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The Tinkerbell theory: I wish politicians would stop blaming their failures on my lack of belief

Who knew Peter Pan would become one of the key political texts of the twenty-first century?

“The moment you doubt whether you can fly,” J M Barrie once wrote, "You cease for ever to be able to do it.” Elsewhere in the same book he was blunter, still: “Whenever a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies’, there’s a little fairy somewhere that falls right down dead.” 

I would never have expected that Peter Pan would become one of the key political texts of the twenty-first century, if I’m honest. But predictions are not my strongpoint, and over the last few years, what one might term the Tinkerbell Theory of Politics has played an increasingly prominent role in national debate. The doubters’ lack of faith, we are told, is one of the biggest barriers to flight for everything from Jeremy Corbyn’s poll ratings to Brexit. Because we don’t believe, they can’t achieve.

It was in run up to the Scottish referendum that I first spotted Tinkerbell in the wild. Reports suggesting that RBS would consider relocating from Edinburgh, should independence lead to a significant rise in business costs – a statement of the bloody obvious, I’d have thought – were dismissed by then-First Minister Alex Salmond as merely “talking down Scotland”. Over the next few months, the same phrase was deployed by the SNP and its outriders whenever anyone questioned the Yes campaign’s optimistic estimates of future North Sea oil revenues.

The implications of all this were pretty clear: any practical problems apparently arising from independence were mere phantasms. The real threat to Scotland was the erosion of animal spirits caused by the faithlessness of unpatriotic unionists, who’d happily slaughter every fairy in the land before they risked an independent Scotland.

All this seemed pretty obnoxious to me, but at the time of the referendum it also all seemed to be a reassuringly long way away. Little did I realise that Salmond and co were just ahead of their time, because today, Tinkerbell-ism is bloody inescapable.

On Monday, Sir John Major made a wonkish speech laying out his concerns about Brexit. He talked about the threat to the Northern Ireland peace process, the way it would isolate Britain diplomatically, the difficulty of negotiating highly complicated trade deals on the timetable imposed by Article 50. He wanted, he said, to “warn against an over-optimism that – if unachieved – will sow further distrust between politics and the public, at a time when trust needs to be re-built”.

And how did Britain’s foreign secretary respond? “I think it’s very important that as we set out in this journey we are positive about the outcome for the very good reason the outcome will be fantastic for this country,” Boris said, probably imagining himself to be a bit like Cicero.

The problem, in other words, is not the government’s lack of a plan; the problem is its critics’ lack of faith. In a familiar phrase, the Telegraph headlined its report: “Boris Johnson criticises John Major for talking down UK’s post-Brexit prospects”.

The left is no better. In any discussion of the failings of Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party, it won’t be long before someone blames the polls, or the by-election results, on either the lack of support from the parliamentary Labour party, or the hostility of a media that never liked him in the first place. “Of course he’s struggling,” the implication runs. “Your lack of belief is a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Dead fairies, everywhere you turn.

It’s easy to see why the Tinkerbell strategy would be such an attractive line of argument for those who deploy it - one that places responsibility for their own f*ck-ups squarely on their critics, thus rendering them impervious to attack. Corbyn’s failure becomes the fault of the Blairites. A bad Brexit becomes the fault of Remoaners, and not those who were dim enough to believe it would easy to begin with. Best of all, the more right your critics turn out to be, the more you have to blame them for.

But being impervious to criticism is not the same as being right, and to think this strategy is a recipe for good government is to mistake a closed loop of true believers for objective reality. Jeremy Corbyn is unlikely to start winning elections, no matter how hard the faithful believe. However much you talk up Scotland, that oil is still going to run out

And whatever the right-wing press do to convince themselves that Boris Johnson is right, and John Major is wrong, it is unlikely to affect the negotiating position of the 27 other states in the slightest. At the end of the day, our faith matters a lot less than the facts on the ground. There is no such things as fairies.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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On civil liberties, David Davis has become a complete hypocrite – and I'm not sure he even knows it

The Brexit minster's stance shows a man not overly burdened with self-awareness.

