Time to stop this ‘Carry on’

Careless talk, as the war time poster tells us, costs lives.
9781844861293 It may not have reached that point yet, but there is no doubt that what the Prime Minister sloppily calls ‘the Brexit process’ has been bedevilled from the outset by much talk that is careless and some that is down right lying.

And as for Fougasse’s warning that ‘you never know who’s listening’ – well, in our case, we know who isn’t.

It is not ‘the Brexit process’ that the British public are tired of, nor are they deeply frustrated (as Mrs May seems to think) by MPs’ failure to support her deal. What they are tired of is the sorry concatenation of errors and misjudgements, most of them made by the Prime Minister personally, which has seen her commit the country to a timetable it could not hope to meet by prematurely invoking Article 50 – something that she did not need to do – then calling a General Election (again, something she did not need to do and indeed said she would not) in the mistaken belief that she would increase her majority, only to find herself reliant on the goodwill of the DUP; then, having committed the country to an unrealistic course and weakened further her ability to deliver what she had promised, instead of admitting failure and accepting responsibility, she simply carries on.

It is ironic that ‘Carry On’ – best known as the title of a succession of uniquely British film farces – should have become Mrs May’s sole strategy. It becomes apparent, on the promised date before Christmas, that her Withdrawal Deal will not gain the support of Parliament; her solution? Postpone the vote and carry on. When the vote is held and she suffers a defeat of historic proportions, what does she choose to do? Carry on. When, unsurprisingly, the same proposal meets the same fate a second time, what does she think it best to do? Carry on. When the Speaker points out that parliamentary precedent does not permit her to put to the House the same matter that it has already rejected, her highly original solution is to carry on.

Last night, in response to the Prime Minister’s attempt to blame the crisis on everyone but herself, one Brexit type said that to delay ‘would be a betrayal of the 17.4 million’ (who voted for Brexit). Up and down the country, people must have been urging the the interviewer to make the obvious response –‘yes, but what about the 48 million?’ that is, the remainder of the population – the great majority of the British People so often invoked in this debate but so little heeded – who have expressed no desire to leave the European Union but who will suffer the consequences of the government’s insistence on heeding only the wishes of an ill-informed and misguided minority. Sadly, with the ineptitude that has characterised the great majority of our political journalists, the interviewer failed to raise the point.

If there is one thing to be singled out from the great many that the British People are tired of, Mrs May, it is your contradictory insistence that leaving the EU is something the British People want and your refusal to give them any voice in the matter. Of course, you are not alone in that – the entire Brexit camp claims to be acting to implement the will of the people yet are curiously unwilling to put that claim to the test.

What they know, of course, is what the referendum of 2016 has told us all along – that there never has been a majority of the British People in favour of leaving the EU: at most, only 17.4 million – 38% of the electorate, 26% of the population – wish to do so; I think it highly likely that the number is even smaller now.

Yes, the British People made a mistake in 2016 – many of them complacently assumed that the vote was a foregone conclusion, that we would never be so daft as to abandon something so self-evidently beneficial for something that we had no clear idea of (and we still have none).

But that was one mistake – given the myriad blunders that you have committed since, Mrs May, I do think you owe it to the British People – on whose side you claim to be – to give them the opportunity to correct it.

The petition I signed last night when it had around 160,000 signatures now has (about twelve hours later) more than 700,000 and rising steadily (depite an interval when the Petitions site was down, which I hope was due to nothing more sinsister than overload). It calls on you to revoke Article 50 and hold a second referendum.

https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/241584

I think it is time you listened to the People whose interests you have so signally failed to serve.

Brexit? it’s just a flesh wound!

I am grateful to my wife for drawing attention to this article by Giles Fraser,  ‘why won’t Remainers talk about family?’ , even if reading it did take me back to my days marking essays by adolescents whose ardour outstripped their capacity for reasoned argument: having conceived a notion, and decided that it must be right, they proceeded by astonishing leaps and bounds to alter and even invent the facts to suit their case.

