The day the world woke up with a hangover

I do not regret voting to leave, I regret voting at all and even having the vote in the first place, given the extent that Britain is now broken.

Those are the words of a political colleague of mine – a young, bright Tory councillor in Colchester – posted on Facebook in the aftermath of EU referendum. 

The sense of joy he anticipated by the vote for Brexit simply didn’t happen. “All I currently feel is a sense of loss and despondency about the future of the country,” he added. 

He’s not alone, and the ranks of the despondent are not simply isolated within the UK. As France’s La Tribune said pithily, “the world woke up with a hangover“.

And what a hangover it is. With the resignation of David Cameron, the UK is about to lose the most moderate, unifying Conservative Prime Minister it has had for over a generation. Almost by definition his successor will be drawn from the electorally toxic right of the party. 

The Union is set to collapse, with the SNP hammering home renewed calls for independence (or ‘Sexit’, quipped a Dundonian friend) and with Sinn Féin agitating for a referendum on a united Ireland.

In London, the markets and the City have gone into turmoil, with some commentators ironically making a serious case for London to become some sort of independent city state, allied to the EU – as if chucking away unwanted bits of a country would solve anything. 

Then there’s mainland Europe. “The first tile in the game of dominos has fallen,” lamented France’s Le Monde as it reported on the far-right Front Nationale’s exploitative demands for “Frexit.”

And boy did those dominos start a chain reaction. Within hours the far-right in Holland and Slovakia were clamouring for their own referendums. In Germany, Alternative für Deutschland MEP Beatrix von Storch – a politician who believes her country’s border guards should shoot refugees – claimed that she ‘cried for joy‘ at news of the Brexit. 

The genie is not only out of the bottle, but he’s on the move – unstoppering phials of pressurised poison across the length and breadth of Europe. 

The question is why this has happened, and how. 

The answer is complex, but at its root is the fact that the web has made western societies much more tribal. 

Often this is a benign and even a positive thing. 

Benign: I love old Triumph cars, and the internet has brought me together, and made me part of, a community of similarly enthusiastic people who share advice, swap hard-to-find parts and organise rallies and social gatherings. 

Positive: you can quickly create communities that can cause radical change. When my local council refused to allow citizens to record what happened in its public meetings, I used the power of the web to mobilise other residents in Colchester. The council, taken on the hop by a bunch of angry residents, voted not only to allow recordings, but started making its own. 

But for all the benignity and goodness that the web brings us, it is probably the most polarising force our society has ever experienced. It brings validity to extremism, the unhinged and the downright evil. 

Take the man who lives in a small village, but who believes that black people are inferior, unwanted and should be murdered. He’s got ready access to online communities that dress up mutual hatred as ‘white pride’ and catalyse individual bile into a community of righteously felt poison. 

Or take the left-wingers who are in the mutual and collective grip of simple answers to complicated questions, ironically spurning racism and discrimination while gathering together online and in the streets to vilify other groups, whether they are bankers, the rich, Tories or ‘Zionists’. All while screaming for the rights of ‘oppressed’ Islamist nations and groups who want to throw gay men off buildings, stone adulterous women to death and blow up and behead innocent strangers in the street. 

Remember that it is people like these who have hijacked the Labour Party, using online organisation to elect Jeremy Corbyn as leader. The collective and polarised fantasies of this online echo chamber have been dumped on this weak man’s shoulders, leaving no political ground for moderate, centre left voters to support.  

In essence, the web has helped create a tinderbox which not only catalyses and strengthened polarised thinking, but gives people the collective power to enforce change – too often for ill. 

And that, for me, is the significance of the referendum. Whether Remain or Leave, the most organised and most vocal of both sides felt they had a right to win and impose that view on the rest of the country.

It didn’t work. It could never have worked. And that’s why we woke up with that hangover which saw the far-right on the continent determined to impose its own divisive vision; the nationalists in Scotland and Ireland determined to impose their own divisive vision; and why my kind, intelligent and thoughtful friend wished that the destiny of the UK and Europe had never been put in our hands. 

It was bad enough when Big Brother was watching us. Now we’re able to breathe down his neck from our self-righteous and polarised positions, has it really changed our world for the better?

Why I exited Brexit and decided to vote Remain

Let’s be honest. There’s something deeply seductive about gaining your independence from anything.

