The current Brexit proposal is a direct, tangible symptom of the current era of populist, low calibre, political discourse. It is influenced by Social Media, and an emphasis on bite-sized messaging versus in-depth debate. It is also a symptom of the information warfare being waged by Russia and the ‘alt-Right,’ which has created an audience expecting and believing inflammatory, untrue, but appealing messages.
All of this has done to information what fast-food restaurants do to food, leading people to consume food that is high in flavour and low in nutritional value. Tweets are the empty calories of the information age. People consume vast amounts of information, but very little of it informs them.
This political culture is the fault of opportunists who found they could win power through saying what people wanted to hear; of opportunists who realised they could influence the direction of a country by propagating inflammatory statements easily over Twitter and Facebook. It is the fault of people — voters — who allowed themselves to form deeply held opinions based on shallowly understood ideas.
The problem with populism is it doesn’t do well under scrutiny.
The current Brexit proposal is a bad deal. Nobody likes it. It pleases nobody. Theresa May has the audacity to claim it is in the interest of the whole of the UK. It clearly isn’t, and therein lies that problem again — throwaway statements that don’t bear up to scrutiny.
Michael Gove declared that the people are tired of experts, David Davis said this would be an easy negotiation for which he didn’t need to be clever, and Boris Johnson wrote demonstrable lies on a bus. These were populist statements that had no basis in fact. Theresa May said Brexit means Brexit, another populist statement, easy to Tweet, but with no actual meaning. She said no deal is better than a bad deal, but has now proposed a bad deal as better than no deal.
Nothing they say bears up to any scrutiny, but for some reason nobody is scrutinising them in a way that has an impact on what happens. That is the fault of our politicians, media, and of our society. We have become lazy and bloated, swamped with information and opinions, yet starved of facts and certainties. Just like someone living on junk food, we’re full and fat, but sick and under-nourished.
What these populist, shallow thinkers found was that Brexit is bloody complicated, and requires compromise. But populism isn’t about compromising, it is about pushing a simple idea as the only option. Liberalism, by contrast, is about finding compromises in amongst complex ideas. That is why populist governments end up going to war. Or even more starkly, populist governments start wars, and liberal ones win them.
Not compromising, and pushing a single idea as the only option leads to conflict. Finding compromise, being led by information, and being flexible is how you resolve conflicts.
Theresa May is now proposing a Brexit which recognises the reality of what this was always going to be, a complex process that requires a lot of compromise. It is not the best option for the country, it is the best of a bad set of options that were never a good idea and were never based on any analytical thought.
It’s important to remember that none of the Brexiteer populists has ever put forward a better, or even alternative proposal. Worse still, because our political opposition is in tatters, they have never had their bluff called. Each time a Brexiteer was in a position to propose something better they have instead resigned, with the latest being Dominic Raab. Rees-Mogg is the worst, having never actually held any position of responsibility, but choosing instead to stand on the side-lines jeering at those who do.
Because of the Irish border, we were never going to achieve what the Brexiteers promised. Had they given it any thought, listened to any experts, or done any homework at all, they’d have known that. But they are not deep thinkers, they are shameless populists. They peddled messages that got the shallow thinking voters on their side, without caring about whether any of it was realistic.
As yet, no Brexiteer has ever come up with a realistic proposal for how to leave the EU in a way that takes back control, returns our sovereignty, gives £350m a week to the NHS, controls free movement of labour (without leading to labour shortages), and allows us in the UK to continue to travel and work in Europe if we choose.
The Brexiteers, Rees-Mogg in particular, harp on about taking back our sovereignty. That was their main, simplistic, shouty populist meme. We always had our sovereignty, so it was a stupid thing to argue for. But under May’s proposal we now stand to remain in the customs union, subject to European rules, but no longer with any say on what those rules are. That means we have less sovereignty than before.
We also will be in a weaker position to make international trade deals, being hampered by a vague relationship with Europe but not benefitting from being part of Europe and their trade deals.
The current Brexit deal proposed by Theresa May is a tangible outcome of what happens when politicians play to populism and their voters jump on easily digestible promises. Brexit has done to politics what a diet junk food does to your body; the country has gorged itself on sweet, tasty promises without asking whether they were good for us. Now we’re sick and under-nourished, our teeth are rotting, and our tummy hurts. We’ve found out that whilst the Brexit promises sounded good, they lacked information and facts. Like a lot of us were saying all along.
Brexit is the outcome of careless populism. It is what happens when you get tired of the experts. It is what happens when you assume something clearly difficult will be easy. When you don’t think you need to be clever to get it done. It is what happens when you over-promise today without worrying about delivering on that tomorrow. It is pure Dunning-Kruger — people who are too stupid and incompetent to realise they are stupid and incompetent.
And let’s remember, all of this is about the Conservative party. It is about David Cameron trying to figure out how to control his Eurosceptic MPs so he could become Prime Minister. It is about Boris Johnson following the path most likely to help him become Prime Minister. It is about Theresa May becoming Prime Minister and wanting to stay in Downing Street. There is nobody else in this game, just them. It is all about them, and about a political party that’s always been split down the middle over Europe.
Their own ambition, and internal politics, are now tearing the country apart and it should be something that plunges them into ignominy.
But opposing them is a party that seems to care very little about Brexit, or about the UK as a whole, and instead is enjoying the totally inappropriate fantasy of creating a Socialist utopia. Fact: even centrist Labour voters would struggle to vote for Corbyn. A large-scale political revolt against the Conservatives due to Brexit would require people who previously voted Conservative, voted for Blair, and voted Lib Dem, to vote Labour.
That party therefore needs to be open to them all; a safe place they all feel they can find shelter in this storm. It is a devastating missed opportunity that Labour is not that party, and one that will cost the party and the country. Most people, however furious they are with the Conservatives, would struggle to vote Labour, fearing it would plunge the UK from the frying pan of an ideologically driven Brexit into the fire of ideological socialism.
If you step aside from the specific debates on each topic, and look more at the state of our politics, what we need as a country is to bring political discourse back from populism and ideology, and to restore faith in our experts and institutions. We need someone, from any party, to rise above the playground fighting at Westminster, and show real leadership.
Strong leadership is not about forcing through a dogma, like “Brexit means Brexit” or nationalising companies, it is about finding compromise, uniting people, and using the great wealth of knowledge, wisdom, and information we have at our disposal in this country.
It isn’t clear who this is yet, though plenty of back-benchers show potential to take on that mantle. But we, the people, should not settle for the way both the Government and Opposition are ruining our country. We should stop our diet of rubbish information, and wake up to the reality that most of the last few years of politics was based on lies and populism.