The Baroness Warsi ‘Defection’ From Leave To Remain Is Virtue Signalling Politics At Its Worst

Conservative Party Annual Conference - Day One

Changing one’s mind about an existentially important constitutional and geopolitical question merely because of the tone of the campaign is either criminally idiotic or part of a deliberate campaign of deception

Top of today’s communications grid for the Remain campaign – jostling with their tawdry efforts to make political capital from the murder of Jo Cox MP – has been their attempt to capitalise on the supposed “defection” of former Conservative Party chairman Baroness Warsi from the Leave to the Remain campaign in the EU referendum,

The Telegraph reports:

A former minister has announced that she is abandoning Brexit and defecting to the Remain campaign in protest at its “hate and xenophobia”.

Baroness Warsi has accused Michael Gove, the Eurosceptic Justice Secretary, of “peddling complete lies” and said her final decision was prompted by a Nigel Farage-backed poster depicting Syrian refugees with the slogan “breaking point”.

[..] Baroness Warsi, a former chairman of the Conservative Party, told The Times: “That ‘breaking point’ poster really was, for me, the breaking point to say ‘I can’t go on supporting this’. Are we prepared to tell lies, to spread hate and xenophobia just to win this campaign? For me that’s a step too far.”

She made the decision to defect despite Mr Gove saying that the poster made him “shudder” and describing it as the “wrong thing to do”.

This fails the smell test for a number of reasons, not least of which is that the natural action to take if one feels repulsed by the behaviour of other people arguing for something that you believe in is to disassociate yourself from them, not to join the other side and immediately adopt a completely different set of beliefs and arguments than you were professing moments earlier.

This is precisely what members of The Leave Alliance, including this blog, have done. As proponents of a small-L liberal vision for Brexit in which we leave the EU to better engage with the entire world (and hopefully reboot our democracy in the process), we were naturally repulsed by many of the anti-immigration arguments, as well as the rank amateurism of the official Vote Leave campaign. But this did not turn us into enthusiastic Remainers. Rather, it encouraged us to carve out our own niche of bloggers, experts and advocates to promote our message within the wider Brexit movement.

If Baroness Warsi was really that upset about the tone of the mainstream Leave campaign, she or one of her researchers could have discovered the Leave Alliance in the time it takes to do a quick Google search. Warsi could have found a community of passionate, knowledgeable and highly principled Brexiteers who would have welcomed her into the fold. But Warsi did not do so, either because her mind genuinely cannot conceive of a world and a referendum campaign beyond that waged in the Westminster bubble, or because she had no intention of looking for other Brexiteers with values closer to her own.

Of course, we have seen this before, with the defections of Tory MP Sarah Wollaston and Labour MP Khalid Mahmood, also ostensibly because of their disgust at the tone of the Leave campaign. As backbenchers, one might be more charitable and chalk this up to idiocy rather than political machinations, but in the case of a former Conservative Party chairman and minister like Sayeeda Warsi it all reeks very strongly of a PR stunt.

And shame on the Times newspaper, incidentally, for allowing themselves to be used quite blatantly as the prime minister’s personal propaganda mouthpiece rather than applying the most basic level of journalistic scepticism to their reporting – in their eagerness to report on the supposed “turmoil” created by an utterly inconsequential figure in the broader Leave campaign they made themselves look politically calculating and stupid at the same time.

As Guido Fawkes points out:

The Times have watered down their mischievous first edition claiming Sayeeda Warsi has ‘defected’ from Leave to Remain. No one in Vote Leave thought she was a Brexit supporter or is aware of her doing any campaigning for them at all. She has only tweeted about Vote Leave once – ten days ago – to attack them. She did not appear on the website of pro-Leave group Muslims for Britain. In February Warsi told Eurosceptic campaigners she had not declared. When Dan Hannan invited her to join the Leave campaign, she declined. Neil Kinnock even once backed her for EU commissioner…

Hardly the very model of an arch eurosceptic and committed Leave campaigner.

Much more admirable is the late decision by Bristol West MP Charlotte Leslie to support the Leave campaign. Unlike Baroness Warsi, Sarah Wollaston and Khalid Mahmood, Leslie did not seek to make herself look good by feigning horror at the conduct of the opposing side, but rather made up her mind after much careful thought and deliberation.

