Jack of Kent looks at how things moved from Thatcher’s 1988 Bruges speech setting out a vision of Europe to 1990 and then Major’s bastards.
Gavin Esler in The New European:
What is the purpose of truth and facts and news in a world of disinformation, where lying at the top has become normalised? The slippery concept of ‘balance’ needs to be rethought. Serious politicians and real experts cannot be ‘balanced’ by obscure talking heads whose main qualification is a university degree in blarney.
Take, for instance, the ubiquitous antipodean, an Australian called Chloe Westley. She was formerly with Vote Leave and is now a rising star in the so-called TaxPayers’ Alliance. Spokesmen and women from obscure pressure groups maybe occasionally worthwhile guests on television and radio, but Westley is now a regular fixture.
The clear message is that what she has to say must somehow be important and authoritative. But is it? Curiously for someone who knows everything there is to know about the golden post-Brexit future for 65 million of us, Westley claims not to know key details about who actually funds her salary.
When challenged on Radio 4 by the impressive Conservative MP Dr Sarah Wollaston about corporate and big business donations, the otherwise omniscient Westley was unable to confirm if, say, her opposition to a sugar tax is encouraged by funding from the sugar lobby or other big financial interests.
Private organisations are entitled to keep their funding secret. But when the TPA spokeswoman repeatedly comes into your home and mine on the public airwaves, their source of funding is a vital public interest matter. Organisations in our Disinformation Age need to come clean, or not be invited to come on television and radio programmes except very occasionally. ‘Come Clean Or Don’t Come On’ is a good principle for other supposedly ‘independent’ think tanks too, including the pro-Brexit Institute of Economic Affairs.
The IEA was recently exposed in a sting operation offering access for wealthy US potential donors to right-wing British politicians. Every dog should have a chance to howl. But since those who howl repeatedly on television are rewarded by broadcasters with a veneer of credibility, they need to come clean to deserve it.
So what can we do to minimise the damage?
First, continue to expose the Brexit fantasies, accurately and fairly assessing whether any of them are ever likely to work. Second, compare the promises of the Brexit Bunch with what they actually do with their own lives and finances. Third, we need to follow the money – the Leave campaign money, the money behind the curiously-funded Leave-supporting “think tanks”, and other organisations. And fourth, we need to keep an eye on those speculators for whom a chaotic few months until the Brexcrement hits the fan could prove remarkably profitable.
One hopes that if Esler, a senior ex-BBC journalist, is speaking out in public there is at least a debate within the BBC.
The Guardian does a quick round-up.
William Davies in the London Review of Books:
For all his idiosyncrasies, Johnson typifies something about contemporary conservatism, which might best be understood biographically. The cultural forces shaping the new conservatism resolve in a particular stereotype: men born between the mid-1960s and the early 1970s, with some constellation of expat backgrounds, famous fathers and first careers in the media. All four things apply to Johnson, but a Venn diagram of these various characteristics would also include Michael Gove, Douglas Carswell, Daniel Hannan and Jacob Rees-Mogg. The result of these disparate characteristics is a comfortable familiarity with the myths and rituals of the British state, but a blasé indifference to the impact of policy. As Ian Jack pointed out in these pages last year (15 June 2017), the expat perspective seems to play an important role in the psychology of Brexit. Hannan and Carswell both had expatriate childhoods. Astute observers, such as the writer Gary Younge, have argued that Brexit rests more on an imperial imaginary than on a national one. But as much as anything the expat is in a position to see ‘Great Britain’ from a perspective other than that of government. Such things as statistics, macroeconomics and policy itself fade into insignificance compared to the way the nation is seen from afar, alongside its historical rivals. Ignore ‘official Treasury forecasts’ and focus on the atlas instead.
In contrast to the populist message of Ukip, which is all about British blood, British soil and how the elites have betrayed them, Tory Brexitism can have a strange flippancy about it. In some cases, you wonder if they really mean it or if it’s just another attention-seeking strategy. Like Johnson, Rees-Mogg was treated as a joke until suddenly he was being discussed as a potential Conservative leader. Then there are their allies who write in the Spectator and specialise in exploring the sliver of political space between irony and bigotry. Among them is Toby Young, who originally found fame as the butt of his own joke with his memoir How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (2001). The game is a quest for attention, and humorous transgression is the key skill in winning it. Another name for it is ‘trolling’.
