Catalonia Independence And Brexit – Not The Same Thing

Catalan Catalunya president Carles Puigdemont speech - declaration of independence

The Catalan declaration of independence does not prove your point, whether you are for or against Brexit

There has been an inevitable tendency among many people to co-opt the events surrounding the recent Catalan independence referendum and resulting declaration of independence from Spain for their own distinct purposes. This is unhelpful. Recent events in Spain illuminate Brexit little more than the election of Donald Trump explains Brexit – in other words, a few headline similarities obscure a wealth of differences.

First, we can all acknowledge that Spain hugely mishandled the entire affair. Whether this is partly due to weaker institutions and the less embedded traditions of democracy in Spain or just sheer incompetence on the part of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government is not fully clear to me, but the actions of the Spanish government clearly fuelled rather than defused the situation.

Rajoy should have learned from the UK’s experience with the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. Faced with Scottish separatists with similar delusions of statehood, David Cameron called the bluff of the Scottish National Party. The referendum was held on fair terms and the nationalists lost – despite an awfully dreary and uninspiring “No” campaign which pushed an entirely negative message and had little positive to say about the value of the United Kingdom. And though this led to the rise of Nicola Sturgeon and the arrival of the Tartan Tea Party of SNP MPs in Westminster after the 2015 general election, the nationalist tide has since receded.

Madrid took a different approach, opposing the referendum at every turn. I can’t speak to the legality of the constitutional court’s decision to ban the referendum, but the violent way in which it was put down by the police and Guardia Civil handed the separatists a huge and unnecessary propaganda victory. I can fully believe that the Catalan regional government has behaved reprehensibly and childishly throughout, but a mature national government in Madrid would have handled this in a way which took the sting out of the Catalan independence movement, putting it to bed for a generation. Mariano Rajoy achieved the exact opposite.

The decision of former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont to proceed with a declaration of independence, as ratified by the Catalan parliament, was opportunistic, antidemocratic and immature. Yes, the referendum was violently put down by the Spanish authorities. But the referendum was also deemed illegal  in the first place by the proper Spanish courts, and many of those who would have voted against independence did not go to the polls. To take this botched referendum as a mandate for independence is a huge overstepping of Puigdemont’s authority, and is fundamentally antidemocratic.

Simultaneously, Spain has been far too laid back in dealing with this threat. It was shocking enough that it took until the days before the Scottish independence referendum for anti-independence campaigners to hold a mass rally in London in support of the United Kingdom – but at least it happened. Spain waited until days after the unilateral declaration of Catalonian independence to hold a similar rally in Barcelona. Where was this public outrage and shows of loyalty to Madrid when Carles Puigdemont was prancing around acting like the living embodiment of all Catalan public opinion? It is hard to attribute this to anything but laziness on the part of the citizenry. As he left the US constitutional convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin told an enquirer that he had bequeathed the American people “a Republic, if you can keep it“. At times, the Spanish seemed too lazy to make much of an effort to keep theirs.

How does all of this tangentially relate to Brexit? In one sense, Brexiteers can draw some basic parallels to Catalan independence. Both are primarily cultural movements consisting of people who do not accept the legitimacy of the larger political entity which they seek to leave. But the British EU referendum was conducted under the rule of law and its outcome was legitimate. One can raise valid points about the precise mode of Brexit being unstated and the lack of a plan on the part of the official Leave campaign – all true. But the instruction from voters to the UK government to commence secession from the political entity known as European Union was clear. In the case of Catalonian independence, not so. In many cases, the Catalan government behaved provocatively and with great immaturity. These are not smart, measured people whom anybody should seek to drape their arms around.

But there is also a contradiction at the heart of the Catalonian separatist movement. Both in Catalonia and Scotland, advocates for independence seek to leave the political purview of Madrid and Westminster respectively, but remain very much part of the European Union. In doing so they engage in a feat of denial and political fancy which exceeds that of the most ignorant of Hard Brexiteers. Leaving Spain means Catalonia leaving the EU, just as leaving the United Kingdom inevitably meant Scotland leaving the EU when Scotland voted back in 2014. In both cases, separatists sought to downplay or even deny this truth. Carles Puigdemont and his followers need to accept this difficult fact if they are to be remotely taken seriously. But they do not accept reality, just as the SNP refused to accept reality.

