Monthly Archives: January 2019

The danger of licensing ignorance

Suella Braverman is not someone I had heard of (and I doubt if I shall hear of her again) but I am grateful to her for a classic instance of the besetting sin of our age – licensing ignorance. 

Ms Braverman popped up the other day on the Today programme, just after John Major had given – despite Nick Robinson’s ill-timed interruptions – a lucid, well-argued case for a second referendum, citing among other evidence the fact that some 63% of the electorate had not voted to leave the EU. [see here]. All of which la Braverman simply dismissed as ‘typical Remainer Elite views’.

I might call this the Mandy Rice-Davies defence – ‘well, he would [say that], wouldn’t he?’ –were I not loth to bring her name into disrepute by associating it with our current crop of politicians; so let us turn instead to Marx and Engels.

In the Communist Manifesto, a host of troublesome arguments are simply swept aside by labelling them ‘bourgeois’ – saying, in effect, ‘you need not trouble yourself with even thinking about these – the very source they come from is corrupt, like water from a poisoned well’. 

Across the Atlantic, the ex-Reality TV star and serial bankrupt licenses his followers’ ignorance by offering them slogans as a substitute for thought: ‘Lock her up!’ ‘Drain the swamp!’ ‘Build the wall!’ – shouting is so much more fun than thinking, especially when you all do it together.

In the same way, Michael Gove airily tells us ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’ (one can picture the plucky Govester, in need of life-saving surgery, pressing the scalpel into the hand of that old parliamentary favourite, The Man on the Clapham Omnibus, saying, ‘do me a triple bypass, mate – them fancy surgeons, what do they know?’)

Licensing ignorance is the key to unleashing the mob, as demagogues have known from time immemorial. The reason is worth examining. As a rule, in normal circumstances, people like to think themselves rational: they demand evidence, insist on being given grounds for following this or that particular course. Whether they actually are rational does not matter so much as the fact that they think themselves so, since it means they set a value on reason and argument as a basis for action.

It may be that this has as much to do with inertia as with our respect for reason: if we are comfortable where we are, if we know where we stand in the world and sense that there is order about us, then we have no inclination to move without persuasive argument.

However, if we lose that sense of security – if in our lifetime the world changes to such an extent that we feel left behind, if we feel (to quote Marx again) that  ‘All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away … All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned’ then the immediate effect is disorientation and bewilderment – ‘how did this happen?’ – which rapidly turns to fear that is expressed in anger and a desire to smash things up.

Smashing stuff up is the quickest and most direct way of demonstrating that you are here, that you do matter, that you can make an impact on the world: it is an attempt to disprove (to yourself as much as others) the impotence you feel.

In other words, the dynamic has changed – instead of arguments being required to move you from your comfortable inertia, they now hold you back from what you want to do, namely, to smash things up as an antidote to the powerlessness you feel – so to be told you need not heed them, that you can go right ahead, to be given a licence to be ignorant, is just what you want to hear.

But it is a risky thing to do. Plato equated Athenian democracy (whch, to be fair, was much more direct and parochial) with trying to control a large and dangerous animal –what pleases it you call good, what displeases it, bad. Once you tell people that they need not listen to reason, how are you to reason with them?

Aye, there’s the rub. 

You could, perhaps, call up the reservists (as our government has just done) ‘to ensure that there are effective and proportionate contingency plans in place to mitigate the potential immediate impacts leaving the EU, under a ‘No Deal’ scenario, might have on the welfare, health and security of UK citizens and economic stability of the UK.’

But it might be more prudent to disabuse the Brexit supporters of the notion that they are the majority and that what they want is what the country as a whole desires; and the only effective way to do that is through the ballot box, by a second referendum.

I fully expect that a second referendum will confirm what the first has already told us, namely that only a minority wish to leave the EU; indeed, it would not surprise me if that minority shrank considerably – but we must hope, for the sake of peace and national unity, that there is no complacency this time around, and that all those who have no desire to leave the EU take the trouble to say so. Otherwise it will be the triumph of ignorance.