Up here in Scotland we are rather a backward lot: we live far from London, so don’t get to see The Evening Standard, and we have forgotten who George Osborne is, so clearly we are out of touch with current trends, but it still came as something of a shock to learn that in voting Remain in 2016 (which our entire country, every council area, did) we were actually signing up to George Osborne’s neo-liberal project to destroy the family and community life by stockpiling our elderly relatives in care-home warehouses staffed by foreign nationals in order to persuade them that a quick trip to Dignitas would be a better option for everyone but especially the heartless uncaring young – ‘rootless Ronin’ as the writer quaintly calls them – who are abandoning their communities in droves in order to earn lots of money for themselves as far away from home as possible.

But no less a person than Evan Davis tells us that the author is ‘one of the most fluent critics of the remainer world view’, so there must be something in it, surely? Granted, ‘fluent’ is faint praise – nonsense can be fluent, after all – but what I have difficulty recognising is the ‘remainer world view’ that Fraser presents. In fact, the real insight he provides is how the Brexit worldview has evolved to cope with mounting evidence from every side that their chosen path will be disastrous.

Take that headline, for a start – what is the evidence that Remainers ‘won’t talk about family?’ The sole ground Fraser puts forward for this extraordinary assertion is that one person who supports Remain once wrote a newspaper article that failed to mention ‘family’ – possibly because it was about something else.  Writing in The Independent,  Luciana Berger (recently in the news for leaving Labour to sit as an independent MP) said that Brexit would be a disaster for the social care sector because with the number of older people needing care set to double by 2040, there could ‘28,000 fewer workers in the social care sector in England five years after leaving the EU’.

Fraser’s gripe with this article is not with the figures Berger quotes nor with the argument she makes but rather with the fact that it was not about something else: his complaint is that ‘never once in the piece did she mention the word family’ and that ‘the only way the piece related to family life and the mutual care that this has traditionally implied is through the idea that caring for a family member equals “lost earnings”’.

Without having the article to hand (it is unfortunate that Fraser gives no more detailed information about it than that it was written last year) it is difficult to judge how appropriate it would have been for the writer to make any mention of family or family life in a piece that was evidently about the impact of Brexit on the social care sector, nor how fair is Fraser’s implication that Berger sees caring for a family member solely in terms of lost earnings (unfortunately, in quoting the text he omits the words that connect the statement about there being fewer workers to the statement about loss of earnings). In any case, to proceed from the fact that someone didn’t write an article the way you wanted to the conclusion that ‘Remainers won’t talk about family’ is something of a leap.

It would appear that, confronted with yet another well-supported argument that Brexit will be a disaster for Britain in yet another sector and finding himself unable to to answer it (and it is noteworthy that he makes no attempt to deny any part of Berger’s argument), Fraser resorts instead to complaining about the way things are – ‘but people shouldn’t put their parents in care homes!’ – and takes off from there on an extraordinary fugue – in the sense of a flight from an unbearable reality – which concludes with the preposterous claim that ‘Remain is all about ever new opportunities for the rich. Brexit seeks a reclamation of something we have lost. The ability to stay put and care for each other.’

This is a most extraordinary piece of repackaging: all the privations that Brexit will bring are to be welcomed because we didn’t want to be rich anyway: it’s better to be poor and have your freedom (cue clip of Mel Gibson in Braveheart). But perhaps it is more like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who insists that he will fight on – ‘it’s just a flesh wound!’ – as his various extremities are successively lopped off. With each new damning proof of the folly of Brexit, defiance becomes the only available recourse. 

The Black Knight with his refusal to accept defeat could be seen as a parody of the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ so often evoked in relation to Brexit, with its bizarre implication that our entirely self-imposed choice to leave a democratic federation that has maintained peace and prosperity in Europe for over half a century can somehow be equated with a near-miraculous hairsbreadth escape from military rout by the forces of a megalomanic dictator – with actual guns, tanks and aeroplanes – intent on destroying all that we hold most dear.

Confronted with mounting evidence that Brexit will make us poorer and our lives harder, possibly for years to come, the Brexiter’s preferred response now seems to be the famous riposte of Londoners to the Blitz – ‘we can take it!’ – conveniently overlooking the fact that in this case, we have backed ourselves against the wall – no-one is pushing us – and the impending destruction will not be the work of enemy bombers but something we have wrought ourselves.

