Since June 23, when we "took back control" (of what precisely remains very unclear) I have been in South America, and four European countries – all work no play, apart from a bit of football – taking in the Chilcot Inquiry Report en route from Spain and France. I'm now back home.
This was not exactly a tour of the entire world, but based on those parts I have been to, I can report that most of the world thinks the UK is at a point of potential enormous decline (these moments happen in history you know). They also think that in having voted to leave the EU we have taken leave of our senses and thus, we are becoming something of a laughing stock.
Now I need to be careful here. As I said in the long blog I posted on Chilcot Day, we live in a post-factual, post-reason age where many parts of the media, and many people, tend to find the facts that fit the argument they already believe, the pieces of evidence that fit the worldview they already hold, the opinions that match their own. So I may be a little guilty of doing this myself, as someone who strongly believes that Brexit was a national catastrophe, and that Chilcot, and even more so the coverage thereof, an unfair, unbalanced and over-simplistic portrayal of a difficult set of decisions in a deeply complex policy area.
Brexit is one of the biggest talking points on the planet. Only Donald Trump and, in Europe, the football, get near.
On the EU referendum, having met large numbers of people in politics, business, media, charity (and loads of air hostesses and airport personnel) I can report two things with certainty. First, Brexit is one of the biggest talking points on the planet. Only Donald Trump and, in Europe, the football, get near. Second, close to 10 out of 10 people thought we had made the wrong decision. Some of these were the dreaded experts demonised by Michael Gove. You know, heads of government, finance ministers, top economists and diplomats, people who run businesses. People who know stuff.
Michael Gove, yes? You remember him, surely; the spectacled, non-blonde one of the deadly duo who helped take Brexit over the line, then ran to ground, then got their just deserts as the post-Cameron Tory leadership race began. But many I met were not experts at all. Like the guy serving me breakfast in Barcelona – "Why would you do that? I don't understand." – or the Italian journalist who said, "I think we just feel so sad that you did this to yourselves."
I still feel sad too. It is like a bereavement, where you forget for a while, but then something happens to remind you and you feel like someone hit you in the guts: "Oh God, yeah, she's dead," so "Oh God yeah, we actually voted to Leave the EU." Ian McEwan is clearly feeling the same way, and has expressed these feelings superbly in The Guardian today.
I also feel that something, somehow, will happen, to ensure the disaster, or at least the full extent of it, doesn't happen and that we won't actually leave. That would of course anger many of the 17 million who voted Leave. But it is clear that a fair few amongst them are having considerable buyer's remorse and would change their vote had they realised that "Project Fear" was real. Among the more nauseating consequences of the Brexit vote are the Money pages of the right-wing newspapers, which helped Johnson-Gove-Farage do their worst, which are now telling their readers how this is hitting the value of the pound, the cost of holidays, flights and phone calls. Coffee in the UK, says the FT today, is the latest to see a post-Brexit price rise. Sterling, I read yesterday, is currently the worst-performing major currency in the world. Thanks Johnson. Thanks Murdoch. Thanks Dacre.
The Tory Party's membership is not exactly representative of the country, yet they have "taken back sole control" of the choice of PM.
And what kind of Mad Hatter's tea party world are we living in that a campaign that was all about making sure the British people decided who governed us and curbed the power of unelected elites, sees the leaders of that campaign, Johnson, Gove and Farage, fall by the wayside, along with the prime minister the country elected last year; and the choice of the person to hold the most important position in the country is about to be decided by 0.3% of the population – the largely white, largely old, largely golf club bore types who tend to gather in areas of low immigration and spend all their time telling each other how they are feeling overwhelmed by immigrants. Sorry, this is a caricature, but you know what I mean. The Tory Party's membership is not exactly representative of the country, yet they have "taken back sole control" of the choice of PM.
As for what that choice is, it really is a commentary on the desperate state of UK politics that I am hoping Theresa May wins. Let's be honest, all but the political anoraks had never even heard of Andrea Leadsom until she did the TV debates as Johnson's sidekick. Even then "speaking as a mother" and "let's take back control" appeared to be all she had to say. The mother bit appears to have gone a little far. I am as used to exaggerated misrepresenting headlines as anyone, but it strikes me, having listened to the tape, that The Times story, in which she was setting herself up as superior to May because she had kids, was fair. Also, she says that having children and wanting grandchildren means she is more likely to care about the future. So how come she just helped destroy the UK's future for the young?
Just as the referendum debate was too focused on the Tory personalities involved, drowning out discussion of the kind of issues that only now are coming into sharp and sobering focus, so the May-Leadsom-Gove-Fox-Crabb contest has been desperately free of actual ideas and plans for the future. Depressing, and that is why this kind of stuff about kids or no kids, especially in our dumbed down media, becomes so high profile.
Now, with Brexit such a global event, Corbyn is surely one of the most talked about opposition politicians on the planet.
