Monthly Archives: October 2019

Screenshot 2019-10-07 at 10.45.01

‘I hope I got out of the Tory party before it was too late’

Article first published in The Observer on 6 October 2019.

I’m still not sure whether I left the Conservative party, or whether it left me. But I am so relieved that I don’t have to pretend to be a part of a political party any more. And even more that I am running to be mayor of London, rather than a Member of Parliament. I only hope I have got out before it is too late. I feel I have become steadily stupider over the last nine years of being a politician, and was beginning to lose the ability to listen, to think and to trust – losing all the skills that you need to actually change the world.

Middle-aged men are not famous for their ability to listen. But with politicians it’s far more extreme. Colleagues who have been in politics too long tell me they find their curiosity begins to wither and they start to talk far more than they listen. And with a dozen engagements on different issues a day, and two hours on Twitter, they can develop a form of attention deficit – unable to concentrate and think freshly or in depth. Instead, they are encouraged to recite messages which the party professionals think voters want to hear – messages which may sound radical but which are in fact designed to be as safe as possible. Instead of a nutritious loaf, packed with organic content, they are encouraged to serve a tasteless, unhealthy white wonder-bread in a dazzling package called “Tory austerity” or “Strong and stable”.

It’s even worse with ministers. Our terms are absurdly short. I held five ministerial jobs in four years. Just as I was completing my 25-year environment plan, I was made a Middle East minister. Just as I was trying to change our aid policy in Syria, I was made the Africa minister. Just as I was finishing my Africa strategy, I was moved to prisons.I promised to reduce violence in prisonsin 12 months, and violence was just beginning to come down – when I was made secretary of state for international development. How can this be a serious way to run a country?

Ninety per cent of what my constituents wanted me to do was local – sort out bus routes, planning and broadband – but these local council issues were simply not within my power as an MP. Even the relevant health or police ministers did not have the operational power to do what voters want: their powers were devolved to independent hospital trusts and police forces. Too often members of parliament and ministers have responsibility without power – the curse of grandees throughout the ages.

In all this, the healthiest part of our democracy is the most local. When a woman in Chrisp Street Market complains of air pollution, or a man shows me a dead body and demands to know what I am going to do about knife crime, I am being presented with problems that would be directly my responsibility as London mayor – areas where I need to set the priorities, trust people, back them – and check that they are getting the basics right – and where I should be fired if I fail to turn things around.

There are now angry and suspicious citizens, from the Arab spring to Alabama, boiling with rage on social media about political elites who seem absurdly distant from everyday lives. Politicians often respond by making extreme and extravagant promises that cannot be delivered (“I will leave on 31 October – do or die”). And then blame their inevitable failure on some mysterious “establishment”, making people even angrier. It is this politics that ultimately divides a country – it pits rich against poor, north against south, London against the rest, people against parliament, Brexit against Remain. It seeks to corral voters into hostile tribes. And the leaders are then hostages of those tribes – unable to return to the centre ground – because of fear of alienating their power base.

This has never been the British political tradition. Our voters were not American Republicans and Democrats – talking about completely different subjects – and trained to feel their opponents are evil. Our voters – at least until Brexit – broadly shared the same priorities: the NHS being the most obvious. They differed not on what to do but on how to do it.

Which is why I believe my future in politics should be independent, and why I believe that all politics must become more local. Above all, politics should focus much more on the “how”. “How are you going to get from A to B – what exactly is the plan?” Populists are paradoxically foolhardy and cowardly at the same time because their actions are not based on understanding a real place and a real context. They make rhetorical noises – claims about what they want to do – but are unable to describe how they are going to do it. But talking about the “how” is also a way of bringing divided citizens together again through focusing on shared goals, a shared reality, and the same details of implementation.

And the route to the “how” of politics – and the answer to anger and social media rage – is not to transmit messages but to listen. Politics is not a product to be packaged and sold. It’s as an activity, which for me comes alive through walking. I am walking now through every borough in London. If I am lucky enough to become mayor, I will continue to walk through all these boroughs, again and again, week in, week out. And the heart of the activity of politics is listening. In the end, the politician of the future will be the one who listens best.

