The People’s Vote: Marching for democracy and against authoritarianism

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The People’s Vote March, 23 March 2019

On Saturday I marched, along with more than a million others (and what seemed to be a few hundred dogs), in support of a people’s vote on the UK’s impending exit from the EU. The estimate of the number of marchers feels right to me. I was one of the million who marched against the Iraq War in 2003, and the People’s Vote march seemed bigger. Setting off from Marble Arch at the appointed time, it took me, my two teenage children and my daughter’s friend four hours to get to Parliament Square. For most of the route it was less of a march than a shuffle to advance a few inches every couple of minutes or so. The speeches long over, thousands behind us were still making their way to parliament at well after five o’clock.

Despite the political crisis—a crisis that threatens our freedoms, our economy, our futures, and our political culture—it was a joyous, high-spirited, and hopeful occasion. Wit and intelligence abounded in the signs and placards carried by marchers; creativity and fun ran through the different expressions of outrage; there were drummers, guitarists, and mobile discos; many came in costume, and dogs were draped in signs and flags; and the occasion was characterized by an idea that we should all embrace: protest and partying are not mutually incompatible. It is possible to call out a government and a system for its appalling ineptitude, while at the same time dancing and having fun. It is worth comparing this with the joyless, aggressive and thuggish antics of the EDL, James Goddard and his “yellow jackets”, and almost anything associated with Tommy Robinson. The different forms of protest present different visions of the UK’s future: on the one side there is humour, dancing, diversity, creativity, hope, and jokes; on the other there is aggression, intimidation, exclusion, nastiness, anger, and death threats. I know which of the two offers a brighter political future.

Peoples-vote-marchProtests are vital checks on a slide to authoritarianism. Authoritarian governments—and Theresa May’s government aspires to be such—thrive on keeping their citizens to armchairs, light entertainment or shopping. Political participation is at best an inconvenience, at worst an existential threat to such governments. Our politics has been dominated by Brexit for the past three years, yet for much of that time citizens have been reduced to powerless, passive spectators of a chaos and crisis that deepens by the day. We are not asked what we think; rather, we are told—usually with reference to the referendum vote on an impossibly general question, to which little more than a quarter of the entire population gave an answer that has subsequently been divined as “the will of the people”—what we think. We are often reminded that the 2016 referendum was the largest democratic exercise in British history—even if the lies (on both sides) and criminal funding and electoral practices of the Leave campaign significantly devalue its democratic worth; but it is as if at every step of the way since June 2016, the referendum result becomes the reason why any further public engagement in the issue is out of the question.

Theresa May might have begun her premiership by initiating a national conversation to ascertain an approach to and form of Brexit that would work across the social, political and cultural divides. The referendum revealed that, by a narrow margin, a majority of voters wished to leave the EU, but it told us nothing beyond that. The deeper reasons behind the vote, and the voters’ visions, hopes and fears of a post-Brexit future were unclear. A robust, informed, transparent and open process would have advanced patiently and carefully by engaging with and listening to public views on all sides, and it would have used that preliminary stage as a guide to the subsequent and highly complex task of honouring the referendum result. It might even have been an opportunity to reinvigorate our political culture by devising processes and mechanisms that engage citizens, foster debate, and seek consensus, and by moving towards greater government openness and transparency.

This opportunity was squandered by May. Rather than starting a conversation and trying to build bridges, she gave her “citizens of nowhere” speech. Rather than learning more about the reasons behind the referendum result, she came up with her red lines, with little transparent consultation, and informed more by her own anti-immigration obsessions and her wish to appease the hard right of her party than by informed, evidence-based analysis. Rather than welcome input from across the political landscape, she worked with a disturbing determination to restrict debate, to oppose any attempts at giving the electorate’s representatives in parliament a meaningful role, and to limit the release of information. Her approach to Brexit has been characterized by evasiveness, dishonesty (the many promises that turn out to be anything but), and dour opposition to scrutiny, debate and normal democratic practices. Fortunately, her astonishing ineptitude and incompetence (her lack of agility, flexibility, imagination, charm and charisma; the absence of a coherent plan A or anything resembling a plan B; her constant tactical and strategic mistakes; and her hopeless general election campaign) have saved us from what might have been the most anti-democratic and authoritarian government in modern British history. Seen in that light, we should be thankful that we have been blessed merely with the most incompetent government in modern history.

