Rhys Felton, University of Warwick
Almost a year after triggering Article 50 in March 2017, divisions vis-a-vis what the Government wants from Brexit, what Leave voters want from Brexit, and what the Parliamentary Opposition want from Brexit remain impassable. Astonishingly, leaked WhatsApp messages between Tory MPs revealed that hardline Conservative Brexiteers including Nadine Durries were not even wholly sure what the Customs Union and Common Market are, despite being staunchly convinced that they want out of them. I assume they perceive whatever it is – assumingly some evil federalist structure that strangles British sovereignty and stops us making trade deals with the rest of the world. It is this this type of blind faith in Brexit, as a symbol of progress betterment for Britain, that has reduced the value of truth, facts, and reason to banal, unimportant side notes of British politics. This is of course surprising for a country that claims to be one of the most progressive and democratically advanced countries in the world. So, the inevitable question to ask is why are do convictions now appear so distanced from longer dependant on reason and logic? After all, the phenomenon continues to be increasingly exposed in the painful, never-ending Brexit debate the country finds itself in, yet is has not been addressed…
What becomes increasingly apparent as the Brexit negotiations rumble on on in the background, is that those arguing the case that Brexit constitutes some kind of ‘godsend’ for British society, struggle to find any weight in the same arguments made during the campaign; often dependant on hypothetical situations and bold, ‘patriotic’ predictions. It is this trend for resolutely clinging to the messages spouted during the referendum campaign that captures that Brexiteers’ ideological stance is founded on the basis of a blind belief in some vague, abstract, and ill-defined notion of Brexit Britain. I am qualifying this belief as ‘blind’ in that even when reality contradicts their view with hard, objective facts, they continue to churn out meaningless, and now explicitly false mantras and soundbites. Whether it’s official announcements of firms and factories relocating to mainland Europe that lays bare the cruel realities of a potential ‘no deal’, the fact that £350m will not be going to the NHS but instead we will have to cough up a hefty divorce bill, or even the explanation that EU law allows the possibility for immigrants to be deported after three months, Brexiteers will hold firm in their faith that this is a good idea - Brexit is a change for the good. Take the last example, countries such as Belgium have demonstrated that within the EU, the individual home offices have the liberty to impose immigration policies in which upon arriving in the country you must give evidence within three months that you have the economic means to support your lifestyle in the host country. At this point, Brexiteers would inevitably proceed to question why British Government hasn’t imposed this type of policy to repatriate all these mischievous immigrants who have come to Britain solely to reap the rewards of its welfare system. The answer is of course clear: European immigrants are net contributors to the economy and ensure that Britain’s stark lack of labourers and healthcare staff doesn’t reach crisis point.
Perhaps this cynical leap straight to the issue of immigration in the Brexit debate is unfair and smears the defenders of Leave as retrograde, closet racists; obviously the Leave campaign was about more than just immigration. It was a symbolic decision, ‘taking back control’ of Britain from the unelected bureaucrats of Brussels, meaning we can make our own laws independent of the EU. Sovereignty is the buzzword of the moment; lovely, wholesome British sovereignty. One slight issue with this line of argument, as revealed on multiple occasions on James O’Brien’s LBC call-in radio show, no one can name what EU laws they voted to no longer obey, and what laws they would like to see implemented in the UK that couldn’t be enacted while within the EU. Once the caller has made it clear that they don’t actually have any preferences, the favoured direction to take is to simply talk in symbolic terms about freedom and democracy – evidently preferring to entrust any British Government and Parliament with the responsibility of new laws - an interesting and brave standpoint to take given the innumerable evidence for large scale incompetence in modern British politics both within Government and the Opposition; Tom Brake recently summarising that he’d ‘seen ministers homework – a child could have done it’. While I don’t wish to discredit the importance of sovereignty in any progressive, civilised society, the incongruity this narrow interpretation offered by Brexiteers must be laboured. For instance, many Leavers, possibly in attempt to avoid exuding delusion, willingly accept that there may be a short-term economic downfall, but declare it justifiable in the greater, divine mission to achieve this mystical national sovereignty. When explained to them, with evidence of the fall of the pound, with the reality that trade deals will take time and resources to be established, that Single Market accounts for 500m customers, and that the economic impact will have considerable longevity, it’s fingers in ears time. This is simply Project Fears’ ancestor post-Article 50 reincarnation for the Brexiteers, failing to recognise that while there was a certain degree of validity in this claim during the campaign as the warnings could only be assumptions and predictions, there is currently evidence of a long-term economic downfall that is actually taking place as we speak, with Britain sliding to the bottom of the G7 growth leader board.
