The beginning of the end for Brexit?

As I write, David Davis has just resigned as Brexit secretary. This could be the beginning of a wild and wonderful week. It could play out in various ways, but it’s hard to see an outcome that serves Brexit well. We should, therefore, be thankful.

First, Davis. After repeatedly threatening to resign but never following through, he has finally done it. Although Michel Barnier may lament that the time he has spent negotiating with Davis this year is four hours he will never get back, it’s hard to imagine that anyone will truly miss Davis. He must rank as one of the most overrated politicians of our age. His specialisms are bluster, vacuous grandstanding and self-satisfaction. If Davis was the best the government could send to negotiate with the EU, then it was always a good bet the negotiations would get next to nowhere. His incompetence was never more exposed than when he repeatedly claimed that his department had conducted detailed sectoral analyses of the impact of Brexit, only for him to be rumbled when parliament requested to see these analyses. He stalled for as long as he could before eventually doing what any panicking student would do: he hastily cobbled together some analysis out of basic Internet research. It’s fair to ask several questions about this. Why, given he was in charge of delivering Brexit, had he not bothered doing any research on Brexit? Why did he persist in claiming that he had done some research when in fact he hadn’t? Did he not suppose that he might be found out eventually? And why, on the most important political issue in generations, was someone who behaved like a lazy, bullshitting student put in charge?

It would be surprising if more resignations do not follow (Steve Baker, another minister in Davis’s department, has also resigned). Boris Johnson must surely be giving serious thought to it. If there’s any chance that Theresa May’s government is about to collapse, then his own leadership ambitions will be finished if he hasn’t got out of that government in time. The best way to work out what Johnson will do is to consider various scenarios and assess what actions would be most likely to fulfil his ego-driven, self-serving quest to become prime minister. It’s not likely he will ever achieve that quest, but he certainly won’t resist a tilt—and this may well be his last chance.

A leadership contest is highly likely. The outcome of that is entirely unpredictable. My best guess is that May will cling on. The Conservative Party is so divided that it is hard to imagine a credible unity candidate. More likely is that it will split along soft/hard (pragmatic/fantasist) Brexit lines, and now that May has signalled a move towards soft Brexit, she may just about garner enough support to see off the challenge—the arithmetic probably favours a pragmatist or a soft Brexit candidate, which is what May will calculate and stand for. But she will be weakened even further, and whatever the outcome it is hard to see Tory divisions resolved any time soon.

All of this is good news for those of us who oppose Brexit. The rule of thumb here is that the weaker the government, the less likely is Brexit. The most pessimistic I have been since the referendum was when May called a general election: like most others, I assumed she would get a huge majority and be able to push through Brexit without any significant opposition. But the best night of politics in my life was that of the general election itself: the utterly unexpected disaster that May had brought upon herself made Brexit far less likely (almost my first thought when I saw the exit poll was that Brexit was finished). What we’ve been treated to since then is the hopeless (but often entertaining) psychodrama of the Tory party, which has ensured that little credible progress has been made on Brexit. Meanwhile, Remainers and the EU watch on, somewhat bemused, at the interminable Brexit game being played out in the Tory party, all the while patiently letting the Brexiteer unicorn-chasers vent until they shatter their own Brexit fantasies.

Of course, there are risks. It is hard to know what the EU will make of all this. Can meaningful negotiations take place with a government (and governing party) in a state of civil war? British politics is so unstable right now that it is hard to see how the EU can trust any negotiating position of the UK. And if agreement has to be reached within the next few months (and progress achieved almost immediately), how will this happen if the Tories are at war with themselves?

The prospect of no deal has, therefore, significantly increased. No deal is, of course, a disaster—and everyone, apart from the most lunatic Brexiteers, knows it. For that reason, if no deal is the likely outcome then there will be a crisis, which will probably lead to the fall of the government, and certainly will lead to an attempt at an emergency solution that avoids the cliff edge and the catastrophic economic and political turmoil that will follow. I suspect that the EU calculated this from the beginning (it was always an idiotic bluff of May to think that the EU would be worried by no deal—they knew, because it is obvious, that no deal is a vastly worse outcome for the UK1 than it is for the EU27). It may be (and this has always struck me as a sensible option) that Brexit is parked in a Norway option until such time (and it may be years or decades or forever) that the UK has sorted out its weird relationship to Europe. My guess is that general elections, and maybe even a second referendum, are far more likely to happen than Brexit being decided any time soon.