PHOTO-2019-10-01-13-18-52

Letter to London

Screenshot 2019-10-03 at 17.42.45

Dear Londoners

I am writing to tell you — the readers of the Evening Standard — first that I am running to be Mayor of London, as an independent candidate . And I would like your vote so that we can transform this great capital — the most intricate, diverse and astonishing city on the planet, the financial centre of the world, and the cradle of our democracy — together.

We are going to have to work together to lead London through one of the most challenging times in its history, through the uncertainty of Brexit, and in the face of an ever more divisive politics.

And there is so much to do immediately. I felt this in Poplar, when I saw a man who had just been stabbed to death in a park, and when a woman in the neighbourhood led me into a public lavatory, to show me male heroin addicts shooting up in the female cubicles. I felt it in Lewisham, where some people are living with seven people in a two-room flat, and waiting three weeks for a GP appointment.

I feel it through the frustration of tech entrepreneurs, struggling to plan for the future. And almost every day I feel the consequences of the vicious party divisions in Westminster.

So many of our problems in London are blindingly obvious. You don’t need me to tell you that too much of our housing is unaffordable, or that our air is grotesquely polluted, or our streets unsafe. Instead you need someone like me to sort these things out.

And again, the answers are not rocket science. It is obvious that we need to build far more houses and flats — not just gimcrack boxes, but homes we can be proud of. We need more police on the streets — immediately.

It is true that this is a complicated city, and there are no silver bullets, but it is sadly also true that we are suffering from a real lack of leadership, and of strong and thoughtful action. And that is, I fear, because most of our politicians have spent too much time within the political bubble.

I am proud of not being a professional politician. I have been able to apply the lessons I learnt as the deputy governor of a war-torn province in Iraq, as the founder of a charity in Afghanistan, and, back here in Britain, as the flooding minister and prisons minister, and as a member of Parliament.

It didn’t matter whether I was clearing 30,000 truck-loads of garbage out of the old city of Kabul, or whether I was introducing the plastic bag tax or reducing violence in an East London prison — I learned how to understand the problem clearly, grasp the solution, and then have the energy and determination to drive it through. When 10,000 people are dying prematurely each year and toddlers’ lungs are a third underdeveloped due to air pollution, or when we are inadequately supervising criminals in London, we shouldn’t be trying to hide the problem, we should be solving it.

And if we are lucky enough to live in a city that powers the British economy, we need to keep the traffic moving and the city growing.

But we are only going to succeed when we finally break free from the suffocating embrace of our dying party politics. Our leaders have become so bad at listening to the people — who are actually working at the ground level, keeping this city going, on the Tube, or in the police, or with communities.

Our politicians have been taken hostage by public relations consultants, and despite their optimistic promises, they are privately uneasy, pessimistic, and indecisive leaders, who have little experience of how to actually change the world.

Instead, they have retreated to a madhouse of mutual insults in the Gothic shouting chamber of Westminster, and under the bleak lights of City Hall, pitting one group against another — rich against poor, London against the rest, Brexit against Remain. All the time they are getting further and further from compromise, practical solutions, and the centre ground.

And this is why I’ve decided to stand, not for a party, but as an independent. There will always be disagreements over policy — we should often welcome this, otherwise we will just settle into lazy habits, half-baked ideas and pointless compromises. It takes a willingness to challenge others to get houses built in a crowded city, or tackle knife crime. We have to take risks, and sometimes even make mistakes.

But you can disagree about policy without firing political insults about cruelty or cowardice, ignorance or Marxism. As President Obama said about his time as a legislator in Chicago: “We learned to disagree without being disagreeable — that it’s possible to compromise so long as you know those principles that can never be compromised; and that so long as we’re willing to listen to each other, we can assume the best in people instead of the worst.”

I will be spending the coming weeks walking around London — not campaigning, but listening and learning, and walking through every borough.

I am doing it to hear from you, to see problems at their most local, to work through, step by step, all the differences between Ealing and Bromley.

Because I realise that local people always know more, care more and can do more about local issues than distant politicians.

