Faith, Doubt and Brexit

Anti Brexit march

A warning about the disturbing fundamentalism of Continuity Remain and the anti-Brexit crusaders

In the course of arguing on Twitter this evening, I received back the following piece of friendly psychological analysis from a longtime follower and antagonist.

The text reads:

“You are almost always wrong, as if you’re from another planet. I’m starting to feel pity, not sure if for you or for the people who have to suffer the consequences of what you keep saying with grave conviction. Please take a step back and reflect.”

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Now, I don’t necessarily take issue with the charge of being “almost always wrong”, nor even the insinuation that I hail from extraterrestrial origins. But the funny thing is that I am actually a rather introspective person, and do spend quite a lot of time stepping back and reflecting on my beliefs and political worldview – perhaps in fact never more so than now, when law school has limited my available time to write.

Also, having never attained any level of fame or recognition from my writing (save a solitary appearance on the BBC and the very occasional retweet from a famed Twitter bluecheck journalist) I have not been subject to the temptation to lapse into permanent “transmit mode”, that gnawing need to be seen by my legions of followers as an all-knowing sage, privy to Great Knowledge and the secret schemes of the political elite.

In fact, performing a word count search on my blog reveals that the word “introspection” appears over 30 times in more than 20 articles – usually in the context of me demanding that certain politicians, journalists or other actors engage in some introspection as to their recent behavior, and precisely because I hold myself to this standard of regular self-reflection and accountability.

So I do take it somewhat personally when it is suggested I “take a step back and reflect” on my position on Brexit, because that is something I frequently do anyway. Having begun my age of political awareness as a devout europhile and even ardent euro-federalist, I already know many of the arguments in favor of the EU and against Brexit inside-out, without needed to hear mangled recitations of them from the Continuity Remain lobby’s telegenic campaign mouthpieces. In some cases, I was spouting many of those same tedious lines about “friendship ‘n cooperation” while pro-EU “celebrities” like EU Supergirl and Femi Oluwole were probably still watching children’s television rather than the evening news.

Having been on a journey from ardent euro-federalist (I once proudly wore a polo-shirt emblazoned with the Euro logo, soon after the single currency’s launch) to reluctant supporter to resigned leaver to committed Brexiteer, I have naturally examined and re-examined my views and the evidence supporting them on repeated occasions. That’s what it is to change one’s mind. And when it comes to the question of Britain’s European Union membership, I would always sooner listen to someone who once held an opposing view only to change their minds – whichever side they ultimately end up on – because at least I then know I am dealing with someone who has likely evaluated conflicting evidence or willingly exposed themselves to alternate viewpoints. The result is almost always a more productive exchange of ideas, and the avoidance of those dreary social media debates where two ideologues simply sling dueling talking points at one another with no intention of engaging in real debate.

Thus I continually questioned my beliefs before I started taking a more outspoken role in the Leave movement. Was the EU really as harmful to our democracy and impervious to attempts at reform as I had come to believe? Were many of the benefits of EU membership really replicable through other means that did not involve supranational government? Was the EU actually the best we could hope to do in terms of looking at governance beyond the nation state at a time of globalization? Were there realistic prospects of spurring that broader international discussion through Brexit, or would it be an act of national self-mutilation that had no ripple effects beyond Britain? Would it be better to just bide our time sheltering inside the European Union while we waited for someone else to finally address the pressing issue of balancing global governance with national (and local) democracy? Does it look like anybody else is about to step up to the plate and begin that work? Is the EU actually going to step up, admit its past failings and respond in a humble new citizen-centered way?

I also inevitably thought about how history would judge the positions I took and the statements I made, particularly at a time when social media records every throwaway remark or careless retweet, creating a rich seam of information that can be used by the unscrupulous to destroy one’s reputation and career. If Brexit was likely to fail and its opponents succeed in portraying it as a doomed nationalist spasm fueled primarily by xenophobia, was it worth the risk of me sticking my head above the parapet and supporting it? With so many powerful people on the pro-EU side, Remainers never seriously had to worry about being viewed by the history books as a latter-day Nazi if Brexit succeeded despite their opposition – they had more than enough manpower in the political, commercial, academic and cultural arenas to effectively absolve themselves from any blame for standing in the way of Brexit if it did lead to good things. Not so Brexiteers – like the American revolutionaries who would have been hung for treason had they not prevailed, history’s judgment would likely be merciless to Leave advocates and voters if Brexit did not go well, even if the fault was that of saboteurs determined to ensure that it not succeed.