Theresa May Speaks To The Nation After Asking EU For Brexit Extension
Theresa May delivering her statement to the nation, 20 March 2019

Many of Theresa May’s failings came together in her statement to the nation last Wednesday. It was graceless and devoid of anything new. It was a tactical disaster: attacking the very constituency (Members of Parliament) that she needed to persuade was incomprehensibly stupid. And it demonstrated her demagogic, authoritarian instincts: casting the Brexit crisis in terms of parliament versus “the people”, and presenting herself as “on the side” of the people, she revealed her ongoing delusion that she divines what the people think and that she is in some mystical sense one of us. It was a speech more befitting of a dictator than of a prime minister in a representative democracy. Irresponsible, reckless and dangerous—had May forgotten that the issue of Brexit has resulted in the murder of one MP and intimidation and death threats directed at countless others, or did she not care?—we are fortunate that its crassness and stupidity became immediately obvious to almost everyone.

dog theresa mayIt is unsurprising that in the days since May’s statement millions, both online and on the streets, have come out to tell her she is wrong in claiming to know what we think and to suppose that she is on our side. And, perhaps, more than her delusions and her authoritarian tendencies, it is her inability to listen to and engage with others—outside the hard-right extremists in her own party, that is—that amounts to her greatest failing. Hence, the importance of petitions and protest: the march, as well as the online petition to revoke Article 50, are opportunities to engage and be heard. If we are to reinvigorate our politics and to involve everyone in working out our future, then we need these opportunities. If the political system does not provide them, then the people will eventually do so themselves. A less incompetent prime minister might have enabled better ways of listening to and engaging with the public—and what a political legacy that would have been. Theresa May failed to do so, which is one reason why her legacy looks set to be the most dismal in modern British history.


Although the march was anti-Brexit, and it is reasonable to assume that almost every marcher was a Remainer, it is worth considering the core issue of process that lay at the heart of the event, and which is as relevant to die-hard Leavers as it is to Remainers. The march was calling for a people’s vote. That those of us who marched are Remainers who believe that Brexit is, and will be, a tragic, humiliating national disaster is irrelevant. In a democracy, it is natural to call for votes on matters of national and constitutional importance—and Brexit is, without doubt, the single most important matter of my lifetime; what is strange is for purported democrats to fiercely oppose a democratic vote. Few Remainers are under the illusion that a further popular vote would be a guaranteed win for Remain. Indeed, there is a good chance that Brexiters will triumph in any such referendum. All that remains, hopefully, to be seen. But for now we should focus on the question of process and how that will help us find our way out of the current crisis. The case should be made that central to process of Brexit is a confirmatory vote by the public.

It is now almost three years since the EU referendum. Weight should be attached to that result, but this weight must surely diminish over time. Demographics change: people die, and new voters come of age. Around 600,000 Britons die each year, and 700,000 reach voting age; thus, nearly two million voters in 2016 are no longer with us, and approximately two million have joined the electoral register. There has to come a point at which more weight is attached to voters who are alive than to those who are deceased. With each passing day, the “will of the people” shifts a little more towards the “will of the people RIP”.

Many of those who are still with us may wish to exercise their fundamental democratic right to change their minds. What any of us thought on one day in June 2016 is not set in stone. There are many reasons why people may subsequently come to revise, and in some cases to reverse, their decisions. The most obvious are that circumstances change and that more information comes to light. Back in 2016, the debate over EU membership was somewhat embryonic. The issue had never been an overriding preoccupation of the British electorate (the economy, health, education, and crime were usually far more pressing issues in the minds of voters), and it was evident that most people’s understanding of the issues was limited. Thanks to the referendum result, Brexit has dominated politics for the past three years, and we are all a lot more informed about what EU membership means, about single markets and customs unions, about trade agreements and regulations, about goods and services, about tariffs, about the WTO, about car manufacturing, and about the Good Friday Agreement and Northern Irish history and politics.

Furthermore, in witnessing the day-to-day difficulties and complexities of implementing Brexit, we are more familiar with the practicalities of Brexit. Leaving the EU is not, as it was in 2016, simply an idea that could be achieved in one of several vague ways; it has become a concrete policy that is being worked out, occasionally successfully but more often painfully, in all its difficult detail. It would not be surprising if many voters would now revise their view in light of this—and this applies to both sides, since some have clearly reconsidered their previous support for Remain in light of their perception of the EU’s negotiating tactics.