Yours

Rory Stewart

First published in the Evening Standard on 4 October 2019.
Rory Stewart ACE project

RORY SUPPORTS EX OFFENDERS

Rory Stewart ACE project

Ahead of Prisons Week, Rory joined a coffee morning at St Andrews Church, Penrith, to hear how Caritas Care’s ACE project transforms the lives of ex-offenders.

The well-attended event held on Friday, October 11th, was organised by Stan Blacklock, who volunteers with the ACE project, to highlight Prisons Week and raise awareness of the great work the ACE project does. The programme works with ex-offenders preparing them for release, and supporting them back into the community. It works with statutory, voluntary and private services to ensure that individuals have access to community links and have some stability on which to build a better future.

As a former prisons minister with a keen interest in prisoner rehabilitation, Mr Stewart was delighted to be able to support the event and meet both volunteers and ex offenders involved with the ACE project. A number of former prisoners spoke movingly about how the project had changed their lives – building their self esteem, helping them get back on their feet and over their addictions.

Last August, Mr Stewart started the 10 Prisons Project – a year-long programme to reduce violence and drug use at some of the most challenging prisons in England and Wales. Through enhanced security, strong leadership and improved standards, statistics published a year later showed an overall 16% reduction in assaults and a 50% reduction in positive drug tests across the 10 prisons. HMP Lindholme and HMP Isis both saw a 46% reduction in assaults, while drug use fell by 84% at Lindholme and 78% at HMP Wealstun. While not all 10 prisons saw an improvement, this was a serious step in the right direction. And evidence from the project is now being used to drive up standards across the estate.

After the Penrith event, Mr Stewart said: “I am so glad I was able to find out more about the brilliant ACE project and hear first hand what an incredible impact it is having on people’s lives. It was truly amazing to hear some of the stories of how ACE has helped people. I spent a lot of time while I was prisons minister, visiting prisons and engaging with staff and prisoners and know that the work Caritas Care and other charities do is crucial.”

unnamed-3

VACANCY

Job specification: Finance manager

Experience: 3+ years of financial management experience Qualification: chartered accountant
Other desirable: public sector, political party or NGO experience Part-time: 3 days/week (with option to increase to 4-5 days) Base: home working with meetings in London
Contract type: consultancy
Rate: commensurate with experience
Duration: 8 months with 1 month review and break point

Description

This role will have full oversight for the finances of a political election campaign, with revenue and expenditure in the hundreds of thousands of pounds. As the campaign grows, the role will have management responsibility for a small team. There will also be a requirement to ensure compliance with Electoral Commission rules on fundraising and campaign expenditure. The role will make broad strategic contributions, and requires both strong control of detail and the ability to anticipate challenges and shifts in activity.

Responsibilities

  • Establish finance procedures and appropriate book-keeping software
  • Budgeting with direction from campaign management
  • Oversee petty cash and an expenses procedure
  • Advise and lead on establishment of bank accounts as required
  • Maintain auditable records or donations and expenditure
  • Prepare accounts in line with statutory filing requirements
  • Ensure value for money, probity and efficiency in all campaign spend
  • Communicate policies, procedures and key information clearly and quickly to the campaign team
  • Proactively keep senior campaign managers updated on risks and opportunities
  • Contribute actively to strategic management discussions
  • Prepare regular management accounts
  • Advise on financial aspects of campaign recruitment, including potential tax, national insurance, pension, or other obligations
  • Work with broader operations team to ensure smooth procurement procedures.
  • Candidate profile

  • Comfortable in a fast-paced team
  • Adaptable to rapid and unforeseen changes
  • Self-directed
  • Rigorous with an eye for detail
  • Strong performer under pressure
  • Enjoys being part of a positive political movement for change.
  • Please send a CV (max 2 pages) and cover letter (max 1 page) to [email protected] by 15.10.19. Interviews will happen on a rolling basis.

     

    methode-sundaytimes-prodmigration-web-bin-cbb0ac61-a382-4a73-bfb7-faada5407000

    RORY TO STEP DOWN AT NEXT GENERAL ELECTION

    Rory is to step down as Member of Parliament for Penrith and The Border after nine and a half years.

