Friday 25 January 2019

The poisonous politics of betrayal

I don’t have anything useful to add to the acres of comment about the increasingly Byzantine parliamentary manoeuvrings around Brexit. Some of the dust will clear next week but in the meantime the BBC has provided a clear guide to the various amendments that have been tabled. But as the political and public debate intensifies – last week, around the time of the ‘meaningful vote’, I kept overhearing people on trains and elsewhere talking about events in parliament, a very unusual occurrence – and several crunch points approach it is clear that we are paying an increasingly high price for Brexit.

I’m not referring, here, to the steeply mounting economic costs that are already being incurred, but rather to the costs in terms of the poisoning of our political culture. At the heart of that is the now commonplace use of the language of ‘betrayal’ and its associated lexicon of purity, treachery, sabotage and loyalty.

That began straight after the referendum with an almost immediate suspicion from Brexiters that they were going to be cheated of the result, even as they cheered it. Nigel Farage was threatening riots over Brexit betrayal at least as early as November 2016. It reached screaming point over the Gina Miller Article 50 case and the infamous ‘Enemies of the People’ headline to describe the judiciary, and continued when the Tory rebels who forced there to be a meaningful vote on the eventual deal were denounced as mutineers and saboteurs. Alongside these specific events there has been a sullen undertow of McCarthyite condemnation of, especially, civil servants and about remainers in general as betrayers of Brexit.

This, and the associated backwash of death threats and disgusting insults to those deemed to be ‘traitors’, is in itself deeply toxic and degrading of political culture. But it also sets up a series of absurdities, dead ends and, ultimately, ungovernability and political violence.

When is a betrayal not a betrayal?

First, some of the absurdities. Having fulminated against the betrayal of having a vote on triggering Article 50, it was in fact passed by a huge majority which is now used by Brexiters as an argument for continuing with Brexit, since to do otherwise would betray that vote. So what was a betrayal of Brexit became an endorsement of it.

Associated with that is the way that some Brexiters now bemoan that Article 50 was triggered prematurely, putting the UK into a weakened negotiating position because of time pressure and risking Brexit being betrayed, when at the time they called any talk of delay betrayal.

Similarly, the provision of a meaningful vote in parliament that led to some Brexiters calling for the ‘mutineers’ to be deselected is now being used by Brexiters as a way of ensuring that Brexit is not betrayed by the government. So what was a betrayal of Brexit became a way to save it from betrayal. No talk now that those who rebel against Theresa May should be deselected but rather an insistence that she must listen to parliament.

And Brexiters still haven’t learnt – the latest example from Rees-Mogg and other ERG Ultras is the extraordinary suggestion that parliament should be suspended so as to prevent it voting to block no deal Brexit. It still seems not to have sunk in that allowing the government to sideline parliament also sidelines the ERG backbenchers. We can imagine their outrage were parliament to be suspended to force through, say, a rescindment of Article 50 or, just, May’s deal: it would, no doubt, be described as the ultimate betrayal.

The betrayals never end

These absurdities point to the political cul-de-sac created when every development is assiduously monitored for signs of betrayal. For, as in the more extreme case of political totalitarianism with its denunciations and show trials, once betrayal becomes the central motif it is found everywhere. Thus, at the present moment, voting for May’s deal or voting against it can both be, and are both, described by different groups of Brexiters as betraying Brexit.

That is evident amongst politicians but it is also found in the wider public. I had a conversation with a taxi driver the other day – and, I know, the most clichéd and discreditable form of anecdote, itself the least respectable form of data, is the ‘conversation with a taxi driver’ anecdote – who said two highly relevant things.

First, that he had never expected Leave would win the referendum, not because he doubted it was what the majority wanted but because he had expected remainers to rig the vote. In other words, he was already primed to see betrayal.

Second, regarding May’s deal, he said that those voting against it were traitors but when I asked if he supported her deal he said that he didn’t, because it betrayed Brexit. So I asked if those who voted for it were also traitors and he replied – yes, they are all traitors. I’m not, by the way, glossing to give the meaning: he used the words “betrayal”, “traitor”, and their cognates several times.

Anecdote as it is, I think that very neatly sums up the blind alley of configuring Brexit in terms of a narrative of betrayal. The point isn’t that the taxi driver was being ‘illogical’, it is that he precisely expressed where the logic of ‘betrayalism’ leads: nowhere. Or, perhaps more accurately, it leads to a never-ending circle of purism, suspicion and betrayal. Once the betrayals start, they never end.