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A most ingenious paradox

There has been a lot of talk recently about how this is a ‘Remainer Parliament’ that is doing its best to stop Brexit by whatever means and so ‘thwart the will of the British people’.

If that were the case it would certainly be grounds for feeling aggrieved – yet another instance of the know-all liberal elite establishment thinking it knows best and ignoring what ordinary people really want*.

So why are the Brexit supporters not in the forefront of clamouring for a second referendum? That would show the liberal Remainer Elite what the country really thinks!

Or is that, perhaps, just what they are afraid of?

 

*we hear the same narrative across the Atlantic. It is worth recalling that in fact the majority of Americans did not vote for the ‘populist’ Trump. Likewise here the 2016 referendum indicates that there has only ever been a minority in favour of leaving the EU. I am confident that a second referendum would show that minority to have dwindled further while the great majority of the country – stirred from its complacency by the events of the last two and a half years and seeing now what Brexit actually means – would vote Remain. Of course, I could be wrong. But why not put it to the test?

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Misread from the start

It is hard not to admire Donald Tusk and to wish that our own politicians could be as succinct, understated – and right.

Courage is certainly needed.

Let us suppose for a moment that in 2016 ‘the British People’ really had ‘voted overwhelmingly’ to leave the EU: would we have arrived at the place we are now?

Would the Prime Minister have just seen the deal she had laboured for two and a half years to put together rejected by parliament on an unprecedented scale?

Would she really have felt the need, in 2017, to call a snap election to test her authority, then lost her majority as a result, leading to the reliance on the DUP that has ultimately proved her downfall?

Would it have taken court action by a courageous private citizen – the redoubtable and admirable Gina Miller – to compel Parliament to actually exert its authority in terms of a ‘meaningful vote’ as it did last night?

Would Mrs May’s constant theme in the lead-up to the vote have been about healing division and bringing the country together at a critical time?

Above all, why would she persist in opposing a second referendum which could only (if things were as claimed) confirm the result of the first?

Surely, if the position really was as the likes of Mogg and Jenkin represented it to be (and a supine press accepted without question), then Mrs May would have been swept triumphantly on a tide of popular feeling towards a Brexit that all would embrace as the best deal for the country? There would have been no divisions in the Conservative party, no succession of cabinet resignations, no ground on which ‘project fear’ could find purchase. The British people would have stood foursquare behind the government in pursuing the course they had voted for ‘overwhelmingly’.

Last night’s vote, and the pattern of events leading up to it, make no sense at all if the ‘British People’ really did, in 2016, express overwhelming support for leaving the European Union.

On the other hand, they are entirely consistent with the view that the 2016 referendum has been misread, misinterpreted and misrepresented from the outset. What it actually showed (as I first pointed out here) is that the nation was deeply divided on the matter and that only a minority actually wished to leave the EU (as considered here).

In catholic theology, one interpretation of  ‘the sin against the Holy Spirit, for which there is no forgiveness’ is that it is the refusal to accept the known truth. Whatever you may think of that, it has certainly proved to be a grave and damaging error for most politicians and political commentators to acquiesce in an interpretation of the 2016 referendum that is directly contrary to the truth.

The divisions that the 2016 referendum revealed certainly cannot be healed by continuing to pretend that Brexit is something that most people in Britain actually want.

What they do want is worth asking – but this time, we should pay attention to what they say.

In conclusion, it is worth reminding ourselves of how, in this country, a referendum is supposed to work – it is intended to be advisory, informative; it does not bind the government, but should enlighten it in choosing the way ahead:

‘It does not contain any requirement for the UK Government to implement the results of the referendum, nor set a time limit by which a vote to leave the EU should be implemented. Instead, this is a type of referendum known as pre-legislative or consultative, which enables the electorate to voice an opinion which then influences the Government in its policy decisions.’

Commons Briefing Paper 7212, giving background on the European Union Referendum Bill

Who will have the courage?

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