Fighting Brexit has always been a long game. I sensed this in the days immediately following the referendum. The point, of course, is that Brexit would be both a tragedy and a disaster, but fortunately one that was never going to be easy to achieve; however, the full scale of the near impossibility of Brexit, and its potentially calamitous effects, would only become fully apparent in time. It’s always been about patience and waiting for the Brexiteer position to implode. Along the way, we have been treated to the most incompetent government in modern British history—but the ride has been, at times, richly entertaining. And this coming week promises to be Brexit politics at its hilariously entertaining best. That said, the UK remains in an appalling political crisis with no end to it in sight.


UPDATE Originally, I mentioned that Suella Braverman had also resigned. Apparently she hasn’t. It’s hard to keep track of the government’s chaos.

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Incompetence, lies, electoral fraud and the case for a second Brexit referendum

Incompetence, lies and electoral fraud: these are the foundations of the most important political decision in modern British history. Brexit exposes the shocking state of British democracy and a political system in crisis. The EU is not without its faults and democratic deficits—even as a Remainer I acknowledged that it would benefit from reforms—but they are minor by comparison with the problems in British politics. Unless remedial democratic action is taken quickly, then we will have bequeathed to future generations not only the disastrous economic decision of leaving the single market and customs union, but also a political system that may be irreparably damaged.

David Cameron’s gamble of staking the future of the country to resolve a narrow party issue was the first act of incompetence; the terms of the referendum (a straightforward in/out decision with little detail about what leaving the EU means) was the second; and Cameron’s misjudged negative campaign to persuade people to vote Remain was the third. Since then, incompetent leadership has characterized British politics. Is Theresa May incompetent? It is hard to say, since she was dealt an impossible hand, has fought a daily battle for survival, and may have been playing a long game as best she could—but she has certainly made some terrible decisions (triggering Article 50 without a plan, and calling an unnecessary general election being the outstanding ones). What is hard to argue with, however, is that collectively the government (the Cabinet and ministers) is the most incompetent in living memory. For two years now, Britain has had to endure a government lacking in discipline, sense and responsibility.

Such political incompetence has enabled a culture of lies, fraud and criminality. There were lies and exaggerations on both sides of the referendum debate, but outrageous mendacity especially underpinned the Leave campaign (false claims about the money that would be available to the NHS; lies about immigration); Brexiteers have subsequently run with these lies, until such point that some of them actually believe them. Brexiteers are either liars or fantasists; either way, they have systematically infected British political culture with their distortions, exaggerations and untruths in the service of their narrow (and often self-serving) ideological agenda.

Many would argue that an objective achieved through lying is not one worth achieving. Almost everyone would argue that an objective achieved through fraud and criminality is one that should be disqualified. We now know that the Leave campaign broke electoral law: it cheated, and it did so in a criminal way. In effect, the Leave campaign committed financial doping: it spent far more than it was entitled to spend (and then fraudulently tried to cover this up). Would Leave have won the referendum had they played by the rules? The answer to this question is the same as the answer to the question whether Ben Johnson would have won Olympic gold in 1988 had he not been doping: we cannot be sure, but we can be sure that he gained a significant advantage over his fellow athletes. In almost every area of life (sport and employment, for example) cheating results in automatic disqualification. Yet in British politics it seems that many are asking us simply to shrug our shoulders and ignore financial doping and electoral fraud.

For unscrupulous figures such as Arron Banks, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings, lies and cheating are merely clever tactics to get what one wants—they are acceptable means to an end. Banks, indeed, seems to revel in his use of nefarious methods (“we were just cleverer than the regulators and politicians” he has boasted in an interview in which he brazenly admits breaking spending rules and lies about the number of times he met the Russian ambassador). That so much of the media and political establishment has been willing to indulge this political culture—turning a blind eye to it; sometimes even celebrating it—indicates the sick state of British politics. When few in parliament seem to treat the matter with much urgency, and most of the media prefer indulging in virulent 1930s-style headlines (labelling opponents of Brexit as traitors and saboteurs, and demanding that they be crushed), then we have a democracy in peril.