These are compelling reasons for a second referendum. But in addition to them, there is the matter of ensuring a robust, democratically legitimate process—and one that enables a way out of the current crisis. There should be no rerun of the first referendum. Rather, voters should be asked to choose between a form of exiting the EU agreed in parliament and remaining in the EU. The nature of the former is open to debate: it might be a no deal, or Common Market 2.0, or a Norway option, or May’s deal, or something else. But it needs to be concrete, clear and achievable (either it needs to have been agreed with the EU, or it stands a realistic chance of securing that agreement). Then it needs to be put to the test. A withdrawal that fails to command a majority among the electorate surely deserves to be rejected. On the other hand, a withdrawal that passes the test is one that has survived a rigorous democratic exercise.

It is never clear why Brexiters, some of whom spent decades campaigning for a referendum, would resist a confirmatory vote—unless, that is, they know that any form of Brexit that takes detailed shape would be vastly unpopular. None of them, it appears, believes that their own version of Brexit would be supported by a majority of voters. If Theresa May really believes that she has understood the will of the people, then she should not be afraid of putting her deal before the public. One way out of the impasse would be for parliament to approve her deal on condition that it be put to a confirmatory referendum. As an opponent of her deal, I would be satisfied with this outcome; but do the proponents of her deal fear that a confirmatory vote would kill it off for good?

A confirmatory vote has, therefore, two advantages. First, it offers a way out of the crisis. Potentially, it increases the likelihood of majority support in parliament, since many who have doubts about any particular approach may nevertheless support it if they know it will be subject to the further test of a popular vote. Second, it ensures that whatever form of Brexit is agreed by parliament acquires greater legitimacy. A confirmatory vote would involve a wide public debate, detailed scrutiny of the proposed withdrawal, and a referendum. But, whereas in 2016 nobody knew what Leave meant, in a second referendum it would be clear precisely what a vote for Leave means. If it succeeds in passing the popular test, then we can hardly complain about Brexit on democratic grounds. But without a confirmatory vote, Brexit becomes something that is imposed on the public without consultation and against its will. If Brexit turns out badly, then the architects of such a Brexit will rightly be held fully accountable—and it will be reasonable to maintain that any such Brexit lacked legitimacy, with all the unpredictable and potentially dangerous consequences that follow from any illegitimate policy.

Imagine if Theresa May somehow managed to get her withdrawal agreement “across the line”, sneaking a tiny minority in parliament thanks to arm-twisting, pork-barrel politics, shady backroom deals, and dubious tactical manoeuvres. What would be the democratic legitimacy of her deal? Surely we should aspire to more than getting a widely unpopular deal “across the line” by any means necessary; we should be aspiring for a withdrawal that commands widespread support, or at least acceptance, in parliament, and then majority support among an informed electorate who have had an opportunity to study, debate, and question the withdrawal agreement.

Theresa May is happy to be populist and appeal to the public when it suits her, such as when she called a general election and put herself at the heart of it, or when she toured the country trying to sell her deal to the public, even though it was MPs she primarily needed to persuade, or when she gave her disastrously misjudged statement to the nation last week. Last December, she was briefly keen to subject her deal to a public television debate—a perfect encapsulation of her tendency to favour persuading and hectoring others to agree with her, but to refuse listening to them or subjecting her position to a meaningful verdict.

Evidently, she has little confidence that her deal would pass the popular test; this is one of the reasons why she resists a referendum. Nevertheless, her main stated argument against a referendum is that it would be divisive. Aside from the fact that the UK is already obviously divided, it is not clear how imposing a vastly unpopular withdrawal agreement on the country would somehow bring people together—except, perhaps, by uniting them in angry opposition to the politicians who imposed the policy. Conjuring up the threat of increased populism and violence, as some opponents of a second referendum have done, is not only irresponsible, it is also manifestly cowardly and spineless in the face of those extremist minorities who advocate violent action until they get what they want. Moreover, it is also illogical. Angry protest is far more likely to follow a process that denies people a debate and a vote, than one that consults them, engages with them, and invites their approval or rejection. It also treats the electorate as sophisticated grown-ups who understand that, in a democracy, outcomes can be accepted if they are transparent, fair and truly democratic. I have been disappointed more often than not by votes and elections over the years, but if the process has been fair then I can accept the outcome (which is not the same as saying that I agree with it—it remains my democratic right to continue arguing against a policy or government).