Even after winning the referendum in 2016, I questioned my choices. The very next day, as Brexiteers toasted victory, I travelled with my wife and friends to Greece on holiday. As we passed through the EU flag-starred lane at passport control, I again asked myself if my decision to support Brexit had been a mistake; whether the EU, imperfect as it is, was the best we could do; whether it were better to remain in a vast bloc and regulatory superpower that looked likely to centralize further and become more powerful, even if it meant the further atrophy of British democracy, in order to remain “in the club”.

And of course the dismal events of the past two years – as Article 50 was triggered prematurely and without a plan, negotiated ineptly by a government sorely lacking in expertise, held to account by a Parliament full of MPs who cared more about appearing superficially knowledgeable or striking partisan poses than actually understanding the important minutiae on which everything depends, watched over by a debased and infantilized national media which either failed to contain its bias or do its due diligence – only led to more such introspection. Was it all a terrible mistake? Was there never anything good to be won? Was it inevitable that things would end up this way, with our government, opposition and legislature beclowning themselves in front of the world on a daily basis?

Yet after all of my questioning, my answer remains the same – Britain was right to vote to leave the European Union. I was right to campaign for Britain to do so. Even now, we are right to pursue Brexit and to resist those who would like to simply maintain the status quo in our governance and relationship with the EU. The fundamentals have not changed – indeed, Continuity Remainers seeking to overturn the result have generally still not bothered to discern precisely what those fundamentals are, in order to better communicate with Leave voters.

I do, however, wonder whether my far more famous and eminent counterparts on the Remain side have ever once engaged in the kind of introspection and self-questioning as to their stance of opposing Brexit and uncritically embracing the EU that I perform on a routine basis regarding my opposition to the project. And I strongly suspect that many of them have not.

Do you think for a moment that James O’Brien, LBC’s anti-Brexit polemicist-in-chief, as ever once taken a break from his task of finding the most inarticulate, confused and angry Brexit supporters to “defeat” in argument on his show to question any of the fundamental issues about the EU and Brexit that I and other Brexiteers consider every day?

James Obrien Brexit LBC

Do you think that eminent celebrity academics like AC Grayling ever once take a break from rending their garments and peddling conspiracy theories on Twitter to consider whether they might themselves be trapped in a closed ideological echo chamber which prevents them from fulfilling the basic academic and scientific duty of exposing their dogmas and hypotheses to scrutiny and criticism from alternative perspectives?

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Do you think that grandees like Tony Blair and John Major ever really stop and reconsider the pivotal moments in their administrations, and ask themselves whether they might have ever misjudged the march toward greater EU integration without public consent? Or is it more likely that they are simply desperate to cement their legacies rather than concede potential error?

Tony Blair and John Major warn against Brexit

Do you think that progressive-left religious leaders like the vast majority of bishops of the Church of England – people who are supposed to unite the nation in faith but who have often chosen instead to use politics to divide us while idolizing a slick salesman’s vision of European unity – have ever prayerfully reflected on their behavior?

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Do you think that issue-illiterate, virtue-signaling woke celebrities like Gary Lineker and Eddie Izzard ever engaged in a serious evaluative process of understanding valid complaints about the EU and the driving forces behind Brexit, or is it more likely that their publicists simply spotted a good opportunity for them to effortlessly win acclaim from the chatterati?

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Do you think that the self-regarding doyens of the prestige international media ever take a break from communing with Bono to learn the causes of populism in order to question whether their very actions might contribute to the problem, and whether their uncritical acceptance of the legitimacy of bodies like the European Union (and consequent feeble scrutiny of them) was harmful to the very democracy they claim to defend?

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Do you think that the plum voices of the BBC ever take a break from smearing UKIP voters or flatly declaring without evidence that Tory MPs belong to the “far right” in order to question whether they are really promoting the cause of truth and serving the whole of society?

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Do you think that shamelessly biased Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow ever actually seriously considered whether he was wrong to negatively highlight and criticize the number of “white people” attending a pro-Brexit rally in Westminster?