    Writing in his latest column for The Cumberland and Westmorland Herald,  Mr Stewart said: “Being your Member of Parliament has been the privilege of my life. So much of what I love about Britain lies in Cumbria: our landscape, our farming communities, our deep history and the character of our people. I feel it every time I look out of the window at home in Butterwick. And I have felt it again and again since I first walked right around this constituency as a candidate. When I have thought of England, in my most difficult moments in Afghanistan or Iraq, I have thought of this place.

    “And I have been so proud to be allowed to support and work with you. What I will remember most, is not the big things that I helped with – installing the first superfast broadband through the constituency, responding to the terrible flooding, securing the money to dual the A66. Nor is it even the smaller campaigns – saving the Penrith cinema and fire station or the Alston community ambulance, or even Alston’s cobbles. What I will remember most is simply being with people, listening, learning and focusing on individual problems – helping people face and sometimes overcome the many smaller absurdities and injustices inflicted by government: late farm payments, pension issues, planning and parking. I have such happy memories of visits to hundreds of local charities and schools. But above all, I will remember that I probably achieved most by giving communities some initial support to solve their own problems –– from the community broadband schemes in Mallerstang and Dufton, through the community housing in Crosby Ravensworth, or indeed Crosby’s community pub. (If I have one regret it is that I was not something more like a mayor – responsible full-time for running things on the ground in Cumbria – rather than being sent off as a Member of Parliament and then a Minister to a talking-shop in Westminster!)

    “It is, therefore, with great sadness that I am now handing the baton on. As you will be aware, I am no longer allowed to run as Conservative MP in Penrith and The Border. Because I have loved the constituency so much, I had considered standing as an Independent; but I have decided that I wouldn’t want to run against those Conservative members who have been such wonderful colleagues over the last ten years. I am hugely grateful to all the members of my local party who have written in support, and to the Chair and President of my local party, who have resigned from the Conservative Party in support of my position. But it should be no secret that there are also local party members who would rather I did not run again. I don’t want to test loyalties, destroy old friendships or push any of these issues any further. There is enough toxic division in British politics without importing it into Cumbria! Instead, I want to end as I began with happy and positive memories of the work we have done together.

    “As for the future – I am a public servant to my core and will stay involved in politics, endeavouring to make my voice heard. I will, of course, continue to explain why I voted for a Brexit deal, while rejecting a No-Deal Brexit (especially because of the damage it would inflict on Cumbria and sectors such as farming). But ultimately I want to move beyond Brexit, and focus on getting things done on the ground. I think our great parties are now in danger of coming apart, and our great parliament is becoming increasingly diminished. I want to show how much difference can still be made outside parliament. So I hope to start work in another part of the country. I would like, if you will allow me, to remain closely involved with Cumbria – as a champion, supporting local charities and communities – not as your Member of Parliament, but I hope as your friend.”

    Screen Shot 2019-05-19 at 11.53.00

    Diary: Am I Still A Conservative?

    My parents gave me a subscription to The Spectator in 1984, when I was 11. When I was 12, I wrote a letter to the editor, criticising the progressive views of the Bishop of Durham, and Charles Moore — who had just become the editor at the age of 27 — published it under the headline ‘Very young fogey’. Who knows what a weekly diet of The Spectator did to my impressionable mind? Is Taki responsible for my taking up martial arts? Or Roger Scruton for my views on ugly buildings? I think it was the book reviewers, so unintimidated by even the grandest book, who made the greatest impression. They made the most flattering assumptions about readers — that I would have read Osip Mandelstam, and had spent months with curlews, and made a close study of Pugin interiors. When I edited my school magazine I copied The Spectator right down to the font and the column shape. Such reverence is hard to eliminate: I was embarrassingly honoured when Charles Moore gave me high marks as a ‘real conservative’ two months ago.