It is also curious that the separatists are so desperate to escape the clutches of Madrid (one protester today said that Catalonians were currently “oppressed” by Spain) but are entirely comfortably – even eager – to remain under the authority of Brussels, and inevitably as a much smaller and less influential member state were they to be readmitted. I would very much like to read an argument explaining how modern Spain suppresses Catalonian culture and freedom in a way that the EU would not. As an independent country and small EU member state, Catalonia would be much less able to influence EU policymaking than Spain is currently able to do. They would be in an infinitely weaker position to defend and advance Catalonian national interest.

And yet if this is still the choice of the Catalonian people they should be free to make it – through a lawful, democratic and legitimate referendum. If they do so, it will be a clearly cultural and constitutional decision, just as Brexit was. This doesn’t automatically mean that it is the “wrong” decision – it would simply mean that as with Brexit, some things matter more than short term political and economic stability. This is an argument which I have strongly made about Brexit, and which could hold true for Catalonian independence too. If the people of Catalonia genuinely feel that Madrid is hostile to their own interests then they should have the right to secede from Spain and take the consequences and potential benefits upon themselves. I supported Brexit because I do not feel that our cultural affinity to Europe – our sense of ourselves as part of a cohesive European demos – warrants as powerful and extensive a government as we currently have in Brussels. If Catalonians feel the same about Spain then so be it.

But if nothing else good comes from this turmoil in Spain, hopefully it will disabuse separatists throughout Europe of the childlike, naive notion that Brussels is their friend, and that the European Union in any way cares about their freedom or right to self-determination. It most assuredly does not. The European Union has its own journey – toward greater political integration and centralisation – to pursue. Brexit is enough of a bump in the road for EU leaders; they have no desire to see Europe fragmenting further at a time when they are trying to busily absorb everyone into the grand project, even as their undermining of established member states fuels these separatist movements.

Besides that, this is an internal matter for Spain to deal with. One might plausibly consider taking sides from a personal perspective had the referendum been conducted legally under terms agreed by both sides, or if the Catalan government could make an irrefutable case that no further dialogue with Spain was possible for the redress of their grievances. But in the absence of these mitigating factors we ought to refrain from jumping into a foreign debate purely to score cheap political points about matters in our own country.

The Catalan independence movement is not like Brexit, as anybody who supported the continuation of the United Kingdom in 2014 and Brexit in 2017 should have the humility to accept. No matter how low your opinion of Nigel Farage, Aaron Banks and Dominic Cummings may be, they did not press ahead with an unlawful referendum and claim (quite) such an implausible mandate from it. And whatever constitutional vandalism the UK government is currently engaged in as it seeks to implement Brexit is nothing to the constitutional vandalism currently being perpetrated in Spain.

At its core, Brexit is about securing the continued relevance and autonomy of the nation state (at least until such time as public opinion shifts more definitively in favour of the kind of supranational government offered by the European Union). And that means keeping our personal opinions about Catalan opinions quite distinct from any other political agenda.

 

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MPs Allege Foreign Hacking Of The EU Referendum, Provide No Evidence

Russia - Vladimir Putin - Brexit - EU Referendum - Hacking - Theresa May

Cynical, calculating and alarmist MPs are undermining faith in democracy with their conspiratorial anti-Brexit shenanigans

“A voter registration site that crashed in the run-up to last year’s EU referendum could have been targeted by a foreign cyber attack, MPs say”, screeches the BBC.

The Guardian, spurred by its anti-Brexit bias to step even further over the line of journalistic responsibility, declares “MPs are concerned about allegations governments including Russia and China may have interfered with EU referendum website”.