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In all of the above cases, I believe that the answer is probably “no”. Convinced of their righteousness from the start, these individuals and many others switched into permanent transmit mode on 24 June 2016 (and in some cases long before), never once subjecting themselves to the discomfort and potential cognitive dissonance of questioning their own assumptions.

Maybe these people have actually forfeited the public trust and the right to their bully pulpits in the media.

Maybe when evaluating how Brexit is being attempted, resisted and portrayed in the media, we should ask ourselves who is actually engaging in an intellectual exercise of any kind, and who has simply lapsed into triumphantly bleating articles of faith, with little questioning of their own side. I would argue that many of the latter can be found in prominent positions on the Continuity Remain campaign, or at the apex of those organizations and industries which most strongly support it. And ironically, many of them can also be found publicly marveling at the inability of Brexiteers to reconsider their stance, question their dogmas and change their minds.

The truth is that Brexiteers have had nearly three years of unremitting exposure to the scorn, derision and hatred of many of the most respected and influential groups in our society – the politicians elected to our Parliament; the people who staff our civil service, lead our educational institutions, run our largest companies, lead our charities and edit our newspapers; the people who act in our favorite films and television shows, entertain us with their stand-up comedy or represent us at the pinnacle of professional sports, literature, music and the arts. Three years of this unremitting negativity and hostility from opposing forces in the most powerful reaches of the country; three years of embarrassing failure after failure by the people tasked with executing the decision we made at the ballot box on 23 June 2016, and still there is no overwhelming desire among Brexiteers nor the country as a whole to scrap Brexit and remain a member state of the European Union.

You could say that this is emotion over reason, that it is faith over fact, that it is a desperate act of confirmation bias by people who simply don’t want to admit to themselves that they were wrong. But every single one of these attack lines is also a piercing dagger which can just as easily be aimed right back at the heart of the Continuity Remainer “resistance” movement – people who despite being rebuffed at the referendum against all the odds and opinion polls have still not engaged in any kind of meaningful introspection at a group or individual level, and many of whom never once questioned their stance on Brexit, prior to nor after the referendum.

We are continually told that Remain voters and their movement’s heroes are more highly educated – even more moral – than those of us who had the nerve to imagine a future for British democracy outside the European Union. We are told that they are stringent disciples of reason while we are base creatures motivated by nativist superstition and easily led astray by nefarious outside influence. But it’s all a total sham. Theirs is a priesthood with no monopoly on fundamental truth, just a desperate faith in the European Union as the solution to problems which it has shown no capacity to meet.

There is indeed an emergent quasi-religious movement in Britain, one which holds its truths as unquestionable dogma, which views nonbelievers as automatically “lesser than” and which blindly fetishizes a flag as representation of all that is good and true in humanity. But the new faith militant in British politics is not the fractured and browbeaten Brexit movement. It is the Cult of Continuity Remain, and the banner under which it triumphantly marches bears the twelve yellow stars of the European Union.

 

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Vote Leave’s Folly Gives John Major Free Ammunition To Attack Brexiteers

Every major current attack line being used against the Vote Leave campaign – and therefore Brexiteers in general – could have been avoided with a smarter, more intellectually robust strategy

John Major should be a walking, talking advertisement condemning Britain’s continued dysfunctional relationship with the European Union – the man who signed Britain up to the Maastricht Treaty and did so much to drag us deeper into the mire of political union.

But thanks entirely to the official Vote Leave campaign, John Major managed to sail through his appearance on the Andrew Marr Show today virtually unscathed, passing himself off as the wise, measured older statesman he so clearly wishes to be.

The Huffington Post breathlessly reports:

Boris Johnson and his fellow Brexit campaigners are running a “deceitful” campaign which is “depressing and awful”, former Prime Minister Sir John Major said today.

In a no-holds-barred interview this morning, the ex-Tory leader repeatedly attacked both the tactics and arguments used by Vote Leave as it tried to persuade Brits to quit the EU in the June 23 referendum.

The former Prime Minister, whose seven years in Downing Street in the 1990s were marked by Tory splits over the EU, accused Brexit campaigners of pumping out “a whole galaxy of inaccurate and frankly untrue information.”