Armchair psychoanalysts can muse on what responsibility the high-profile fathers of these men have for cultivating their sons’ delinquency and need for attention. It is surely a safer psychological force confined to op-ed pages than unleashed on politics, especially where historic constitutional reform is at stake. But the boundary separating the conservative press from the Conservative Party has in any case been slowly dissolving, with the Times (Gove’s former employer, which currently boasts two Conservative peers, Lords Finkelstein and Ridley, on its comment team) occupying a particularly porous position on the border between the two. In January, Young came within a Twitter-storm of being appointed to the new Office for Students, which will regulate universities in England and Wales. The reality is that in addition to the ideological and cultural forces behind Brexit, it is also happening thanks to the recklessness of individuals who see public life as an opportunity to show off. This is the more fundamental sense in which Westminster is being permeated by Trumpism.
There will be no dramatic fall in immigration as soon as Britain leaves the EU, the home secretary has suggested, as she announced the government would consult businesses over plans for an immigration system over the summer.
In comments that appeared to back the Brexit secretary, David Davis, when he said the door would not “suddenly shut”, Amber Rudd said the government was “against cliff edges” when it came to reducing immigration.
I thought cutting immigration and “taking back control” were the two key Brexit objectives.
The front page of the Daily Express of 8 August 1939 contains one of the finest blusters in British history. Lord Beaverbrook, the proprietor, had so supported appeasing Hitler he dropped Winston Churchill from his pages for warning of the Nazi threat.
Beaverbrook and his journalists were desperate to prove that they had not betrayed their country. Under the headline “No War This Year”, the Express assured its readers that no less an authority than “Mr Selkirk Panton”, its Berlin correspondent, believed that “Herr Hitler, despite all his mysticism, is a hard-headed, hard-boiled politician… He will not risk everything over some hasty action”.
On 1 September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. On 3 September, Britain and France declared war on Germany. As luck would have it, on 3 September 2016 – 77 years to the day after its “no war this year” prediction failed so spectacularly – the print edition of the Express led with the headline that Britain was in a “Brexit boom”. Along with the rest of the rightwing press and the politicians who have led us to this pass, the Express is loud in its insistence that the “doom mongers” had been proved wrong.
Now, as then, we see the same desperation to believe that the Conservatives have not betrayed their country and the same refusal to face reality. We are not in recession because the Bank of England has pumped cheap money into the economy with Weimaresque abandon and reduced interest rates to their lowest level ever.
The right says the EU will want to give us a better deal out than we had in because the EU nations will still want their exporters to sell to us. They don’t look at how politically impossible it would be for Europe’s leaders to tear up EU rules when they are having to face down their own xenophobes and Europhobes.
They don’t have a shred of evidence that the EU will appease us. Just a forlorn hope and an echo of voices from the time of the British appeasers. They were as convinced that they were dealing with “hard-headed, hard-boiled politicians”, who would do whatever Britain wanted and not “risk everything over some hasty action”. They were as befuddled.
Writing in the Belfast Telegraph, Davis made his vow about not returning to the past in terms of armed checkpoints and border checks. He wrote: “We had a common travel area between the UK and the Republic of Ireland many years before either country was a member of the European Union. “We are clear we do not want a hard border – no return to the past – and no unnecessary barriers to trade.
Hmm. A border is made up of two sides. Through the UK’s actions, the EU may insist on border controls – as they do with every other land border they have. But in Davis’s world that will be the EU’s fault.
Simon Wren-Lewis, Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University:
The two clear explanatory variables for those who voted that the UK should leave the EU were education and age. Much has also been made of the fact that, other things equal, those from areas of the country that suffered from deindustrialisation over the last 30 years tended to vote Leave, but there was no correlation with levels or rates of change of income. Nor is there any clear correlation between Brexit support and levels of immigration, again matching this study’s findings for Trump support.
One of the most striking findings from the post-Brexit Ashcroft poll was the answer to the following question: “Overall, life in Britain today is better/worse than it was 30 years ago’. While Remain voters overwhelming chose better, a clear majority of Leave voters chose worse. If you take that question to be only about individual living standards, then there is no way half the population have had declining living standards over the last 30 years. But why should a question about ‘life in Britain today’ be interpreted in narrow economic terms?
In the case of Brexit we had a coalition between two groups who had reason to feel aggrieved at trends over the last 30 years: social conservatives within an increasingly liberal society and those living in areas that had not shared in metropolitan economic success. You could say that both groups, in different ways, had been left behind and therefore become alienated by the dominant sectors of society. (See this study by Jennings and Stoker, for example.)