How Shallow Is Support For Brexit?

 

The political temperature is high, and not only in this country. Our newspapers have returned to their original ways, as practiced during their heyday of the 1930s, yelling ‘Hurrah For The Blackshirts!’, or the contemporary equivalent, and urging contempt for the rule of law.  Brexiters threaten a march of 100,000 people to intimidate the judiciary.  The Leader of the Opposition is mocked for attending Remembrance Sunday solemnities, while at the same moment the ‘patriotic’ leader of UKIP poses for pictures in a golden elevator on the other side of the pond. And meanwhile a man is on trial for a political assassination.

It’s politics, Jim, but not as we know it.

Some of this heat is justified.  A President Trump is a genuinely frightening prospect.  Brexit is so foolish that only a political class that is terrified of the voters would even consider it.  As for Italy’s upcoming referendum, and the French presidential elections next year…. These are genuinely unprecedented times, at least since the middle of the last century.

But there is a cooler way of looking at Britain, at least.  37% voters voted to leave the EU, constituting 52% of those turning out.  Since the vote, a series of opinion polls has tended to suggest that support for Brexit has been flaking away.

You’d be forgiven for not seeing those numbers for what they are.  Social media, phone-ins, below-the-line comments are dominated by foam-mouthed Brexit bigots, racists, xenophobes, homophobes, misogynists, and fruitcakes.  Surely when the Daily Mail declares judges to be ‘Enemies of the People’, there will be millions baying their agreement, and primed to act?

But I’m not convinced that there’s as much behind the noise as the New Moseleyites would like us to fear.  And maybe they’ve made their first big miscalculation?

The march on the Supreme Court could be the moment they begin to get called out.

Great claims have been made for this march. They aren’t pretending that it will match the two million who tried, and failed, to stop the invasion of Iraq, but I suspect that that’s about playing a political game.  Claim 100,000 will march, and then a quarter of a million is a massive triumph.

But can they even muster 100,000?  Arron Banks, or some other off-shore fat cat, can pay for free coaches to bus in demonstrators (as they do in Iran), and treat them to free beer in London (as they don’t do in Iran), but coach hire for 100,000 doesn’t come cheap, and I’m not convinced they can find the bodies, not unless they hire some extras – Romanians, perhaps?  – to bump up the numbers.  We shall see.

They’ll certainly get lashings of publicity.  The Brexit yellow press will big it up, and the craven BBC will send along the cameras as they no longer to to most other demonstrations and marches these days.  They’ve been good at using smoke and mirrors to create an illusion which may be less grounded in reality than they’ve led too many of us to believe.

But we’ll be watching.  As the evidence accumulates that June 23rd was the moment of madness, not a turning point in history, we need to shine a spotlight on the weakness of the Brexit mob.

For Brexit is a movement without a goal. A project without a clear purpose. It has an outcome – leaving the EU – which is undeliverable without causing maximum damage to the economy. It is also a kind of social vandalism.  There are people who genuinely are disrupters, and say “bring on the wreckage”.  Everything ‘creates value’ – for some.  No accident that that’s a phrase from the financiers’ lexicon.

When we begin to expose the shallowness (of numbers, of willingness to go to the barricades) of Brexit, then we can begin to convince the cowardly political class that it is time for leadership, or at least a little rational thinking about the national interest.

Farage, like Fox News, thinks he’s Leader of the Opposition, and on track to be crowned King.  Our media feed his narcissistic delusions.  But this emperor rules a dungheap, and must be called out.

Boris, the clown prince, is a diminished figure these days.  It’s nice to travel the world trashing foreigners and making stuff up for £250,000+ a year as a journalist. It’s harder to enjoy it when you have to be sneered at, ignored, or rebuffed by those foreigners – and do it on a Cabinet minister’s miserly pay.

And May, the woman who would be Prime Minister even if it kills her country, retains enough survival instinct, surely, to change with the tide (again), if Brexit starts to look more dangerous and unpopular than calling a halt to Brexit.

 

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Civilisation Is A Confidence Trick

I’m trying CPT. Cognitive Political Therapy.

That’s what this blog is. I started it in the run up to the 2015 general election as a means of trying to work out what the hell was going on. With Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, the theory is that you try to work out, and put into perspective, what frightens you by thinking about the worst that could possibly happen, and how you might deal with it.  The trouble with the political version is that every time I think that the worst couldn’t possibly happen, it does.