He also mocked the notion that leaving the EU would benefit the NHS – one of Vote Leave’s primary claims – as he accused those at the top of the anti-EU group of wanting to privatise the health system.

Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show on BBC One this morning, Sir John said: “Throughout the whole of my political life people have regarded me of being guilty of understatement.

“I am angry at the way the British people are being misled. This is much more important than a general election. This is going to affect people, their livelihoods, their future, for a very long time to come and if they are given honest, straightforward facts and they decide to leave, then that is the decision the British people take.

“But if they decide to leave on the basis of inaccurate information, inaccurate information known to be inaccurate, then I regard that as deceitful. Now, I maybe wrong, but that is how I see their campaign.

He added: “For once I’m not going to give the benefit of the doubt to other people, I’m going to say exactly what I think and I think this is a deceitful campaign and in terms of what they are saying about immigration, it’s a really depressing and awful campaign. They are misleading people to an extraordinary extent.”

And who can really disagree with these accusations?

Vote Leave continue to brazenly peddle their £350 million lie.

They continue – despite being packed to the rafters with people who (quite rightly) question the ongoing viability of the current NHS model – to implausibly suggest that they will plow nearly all of the savings from no longer making EU contributions back into the same unreformed health service.

(This blog has no more to say about people who base their decision in the EU referendum primarily on the NHS than has already been written here, here, here and here.)

And now, having utterly failed to move the needle on the economic argument with their oh-so-bright lack of a Brexit plan, they are doubling down on the immigration argument. Which is a surefire way to get 40% of people to go charging to the polling booths to vote for Brexit, while alienating the moderate 20% who will take fright and ensure that Britain remains stuck in the European Union.

Ordinarily, this intervention by John Major might be seen as the last hurrah of a rather bitter man, eager to get revenge on people (like Iain Duncan Smith) whom he views as his disloyal tormentors, and dismissed as such. But every charge levelled by John Major at Vote Leave has an awkward ring of truth to it.

Britain doesn’t pay £350 million a week to the EU.

Boris Johnson, the clown in charge, really didn’t even make up his mind which way he was leaning until the very last minute, instantly undermining every one of his criticisms of the EU.

In fact, every major attack line currently being used against Brexit side could have been easily avoided if only the children running the official Leave campaign had charted and executed a better, more grown up campaign strategy – one based on an actual plan for achieving Brexit.

Richard North laments this very point in a recent blog post:

The absence of a plan has been a liability throughout the entire campaign. Had there been one published at an early stage it would have deprived the “remains” of one of their most powerful memes and thereby reshaped the entire campaign. We would by now have spent many months talking about detail and the very specific direction of travel in which Flexcit takes us.

At this late stage of the campaign, those arguing for Brexit should not have to endure the indignity of being lectured to by so hapless a leader as Sir John Major. We could be winning this referendum based on a plan which nullifies every single one of the Remain campaign’s economic scaremongering tactics.

But here we are. And the latest poll showing a slight lead for Leave, though quite unsurprising for this point in the campaign and crucially nowhere near 50%+1, will only encourage Vote Leave to double down on their present strategy.

 

European Union - United Kingdom - Britain - Flags

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John Major’s Immigration Comments, And The Tory Dilemma

John Major Immigration

 

In a blast from the past, former prime minister John Major, continuing his recent trend of interventions in the British political debate, has made headlines for supposedly contradicting David Cameron’s stance on immigration.

The Huffington Post reports:

In an apparent snub to David Cameron, the former Conservative Prime Minister said it was admirable that people coming to the UK had the “guts and the drive” to travel thousands of miles to Britain in order to improve their lives, not just to “benefit from our social system”.

Speaking to the BBC Radio 4 programme Reflections with Peter Hennessy, he continued: “I saw immigrants at very close quarters in the 1950s and I didn’t see people who had come here just to benefit from our social system.

“I saw people with the guts and the drive to travel halfway across the world in many cases to better themselves and their families. And I think that’s a very Conservative instinct.”

Of course, John Major is absolutely right. People who make the long journey to Britain in order to build a better life for themselves and their families are highly likely to have drive, ambition and work ethic in greater degrees than the average sedentary Brit. But in seeking to create a story in the middle of political slow news season, many media outlets (including the BBC) have been somewhat disingenuous in the way that they presented Major’s remarks.