Wow. One might think that there would be some solid evidence, a “smoking gun” or at least an accumulation of circumstantial evidence for MPs to use their public prominence and access to media platforms to make such an accusation.

But we live in an age when the political establishment, spurned by the electorate and destabilised by defeats such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, have found solace in the kind of comforting conspiracy theories which they once decried. And so today we woke up to the insinuation that Russia (or some other foreign power, but really Russia) had covertly intervened in last year’s EU referendum and swung the result in favour of Brexit.

From the Guardian’s alarmist article:

Foreign governments such as Russia and China may have been involved in the collapse of a voter registration website in the run-up to the EU referendum, a committee of MPs has claimed.

A report by the Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee (PACAC) said MPs were deeply concerned about the allegations of foreign interference in last year’s Brexit vote.

The committee does not identify who may have been responsible, but has noted that both Russia and China use an approach to cyber-attacks based on an understanding of mass psychology and of how to exploit individuals.

The findings follow repeated claims that Russia has been involved in trying to influence the US and French presidential elections.

My emphasis in bold. In other words, MPs of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee went on the record to insinuate that a foreign power attempted to manipulate the EU referendum result while supplying zero evidence in support of their claim. Apparently their “concerns” were deemed worthy of inclusion in a lessons learned report on the EU referendum, even though none of the MPs on the committee could provide a single justification other than base paranoia.

The relevant section of the report states the following:

The Register to Vote website crashed on the evening of 7 June 2016. The Government has stated that this was due to an exceptional surge in demand, partly due to confusion as to whether individuals needed to register to vote. The Government should develop an online service to enable people to check whether they are already correctly registered. However, the Government clearly failed to undertake the necessary level of testing and precautions required to mitigate against any such surge in applications. The Association of Electoral Administrators criticised the government and the Electoral Commission for a clear lack of contingency planning.

We do not rule out the possibility that there was foreign interference in the EU referendum caused by a DDOS (distributed denial of service attack) using botnets, though we do not believe that any such interference had any material effect on the outcome of the EU referendum. Lessons in respect of the protection and resilience against possible foreign interference in IT systems that are critical for the functioning of the democratic process must extend beyond the technical. The US and UK understanding of ‘cyber’ is predominantly technical and computer-network based, while Russia and China use a cognitive approach based on understanding of mass psychology and of how to exploit individuals. We commend the Government for promoting cyber security as a major issue for the UK. We recommend permanent machinery for monitoring cyber activity in respect of elections and referendums be established, for promoting cyber security and resilience from potential attacks, and to put plans and machinery in place to respond to and to contain such attacks if they occur.

But rather than providing corroborative detail in the body of the report, the committee merely restate the unfounded allegations:

102. Although the Committee has no direct evidence, it considers that it is important to be aware of the potential for foreign interference in elections or referendums. The report on lessons learned from the website crash described it as “technical in nature, gaps in technical ownership and risk management contributed to the problem, and prevented it from being mitigated in advance”.138 However the crash had indications of being a DDOS (distributed denial of service) ‘attack’. We understand that this is very common and easy to do with botnets. There can be many reasons why people initiate a DDOS: commercial (e.g. one company bringing down a competitor’s website to disrupt sales); legal (e.g. a law enforcement agency wanting to disturb criminal activity on Darknet); political; etc. The key indicants are timing and relative volume rate.

103. PACAC does not rule out the possibility that the crash may have been caused by a DDOS (distributed denial of service attack) using botnets. Lessons in respect of the protection and resilience against possible foreign interference in IT systems that are critical for the functioning of the democratic process must extend beyond the technical. The US and UK understanding of ‘cyber’ is predominantly technical and computer-network based. For example, Russia and China use a cognitive approach based on understanding of mass psychology and of how to exploit individuals. The implications of this different understanding of cyber-attack, as purely technical or as reaching beyond the digital to influence public opinion, for the interference in elections and referendums are clear. PACAC is deeply concerned about these allegations about foreign interference.