And then something even worse, unimaginably worse, happens.  A majority Tory government? It’ll never happen.  Brexit? Nah. President Trump? No way, Jose.

So why have people like me got so little understanding?  It’s not just the ‘metropolitan elite’ – it’d be some comfort if I was one of them.  At least I’d get paid for writing this stuff.  Basically, you are stuffed if you have a belief that democracy functions best with essentially altruistic politicians, inspired by their own ideological versions of the public good, competing for the trust of the electorate, who then go on to enact rational policies underpinned by evidence that they might work.

So what’s gone wrong?

Ed Miliband, speaking on Robert Peston’s show this morning, claimed that he’d had the right analysis of the scale and depth of the problem before the last election, but that the solutions they offered were “too small”.

I buy some of that. The analysis of this stage of capitalism was plausible, and the idea of finding some politically acceptable form of redistribution of wealth sensible.  But both still run up against the buffers of tone, and mood.

Or take Nick Cohen, writing in The Observer today.  He offered a leftish-liberal version of Roger Scruton’s prescription on Radio Four this morning – we need to heed the pain, suffering, and ‘identity politics’ of straight white guys.  Professor Scruton, tweed-clad, fox hunter that he is, does not want us to sneer at the ‘white working class’, whereas Cohen, at least, recognises that the key concept here is class. White, or otherwise.  I’ll even buy some of that.

But none of it is enough.  Why are we in this crisis, this train wreck of crises, carriage upon carriage of them?

It’s no accident that one of the most oft-repeated metaphors of late evokes the cartoon character who runs at full speed off the edge of a cliff, and keeps on running until the realisation hits that there’s no ground beneath the feet.  Cue the plummet.

The image works for our times, because there is sort of a consensus, across left and right, if such labels mean much any more, that the illusions that have kept our civilisations stable are crumbling into dust, and nothing is replacing them.

Certainly the 2008 banking crisis brought this long brewing problem out into the open.  I thought I understood as much as any thoughtful member of the public about how capitalism worked.  However much I railed against gross inequality, or corporate greed, I assumed that the system was essentially rational.  So to discover that behind the Portland stone, or steel and glass towers, that shade the inner workings of the financial system from view, there was little more than a gaudy Las Vegas casino of winking slot machines into which our savings were poured, yielding a trickle of coins for us, and a great stack of loot for the 1% – that was scary.

And everyone knows about this stuff, even if they haven’t thought it through, or made the connections.

Insurance?  Think it is priced according to actuarial calculations about the level of risk incurred by both parties?  Of course not.  It’s about extracting as much cash from the customer as possible.

Energy prices?  Competition has worked well there. Not.

We know things are wrong.  That most of us, working class, middle class, it doesn’t matter, most of us are less secure than we used to be.  We have to be ever vigilant that we aren’t being fleeced for things we have no option to buy – shelter, food, heat, water.  It is exhausting.

So what happens when the ground we thought was solid disappears from under us?

History suggests that there are simple solutions, but that they don’t work, and there are complex, difficult solutions, and they may well work.

At the moment, the purveyors of the simple solutions are in the ascendency.  It’s a form of modern Luddism.  Smash stuff up. It feels good, doesn’t it?  But look where the Luddites got. Nowhere.  Smashing stuff because you want things to go back to how they used to be is a tantrum, not a strategy.

The Luddites didn’t see how the economy was changing; how capital accumulation was powering technological change, which in turn was leading to massive, fundamental social change.  How could they? They were handloom weavers, and the new world of power looms and spinning machines was beyond their comprehension.

But there were people around, not just thinkers, but doers, not just in ivory towers, but on factory floors, who pieced together an analysis and a practical prescription, which was in tune with changing times.  Collective action, mass membership political parties, the extension of the franchise until it was universal.  It involved not just thinking about one’s own village, or one’s own valley.  It involved thinking bigger than ‘ordinary people’ had ever thought before.

Today we are in need of thinking, and action, on a similar scale.  Big, open, not sentimental about the way things were, but humble enough to hang on to the bits of the past that are still fit for purpose, and unafraid of being radical.

