Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Folly, Farce and Hope

Its impossible to think about the UK's recent EU referendum without trying to find some positive aspect to the situation. The referendum decision to leave the EU is probably the most serious self inflicted harm that the nation could impose on itself short of declaring war. In the aftermath the Tory leadership race turned into a fiasco with none of the Brexit side getting the top job. While this was well deserved it somehow poured farce on top of folly. So is there anything positive that we can find in the outcome? I think the answer to that is yes.

The full consequences of the vote to leave the EU are not yet clear. Can the UK disentangle itself from the European Union without doing serious damage to its economy? London generates 1/3 of all the income tax raised in the UK and if the City of London financial district loses its access to the European financial markets, which is quite  possible, this will have major consequences to the rest of the country.

The question of Scottish independence has reappeared. The three hundred year old union between Scotland and England is in question. Northern Ireland may yet seek to leave the UK and find a new accommodation with Eire. The possibility that in twenty years’ time we might be looking at a broken United Kingdom, consisting just of England and Wales, must now be considered.

So what did the people who voted leave think would happen? 

In a recent opinion poll by Lord Ashcroft it was determined that: 

More than three quarters (77%) of those who voted to remain thought “the decision we make in the referendum could have disastrous consequences for us as a country if we get it wrong”. More than two thirds (69%) of leavers, by contrast, thought the decision “might make us a bit better or worse off as a country, but there probably isn’t much in it either way”. 

Why is there such a difference between attitudes of LEAVE and REMAIN?

Some have argued that the Remain campaign didn’t do enough to inform people of the likely consequences of leaving the EU. David Cameron would probably say that he did. Expert advice was wheeled in from all over the world but it didn’t have the expected effect. Michael Grove, for Leave, made the memorable statement that he thought the British people had had enough of experts, ordinary people could make up their own minds.

So expert opinion doesn’t carry value. We wouldn’t expect to have an amateur pilot in charge when we fly off on holiday but on many crucial topics people seem much less convinced of the veracity of experts. Topics such as economics and climate change seem to have been moved into a zone where they are considered matters of personal opinion, as if they were of no greater consequence than a preference for marmalade over strawberry jam. A notion of absolute truth or falsehood doesn't enter in to it. There’s the view, to quote Isaac Asimov, that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'

Quite how we got to the stage where people unschooled in complicated subjects such as economics or the chemical composition of the atmosphere consider their views of equal value to those of academics with years of study is remarkable. It was not always thus.

The fact the Earth orbits the sun, even though this is outside direct human experience, has long been beyond question. The Earth’s place in the universe was accepted by those who themselves couldn’t prove it. This was knowledge that we accepted as something that science had determined, no one seriously questioned the idea. So why did we get to the point where, in certain topics, lay people feel that their view is as good as that of a Nobel prize winning economist or physicist?

Aaron Banks is a multimillionaire businessman who financed the UKIP. Banks put at least £3 million of his personal fortune into the Leave EU campaign. He hired an American political advocacy firm, Goddard Gunster, to develop and implement the campaign.

Aaron Banks in an interview explains that, "What [Goddard Gunster] said early on was 'facts don’t work' and that's it. The remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success."

The campaign against EU membership had many strands to it. There was the matter of immigration. All those East Europeans who would steal jobs while simultaneously hanging around on benefits. There was the spectre of Turkey joining the EU. This, despite the fact that all existing members may veto the admission of new members. To say nothing of that £350 million that was going to be reallocated to the NHS the moment Britain left the EU. That promise didn’t last beyond the first morning after the referendum.

In fact none of the Leave promises were worth anything at all because the Leave side never had a plan for how the United Kingdom would extricate itself from the EU or what its new trade relationship with the EU would be. They never could have such a plan. Such terms and conditions as may apply in the future were not and could not be arranged in advance. 

The nearest that LEAVE ever got to a post Brexit plan was a suggestion that the UK could adopt the so called 'Norway' model. This means being part of the EEA, the European Economic Area but not the EU. It is by no means certain that the United Kingdom would be accepted to such a group. There are currently some 30 states in the EEA any of which could veto the admission of the UK.

In any case the Norway model still requires Norway to make significant contributions to the EU budget and accept free movement of people.  And Norway has no say at all in the EU regulatory process. They just have to accept whatever Brussels says without debate.  The irony here is that the key LEAVE slogan, devised by Goddard Gunster, was ‘Take Back Control’. Its a slogan. In the context of post-Brexit Britain it will mean no more than ‘BEANZ MEANZ HEINZ’.

Andrea Leadsom was a major player in the Brexit campaign and she has a very casual way with the truth. By the time the campaign was over Leadsom seems to have convinced herself she could get away with anything. In an interview with the Times newspaper she suggested that as a mother she had more of a stake in the future than rival Theresa May. This was considered bad form as May had publicly stated that she was physically unable to have children.

Well, we've all made remarks that we've lived to regret. Leadsom, rather than apologising then accused the Times of misquoting her. She went on to call the Times report gutter journalism of the worst kind.

The Times then produced a tape proving that Leadsom had said exactly what they'd printed. Thus proving Leadsom an idiot as well as a liar. And that was the end of Leadsom's attempt to become Prime Minister.

But I said there was a little hope. So where is it? 

The lies of Leadsom and the steady stream of misinformation are becoming recognised. And now there's an anger following the EU referendum that has energised people. A tiny minority of voters changed the destiny of the UK. That the campaign was dirty and deceitful and tuned into people on an emotional level is clear.  

We've known for years that tabloid papers like the Sun and the Daily Mail print what they like with scant regard for the truth. But this been largely ignored as celebrity gossip and much of their other coverage is so trivial. But this time the stakes were higher and the tabloids were seen to be complicit with an opportunistic political class that had the same low ethical standards. We saw how the steady drip, drip of misinformation directly influenced something we all had a stake in.

I think that the next General election will be won and lost on different terms. When that election is fought the politicians will be dealing with an electorate that has informed itself better, has insight into the games being played with the truth and is much more aware of the consequences of their votes. 

And that, I believe, gives cause for hope.

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