The rational case for a second referendum is surely overwhelming. We now know far more about the illegal methods the Leave campaign used to win the referendum, and we also know far more about what Brexit might mean and the options open to the UK—a second referendum would surely involve a more informed debate than the first one did. Brexit may one day happen (I hope, of course, it does not, but politics can change); but it should certainly not proceed on its current basis. At the very least, the issue needs to be opened up to wider democratic debate, and there should be an opportunity to reconsider the issue—and one founded on principles of democratic rules, fairness and rationality, rather than on lies and fraud.

Might there be a second referendum? We currently have an appalling combination of an incompetent government, a feeble opposition, an unimpressive parliament (barring a few figures such as Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieve and Chuka Umunna) and an unscrupulous popular media. One should not, therefore, have high hopes for a second referendum. On the other hand, there are signs that even incompetent politicians are becoming aware of the potential disaster of Brexit, and that they are fudging their way towards parking it in something like a Norway option. Perhaps they will somehow fumble their way towards the realization that, given the perils of Brexit and the fact that we are where we are due to Brexiteer lies and fraud, a second referendum is the only reasonable, fair and sensible choice. Otherwise, economically, politically and socially damaged future generations may well ask why our generation allowed incompetence, lies and criminality to determine their lives.

Fake news about fake news

Julius_Streicher
Julius Streicher, apparently one of The Guardian author’s moral role models

Here’s an interesting piece of click-bait in The Guardian: a bravely anonymous and supposedly ‘young(ish), left(ish), British arts student’ confesses to—and defends—writing fake news aimed at racists, right-wing extremists and gun fanatics. The problem is: I don’t believe a word of it.

Of course, as a leftist liberal, I was suitably wound up on first reading. The author purports to be a PhD student, but comes across as astonishingly unreflective and, if truth be told, a bit of a dimwit. After claiming in one paragraph that s/he has written for a racist website, we are told a few lines later that ‘I have never … been racist’; after admitting to writing things that the author knows to be untrue, we are told that ‘I don’t count this as lying’. If knowingly writing or saying untruths does not count as lying, then I wonder what does.

Three curious arguments sum up the author’s apparently low-wattage mind. First, there is an odd defence of fake news on the grounds that this is not a new phenomenon, with the virulently anti-Semitic Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer and Pravda, the Soviet propaganda sheet, cited as precursors. The argument seems to be: I stand in the noble tradition of Julius Streicher (the editor of Der Stürmer), so what I’m doing is fine.

The second strange argument is: ‘I don’t think people have died as a result of my work.’ (It is extremely difficult to measure either the enjoyment or suffering that my own writing generates, but that’s not a reason for me to think that there is none.) Was Streicher thinking something similar at Nuremberg when confronted by the evidence of the Holocaust? (Probably not, since Streicher remained to the end fanatically committed to anti-Semitism and Hitler.) Perhaps those who wrote for Pravda also carefully distinguished between their promotion of certain ideas, and the millions dying around them in the name of those ideas. The author admits to ‘furthering ignorance … and contributing to an atmosphere of hatred’, but presumably supposes that any deaths arising out of that ignorance and hatred are nothing to do with him or her. The author claims to have written a PhD (though I am highly sceptical about this—see below), but doubtless accepts that his or her thesis is probably pointless, since (according to the author’s own logic) it will have no meaningful impact on the world.

The third argument is: ‘I don’t see that much difference between [selling gun accessories and selling newspapers]’. The author intends this to be understood as: (1) we’re all just trying to sell something, and it really doesn’t matter what it is; and (2) neither guns nor newspapers kill people; people kill people. Here’s the argument in more sophisticated form: all things—guns, newspapers, knives, kittens, nuclear weapons, flowers—are morally neutral. Even if I am holding a gun in readiness to shoot someone, the gun itself remains morally neutral. There is nothing wrong, therefore, with promoting morally neutral things—and especially not if I am making money out of doing so. If someone buys a gun because of something that I’ve written, and then uses the gun to commit murder, I bear not an iota of responsibility.