Civilisation is a confidence trick.  Thats not to disparage it.  It works when we believe in it, when we buy into it, when it gives us security and opportunity.  Right now we’ve lost confidence, and for good reason.  The trick isn’t working.

And for our next trick?

Inside The Basket Of Deplorables

Hillary Clinton got into a lot of trouble for calling many of Donald Trump’s supporters “a basket of deplorables”. I like the phrase. It has a poetic ring. It’s another way of saying, “fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists,” which was David Cameron’s dismissive crack about UKIP.

The expression of contempt for voters by politicians is nothing new, and, indeed, in this age of incivility, it is spreading.  My MP thinks I’m a ‘deplorable’ – she effectively told me so for questioning her judgement over the monumental mistake which is Brexit.  A few years back you could write to an MP in green ink complaining about GCHQ controlling your mind via satellite, and you’d have got a polite response, but no more.  Make no mistake – this is war. Politicians Vs Voters.

It was during last year’s general election that I first heard the arresting line that “MPs are frightened of voters”.  After that bruising election, marked by a torrent of manipulation, lies and deceit (copyright: Sir Lynton Crosby), followed by a referendum of shame and political assassination, and topped off by the election of a cartoon villain as President of the United States of America, it is easy to see that politicians, pollsters and policy wonks have every reason to be fearful.

So let’s look more closely at the fears of the political class.

First of all, who are they?

In Britain, at least, they are mostly middle-class graduates, rigorously trained in politics from their teens, and if they have worked outside formal politics before entering Parliament, it tends to be in fields like the law, finance, and the media.  Their world centres on Westminster, and their social lives, as well as working lives, tend to be confined to a fairly narrow group of overlapping individuals (with analogous sub-groups in the nations and regions).  A similar, if less concentrated pattern applies in the USA, I’d suggest.

On one level, it’s like that for pretty much everyone.  My friends are mostly people much like me.  I don’t feel bad about that.

But there is another ingredient that the political class has (I very much include most of the metropolitan media in this, too).  They have been trained to see the public as wayward civilians compared to their disciplined regiments.  Their job is to gain ‘intelligence’ upon us; to work out what we think we want, or to guide us towards what we can be made to think we want, and to work out effective strategies to  game our votes, or at least, our acquiescence.

This is what politics is now, and it is all assisted by the priesthood of pollsters, think tank professionals, and lobbyists, to whom we – the civilians – are more like zoo animals than fellow citizens.

We civilians sense this.  We kind of ‘get’ that we’ve been caged, and that these weird people prod us with sticks, shine lights in our eyes, and carefully record our responses on their clipboards.  Naturally we don’t like it.

Of course, some of us know how its done, and we can speak the language of the political class. We can ‘pass’ through their midst occasionally, or even enter their ranks, if we have the connections.  But we still don’t like it.

As for the rest of our fellow citizens, they are increasingly mad about this state of affairs.  And they show it.

When MPs attend their constituency surgeries, or knock on doors during elections, they meet ‘mad’ voters.  People who are angry, who shout at them, who won’t give them a hearing, who are unreasonable, irrational, aggressive, and actually pretty frightening.  They use the language of “fruitcakes, loonies, and (not so) closet racists”.  They, we, are a “basket of deplorables,” unreachable by honest public servants trying to do their best.

They are scared of us.

This is where the Trumps and Farages of this world come in.  People who, whatever else one can say about them, are not frightened of voters.  The coarsest language, barely contained aggression, irrational and contradictory demands; nothing can faze people like this. Indeed, it feeds them.  They mirror it, they ramp it up, they feed it back.

It is junk politics, high in trans-fats, refined sugar, devoid of nutrients, but satisfyingly more-ish.  The Tory Party, or the Republican establishment, can sometimes offer up a lip smacking hotdog full of salt and grease, but it’s easily outgunned by UKIP/Trumpish buckets of deep-fried bigotry.

That’s the problem.  Getting the junk-eaters to ditch the fat for a wholesome Mediterranean diet.  ‘Swap a full English for avocado on toast?  Do me a favour!’

So what’s the solution?