Now this is just plain self-contradictory. The committee state correctly that rival powers such as Russia and China use a “cognitive approach” to their cyber warfare efforts, seeking to influence the minds of electors through dissemination of fake news and targeted releases of stolen information to undermine public confidence in one or other side of a political debate. This formed much of the controversy over the allegations of Russian hacking of the US presidential election, with some people arguing that Russia deliberately hacked and then leaked damaging information about the Clinton campaign to Wikileaks while withholding any damaging information about the Trump campaign.

However, the type of hacking described (or imagined) by the MPs in their report is a distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack, which is a technical, web-based attack designed to target computer systems and websites, not human minds. The MPs already conceded that the temporary unavailability of the voter registration website had no material impact on the outcome of the referendum; therefore, for Russian or Chinese cyber activity to have had any effect on the Brexit vote would have required them to have engaged in cognitive hacking – and the committee provides zero evidence, not even a suggestion, that this took place.

And besides, Russia had no need to wage the kind of “cognitive” cyber warfare that they are accused of deploying against the United States. Vladimir Putin didn’t need to hack David Cameron’s emails and leak the contents to Wikileaks for us to find out that he, and the rest of Britain’s political elite, considered eurosceptics to be “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” – the kind of damaging private remark that rightfully helped to erode trust in Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. No, David Cameron was bold enough to let the country know exactly what he thought of the 52% who ended up voting for Brexit, back in 2006 on a live radio show.

And interestingly, in 87 pages of findings, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee – so concerned about the influence of foreign powers on our sacred democratic process – could not spare a sentence, let alone a paragraph, to censure David Cameron for inviting President Barack Obama to a Downing Street press conference for the sole purpose of browbeating the British public and threatening us with being sent to the “back of the queue” in terms of a future trade agreement with the United States. In a supposedly comprehensive review of how the EU referendum was planned and executed, was this not worth a mention?

And what about David Cameron’s flagrant breach of purdah rules by making a speech from the steps of Downing Street during the prohibited period? Again, this egregious violation of the letter and spirit of the referendum rules is apparently not worth analysis or mention by the committee, who seem only too happy to ignore elected officials and civil servants deceiving and influencing voters in real life while getting worked up about unfounded allegations of foreign interference.

PACAC has every right – indeed a responsibility – to be concerned about foreign interference in British democracy, and to apply pressure to the government to do more to guard against such interference where appropriate. But in their “Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum” report, all the committee have done is foment unfounded suspicions of foreign interference – an attempt to hack the Brexit vote which does not even match the profile of the type of cyber warfare favoured by Russia and China – knowing that it will be picked up and repeated by a credulous media who care more about a dramatic headline than the mundane reality.

Everyone will read the headlines declaring “MPs suspect Russian and Chinese intervention in the EU referendum”. Far fewer people will read down a few paragraphs into the various articles and realise that the paranoid, grandstanding MPs offered zero evidence to support their incendiary claims, and in fact destroyed their credibility through contradictory allegations. Fewer still will make it to the bottom of the 87-page report and realise that the alarmist claim is supported by just two meagre footnotes, neither of which provide a link to additional sources.

MPs are savvy people, and they know how the media works. By including this unfounded allegation on page 5 of their report, in the executive summary, they knew that it would be picked up by the media, especially those credulous and anti-Brexit parts of the media who might seek to spin this “news” in as defamatory way as possible to undermine public confidence in the referendum and in Brexit as a desirable outcome. That the PACAC chairman, Bernard Jenkin, was a founding director of Vote Leave only makes the appearance of such unsubstantiated, manipulative remarks in the published report even more perplexing.

As a tactic employed by losers fighting a desperate rearguard battle against Brexit, throwing mud at the legitimacy of the EU referendum in the hope that some of it might stick is an understandable, if still reprehensible ploy. But persisting with this behaviour will have grave and wide-reaching consequences.

