Tuesday, June 28, 2016

it's all good fun until someone loses an EU

So, Brexit, then. And while it's awfully tempting to dismiss the 52% of the UK population who voted to leave the European Union as just a rabble of dimwitted racists, and I'm not saying there isn't a good deal of truth in that, it might just be more productive to try to work out what the hell went wrong.

A few things are obvious: no-one really thought there was an economic case to be made for leaving, so no-one really seriously bothered trying to make one. So basically there was just a lot of dog-whistling around the subject of immigration, which has turned into an elephant in the room totally out of proportion with its actual importance (since the British public are as utterly wrong about the immigration figures and impact as they are about just about any other subject you could care to mention). So when people urge political parties to really tackle immigration, what they really mean is address people's largely imaginary concerns about it and their mistaken perception of its impact. This is actually quite hard to do without just pointing out to people that they are massive racists, which as a vote-winning strategy is not great.

Equally obvious is that, of the major Leave campaign figureheads, Boris Johnson is a brazen and ruthless political opportunist who was campaigning for a Remain vote as recently as February 2016, and moreover as a European correspondent in the 1990s was personally responsible for a whole stream of the sort of barmy Eurocrat banana-straightening stories that fuelled UK Euroscepticism in the first place. Nigel Farage, by contrast, is a proper old-school fascist of the type that always seem hilarious and buffoonish right up until the point where they acquire power and it becomes clear they weren't joking after all. Like that comical Charlie Chaplin lookalike guy in Germany in the 1930s. I mean, who remembers him now?

A gazillion words have already been written bemoaning the barking irrationality of the Leave vote, and in particular how places like Ebbw Vale were persuaded to cast a vote profoundly in opposition to their own best interests, so it might be more profitable to explore a couple of wider (but still related) issues, like, for instance: who can we blame? I have a couple of suggestions.

Firstly, and most obviously, David Cameron. I'm inclined to blame Cameron for a lot of things, as you know, but this referendum really is his fault, since he promised it back in 2013 as a sop to the truculent faction of borderline Nazis in his own party who he feared would otherwise defect to UKIP in large numbers.

But, you might say, what's wrong with having a referendum? This is democracy in its purest form! Anyone arguing against having a referendum must basically HATE DEMOCRACY. This is quite difficult to argue against, since the counter-argument basically boils down to: people are idiots. It's quite salutary to remember why parliamentary democracy exists: because it's absurdly impractical to canvass everyone's opinion on any particular subject (modern technology means it's easier than it's ever been, but it's still absurdly slow and difficult) and it's desirable to bundle up that decision-making capacity - region by region, say - into a single elected representative whose job it quite literally is to be engaged and informed on the topics that decisions might need to be made about, while the people who elected him or her get on with their day jobs amid their usual fug of ignorance.

I'll tell you who else is to blame, though: the media. The BBC, for one, has come in for some criticism in the past for, as this Huffington Post article puts it, "sacrificing objectivity for impartiality", or, in other words, promoting some bullshit idea of "balance" in a debate by presenting both sides and being reluctant to take a position on how those sides align with reality. Both of those linked articles were about climate change, but the same charge can be levelled at the BBC's (and other broadcasters') coverage of the referendum. If there are two sides, and one side is peddling easily-debunked lies and nonsense, it might actually do the viewing public a service if the liars were held to account. To put it another way, the current model only really works when politicians occupy a position somewhere within the bounds of what you might call "reasonableness" or at least can be trusted (most of the time) to be arguing in good faith - once you get a statistical outlier like Farage or Johnson (or Donald Trump, to pick an example from elsewhere) who will just brazenly lie, and, if challenged, shift their position and lie again, the system can't really cope. And treating people like Farage like any other politician legitimises and normalises his political views - look at how often he gets invited onto Question Time, say. I haven't seen Nick Griffin get invited back, and pretty much the only difference between them is that Farage looks less like a thug and has a posh voice.

