Tuesday, 2 July 2019

An Afternoon with the Brexit Party

On 30th June 2019, I attended a “rally” organized by the UK’s Brexit party in the National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham. At age 66, it was my first ever party political event, although I had been to an anti-EU meeting in London back in 2005. There were 5,500 people there, so I was told. There would only have been 5,499 without me!

Now, I am uncompromisingly pro-Brexit. Indeed, I see leaving the EU as the first step back from a cliff edge; the sine qua non for any possibility of change for the better in the politics of the islands called Britain. But I seek far more than just Brexit. I am, as those who know me will be aware, opposed to politics. All the dishonest, destructive politics that we suffer today.

Before the Brexit referendum three years before, I had not voted in 29 years. One of my main reasons for voting Leave was that, way back in the 1970s, the European project had been mis-sold to the people of the UK. Other reasons were to put an end to the ceaseless stream of pointless or actively destructive directives from the EU, and a desire not to be there when the EU’s ticking economic time-bomb goes off. Three years later, I am also angry that, in a supposed democracy, with the will of the people being so clearly expressed in a referendum, the political class nevertheless chose to renege on their promises, and to obstruct that will.

I find all the mainstream political parties – Tories, Labour, “slob dims” (as I call them) and greenies – to be criminal gangs. When I heard the Brexit party was gaining support – enough to get at least some “representation” in parliament, unlike their predecessors UKIP – I joined the party, and went to the rally to try to find out what they were about.

Can these guys and gals, I thought, really overturn the current system, and give ordinary people a proper say, at last, in how the UK is run? Or might they even, possibly, become in time able to do more; to unhinge the current system, and replace it by something that works for good people, not for politicized slime?

Before I went, two things had already impressed me about the Brexit Party. One, they keep you informed. I was pleased to receive an e-mail saying that, if I wanted to be considered to be a Brexit Party candidate in the next general election, I should fill out their on-line form. I didn’t do it, because I’m not a natural front man. But I did appreciate the invitation, a lot.

The other thing I liked was that they managed to put together a group of MEP candidates with a hugely diverse range of views. How did Nigel Farage manage to get Claire Fox, a former “Revolutionary Communist,” and Ann Widdecombe, a social conservative with the cachet of having voted against the Climate Change Bill, to stand on the same platform? (My answer to that shows me up as the radical individualist I am: They both care about people more than about politics).

So, to that afternoon in Birmingham. The hall was cavernous, and the occasion loud and full of razzmatazz, Superbowl style. Annunziata Rees-Mogg began the cheerleading, though I saw no pom-poms. “We’re here to fight the establishment and wake up politicians that have ignored us for so long.” “These candidates are people. Not the same old same old.” “This is where we start the fight. Real people start to shape the future.” Stirring words, indeed. But can the Brexit Party accomplish the deeds necessary to back them up?

Richard Tice, party chairman, followed up with: “This is a proper Party.” He told us of the policy team he had set up, and gave us their e-mail address. He said: “Get people moving, businesses moving.” He outlined a claimed £200 billion in government savings: cancel HS2, no “divorce” payment to the EU, cut “foreign aid” by at least half. All this to be used to develop “the regions.” And he proposed to cancel interest on student loans. That’s an idea I need to get my head fully around, but at first sight it looks positive.

The Brexit Party, it seems, has decided that it can cede London to the mainstream parties, and adopt policies that favour those outside London at the expense of Londoners. My first thought is, that’s good tactics, given that few people these days have much time for City slickers or bail-out bankers. Whether it’s good strategy, though, is another question. And whether it’s democratic (whatever that means) is a deeper question yet.

Next up was Tim Martin, founder of Wetherspoons. Now, I’m a Wetherspoon fan, eating (and drinking!) once or twice a week at my local, the Jack Phillips in Godalming. Tim has done a grand job to build his chain, and to maintain such high standards of quality for the price. And it’s great to see businessmen, who create wealth, in a position to influence and even direct the policies of government, which today is such a huge destroyer of wealth.

Tim said one very memorable thing: “I have no problem with European people; they are friends and allies. The problem is the EU.” Proost, mon ami! And he, rightly, cast scorn on the idea that there needs to be a “deal” to leave the EU. “Lots of little deals,” he said. And: “Everything you can buy from the EU, you can buy from the rest of the world.”