There are numerous problems with referendums, but only if they are badly conceived or abused (and David Cameron’s 2016 referendum was guilty of both). If they present a concrete policy, are clear on the alternatives on which the electorate is being asked to vote, are supported by a well-informed debate, and are conducted according to transparent, fair and enforced rules, then it is hard to find fault with them on democratic grounds. The accusation that the democratic step of holding a confirmatory vote would be undemocratic is patently absurd. Parliament, contrary to many characterizations of it (mostly by the government and the right-wing press), has performed rather well throughout the Brexit process: it has endeavoured to hold the government to account, to scrutinize and debate government policy and actions, and to resist being the rubber stamp that Theresa May would like it to be, and it has had partial success in all these areas, despite the implacable opposition of the government and the increasingly problematic logic of loyalty to the party machine. It would be a positive step if the many sensible parliamentarians managed to seize control of the Brexit process from the catastrophically inept, authoritarian and deluded government; and it would be an even more positive development if parliament embraced the idea of a confirmatory vote as a way out of the crisis and a means of ensuring a robust, legitimate and democratic resolution of the Brexit problem.

Brexit: predictably chaotic, and predictably never likely to happen

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Brexiteers present their youthful, joyous, diverse, multicultural and dynamic vision for the UK

The day-to-day politics of Brexit are wildly unpredictable and volatile. But the bigger picture is one that has long been predictable. Back in 2016, shortly after the referendum, I argued that Brexit was a long game that would result in Brexit not happening. Nothing since then has substantially altered my view. Theresa May, with uncharacteristic clarity, has outlined the three options that remain viable: her deal, no deal, and no Brexit. The very warm favourite has to be no Brexit.

May’s deal is simply a bad deal. This is not surprising, since there was never a good deal to be had—something that has been obvious since the referendum itself to anyone with reason and sense. The pursuit of a deal was always about mitigating the considerable downsides to leaving the EU; the idea that the UK could retain all the benefits of EU membership but none of the responsibilities and inconveniences was something the average child (if not the average Brexiteer) could understand was impossible. Those Brexiteers who maintained that it would be straightforward to secure a good deal are fantasists or stupid (or both).

The best negotiators in the world would have failed to succeed given the various incompatible goals of a good deal and the heavily disadvantageous negotiating context: frictionless trade; no hard border in Ireland; an end to free movement; holding the Union together; the ability to make independent trade deals; the high-wire parliamentary arithmetic; the uneven playing field of one country of 60 million people negotiating with a block of 27 countries of 450 million people.

And the UK ran the project of negotiating Brexit with all the skill, organization and experience of a losing team on The Apprentice. In addition to having no obvious negotiating plan, the UK seemed to treat Brexit as if it was hiring a sitcom cast rather than a team of crack negotiators: the doggedly unimaginative and incompetent Theresa May, the self-important Dominic Raab, extremist unicorn-chasers like Steve Baker and Suella Braverman, and (the crowning ignominy of it all) the delusional, workshy, inflated ego that is David Davis (in a fiercely competitive field, possibly the most overrated politician of our time). Passing mention also has to be made to the idiotically unhelpful contributions occasionally made by various senior figures, such as Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt.

Given all that, and given her own mantra that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, it’s a minor miracle that May reached any sort of draft agreement. Of course, her mantra was, like much of her Brexit rhetoric, simply fluff that she didn’t believe in. She was always going to cobble some sort of deal, because the alternative would have been a personal disaster. And so she has now pivoted, arguing that this is the best the UK can get (which is probably true), and that parliament should ratify it because the UK needs some sort of deal—all of which is just another way of saying that ‘a bad deal is better than no deal’. A further argument for her deal has been made: in its series of compromises, it is the deal that best reflects the 52:48 referendum divide. Superficially, this has some truth. But if a popular vote revealed a 52:48 split over whether the England football team should play in red or white, and it was decided that a pink strip was an acceptable compromise, then the outcome is one that satisfies nobody’s wishes. So it is with May’s deal.