Is it worth wasting much more time pointing out how weak these arguments are? I doubt it. The article has done what it intended to do: annoy a proudly liberal snowflake such as myself. And then it occurred to me: the article is itself fake. I’d wager that it is an admittedly clever bit of trolling by a far-right extremist and gun fanatic, designed to do the following: (1) annoy leftists and liberals; (2) portray leftists and liberals as hypocritical, stupid and morally bankrupt (at one point it is claimed that the author, and all the author’s liberal friends, think that writing fake news is all just a bit of a laugh); and (3) promote the apparent attractions (earnings of £2,400 for sixty hours’ work per month is the dubious claim) of offering one’s services to the far right. Okay, so it got me on (1) briefly. But once I was over the initial outrage, it became fairly obvious that nothing about the article is believable.

What a wonder the postmodern age is: The Guardian seems to have published a piece of fake news about fake news. And no, I’m not in the habit of routinely labelling anything I don’t like as ‘fake news’. But an anonymous article such as this one is completely unverifiable—there’s nothing anywhere in the article that gives it authority or credibility, and it only takes a moment’s thought to realize that there are no grounds to believe it, and indeed that plenty of it does not ring true at all. In short, the article appears to be nothing but a right-wing wind-up, so ‘fake news’ would seem to be an apt description.

Brexiteer delusions, the nation state and the Irish border

Britain ruling the waves post Brexit
Ruling the waves, post-Brexit style

One of the many delusions of Brexit supporters is that the UK, freed from the shackles of the EU, will assume its rightful place as a heavyweight global power. This stems from their befuddled notion of reality: a shaky and selective grasp of history (which would appear to owe more to 1066 and All That than to any scholarly account of history) leads them to suppose that Britain’s status as a ‘top dog’ has been temporarily held in check by membership of the EU. In the delirious but intellectually feeble minds of men like Liam Fox and Nigel Farage, that Britain once had an empire and supposedly ruled the waves is evidence enough of an innate British ‘greatness’ that will once again be internationally recognized if only the country is liberated from the soft, emasculating tyranny of Brussels. Most of Boris Johnson’s vacuous and puffed-up nonsense is sung from the same page: just believe in Britain’s natural greatness and a bright future is guaranteed, etc.

Those of us with a surer understanding of past and present know that the Brexiteer view on the EU is fundamentally wrong. Far from destroying the European nation state, the EU has in fact preserved and strengthened it. With the arguable exception of Germany, not one of the EU member states would be able to compete globally on its own—at least, not in a way that would come anywhere near attaining its current level of prosperity. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why the EU is one of the great historical creations: not only has it ensured peace throughout most of a continent that for millennia had been a site of almost constant belligerence (to the point of near self-destruction by 1945), but it has simultaneously enabled a disparate collection of small and medium-sized countries to punch above their weight on the global scene. On their own, not one of the EU countries could compete on a relatively level playing field with the might of China, Russia or the US; collectively, they can.

Perhaps the UK’s difficulties in agreeing a deal on the Irish border will awaken some Brexiteers to this reality. Put simply, British arrogance (an alarmingly prominent characteristic among the Brexiteers) assumes that Ireland, as a relatively small and poor country, can be safely ignored or pushed around as Britain sees fit—a longstanding trope in Anglo-Irish relations that Brexit supporters see no reason in abandoning. But look what has happened: Ireland has drawn a line, one that is entirely reasonable, and Britain has been forced to accept it (the alternative, which is to reject it, would simply accelerate its own national suicide—it says much about the dangerously stupid thinking of the hard Brexiteers that rejecting it is, for them, a viable option). Nobody would deny that, when measured side by side, the UK is an economically bigger and stronger country than Ireland, and one that carries more international weight. So how is it that, on the matter of a Brexit deal, Ireland seems clearly stronger than the UK? Why is it (as of writing this) that Ireland is adamant that it will not back down? The answer is obvious: Ireland is strengthened by its belonging to the EU27.

