It is surely still natural to respect a conclusion that is reached through cogent argument. Each stage of the argument leads to the next stage, like a series of links in a chain. The conclusion is given its authority, its right to be heard and accepted, by the strength of the links that have led to it.
But look at how ideas and movements have taken hold, now and in the past. Not through reasoned argument, but by appealing to strong feeling. In times of fear, frustration and uncertainty, a general sense of manifold threat, clearly delineated or merely vague, it is whatever appeals to the emotions that holds sway and leads to “stunning victories” by the unseemly.
No need for argument or fact or truth. No need to justify a position, construct a line of argument, arrive at a proof. Just wish. Just state. Just declare. Catch the mood. “Lock her up, ” for instance. And when that no longer serves a purpose, drop it. “It played well at the time.” For as long as it plays well, so long as it yields a profit for the speaker, it’s the truth. Then let it fall. Argument ? Relation to fact ? No need. There never was a need.
Put it another way : when our society and its discourse is dominated by the language of deceit and profiteering, the language of reason and reasonableness loses traction. The instinct to reason with the profiteer, the demagogue, to convince through exposition the angry crowd carrying their placards saying “Lock her up,” is misplaced, an anachronism. A new instinct rises to the surface. It’s a kind of mirror image of the profiteer’s approach. You can’t argue. No one’s listening. But you can declare your opposition . You can say no, I refuse. I am at odds with this. Here is an island standing against the flood. This is where I have placed my feet. It may not make much of a statement, it makes no attempt to prove its case through line of argument, but at least it points to the existence, or possibility, of an alternative.
So I won’t attempt to construct an argument to justify my shame and disgust at Theresa May’s visit to the rampaging Donald Trump, as he weighs into the world as if it were his own personal computer game. “We have the opportunity to lead, together, again,” says the empress without clothes, as her very little island carries on splitting apart in all directions, and the dangerous liar and fantasist she has rushed to meet carries on debasing and disgracing the United States of America.
Presumably, in nurturing these sorry fantasies, Theresa May sees herself as speaking and acting on behalf of Brexit Britain’s interests. But I need to say that, in doing so, she does not speak for me, nor – in my opinion – for anything sane or right in human affairs, nor for the true interests of the people she leads. Inescapably, her action in cuddling up to Trump, almost flirtatiously, makes a statement of support for, or at least compliance with, all the appalling initiatives he is setting in train. That statement through action drowns out her verbal justifications, her ludicrous claims to rule the waves once more, hand in hand with a man of highly questionable sanity. She shames her people before the world, in making that statement.
Here are a few other bald statements, without the dressing or support of argument.
It was not “the British people” who “spoke” in last year’s referendum when 52% of those who voted put their mark upon the “Leave” option. To keep saying so is merely an attempt to put a cloak of sonorous respectability over a ludicrous and disgraceful farrago. The whole referendum process made a mockery of our own democracy and turned the task of settling the vastly complex and momentous issue of EU membership into a hooligan street-fight. Behind the smoke of its pseudo reverence, the phrase “The People have Spoken” seeks to obscure the memory of that shameful reality. Further, 52% of those who voted is, of course, not “The People.” The People is The People. And what The People really said, of course, was that we are split almost exactly down the middle.
It is a time-honoured requirement that the jury, sitting in judgement over a fellow citizen, be properly informed, through defense and prosecution, before they come to a decision. Of course. An independent judiciary, bound to the rigorous search for truth, and not to political interest, is integral to a healthy democracy.
And it is a time-honoured requirement that the doctor ensure that the patient be properly informed before deciding on the treatment the doctor is proposing. Obviously.
A decision that is not properly informed is not a real or responsible decision. It is just a random meaningless occurrence, a chance happening, a blind lunge into the dark.
Were those 52% properly informed ? How many were convinced by the lies they were told, in various forms and gradations of deceit ? How many really knew what the EU means and entails ? How many allowed themselves to be misled and frightened by the daily barrage of shrill but shrewd propaganda from the so-called “free press,” run as fiefdoms by their billionaire “Barons”? We don’t know, but we can be confident that many were.
But even without the lies and propaganda, could the UK population ever have been properly informed, in making this decision through a referendum ? I am absolutely sure that the vast majority of voters on both sides of the Leave/Remain divide were not properly informed. The process was bogus and was always going to be. The result is bogus. Had it gone the other way, that result would have been bogus too.
Which is why the whole strategy of holding a referendum to decide this issue was such an appalling and irresponsible mistake. What did Margaret Thatcher once call referendums, quoting Clement Atlee ? “A device of dictators and demagogues.” Yes indeed. It is not the People who decide a referendum. It’s the likes of BoJo and Dr D’Acre. To my astonishment, I say to the shade of Margaret Thatcher, “Well said.”
