Tag Archives: little bit of politics

You’re undemocratic. The earth is flat. Now shut up

I voted to Remain for entirely pragmatic reasons. No great fan of the EU, I nevertheless recognised our dependence on it and understood the huge damage that quitting it would cause both this country and the world. All the evidence suggested that. It continues to suggest that.

A major source of exasperation before the referendum was the apparent impossibility of trying to argue this point with a group that was so hostile to evidence that it preferred sticking its fingers in its ears and shouting to explaining the finer points of its position (or – if one feels like pursuing an ad hominem tack, as, in moments of impotent rage, I sometimes do – a group that struggled to articulate any credible argument, or was so unused to debate that it simply didn’t understand the need to justify its point of view).

Post-referendum, that exasperation has been amplified as many Leave supporters continue to wilfully misunderstand the purpose of debate and ignore the traditional role of opposition in our democracy. “We won,” they crow. “It’s the will of the people. You’re undemocratic. Brexit means Brexit. You’re unpatriotic. Shut up.”

While this is, to a certain extent at least, understandable of people for whom winning – or even being listened to – is such a novelty that they mistakenly think referendum success somehow confers moral as well as political clout, I do find it hard to believe that many Brexiteers would even momentarily entertain such an attitude if the vote went the other way (indeed, even the Brexiteers’ ranine figurehead Mr Farage himself said that he wouldn’t accept a 48/52 loss) or if they found themselves in a similar position following a general election – in which, let’s not forget, their opinion would actually have some constitutional value. (As everyone knows, the referendum was only ever advisory and was so vague in scope as to be fatuously blunt as an instrument of reform anyway. After all, the issue of EU membership is not, and could never be, a binary choice of ‘stay’ or ‘go’ – hence all the hot air about ‘hard Brexit’, ‘soft Brexit’ and every degree of Brexit rigidity in between those poles.)

No, in a general election these people wouldn’t for a moment expect their opponents to say, nor, indeed, would themselves say if they lost: “We will now unquestioningly agree with everything the government says, regardless of how wrongheaded it is and how damaging it clearly is to the country’s interests. We were wrong to vote the way we did. We see that now.”

The fact is that if you lose (or, rather, if the party you support loses) an election, you don’t just have a right to oppose the winners; you have a duty. An effective opposition must hold the government to account – without it, we are but a few steps from authoritarianism, despotism and disaster. The same point applies now. If we’re stuck with this awful decision then we’ve got to make the best of it, and that means we need to debate the issue and keep on debating it. Debate is healthy. The leavers fear this because they mistake convictions for conclusions and can’t handle even the concept of argument. But they, like everyone else, need to remember this: if what you say is right, then you have nothing to fear from anyone challenging you. Facts do not crumple in the face of rebuttal. Logic does not bow to opinion. Attempting to forcibly silence your opponent is the tactic of the tyrant.

It is not the will of ‘the people’ to leave. It is the will of some of them – a small minority. Using the 52/48 numbers is a psephological falsehood. Turnout was 72.2%. Just over 25,000 votes weren’t counted. So 37.5% of the electorate voted to leave, not 52%. To be factually accurate, we should always refer to this number, and to the 62.5% of people who didn’t vote to quit the union. (And if you want to talk about how ‘the UK’ voted, you should be aware that the electorate is 45.5 million and the population some 65 million. The UK did not vote to leave. About a quarter of it did. Saying the country voted to leave is akin to saying the country voted for a Tory government. It didn’t. A small proportion of it did.)

And no one voted to leave the single market – that wasn’t on the card at all.

Even though it’s yet to occur, Brexit is already damaging our country, and will continue to damage it. Leaving the European Union – especially if we handle our departure badly, which we show every sign of doing – will further diminish us, not strengthen us. Saying so is not undemocratic (nor for that matter is it unpatriotic). We need to keep making a noise about this.

It’s an almighty disaster.


Why it’s pointless to argue with a Brexit flat-earther

Conversations I’ve had over the past few weeks have confirmed for me that while those of us who want to remain in the European Union do so based on the balance of evidence, the Brexit position is largely borne of instinct, not intellect.

Put simply, Brexiteers don’t have – or want – evidence to support their cause, nor do they change their minds when confronted with evidence that proves their position untenable. No, they have convictions instead. They reckon.

“I reckon we should leave the EU. The European Court of Human Rights makes us give chicken to burglars.”

No it doesn’t. Anyway, the European Court of Human Rights has nothing to do with the EU. We set it up after the Second World War to enforce the Convention on Human Rights, which we helped to write.

“Yeah, but the EU imposes laws on us.”

EU voting records show that since 1999 the British government has voted ‘no’ to proposed legislation 57 times, abstained 70 times, and voted ‘yes’ 2,474 times. We’ve been in favour of almost all of it: the UK has been on ‘the losing side’ in Brussels on just 2% of occasions in the last 17 years.

