A born Londoner, a proud Brit and European, I’d never felt those identities to be competing or the need to choose between then. Imagine my profound shock when a month after returning to live in London, having spent the previous five years in Brussels at the heart of Europe, the people voted to leave the EU by a narrow majority. Since then, I’ve watched at first the increasing polarisation of a nation struggling to comprehend if and how Brexit might be interpreted, before inevitably becoming apathetic with the whole Brexit thing.
As a voting public became disenfranchised with politicians who seemingly set aside the national interest in favour of party political point scoring and our two parties lurching further to the right and left respectively, I found myself increasingly wondering ‘What would Churchill do?’ Churchill’s legacy may have come under the microscope in recent weeks from various commentators, but he led the way in putting the national interest above his own party’s when he formed a WWII centrist government which united politicians from across the spectrum in a common aim of defeating Nazi Germany in Europe.
Why, I kept asking friends and colleagues, couldn’t our modern leaders do likewise? Of course, it has been done before, and much has been made of the failure of the SDP. What made me more enthusiastic about British politics than I have been since that fateful Thursday in June 2016, was the fact that unlike the SDP, both Labour and Conservative moderates this week showed with their feet that they won’t continue to support leadership and policies that they don’t agree with.
There have been few political moments in my memory as poignant as the sight of three female Conservative MPs leaving their party’s benches and crossing over to sit with the seven former Labour Independent members, symbolically setting aside the political acrimony that has increasingly threatened to derail our prospects for life after Brexit. The only comparable moment in my memory, surely by no coincidence also involving a female Tory, was the sight of Margaret Thatcher leaving Downing Street having been deposed by her own Cabinet, a single tear rolling down her cheek.
Daniel Finkelstein was palpably moved when he wrote in The Times this week of his response to Luciana Berger’s own decision to leave the Labour Party, prompted by its handling of antisemitism in its ranks. He wrote about being so moved “that in modern Britain, a young woman was driven out of Britain’s biggest progressive party by people who hate Jews and by other people who won’t do anything about it”, once again an example of a female MP’s actions defining this symbolic week for British politics.
In resigning from their respective parties, the members, all of them Remainers, took a decisive position on the Brexit issue and in doing so sent a clear signal that the only way to reach consensus over Brexit and its likely fallout, is for politicians of all stripes to unite behind a new vision. The fifteen minutes each of them has been granted in the spotlight as a result of their walkout has seen them called on to establish a manifesto.
That in itself has shown that whilst these politicians have boldly tried to overturn our two-party system and the divisions it engenders in the public, they won’t have long to convert public interest into popular vote – particularly with an early general election continuing to look likely. History says they might struggle, as the Liberal Democrats did in 2005, limping to a modest third place finish in the polls, and the MPs themselves may struggle to even be re-elected. It’s a gamble, but a daring one, and the idea of politicians sacrificing personal political ambition in an attempt to invoke strong leadership in trying times could well becoming the defining moment of our times.