Like Jamie Oliver fearlessly entering school kitchens and ditching the turkey twizzlers, sensible politicians and their mates need to overcome their fear of voters, stop trying to appease us with things they think we might like (do have an immigration cookie. Or perhaps you’d like to take a disabled person’s benefits away?), and treat us with respect, even if it takes a while to overcome our suspicion.

It won’t be easy.  But they’ll find they have allies. And it will be the right thing to do.

From Brexit To Trump

Of all the things I have read in the last few hours about the Trump victory in the US Presidential election, the one observation that resonated most with me was about the role of commentators. Commentators will “try to normalise” the result.

This, of course, is precisely what happened after the referendum in the UK.  The people had spoken. Only bad losers with no regard for democracy would point out that 17 million people out of a nation of 65 million had spoken.  That 37% of voters chose ‘Leave’. That the referendum was ‘advisory’, not binding, in a representative democracy.  And so it was that the commentators washed away the wishes of the other half of the country (or the 34% + the 29%), saying that we had to ‘come together’, to ‘make Brexit work’, and that no one would seriously obstruct the will of the people as expressed in the vote.  The new reality was to be accepted as a done deal.

At least a US presidential election gives the electorate there the chance to reconsider in four years time, and even an electorally successful Trump cannot serve more than two terms.  But right now he’s talking the language of national unity, of healing divisions, of praising his opponent, and all the expected courtesies of a President-Elect.

All this is about starting the normalisation process.

But these are not normal times.

Trump will be president, because he won the election.  That is the only ‘normal’ thing about the here and now.  Perhaps he will govern with more pragmatism and restraint than his rhetoric thus far suggests. But it is hard to see how, when he also has a party – The Republicans – in control of both Houses of Congress, and awash with fruitcakes high on lobby money.  To normalise this situation is wrong.  Especially when there are also decisions to be made on who sits on the Supreme Court bench.  This would be a situation in which there would be very weak separations between the three branches of government.  That effectively jeopardises the Constitution.  That cannot, and should not, be ‘normalised’.

Brexit Britain is even less ‘normal’, even with our famously ‘flexible’ constitution.

Look at the facts.

The referendum was called for no good reason, other than the presumed convenience of the former Prime Minister (that worked out well, Dave).

The normal safeguards around a referendum proposing far-reaching constitutional change were not instituted (thresholds for turnout, and for the required majority for change).

The eligible electorate was too narrowly prescribed, given the nature of the change proposed, disenfranchising many Britons living abroad, and also young people with the strongest stake in the future.

We now have a PM who was elected by nobody, leading a government with a programme which was not part of the party manifesto just one year ago.  It’s a Brexit coup, in effect.

Five months after the vote, we still have no idea of what Brexit might look like.

And yet, everywhere the contradictory, and triumphalist, and pettily populist (blue passports, royal yachts?) are being normalised by the media, and by even those politicians who actually do know better. Everybody stick your fingers in your ears and shout “Brexit, Brexit, Brexit!’ at anybody with the effrontery to be a whinging ‘remoaner’.  That’s how to govern in the national interest.

Well, it isn’t.

Those who fear for US politics need to remain vigilant, critical, and ready to shine a light on every single liberty stolen, every single policy failure, every single bit of economic bad news, every single foreign policy cock-up, and to point the finger of blame at those responsible.  At least they get another election in four years.

And in Brexit Britain we, who remain in possession of our faculties, have to maintain and sharpen our implacable opposition to leaving the European Union.

We often point out that those who voted to leave the EU voted for lots of disparate, often incompatible reasons, many of which had nothing whatsoever to do with the EU.  But we Remain voters also voted for something that goes way beyond membership of a very flawed union of 28 countries.  We were affirming our values – tolerance, co-operation, internationalism, human rights, decency, a clean and safe environment.  The idea that we should shut up about these values is ludicrous and oppressive.

But unlike the USA, we have no constitutional right to vote again, and to take a different decision next time.

That is why we must not normalise Brexit, we must not ‘accept’ the result of the vote, and we must – absolutely – fight to prevent Brexit, and, if necessary, to reverse it.  It is our democratic duty to have another referendum.

How To Speak Bringlish

It is not a good idea to watch Question Time on BBC1, but Newsnight was depressing, so I switched over.  Bad call.

Then this morning I let myself listen to a little of the phone-in on 5 Live, followed by a bit of James O’Brien on LBC. Luckily I have a modern, super-intuitive radio. The battery died.