The former prime minister was quite specific that he was talking about the kind of immigration that he saw first-hand, growing up and living with his family in Brixton, London. The immigration profile at that time was light years away from the current breakdown of immigration in the 21st century, and crucially did not include large numbers of European immigrants coming to Britain availing themselves of their rights under the EU’s common market. In John Major’s youth, the EU and the dream of ever-closer union was but a twinkle in the eye of the era’s political leaders.

The 1950s did see a period of mass immigration, but it was not of the same scale in absolute numbers and was mostly immigration from the Commonwealth as British passport holders born overseas took advantage of their right to settle in the mother country. To speak in praise of immigration from this era is not necessarily to contradict the government’s efforts to reduce net immigration in the year 2014. Thus it is disingenuous for the British media to take John Major’s praise of a 1950s phenomenon and translate it into criticism of 21st century policy.

The one area where John Major is absolutely right, and was not misrepresented by the media, is his claim that many immigrants do indeed have quite conservative instincts at heart. This instinct can be broken down into two types – social conservatism (particularly the case for immigrants from heavily Catholic countries) and fiscal conservatism. The worry for the Tories is that they are completely failing to tap into either of these sentiments or to build meaningful levels of support among recent immigrants.

But how can the government go about doing this while honouring its pledge to reduce overall net immigration? There is a narrow tightrope to walk between responding to public concern about the current immigration rate and making it clear to existing immigrants that they are welcome, encouraging them to assimilate as quickly as possible and then reaching out to them to turn them into Conservative voters. The margin for error is small, but it should still be possible.

Many recent immigrants come from countries that only a few decades ago struggled to escape from under the heavy yoke of Soviet communism – think Poland or Slovakia as prime examples. There is a love and appreciation for capitalism and the free market among many Poles and Slovaks that is often absent from indigenous British people, who tend to take our system for granted or focus only on its faults. And at a time when Ed Miliband’s Labour party seem to offer heavy regulation and re-nationalisation as their only policy prescriptions, the Conservatives have a ripe opportunity to show that their vision of lower taxes and greater freedom will deliver for everyone in the UK, immigrants firmly included.

There is also political capital to be made in toughening up the rules around access to benefits for newly arrived immigrants. The notion that newly arrived immigrants should be allowed to claim support from a system which they have never contributed towards is just as galling to a Polish family settled in Britain for five years and paying taxes as it would be to any UK citizen. But successfully arguing this point would require deft and precise use of language so that the media has no opportunity to run with the false trope that the evil Tories believe that all immigrants are benefit-scrounging parasites.

In short, the areas where the Conservative party (and indeed UKIP) currently alienate immigrants tend to be around the semantics and tone of the debate, whereas their actual policy prescriptions (maximum freedom, low taxes) make an ideal fit for many prospective immigrant voters.

But the Conservatives should have absolutely no expectations that the media, or the Labour Party, will lift a finger to guide immigrants toward this truth. In fact, if the twisting of John Major’s words today is anything to go by, the opposite will take place – the Conservatives will be painted as heartless and cruel in wanting to enforce stricter entrance criteria, while the many negative ways that Labour policies have the potential to hurt economic migrants will be glossed over and excused.

The irony is that British immigration policy tends to only affect new immigrants once – at the point they enter the UK to settle and work. From that point onward, once they are safely settled and working in Britain, the issue becomes largely irrelevant. Ed Miliband and the Labour Party have thus far managed to coast along on the assumption that they will win the lion’s share of the recent immigrant vote because they tend to advocate for a more laissez-faire border policy. But there is absolutely no reason why this should be the case.

The Conservatives have a compelling message to offer those recent immigrants who will go to the ballot box for the first time in 2015. It is a message of liberty and personal responsibility which should resonate strongly with just the type of people who took a huge risk in packing up their lives and moving to Britain. But for all his well-intentioned words, John Major failed to deliver that message in a way that cut through the skewed agenda of the news editors.

David Cameron and the Conservative Party urgently needs charismatic MPs and councillors to step up, refine and then start sharing this new message, this Conservative pact with recent immigrants. If they do not rise to the challenge, Labour will win the immigrant vote by default once again.