“Above all, it is criminal to excite anger and discontent without proposing a remedy, or only proposing a false remedy”
— Theodore Roosevelt, How Not to Help Our Poorer Brothers, 1987
Foreigners! Terror! Instability! Economic bombs! Elites! Democracy!
Arrest warrants would fill several grand rooms if we were subject to this ‘debate’ in some Rooseveltian dystopia. By polling day, the noble leaders of our country, statesmen and women, would be indicted for the crimes of baseless posturing and obfuscation.
Michael Gove said it best during his tangle with Sky News’ Faisal Islam last week: “We would be better off if we trusted the leaders of this country, accountable to the people in this country.” What beautiful irony – the matter of trust. Perhaps he means our current leaders who accuse their opponents of running fear campaigns, or even the beleaguered news media that recycle press releases and share alarmist quotes to boost sales.
In his essay, Roosevelt warned of this: “Quack remedies of the universal cure-all type are generally as noxious to the body politic as to the body corporal.” And so, clickbait articles spread like viruses in the ether; politicians and columnists spew forth wildly. It’s ironic that, while we consider democracy in the European Union, we’ve been subjected to the demise of our own.
We warmed up to this in the 2015 general election: the New Politics. Although Jeremy Corbyn tried to brand his own style of quiet evasiveness as ‘new’, the real new way started with Ed, or, more accurately, at Ed.
The New Politics is a kind of anti-politics: vote for us because we are, crucially, not them. Or, to take the general election: “don’t vote Ed, he’s Red. His father was a Britain-hating commie. He loves those pesky foreigners and he can’t eat his bacon sandwiches right. The bastard has TWO kitchens!” The Tories were successful at landing the global financial crisis in his lap. David Cameron gleefully told us how he carried around a copy of the note from the former Treasury Minister, Liam Byrne, which said, “I’m afraid there is no money.”
It did significant damage and so did Ukip. Ukip regularly chambered the immigration bullet into the gun with the sights set on Ed. Labour became the party of mass immigration. So when Emily Thornberry, then Shadow Attorney General, tweeted her “Image from #Rochester”, Ukip had the ammunition, and indeed the gravel, to paint Labour as the sneering class. The tweet was a sort of Rorschach test, the image in question – a van and some flags – and the title were completely impartial. Ukip deserve credit for inventiveness, finding sneer where there was none and branding Labour with it.
It’s relatively easy to give Labour and the wider Left the victim card – Ed was indeed harassed by the press – but they don’t deserve it. They completely failed to counter the alarmist untruths, though they tried haphazardly to do so. Thornberry was fired and the immigration mugs came out. Ed launched his immigration stance in Great Yarmouth – which I attended – and gave little leeway to the press corps might they write nice things about him. And Ed Balls, then Shadow Chancellor, flustered when trying to exonerate Labour’s hand in the global recession.
This is the New Politics – kill or be killed – where success depends on the aptitude to sell untruths and to, in turn, stand impervious to them.
It stands for something that one of the most cogent and lucid analyses of the Remain-Leave continuum has come, not from our political leaders or from the majority of the press, but from Martin Lewis of Money Saving Expert and GMTV fame. He warns: “I’m sorry, but the most important thing to understand is: there are no facts about what happens next.” And that’s mostly true, but the political heavyweights will be damned to not try anyway. So who are our leaders again, Mr. Gove?
It could be Boris Johnson, whose Vote Leave battle bus serves as the most glaring illustration of the New Politics. His bus brandishes the claim that “we send the EU £350 million a week.” A figure found to be “misleading” by the Statistics Authority. After rebates and EU spending on us, the sum stands equivalent to around £120m or £136m a week depending on your analyst.
Or it could be Gove himself. He’s adamant that cumbersome EU charges could be spent on important priorities like the NHS. In his bout with Faisal Islam he said: “The Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out that if we took that money back we could spend it on our NHS.” That is indeed the same IFS which rubbished the Tory budget. And it’s the same IFS that rubbished Gove this time: “We have not said that,” they said, “We also point out that even a small negative effect of just 0.6% on national income from leaving the EU would damage the public finances by more than £8 billion.”
Or could it be Nigel Farage who gleefully proclaimed that our continued partnership with the EU would see women raped by migrants: “gangs of migrant men allegedly launched a mass sexual attack against hundreds of women in Germany last New Year’s Eve.” “Allegedly” is the important qualifier, prime for being ignored in subservient tweets and front page splashes. However, only three of those convicted were recent migrants and the majority of crimes filed in relation to the case were for theft.
It would take an entire book to adequately account for all the untruths and fearful proclamations. But these are mainstays of the Leave campaign: fear over truth, bile over debate. But Remain, and the Left, are no better.
David Cameron is having difficulty with the immigration question given that he spent the run-up to the general election appearing to be tough on it. So his only real defence – true to the Tory brand – is the economy. More fear of the “economic bomb”. In characteristically alarmist terms, Cameron and the Remain crew, say “Don’t throw away your job, don’t throw away your children’s futures, don’t throw away the strength and future of our country.”
Of course, this has a lot to do with the EU being the largest trading bloc in the world and the “instability” of negotiating new trade deals after Brexit. But he’s sharing the stage with the likes of Harriet Harman, Natalie Bennett, and Tim Farron who quietly screamed throughout the general election about the undemocratic and corporatocratic TTIP deal. That’s hardly a stable platform on which to stand. Although, to the credit of Caroline Lucas; there is at least some proposition on how to tackle TTIP from within the EU. But naturally, on their terms, the pound will wither and we will run full-bore into a recession of our making.
At least the Father of the New Politics, Jeremy Corbyn, is running true to form. Following on from Ed in the general election, Corbyn and the majority of the Remain corpus are failing to counter the Leave lies that soon become pseudo-facts. His left-wing case for remaining in the EU – mostly on workers’ rights and tackling corruption – was weak in comparison to his natural opponents. In the New Politics, Corbyn spends most of his time, it would seem, having awkward encounters with journalists and camera crews when leaving his Islington abode.
This is the New Politics; it’s what Hunter S. Thompson called the Kingdom of Fear: “another political mandate to decide ‘Which side are you on?’” And clearly it’s all that matters.
This EU referendum has shown our political process to be nothing if not byzantine. There may be facts somewhere in the mix, but first you have to sieve through economic bombs, terror threats, security imperatives, raping migrants, and unaccountable elites to have a chance of finding them. What has been missing, in near totality, is the presence of an actionable plan, a remedy, a proposal, or a solution. Instead, we’ve been privy to solutions of the “universal cure-all type” which are only substantiated by virtue of having been said.
A ‘debate’, so far, we have not seen. A ‘war of words’ may be more fitting. What we have seen though is the same damned politics of the 2015 general election: tiresome feuds between mouthpieces on the Right; absent or quietened whimpers from those on the Left; and false ‘facts’ spreading virally. The grand irony of this torrid period is that our own democratic process has been laid out fully before us, and it’s just as ugly. So if this mess is anything to go by, brothers and sisters, we’re all poorer for it.
By Bill E. Lytton