Six frenzied months have passed since Britain voted to leave the European Union. Politics is interesting again. All of a sudden it is hard to find anyone who doesn’t care about politics. For a second time we have a strong-minded woman Prime Minister, stirring many memories. However, unlike the 1980s, we are still living in the age of spin. The political class think that everything has to be reduced to a slogan that will somehow stick in our apparently simple minds. So the press oppress us by refusing to stock nuance, or supply detail, or honour our intelligence with a decent debate, because we are told that there is no demand for anything other than meaningless slogans.
So, let’s take some Brexit slogans in turn and unpack them to get a little nearer to reality.
‘Brexit means Brexit’. This is the silliest slogan of all. Imagine trying to explain anything else in the same way: ‘Marriage means marriage’, ‘Cricket means cricket’, or ‘Fruit cake means fruit cake.’ At least when you shout ‘Points mean prizes’ there is a connection between two different but related words. But since Brexit is an invented word to describe a process that has never happened before and has yet to happen, I’m sorry Prime Minister but this catchphrase does nothing. Nor are things clarified by some engaging adjective. A Hard Brexit sounds painfully surgical, a Soft Brexit fluffy and pillowed from all ills; then there is a Grey Brexit (presumably loved by John Major, though I doubt it) and even a Red, White and Blue Brexit (could also work for the French and the Dutch) though by now this is just getting silly. The politicians should admit they are patronising us because they don’t want to discuss detail in public.
‘A hard Brexit was not on the ballot paper.’ This was claimed by Lib Dem leader Tim Farron MP. What does he mean? Well, a ‘hard Brexit’ (I think) means leaving the EU completely, including the customs union that allows tariff-free trade between EU countries, as well as ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice over the UK. We would be out of the Single Market and its regulation of British business and finance. Agriculture and fisheries policy would be ours to decide. A ‘soft Brexit’ means paying to be part of the customs union, continuing to charge the common external tariff on goods imported from outside the EU, sticking with Single Market regulations, and in some way remaining under the European Court of Justice. The problem is, the ballot paper was quite simple. It was a binary choice: ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’. In the debates on TV, and conversations on the ground, the ‘hard’ options were what we were being offered, and the public voted to leave. We knew there were serious consequences. We knew it was a step into the unknown, and it might hurt our economy, but we voted to leave. Leaving can’t add up to a grey remain.
‘There was no plan.’ It has been suggested that the Vote Leave campaign did not expect to win, and so they had no plan when they did. When Boris Johnson, Gisela Stuart and Michael Gove gave their press conference on June 24, the press described it as lacking any sense of celebration, in contrast to Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU victory speech, because Boris and Co didn’t expect to win. Whether that is really true, who can know? However, it is true to say that the Vote Leave campaign didn’t produce a blueprint for a post-EU Britain, in contrast to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, when the SNP produced a Scottish government white paper with extensive detail. Not following suit was a big missed opportunity for the Vote Leave campaign, though admittedly they weren’t campaigning as a government as the SNP were in 2014. However, the Vote Leave campaign was set up by Daniel Hannan MEP, who published Why Vote Leave, a manifesto for leaving the EU, and has followed it up with What Next: How to get the best from Brexit. He was the brains behind the Vote Leave campaign, and has worked on this project for some twenty years. While it did not come out as clearly in the campaign as it could have done, there was a plan, and impatient souls will see it being worked out in government if they give them time.
4. ‘There has been a sharp rise in racism.’ This is very difficult to quantify, because of the new definition of racism in Britain. A statement or action is racist if the victim perceives it to be racist. That is how it has to be recorded by the police. So the definition is entirely subjective. Without question racism exists in Britain and it is utterly shameful. (See my post about race here) I have no doubt that in the wake of the Brexit vote, people were very sensitive to the presence of racist attitudes in British society. However, proving that racist attacks have in fact increased is much harder to measure. People may have been more minded to report racist attacks since June, which could explain the rise in reported attacks but does not reveal underlying trends.