Brendan O’Neill gets it right:

MPs say foreign states may have tampered with the EU referendum registration website and helped to bring about Brexit. The big ridiculous babies. It’s David Icke meets Veruca Salt, half conspiracy theory, half tinny tantrum over the fact that for the first time in their pampered political lives they didn’t get what they wanted. Grow up. It wasn’t sinister foreign agents who crushed your political dreams — it was us!

Absolutely.

Faith in the British political and media class is already at a nadir. Any further transparent attempts to manipulate public opinion with unfounded accusations and cynical attempts to delegitimise the referendum outcome – a continuance of Project Fear from beyond the grave – will only create an even greater crisis of legitimacy.

 

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Scottish Brexit Hysteria: Nicola Sturgeon’s Flawed IndyRef2 Argument

Scotland - European Union - Brexit - UK - Independence - IndyRef2

I begged once, back in 2014. I will not beg again.

Thus far I have refrained from commenting on Nicola Sturgeon’s tunnel-visioned decision to agitate for a re-run of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum following last year’s vote for Brexit.

Back then, I poured my heart into the pro-Union campaign because I strongly believe in our United Kingdom, and do not want to see what I believe to be one of the two greatest and most consequential countries on Earth torn apart unnecessarily to the diminution of all. My beliefs have not changed since then.

However, I do not intend to make another argument or write even one more article seeking to convince the Scottish people to realise the self-evident, inherent wisdom of remaining in our United Kingdom. As the 2014 campaign drew to a close, I quoted the peroration of President Abraham Lincoln’s famous first inaugural address, which sums up my feelings far better than I can put into my own words:

In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend it

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Substitute “separation” for “civil war” and you have my distilled viewpoint on the matter of Scottish independence. But Scottish nationalism is a blind and unreasoning beast, appeals to logic and sentiment will get us nowhere, and we should recognise this fact. If one seriously believes that the Scottish people are being oppressed and having their democratic rights trampled by the Evil English, or that they somehow lack their due influence in our nation’s government despite enjoying political devolution and autonomy far greater than that enjoyed by the UK’s most populous home nation, then a sensible discussion cannot be had.

Neither am I willing to involve myself in another referendum campaign which will consist of those on the side of Scottish independence prancing around pretending that they are the sole custodians of compassion and progressivism (not that I claim the latter label for myself), and that the only thing preventing Scotland from becoming a modern-day socialist Utopia is the cold, dead hand of English conservatism. I will not buy into the pernicious myth that people’s hearts get a little bigger and their spirits more generous the moment they move north of Berwick-upon-Tweed. Scottish nationalists: try building that compassionate welfare state with a 15% annual government budget deficit and the economy-suffocating tax rises which would be required to close it, and then talk to me about compassion.

Nor am I willing to debate on the skewed terms of the Scottish National Party, which is an authoritarian, centralising machine (one fire and police service for an entire country, really?!) which would happily turn Scotland into an undemocratic one-party state under the cult of personality of Nicola Sturgeon or Alex Salmond given the opportunity. I will not debate further concessions or autonomy for Scotland when the SNP government refuses to avail itself of the fiscal autonomy which has already been granted, and when similarly populous English regions (like, say, Yorkshire) are equal in population but have a fraction of the voice, and yet bear this injustice with more stoicism than that of every last Scottish nationalist combined. The SNP does not debate or negotiate in good faith, as should be evident by the mere fact that we are even discussing a re-run of the independence referendum after the matter was supposedly settled for a generation.

All of that being said, and despite the known disingenuousness and bloody-mindedness of the SNP, I was rather surprised by Nicola Sturgeon’s widely reported public statements and recent series of tweets, which amount to nothing more than another hysterical hissy fit about Brexit coupled with an Olympian denial of reality – Trumpian “alternative facts”, if you will:

Sturgeon wants to hold another referendum when “the terms of Brexit [are] clear and before it is too late to choose an alternative path”. But it is clear to everyone with a functioning brain that there will be no alternative path. No matter how much the UK government screws up the negotiation and process of Brexit, there is no alternative for Scotland to remain an EU member. It has been stated and restated by one EU leader after another that there is no mechanism either for a region to remain part of the European Union when its parent member state secedes, or for a seceding region to claim automatic, continuous or even expedited EU membership on the basis of the former parent country’s membership.