This was always the likely outcome. It is tempting on all sides to point out May’s failings as prime minister—she is badly out of her depth in the role, and, for all her evident ability to cling on grimly to her position, she is an astonishingly limited leader, singularly incapable of building bridges and uniting factions (except, perhaps, against her). But I doubt a less incompetent prime minister would have achieved much more in the negotiations; although such a prime minister might have gone about things with less overpromising of success, less grandstanding about her toughness and resolve, and less spinelessness in the face of Brextremist demands, and with more imaginative and quiet exploration of how to bring together moderates to find solutions.

Parliament should refuse to ratify the deal, and in all likelihood that is what it will do. That will lead to a crisis—and how that will play out is uncertain (my best guess is that May will resign or be forced out, which will make for entertaining drama but resolve nothing). A parliamentary defeat of May’s deal will also simplify matters by removing from the table one of the three options (not least because there is no prospect of the EU renegotiating the deal), so that we will be left with two: no deal, or no Brexit.

Being left with those two options means that the choice will be between the only two coherent positions there have ever been on Brexit. May’s deal was always going to be incoherent, because it is manifestly worse than the current position of full membership of the EU, yet it also fails to deliver most of what the Brexiteers want. No Brexit (or Remain) is self-evidently rationally coherent, since it ensures the continuation of what has been a mutually beneficial and prosperous relationship that cannot be replicated in any other way. No deal (or hard Brexit) has little rational coherence, but it clearly has an emotional, perhaps even romantic, coherence: if you’re going to leave the EU, then, as Boris Johnson might say, ‘fuck business’ and sense, wax lyrical about independence and global Britain and believing in ourselves as a nation, dream of glories past and fantastic futures, and take a mad but exciting punt. It’s a crazy argument that will almost certainly lead to disaster, but I can see how it appeals to the dreamers who care little for facts or reality.

Although parliament has more than its share of dim and deranged members (how people like Philip Davies, Andrew Bridgen, Nadine Dorries and Andrea Jenkyn actually get elected is one of the great political mysteries of our age), it is almost inconceivable that, faced with the prospect of no deal, it will fail to act. A general election is unlikely—and it is even more unlikely that it would solve anything anyway. Renegotiating isn’t going to happen, and the EU will not extend Article 50—unless there is the prospect of a second referendum. Another referendum will be pretty much the only option left on the table to prevent a catastrophic hard Brexit. And since there is no majority among MPs for a hard Brexit, it is a referendum that they will, in effect, be forced to go for. Referendums are not a good way of conducting politics; but when the situation is such that the only viable way out of a problem is a referendum (and the gridlock in parliament is such that it is hard to see any other parliamentary solution), then needs must.

As a Remainer, I’ll be delighted with another referendum. It was always going to require another vote to reverse Brexit. And it was always likely that we’d have to stare into the abyss of a hard Brexit and realize how insane any sort of Brexit is before the nation as a whole would seriously begin thinking about how to pull back from the edge. Voting down May’s deal, despite the immediate prospect of no deal at all being in place, is therefore an acceptable risk. Of course, a second referendum may deliver another victory for Leave; and a victory for Remain is not suddenly going to end the divisions (but a referendum will not create divisions, it will simply reveal them). But for Remainers and Brexiteers alike, the political impasse is such that a referendum is the best chance for either to get the outcome they want.

Reversing Brexit was never going to be easy or risk-free; but for those willing to play the long game, it has always been doable. If Brexit was a two-legged football match, then we’d just be about to finish the first leg with the Brexiteers 1-0 up, having scored in the opening minute and, with increasing desperation, clung to their advantage since then. The second leg will begin soon, and for Remainers there is still all to play for.

 

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.

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.

Donald Trump’s solo press conference and the media ‘opposition party’

trump_press_conferenceIt is easy to mock Donald Trump’s first solo press conference as president of the United States; I’ve even tried to do so myself. There were some undeniably cringeworthy moments (above all, his attitude towards the Jewish reporter who asked about anti-Semitism, and his response to the question on the Congressional Black Caucus); Trump offered his usual mix of exaggerations and evasions (and one outright falsehood in the forms of his claims about the size of his electoral college victory); and the president’s relentlessly belligerent attitude towards the press, with his repeated claims about their ‘dishonesty’ and ‘fake news’, was petulant and largely detached from reality. Unsurprisingly, most commentary, whether from journalists or satirists, has concluded that it was an ‘unhinged’ and embarrassing shambles. And yet—and I ask this question as someone who unequivocally regards Trump as an appalling individual who will almost certainly be a terrible president—are the commentators right? The more I reflect on the conference (and I have watched all of its 77 minutes), the more I think they are not. Indeed, in several respects it was a carefully constructed event that will probably prove to be hugely successful for Trump.