The prospect of going it alone lights up practically every pleasure centre in the British brain. It’s the memory of leaving a hated school and taking control of your own life. It’s the recollection of telling a control freak of a boss where he can shove his job, before making a hero’s exit. It’s the gleeful desire to escape your future OAP’s home for the afternoon and get sozzled at the bar of your local boozer.

Well, that’s how my brain responds to the prospect of even the smallest sliver of independence. And as a middle aged fart of mixed English, Scottish, Irish and Belgian ancestry (to name but a few), I’m about as British as anyone.

So, even though it took me months to commit to one side or the other of the Referendum debate, it surprised no-one that I came out in favour of Brexit.

And when asked at the bar of my local boozer, or in the echo chambers of social media, why I wanted Britain to leave the EU, I would cite two reasons. First: I hated the undemocratic structure imposed on us. Second: we live in a world where to be agile and to respond to events quickly and independently gives you the edge, whether you’re a country, a company or an individual.

I still think those things, by the way. But something happened when the referendum campaign got properly underway.

I mostly stayed aloof from the vast majority of mudslinging and disinformation from both sides of the EU debate. Frankly, I found most of it wearisome and childish.

But what I did read or listen to made me think about the wider implications of Britain leaving the EU.

First I wondered what the hell would happen to Scotland (and by extension) Northern Ireland.  When the Scottish independence referendum was reaching fever pitch, I was desperately worried that the UK would lose an essential part of its – and my own – being and identity.

And I realised that this much more heartfelt stance of mine was contradictory to Brexit. We really are, in the words of that cheesy slogan, Better Together. Sure, it hasn’t been a smooth relationship since 1603 or 1707 (whichever you prefer), but we’ve matured into it, to the benefit of both nations. By comparison, we’ve barely given the EU a chance.

I was certain that if Britain voted to leave Europe, Scotland would walk out on the Union. They’d rebel against England as England rebelled against the EU. And rebellion is what much of the current referendum heartache is about, right?

Losing Scotland would be bad, but the clincher for my change of heart was the effect Brexit would have on the rest of Europe.

If you’re familiar with my online witterings, you’ll know I’m in the process of polishing my French skills. It’s a long process and it reminds me of those pensioners hired by furniture makers of centuries past, who were paid to gently rub their hands on chairs to give them a patina. It’s slow work.

But I digress. One of the things I do to get my French up to par is to dip into papers like Le Monde and Le Figaro. And one of the side benefits of doing so is that you get a good sideways glance at your own country – it’s a bit like reading the Irish Times, but less boring.

So when I read in detail how Marine Le Pen was fomenting for Brexit as a prelude for France’s independence, backed by her similarly minded and unsavoury pals on the far-right in Austria and elsewhere, I really began to get the collywobbles.

Bloated, expensive and riven with incompetence that the EU is, it does at the very least act as a brake on extremism, whether nationalist, socialist or religious. It would be a barrier to le Pen victimising les musulmans in France. It would block any far-right basket case of a member country from stripping away the rights and freedoms of any minority – however imperfectly. And, in a fantasy world in which America was a member, it would tell Donald Trump to fuck off (and stay fucked off) when he tried to build a wall between the US border and Mexico.

And there’s the nub. The rise of the far right on the continent, and the institutionalisation of anti-semitism in significant chunks of the Left, are the things that worry me most in today’s world.

And to risk those things escalating into a divided and hate fuelled Europe because of your gleeful desire to tell your school, your boss, your institution or the EU to go and shove it… that is something I simply can’t do.

Especially when the positive case for Brexit has been written on the back of a fag packet.

So I’m voting Remain. I just hope the result is close enough to jolt the European project into the major reform it so seriously needs.

A brain dump for Colchester – 10 ways to change the council

So, Colchester has again elected a mish-mash of Lib Dems and Labour councillors to run the town hall. And after fighting my fifth election in as many years – and getting soundly thrashed into the bargain – I’m looking forward to a summer of paid work, tending to the allotment and tinkering with my Triumph.

But before I go, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned from my year as a councillor and chuck a few ideas for Colchester’s future into the ring. I don’t know who will be sitting round the cabinet table next week, but if it’s you please feel free to help yourself.