One can argue about whether this is right or wrong – the political motivations behind it are quite clear, with certain other EU member states none too keen to give succour to restive independence movements in their own regions – but one thing a government should and cannot do is base its policy and public pronouncements on a denial of basic reality which can best be described as howl-at-the-moon stupid. If Scotland wants to be an “independent country” and an EU member (to the limited extent that the two overlap) then it must apply to rejoin the EU as a new entity from the outside, whereby its application will almost certainly be vetoed by Spain. Those are facts.

So what does Sturgeon mean when she says that the Scottish people must be free to pull the eject lever on the United Kingdom “before it is too late to choose an alternative path”? She is basically lying to her own citizens, pretending that the ejector-seat she is selling them is connected to a functioning parachute when in fact it is weighed down by the iron anvil of reality. And what is that awkward reality? The fact that voting to secede from the United Kingdom necessarily and automatically means that Scotland would find itself out of the UK and the EU, certainly for a long time and almost certainly forever.

Of course, many Scottish nationalists and their finger-wagging apologists in the rest of the UK love to argue that it is somehow ironic for pro-Brexit Unionists to warn Scotland of the dangers of finding itself locked outside of a larger political entity. These people think that they have hit on a clever, winning argument when in fact all they have done is reveal the paucity of their own understanding of patriotism and national identity, let alone why people voted for Brexit.

There never was (and likely never will be) a culture and common feeling of “European-ness” that outweighs British identity, and so it never made sense for such a powerful and dominant level of supranational government – one with determinedly expansionist, federal aspirations, no less – to sit over us in Brussels. There is, however, a strong sense of Britishness and shared British history, no matter what contemporary pundits say about the decline of Britishness and the rise of English nationalism.

If you doubt it, answer this one question: what was the name of the decisive Second World War air battle fought between July and October 1940? (Hint: even a post-patriotic millennial can tell you that it wasn’t the Battle of England, just as Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were attacks on the United States of America and not on Hawaii and New York respectively). Our sense of identity is overwhelmingly forged as a unified British entity (albeit one with proud constituent home nations), no matter what narratives of fracture that the pro-EU media class try to feed us. And so there is all the difference in the world between wanting to preserve the United Kingdom, to which most of us have at least some sentimental attachment, and wanting to free the United Kingdom from antidemocratic supranational European government which didn’t exist half a century ago and which most people barely comprehend.

Brexit, at its core, sought to return the highest and most consequential level of government to a polis with a commensurate sense of shared identity. If Scottish nationalists try to suggest that it is somehow hypocritical for Brexiteers to support the United Kingdom and warn of the cultural costs of separation then they either think that you are stupid or else are being catastrophically stupid themselves. Both options are equally plausible.

So by all means let Scotland hold another referendum, at the appropriate time. If they choose to defy the current polls and vote for true isolation on the world stage as a tiny country in poor fiscal health, determined to antagonise its larger neighbour, then that is their right. But they must do so only when the temper tantrum of their attempted divorce from the United Kingdom does not further imperil what is already a fraught and difficult Brexit negotiation for the rest of us.

Since Scotland is coming out of the European Union anyway (as even Nicola Sturgeon realises in her more lucid moments), it makes absolutely no sense for Scotland to pull the eject lever and jettison from the United Kingdom before the Brexit negotiations and process are complete. Sturgeon pretends that the referendum must be held virtually overnight, before it is “too late to choose an alternative”, but she is deliberately deceiving the people she represents. There will be no alternative other than the binary of life inside Brexit Britain or life as an independent country, whether the vote is held tomorrow or in 2025. All that holding IndyRef2 before Brexit is complete will accomplish is prioritising the vainglorious fantasy of Scottish nationalists over the UK government’s solemn responsibility (shoddily discharged thus far, admittedly) to secure the best deal and optimal future relations for our entire United Kingdom.

