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“If Brexit goes ahead” – the referendum’s most insidious taboo

Has someone invented an infallible crystal ball? Reading a lot of Brexit reporting in the press and hearing it in the broadcast media, you would certainly think so.

Here's a book title that could turn out to have some prescience!

Here’s a book title that could turn out to have some prescience!

As far as I know, sitting here in September 2018, the United Kingdom has not yet left the European Union. That development is not scheduled to happen for nearly six months. Therefore no one in the known universe can predict at this stage how Brexit will eventually play out – or crucially, whether it will play out at all.

Yet every report I hear on the BBC, along with many that I read in newspapers, treats Brexit as an absolute, unstoppable, cast-iron certainty. Four little words are missing from all these reports: “if Brexit goes ahead”.

This reveals a terrifying flight of reason in the face of Political Correctness (yes, with a capital P and a capital C). The reporters writing these stories would never dare to suggest that any other future world event is bound to happen by immutable law. Yet somehow, rules of logic have been thrown away in the reporting of Brexit. Merely because there was a referendum on the subject more than two years ago, reporters and editors have apparently decided they are to duty-bound treat the implications of the vote with absolute, unshakeable certainty.

You only have to make a small leap in imagination to see the utter folly of this reasoning. Just suppose for a tiny moment that Brexit does not go ahead. It is possible, after all. The earth might be struck by a meteorite, for instance. Britain might have a general election. There might be a “no” vote in a second referendum. All these scenarios, whether likely or not, are possible.

If that does happen, then all the certainty about Brexit exhibited by the BBC (and of course by all the pro-Brexit politicians) will be exposed as having been based on a false assumption, not on any practical reality. All those confident pronouncements about “when Britain leaves the EU” will be seen for what they were – hot air. It will become clear that all along, the word “when” should have been replaced by “if”.

I am a lifelong supporter of the BBC, so it saddens me to single it out for criticism in this way, but on the subject of Brexit it has turned itself into a stubbornly insistent, if perhaps unwitting, apologist for the pro-Brexit camp. And all because of its pursuit of so-called “objectivity”.

I understand why this has happened; the BBC is terrified of being accused of breaking the impartiality obligation written into its charter. But I would argue that its dogged assumption that Brexit will go ahead it not in fact impartial or objective; it is based on a false premise.

The trouble is that the two pieces of wording have not been recognised as opposites. If used to qualify the content of news reports, the phrase “if Brexit goes ahead” would be seen as revolutionary and subversive, whereas “when Brexit goes ahead” is accepted as merely expressing the mythical “will of the people” (as determined by a close-run and deeply flawed referendum process). It is assumed to reflect a universally accepted reality.

It does not. “When Brexit goes ahead” is insidiously manipulative, and just as pointed in its implications as the “if” phrase would be. It treats as a certainty something which, however likely or unlikely, is at best a possibility. In fact in some ways it’s worse than “if”, since it postulates the outcome as inevitable, when at least the “if” phrase leaves room for doubt. “When Brexit goes ahead” is a silent killer – for the most part accepted and tolerated, rather than being seen for the hidden political statement that it is.

Unfortunately, the BBC can look for support to numerous politicians on both sides of the  divide – and that includes people who, even though originally Remainers, now claim to view Brexit as unavoidable, and obstinately parrot arguments about “the democratic decision of the people” in defence of their stance, as if a one-off vote two years ago had to stand for all time. It’s difficult to understand what fears or foibles might have prompted such people to become clairvoyants.

“When Brexit goes ahead” has now become so ingrained in the BBC’s thinking that it infuses its every utterance on this subject. Even when the organisation gives airtime to Brexit opponents, which in fairness it does on a frequent basis, there’s always an implication that these people are operating on the fringes of societal norms, and have little if any chance of getting their way … because “Brexit will happen,” come what may.

I’m a realist. I know the BBC couldn’t suddenly start inserting “if Brexit goes ahead” into its reporting. Such a move would instantly undermine the pro-Brexit cause in such a blatant fashion that the director general would presumably be fired within minutes.

Yet as momentum builds behind the drive to revisit Brexit, and even to hold a second referendum, I can’t help feeling disappointed that the BBC seems to be lagging so far behind popular opinion favouring a rethink on the subject. If the organisation could somehow weave a more genuinely impartial tone into its Brexit reporting, that would actually reflect the impartiality it is supposed to uphold.

