Our political history is steeped with odd alliances formed by common cause: what is deemed ‘right’ for the nation. They have been irrespective of party affiliations and usually disregard potential mockery and satire. In the last few weeks, the image that has been widely circulated and lampooned is that of David Cameron phone-canvassing undecided voters, flanked by Paddy Ashdown and Neil Kinnock. This trio may epitomise the phrase “Westminster elite”, but also “underwhelming” as one wonders if these figures are the best politicians the pro-remain campaign can wheel out. None are great orators; they rely instead on the prestige of the offices they currently or formerly occupied.
Straying away from the established Remain camp undazzled, the large cohort of Brexiteers have even less to offer. Nigel Farage is still wounded from the general election failings of last year, and has been far from impressive as the leader of Grassroots Out – a group that has failed to become the official Brexit vehicle. The “quiet man” Iain Duncan Smith has not stirred the nation, letting the vital media attention following his resignation slip through his fingers. Even Boris Johnson’s reasoning for supporting Britain’s exit teeters between naked ambition and a bad joke. All are submerged in a quagmire where the power of the message is muffled by incompetence.
All are submerged in a quagmire where the power of the message is muffled by incompetence.
It is depressing, then, that while pundits make the inevitable comparisons between the referendums of 1975 and 2016, the political giants of the former campaign are markedly absent. The towering titans of British politics like Enoch Powell and Tony Benn, who were not concerned with photo-opportunities or even showings of false unity (which bedevilled the No campaign), but with the power of their argument and a sense of moral righteousness in delivering it to the people. These divisive yet oddly respected figures displayed their mastery of rhetoric, demanding the attention of all who could hear.
Both men came from the radical ends of their parties. Benn by 1975 was seen to have “immatured with age” by his parliamentary colleagues. Powell, now an Ulster Unionist following his condemnation of the previous Heath government, was regarded as a dangerous demagogue. Yet plaudits for them both piled up over their political careers, Denis Healy describing how one Powell speech was delivered with “all the moral passion and rhetorical force of Demosthenes”. We can feel this also in the written word, as he ominously warned in 1975:
“The nation is being invited to confirm the surrender, and the permanent surrender, of its most precious possession: its political independence and parliamentary self-government, and the right to live under laws and to pay taxes authorized only by Parliament and to be governed by policies for which the executive is fully accountable through Parliament to the electorate”.
Benn adopted a more improvised style that was no less well received, and mostly drew upon his experience as a minister of government:
“When I saw how the European Union was developing, it was very obvious what they had in mind was not democratic. In Britain, you vote for a government so the government has to listen to you, and if you don’t like it you can change it.”
Principled vies with trustworthy as the least common of adjectives ascribed to the modern politician. Supporters of Farage may call him both – but the ale-guzzling, chain-smoking, man with the ‘common touch’ delivers the argument for Britain to leave Europe far too simply, appealing to the voter’s wallet when quoting how much EU memberships costs to our nation, rather than with pure passion. The Brexit voter of today deserved better.
Full disclosure: I am a card-carrying pro-European who just a few weeks ago was standing with David Cameron in front of a campaign battle bus, the ultimate political cliché if there ever was one. Like other like-minded advocates of the EU, I believe that Britain has more sovereignty to gain through pooling it with the sovereignty of other member states. In doing so we can be free to pursue our national interests by bargaining, deliberating and agreeing within the world’s largest single market. But even someone as fervent as myself is still hooked by arguments made extremely well, and Benn and Powell exceptional in this regard.
Benn and Powell would be disappointed with their successors, and rightly so.
Not that these mavericks changed the outcome in 1975, the British people voted to stay in the Common Market by a landslide – and this will happen again on June 23rd. Yet the enduring crusade for building on pro-Brexit sentiment begins and ends on passionate rhetoric being able to pierce through rehearsed and calculated responses, too often heard on the lips of our political establishment. Benn and Powell would be disappointed with their successors, and rightly so.