For the Brexit fantasists, this ought to be a salutary lesson. If the UK pretty much has to concede to the wishes of its smaller neighbour in these negotiations, how will it fare when it starts seeking trade agreements in a post-Brexit international landscape? One can safely ignore the nonsense of Empire 2.0; the outlook for the UK is grim. On its own, the UK, a middle-ranking nation heading downwards, will be ill-placed to negotiate on its own terms. A country such as Ireland can carry itself in the world thanks to its membership of the EU—its EU membership makes it, for example, an attractive proposition for international investment. A post-Brexit UK, on the other hand, needing deals with other countries far more than they need them with the UK, will be forced into desperate acceptance of almost any terms. Far from ruling the waves, a post-Brexit UK will look more like a ragged castaway drifting on a rickety raft.

There is, of course, a way to avoid this bleak future (and I remain optimistic that, when the UK collectively comes to its senses, this will be the outcome): Brexit should be abandoned on the grounds that it is the most stupid, tragic, shameful and self-destructive event in modern British history; or, failing that, the UK should park its neuroses about Europe indefinitely in a Norway option, thereby at least retaining membership of the single market and avoiding the suicidal plunge off the cliff edge.

Labour’s fighting chance

corbyn
The next Prime Minister? Let’s hope so!

I know, of course, that it is usually the hope that kills you. But astonishingly, Labour and Jeremy Corbyn look to be in with a fighting chance in next Thursday’s general election. I’m usually sensibly sober about this sort of thing, and I shall remain so: the likelihood is still that the Tories will win. But a couple of weeks ago I couldn’t foresee anything other than a huge Tory win; now I’m not so sure.

Lots of things seem to be going on.

First, it is becoming clear that Theresa May is far from the competent, stable politician it was complacently assumed she was. Her relentless focus on herself does not sit well with the evidence that she has little confidence in her own policies or her ability to engage in any meaningful debate. Alternating between her mantra about ‘strong and stable leadership’ (when increasingly it is evident that she is far from strong and stable) and tediously personal and negative attacks on her opponents does not make a coherent, inspiring or edifying campaign. It has the air of unhinged panic.

Second, although the opinion polls continue to suggest that May and the Tories are the most trusted on Brexit, it is hard not to wonder whether this perception may be crumbling. The reality—which the Tories have done well to mask—is that May and her Brexit team (Davis, Fox and Johnson) have so far made a complete mess of Brexit. Provocative statements, absurdly bullish rhetoric, threats and diplomatic incompetence suggest that the Tories will turn the negotiations into a disaster. Not everyone has grasped the truth yet, but it is this: Labour will almost certainly make a better job of the Brexit negotiations than the Tories. Corbyn has a better chance of getting a deal; May has a better chance of achieving catastrophe.

Third, the Labour manifesto is great. This is not because it is robustly costed or fully workable (it probably isn’t), but because, unlike the Tory manifesto, it makes an effort. Labour are offering a positive vision, and as such are tapping into many of the concerns that motivated so many people to register protest in last year’s referendum. British politics needs this vision; and even if one disagrees with the politics behind it, we are all better off for having a party of the left standing on this platform. The Tories offer little except for more cuts and a belligerent attitude towards the EU; Labour are offering a constructive approach towards the EU and a plan for a reformed society based on social justice. The Labour manifesto undoubtedly has a touch of utopianism about it; but I’d rather that than the platitudinous vagueness and misery of the Tory manifesto.

Fourth, Jeremy Corbyn is reminding us that when he gets media exposure and a greater opportunity to be heard, he is a quietly impressive figure. I’m certainly no Corbynista, but as each day passes Corbyn looks considerably more impressive than May at connecting with people and at managing a campaign. Corbyn would make an unusual, unconventional Prime Minister, but it is no longer impossible to imagine him occupying Number 10—and doing so with greater competence than May.