So go ahead, Scotland. Have your second referendum – at the appropriate time, once the United Kingdom you so despise has successfully finished negotiating its way through our present great national trial. I will not say a single further word to convince you to stay – the decision is yours, and if Project Fear worked back in 2014 then I can only hope that Project ‘Mystic Chords of Memory’ will ultimately do the job next time around.

So do what you will. But in 2014 you voted to remain part of the United Kingdom, and as a full and equal part of the UK you don’t now get to sabotage the Brexit process in pursuit of the SNP’s unachievable fantasy of leaping smoothly from our Union to that of Brussels.

 

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Brexit Catastrophisation Watch, Part 2

Suffer and roar

The other day, while in an uncharacteristically high-minded mood, I wrote:

During the EU referendum, I genuinely wanted the Leave campaign to win more than I wanted to defeat the Remain campaign. Despite immense provocation from the political establishment and many on the Remain side, I was generally motivated more by a desire to secure a better and more democratic future for my country than to make Remainers sad or to wipe the smug smile off George Osborne’s face.

Well, today I take it all back.

Ordinarily I would feel bad about sharing what is basically an hour’s worthy of weepy young ignoramuses whose mourning for their lost “European identity” is matched only by their ignorance about what the European Union actually is and how it works – but many high-profile Remainers have been so insufferably tedious and ungracious in defeat that any reserves of goodwill I possessed on 24 June have long since been exhausted.

One can only take hearing one’s perfectly legitimate and non-extreme political views (i.e. believing that Britain should be like every country in the world outside the EU and not outsource swathes of our governance to an unaccountable supranational government) described as the first step toward the return of fascism before feeling tempted to hit back, hard.

So enjoy: sixty glorious minutes of morons who who think that painting the EU flag on their faces and singing hymns of praise to Brussels makes them Virtuous People and Enlightened Citizens, weeping bitter tears because the Evil Old People and their nasty racist views have set in motion our foolish secession from the greatest and most noble organisation in human history, the European Union.

Money quotes:

1.30 – pinch-faced, morally righteous young woman on the verge of tears

“I feel like we are watching the stirrings of fascism in Europe again, and I genuinely never thought it would by my country that did that”

Yep, vote for freedom from supranational political union one day and we’ll all be polishing our jackboots the next.

And:

2.17 – a hipster girl wearing an outfit seemingly made entirely of feathers:

“London is like a little bubble, and the outside world, especially like regional places, is quite right wing. And it’s really really scary for our generation?”

And yes, her statement does end with a question mark.

And:

2.26 – the pinch-faced, morally righteous young woman, again

“The majority of these people are over 75 – they don’t have a future in this country.”

Children, respect your elders.

And finally:

23.18 – MP / industrial vacuum cleaner salesman Keith Vaz, crying to the BBC

“This is a crushing, crushing decision. It’s a terrible day for Britain, and a terrible day for Europe with, you know, immense consequences [..] Frankly, in a thousand years I would never have believed that the British people would have voted in this way, and they have done so and I think they have voted emotionally rather than looking at the facts, and it’ll be catastrophic for our country, for the rest of Europe and indeed the world.”

Ah, the arrogant Remainer head vs heart explanation again. Sorry to let you down, Jim.

To be fair, though, I myself was a rabid euro-federalist from the beginning of my student days until my early twenties. Had the EU referendum happened back in the early 2000s, I could easily have been one of those people having a weepy nervous breakdown into any passing TV camera.

Hopefully, like me, some of these petulant voices will come to recant their pro-European views as they grow in age and wisdom – and as the realisation slowly dawns that Brexit, however badly managed by politicians, has not ushered in the apocalypse.