Early on in the conference the president explained that he was ‘here again, to take my message straight to the people’. This was Trump back in campaign mode, bypassing the media and presenting himself unfiltered to the public. As he noted, he had won the election despite the hostility of most of the press; his success could be attributed, at least in part, to his direct communication with the public. That he felt the need to return to this form of communication is likely to have been his recognition that the first four weeks of his administration have been widely perceived as chaotic (and not the ‘fine-tuned machine’ that had made ‘incredible progress’) and that it was time to short-circuit the media coverage with an alternative narrative. If so, then he surely fulfilled his aims with both the tone and content of the conference.

Apart from a few tetchy moments towards the end of the conference, Trump looked relaxed and in control throughout. He generally managed to soften his attacks on the media by making them look like good-natured banter; he even shared a few jokes with the assembled journalists. Above all, he achieved the perfect balance of looking like an underdog under attack by a room full of opponents, while also conveying toughness and strength in the face of the attack. That he was not being especially attacked is beside the point: Trump made it look as if he was being attacked. As he himself commented, he could not be said to have been ‘ranting and raving’; and he really did appear to be ‘having a good time doing it’.

When it comes to content, it is becoming increasingly clear that Trump has a genius for being rambling and barely coherent while simultaneously telling his intended audience exactly what it wants to hear. Consider what he covered in the first half hour of the conference (before he took reporters’ questions): he briefly announced some new appointments; he summarized how successful his first four weeks had been; he mentioned a high approval rating, a surging stock market and increased optimism in the business world; he gave an extensive list of jobs that were returning to America; he announced a huge increase in military spending, and his desire to achieve peace through strength; he reminded his audience that Isis is ‘a cancer’ that he would deal with, in addition to sorting out North Korea and Iran; he mentioned the many foreign leaders he had had ‘productive’ talks with; he emphasized his policy of strengthened borders and enhanced law enforcement; he referred to his orders to cut regulation, to repeal and replace the ‘disaster’ of Obamacare, to introduce tax reform, to pursue fair trade deals, to encourage investment in jobs and American industry (for example, his initiative to use American steel for the construction of the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines); and he scattered numerous other references to policies and initiatives thoughout the speech (for example, his intention to tackle the drugs problem and his development of a council with Canada to promote women’s business leaders) as well as praise for the people he had appointed. Running through this part-meandering, part-scattergun account of his administration’s policies and achievements were his attacks on Democrats, the courts and the media for attempting to obstruct him, and his view that he had ‘inherited a mess’ from the previous administration.

What would the audience Trump intended to reach—the American public to whom he was speaking directly—take away from this rambling speech? It is likely many of them would have heard the following: the President is a dynamic man who is honouring his campaign promises (unlike many conventional politicians, but like the Donald Trump who presented himself in The Art of the Deal as the dynamic, energetic businessman who successfully achieves his goals); that he is focused on jobs, security and the defence of the American people; and that he is battling the attempts of traditional politicians and the media to frustrate him in these purposes. While it is possible to laugh at many of his claims and statements (‘drugs are becoming cheaper than candy bars’; parts of Chicago are ‘worse than almost any of the places in the Middle East’ that are talked about; nuclear war is bad), his intended audience hears only confirmation of their concerns (drugs are a serious problem; crime in inner cities has got out of control; dealing with Russia reduces the risk of nuclear war).

While watching this I thought of the notorious remarks made by Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, in the first week of Trump’s presidency:

The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while. I want you to quote this. The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.

Trump’s press conference helps illuminate what Bannon was driving at. The president was speaking about jobs, security and defence; he was appealing to popular fears and concerns, and promising to fix them in ways that traditional politicians had consistently failed to do. In one telling moment he said: ‘I can’t believe I’m saying I’m a politician, but I guess that’s what I am now.’ In other words: the America the media do not understand is the America whose primary concerns are jobs and security; and the media do not understand that Trump was elected because he is not a traditional politician. Trump’s slightly folksy and simple manner, his blunt and plain speaking, even his mistakes and exaggerations: all of this makes him look like the sort of non-politician that millions of Americans consciously wanted to occupy the White House.