It is worth looking in detail at the picture Fraser paints, in the first instance to ask whether it bears any resemblance to reality, and then to consider whether all this is just a muddled rant or if it might be something more sinister.

The article is short on evidence and argument but long on anecdote and windy rhetoric; what passes for reasoning does not bear examination. Anecdotes are not evidence, but they have their place, provided they furnish a pithy illustration of some key point in the same way that an apposite quotation can, or a clever cartoon. Unfortunately, Fraser’s do not do this. His first makes a distressing human situation –the sad reversal of roles where the adult child must now look after the most intimate needs of a demented and incontinent parent – the occasion for a finger-wagging lesson on filial piety: ‘we don’t ask for state help in changing our children’s nappies, so why should we expect it in caring for our parents?’

Leaving aside the fact that there is a network of health visitors and midwives to give support to new parents, there are some serious flaws in Fraser’s anecdotal argument. Caring for a grown adult who has suffered a loss of mental and physical capacity is not much like looking after a baby: quite apart from the emotional demands, it can be physically taxing and even dangerous; even those who do have both time and means to devote to caring for a parent in decline are often forced to the reluctant conclusion that they simply are not equal to the task – they may well be elderly themselves and not in the best of health.

But for Fraser, ‘Children have a responsibility to look after their parents…It is the daughter of the elderly gentleman that should be wiping his bottom. This sort of thing is not something to subcontract.’ What are we to make of this? Are you only meeting your filial responsibility if you do it in person? Ought society not to have deemed it a common good to develop a state-supported system of social care?

Fraser’s ‘argument’ consists mainly in objecting to the way things are now then blaming it all on Remainers and, by implication, the European Union. It is worth noting that the principles of the European Union (including the famous ‘principle of subsidiarity’ that power should be exercised, not from the top, but at the lowest level capable of doing so) are drawn to a very large extent from Catholic social teaching, which sits rather oddly with Fraser’s portrayal of it as a heartless neoliberal capitalist scheme to destroy family and community values.

Fraser goes on, ‘Ideally, then, people should live close to their parents and also have some time availability to care for them. But instead, many have cast off their care to the state or to carers who may have themselves left their own families in another country to come and care for those that we won’t.’

Setting aside (once again) the lack of evidence that Fraser produces for his assertions, there are two points to be made here. One is the implication that just as we should stay in our community and care for our own, so those who presently do it should return to theirs and do likewise. That has a somewhat sinister ring to my ear – ‘they should all go home’ – and takes no account of the fact that the reason many of them are here is precisely to earn enough to support their families because the opportunity does not exist where they come from. The second point is one that Fraser goes on to develop in the next stage of his rant, the skewed idea that we have somehow developed the mechanism of social care primarily to free ourselves from responsibility, to allow us to shirk our duty and go off and earn money for ouselves.

This is illustrated by Fraser’s second anecdote, which is worth quoting in full, if only to appreciate the extraordinary leap he makes from it to the conclusions that he draws: ‘My GP friend also told me another story. Just before Christmas he did a home visit to an elderly woman, living on her own, but surrounded by Christmas cards. She proudly told him how well her kids had done, showing him the cards sent by her children living all round the world. “I never see them very much now” she explained. She was on her own for Christmas. They might Skype.’

Here is the lesson he draws: ‘This is what happens when that much over praised value of social mobility becomes the way we think about dealing with social inequality. Social mobility is very much a young person’s value, of course. Get on. Get out of your community. Find a job anywhere you please. Undo the ties that bind you. The world is your oyster.’

There seems to be a serious confusion here between ‘social mobility’ and, well, ‘mobility’, in particular moving to get work (is there a nod to Norman Tebbit there, perhaps, and his father getting on his bike to look for a job?). If a joiner or an electrician leaves his home town to work in the oil industry or on an overseas construction project as a joiner or electrician, that is not social mobility. Social mobility is a movement (generally upward) in social class or social status. It may be bound up with a change of occupation and might be facilitated by increased earning power but the commonest agent in my lifetime and perhaps still is education, which is not without its dislocating effects, as documented in Willy Russell’s admirable play, Educating Rita, or by Seamus Heaney in these lines from Clearances, a sonnet sequence dedicated to his mother:

Fear of affectation made her affect
Inadequacy whenever it came to
Pronouncing words ‘beyond her’. Bertold Brek.
She’d manage something hampered and askew
Every time, as if she might betray
The hampered and inadequate by too
Well-adjusted a vocabulary.
With more challenge than pride, she’d tell me, ‘You
Know all them things.’ So I governed my tongue
In front of her, a genuinely well-
Adjusted adequate betrayal
Of what I knew better. I’d naw and aye
And decently relapse into the wrong
Grammar which kept us allied and at bay.

