I didn’t endorse May’s Brexit timetable – but I’m no ‘enemy of the people’

On Thursday 8th December I wrote an article for The Guardian setting out my reasons for voting against the motion put before the House of Commons on Wednesday 7th December that gave the Prime Minister a blank cheque to trigger Article 50 in March: I didn't endorse May's Brexit timetable - but I'm no 'enemy of the people'.

You can read the article in full below or here.

If this government is to be the one -nation government it claims to be, the personal attacks that fuel the abhorrent “enemies of the people” rhetoric that we have seen of late must stop.

The Tory MP and former attorney general Dominic Grieve has warned that the “vitriolic abuse” hurled at anybody who says anything that counters the hard Brexit mantra is leading us to a very bad place.

Time and time again, history has tried to warn us what happens when a democracy turns in on itself and becomes dominated by a vindictive, vicious tribalism. In publishing a video on the official Conservative Twitter account that describes certain Labour MPs, including me, as “standing in the way” of the British people, not only is the government failing to halt this descent into darkness – it is actively fuelling it.

Worse still, the official Leave EU Twitter feed described the Tory MP Anna Soubryas “repulsive”, and suggested that she “needs to seek help”. Her venerable colleague Ken Clarke was, meanwhile, described as a “rambling old clown” who had “embarrassed himself” by voting against a motion to give the prime minister a blank cheque to trigger article 50 in March

Abuse of this kind is not the way to encourage sensible, constructive debate about where we go from here, let alone unite a country that remains deeply divided after the EU referendum.

I am worried that we are entering an Orwellian dystopia – one in which not only are people who dare to oppose or differ from the government’s line subjected to “two minutes of hate”, but in which we are also seeing words and phrases being systematically shorn of real meaning – “red, white and blue Brexit” being surely the most vacuous and patronising of the lot.

The prime minister and her ministerial colleagues have been absolutely adamant that they want to deliver a Brexit that works for all the British people. We keep on hearing that they want to bring the country together, uniting us all and healing the divisions that have been so sharply revealed this year.

This year we have seen an MP murdered in cold blood while going about her work. A number of members of parliament have come forward – myself included – and said that they have been subject to death threats. Hate crime has soared since 23 June. All the evidence points to the fact that we are moving in a very dangerous direction.

In Wednesday’s parliamentary debate, I made clear that I couldn’t support the motion for a number of reasons, not least that the prime minister decided upon her arbitrary March timetable without any input from parliament.

I also challenged whether having hard-Brexit MPs and even cabinet ministers offend and alienate our European neighbours is a sensible course of action, given that we will have to sit opposite them across a negotiating table within a matter of months.

When the home secretary proposes that companies draw up lists of EU workers, or the health secretary announces plans to replace European-born NHS staff, we reduce what little goodwill is left in Europe and make a good Brexit deal even more unlikely.

These are important points, and I will continue to make them. The point of our democracy is that arguments must be met head on, not merely dismissed by accusing the people who make them as being anti-democratic “remoaners” who are seeking to defy the will of the British people.

Look around. As a country, we are more divided than at any other point in my lifetime, and there is no sense that this is going to change anytime soon. Implying that anyone with the temerity to mention the fact that 48% of the country actually voted to remain is a traitor will do nothing to bring the country back together.

If you are serious about a Brexit that works for all the British people, then painting the millions of people who are concerned about what the future holds as “bitter remoaners”, and dismissing their concerns as “anti-democratic”, is a surefire way to make sure that a consensus is not built and that the divisions that exist today become deeper and more entrenched.

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