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13 December 2016

The referendum has allowed the media to start hunting traitors, and it’s terrifying

A device of dictators and demagogues.

By Jonn Elledge

There are traitors everywhere these days, popping up in the most unlikely places. There are the high court judges who believe, bafflingly, that their job is to interpret the law, not to do whatever the government tells them. There’s the philosopher AC Grayling, who continues to argue that Brexit is a bad idea, even though we held a referendum which conclusively proved that it is in fact a good idea. Then, perhaps worst of all, there’s Gary Lineker.

You may think that these people don’t look like enemy agents, trying to bring Britain down, but like the very embodiment of the British establishment. That, of course, is what makes them so dangerous.

Luckily for decent, right-thinking, hard-working families, though, the modern McCarthys of the Telegraph leader desk are here to help. Last week, the paper named and shamed “the 89 MPs who show contempt for referendum voters”, by voting against a government motion in favour of triggering Article 50 next March. (Not “Leave voters”, you notice: “referendum voters”. Voted? Then these MPs treated you with contempt, you contemptuous shit.)

Thanks to the Telegraph, good patriotic sorts now know which MPs are working against the national interest. We know their names, and we know which constituencies they represent. In the tense, political climate of 2016, this is in no way sinister.

The paper wasn’t alone in this: the right-wing media, like many species of predator, likes to move in a pack. The Daily Express published a stripped down version of the same list, describing it, misleadingly, as, “The full list of 89 MPs who voted AGAINST Brexit in Article 50 Commons clash”. The Guido Fawkes blog did the same.

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But the contribution from Telegraph View is bizarre in so many different ways that it’s worth taking a moment to unpack it. For one thing, the paper helpfully listed the MPs next to the names of their constituencies, and the estimated referendum result within them. Of the 89 latter day Kim Philbys on the list, all but seven have majority Remain constituencies: in other words, 82 of them were very possibly voting as their constituents would want them to.

So does the post-referendum Telegraph have a problem with MPs representing the views of their constituents? Does it expect them to always vote with the electorate as a whole?

On which grounds, is it appropriate even to have different parties any more? Labour lost. Get over it.

If the Telegraph seems to have gone off representative democracy, it’s also not nuts about parliamentary sovereignty. The act the paper sees as “contempt” was demanding that parliament should have any say in the timing of the biggest foreign policy change in decades. Despite the fact our form of government is parliamentary, not presidential, it wants to give Theresa May untrammelled executive power.

So – by attempting to shame those 89 MPs back into line, one of Britain’s biggest newspapers has decided it has a problem with Britain’s form of government in two crucial ways. It’s also – there’s no gentle way of putting this, but it needs to be said – whipping up hatred against politicians whose views it doesn’t like less than six months after one was literally gunned down in the street. And yet apparently it’s the Remain side that’s unpatriotic. Go figure.

It would be bad enough if this intervention was a one off, but it’s merely one example of an increasingly popular genre. On 12 October, the Express splashed with “Time to silence EU exit whingers” (again: definitely not sinister). The same day, the Mail went with “Damn the unpatrioitic Bremoaners and their plot to subvert the will of the British people”. And then, there are tweets like this:

All in all, there is a sense of the right-wing media turning on the 48 per cent. There is a feeling abroad that the referendum result means that Remainers should butt out of the debate – that their views are somehow illegitimate. This, I suspect, comes from a position of weakness, rather than of strength – a fear that, referendum or not, Leavers might somehow still lose – but it’s no less disturbing for that.

It is, nonetheless, ridiculous, for several reasons. One is simply maths: if your definition of an unpatriotic and out of touch elite contains 48 per cent of the electorate, then it’s probable you don’t understand what at least two of those words mean.

Another is that reality is not a Vote Leave campaign poster. There will be real constraints on what negotiations can deliver, defined by the fact that each of the EU-27 countries have desires, electorates and mandates of their own. It’s no more unpatriotic to point this out than it is to suggest that shooting yourself in the foot is likely to hurt.

And then there’s the fact that, very likely, Brexit will hurt. It will remove British citizens’ rights, to live and work elsewhere on the continent. It may do untold damage to the economy and living standards. Running headlong towards this fate, one might argue, shows contempt for the voters. But no, apparently it’s any attempt to oppose making Britain poorer and less powerful that’s the truly unpatriotic act.

Clement Attlee called referendums “the instrument of Nazism and fascism”; half-quoting him, 30 years later, Margaret Thatcher called them “a device of dictators and demagogues”. The last six months have been an excellent demonstration of why. Governments and their outriders have often attempted to frame criticism as an attack on the will of the people. The reason referendums are so dangerous is that they can be used to prove it.