And how do demagogues function ? “They appeal to people’s emotions and prejudices rather than the reasoned and fact-based give-and-take of parliamentary debate and decisions.” Yes indeed. That is why the nation’s sovereignty must reside in Parliament. Where decisions can be properly informed. Where facts can be weighed and where reason has room to breathe.
Yet, it remains the case that, however unsatisfactory the percentage points of difference, whatever the shameless invalidity of the means by which the EU referendum result was reached, however criminal the demagoguery, a significant number of people in the UK would still look to a separation of their country from the rest of Europe as a viable means by which to cure various ills.
They would do so even though it might lead to yet further fragmentation and shrinkage of this small nation. For example, post-Brexit, Scotland looks very likely to want severance from England, in order to keep connection with a larger Europe. Might even London one day vote to re-join the EU ? Or Manchester ? Liverpool ? Mercia ? Northumbria ? East Anglia ?
Ardent Brexiteers would still look to separation, even despite other likely consequences which, as the months pass, are coming to light. There is the real likelihood of the UK economy shrinking, just as those Remoaners said it would. And to become a “vassal state” of Trump’s America, an ally of Mr Erdoğan’s Turkey, are not acceptable ways for the mother of parliaments to behave, whatever ludicrous and puerile phrases May invents to justify it.
Are these consequences really worth the pain and loss and shame ? Is this “taking back control ?”
What is the nature of a dissatisfaction and distress so great that Brexit supporters are willing to consider all such dire consequences and still go ahead with this divorce, this splintering ? Yes, it clearly belongs in the same family of outrage and disenchantment as that which fuelled Trump’s emergence, and other demagogue successes elsewhere. So what is it ?
I shall end the present piece with my attempts to answer that question. Again, not with argument, but with some more bald statements, positions staked out against the flood.
The Brexit vote had many causes and factors and constituencies and was a long time preparing. It was the result both of particular conditions generated in the UK over time and under successive governments, and of tumultuous forces which are affecting and transforming the whole world. Those conditions and those forces were not generated specifically in the EU.
The Brexit vote had virtually nothing to do with the EU. Most voters on either “side” knew very little about the EU. It was just an image, a symbol, with various meanings for different groups.
In the referendum process and campaign, imagery, fantasy and propaganda swayed people far more than fact and reason. The emotions available for the beady-eyed campaigners to work on was voter alienation, distrust, confusion, de-personalisation, fear, anger, despair.
To a degree, the Brexit position is a comment on and portrait of the world which the UK Prime Minister of the time represented. David Cameron did not create that world, but he meant it and stood for it. Inequality, material greed, superfluous wealth, duplicity, manipulation. In rejecting that world, in protesting against the “elites,” the “experts,” the “metropolitan luvvies” and “political correctness,” Brexit voters threw themselves into the arms of people even further to the right than Cameron and his circle, even more defensive of a billionaire’s status quo and set of priorities.
But more than any of that, the Brexit vote is just one among several contemporary examples and portraits of comprehensive crisis across the world. Worthy leadership is either lacking or rejected. The political class is detached and distrusted, dominated by the habits and practices of the market and the advertiser, the irresponsible power of the billionaires’ propaganda press and the rampant fantasy world let loose by social media. The wealthy are too wealthy. The poor are too poor. The system doesn’t work. The individual is too greatly in question and in doubt. For too many, community simply does not exist. We have made a world which does not fit well with our own needs or with the Earth upon which precariously we tread and breathe. The world we have made invades us and the Earth with huge changes ever more rapid, so that we never feel we have control. Therefore we become prone to grab at any illusion of control, or any scapegoat for our sense of perpetual invasion. The social and political structures we have built over centuries have been left behind and are constantly and inadequately struggling to catch up.
Thus, the city of humanity is on fire. We need to come together and, with more ingenuity and largeness of soul than humanity has ever shown before, we need to put the fire out. We need to resolve and attend to the crisis we have made. In doing so, we might save ourselves and the Earth we were given.
Instead, we in the UK voted Brexit. Instead, the Americans voted Trump. These were not just the wrong ways to go, but inexcusably irrelevant ways to go. They were just symptoms of our distress, our disease.
Dealing with Brexit, dealing with Trump, will take up an immense amount of human energy and courage, talent and goodwill. Can we afford such a terrible distraction ? We have to. But at the same time, all that energy, that courage and that goodwill, and much else besides, are desperately needed to fight the causes of our crisis, not its symptoms. We have to put out the fire. Brexit and Trump are just additions to that fire and were created by it.