Fifth, a lot will depend on turnout. The most recent ICM poll put the Tories 11 points ahead, but that is after adjustment on likely turnout (i.e. factoring out those deemed unlikely to vote); if that adjustment is removed from the equation, then Labour trail the Tories by only three points (a figure in line with some other polls). Clearly, for Labour to have any chance they must mobilize certain groups—above all the young—to vote. The priority in the final week of the campaign must surely be to urge young voters and other groups traditionally lukewarm about voting to turn out next Thursday.

Three weeks ago I was adamant that I would not vote Labour. Not any more. The Greens remain the choice of my heart; but my head tells me that I should add my vote to the Labour numbers. I live in an extremely safe Labour constituency, so I could probably get away with my modest show of support for the Greens. I’ve yet to decide. All that matters is that one does whatever one can to get the Tories and their miserable politics of self-interest out of government.

Theresa May arrogantly assumed that by calling the election she would automatically be handed a landslide. But it turns out that an election campaign allows for scrutiny of what the political parties and their politicians stand for. The more one scrutinizes May and the Tories, the less attractive they appear; conversely, Corbyn and Labour look more attractive with each passing day.

Thoughts on the UK general election

Trump and May
The coalition likely to be elected on 8 June

Finding any grounds for optimism about the forthcoming British general election is a challenge. After the 2015 election and last year’s EU referendum and US presidential vote, I have learned that life is a lot easier if lived in despair rather than hope. Consequently, when Marine Le Pen was defeated in the French presidential election, I could regard it as an unexpectedly joyous moment. But I doubt that I will experience unexpected joy on 8 June: the Tories will win, and win big, and the UK will press down the accelerator as it heads towards its perverse and suicidal Brexit catastrophe.

But—and here I begin my search for some fragments of hope—Brexit remains a long game. Theresa May’s cynical power grab in calling an election (which also conveniently cuts short investigations into previous Tory electoral shenanigans) changes nothing. It will make no difference to the Brexit negotiations (the idea that EU negotiators are going to tremble before a huge Tory majority is laughable); at best, it buys May and the Tories time to figure out how to survive the disasters lying ahead. May’s correct calculation is that 2020 would be a rough time for her to go to the polls; but that by 2022 she might just have come up with a plausible explanation for why Brexit has turned out so badly.

It’s fascinating to watch the evolution of May. I’d once had a grudging respect for her—tinged with fear of her apparent competence. Increasingly, however, she comes across as simply demented. She’s always been a ruthless politician, but her decision to embrace jingoism, heartlessness, aggression and an autocratic style looks like the behaviour of someone badly out of touch with reality. Is there a plan? So far as I can see in her enthusiastic adoption of hard Brexit, she’s thrown in her lot with those who’d like to tow the UK from the coast of Europe to the other side of the Atlantic where Britain can be remade as a lightly-regulated client state of the US. It’s desperate stuff.

The next few years are going to be grim. I have never known Britain to be so divided and in such a mess. It’s a genuine crisis, and it’s only going to deepen. However, because Brexit is a long game, all is far from lost. Sooner or later Britain may well come to its senses (more likely later, but I remain hopeful about sooner). As the old Brexiteers gradually expire, they will be replaced by a younger generation who will seek to recover the future that the Brexiteers have tried to limit. As Brexit’s curtailment of rights and freedoms (to travel, work and live in the EU) kick in, as the promises of the Brexiteers become exposed for the fantasies and lies that they always have been, and as the economy flatlines, so the direction the UK is heading in will become increasingly unpopular.

The danger is that the far right will exploit the troubles ahead: no Brexit is too hard (and, let’s be honest, too nationalistic and xenophobic) for them, and so they will aggressively blame soft Brexiteers, Remainers, Muslims, immigrants and Europeans (in short, anyone but themselves) for the problems the UK will encounter. Combined with a febrile popular press, and perhaps helped by the designs of zealous extremists abroad, they may have success in pushing their agenda. The evidence of this general election supports that: Theresa May and the Tories are riding high while tacking sharply to the right.

For this reason, a revival of the progressive centre and left is essential. I’m not persuaded that a progressive alliance is either realistic or will make much difference in this election. Right now, the centre and the left are in a mess. Yet they still command nearly 50% of popular support (which won’t prevent the Tories from winning a huge majority thanks to the idiosyncrasies of the British electoral system—cf. Trump and the US electoral college). The struggle is between a liberal, rational tradition that remains vigorous but is badly fragmented, and an anti-liberal, irrational politics that has successfully infected, transformed and taken over the Conservative party.