A fascinating study recently published by the Economist, dissects claims by the group Hope Not Hate that there was an outpouring of hatred towards the murdered MP Jo Cox after her tragic death. The Economist went back to check their claims on Twitter and found fault with their method and their results. That leads me to ask: how good is the science behind wider claims in the press that there has been an outpouring of race hatred since June 23rd? I have no doubt that there has been an increase, and yet I have asked many black, Asian and East European friends whether they have suffered abuse or worse, and not one of them has. Perhaps racism has been politicised by some on the Remain side.
Racism is a despicable attitude that has no place in Britain, and is most of all unchristian. So can I make a plea here: it is wrong to assume that the majority of those who voted ‘leave’ did so from racist motives. The decision on the ballot paper was not a racist decision. We simply voted to leave an organisation in which we no longer have any confidence.
‘The pound has dropped through the floor.’ Really? The pound did drop against the Euro straight after the vote, but it is now just below €1.20, the level it sat at for five years until the Euro weakened in its own debt crisis at the end of 2014. Against the dollar the pound is down, and it fell further when the bank of England cut bank base rates (because of the recession that never happened) while America raised theirs. If the Bank of England started raising interest rates back to 0.5% or even 1%, the pound would recover quickly. And a small devaluation has helped exports, increased tourism, and created jobs.
‘Brexit, Trump, Italy – it’s all the same populist movement.’ Trump and Brexit have very little in common. The Trump phenomenon in America would not have happened if the Democrats had put up a credible candidate, but America had had enough of the Clintons, and both parties offered a fairly hideous choice. That is nothing to do with leaving the EU. Italy may be more closely connected, because the Euro is ruining their economy, but even so, their system needs reform, and they didn’t like the reform package offered. But listen to the slogan. The word ‘populist’ is used by Brussels bureaucrats as though it is a dirty word. When the secular liberal elite like a movement, they call it ‘empowering’ and a ‘movement for change’. When it doesn’t fit with their worldview, it is ‘cheap populism.’ Yes, 2016 has been a year of political shocks, but sometimes that happens. The same happened in 1974, when Nixon, Ted Heath and Willy Brandt each suddenly fell from power, and all for different reasons. They don’t have to be related.
‘We were lied to.’ According to this argument, the British voter is an idiot. They see a slogan on the side of a bus, saying £350M a week could come our way if we leave, and they believe it, and vote leave. But it was a lie. Was it a lie? Well, the BBC’s Reality Check website gave a fair and balanced assessment. It was the gross figure, not the net figure we actually pay, and some of the money paid gets spent in Britain. So, yes, the Vote Leave campaign didn’t help themselves by putting the gross figure on the side of their bus. But British voters aren’t idiots. We were able to see through a slogan and check the facts for ourselves. The vote isn’t invalidated because somebody exaggerated their figures. It was about much deeper issues than £350M, and we had the most serious and reasoned debate in a generation. We are too clever to be lied to.
‘We must retain access to the Single Market.’ This seems to be the most ambiguous slogan of all. Think about it for a minute. It can mean anything. Does it mean access to sell goods into Europe tariff-free? Does it mean exporting goods without customs barriers? Does it mean a completely united regulatory regime that we fully buy into and comply with? Will access require a commitment to free movement of people? No one bothers to answer these questions and give us any amount of nuance. If you are listening to a debate, it is impossible to know what people mean by access to the Single Market. Countries outside the EU, such as India and China, clearly have a great deal of access to the Single Market, because they load their goods onto ships which clog the docks in Rotterdam and Felixstowe. If they can sell into Europe, do we really think that every British job made selling things to Europe will suddenly die if we cease to be signed up members of the Single Market? Not only that, it needs to be said that some aspects of the Single Market are being held back, particularly in Financial Services. It is also true that without leaving the Single Market, we cannot have tariff free trade with the rest of the world, including poorer African countries that continue to be impoverished much more than we would be by the trade barriers of the Single Market. Access to the Single market is far more complex than a slogan, and cuts many different ways, so let’s stop sloganising it and start discussing the future of our trade in our national conversation.
