Festina Lente: why we need to hurry slowly to learn the lessons of the election

A machine-gun nest in the town square, Newtownards, the day after the election

In the first of a double bill of posts reflecting on the general election, Maurice argues that we need to take time to think carefully about the implications of the results, but, paradoxically, that we have to do so quickly.

As I set out to the shops in Newtownards yestrday morning, I came across a machine gun nest in the town square – “Already?” I thought, before realising it was a recruitment exercise by the Royal Irish Regiment.

But make no mistake, the guns will be out, metaphorically speaking at least, and potentially even literally, here in Northern Ireland, for reasons we’ll come to.

The general election result – let’s face it, a major victory for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, even if won by probably the most deceitful campaign of my living memory – will inevitably call forth much soul searching and recrimination on the left. The former would be much better than the latter, but the metaphorical machine guns are already blazing, with some commentators interpreting the result as a rejection not just of Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, but of Corbynism, which they take to mean his whole suite of policy positions.

It’s inevitable, but it’s still a mistake. To be sure, the bold policies set out in the Labour manifesto were not universally popular, but many of them – nationalising the railways, investing in the health service – enjoyed widespread public support. So rather than use the election result as an opportunity to eject the whole lot, Labour should take some time to think carefully about what sort of policies are essential for the wellbeing of the people of the UK, and make the case for them. I’d bet quite a few of them are already pretty well worked out in the Labour manifestos of 2017 and 2019.

Constitutionally, we are in for some change. There is little to hinder a newly invigorated Boris Johnson from reversing the moves towards greater effective Parliamentary sovereignty; it won’t be long before the Scottish start to prepare for another IndyRef; and of course, there is the little matter of Brexit.

At the end of January, the UK will leave the EU on the terms set out in Boris Johnson’s deal. From a progressive perspective, this does not look good: the protections for workers and the environment we have long called for are moved out of the binding part of the agreement and into an annex; so there is every likelihood PM Johnson will be tempted to ditch them in the course of negotiating trade deals with the likes of Donald Trump.

That gives us our first post-election progressive aim: to fight to uphold those protections, to build momentum towards making it unthinkable that such protections would be ditched in favour of chlorinated chicken and higher drug prices.

But before getting into that, back to those guns, and the implications of the results for Northern Ireland. Loyalists must find themselves in a bit of a conflicted state this morning. Johnson’s victory assures them that Brexit, something they adamantly demanded, will go through. But given the deal effectively puts a border down the Irish sea, so that Northern Ireland will be in some ways more closely aligned with the Republic of Ireland than Great Britain, it is far from the form of Brexit they wanted. Indeed, on a wall near where I write this, the phrase “Smash the Bretrayal Act” is emblazoned. Incidentally, at first I thought the extra ‘r’ in ‘bretrayal’ was a mistake, but it might just be a smart double portmanteau of ‘betrayal’ and ‘Brexit’. Or perhaps not. In any case, the ‘Bretrayal Act’ in question was, of course, Johnson’s Brexit plan.

If the more militant Loyalists are angry this morning, then their political stablemates in the DUP are likely to be pretty gloomy. Perhaps it’s too much to ask that the gloom will be lightened by a little glimmer of self-awareness, as some of them realise what a monumental own-goal their stance on Europe (and indeed many other matters) has been. *

Nevertheless, in electoral terms, they have not only lost two MPs, Emma Little Pengelly in Belfast South, and Nigel Dodds in Belfast North, but they also failed to take the seat vacated by Lady Sylvia Hermon in North Down. The latter went to the Alliance Party, who had a great night, with their vote rising across the board. Indeed they pulled in over 134,000 votes in total – the lion’s share of a whopping 144,000 votes gained by avowedly non-nationalist and non-unionist parties representing what I have elsewhere called the ‘community of others’ (COO).

In contrast, both the DUP and Sinn Féin’s vote went down. Unionism as a whole is now sitting at about 43 percent of the vote, and Irish nationalism at about 39 percent, with the COO coming in at about 18 percent. We are well past the dominance of a reductive, binary-denomination model – as I have already argued here and here. Now that we roughly fall into three minorities, it could be argued that if the two traditional denominational political movements are to achieve their goals, they are going to need to win the support of the community of others. That gives the latter – not a community of identity, or denominational community, but a rainbow coalition of different people – power greater than its size might indicate. Perhaps even the DUP will realise that trying to make Northern Ireland into a place that’s good for DUP supporters is a less productive strategy than trying to make it a place that’s great for everybody. Something progressive voices have been calling for forever.

So there is room for some cautious, carefully tempered optimism in the progressive movement in Northern Ireland. Cautious and tempered, of course, because the odds are still stacked heavily against us, not least because of that thumping Conservative majority in the House of Commons.

Still, here we are. And to work out how we get from here to there, we need to sit down and think carefully about how to map out this new territory.

If it were up to me, I would therefore call everyone even vaguely progressive (and remember, this is a relative term) together into a town-hall style meeting and try to thrash out a way we could temporarily set aside some of our differences, committing to work together towards a set of agreed goals, and rising to the major challenges of our time – deepening inequality, ongoing austerity, underfunded public services and of course, the climate emergency. This is something we have argued for before – here and here.

To an extent this has already started. The Greens (and to declare an interest, I’m a member), stood aside in North Down and Belfast South with a view to maximising the chances of returning pro-EU candidates. It worked, of course (not least in North Down, where the re-directed support of almost 3,000 habitual Green voters made up the bulk of Stephen Farry’s eventual majority over the DUP). But the Brexit ship has now sailed, and we, like it or not, are among the passengers.

All the more reason for us to get together and start hammering out a plan for our destination. Where do we want to land? What sort of Northern Ireland, UK, Europe, world do we need to start working towards? What does our Utopia look like, and how do we take it out of the realm of unachievable fantasy, and begin to build, here and now, a place where inequality is reducing, not growing, where people are being lifted out of poverty, not cast onto the mercies of the food bank, where successful corporations can’t dodge their taxes to enrich a few wealthy shareholders, where racism is dying out rather than being fanned by the powerful, and where our ten-year plan to bring about a global green revolution in the economy gets kick-started.

All of that needs to be discussed in a level-headed way, without falling into momentum-killing recrimination and finger-pointing. In other words, let’s not jump to judge each other: we need to take our time to talk this over in a democratic way; but at the same time, we need to get our skates on. Some matters, not least the climate emergency, will not wait for us to win each and every one of our little ideological partisan battles.

So let’s take our time and talk, but let’s do it quickly.

Festina Lente, everyone (…and a happy New Year!

*Update, 17 December: not long after I posted this I noticed a Tweet featuring Sammy Wilson of the DUP, who was calling on Boris Johnson to invest in a bridge from Northern Ireland to Scotland in order to ‘win back the trust’ of unionists. Not much of a glimmer there, then. Wilson does not seem to have noticed that the Tories no longer need the ‘trust’ of unionists. He would be much better advised to remind his fellow unionists that they need, at the very least, 51 percent support of people in in Northern Ireland if they are to achieve their goal of securing the union; and that won’t happen by riling up the base, all 43 percent of them. The DUP will have to shift from demanding that Northern Ireland is built in a way that best suits the unionist base to working with others to make Northern Ireland the sort of place most people want to live. In other words, the bridges they will have to build aren’t to Scotland, but are those to the rest of the people right here – bridges they have spent the last few decades burning.

Maurice Macartney

15 December 2019

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