But we must not expect such perceptive observation from Fraser:

‘This is the philosophy that preaches freedom of movement, the Remainers’ golden cow. [Golden Cow?? Does he mean Golden Calf? Sacred Cow? Golden Goose?] And it is this same philosophy that encourages bright working-class children to leave their communities to become rootless Rōnin, loyal to nothing but the capitalist dream of individual acquisition and self-advancement.’

(I do wonder if Fraser is familiar with the history of the working class and in particular the industrial revolution, with the flight from the land to the teeming cities, the Irish navvies coming to build canals then railways and hydroelectric plants, or the great transatlantic migrations from Europe to the New World: but then I don’t suppose he could blame any of that on George Osborne or the EU, and besides, aren’t those the good old days he wants us to get back to?)

Poor bright young working-class people! there is, it appears, no good reason for leaving home, and it is doubly shameful to do so in the hope of earning money or bettering yourself. You should stick around waiting for your parents to dement so that you can be on hand to wipe their bums. Nowhere does Fraser address the possibility that people might leave home because they have to, from economic necessity, and not because they want to; that they might do so precisely in order to support their families better than they can by remaining at home. Indeed, in a striking confusion of cause and effect, he attributes the decline of communities to young people leaving them, rather than vice versa:

‘robbed of their most go-ahead young people, working class communities become ghost towns of hopelessness.’

That is just nonsense. It is because so many communiuties have become ghost towns through economic decline that young people have to leave.

Fraser, like many who espouse the Brexit position, does not like the turn the modern world has taken. Well, as Philip Marlowe might say, I’m not too keen on it myself: I lie awake at nights grieving about it. For instance, the impoverishing effect of the banking crisis of 2008 has exacerbated the demographic imbalance created by the very success of modern medicine and the welfare state, so creating tension between young and old, the dwindling tax-base of younger people who must support a burgeoning older population in a pensioned retirement that they themselves are unlikely to enjoy; but I do not see that these undoubted ills of modern society can be blamed entirely on the European Union, nor that they can be cured by Brexit – save perhaps that the elderly might start dying sooner.

But Fraser thinks they can. In that, he epitomises the Brexit position: he attributes a general dissatisfaction, an unfocused resentment – ‘fings ain’t what they used to be’ – to a specific and visible cause: it’s all the fault of that European Union and those Remainers (one of the most paradoxical aspects of his argument is that Remainers are simultaneously characterised as a homogeneous group who think and behave in the same way and as self-seeking individualists who have rejected all community values).

Some of the leaps and non sequiturs he makes in pursuing his case  are breathtaking:

‘Always on the move, always hot desking. Short-term contracts. Laptops and mobiles – even the tools of modern workplace remind us that work no longer has any need of place. [do they? really?] All this is a philosophy that could not have been better designed to spread misery and unhappiness.’

All what? one may ask – and what is the connection between the first part of this paragraph and the concluding sentence?  Perhaps these things will get clearer if we read on –

‘Human beings need roots for their emotional and psychological flourishing. They need long-term, face-to-face relationships; they need chatting in the local post office; they need a sense of shared identity, shared values, mutual commitment. No amount of economic growth is worth sacrificing all this for.’

– or perhaps not. It is not mere pedantry to point out that one of the distinguishing characteristics of human beings, as indeed all animals, is that they do not, in fact, need roots; when we use that term metaphorically, it emphasises that we can form deep and lasting attachments for particular places that persist no matter where in the world we happen to be: the exile draws spiritual and emotional sustenance from his homeland perhaps even more than the one who stays at home. And apart from the curiously specific ‘chatting in the local post office’– not, I confess, a human need I had been aware of, myself – none of the others is necessarily tied to place as Fraser seems to want to claim. The notion that you somehow have to stay in the community where you were born or grew up in order to have ‘long-term, face-to-face relationships’ or to develop ‘a sense of shared identity, shared values, mutual commitment’ is just nonsense. It is certainly true that human relations are more important than economic growth, but they are not incompatible with it: you can have both.