    Except I am not technically a Conservative any more. I voted against no deal. (For the record I am pushing for Brexit and against Remain but think no deal would lead to uncertainty, damage and division. This is particularly true for farmers in my constituency.) The Prime Minister responded by deselecting me as the Conservative MP for Penrith and the Border, and trying to call an election. So having resigned from the cabinet only six weeks ago, I may find myself out of what remains of my job in six weeks’ time. I will be particularly sorry about this because I feel I am beginning to learn about some of the really tough hidden issues in Britain. Running for the leadership in June gave me the opportunity to explore areas outside my constituency — in Northern Ireland, England and Scotland, from Derry/Londonderry to Wigan. Last week, the last of the parliamentary holiday, I have been walking through communities in the north-east between Newcastle and Hartlepool.

    Last Thursday, I was in a food bank, in a church, which was feeding 70 people. The young Nigerian man who was studying aeronautical engineering was fit and confident. But he was the exception. A homeless man could have been any age between 20 and 30 – his skin was a raw red, he was hunched, one eye was half-closed. His flat stare implied that he had combined his heroin with street Valium. In Glasgow, I was told that the homeless simply sit, with their cup out, and when it has accumulated £10, their dealer comes and empties the cup and drops off the heroin. In a park by Saltmarket I found half an acre of ground, covered in discarded needles, and equipment for cooking drugs. The life expectancy of the heaviest drinkers is 29, and of the heroin addicts, 46. At least in Sunderland and Hartlepool there are some services, which you can access – for addiction or support. But I found that there was almost nothing for the addicts in Easington colliery, where houses cost £15,000, and nothing has replaced the mine.

    It was difficult to learn from professionals in charities – they seemed so allergic to Tory politicians that any questions were immediately diverted into furious attacks on austerity.  I had more luck with volunteers. Mary chatted to me while handing over bags of condensed milk and cereal. She had been coming to help in the food bank every week for the last two years. And seemed to know everyone. ‘This girl has removed herself from school at 14 – I’m trying to convince her to go back. Them? They’re drunk (a flailing fist-fight had erupted between two women near the statue of Our Lady). I’m not sure why they are queuing for the kids’ food – they don’t have kids. How did she afford those hair extensions? They cost £70…’ I loved her energy and cheerfulness – and lack of solemn piety. ‘Right’ she said at the end, ‘that’s my guilt dealt with for the week – I’m going paddleboarding.’ The answer has to begin with recruiting, training and backing more Marys: thoughtful, realistic, good-humoured people – some in social, youth and probation work, some volunteers – patiently helping people through all the challenges: from addiction to a simple lack of hope.

    I’ve just finished reading Blitzed, a beautifully researched book about drugs in Nazi Germany. The Blitzkrieg was fuelled, it seems, on crystal meth — it allowed the panzer drivers to go for three days without sleep and gave suicidal confidence to the waves of attacking German troops. The success of a reckless charge, against all odds, just strengthened their optimism. By 1944 Hitler was maintaining the Führer confidence with six injections a day. Some were cocktails of pig’s blood (which didn’t affect his belief that he was a vegetarian). But increasingly it was combinations of heroin and methamphetamine. The generals — astonished at his optimism in the face of all negative reports on every front — assumed he must have a secret weapon. The secret was chemically induced.

    Yesterday, I was worrying about my cherry trees — what we call ‘Gean’ in my part of Britain and what the Spectator reader would call prunus avium. We planted 40 of them to mark our wedding seven years ago. One is thick, healthy, and 20 feet high. The others are in terrible states — black and wilting leaves, leaves shredded by aphids, barks torn to the core by roe-deer. They all share the same sun, in the same field, and I have put new shelters around all of them, but after seven years some are barely four foot tall. Twice I have replaced some of the most sickly, so there are now three batches struggling in the field. Every spring I hope the problem will be solved. I suspect the soil and the cherries simply don’t agree. But I cannot seem to change course. I am a great one for accusing other people of fairytale optimism, about Iraq, Afghanistan or no-deal Brexit. But when it comes to my cherry trees my megalomaniac fantasies are on full display: failure is not an option.

    Screenshot 2019-09-03 at 13.00.52

    What is wrong with us?