This comes through strongly in Charlotte Leslie’s official statement:

My decision is with nothing to do with either the Leave or Remain Campaign, but as an individual who has done their best to assess the situation and come to a conclusion based on my assessment of the facts to which I have access, my experience in working with European colleagues from many EU Member States over the years, and my own personal understanding of human behaviour and risk.

As I have said repeatedly, I do not necessarily think there is a right or wrong answer to this question, and I have the utmost respect and appreciation for those who disagree with me. I celebrate and welcome disagreement and debate.

After all my deliberations, I found myself coming back to a principle on which I try to lead my life: That you have to face realities, however difficult, because to attempt to deny a reality leads to more pain in the long term.

Personally, I cannot see the European Project, whose express aim is to further homogenise the very different nations of Europe into an ever closer political union, as anything but a fantasy, and as such, dangerous.

Therefore, however much I appreciate and understand the risks and challenges of voting ‘leave’, I find myself completely unable mandate this madness.

What a contrast in tone and class with the fiery, bitter and sanctimonious MP defections from the Leave campaign, which have never been based on a genuine reappraisal of the merits of Brexit but always out of a desire by MPs to publicly disassociate themselves from supposedly unsavoury people.

And this is key. Beyond the tawdry, transparent and frankly amateurish attempt at choreographing a political defection stunt, there is a serious point here. As we have seen, Baroness Warsi is not the first politician to rend their garments, reach for the smelling salts and publicly switch sides in the EU referendum in protest at the “tone” of the campaign.

Looked at more broadly, this is symptomatic of the same trend towards public virtue signalling that we see on social media and our university campuses now entering the world of politics. For many contemporary politicians, ideology and policy positions are not things to be adopted based on a serious consideration of their value and applicability to the modern world, but rather items of clothing to be worn or discarded like this season’s latest fashion.

Almost the entire official Remain campaign is based not on an enthusiastic defence of the European Union as it currently is or is likely to become, but rather the flimsy assertion that supporting the EU is somehow the progressive and virtuous thing to do. Hence you will almost never find a Shoreditch hipster or a Brighton artist proudly campaigning for Leave – it would go against the very grain of their “social uniform”. Hence Britain Stronger in Europe’s latest social media advertisement which asserts without a shred of evidence that voting Remain is the “kind, open, inclusive, tolerant” thing to do.

And in this age when politicians sometimes build up substantial social media followings and careers live and die by successful media appearances, is it really any wonder that the glibness of our political discourse now attracts equally glib politicians – MPs who will change their opinion on an issue as fundamental as Britain’s continued membership of the EU at the drop of the hat, depending on which hashtags are trending positively on Twitter?

In the case of Baroness Warsi, we can safely chalk up this non-defection to a good old-fashioned political stunt, a piece of theatre shamefully performed by the Remain campaign to help add to the illusion of momentum and inevitability going into the closing stretches of the EU referendum campaign.

But on a rather sombre day when we seem duty-bound, even pressured, to say nice things about politicians, it is worth considering the calibre of individuals we are actually attracting to Westminster when some MPs clearly possess so few core convictions (and such flair for self-promotion) that they will execute a 180 degree U-turn on the greatest political decision of our generation, based not on the issues but the execution of the campaigns.

At this time we need seriousness and depth in our politics – in parliament and outside -and not this growing superficiality motivated by the gnawing desire to loudly signal our virtue at all times.


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4 thoughts on “The Baroness Warsi ‘Defection’ From Leave To Remain Is Virtue Signalling Politics At Its Worst

  1. bellevue June 21, 2016 / 9:15 AM

    Sam, you mention ‘the calibre of individuals we are …… attracting to Westminster’.

    Infact Warsi was rejected several times as a putative MP, and had to be parachuted into the House of Lords by David Cameron.

    Says it all really……. a thoroughly useless woman.


  2. Jim, in Scotland. June 21, 2016 / 6:12 AM

    A very telling comparison, clearly set out, and all too demeaningly true about the vacuity of substance of the remainers’ solitary ‘positive’ contribution to the ‘debate’.


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