I have quoted part of the final paragraph of this section already; here it is in full: ‘Because robbed of their most go-ahead young people, working class communities become ghost towns of hopelessness. And care homes for the elderly become ways to warehouse those who cannot be persuaded to make the trip to Dignitas.’

What is the word ‘And’ doing here? Does Fraser really believe that a direct consequence of young working class people leaving their communities is that ‘care homes for the elderly become ways to warehouse those who cannot be persuaded to make the trip to Dignitas’? On what is this entirely fanciful notion based? Does he offer a single shred of evidence to support it? Or is it perhaps just something he wants to be true?

The most striking part of the article comes at the end, and initially it seems a pleasant  surprise – unexpectedly, in an argument from a Brexiter, Muslims are held up as a positive example:  ‘We were eating in a Pakistani restaurant in Tooting. All around us extended Muslim families were sitting together, children and the elderly, aunts and uncles. It was a buzzy hub of a homogeneous society – the sort of society that the West sometimes criticises for being inward looking. “They must integrate!” comes the familiar line, which, in effect, means they should disperse, learn the values of progressive individualism.’

I find Fraser’s illustration problematic and, on a deeper level, disturbing. From its position in the article – it is the penultimate paragraph – this is evidently the vision to which he wants us to aspire, that ‘something we have lost’ which Brexit seeks to reclaim, ‘the ability to stay put and care for each other.’

Leaving aside the questionable accuracy of his implication – having family gatherings in restaurants is not, in my experience, a practice reserved to muslims – let us ask what the example is that he wants us to follow, that he hopes Brexit will bring. In describing the extended muslim family as ‘a buzzy hub of a homogeneous society – the sort of society that the West sometimes criticises for being inward looking’ Fraser seems to imply (unwarrantably, I would suggest) that there is a muslim monoculture and that ‘the West’, rather than condemning it, should imitate it.

I do not think that he means we should all, post-Brexit, convert to Islam: instead, he wants British society to be a monoculture, as he mistakenly supposes muslims to be and equally mistakenly imagines that Britain once was (I am a Scots catholic of Irish extraction who was born in a council house in Clydebank and went to Edinburgh university; I was raised in Perth, went to school in Dundee, raised a family in Edinburgh and Inverness – what community do I belong to?).

This monoculture should be built on ‘staying put and caring for each other.’ I have nothing against caring for each other, but the implications of that ‘staying put’ are rather sinister: we should all stay where we belong and look after our own. By implication, those who don’t belong here should go back to where they do and look after themselves, leaving us to do the same. The sentiments are chillingly similar to those expressed in these posters, which have recently been appearing in Italy –

52723196_10218283205374305_3205880563168706560_n

[The text is, from the top, ‘births at an all-time low’ ‘Italy needs daughters, not gay marriage and immigrants’ the hashtag is ‘income for mothers’]

Is that the vision of ‘the something we have lost’ that leaving the EU will reclaim?

A tissue of misinformation, non sequiturs and falsehoods, brought to you by HM government

In signing this petition (and I would urge you all to follow suit) https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/235138

I came across this extraordinary response, date 30 January and purporting to come from HM Government, though the fact that almost all the arguments it contains have been heard repeatedly before that date in the mouths of Jacob Rees-Mogg and his acolytes in the ERG* suggests that it actually originates from them.

It is, as one would expect of anything from that source, of doubtful veracity. I print it below with my interpolations and numbered links to fuller refutations of the arguments advanced made in earlier articles here:

( – but first let me declare my credentials as one of the Remainer Elite**, in contrast to multi-millionaire man-of-the-people Jake Mogg, educated at Eton and Oxford, investment banker and hedge-fund manager; I – an impecunious writer – was born in a council house in Clydebank and went to Lawside Academy Dundee, a state school, though I had the temerity to attend Edinburgh University)

‘The Government remains clear that we will respect the result of the 2016 referendum, and we therefore will not hold a second referendum.