Claiming that “when Brexit goes ahead” reflects objective reality is about as plausible as arguing that it is possible to predict who will win the next World Cup … or who will win Britain’s next general election.

Any takers?

My novel Never Going to Happen, written under the pen-name Anders Teller, explores the two sides of the Brexit debate in the context of a fast-action thriller that is also a mystery and a romance. More details here.

Posted in World affairs | Tagged | 1 Comment

One Response to “If Brexit goes ahead” – the referendum’s most insidious taboo

  1. Mel says:

    Is the collapse of parliamentary democracy a price worth paying?

    I don’t want to undermine your nicely argued case against the “When we leave…” distortions of the media. The phrase quite clearly tends to shut down – accidentally or deliberately – discussion about the possibility of a second referendum. It remains to be seen whether the public demonstrations force journalists to change, but we shouldn’t hold our breaths.

    My concern, though, is that discussion of any individual affront to democratic debate begins to appear trivial if we step back and examine the spectacular damage which has been done by the antics of so many of our national politicians as they argue over Europe. What we face now is stark evidence that the egotism, self-interest and incompetence of our leaders and representatives is not merely inhibiting sound government; it’s making it impossible.

    We shouldn’t forget that the slow-motion car crash of Brexit is taking place in the context of what was already a decade of chronic failure and the relentless decline in the credibility of MPs and ministers. They took a massive kicking with the expenses scandal, totally failed to regulate the banks after the 2008 financial crisis, refused to take any action at all to deal with the ever-growing misery in social care provision, and couldn’t even find a way to treat their staff and one another decently.

    Now we have Brexit, which is intended to achieve the most important political, social and economic changes since the Second World War. And here in the simplest terms is the problem. Rightly or wrongly the vast majority of MPs now want to achieve a workable leaving arrangement with the EU, though they differ passionately on how to achieve this. Yet the contagion of intransigence means any deal which is reached (assuming that reaching a deal in the first place is possible) would be rejected. That’s not a little difficulty of puffed up egos. That’s a failure of our political system, and it’s a pity the media are so obsessed with the minutiae of the stalemate not to point this out.

    Any attempt to itemise the failures leading up to and since the EU Referendum risks personalising the issues and suggesting that we are merely the victims of a few well-known here-today-and-gone-tomorrow political figures. The problem is actually very much deeper. But we do need to reflect on the individual acts of idiocy and self-interest which have led us cumulatively to anarchy in parliament.

    Referendums are rarely used in Britain, and when they are the government which sanctions them always goes to a huge amount of trouble to ensure the result is the one they want. Arguably this makes the exercise no more than an indication of people’s real views than casual opinion polls, which as we know are conducted all the time and with ever-changing results. A referendum is just one of the spanners in the political toolbox, and hardly justifies the sanctity of descriptions which suggest they are the definitive voice of the people, as so many nervous EU opponents constantly claim.

    David Cameron, however, broke new ground with his referendum. He used this tool to settle a nagging internal problem in the Tory Party (which rather disagreeably meant he had to ask the public what they thought) and accidentally dropped his spanner in the works. Guided by the arrogant complacency and superficiality which characterised his time as prime minister, he allowed leave campaigners to tell him what question to put on the ballot paper. This was so they wouldn’t complain too much about the eventual result. In fact he set up the whole process to benefit them. And, unsurprisingly, as in most UK referendums, the result was the one favoured by the people who set the question.

    The sad thing is that, having participated in the Tory’s bungled self-interested charade the whole of our political establishment were by now complicit in it, and as “democrats” they could hardly denounce it for what it was. So everyone has to toe the tired “will-of-the-people” line, whether or not they believe in it. This craven behaviour is most noticeable in the Labour Party, where party unity and the fear of upsetting voters means a post-Brexit commitment to nothing except a bunch of things they don’t like.

    Even worse, is the blatant lie from the eloquent Jacob Rees-Mogg and his 40-strong rabble of followers (yes, 40 out of 315; who’d have thought that justified so much attention?) that a second referendum is not tenable. This is wrong on so many fronts. But perhaps their most glaring assault on democracy is the insistence that people should not be allowed to change their minds when they are in possession of better information, ie once the details of the Brexit deal are known. Education and democracy have gone hand in hand since the last quarter of the Nineteenth Century. One does not work without the other.