Then there is the Labour mess. There was something bizarre, frankly, to be in Latin America, and have people ask me "So will Corbyn go?" or "What is this Angela Eagle like?" For decades, Corbyn toiled away as a good local MP backing a few hard left causes with gusto and being little known outside narrow political circles. Now, with Brexit such a global event, Corbyn is surely one of the most talked about opposition politicians on the planet. But it is becoming clearer and clearer, that though yes, he was given a big mandate as leader of the Labour party, he cannot lead it. And as I said in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, and Neil Kinnock says in a very good interview today, it is hard to escape the conclusion his clinging on is as much about vanity as any belief he can actually do the job, or even that he wants to win an election, or thinks he could, or ever sets out a strategy suggesting how he might.
So here we are, with the Tory Party split down the middle, another economic target missed, poverty and inequality on the rise, rights under attack, a prime minister gone and a pretty poor field of successors in the frame, and yet still Labour trail in the polls. Ah, say the zealots who think JC is the new JC come to save us, that is because of all the division in the PLP. No, oh zealots who care more about power inside the party than about the party winning power in the country, it is because those MPs, in common with anyone else with an interest in a Labour government, hear from virtually every member of the human race, home and abroad, "that guy has no more chance of being elected prime minister than my pet budgie". We have never needed a strong opposition more than today. I have never known the opposition to be weaker. We have never needed a Labour government more than we do now. The chances of it happening are slim indeed unless we have a new and credible leader and a new and credible strategy. I accept the field, as with the Tories, is not strong. But anything is better than this.
According to the conspiracy theorists who occupy so much of online political debate, I have been involved in some coup or other to get Corbyn out, and it was all about making sure he was not there to make hay over Chilcot. Apparently, it involved someone who works for a PR firm going to a Gay Pride event and heckling him. Some coup!
According to the conspiracy theorists who occupy so much of online political debate, I have been involved in some coup or other to get Corbyn out…
There were few surprises in what he had to say about Chilcot. He had already indicated the kind of line he would take before publication, and indeed he did. He repeated, repeatedly, the lie that we lied; he restated his view that it was the biggest foreign policy disaster in decades; he whacked the Yanks, and said the invasion was an act of military aggression; he said the UN was important; and he apologised on behalf of a party whose leadership he has always sought to define against Tony Blair as his main ideological opponent, rather than David Cameron. What he didn't do was give any indication whatever of how he, should he ever be a prime minister rather than an anti-war protestor, would deal with the security threats facing the world. From what I can gather, he would sit down and talk with people. He wouldn't do anything unless the UN said we could. So with a Corbyn government, President Vladimir Putin and President Xi Jinping get the global domination they have long sought.
A word on the lying issue. It strikes me as part of the Orwellian Mad Hatterology of our times that in the Brexit debate, there were blatant lies told by Leave – £350m a week, NHS, Turkey, EU Army, you know the drill… – yet when the lying side won, few complaints, and a general acceptance across the political classes… oh well, never mind, the people have spoken.
On Iraq, by contrast, where no lies were told, by Tony Blair or anyone on his behalf, the Chilcot Inquiry confirmed as such, and yet by common media consent by the end of the day that he lied was an established "fact" in our post-fact, post-rational analysis Trumpian/Leadsomian world. Part of the reason for that, for reasons perhaps to do with his having seen what the media did to Lord Hutton when he set out the truth as he saw it (and indeed as it was) over the BBC reporting on the WMD dossier in 2002/2003, is that Chilcot's statement on Wednesday was actually much starker in its criticism of Tony Blair than a report he knew that few would actually read.
…there are many many people who will not roll over as most of the politicians seem willing to and just let Brexit happen…
But let's end on a positive upbeat note. Since getting home and going through a vast inbox of ignored emails, direct messages and all the rest, three things are clear. One, for sure, there is a lot of hate out there and most of it is expressed publicly on social media. But there was a lot of support for my defence of Tony Blair too. Two, in the more private correspondence, there are many many people who will not roll over as most of the politicians seem willing to and just let Brexit happen. And three, the view of the public, as opposed to the media, is much more balanced when it comes to Iraq, as well as the reputation of Tony Blair. This piece in the FT today, by an American legal expert, and this one in the Telegraph, by Charles Moore, at least add a little balance to the debate. As I said in my own blog on Wednesday, ultimately Chilcot and his team have never been leaders in the way that Blair and Cameron have, they have never had to make decisions as big as the ones TB faced on Iraq.
I was struck in particular by an email from the father of a soldier who had served in Iraq, who said he and his wife, as parents, were proud of what their son did, as was he. He made the point – and I think this is what David Cameron was hinting at in the Commons – that if we carry on as we are, a UK PM will never again be able to commit forces to danger, "at a time the world is actually a lot more dangerous than it might feel. If we can't use an Army, you have to ask what is the point of having one?"
It is a very good question. And the fact it is even asked another sign that Britain is no longer the country it once was, but not for the reasons most volubly expressed by those still standing by their decision to vote for Brexit.