackle the budget deficit and through the ‘Big Society’ initiative, reclaim communities for the ‘law abiding majority’. Theresa’s speech to the Police Federation struck a triumphant tone, and presented a plea to accept her deal to cut spending, to allow the police more autonomy, less bureaucracy and less focus on targets. She celebrated the police as heroes, the front line in the fight to fix the ‘broken society’ and deal with the criminals we were all living in fear of. The slogan of the Conservative Party campaign was reiterated, to tell the police that ‘we’re all in this together’. She promised to always back the police, always fight for them and support them.
Her 2015 speech was less conciliatory and did not celebrate the work of the police. In her announcement to the Police Federation in May 2015, she accused the police service and management of scaremongering as they presented evidence on the impact of cuts, especially on neighbourhood policing functions. Perhaps bolstered by the recent Conservative party election win, she went in all guns blazing. Neighbourhood policing was described as an ‘endangered species’ by serving officers, and they also took this opportunity to plead with her to listen and not resort to her usual position of dismissing their concerns (BBC News, 20 May 2015). For the police service, preserving neighbourhood policing was clearly important. It offers safety, reassurance, a visible police presence and a conduit between the police and public to uphold their legitimacy and consent (Johnston, 2001; Rowe, 2008). Reduced budgets are bound to impact these services not deemed a priority, even though they can help to prevent crime and enable productive partnerships between the police and the citizens they serve (Thurman et al, 2001). For Theresa however, the falling crime rate was proof positive to justify cuts to spending, and that ‘angry and demoralised’ officers with their claims of putting the public in danger were ‘crying wolf’ (BBC News, 20 May, 2015).
It is not surprising then that at the end of Theresa May’s speech, polite applause was all that could be offered. The process of reflection and consideration of the premise that one can be wrong that I undertook, is something Theresa May seems unable to grasp. Her performance at Police Federation conference has further demoralised the police and embedded a sense of hopelessness that anything would change under her leadership. The need for the police to plead with her to listen to them is also a real concern – good leaders should not need to be flattered or cajoled into listening to those who deliver front line services such as policing.
So, as we now seem to be hurtling towards an exit from the EU which means we leave the Custom’s Union, despite the concerns about the impact this will have on the economy and Northern Ireland, Theresa remains resolute, and firmly aligned with the belief that hard Brexit is the way to go. This is presented as appeasing the hard Brexiteers in the Conservative party, who are ready to pounce should she not deliver what they want. However, her speech at Lancaster House presented Brexit as the promise of a new ‘global’ Britain, taking advantage of the opportunities outside the EU, while also offering the hand of friendship with platitudes about our European partners, that we will remain ‘reliable partners, willing allies and close friends.’ Also, she voted remain. She campaigned to keep Britain in the EU in the interests of business and jobs, to maintain security and protections against terrorism and crime, for trade access – and I quote ‘it is in the national interest to remain a member of the European Union.’ I am an ardent remainer, so on this, the Theresa May campaigning in 2016 and I agree. But now we are poles apart.
This is where I have seen the error of my ways to feel sorry for her. Her stance in 2010, celebrating the work of the police when she was new in post, was clearly to cement her status as Home Secretary, so she asked nicely for them to accept the reductions in spending. In 2015, she made a clear shift, to tell the police to stop whining, that there is no more money and she made no reference to the heroic efforts of the police at all. In fact, to her, they were making things worse. The same pattern of shifting loyalties to preserve her position seems to occur on a weekly basis, as we lurch back and forth from soft Brexit to hard Brexit (remember, at one point it was a red, white and blue Brexit?).
So, my problem is not just that we disagree, it is that she does not make decisions based on evidence and what is best for the country. She certainly does not offer leadership in which we can feel reassured about our future. She seems to bend to the will of mysterious others, editors of right wing press, hard Brexiteers and then, occasionally, softens her stance after meetings in Brussels. Or, what I like to call, a reality check. But I no longer think she is struggling to deal with tensions between her belief in a Hard Brexit and the evidence presented to her from her negotiations with the EU. She is also seemingly ignoring concerns raised by MPs, business sectors, universities, and the many who voice their concerns about the legitimacy and consequences of this goal of a hard Brexit. Her leadership style is reflected in the frustration of the press and public when she repeats meaningless platitudes. Remember, ‘strong and stable’, the classic ‘Brexit means Brexit’, prefixing everything with ‘let me be clear’, and then being anything but this. Good leadership is meant to empower others, and in policy making is defined as an approach to generate collective responsibility as found in Belbin’s (1993) ‘team leader’ approach. This is a form of leadership is distinct from role of managers, as they must act to seek new opportunities, transform activities of a group, to be a visionary, to be clear on their goals. The divisions in the Conservative party do not reflect this. It seems that the Maybot’s leadership programming setting has defaulted to her true self and her goal of self-preservation. Therefore, it is not merely a misjudgment to feel even a ‘bit’ of sympathy for her, it is an act of delusion.
Senior Lecturer in Criminology
University of Northampton
BELBIN, R.M. (1993). Team Roles at Work. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann
BBC NEWS (2010) Police Federation crying wolf over cuts, says Theresa May, (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-32806520)
JOHNSTON, L. (2001) ‘Crime, fear and civil policing’, Urban Studies, 38(5/6), 959–77.
PRIME MINISTER’S OFFICE (2017) The government’s negotiating objectives for exiting the EU: PM speech (see https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-governments-negotiating-objectives-for-exiting-the-eu-pm-speech)
ROWE, M. (2008) Introduction to Policing. London: Sage.
THURMAN, Q., ZHAO, J. and GIACOMAZZI, A. (2001) Community Policing in a Community Era: An Introduction and Exploration California: Roxbury Publishing Company