That is evident in the way that many Brexiters have proved to be unappeasable in their demands. Thus the same people who a few years ago ‘just wanted to be like Norway or Switzerland’ came to say that only hard Brexit would be pure enough, and when offered hard Brexit have moved to saying that only no deal has the purity of true or ‘clean’ Brexit.

At one level this is just obtuse bloody-mindedness. But there is a more complex psychology in play. There’s an old joke that the most sadistic thing that can be done to masochists is not to hurt them. In a similar way, as I’ve argued elsewhere, the worst thing for Ultra Brexiters is to be given what they ask for, because what they actually want is, precisely, to be betrayed and in that way to have their sense of victimhood confirmed. Indeed it would have been much better from the outset to have ignored their cries of betrayal, recognizing that, whatever happened, they would still make them.

The poison has spread

The problem now is that whereas the betrayal narrative started from the political pathology of a very small minority it has now, like poison injected into the bloodstream, infected the entire body politic. It is no longer the language of fringe politics but is used by mainstream politicians up to and including the Prime Minister.

Nor is it any longer confined to Brexiters. For example, Andrew Adonis’s criticisms of civil servants working to deliver Brexit are the flipside of persistent Brexiter attacks on the civil service for supposedly undermining it, whilst his invocations of ‘the resistance’ are, perhaps unwittingly, the counterpart of Brexiter denunciations of saboteurs.

Meanwhile, in a mirror image of Brexiter claims that a second referendum would “be a preposterous act of betrayal” for remainers and leavers alike,  a newspaper article last Sunday by Labour MP and People’s Vote advocate David Lammy argued that a ‘Norway+’ Brexit would be “a betrayal” of both sides.

Ian Dunt has pointed out, in a heartfelt, almost despairing, article that this schism between Norway+ and People’s Vote factions is “insane”, and terrible tactics to boot. I agree with that, but would add that it illustrates the spread of the betrayal narrative across the Brexit debate – and notice that in both the examples just given the attempt is made to enrol remainers and leavers “alike” into a sense of being betrayed. Just as ‘betrayalism’ leads to everything being a suspected betrayal, so too does it lead to everyone being potentially betrayed.

Can we drain the poison?

The inescapable reality is that, whatever happens now, there are going to be a large number of people who are not going to get what they want or hope for. It is really vital not to compound that by re-purposing disappointment as betrayal. And this is, after all, in our collective hands. It is widely said that if there were to be another referendum it would be a brutal and bloody affair. But it need not be, if we, and especially the campaign leaders, do not conduct ourselves in a brutal and bloody way. Similarly, it is a choice, not an obligation, for newspapers to carry shrieking headlines about treachery and sabotage – whilst also bemoaning divisiveness.

It’s clear that the cultural and emotional meanings attached to be being pro- and anti- Brexit have now come to swamp or transcend the rather mundane and largely technical realities of EU membership – a set of legal and economic relationships with other countries is not really any longer what is at issue. For example, who would ever have thought that ‘trading on WTO terms’ – or, more precisely, “Get 2 Know WTO” - could become an ‘anti-elitist’ political rallying call to the ‘left-behind’? And who really believes that the meaning of this call is anything to do with the barely understood details of what these trade terms entail?

So perhaps to detoxify the politics of Brexit we would do well to try to decouple them from those wider cultural and emotional meanings, and to bring more technical light and less cultural heat to bear upon the debate, and in that way to drain some of the poison (perhaps, even, we need to hear more from experts). This is, of course, an entirely naïve hope; still it is an important one to articulate. Without it, we’re in danger of creating a really dangerous situation.

Britain’s most senior counter-terrorism officer, Neil Basu, has warned this week that the “febrile” atmosphere around Brexit has the danger of feeding far-right terrorism. Indeed we are told by some politicians that we had better not dare hold another referendum for fear of such extremists and of civil unrest more generally.  And, of course, this is not just about another referendum given that every single outcome has been described by someone or other as being a betrayal. This includes not just the cases already mentioned of May’s deal, Norway+, and a referendum but also extending Article 50 (according to Liam Fox) or leaving with no deal (according to Philip Hammond).

That is a pretty extraordinary state of affairs in a democratic country, and a dangerous one. It grows directly out of a political discourse configured in terms of betrayal and belief, purists and heretics, loyalists and saboteurs. That story only ends in one way, and it isn’t pretty.

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