    What is wrong with us? The United Kingdom should be one of the most impressive democracies on Earth. We have incisive and apparently incorruptible judges; an undeferential, boisterous and intelligent media; and an extraordinary culture of voluntary activity – supplemented by charitable superpowers such as Oxfam and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Our civil servants, diplomats and soldiers are thoughtful and skilful. Our parliament is more diverse than at any time in its history. Our economy is stable. Only the US can rival our universities; and only the US and China, our success in science. London remains one of the greatest cities on Earth. Our citizens have never seemed so healthy or better educated. So why does it suddenly seem to be so difficult to make what once, at least, seemed obvious, sensible arguments from the centre ground?

    Three weeks ago, I found myself in the final five for the leadership of the Conservative Party. I went into a BBC debate against the other four candidates – all of whom were promising unfunded tax cuts and increases in public spending. They also rejected the current European Union withdrawal agreement and insisted on retaining no-deal as a threat against the EU. All the others claimed to be able to get a new deal out of Brussels by the end of October (or in one case, the end of the year). All insisted that in the absence of such a deal, they would want to leave in 2019 with no deal, and that they would be able to drive no deal through parliament.

    How could I lose against such arguments? Most of the public and 90 per cent of my parliamentary colleagues agreed – or at least had recently agreed – that we could not get no deal through parliament. Very few people were comfortable with unfunded tax or spending promises. Or with a no-deal Brexit. Or with suspending parliament. Nobody seriously believed that Brussels would offer an entirely new deal by October (even Nigel Farage agreed with me on that).

    But I failed to win any of these arguments, and within 24 hours I was knocked out of the contest. There have been explanations for my failure. One, made by the pollster John Curtice, is that public opinion simply makes a “centrist” position such as mine impossibly quixotic. Public opinion was traditionally – in the time of Tony Blair and David Cameron – a bell curve with all the votes located in the centre ground. Now the bell shape has collapsed, like an unstable soufflé, into a U-shape, leaving voters only on the extremes.

    Forty per cent of voters want to ignore the referendum result and remain in the European Union; and 40 per cent of the population – and around 80 per cent of Conservative members – apparently favour no deal if the alternative is remain. There was almost no constituency for someone trying to argue for a moderate and pragmatic Brexit among the public – and therefore there could not be among practical MPs.

    I favour a different explanation. Which was that I had forgotten all the lessons of the many walks I had done around the country in the previous weeks – from Derry to Derby, from Edinburgh to Peterborough – and had tried simply to rehearse what I saw as the facts. I talked about the impact of unfunded tax cuts and spending pledges on our fiscal position. I tried and failed to explain in a few seconds how higher tariffs following a no-deal Brexit would lead to inflation, pressure on incomes, interest rate rises, and ultimately negative impacts on GDP.

     

    In other words, as some of my friends argued when they were being more polite, I was “off my game”.

    The lesson is that it is possible to change minds, and defeat extremist positions; but not by explaining tariff levels. If 72 per cent of voters are dissatisfied with the UK democratic system – half believing that the government doesn’t care about them, and more than half saying that “Britain needs a strong leader willing to break the rules” – you cannot expect to win simply on technocratic arguments. But nor should you feel forced to respond with nonsense and fairy tales. What I had seen, walking around the country, is that democratic life is neither about echoing and deepening pre-existing prejudices, nor only about communicating economics.

    To support a sensible, pragmatic position, you have to begin by rediscovering a sense of anger and shame. And acknowledge how unforgiveable and appalling many things are in modern Britain. You need to see the line of broken windows in cell after cell in a Liverpool prison, and see the blood on the floor in one in Birmingham, to feel the right kind of shame at the state of our prisons. You need to get out to Poplar in east London to see the white tent in the rough grass between the buildings of a housing estate, pitched over the body of a dead man; the air ambulance, rotor blades still spinning, waiting to take him away; and listen to the older man explain what it was like to walk out of his mosque and see someone lying on the ground, bleeding to death from a knife wound.

    Second, you need to be very much in a hurry to fix things. You cannot accept that it is impossible to reduce violence in prisons in a year. Or that the fast train connection between Leeds and Manchester will not begin to be built until 2035. Or that Britain should have slower broadband speeds than Madagascar. Or that almost every young man around that Poplar estate is carrying a knife. Nor should you accept smaller injustices – such as the idea that a constituent visiting a dying parent should receive a parking fine in the hospital car park.