In 2005, David Davis ran for the Tory leadership. He was widely assumed to be the front-runner and, as frontrunners in Tory leadership campaigns have done so enthusiastically throughout modern history, he lost.

The reason I bring up this ancient history is because it gives me an excuse to remind you of this spectacularly ill-judged photoshoot:


“And you're sure this doesn't make me look a bit sexist?”
Image: Getty

Obviously it’s distressing to learn that, as recently as October 2005, an ostensibly serious politician could have thought that drawing attention to someone else’s boobs was a viable electoral strategy. (Going, one assumes, for that all important teenage boy vote.)

But what really strikes me about that photo is quite how pleased with himself Davis looks. Not only is he not thinking to himself, “Is it possible that this whole thing was a bad idea?” You get the distinct impression that he’s never had that thought in his life.

This impression is not dispelled by the interview he gave to the Telegraph‘s Alice Thompson and Rachel Sylvester three months earlier. (Hat tip to Tom Hamilton for bringing it to my attention.) It’s an amazing piece of work – I’ve read it twice, and I’m still not sure if the interviewers are in on the joke – so worth reading in its entirety. But to give you a flavour, here are some highlights:

He has a climbing wall in his barn and an ice-axe leaning against his desk. Next to a drinks tray in his office there is a picture of him jumping out of a helicopter. Although his nose has been broken five times, he still somehow manages to look debonair. (...)

To an aide, he shouts: “Call X - he’ll be at MI5,” then tells us: “You didn’t hear that. I know lots of spooks.” (...)

At 56, he comes – as he puts it – from “an older generation”. He did not change nappies, opting instead to teach his children to ski and scuba-dive to make them brave. (...)

“I make all the important decisions about World War Three, she makes the unimportant ones about where we’re going to live.”

And my personal favourite:

When he was demoted by IDS, he hit back, saying darkly: “If you’re hunting big game, you must make sure you kill with the first shot.”

All this, I think, tells us two things. One is that David Davis is not a man who is overly burdened with self-doubt. The other is that he probably should be once in a while, because bloody hell, he looks ridiculous, and it’s clear no one around him has the heart to tell him.

Which brings us to this week’s mess. On Monday, we learned that those EU citizens who choose to remain in Britain will need to apply for a listing on a new – this is in no way creepy – “settled status” register. The proposals, as reported the Guardian, “could entail an identity card backed up by entry on a Home Office central database or register”. As Brexit secretary, David Davis is the man tasked with negotiating and delivering this exciting new list of the foreign.

This is odd, because Davis has historically been a resolute opponent of this sort of nonsense. Back in June 2008, he resigned from the Tory front bench and forced a by-election in his Haltemprice & Howden constituency, in protest against the Labour government’s creeping authoritarianism.

Three months later, when Labour was pushing ID cards of its own, he warned that the party was creating a database state. Here’s the killer quote:

“It is typical of this government to kickstart their misguided and intrusive ID scheme with students and foreigners – those who have no choice but to accept the cards – and it marks the start of the introduction of compulsory ID cards for all by stealth.”

The David Davis of 2017 better hope that the David Davis of 2008 doesn’t find out what he’s up to, otherwise he’s really for it.

The Brexit secretary has denied, of course, that the government’s plan this week has anything in common with the Labour version he so despised. “It’s not an ID card,” he told the Commons. “What we are talking about here is documentation to prove you have got a right to a job, a right to residence, the rest of it.” To put it another way, this new scheme involves neither an ID card nor the rise of a database state. It’s simply a card, which proves your identity, as registered on a database. Maintained by the state.

Does he realise what he’s doing? Does the man who once quit the front bench to defend the principle of civil liberties not see that he’s now become what he hates the most? That if he continues with this policy – a seemingly inevitable result of the Brexit for which he so enthusiastically campaigned – then he’ll go down in history not as a campaigner for civil liberties, but as a bloody hypocrite?

I doubt he does, somehow. Remember that photoshoot; remember the interview. With any other politician, I’d assume a certain degree of inner turmoil must be underway. But Davis does not strike me as one who is overly prone to that, either.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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