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.
During 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”.
Jamie 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.
One 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 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?
Recently 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.
It 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).
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.
One of the more disturbing features of the debates surrounding Brexit is the routine way in which many Brexiteers invoke a notion of democracy based on the ‘will of the people’. According to this view, those who are trying to ‘frustrate’ Brexit are being anti-democratic, because they are going against the supposed popular will (this popular will amounting to 17 million people out of a UK population of 65 million; or, a 52% vote for Leave on a 74% turnout). Unfortunately, this increasingly common argument (it is encountered frequently in the Brexit-supporting tabloid press) is itself dangerously close to being anti-democratic, since it rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of what democracy is.
Democracy is government by popular consent. It is a form of government in which political authority flows from the people (rather than, say, from God, as in medieval political systems). Consent is a key term: where there is consent, a government is legitimate; where there is not consent, a government is illegitimate and can legitimately be replaced. A democracy ensures consent through such things as regular free and fair elections, the opportunity to remove and replace bad governments and to amend or overturn bad policies, a free press and a large public sphere in which politics can be discussed and debated by everyone. All these things are carefully defended in a democracy. Where they are denied—for example, if the press is not free, or there is no opportunity to overturn bad policies—the political system becomes increasingly undemocratic.
The definition of ‘the people’ has always been fluid, but at the heart of democracy is the idea that the ‘people’ should be defined as widely as possible. A society in which only the aristocracy has a say in politics is not democratic; nor is one in which, for example, women or Jews are denied a vote. Since ancient Athenian democracy restricted voting to adult males, excluding all women, slaves and non-Athenians, it would not qualify as a democracy in the modern sense.
Democracy has nothing to do with the so-called ‘will of the people’. Not only is this concept impossible to define with any precision (making it largely nonsensical), but it has routinely been invoked by anti-democratic totalitarian regimes (e.g. the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany) to justify their politics. It implies that anyone who disagrees with the supposed ‘will’ can no longer be considered one of the ‘people’; such an individual comes to be regarded as a traitor to the people. Historically, one of the consequences of this notion of the ‘will of the people’ has been the denial of rights to supposed ‘un-persons’ and the use of concentration camps, ‘re-education’, imprisonment and execution.
In any large, complex society there are numerous different interests and values which defeat all attempts to identify a single ‘will of the people’. Democracy involves recognizing these different interests and values through a form of government that, despite the differences running through society, is agreed to by everyone. Democracy is not, therefore, about simple majority rule; it is about governing in a way that commands the consent of everyone. A democracy which, for example, ignores the interests and values of minority groups or beliefs risks no longer being a democracy and becoming instead a tyranny.
For those interested in political thought: look to John Locke and John Stuart Mill, not to Rousseau.
Theresa May deserves some credit for the way she has handled Brexit thus far. The reality was that the most incompetent Prime Minister in recent British history tossed a grenade. Somebody had to catch it, and while the hopeless Andrea Leadsom would have provided great entertainment value by quickly letting the grenade explode, it was probably for the best that May and her much-touted safe pair of hands took charge. Evidently nobody had planned for Brexit, so it was always going to be a matter of muddling through the political chaos bequeathed by Cameron. And May has provided a textbook study of how to muddle through: in public play for time, don’t say too much, and don’t commit to anything, while behind doors scramble as rapidly as possible to assemble some sort of coherent plan. She has been much criticized for not having a plan or strategy for Brexit, but criticism should really be directed at her dismal predecessor. Anyway, what would we rather she had done—sit down with Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox over a few evenings, scribbling down a plan on post-its, and then announce that to the world? We may live in an age of instant news, information, clarity and decisions, but in relation to an issue as complex and important as Brexit there are many reasons why old-fashioned virtues such as patience, careful deliberation, information gathering and stalling for time are the best approach.
At some point, of course, May was going to have to issue more clarity, and so she now has with her major Brexit speech. The importance of this speech lies more in its political significance than in its detail. Much of the latter could have been guessed at; the only difference now is that we no longer need to play a guessing game. May’s focus on restricting immigration and freedom of movement has long been known (she was a notoriously illiberal Home Secretary); and the reality that ending freedom of movement means leaving the Single Market has been confirmed. Hard Brexit was always the most likely approach (most EU members have been correctly predicting that for months); May has now closed the door on the faint hopes of Remainers that a Norwegian model might have been the goal.
