2018 was a year of extremes. We had, by British standards, a very cold winter followed by a very hot summer. Around the world, moderation and compromise has seemed in short supply, and, of course, there has been the ongoing Brexit debate.
It will be a relief I am sure when I say I have no intention of revisiting in this article the various arguments deployed in that debate, but the turning of the year is a good time for a sense of perspective and I do want to make some observations on the way in which Brexit has been discussed. I recognise of course that Britain’s future, inside or outside the European Union, is a hugely important issue and I recognise too that for families, friendship groups or workplaces which include EU citizens, this is far from an academic question. I do, however, think the tone of our discussion has let us all down. From the lengthy and fractious EU referendum campaign, to the even lengthier and even more fractions arguments that have followed the result of that referendum, Britain has fallen out with itself far more than I consider merited on this subject. One of the fundamental beliefs I have held throughout the time I have been in politics is that it is not necessary to doubt someone’s motives in order to disagree with their judgments. I have no trouble believing for example both that Jeremy Corbyn is a good man and that he would make a bad Prime Minister. But we have allowed the Brexit debate to become not an argument about whether the judgment of those with whom we disagree is flawed, but a cause to doubt their patriotism. There is no justification for that. In the Brexit debate, as in politics more generally, my experience is that those on all sides of the argument are patriots. We may disagree on how to achieve it, but we all want the best for our country and, however Brexit resolves itself, afterwards we will need to work together to achieve it.
I believe we can do that. Am I being unduly optimistic, overcome with festive cheer? Perhaps. But let me offer one piece of evidence in 2018 from long before the festive season – a joyous summer of football we have perhaps forgotten in the depths of a grumpy winter. The England football team delighted us not just with their skills but with the unity of a diverse team achieving more than expected together. In the process, despite all the reasons we had to be divided, they also succeeded in uniting us as a nation in support of their achievements. Football fans or not, we showed in the summer we were desperate to come together over something. So, as we look back at 2018 and forward to 2019, let’s remember how we felt about the football, and be hopeful. After all, if England can win a penalty shoot-out in a World Cup match, anything is possible.