‘Despite Brexit’ As good economic news has kept on coming as the autumn has progressed, each news item headlines finishes with ‘Despite Brexit’. Brexit obviously looms out there in the economy, like the ugly troll under the bridge waiting to swallow the economic goats gruff. But still the good news keeps coming: jobs up, unemployment down, output roaring ahead, house prices as madly out of control as before (because of low interest rates), and major companies investing gladly in Britain because they like our legal framework and the idea of a less regulated economy in the future. Seven months ago George Osborne gave a major speech at the headquarters of B&Q, in which he said ‘A vote to leave will push our economy into a recession.’ Follow the link and read the speech and see if you think he was right. It looks ever more ridiculous in the light of events. Only the fall in the pound has so far happened. ‘Despite Brexit’ suggests that nothing good can come of detaching ourselves from the Eurozone, from losing excessive regulation, or from giving up the habit of taxing our imports when more and more manufactured goods come from the emerging economies. No one could possibly want to invest in this country when it has such historic links to the boom economies of the rest of the world, could they?
‘Referendums are only advisory.’ This slogan arises out of a comment in a briefing paper from staff in the House of Common Library, which states that ‘The UK does not have constitutional provisions which would require the results of a referendum to be implemented.’ The position is a little more complex than that. For one thing, we don’t have a written constitution, but operate by conventions and Acts of Parliament. The European Union Act 2011 established the principle that national powers could only be transferred to the EU once both Parliament and a referendum had approved them. In such cases a referendum is binding. If Parliament passed an Act that enacts a European treaty, but the electorate then rejected it, the referendum would overturn the Act of Parliament. Parliament is not absolutely sovereign any more. However, that Act did not cover the Brexit referendum. Parliament legislated to hold a ‘remain/leave’ referendum in the EU Referendum Act 2015, but did not state whether it was binding or how the Government was to act afterwards. So was it purely advisory? Can it be overturned by Parliament? If it was purely advisory, it is extraordinary that the Government told us explicitly in the booklet ‘Why the Government believes….’ which they sent to every household:
‘This is your decision. The government will implement what you decide.’
That sounds a lot more than merely advisory. We were asked to give them a decision. Then there was David Cameron’s Chatham House speech in which he declared:
‘You, the British people, will decide.
At that moment, you will hold this country’s destiny in your hands.
This is a huge decision for our country, perhaps the biggest we will make in our lifetimes.
And it will be the final decision.
So to those who suggest that a decision in the referendum to leave…
…would merely produce another stronger renegotiation and then a second referendum in which Britain would stay…
…I say think again.
The renegotiation is happening right now. And the referendum that follows will be a once in a generation choice.
An in or out referendum.
When the British people speak, their voice will be respected – not ignored.
If we vote to leave, then we will leave.
There will not be another renegotiation and another referendum.’
That is a remarkably frank speech but sadly ignored in recent debate. I think it is fair to conclude that the Prime Minister and his Government intended it to be a binding referendum, and that the public instructed the Government to trigger Article 50 and begin the process of leaving.
Coming back top my central point, here, notice one final thing about David Cameron’s speech – it is all soundbites. He speaks in phrases, not sentences, and certainly not paragraphs. Sustained, coherent thought is no longer possible in the media age. This is the age we are living in – the culture of slogans for a nation that are thought to be idiots.
One year, among my Christmas presents was a book of great speeches. They were all well-reasoned and moving paragraphs of prose – from such luminaries as Wilberforce, Pitt, Gladstone, and of course Churchill, even Earl Spenser’s eulogy for Diana. Then it finished with Tony Blair’s ‘forces of conservatism’ speech, which stands out from all the others on the page. It is littered with sentences without verbs. Just thoughts. Slogans on a white board. Headlines in a tabloid. No nuance or embroidering of an argument. Since the King of Spin, political communication has been done in catchphrases, maybe occasionally a full sentence, but nothing that actually moves anyone to think. Tellingly, Blair’s speech was about Britain going deeper into the EU.
Now that Brexit has shaken up all our political life, please can we leave behind soundbites and slogans and rediscover the culture of reasoned thought, adult debate and the national conversation.
[25/02/17 If you want to read a nuanced speech that is groundbreaking in its seriousness, Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech in Philadelphia avoids the soundbites and marks a return to thoughtful speechmaking – long overdue]