Although a Remainer myself, I appreciate two things about that. The first is the logic to it: while I would prefer a Norwegian model (aka soft Brexit) over hard Brexit, the Brexiters are right in regarding it as a compromise that would involve continued membership of the EU in everything but name and political clout. It would be a solution that would satisfy few, and would raise the question: if we’re paying for all the benefits of the EU, why not simply be full members with the ability to be part of the decision-making, instead of having access to the Single Market but no say in how it is run? For Remainers, the Norwegian model is hardly ideal, but it would have been a compromise hard to oppose; furthermore, it offered the hope that the model’s contradictions would result in it becoming a convenient stepping stone to a full EU return. That somewhat desperate hope, along with any prospects of a difficult and uncomfortable compromise outcome, is now off the table.
The second thing I appreciate about May’s speech is the clarity. All of us—Brexiters and Remainers alike—have a much better sense of the political terrain ahead. And the fact is, despite the Prime Minister’s rhetoric about Britons coming together over the Brexit negotiations, what she has done is mark out the dividing line for the forthcoming political war. She has confirmed that the referendum result was a winner-take-all outcome: nothing in her speech offered the slightest concession to the 48% who voted Remain (nor to the unknown number of Leave voters who believed that membership of the Single Market would continue after Brexit). As a case study for discussion by future students of democracy, the referendum will provide fascinating material: What is the best democratic response when a fraction over half the country want one thing, and a fraction under half the country want another? In the UK (unlike in most functioning democracies) you give the former everything that they want and the latter nothing, with no attempt at any sort of compromise. Having suggested in her new year message that she would be representing in Brexit negotiations the interests not only of the 52% but also of the 48%, it turns out that she’ll be doing no such thing. So it is that we remain divided—but the divisions are at least clear and confirmed now.
For Remainers the fight ahead is obvious. The object will be to attempt to resist and obstruct the goals of the Brexiters as much as possible. Had membership of the Single Market been on the table, then Remainers would have something worth supporting within the negotiations themselves. As it is, Britain’s objectives have little to recommend themselves to Remainers. A soft Brexit might have been worth supporting; a hard Brexit is not. So Remainers can focus on resisting Brexit tout court. And they can focus on getting organized and prepared for the forthcoming fight, now with a better knowledge of what they will be fighting.
Many Brexiters will regard what I have just written as treason; others will not comprehend why Remainers want to carry on with the fight. Here are some reasons:
(1) Brexit remains in all probability a national suicide. The Brexit position is still largely delusional. It is one thing to make an optimistic set-piece speech, quite another to sit around a table with other negotiators trying to make that optimism real. The speech was intended to be tough, portraying Britain as negotiating from a position of strength. In reality Britain’s position is desperately weak, at the mercy of the EU27 (any one of whom can veto whatever deal may be reached, and many of whom will already be figuring out ways of luring British businesses to the continent). The breezy Brexiter confidence about rapidly agreeing a whole series of favourable trade deals that will establish the UK as a major global player is the stuff of fantasy. May speaks about ‘global Britain’; yet the only platform that would truly give Britain significance on the global stage is that provided by the EU. The Brexit road ahead is going to be extremely hard going for the UK, will almost certainly result in a much diminished country and may well end in national disaster.
(2) The obsession of May and the Brexiters with immigration and the restriction of freedom of movement is nonsensical and corrosive. Freedom of movement has a sound economic basis, and it is a social and ethical good. The Brexit vision of borders—restricting, it should be remembered, movement both in and out of Britain—is worth opposing, not least because it panders to nationalists and racists.
(3) Early in her speech May spoke about protecting workers’ rights; yet she ended the speech with a threat that should Britain not get the deal it wants then it will choose to become, in effect, a low-regulation, bargain-basement tax haven. This threat was directed at the EU, but it should be seen as an equally great threat to British citizens. Given that May is so ready to make this threat, one ought to be suspicious about the broader government vision. The plan seems to be to leave the EU, then to cherry pick full access to as many areas of the Single Market as possible, with the prospect of ‘competitive’ tax rates as a secondary option if the EU does not hand over the cherries. May is here keen to display her hard edges to the EU—but they are hard edges which will wreak havoc on millions of Britons. More than that, it is precisely the sort of thing many Brexiters (Michael Gove, for example) want: for them, Brexit offers the possibility of pursuing a utopian neoliberal experiment. The admirable European social model, based on such things as workers’ rights and regulations to protect the environment, will be abandoned. For Remainers who value the European social model, and who are rightly dismayed at the casual way Brexiters are prepared to use workers’ rights (as well as the rights of EU citizens resident in the UK) as bargaining chips, there is no choice but to oppose the Brexiters.