This struggle is not going to end on 8 June. Assuming the anti-liberals win the election (and, let’s face it, they will), there will inevitably be a lot of soul-searching among those of us who are liberal and rational. Perhaps the election result will focus minds on how to build a strong and stable (to borrow May’s auto-repeat phrase) progressive movement that will ensure liberalism and rationalism not only remain significant players in the Brexit long game but also emerge victorious at the end.

So although I fear there is little prospect of this general election being anything other than miserable for the centre and left, that does not mean the election is without value as a moment to reassess how progressives realign and organize ourselves in order to launch a determined and sustained fightback against Brexit.

Photographs, truth and the Westminster attack

westminster_bridge_attack_1During the recent Westminster attack, a photograph was taken of a young Muslim woman, wearing a hijab, walking past one of the victims. She clasps one hand to the side of her face; she is looking at her phone, which she holds in her other hand. Behind her, a victim is being attended by two women; a group of four people are standing around, two of them looking at the victim, two of them talking to one another; and another woman, with grey hair but largely obscured from view, also appears to be walking by.

As The Guardian has reported, there have been several outraged responses to this photograph. Tim Young, who describes himself as a “political comedian” (despite his numerous tweets exhibiting neither comedic ability nor political intelligence) claimed that the image “could end up being one of the most iconic of our time”. The faulty, unspoken logic behind his tweet is this: an apparently Muslim terrorist act has been perpetrated; a young Muslim woman is unconcerned about this; therefore all Muslims are, at the very least, unconcerned by Islamist terror, and quite possibly approve of it.

Another Twitter user (who goes by the handle of “@SouthLoneStar”, moronically declares “Fuck Islam” in his profile and seems manically obsessed with tweeting endless, mindless and offensive Islamophobia) contrasted the photograph with that of the Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood attempting to save the life of the police officer stabbed by the assailant, suggesting that the two images show “the main difference between Christians and Muslims”.

westminster_bridge_attack_2Jamie Lorriman, the photographer who captured the image on Westminster Bridge, has said that the image has been “misappropriated” by those seeking to make Islamophobic capital from it. He points to another photograph in the sequence in which the Muslim woman is clearly distressed, and has commented: “Looking back at the pictures now, she looks visibly distraught in both pictures in my opinion. She’s in the middle of an unfolding horrific scene… I think her expression says to me that she’s horrified by what she’s seen and she just needs to get out of the situation.” As Lorriman adds, it’s “impossible to know” what the young woman was thinking.

I used to teach a class on visual evidence to first-year history undergraduates. One of the main points I tried to get across in the lecture was the importance of being highly critical of images as a form of evidence. In particular, we can be easily seduced by the power of the camera, and the notion that “the camera never lies”. But that notion is a fallacy. A photograph neither lies nor tells the truth; it simply records a tiny fragment of time and space. It then becomes subject to multiple interpretations that invariably have little relationship to the reality of the scene it depicts.

9-11-brooklyn-photoOne of the images I showed the students is a controversial photograph taken by Thomas Hoepker during the 9/11 attacks. It depicts a group of young people in a Brooklyn park, casually dressed, looking relaxed and chatting among themselves while in the distance behind them smoke pours from the World Trade Center. For some commentators, the image exhibited the detached, possibly callous nature of modern youth: while thousands are dying across the Hudson, these New Yorkers are carrying on as normal, seemingly careless about the atrocity.

But there are numerous problems with such an interpretation. Photographs, which show 1/500th or 1/1000th or 1/2000th of a second of time, tell us little about what their subjects are thinking or feeling. We have no way of knowing from the 9/11 image what these young Brooklynites were talking about, what their emotional state was, or what was going through their minds. Subsequently, one of those in the photograph has said that the group were “in a profound state of shock and disbelief” and that they were “in the middle of an animated discussion about what had just happened”. Five minutes or half an hour earlier or later, were they crying, or hugging one another in consolation, or standing with heads in their hands? The photograph gives us none of this information. Yet it becomes enough for some commentators to make a sweeping and condemning judgement on modern youth, and to trumpet this photograph as capturing a supposed social and cultural truth.