Once all these economic and political arguments have been hollowed out by reason and logic, what remains is of course the classic democracy card, carrying out ‘The Will of the People’; the trump card of any self-respecting Brexiteer. This is what I will refer to as Britain’s contemporary ‘divine law’. A referendum built lies, misinformation, and false pretences from both sides (arguably perhaps one slightly more than the other) that produced a the less-than-sensational victory of 52% for Leave over the miserly 48% in favour of remaining. With a turnout of 33.6 million people, this means that just 17 million out of an electorate of 46,500,001 voted to leave the EU. This poses several problems: how do we choose which of the various types of Brexit (hard, soft, jobs-first, ‘red, white, and blue’…), not indicated on the ballot paper, we should carry out? How do you take into consideration of the other 16 million remain voters when carrying out Brexit? Did the result provide enough of a mandate? The key lesson to draw from the subsequent 19 months of revelations about the reality of leaving the EU, is perhaps that democracy is not a moment but a never-ending and dynamic process, as often evoked by Editor in Chief of the New European Alistair Campbell. Surely, the will of the people who voted to leave the European Union did not vote with the desire to become economically worse off, that Britain would lose international stature rather than gain it, and that the UK would still be required to follow EU instruction in order to access the economic benefits. Yet, it would seem, blind faith has taken hold; it would be blasphemous to recognise reality, to admit that perhaps they were wrong and now appreciate the reality of the debate, we’re in too deep.
So, there is plenty of testimony to this unwavering belief in the divine notion of Brexit, but what has motivated (and continues drive) this blind, absolute conviction in Brexit’s assured success?
Ultimately, Brexit embodies a tension between fact and fiction that encapsulates the presence of an era of ‘post-truth’. This term, declared ‘the word of 2016’ by Oxford Dictionaries, designates a societal state of mind in which objective facts play a lesser role in determining public opinion than forces of emotion and personal beliefs. This helps to explain how the lies exposed during and following the fallout of the referendum were largely accepted by great swathes of the population, provided that they conformed to certain belief or worldview of the individual. This then becomes a pragmatic tool for deconstructing Brexit as when we analyse how popular worldviews are informed - largely through means of communication and the media that now exert an omnipresent pressure on the individual, compounding a set of views and belief through deconstructing the world into simplified, binary divisions of good and bad – we can understanding the strength of belief in Brexit. The vitriolic tone of newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, together with Brexiteer hostility on social media platforms such as Twitter and particularly Facebook bombarded the public with hollow mantras and soundbites that were tailored to the overarching narratives of an honourable Britain being pillaged by the corrupt EU. It is perhaps interesting that many Brexiteers have commented on mainstream media broadcasters such as the BBC presenting Brexit in an overly pessimistic manner. However, contrary to this, observation of the BBC’s attempt at neutrality on political debates in fact afforded some of the lies the luxury of being given air-time without appropriate scrutiny, allowing them to be peddled by the Brexiteer disciples. From this, an even more worrying trend is illustrated: lying has become normalised in British politics. We need not look any further than the incompetent case of Brexit Secretary David Davis, who having assured that he had been working on Impact Assessment reports smugly revealed that this had not been the case, and no such reports existed. To rub salt in the wounds of British politics, astonishingly, his job security never came under threat, the polemic swiftly brushed under the carpet. This age of ‘post-truth’ is inextricably intertwined with Brexit; a lack of accountability for those who propagate lies and instil emotions of fear, misguided pride, and hatred, threatening to undermine the democratic values of Great Britain.
While this appears a bleak and monumental challenge, Brexit does not sign the end of democracy. In fact, what it highlights is the need for a revival of British politics. It includes everything from the media that covers its stories, to the politicians who live them. Politics must return to the art of the possible and rational, not the art of the impossible and irrational. This doesn’t signify that we should stop aspiring for better, but to seek to set goals for society that are achievable. For this to happen, the media must take responsibility for its role in informing the public and scrutinising all the information into order to relay accurate information and valid arguments. We must avoid the reduction of debate to a ‘cutesification’ of politics that attempts to measure balance through on-screen time rather than seeking to fairly presentpresent fairly two sides of debate in respect of the weight of argument – pitching valid point against valid point so that the public can absorb the information, reflect, and come to a reasoned conclusion. Nevertheless reading, listening and watching is the easy part, the crucial stage that follows is thinking, a critical introspective quality that has too often neglected in a manic and hectic contemporary Britain. From this change in the media, politicians would be warier of issues of accountability, rendering sensationalism and deliberate misguidance a risky strategy. It is this type of socio-political renaissance that will help bring British politics out of repute and consequently restore Britain to the role of an exemplary democratic nation in the eyes of the rest of the world.