A non-sequitur – where is the logical link between respecting the result of the 2016 referendum (which, arguably, they have not done anyway 1, 2 & 3 4) and not holding a second one?

The Government is clear that we will not have a second referendum; it’s mandate is to implement the result of the previous referendum.

It would help if the writers were literate: ‘it’s’ should be ‘its’; how can the 2016 referendum be the previous one if we’ve not had one since? Really, this does not inspire confidence.

The 2016 referendum delivered a very clear instruction to Government – to withdraw from the European Union.

This is certainly arguable. The only clarity that the 2016 referendum delivered was that (a) the country was divided and (b) only a minority actually wished to leave the EU (5)

Since then, this Government has remained committed to honouring that instruction, given to us through 17.4 million votes to leave the European Union – the highest number of votes cast for anything in UK electoral history.

As stated above, 17.4 million is a minority of the electorate (about 38%) and is only 26% of the population of 65.5 million, all of whom will be affected by leaving the EU for a great deal longer than the 5 years it takes to change the government by a general election.
The claim that this is the highest number of votes cast for anything in UK history is, depending on what is meant by it, either false or insignificant: it is certainly misleading. (6 ) and (7) 17.4 million in round terms is the same number of votes cast in favour of staying in the EEC, one of only three occasions in history that the nation has voted on a single issue. The fact that the 2016 figure is 0.18% larger than the 1975 vote is considerably outweighed by the fact that the electorate then was smaller, so that 43.35% of the electorate voted to remain in the EEC as against 37.4 voting to leave in 2016.

That result was reinforced not only by Parliament’s passing of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill with clear and convincing majorities;

again, a non-sequitur : the action of parliament subsequent to a vote cannot (retrospectively) reinforce the result of that vote. And the fact that parliament voted on weak grounds (given the actual result of the referendum noted above) is proof only of their poor judgement and lack of courage.

but also in the 2017 General Election, where over 80% of people also voted for parties committed to respecting the result of the referendum. In fact, both major parties stood for election on a stated policy to respect the decision of the people.

This is disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst. In every single General election in the past 100 years the great majority of votes have been cast for either Conservative or Labour; in 1918, it was 59%, the lowest combined total; in the 21 elections since 1931 – the first year in which the combined total exceeded 80% – the total voting either Labour or Conservative has exceeded 80% on 11 occasions (on three occasions it passed 90%).
It is true that last year was the first time since 1979 that the total had exceeded 80%, owing to the emergence of the SDP/Lib Dems as a significant third force from 1983 onwards, but all the same there is nothing particularly surprising or noteworthy about the fact that the majority of voters voted the same way they have for the last hundred years; to adduce that the percentage in the 2017 vote was primarily because the two main parties said they would stand by the referendum does not stand up to scrutiny, since it is a fact that both parties are divided on the issue, and a vote for one or the other cannot be construed as a vote to leave the EU (a point made by Sir John Major, who opposes Brexit but voted Conservative) (8).

The Government is clear that it is now its duty to implement the will expressed by voters in the referendum – respecting both the will of the British people, and the democratic process which delivered the referendum result.

As pointed out above, the British People amount to some 65.5 million people, of whom 46.5 million were entitled to vote in the 2015 referendum. 17.4 million is a large minority of the electorate and cannot be equated with the British People nor supposed to express their will. The referendum result as a whole expressed the will of the electorate, which – as stated above – was that they did not speak with a single voice on the matter and that only a minority of them wished to leave the EU.

The British people must be able to trust in its Government both to effect their will, and to deliver the best outcome for them.

This is a pious hope, not a logical argument. Nor does it address the reality we are confronted with now, where the government has misinterpreted the will of the people and is committed to an outcome which, if consonant with that misinterpretation – i.e. leaving the EU – will not be the best outcome and could well be the worst, if we leave with no deal in place.

As the Prime Minister has said: “This is about more than the decision to leave the EU; it is about whether the public can trust their politicians to put in place the decision they took.”

It is astonishingly arrogant of the Prime Minister to suppose that trust in her government rates higher than leaving the EU. We can rid ourselves of an untrustworthy government at the next election, which at latest will be in 2022 and probably sooner, but we will live with the effects of leaving the EU for a generation.