But ask this: how are people supposed to appear during such an incident? Should these New Yorkers have been exhibiting a constant state of distressed wailing on the off chance that a photographer may have been in the vicinity?

And consider: how many unstaged wedding photographs are there which show the bride or groom looking, in a seemingly unguarded moment, miserable? How many staged photographs have we all been in when, no matter how hard we tried to maintain a fixed smile and open eyes, we unfortunately get caught looking unhappy and half asleep? Later we may protest that the photograph misrepresents us: we were genuinely happy, we may sincerely and honestly say, but we are stuck with an image that is repeatedly and unfairly cited as evidence to the contrary.

And ask this: if we are quick to condemn the New Yorkers for their apparent lack of concern over 9/11, what do we say about the photographer choosing to spend his time in a Brooklyn park and focus his attention on park-goers? And what, indeed, do we say about ourselves, fixating on this image rather than on, say, images of the victims in Manhattan?

schoolchildren_rembrandt_night_watchRecently I was involved in a brief Facebook discussion about a viral image of schoolchildren looking at their phones rather than at Rembrandt’s The Night Watch on the wall behind them. A “metaphor for our age”; “the ‘distracted society’. No wonder we’re in the shape we’re in now”; “what a sad picture of today’s society!”: these were some of the comments about the photograph on Twitter.

But the photograph tells us little, and is potentially highly misleading. It says nothing about what the kids were doing the rest of the time in the gallery; and it reveals nothing about what they were looking at on their phones. The reality is (as later confirmed by the teachers accompanying the school party) that the children were, as part of an assignment, researching Rembrandt’s painting using an app on their phones. For some, this is still a dismal comment on our society; but would they complain if, instead of learning about the painting on their phones, the children were all reading a catalogue? The Night Watch is not an easy painting to interpret; we all need some guidance to help us, and it is not obvious why such guidance is any better in physical rather than digital form.

So the photograph in fact shows children interacting with art; indeed, they appear rather engrossed in what they are learning about Rembrandt’s painting. Yet, by ignoring all context and by leaping unthinkingly to an abrupt judgement, this photograph ends up being used to illustrate the idea that young people are so hopelessly obsessed with their smartphones and social media they are no longer capable of interacting with art (and, perhaps, reality in general).

For those inclined to a negative view on the culture and character of young people, or on the effect of digital media on modern society, then it is as easy as it is erroneous to read into the photographs of the 9/11 park group or the school party in the Rijksmuseum confirmation of existing beliefs. Similarly, those already prejudiced against Islam will seize on the photograph of the young woman on Westminster Bridge and distort it to fit their own agenda.

To use one photograph out of the many thousands taken that day as a piece of Islamophobic evidence is a dangerous and wilful distortion of reality: it ignores the fact that another photograph shows the woman in a clear state of distress; it ignores the fact that at least three of the other people in the photograph are also displaying little obvious shock (there are folded arms, hands in pockets, conversations occurring without obvious attention to the victim); it ignores the fact that the police were clearing the bridge (the young woman was doing the right thing not to loiter around at the scene); it ignores the fact that many of those in the area were frantically contacting loved ones to let them know they were safe.

We are prone to see what we want to see, framing images to fit a narrative that suits our purpose. The Islamophobes haven’t looked at this photograph with any critical thought: they have simply read into it their existing prejudices, and they have used it to frame their anti-Islamic narrative. Desperate to exploit the Westminster attack for their own agenda, they have framed it as evidence of the supposed evils of Islam and the dangers of multiculturalism and immigration.

As the facts of the attack slowly emerge, these misleading interpretations look ever more irrational, hateful and nonsensical. But facts and reality count for little in the feverish minds of the Islamophobic far right. Hence they try to build grand “truths” out of an image that, showing no more than a millisecond of time and a minuscule slither of space, reveals next to nothing about the people it depicts, and even less about society and culture as a whole.