After Trump’s speech the media had an extended opportunity to ask questions—and they would likely have confirmed to the president’s intended audience Bannon’s claim that the media are ‘the opposition party’. More than half the questions were about the continuing suspicions of the Trump administration’s connections with Russia, and the related resignation of Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor. These are vital questions because this is an issue of immense political, constitutional and security importance; if some of the links to Russia are proved, it is likely to prove a bigger scandal than Watergate (and will almost certainly lead to Trump’s downfall). But Trump’s calculation—and I suspect he is correct—is that, just as Lynyrd Skynyrd weren’t bothered by Watergate in ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, most of the American public do not care much the Russian rumours. Rather, his intended audience are far more bothered about employment, illegal immigration, crime and threats to America than they are about an issue that does not resonate beyond the political, intelligence and media circles of Washington, New York and Los Angeles.

So the spectacle that unfolded from the conference—just as Trump probably hoped it would, and which was probably why he was enjoying it so much—was of a president focused on issues that matter to most of the public, and a media ignoring those issues to fixate on things that matter little to the wider public. This was the media doing its job properly—and yet also confirming Bannon’s ‘opposition party’ label. This was why the president repeatedly insisted that the Russia stories were ‘fake news’, by which he meant not so much that they were untrue but that they were a deliberate attempt by the media to distract from the real story of his administration’s achievements with non-stories about things that may have been said in a phone conversation between Flynn and a Russian ambassador. And many Trump supporters will concur with their president that the media are dishonest, by reasoning that the media prefer to print rumours about Russian influence on the election than to write about job creation, drug problems and inner city crime. Whether they are right to reason in this way is not the point; the point is that millions of people (and not just in America) are more concerned about the immediate issues that appear to threaten them than they are about the comparatively remote issues of concern to political and media circles.

Most of the media, as well as those of us who are anti-Trump, will regard the press conference as confirmation of Trump’s unsuitability to be president and the shambolic nature of his administration. It is unlikely he won any converts among the media or his opponents. But Trump was not speaking to the media or to those who did not vote for him. He was speaking to those who had voted for him, and he was doing something that he has focused on for the first few weeks of his presidency: firming up his base. The press conference was almost certainly highly successful to that end: his supporters will have regarded his conference as vindication of their support, because Trump told them everything they wanted to hear. It’s a smart strategy, because for now Trump has time on his side to win converts; what he can’t afford to do is lose his base. Given that there is no realistic prospect of Trump winning over the mainstream media, sceptics and opponents any time soon, it would not be a surprise if these solo press conferences become a regular event.

Whether this strategy will work in the long run is open to question; Trump will need his policies to work, and there is surely only so much controversy and scandal any administration can withstand. But Trump has succeeded for nearly two years now with his unconventional approach of bypassing the mainstream media and communicating directly with the public, so he and Bannon probably reason that there is no need to change a winning formula. There is clearly a deliberate policy of dividing the media and political establishment from the public, and it’s a policy that poses more challenges to the media than it does to Trump: it is not obvious in the current climate how the mainstream media and political class can reach out to Trump’s support base.

In one of his final answers, Trump said:

Hey, just so you understand, we had a totally divided country for eight years and long before that. In all fairness to President Obama, long before President Obama we have had a very divided—I didn’t come along and divide this country. This country was seriously divided before I got here… This isn’t Donald Trump that divided a nation. We went eight years with President Obama and we went many years before President Obama. We lived in a divided nation. And I am going to try—I will do everything within my power to fix that.

It’s a powerful point—which is why he keeps reiterating it—and goes to the heart of Trump’s narrative. The United States is clearly deeply divided, but it would be absurd to think that these divisions have opened up only in the past few months. As Trump says, the divisions are deep and long standing; they are a reality that has nothing to do with his being elected president. Of course, he claims to represent that side of the divide which has hitherto been unrepresented by politicians and the media. It matters little whether Trump’s analysis is right, nor whether he really does represent those people who elected him. What matters is that his press conference, like almost everything he has been doing since his inauguration, played perfectly to his supporters.