The Government therefore remains committed to delivering on the instruction and the mandate given to us by the British people – to withdraw from the European Union.

Again, this is a non sequitur – ‘therefore’ has no force here. And as has been pointed out many times already, no such instruction has been given ‘by the British people’. Only 17.4 million have expressed a desire to leave: what of the remaining 48.1 million who will also be affected, almost certainly to their detriment in the immediate, short, middle and probably long term? In any case, how can a desire to respect the will of the British people expressly preclude asking them what they would like to do now that the shape of Brexit has become clear? (9)

We continue to work to reach consensus on the deal we have negotiated, to enable a smooth and orderly exit,

Yet ‘the deal we have negotiated’ has already been rejected by an unprecedentedly huge majority in parliament. (10)

and deliver an outcome which betters the lives of British people – whether they voted to Leave or to Remain.

It does not look, by any credible forecast, as if leaving the EU will leave us better off than remaining in it; on the contrary, it looks likely to make things worse for most of the British people.

Department for Exiting the European Union’

As dictated by the ERG, I would suggest

*European Research Group, a pro-Brexit alliance of MPs – is it just my fancy, or does the initial resemblance to David Stirling’s LRDG – Long Range Desert Group, the forerunner of the SAS – suggest that the Haunted Pencil (as Mogg is known) sees himself as something of a latter-day Phantom Major?

**a curiously large elite, comprising many tens of millions. How many? why not find out by having a second referendum? My own guess would be between 25 and 30 million, but I’m happy to be proved wrong.

Was there ever such a fine piece of nonsense?

 
I am grateful to Caroline Flint MP for providing such a clear and succinct statement of the nonsensical ‘second referendum = betrayal of democracy’ argument that we hear so often.

Pause this clip after the opening sentence and ask yourself what exactly she is saying

“The breakdown of trust in politics if we try to turn this over by a second referendum will be hard to repair.”

It is one of those statements that have the ring of something forceful and definite, yet if we consider it closely – by asking what is actually being said – it turns out to be utter nonsense.

There are two undefined terms here – ‘we’ and ‘this’. What does each stand for?

‘this’ presumably refers to something that could be overturned by a second referendum and probably means the decision to leave the European Union.

‘we’ could mean either those who have it in their power to call a second referendum – politicians in parliament – or those who, by voting in such a referendum, might overturn the decision to leave the European Union – the British electorate.

But if it is the first, how could politicians turn over the decision to leave the EU by calling a referendum? All that does is afford the electorate a chance to have their say; it is up to the electorate what they vote for.

But if we take ‘we’ to mean the electorate, then Ms Flint is saying ‘if the British electorate try to turn this over by a second referendum, then the breakdown in trust of politicians will be hard to repair.’ That does not make a great deal of sense either, since the electorate cannot try to overturn the decision by a second referendum, though they might well overturn it by voting in one, should the politicians grant them the opportunity. But if they did that, why would a nigh-irreparable breakdown of trust in politicians result?

That, perhaps, is the nub of it – what Ms Flint seems to be saying is ‘If we, the politicians, grant the electorate a second referendum and they overturn the decision to leave the EU by voting to remain, then there will be a breakdown of trust in politicians that will be hard to repair.’ – but on whose part?

Should parliament belatedly decide to grant the people a chance to have their say on the grisly shambles that has resulted since the first referendum, I can well imagine that they will vote overwhelmingly to remain in the EU; after all, as I never tire from saying, the 2016 referendum showed that only a minority had any desire to leave in the first place. But rather than causing a breakdown in trust, such an outcome might begin to heal the breakdown that has already taken place.

No: the only people who will be disgruntled if the British people vote to remain in the EU will be the minority who want to leave, who thought – against all expectation and reason – that they were going to get what they wanted. But if the British people vote to remain, what grounds would they have for complaint? And who is Ms Flint, or any politician, to deny the British people that opportunity?

If there is anything that is undemocratic and liable to further destroy our faith in politicians, it is denying the people a chance to have their say now that the true shape of Brexit has emerged for all to see.

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.

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?

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?