“It’s undemocratic.”

As opposed to the House of Lords? The monarchy? A parliamentary majority based on 35% of the popular vote?

“It’s bureaucratic.”

The European Commission employs about 33,000 people, around 6,000 work in the European Parliament’s general secretariat, and the European Council employs about 3,500. That’s 42,500 all in. The UK has 440,000 civil servants – more than ten times as many as the EU.

“We’ll be better off if we leave.”

Most economists say we won’t. The IMF, the OECD, the Bank of England, the Treasury, the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the London School of Economics all say we won’t. Do you think you know more than them? Since we joined the EU, our GDP per head has more than doubled – being in the EU has hardly hindered us.

“But we’re flooded with immigrants.”

We’re a nation built on immigration; immigration has accounted for half of UK GDP growth since 2005. And besides, we have more control over our borders than most EU countries. If we leave, we’ll have to sign up to the Schengen Agreement to access the single market, like Norway and Switzerland had to. That means we’ll have no control at all. Is that what you want?

“Well, foreigners come over here and use the NHS.”

About 100,000 immigrants work in the NHS. They keep it going. The NHS is foundering because of underinvestment.

“Yeah, but I still reckon we should leave.”

Not fond of facts, are you?

The thing is, you just can’t use logic or evidence to move someone who feels instead of thinks. That’s why trying to explain to most Brexiteers that they’re wrong is so futile and frustrating. They’re obstinate flat-earthers.

“I reckon the world is flat.”

Interesting. It’s not, though, is it? Look at the phases of the moon; the way ships seem to disappear over the horizon. Consider how you can see farther when you stand on higher ground. Think about why there are different time zones. Look at the images of the planet taken from space.

“Yeah, but I still reckon it’s flat.”

I reckon you’re an idiot.

“My opinion is just as valid as yours.”

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised by this attitude, though. As a country, we have a long history of sticking our fingers in our ears and stubbornly rejecting evidence. The British are traditionally a happily ignorant people, proud of their heritage (which they only have to believe in) rather than their history (which requires effort to learn and understand).

This popular ignorance has served successive governments well, allowing them to rely on nationalist propaganda as a means of drumming up support for otherwise indefensible actions.

Now, however, it’s coming back to bite them on the aris. The people most likely to fall for this sort of popular jingoism – the over-60s and the undereducated – are the ones who are most likely to vote for Brexit, according to YouGov research. That’s why Farage et al. have been appealing to fear and impulse by banging on about immigrants and ‘taking control’ and ‘making Britain great again’, as if any of these spurious notions stand up to any kind of scrutiny.

My parents’ generation, the post-war baby boomers, were raised in a culture of Boy’s Own stories of plucky British derring-do and doing down Johnny Foreigner. They now find that the world has changed while they’ve stood still, and everything they were brought up to believe is now considered wrong. Where’s the certainty they once knew? Where’s the safety they felt when the world was smaller and their outlook more insular? No wonder they’re frightened and bewildered. Of course they’re voting Brexit. They don’t want to admit that they can’t bring back the Great Britain of their youth. (It disappeared long ago – if it even existed. We haven’t been a global power since 1945; arguably, since before then. The Suez Crisis was the last nail in our Imperial coffin and that was 60 years ago.)

As for the other majority group of Brexiteers, the undereducated, it stands to reason that they’d follow their gut instincts and ignore facts. How could they be expected to change their minds when they’re not accustomed to using them? They’ve been conditioned from birth to believe that instinct is better than intellect, even if evidence proves their instinct false. Counter an undereducated Brexiteer’s objections with evidence – however plentiful – and they too will still insist that faceless, unelected Eurocrats are straightening their bananas and imposing laws, and that Austerity Britain’s social problems are the fault of immigrants rather than the government, because they’ve unquestioningly swallowed the lie that everything that’s wrong in the country is Europe’s fault, and that parliament will fix everything when it ‘regains control’ by leaving. It won’t. It can’t. (Indeed, in some cases, like immigration, the UK will actually have less control: as many have pointed out, access to the single market for non-EU members means ceding immigration control entirely, as Switzerland and Norway’s signing of the Schengen Agreement demonstrates. Without the single market, we’re knackered. And any deal we will negotiate has to be worse than our current arrangements – that much is surely obvious.)

What seems particularly odd in both cases – and is more than a little redolent of the protests of a Stockholm syndrome sufferer – is the fact that anyone would want to hand more power to the British government when they’ve been so ill-served by Westminster for so long. The EU offers balances and checks that our own venal MPs surely warrant. I despise and despair of our politicians and would give more power to European Union if I could, not less.

Don’t get me wrong – the union is far from perfect. It’s badly in need of reform and the Juncker Commission needs to go. But that’s hardly a reason to abandon it. This is far too complicated an issue to be handed to the public to decide. Cameron’s a fool for letting this get as far as a plebiscite.