(4) Brexit is not a foregone conclusion. The politics are not currently promising for Remainers, but things can change quickly over the months and years to come. (In the past eighteen months Jeremy Corbyn has become leader of the Labour party, David Cameron has resigned, the British have voted to leave the EU, and the Americans have voted for Trump: anyone at the beginning of 2015 predicting even one of those things would have been scorned.) There will be parliamentary votes and elections, there will be opposition from Scotland (and possibly Northern Ireland too), there is likely to be legal action to determine whether Article 50 is reversible (informed legal opinion suggests that it probably is), there will be economic developments, there will be political developments impossible to predict right now, and there are scenarios in which a reversal of Brexit may become a serious possibility. Brexit remains a long game.
(5) A point I have made several times previously bears repeating: just as Brexiters have for years exercised their democratic right to campaign against EU membership while the UK was a member, so Remainers will now exercise their democratic right to campaign for EU membership as the UK ceases to be a member.
(6) For all the predictable and meretricious rhetoric about the British being a great people, and how 65 million of us will come together to make Brexit work, May’s speech changes nothing; at most it offers slightly more coherence to the Brexit position (i.e. no more uncertainty about whether it will be hard or soft Brexit), and consequently it clarifies the anti-Brexit politics that lie ahead for Remainers.
In an opinion piece in The Guardian, Mark Rice-Oxley has made a succinct diagnosis of many of our problems: ‘Thinking is what gave humans ascendancy. But overthinking is threatening to bring us down.’ His argument is thoughtful and interesting. Overthinking, in Rice-Oxley’s view, is one of the roots of individual unhappiness and the wider social malaise that has led to Brexit and Trump. This overthinking takes the form of agonizing over past and future (whereas other animals, so far as we can tell, think only in the present, humans are unique in their ability to extend thought backwards and forwards in time) and ‘destructive’ introspective thinking that ‘is in thrall to the rigid, judgmental thoughts we think about ourselves’ and leads to ‘impossible expectations… [and] disappointment’. Our constant self-evaluation, and the self-laceration and disappointment that follows, ‘embeds personal misery’ in a soil of excessive rumination, distorted and exaggerated ideas, and the sense that our lives do not match up to those of others. Hence it is that in ‘the richest, healthiest, most prosperous era we have ever known’, so many people take the short step from unwarranted personal disappointment to blame and protest.
Rice-Oxley proposes that ‘we need a completely new relationship with our thoughts’. This would involve taking the world and ourselves as they are, not as we think they are, and the development of habits that favour observation over thinking; ‘it should be compulsory in secondary schools’, he writes, to learn the ‘psychological flexibility’ that helps us to ‘cultivate our observing selves, rather than our thinking selves’. In conclusion, Rice-Oxley urges us to let go of judging and worrying about ourselves and others, to limit our thinking to areas over which we have control, and to accept and celebrate things as they are. The influence of meditational ideas, in particular the practice of being present in the moment, are clear in this argument. As a whole, Rice-Oxley’s argument is reminiscent of quietism: quietist thinkers have argued that philosophy and reasoning have tended to sow confusion and disturbance, and that mental tranquillity can be achieved by learning to accept the universe we inhabit and who we are rather than to question them.
There are undeniable virtues in this argument. Learning to accept the things we cannot control, to cultivate a less judgmental and hypercritical evaluation of ourselves, to embrace experience rather than agonize about it: these are healthy practices that almost certainly improve mental well-being. By definition, like over-anything, overthinking is problematic: an excess of anything—put the word ‘over’ before eating, stimulation and working, for example—invariably results in negative outcomes. The pertinent question, however, is not whether overthinking is bad, since I can accept that overthinking, unlike thinking, is rarely helpful. The important questions (and perhaps I am overthinking it) are whether Rice-Oxley is right in his understanding of the distinction between thinking and overthinking, and whether his proposed solution to the individual and collective problems of our time is the correct one. The answer to both those questions is, in my view, that he is wrong. If there is a problem in our time, it is not that we overthink things; it is that we think badly, or we don’t think at all.
