There's a great Bruce Springsteen song called Born to Run. It's about the freedom of the open road and having a motorcycle and feeling the wind in your hair. But Born to Run has always struck me as applying to some politicians. I thought Bill Clinton, whom I first met when he was governor of Arkansas, was "born to run" for the presidency of the US. The same is true of many other politicians who started out as student activists and ended up in parliaments and governments.
Not me. I have never in my life been a member of a political party. But I am now. I have never been a candidate for election. I am now. And I have never been seriously worried about the future of my country. I am now. I have joined the new British party Change UK, formerly known as The Independent Group and formed by people who – bravely, in my view – left their parties, whether Conservative, Labour or others, because they thought they were failing Britain. The breaking point came, as I am sure you will have guessed, over Brexit.
Since the referendum nearly three years ago, it has become obvious that while the campaign to leave the EU won narrowly by 52 per cent to 48 per cent, it was marred by cheating, false promises and blatant lies. Even worse, the attempts within the British government to decide what Brexit actually means have ended up with incompetence, resignations and factional infighting. The governing Conservative party is deeply divided. So is the opposition Labour party.
At first I did what journalists do – I watched it all happen from the sidelines, as an observer. But in the past year, I have become more of a vocal activist.
The moment I decided I needed to do something about Brexit was when British Prime Minister Theresa May had to go to Brussels to plead with EU leaders for more time. It reminded me of Oliver Twist begging for “more” in Charles Dickens’s novel. Brexit was supposed to be about taking back control. It isn’t.
It’s about weakening Britain and making us poorer. I needed to help stop it happening. So this week, I became a candidate in the European elections for Change UK in London.
My party is only a few weeks old and there will no doubt be teething problems. But it is obvious to people all over Britain – indeed all over the world – that our political system is severely damaged. It's a worldwide joke. I have listened to Irish and German comedians tell stories about our incompetence. I have been told that the British had a headache – so why did they shoot themselves in the foot? I have watched the British prime minister, in the name of "taking back control", having to beg European leaders in Brussels for more time. Our country cannot be strong abroad when we are weak at home. Brexit has divided us and weakened us and is destroying our international image for competence. And I want to help change all that.
Change UK has a very good chance of picking up seats in the elections on May 23. It's impossible to say how many in such a volatile political time. We have three clear objectives: to stop Brexit; fix Britain; and reform the EU. That means as my first political step, I am supporting the People's Vote, which is calling for a referendum on any deal that is finally passed by parliament. Every Brexit deal we have been confronted with has proven to be worse for the UK than the deal we currently have in the European Union.
Even Mrs May, to her credit, will never say Britain will be richer after Brexit. We will be poorer. Moreover, if Britain does leave the EU, Brexit isn’t finished. It is just about to begin. We will have years and years of negotiating trade deals and sorting out problems, from airline rights to medical supplies and food regulations.
I have friends who voted for Brexit. Despite the deep divisions in the UK over this, we remain friends. One is self-employed in his 40s and would describe himself as “working class”. He certainly works; six, sometimes seven days a week. He pays taxes. He loves Britain.
He voted Leave in June 2016 because, as he told me, Labour and Conservative had done nothing much for him and he had stopped voting altogether. But Brexit meant he could have a say. He told me he wanted to send a message to the political class: that Britain needed fixing. The trouble is that the vague idea of Brexit that he was sold cannot fix anything, because it cannot be delivered. The reality is unpicking a close arrangement with friendly countries which has worked for nearly 50 years.
My friend has stopped listening to news filled with stories of government incompetence. There is no version of Brexit that can fix what my friend – and most of us in Britain – know is wrong with our country. Why does the British political system not work for so many people? Why are the traditional political parties so remote and out of touch? Why do so many of us work so hard and yet cannot get ahead? Why are there so many food banks in one of the richest countries in the world?
My friend is a British patriot. So am I. He is an optimist. I am too. But Brexit has sucked the life out of British politics. Arguing about Europe has destroyed the careers of British prime ministers going back years, from David Cameron and John Major to Margaret Thatcher and Ted Heath.
I confess that making the move from journalist to political activist is something I have never considered. Now it has happened, I am quite daunted. But I know that no one born in the 21st century had a chance to vote for or against staying in the European Union. Children and teenagers today will have to deal with the decision our country makes for the rest of their lives. It had better be the right decision.
Gavin Esler is a journalist, presenter and a European parliamentary candidate for the Change UK party