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How the Brexit referendum has infantilised British politics

Politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. 

Ancient Greece is the cradle of modern Europe.  From its primordial soup emerged so much of our culture, our language and our politics. Of the three, it seems to be the politics that has made the least progress over the centuries. In fact, if you dropped an Athenian into the middle of politics in the UK today, they would find themselves right at home. This is not because of the direct democracy, the demagogues or the xenophobia, though all are worryingly familiar, but because of the style of the debate itself.

To understand politics in ancient Greece you have to grasp that they had no concept of ‘the truth’. This is not to say that they were liars, simply that the framework by which we judge credibility was not one they would have recognised. The myths and legends that dominated their discourse were neither thought of as being ‘true’ or ‘made-up’, they simply were, and the fact of their being known allowed them to be used as reference points for debate and argument.

Modern politics seems to be sliding back towards this infant state, and nothing embodies this more than the childish slanging match that passes for an EU referendum debate. In the past six years the UK has had three great exercises of direct democracy and it is safe to say none of the campaigns have added a great deal to sum of human enlightenment. Who remembers the claims that babies would die as a result of the special voting machines needed to conduct AV elections? But the EU referendum has taken this to new extremes. The In campaign are executing what is a fairly predictable strategy, the kind of thing that is normal fare in politics these days. Dossiers of doomsday scenarios. Experts wheeled out. Statistics embellished to dazzle the public. One can question the exact accuracy, but at least you feel they operate within certain parameters of veracity.

What is happening on the Out side, in contrast, is the collective nervous breakdown of a large section of the political establishment. Just this week we have had Penny Mordaunt, a government minister, flat-out denying the UK’s right to veto new accessions to the EU. We have seen the fiercely independent Institute for Fiscal Studies denounced as a propaganda arm for Brussels. Most bizarrely, Boris Johnson even tried to claim that the EU had banned bananas from being sold in bunches larger than three, something that nobody who has actually visited a shop in the UK could possibly believe. These kind of claims stretch our political discourse way beyond the crudely drawn boundaries of factual accuracy that normally constrain what politicians can do and say. Surely the people peddling these myths can never be taken seriously again?

But they will. You just watch as Johnson, Mordaunt and the rest slide effortlessly back into public life. Instead of being ridiculed for their unhinged statements, they will be rewarded with plush offices and ministerial cars. Journalists will continue to hang on every word they say. Their views will be published in newspapers, their faces will flit ceaselessly across our TV screens. Johnson is even touted as a plausible future leader of our country, possibly before the year is out. A man who over his meandering career seems to have held every possible opinion on any topic you care to name. Or rather, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the character we call Boris has no opinions at all, simply interests. The public, who have scant regard for a political class they believe to be untrustworthy, seem to have taken a shine to a man who is perhaps the most fundamentally dishonest of Westminster’s denizens.

What does all this say about the state of our politics? If it is true that we are seeing the advent of ‘post-truth’ politics, as some have argued, then it has grown out of the corrosive relationship between politicians and the public. It is both a great irony and a great tragedy that the very fact that people distrust all politicians is what has permitted the most opportunistic to peddle more and more outlandish claims. Political discourse has ceased to be a rational debate with agreed parameters and, like the ancient Greeks, more resembles a series of competing myths. Claims are assessed not by their accuracy but by their place in the grand narrative which is politics.

But the truth matters. For the ancients it was the historian Thucydides who shifted the dial decisively in favour of fact over fiction. In writing his Histories he decided that he wanted to know what actually happened, not just what made a good story. In a similar vein British politics needs to take a step back towards the real world. Broadcasters launching fact-checkers are a good start, but we need to up the level of scrutiny on political claims and those who make them. At times it feels like the press operate as a kind of counterweight to Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, going easy on much-loved characters for fear of upsetting the viewers.

But politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. If politics is the art of the possible, then political discourse is the art of saying what you can get away with. Until there are consequences for the worst offenders, the age of post-truth politics will continue suck the life from our public debate.

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Here's what Theresa May could say to save the Brexit talks

The best option would be to invent a time machine, but unfortunately that's not on the table. 

One of my favourite types of joke is the logical impossibility: a statement that seems plausible but, on closer examination, is simply impossible and contradictory. “If you break both legs, don’t come running to me” is one. The most famous concerns a hapless tourist popping into a pub to ask for directions to London, or Manchester, or Belfast or wherever. “Well,” the barman replies, “I wouldn’t have started from here.”

That’s the trouble, too, with assessing what the government should do next in its approach to the Brexit talks: I wouldn’t have started from here.

I wouldn’t have started from a transient Leave campaign that offered a series of promises that can’t be reconciled with one another, but that’s the nature of a referendum in which the government isn’t supporting the change proposition. It’s always in the interest of the change proposition to be at best flexible and at worst outright disregarding of the truth.

Britain would be better off if it were leaving the European Union after a vote in which a pro-Brexit government had already had to prepare a white paper and an exit strategy before seeking popular consent. Now the government is tasked with negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union with a mandate that is contradictory and unclear. (Take immigration. It’s clear that a majority of people who voted to leave want control over Britain’s borders. But it’s also clear that a minority did not and if you take that minority away, there’s no majority for a Leave vote.

Does that then mean that the “democratic” option is a Brexit that prioritises minimising economic harm at the cost of continuing free movement of people? That option might command more support than the 52 per cent that Leave got but it also runs roughshod over the concerns that really drove Britain’s Leave vote.

You wouldn’t, having had a referendum in inauspicious circumstances, have a government that neglected to make a big and genuinely generous offer on the rights of the three million citizens of the European Union currently living in the United Kingdom.

In fact the government would have immediately done all it could to show that it wanted to approach exit in a constructive and co-operative manner. Why? Because the more difficult it looks like the departing nation is going to be, the greater the incentive the remaining nations of the European Union have to insist that you leave via Article 50. Why? Because the Article 50 process is designed to reduce the leverage of the departing state through its strict timetable. Its architect, British diplomat John Kerr, envisaged it being used after an increasingly authoritarian state on the bloc’s eastern periphery found its voting rights suspended and quit “in high dudgeon”.

The strict timeframe also hurts the European Union, as it increases the chances of an unsatisfactory or incomplete deal. The only incentive to use it is if the departing nation is going to behave in a unconstructive way.

Then if you were going to have to exit via the Article 50 process, you’d wait until the elections in France and Germany were over, and restructure Whitehall and the rest of the British state so it was fit to face the challenges of Brexit. And you wouldn’t behave so shabbily towards the heads of the devolved administrations that Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and Carwyn Jones of the Welsh Labour Party have not become political allies.

So having neglected to do all of that, it’s hard to say: here’s what Theresa May should say in Florence, short of inventing time travel and starting the whole process again from scratch.

What she could do, though, is show flexibility on the question of British contributions to the European budget after we leave, and present a serious solution to the problem of how you ensure that the rights of three million EU citizens living in Britain have a legal backdrop that can’t simply be unpicked by 325 MPs in the House of Commons, and show some engagement in the question of what happens to the Irish border after Brexit.

There are solutions to all of these problems – but the trouble is that all of them are unacceptable to at least part of the Conservative Party. A reminder that, as far as the trouble with Brexit goes, Theresa May is the name of the monster – not the doctor. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.