Consider, for example, Rice-Oxley’s view that we are ‘prisoners of the sinewy web of cogitation that tells us we are strong, clever, important, unassertive, patriotic, hopeless, old, fat, hard done by, forgotten’. But in so far as people obsess about these things, and become miserably trapped in narrow, impossible and harmful labels, is this really the result of overthinking? More likely it is that we engage with these categories, labels, standards and expectations in unthinking ways. We let social media or the judgments of others or the opinions of crowds or the mantra of ‘commonsense’ do our thinking for us; our response is too often uncritical and bereft of serious thinking. It is not that we should stop thinking about ourselves, or about our identities and our position relative to other people and the world, but rather that we should learn to think about these things more skilfully and perceptively. The worries, agonies and unhealthy self-criticism that beset so many people stem not from overthinking, but from not thinking enough and from not being equipped to think well. Rice-Oxley likens all the thoughts we encounter to being pulled under by ‘a busy stream’: repeatedly submerged, we should learn how to pull ourselves out so that we can ‘sit undisturbed’ and simply notice the stream. There are certainly times when it is good to do this; but life is a multitude of rushing streams, and we would be better off learning to become strong swimmers, able to survive and thrive in the streams, than to yearn only to sit on the bank observing the stream flow by.
Rice-Oxley provides several concrete examples of the tendency for overthinking to lead to an unhealthy temptation to compare oneself with others, and then onto personal unhappiness; one is ‘the employee who feels insecure because she thinks the boss blanked her on the stairwell’. Rice-Oxley’s argument seems to be this: the employee is giving too much thought to an incident that does not warrant it; she should instead accept the incident, not worry about it (and hence no longer feel insecure) and move on. This is based on the important (and correct) point that the way we think things are is generally not the way things actually are. In this case, although the employee ‘thinks’ the boss blanked her, it is just as likely (in the absence of any other evidence) that the boss was distracted, or absent-minded, or caught up in his own (over)thinking to notice her. The best advice to the employee in line with Rice-Oxley’s argument is therefore: don’t overthink it, simply observe the incident, and the feelings it prompted, then let it flow by.
But this sounds both idealistically simple and impossibly unrealistic. A relevant philosophical point here concerns the distinction between the way things are and the way we think things are. While reality certainly exists outside our thoughts, our only access to that reality is via our thoughts. At the heart of the human condition is the fact that we are bounded (or ‘trapped’ to put it more negatively) by our thoughts. We can never grasp reality as it is; the best we can hope for is to grasp reality as we think it is. Rice-Oxley seems to suggest that if we stopped thinking we might come to see reality as it is—an argument that seems to me both mystical and mysterious. Without thought, how would the employee ever get close to the reality of the blanking incident? If she successfully manages not to think about it, she will be none the wiser about the true nature of the incident.
Of course, that may be the point: the incident does not deserve either thought or the feeling of insecurity that supposedly follows from thought, so there is little to be gained from attempting to understand its reality. It presumably follows that whenever we are apparently blanked by somebody—be it boss, friend, family member, colleague, or a shop assistant—we should not give the matter any thought. But is that either practical or desirable? While the individual who manages to treat all such incidents with serenity and unconcern may be admirable, these things are important and deserve our attention. A great deal hinges on our interpersonal relationships, and they require more than unthinking acceptance of the way they appear to be; they demand careful thought and work. We may not be able to control how others think of us, but we can influence it: for example, we can address problems, smooth over tensions, and seek clarity about relationships. But in order to do this we need not only to observe but to think about what we observe.
In so far as Rice-Oxley’s insecure employee has a thought-related problem, it is not that she is overthinking the incident but that she is not thinking about it with sufficient acumen. She is guilty of faulty thinking: she is leaping to unjustified assumptions and catastrophizing the incident on the basis of little evidence. Of course, her insecurity may derive from a wider context; for example, her boss may have been critical of her work, and she may have heard convincing rumours that her company was planning to downsize. But let’s assume in the absence of that context that there is no reason beyond the incident itself why she should feel insecure. Her best approach is to consider the incident thoughtfully, critically and rationally. She might examine why it made her feel insecure; she might question whether the incident was all that it seemed; she might challenge her initial assumptions about it; she might, after a careful assessment of the incident, her perception of it, and her feelings about it, decide on an appropriate response—which may be to recognize it as inconsequential and not a reason to feel insecure, and hence to accept it and move on. It will take more than an observing self to get to this position; it will take a well-cultivated thinking self.