Yet, I disagree with Tim about what I consider to be his – and the Brexit party’s – “rose-tinted spectacles” view of democracy. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but in my view the problem with democracy is that it assumes that the people who live in a particular country have some kind of “general will” – as postulated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. When you get a binary, divisive issue like Brexit or not Brexit, democracy fails. Whichever way the decision goes, a lot of people will be very angry. Of course, in this case there’s an easy solution. Britain leaves the EU, free movement is maintained for at least a couple of years, and Leavers say to Remainers: “If you want to live in the EU, emigrate to it.” (I told you I’m a radical!)

Then Richard Tice took over again, branding Tory leadership contenders Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt “the blond and the bland.” Of Johnson, I have no personal experience. But I am unlucky enough to have Hunt as “my” MP, and my contacts with him have been far less than positive. “Insipid” would have been a better word than bland, I think.

Then Richard gave us the results of the five-issue poll, which the Brexit Party had sent out to its members a few days before. On that evidence, I found myself on the “moderate” side of the party. For example, I was among the 47% who wanted to reform the House of Lords, as opposed to the 40% who wanted to abolish it altogether.

And then, the most important moment of the whole show. (No, not the air-raid sirens!) Richard Tice introduced his party leader, and I finally learned how to pronounce “Farage.” Did it rhyme with “carriage?” No. With “garage?” No. It rhymes with – wait for it – “in charge.” “Put Farage in charge” is a half decent slogan, no?

Nigel Farage’s speech, I’m sure, is available in many places on the Net, so I’ll just quote a few of the things he said, which were most important to me. “Brexit is an opportunity to make a fresh start.” Yup. “Government doesn’t understand small businesses.” Having had my career ruined by New Labour’s bad tax law called IR35, initially opposed by but eventually more and more heavily enforced by the Tories, I concur heartily. “Genuine apprenticeships” for young people. Yup. “Sensible transport schemes so the country can get to work.” Yup. And back from work in the evening, too.

Here, I was disappointed that Nigel didn’t say more. In rural and many suburban areas, the car is the only viable means of getting around, especially for older people. Yet the political class have been conducting a witch-hunt against car drivers for more than 25 years. With more than 30 million cars registered in the UK, drivers are a huge constituency. Given that the witch-hunt is being conducted using emissions regulations originating from the United Nations, agreed to by politicians like Blair and Cameron that ought to have known better, and enforced by the EU, I think the Brexit party could maybe look towards drivers as a potential source of massive support. Even, perhaps, in outer London.

Nigel Farage ended with: “The old politics cannot be fixed. We need fundamental reforms. The Brexit Party will be the most radical force in British politics in over a century.” Amen to that – as and when it happens.

I stood near the hall exit for a while, people-watching. There was a fairly even gender balance among the audience. Not many were younger than 30, but ages from 30 to 70 were quite evenly mixed. There were a few black people, but I saw almost no Asians; unexpected, considering we were in Birmingham. (Though the gentleman seated on my left, as it happened, was originally from India).

Then, the day’s big disappointment. There’s a Wetherspoon right outside the Atrium exits, and those of us of a convivial disposition wanted to meet some new friends, and to drink a toast to Tim Martin at the same time. But no. We were told at 5:35pm that it would open at 6, so I walked to my hotel, dropped off the Brexit merchandise, and came back. Only to find the door locked, and the place taken over by a VIP party. (Presumably, Brexit VIPs). That was a pity. To build a movement on the scale the Brexit party requires, in my view, needs people new to the movement to be able to relax and socialize with each other after the formal events. The Labour party, after all, was founded on working men’s clubs. I do hope this problem will be rectified before the regional conferences in September.

I did, however, later in the evening meet a fellow Brexiteer and his wife (and dog) in the Little Owl pub, half an hour or so’s walk from the NEC. He was a plumber from Dartford, and a big fan of Nigel Farage personally. We did find some disagreements – my stance on migration is more liberal than his, for example – but we also found a lot in common, and parted friends. I also had some people in the hotel, who had come to the NEC for another event, say to me: “We wish we had gone to the Brexit Party rally!”

So, back to my question “Can the Brexit Party overturn the current system?” I didn’t, on the evidence of one day, find a clear answer either way; but my general impression was positive rather than negative. I’ll certainly keep in contact with them, and do what I can to help. I have also some amateur expertise in certain policy areas, notably “climate change” and pollution from cars. So, I’ll be talking to their policy people about those things. But I’m not letting my hopes get too high just yet.

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