    Third, you need to be ambitious. You should aim to plant not 11 million trees but 110 million trees; build not a million homes in five years, but two million and build them with government money, and make them beautiful.

    And if there is a single extreme disgrace, such as the great unfinished revolution of adult social care – left for decades after the creation of the NHS – then sort it out. It is not defensible that the frail elderly should only get 15-minute daily care visits in their homes – hardly long enough to wash them, let alone talk to them. So, reach boldly across parties, and agree on how to finance a proper system of care.

    All of this – seeing the horrors, feeling the shame, getting on with it at scale – allows you occasionally to do something more fundamental, which is to be truthful about your own failings, and the obstacles that stand in the way of getting anything significant done. And all of this – from shame to truth – helps you to believe in what you are doing again.

    Perhaps because the centre ground had seemed so inevitable and successful for so long, little emotional or moral energy was needed to make the case for moderation. Instead the arguments had long been surrendered to policy think tanks and civil servants who produced intelligent papers, in a minor key – about learning lessons from Scandinavia, or recommending better use of technology, or more efficiency. The only “value” that had been discussed for two decades was value for money. Patriotism, liberty, courage, and the will of the people were ideas that were abandoned – left on a dusty shelf – to be picked up again by the more divisive politicians.

    It was all too easy for the extremists to use punchy language to disguise their vacuous fantasies, making the impractical seem practical, the negative positive, and the airy-fairy down to earth. Take “no-deal Brexit”, for example. It is a phrase that sounds like a thing, a fine Anglo-Saxon fact, not an abstraction like “a temporary backstop”, but it is in fact the opposite of a thing. No deal is an absence that pretends to be a presence; the negation of a deal that pretends to be a type of deal.

    It is a phrase that floats recklessly free from any connection to any particular person in a local place, or at a particular time. It cannot ever tell, say, Chris Harrison, a sheep farmer in Alston, Cumbria, whether he would have to pay European tariffs of 40 per cent on his Swaledale lambs; or whether Brazilian beef would come in import-free. But it is vague enough to allow its proponents to claim it is democratic despite the majority of the population being against it, and patriotic even though it is against the best traditions and interests of our country.

    Like almost every other argument made today – even in the mainstream of the Labour and Conservative parties – it builds on the fantasy of the victim, that you would be better off on your own, if only you could rid yourself of other classes, other groups and other nations. It shares the instinct that made some Scottish nationalists feel that the many challenges of a modern nation could be solved by simply getting rid of England. And these desires to turn away from relationships seemed an aspect of a deeper desire to turn away from reality – from the questions of who or what we really are today as a people, what we share, and who we can realistically be in the future.

    I’ve been struggling to communicate my sense that the centre ground should not be simply a midpoint between these empty abstractions  – some grey smudge between the blacks and whites of the extreme; that it has a reality, a connective power and a maturity that is denied to the other positions. It is something that exists on a different dimension – of reality as opposed to fairy tale. And because it is grounded in reality, it can be sustained and successful in a way populism cannot, because it is founded in truth.

    But the centre should also not be a narrowing project that seeks to belittle the intuitions, the understanding or the motivations of people who currently favour a no-deal Brexit or Jeremy Corbyn.

    Faced with a democracy that sometimes feels as though all the votes are gathered at two opposite ends of a stick, the centre ground must not be simply the midpoint of the stick, whose only merit is being as far away as possible from each extreme. It should instead involve a project of bending the stick and connecting both ends with a string to make a bow. The centre should then be at the midpoint of the string, the point of greatest potential energy – which comes not from excluding the two extremes, nor from linking them loosely together, but instead from harnessing the tension of two opposing forces.

    Our country has entered a midlife crisis. The answer cannot be to try to lurch back to an adolescent fantasy of being saved by superheroes, but instead to move forward into maturity. Such a maturity begins with a recognition of our shame, our failures, and our successes in surviving and battling the constraints of the world and time. A maturity that turns from comforting and ambiguous abstractions to face, unflinchingly, reality. And to say, like Samuel Beckett’s Krapp, reflecting on whether he missed the excitement of his youth, “not with the fire that’s in me now”.