While learning to cultivate a more observational and accepting approach to life through practices such as meditation and mindfulness makes a valuable contribution to mental health, a more solid foundation is offered by the principles underlying Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). A therapeutic approach with proven success at treating problems such as anxiety, stress and depression, CBT not only focuses on resolving faulty thought processes (for example, by learning to identify and challenge all-or-nothing thinking, catastrophizing thoughts, unfounded assumptions, unwarranted self-criticism, and so on) but also offers a better model for understanding human nature than that implied by Rice-Oxley’s article. The latter treats the relationship between thoughts, feelings and behaviour as unidirectional: for example, someone who thinks other people are better off than him will feel miserable, and this unhappiness will lead him to express his disappointment (perhaps by voting for Brexit or Trump). It is this model which underpins Rice-Oxley’s main argument: if we cut down on thinking we will feel less miserable (and hence not do stupid things like vote for Brexit or Trump). CBT’s model is also based on thoughts, feelings and behaviour, but understands the relationship between them as constituting a loop in which each element both influences and is influenced by the other two. According to CBT, therefore, the trick is not to replace thinking with acceptance but to recognize how our thoughts impact on our feelings and behaviour and and vice versa. In this feedback loop, well-being is achieved not by attempting to reduce one of the elements but by cultivating healthy practices in all three. Learning to calm one’s feelings, to alter bad behavioural habits, and to correct faulty thinking work together as a mutually beneficial package.
Nevertheless, Rice-Oxley is right to identify overthinking as a problem. But overthinking only superficially involves an excessive quantity of thinking; the real cause of overthinking is poor quality of thought. The solution to the problem is not, therefore, to counter overthinking with observation but to counter it with better quality thinking. Indeed, the most insidious problem today is more likely to be the poor quality of much thought, which extends to unthinking. The individual made miserable by her Instagram feed, the person demoralized by the success of others, or the hypochondriac forever convinced that he is dying (all examples from Rice-Oxley’s article) are arguably not guilty of overthinking but of not thinking enough—and certainly of not thinking with sufficient quality. It is precisely the failure to cultivate the thinking self that lies at the root of these problems; to argue that the cultivation of the observational self is the answer is to miss the point. Mindfulness will provide one useful form of self-protection, but the person who has not developed the thinking skills necessary for insightful self-understanding and rational and critical engagement with others will lack the mental resources to weather the type of buffeting we all receive from social media, the actions and judgments of others, the expectations of marketing and media, and the daily disappointments of the news.
Finally, perhaps the most disquieting conclusion of Rice-Oxley’s article is the suggestion that we should aim at a passive acceptance of ourselves and the world. The argument that people should celebrate what they have and stop being disappointed at what they don’t have is always easier to make from the vantage point of having more things than the next person. In a world of gross inequality—an inequality that is staggering even within apparently prosperous countries such as the UK and the US, and an inequality that is as much to do with unequal life chances and opportunities as it is to do with economic disparities—a habit of observing and accepting these inequalities rather than thinking about their inherent unfairness (and doubtless feeling justifiably unhappy and angry as a result) serves only the interests of those who benefit from inequality. Disappointment and unhappiness are vital driving forces for both personal and social change. If we all learned to ‘simply take as we find’ and to ‘accept that some things will not always go as we wish’, then there would be no resistance to social and political wrongs—and, moreover, there wouldn’t be the impulse to make personal improvements. The moment we embrace only those things we can control and influence, and give up thinking about everything else, is the moment we abandon our wider connection to society and the world. A life spent observing the stream of thoughts rather than immersing oneself in them is a life of disengaged quietitude.
It is not mindful observation and acceptance that should be compulsory in schools; it is psychology and philosophy. In ancient Athens Socrates devoted his life to going beyond observation and acceptance into thought. His cultivation of the thinking self was inspirational to his many followers, but deeply troubling to the state. So he was put on trial for corrupting youth; he was accused of encouraging them to embrace thinking (or overthinking in the eyes of the authorities) that led to impiety. After he was convicted and sentenced to death, he is supposed to have uttered his most famous dictum: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ But Socrates would not have wanted his followers simply to observe and accept this dictum. He would have wanted them to think about his trial and execution, and to ask: Should one prefer the refusal of Socrates to abandon thinking, or the insistence of the Athenian state that he and his followers should learn to observe and accept? It’s a question that deserves a lot of thought.
The British vote in favour of an exit from the EU has thrown the UK’s political system into chaos and shocked Europe and the world. The long-term consequences of this vote are still unclear, but some fear it could trigger the undoing of the UK and accelerate the disintegration of the EU. Many see this outcome as a new victory for populist movements, which are on the rise across much of the Western world. Something more fundamental, however, might be at play.