But I’d heard enough. There are parallel languages in use in this country, both purporting to be English, but mutually unintelligible.  James O’Brien tried to decode Bringlish, as I suppose we must call the Brexit dialect, by inviting the froth-mouthed Brexiphiles to call him to explain exactly what it is that makes them so angry.  Few of them took up the challenge, preferring to send him texts and tweets making graphic threats of violence against him and his family.  So I’m taking on the task for myself.

The Question Time exchanges between Zanny Minton Beddoes of the Economist, and an apoplectic man sporting a giant poppy illustrate the problem.  The poppy man said these words – “Democracy doesn’t exist. It’s in name only. We voted out and they still don’t accept it.”   Beddoes said these words – “What the High Court said was there has to be a vote in Parliament, because we are a parliamentary democracy.  There’s a difference between direct democracy and referendums, and parliamentary democracy.  We are a representative democracy.  You elect an MP to form a government.”

Note the vocabulary.  Words like ‘vote’, ‘democracy’, ‘parliament’.  They look like the same language.  But behind them lie entirely different architectures of meaning.

I understand the language of Beddoes, because I read GE Aylmer’s The Struggle For The Constitution when I was at school.  I came to understand how, why, and in what circumstances this country gradually, often grudgingly, evolved its political system, and how its constituent parts, including the courts, fit together.

But if my first introduction to Britain’s political system had come not from Aylmer, and Christopher Hill, and later from other historians and philosophers – ‘experts’, to use a term from the Bringlish lexicon of derision – what might I think?

This is the key to understanding Bringlish.  We must understand its roots.  How do we get “High Court judges” to be a synonym for “enemies of the people”?  How does “the rule of law” come to mean “democracy doesn’t exist”?

On one level, it is simply a matter of “doublespeak”, where Brexit leaders manipulate language to obscure, deflect, or compel, to achieve their desired political outcomes.  But that isn’t enough.  Bringlish goes beyond that.

The man on Question Time cannot hear what Zanny Minton Beddoes was saying to him.  She may as well have been speaking Yoruba, for all the sense it made.

In Bringlish, “democracy” means “the side that won a vote in a referendum (but obviously not the one in 1975, which doesn’t count)”.  The important word there is “won”.  It is “won” in the same sense as in ‘winning the lottery’, or ‘winning a gold medal at the Olympics’.  To ‘win’ is to get a thing (money, medal, Brexit), and then to own it wholly, and completely, to the exclusion of others who did not “win”.

That’s a very simple concept to grasp.  They won. Get over it. Suck it up. Loser.

‘Democracy’, as Beddoes was using it, is not a simple concept.  It is subtle, complex, delicate in many ways.  It is a culture and a process, forever mutating in response to historical events, but anchored by first principles, such as the sovereignty of parliament and the rule of law.

‘Democracy’, in English, and in Britain, may not be simple, but it is not hard to understand if you inhabit a culture which promotes it.  There was a time when someone like the man on QT would have been a member of a trade union, a working men’s club, and the Co-Op.  He’d have attended meetings where they’d vote on a show of hands, sent off ballot forms to elect the general secretary, or voted over a pint for the club committee.  Such everyday experiences of democracy meant that when it came to general, or local elections, the average person had an innate understanding of the mechanisms of democracy, even if they’d never read Walter Bagehot.

Yet we still live in a world of votes.  Vote for Strictly!  Get voted off Bake-Off! Vote to make a has-been ‘celeb’ eat a slug!  Every newspaper website uses ‘polls’ as click-bait.  Vote! Vote! Vote!

But it is shallow, binary, ‘win/lose’ stuff whose terms are set by powerful oligarchs, and the clever people whose mouths are stuffed with silver to do their bidding.

It is no accident that Michael Gove and Boris Johnson were such prominent figures in the Leave campaign.  These two journalists are the poets of Bringlish literature, smiting experts and having cake and eating it.  Nor is it any accident that the Tabloids of Terror continue in their quest to make High Court judges into public enemies.  They are doing more, much more, than simply stating opinions or reporting news.

They are constructing a form of language that means that we cannot talk to one another because our common words no longer have common meanings.

Brexit means Brexit.

Have we sunk to this?