    Rees-Mogg may take his views from a period before that, but he is quite clever enough to know that democracy operates on a variety of levels and in many different ways. We’ve had a range of arrangements for referendums in this country, usually setting a winning threshold far higher than a hopelessly equivocal 50%. Voting systems and voting ages vary throughout the UK, let alone the options available elsewhere in the world (among which Westminster elections are among the most archaic). When Thatcher resigned in 1990 it was triggered by a mass public protest in London against the poll tax, so we can sometimes even dispense with voting.

    We might argue whether a second referendum is a good idea. But insisting that it would be damaging to democracy is as intelligent as contending that wind farms risk harming the air.

    The irony of course is that the pro-Brexit politicians who are largely dominating the public debate with an insistence that this is all about the will of the people won’t actually give “the people” a look in. In any case the impasse that the politicians have reached is the result of a battle of wills among those who are well-heeled enough not to be too worried about the consequences.

    Obviously we should also consider the heinous contribution of Boris Johnson, if only because this totally amoral, posturing toff could easily end up in error as our next prime minister. Johnson resembles Donald Trump in two respects, crazy hair and the knowledge that persistently lying to the public is effective – not because it persuades but because it confuses. It’s almost surreal to hear him still talking about the huge financial benefits of Brexit to the NHS and greatness which lies ahead for the UK when almost everyone else has dropped the pretence.

    So what has that to do with democracy? He’s a scary man whose belief system involves replacing the postulated existence of a deity with the real and terrible existence of Boris Johnson. Brexit is his Big Bang. His irrepressible, inexhaustible political ambition is to dumbfound us all by filling the universe with this dark matter. Democracy for him involves buffoonery, bluster and nbfuscation – and Boris Johnson of course. And for some people he is the first choice for our next leader?

    There’s little consolation in knowing that he is not alone in the political multiverse. The endless eruptions of bickering politicians about the minutiae of Brexit negotiations, which in many cases they are can’t even be fully informed about, is not just a demeaning and tedious fascination for Westminster-based journalists. For quite a few MPs the squabbles are a deliberate tactic to render a final deal with the EU either unachievable or permanently divisive. Others, even the well-intentioned, are just reckless or self-seeking, but the result is the same.

    Usually when we challenge the continuing existence of a rigid two-party system in the UK we are told that it is necessary to bring balance, clarity and stability to two unruly houses of parliament. Well, it has stopped doing that, and there is nothing to take its place.

    And what of Theresa May herself? She is often presented as a victim in all this mess, an indefatigable (Thatcher-like) battler confronting the intransigence of the EU megalith. But irrespective of her negotiating stance, her deal with the blackmailers in the DUP to keep herself in power is probably the most appalling inversion of democratic principles in the whole miserable scene. She was warned clearly and bluntly while she was wrapping up the squalid £1 billion bribe with the Protestant extremists that this would have dire consequences for her capacity to negotiate over the Northern Ireland border. She persisted, and has put the economic future of the whole of Ireland at risk. Her disregard for the people she was elected to govern is breathtaking.

    As with so many others in government and Parliament, her arrogance and self-interest show that, far from being a great victory for democracy, the EU referendum has been the occasion for burying it. This is not about decision-making which the public may agree or disagree with. It is a massive dereliction of public duty by an unmanageable political elite who have no clear achievable goal in sight other than the survival of their own factions.

    It’s not simply that ministers and MPs individually believe that any level of cynicism, disloyalty, self-importance and political ambition is justified in the political game. (Effective politicians have probably always thought like that.) It’s that so many of them simultaneously think they have a right to misbehave as independent spirits, irrespective of any impact they have on their colleagues, parties, leaders and the public. A leaderless government is a price worth paying. A disastrous no-deal departure from the EU is a price worth paying. A divided nation for years to come is a price worth paying.

    That’s not just undermining the credibility of parliamentary democracy; it is damaging the capacity of our democracy to function at all. We can’t tell where this or the relations with the EU will lead us. But we can be sure there will be a cost, and it would be a first if the cost isn’t borne by the public.

    Your alarm at the nasty media distortion of “when Brexit happens” is neither misplaced nor insignificant. From the perspective of this wider corruption of democratic values, this illustrates just how complicit the journalists have become and how bad they are really at keeping us informed. Perhaps one day some of them will come to regret how seriously they have let us down.

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