Friday 29 September 2017

Brexit: political correctness gone mad

In October 2015 when the Referendum campaign was in prospect but not underway I wrote an article on The Conversation website outlining the main scenarios if the vote were to leave. These were the now familiar options of single market membership on the Norwegian or Swiss models, an FTA with the EU, or WTO terms.

Although somewhat overtaken by events, that article argued two things which continue to be relevant. One was that advocates of Brexit typically oscillated between, and often treated as interchangeable, these fundamentally different forms of Brexit. That persisted right through the campaign and beyond, with different Brexiters espousing different models or fudging the differences between those models by vague – meaningless – talk of ‘access’ to the single market.

The second argument was that if what leaving meant was not clarified, and if the vote was to leave, it would be no good saying – as Brexiters repeatedly claim about the 1975 Referendum – that ‘we did not know what we were voting for’. By then, it would be too late.

Well, the vote was, indeed, to leave and the ‘then’ I wrote about has become ‘now’. I was reminded of that article by the very interesting, albeit extremely depressing, ‘Brexit Reality’ feature on last night’s Channel 4 News. The format was to take a group of people who had voted to leave, along with some politicians who had been leading advocates of leave including Daniel Hannan and Paddy O’Flynn, to discuss how they saw Brexit now. It was a worthwhile format because it meant that the discussion was not a re-run of leave versus remain but disclosed what leave meant for leavers (a similar programme featuring remainers will be broadcast soon).

What emerged were very striking differences in motivations and of understandings of what Brexit meant, ranging from neo-liberal global free trade advocacy to socialist anti-austerity politics. Some were beginning to be concerned about the complexities of leaving, others were impatient of the complexity and wanted an immediate, no-deal exit. Some wanted to stay in the single market, others not. Some seemed to regret their vote and several believed that they had, on various grounds, been misled as to what voting leave meant. It was especially delicious to see Hannan put in the position of having to defend May's Brexit 'strategy' to those even more deranged and peculiar than himself. Most contributions – most certainly including those of the politicians – were lamentably ill-informed and in some cases downright dishonest. In all, it seemed like a fair cross-section of the leave leadership and the leave vote.

None of this was particularly surprising, but it served to point up very sharply the ludicrousness of the notion that there is a ‘will of the people’ for Brexit. Of course it is ludicrous, anyway, to describe the 52% of those who voted as ‘the people’. But it is even more ludicrous given that those 52% are themselves massively fragmented as to what they think Brexit means and how it should be undertaken.

The tragedy is that the long-term future of Britain is now being driven by a policy devised and supported by the people represented by this group. The angry, plethoric, we ‘aren’t allowed to say what we think’ demeanour of many of them suggests a strong overlap with those who rail splenetically against ‘political correctness’ and ‘the human rights brigade’. If so, it’s ironic that there is a new Brexit political correctness in which it is deemed unsayable to mention a very obvious truth. It is that the people who lead the campaign and those who voted for Brexit do not have any idea whatsoever about the realities of what it means.

This is not just a matter of opinion, because they constantly show ignorance about very basic, factual matters, as well as telling outright lies. The consequence is that just about everybody with any knowledge of what Brexit means, and just about everyone who has to take responsibility for dealing with it, is opposed to it. Whilst just about everybody who supports it does not have the responsibility for delivering it or the knowledge needed to do so. This, indeed, is only too evident when we see how Brexiters like Davis, Johnson and Fox who have responsibility for Brexit flail around cluelessly whilst experienced civil servants despair at what they are being asked to do. And, meanwhile, the Brexiters outside of government continue to propound myths and lies about how Brexit could be done if only they were in charge, knowing that they never will be.

To say such things offends Brexit political correctness because it is depicted as elitist disdain for ‘ordinary people’. That is, of course, an absurd proposition. On the one hand it invites us to think that the very many ordinary people who voted to remain are in some way part of an elite. Since 48% of us did so, that’s a very big elite. On the other hand it requires us to believe that Jacob Rees-Mogg (Eton and Oxford), Daniel Hannan (Marlborough and Oxford) and Boris Johnson (Eton and Oxford) are horny-handed sons of the toil. Such is the grotesque political spoonerism of populism.

Political correctness in its conventional trope is a ridiculous fantasy in which local authority five-a-day advisers prance around in high-viz jackets promoting trans-gender Winterval whilst ordinary folk are slapped down for ill-advisedly mentioning blackboards. Brexit political correctness is made of altogether sterner stuff, with dissidents being dubbed enemies of the people, traitors, saboteurs and – if they achieve sufficient profile – receiving rape, acid attack and death threats. That would be disgusting in any circumstances, but when built upon so fragile a basis as the confused and fragmented group represented in the Channel 4 discussion it is absurd. Elevated, as it now is, to be the basis of Britain’s long-term strategy Brexit is, to coin a phrase, political correctness gone mad.

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