1. Change the way Colchester houses people

Colchester currently prides itself on providing social housing via Colchester Borough Homes. In recent years this pride has been most noticeably expressed by building new council houses. But because the council sells more houses per year via Right to Buy than it can ever build, this will never solve the housing shortage. Continue reading

How the Lib Dems built over Mile End

Long before I came to Colchester in 2009, the huge amount of house building in Mile End has been a major point of controversy. We now have many thousands of houses, with very little in the way of community facilities to support them. This is, in my view, storing up massive problems for the future. 

But how did it happen in the first place? In recent weeks, I’ve been doing some research and following the trail of decisions made by Colchester Borough Council about development in Mile End. Continue reading

My ‘arrogant’ upbringing – some facts for Cllr Jo Hayes

Here’s an eye-opener for you. According to Lib Dem Councillor Jo Hayes, a likely reason that I voted down her town-centre throttling motion on traffic emissions may well have been my ‘upbringing’.

She may be surprised to learn that I read her motion in detail and decided it would contribute to the decay of our town centre if brought into force. A number of her colleagues agreed, which is why the motion fell.

But I am mystified why she thinks my ‘upbringing’ has anything to do with it. I know nothing of her own upbringing, and nor would I assume it was the driving force behind her terrible motion. As she is so fond of saying on Twitter ‘you are entitled to you own opinion, not your own facts.’

Cllr Hayes seems reluctant to explain what she meant. So I thought I’d provide her with a few facts about my upbringing. Then perhaps she’ll be able to tell me why they make me arrogant. Continue reading

Colchester’s Lib Dems help themselves to more public cash

Last night at Colchester Borough Council’s full council meeting, I spoke against proposals that would:

  1. Give the nominal Lib Dem leader a 107% pay rise
  2. Give over £2,000 of public money to any political group of just two people
  3. Give Group Leaders money for compliance rather than opposition
  4. Encourage councillors to split Group Leader roles from Cabinet roles to maximise the amount of public money they could claim.

The current Lib/Lab/Independent administration all voted for the proposals. They all stand to gain, particularly the Liberals and the Stanway and Highwoods Independents (who may well have only two councillors next May). The Conservative Group opposed them.

This is what I said (and what I wanted to say after the bell rang about 2/3 of the way through…) Continue reading

My kind of Toryism – a party for misfits

When my grandfather approached his 80th birthday, he asked about 20 of his former pupils at Stamford School to write about their time there. He collected their responses together in a book, which he then deposited in the school archive.

What was remarkable about this book was the fact that most of its contributors were considered – or considered themselves to be – ‘misfits’ when they were at school.

And that’s what made it such compelling reading.

First, they pulled no punches about a school system that, Continue reading

A lot of hot air about low emissions

When you don’t get your own way, what better idea than to blame the people you hate?

That’s been the game of Lib Dem Councillor Jo Hayes over the last few days. She’s smarting over the defeat of her Clean Air motion during the last full Colchester Borough Council meeting and it has made her bitter.

It’s a slightly tricky story to unpick, so let’s start with the result.

Seventeen councillors voted for Cllr Hayes’ motion. Twenty-one voted against. The Conservative Group, including me, voted against it. As indeed did some Cllr Hayes’ Lib Dem colleagues, including Cllr Martin Goss and Cllr Barrie Cook, while others such as Cllr Dominic Graham abstained.

In other words, Cllr Hayes’ motion failed because she did not have the backing of her own party.

Rather than accept the result graciously, Cllr Hayes decided to lance the boil of her disappointment by painting the vote as some sort of evil Tory conspiracy.  Continue reading

Any problems? A better way to conduct Colchester Council meetings

This morning I posted about last night’s Colchester Borough Council meeting, which took over four hours to (mostly) debate national issues it hasn’t got a hope of changing or influencing.

The reason? Because a sizeable number of councillors like to treat it as a party political playground – a sort of pretend Parliament for pre-schoolers. And sure enough, when you get exchanges like this, the temptation to stick one over on the other side is almost irresistible.

I wouldn’t mind so much if council meetings weren’t dominated by national issues. And I wouldn’t mind so much if even straightforward local issues weren’t so often the subject of partisan punch ups. Again, as Jason from the Colchester Chronicle put it. Continue reading