Have you ever sat watching TV or listening the radio in mute outrage? I feel as if that’s what I’ve been doing endlessly for months. Almost every time there’s been an interview about Brexit, the interviewer has ignored or skated round the most obvious questions. I’d almost call it a conspiracy – except that then you’d mark me down as paranoid.
I’m writing this as we await the “meaningful vote” on the Government’s referendum deal on 15 January 2019. And I’m wondering how it can be that Britain is saddled with a Parliament packed with people advocating a policy that clearly no longer has the support of the majority of its population.
A lot of these politicians seem determined to achieve some sort of Brexit “because it was in our manifesto”, or because the public voted for it nearly three years ago. They don’t seem to care that there’s now such a strong groundswell of opinion against it. No wonder so many people have lost faith in the political process.
Meanwhile the media, who should be championing the views of the populace, are instead caught up in their own process. To take a simple example, when Theresa May’s Government says the failure to agree a Brexit deal would be “a catastrophe for democracy”, why do interviewers consistently fail to ask, “Why? Exactly what aspect of democracy would be undermined by taking stock, and testing current public opinion?”
In the BBC’s case, the organisation also seems paralysed by a terror of appearing to favour one side or the other. This is especially bizarre, given the rather contradictory fact that ever since the referendum of 2016, the BBC has adopted a base position that Brexit is inevitable. It may well have given air time to Remainers, but always with the prevailing assumption that their stance is dissonant, marginal and even heretical in some way. There’s been a hidden partiality in the entire tenor of its reporting, which rather makes a mockery of its supposed even-handedness.
Incidentally, on the day of the vote I noticed a typical example of this weighted reporting in an article on the BBC web site about the implications of the vote for the value of sterling. It suggested a small surge in its value if the doomed deal were approved by Parliament, and even went so far as to say that a delay in implementing Article 50 would also see a rise. But nowhere did it describe the implications for the pound if Britain were not to leave the EU at all. Why not? Surely that would see the biggest possible rise in sterling’s value?
I have every respect for principled Leave supporters. They’re just as entitled to their opinion as I am to mine. Of course they want to implement the 2016 referendum. So would I, in their shoes. But there’s a big difference between holding a view and claiming that it is supported by a majority, when in reality that majority has shrunk to a minority – which is what all current opinion polls suggest.
Admittedly, the claim that the Leave vote was influenced by lies and illegal spending is a nebulous one. It’s probably true, but hard to quantify – as is the belief that many people were voting against austerity and poor government, not against the European Union. Rightly or wrongly, voters in democracies are not required to explain or justify their decisions.
What is not tenable is the claim that it would be a “betrayal” in some way to disregard the result of the 2016 referendum by holding another. This is simply making a mockery of the very notion of democracy. It’s what despots do after they’re voted into power.
Sadly the media seem conspicuously incapable of pressing this piece of hard logic on politicians. So here are the questions I would ask Brexit advocates in their shoes – the questions I crave to hear, but so often don’t:
- Given that nearly half of voters favoured Remain in 2016 in spite of the lies and disinformation spread about the alleged benefits of Brexit, how can you constantly claim that “Britain” voted for Brexit? What about the 48 per cent who didn’t, those who have changed their minds, and those who didn’t or couldn’t vote last time – perhaps because they were too young then?
- Since the public know far more about the implications of Brexit than they did in 2016, why would it be wrong to allow them to restate their opinion in a second referendum?
- If it could be proved that the majority of the public no longer want any kind of Brexit, would you still insist on implementing the 2016 referendum vote regardless?
- If the 2016 vote was democratic, why would another one not be?
If I were in the interviewer’s chair, I would not allow evasions or distractions until I got answers to the above, or at least an outright refusal to answer.
That’s easy for me to say, of course, when I’m not in the hot seat. I realise a media interview is not a court of law or an inquisition, and politicians are not compelled to participate. The very process of conducting an interview and actually eliciting meaningful answers is a political one (with a small “p”), and I greatly admire the most skilled practitioners of the art. But even they are not immune to following the question sheet instead of probing for real answers.
History will not look kindly on those who have consistently failed to do that, and have allowed themselves to be obsessed with process to the detriment of substance.