On that subject, it's interesting to reflect how much we as a nation are still unconsciously in thrall to archaic notions of class, and more specifically notions of what a member of the ruling class looks and sounds like. Take the currently-beleaguered Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, for instance. Now I'm certainly not going to claim him as the potential saviour of humanity, but my experience is that most people, even those not inclined to vote Labour, think that he is clearly a man of principle, honesty and decency who talks a lot of good and compassionate sense on issues regarding social justice. However, ask those people whether they can see him as Prime Minister and they'll probably laugh and say: well, no, of course not. But why not? Because, I put it to you, that's not what members of the ruling class look like. Rather than looking like a scruffy and slightly humourless geography teacher, the ruling classes wear sharp suits, have braying penetrating posh voices and have arrived at the top of the political ladder without acquiring any messy baggage along the way by ever having expressed any sort of principled view or taken a stance that might now be inconvenient.

Furthermore the ruling classes have their debating skills honed at debating societies at Oxford and Cambridge where they become well-practised not only in arguing for causes they have no belief in (equally handy for a career in the legal profession if the political thing doesn't work out), but also in the art of the meaningless sound-bite, the swift and pithy put-down, and the sort of wordless braying and hooting that will stand them in good stead in the House of Commons. So, for instance, despite being a monumental failure as a Chancellor even by his own self-imposed measures, George Osborne still gets a free pass as a "serious" politician because he's a toff who can afford some nice suits, as well as, as some may have alleged, a boatload of cocaine. Similarly, Tony Blair, despite not being a Tory, looked the part, while Ed Miliband, while he had the suits, talked a bit funny and once made a bit of a hash of eating a sandwich, so clearly he wasn't quite the thing.

Now it's certainly true that, as well as not having much support among the Parliamentary Labour Party, Corbyn's approval figures with the general public aren't great either. But one thing we know after the referendum is that Joe and Josephine Public are easily swayed by bullshit tabloid stories, and if there's one person the tabloids love writing bullshit stories about, it's Jeremy Corbyn.

I think, as it happens, that it's likely he'll have to go, but I'm troubled by the whole business as a natural Labour voter for several reasons. Firstly I don't see an obvious successor, secondly I wonder how the Labour party membership have got so out of step with the PLP and the public (or vice versa, depending how you look at it), and thirdly the tabloid venom, which is just an aspect of the wider problem I've described above, can't be a healthy thing in the 21st century. But then again neither can a vote to leave the EU. So, in summary, fuck you, Britain.

Actually, hang on, lots of Brexit- and Corbexit-bemoaning there without any proposals for solutions. So, briefly, here's a couple of ideas:
  • Stop legitimising racism by saying either that a large tranche of the Leave vote wasn't motivated by it or that lots of people have "legitimate concerns" over immigration. No they don't, they just hate brown people. Tiptoe round the issue and you are part of the problem.
  • Electoral reform. If, as looks possible, the Labour party splits into left and centre-right factions and the LibDems experience an uptick in popularity as a result of their commendably bold anti-Brexit stance, then we're going to be in the sort of multi-party environment we haven't been in since forever. Which is all great, but for the first-past-the-post system which will ensure massive Conservative majorities forever under those circumstances, particularly if the Scots take themselves out of the picture by leaving the Union after a second referendum. Some sort of proportional representation system whereby every vote counts might go some way towards hauling general election voter turnout upwards towards the 70-odd percent that the referendum got. 
  • Stop having referendums, as they're clearly a terrible idea, particularly if most voting happens under the first-past-the-post system, and therefore encourages the view that people can register a "protest" vote (perhaps as part of a general unfocused desire to register dissatisfaction with the political process) without it having any consequences, as some people seem to have done here.
  • Have a look at the House of Commons. Yes, tradition, heritage, all that bullshit, but it's toe-curlingly embarrassing to watch the general school-playground quality of the exchanges in there. If some of the I-refer-the-right-honourable-gentleman-to-the-answer-I-gave-some-moments-ago bullshit has to be swept away in order for Joe Public to feel involved in the policy-making process, then so be it. Alternatively, require ministers to regularly appear before some sort of select committee for some much more forensic questioning, get some non-political subject matter experts in to grill the hell out of them, and make sure it's televised.

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