 

People hold banners during a demonstration against Britain's decision to leave the European Union, in central London

Bottom Image: Huffington Post, REUTERS/Neil Hall

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Picking Through The Wreckage Of Defeat: The Electoral Reform Society’s Report On The EU Referendum

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You don’t commission an urgent post-mortem report to look into something wonderful that has just happened. So the mere existence of the Electoral Reform Society’s tremulous report warning about the danger of future referendums tells us all we need to know about their attitude to Brexit and the people who voted for it

“The people have spoken. Or have they?”

So begins the Electoral Reform Society‘s autopsy report of the EU referendum and Britain’s shock decision to leave the European Union. The simpering “or have they?” tells you everything that you probably already suspect about this report – that despite whatever other good work the ERS might do, this is a metro leftist, superficially and uncritically EU-loving effort to come to grips with what they evidently view as a political disaster.

If something bad like a plane crash happens, the Air Accidents Investigation Branch will pick over the wreckage and file a report outlining the chain of events leading up to the tragedy. It is the kind of report which damns by its very existence – nobody commissions a sober post mortem report about something delightful that has just happened. The ERS’s perspective on Brexit is established in the first seven words, and even before then by its very existence.

That’s not to say that the report is worthless – despite its clear bias (I’ll eat my hat if author Will Brett or any of the other major contributors actually voted to leave the EU) there are some thoughtful deliberations on how to get citizens involved in any future referendum planning process so that the procedure feels less like something which was suddenly foisted on the people, the rules being made entirely by shadowy people in Parliament.

Nor can I argue with the report’s recommendation to extend citizenship lessons in primary and secondary school. This blog has long stood for mandatory civics classes thoughout the duration of secondary education, not only as a way of developing good future citizens in place of self-entitled little snowflakes, but also as a means of celebrating, transmitting and reinforcing core British values on classes which may be very ethnically and culturally mixed, thus helping to end self-enforced apartheid.

Read the whole thing here – it touches on more areas than this single blog post can feasibly analyse.

But soon the wheels start to come off the report. This first happens when the ERS make egregiously misleading use of the “factoid” that there was a large spike in Google searches of the phrase “What is the EU?” in the immediate aftermath of the result. This was immediately taken by the stunned Remainiac establishment to be proof that we bovine Brits had voted for something which we did not even understand.

But this scandalous interpretation is wrong, as the Telegraph patiently explained:

Google Trends data isn’t actually representative of the number of total searches for a term, but a proportion of all searches at a given time. The company highlights spikes in searches based on what else is being Googled at a given moment in a geographical area.

So in the early hours of Friday morning searches for “What is the EU” briefly spiked compared to what else was being asked. To put it in context, the search only outstripped that for “weather forecast” between 01:30 and 04:30 in the morning, but by 05:00 that had changed.

Data from AdWords, which offers more specific numbers for search terms, shows that the 250 per cent increase in searches actually correlated to about 1,000 people asking the question.

In other words, bitter Remainers called into question the intelligence of half the country based on the Google search activity of no more than a thousand late night stoners who didn’t know what the European Union is but who were also far too moronic to find their polling station, let alone put an X in a box. Yet the ERS still considered this deceptive factoid worthy of inclusion at the beginning of their report.

But here’s where it really goes wrong:

At the start of the regulated period the Electoral Commission, or a specially commissioned independent body, should publish a website with a ‘minimum data set’ containing the basic data relevant to the vote in one convenient place . A major source of complaint about the conduct of the referendum was the supposed lack of independent information available about the vote. While there are real difficulties in separating out fact from political argument in these cases, a minimum data set ought to be possible.

In other words, rather than assuming that the British people are mature and capable enough to frame the debate in the terms which matter most to them, the Electoral Reform Society would have some shadowy committee decide in advance the terms on which the referendum should be fought, and then produce a “minimum data set” of presumably quantitative data to guide decision-making.

This is a truly terrible idea. The EU referendum probably meant something slightly different to every single one of the millions of Britons who voted. Even assuming that an approximate minimum data set could be hammered out, what was included and what was left out would inevitably reflect the biases or interests of those involved. We have enough trouble trying to come up with a referendum question which both sides feel eliminates bias or inappropriate suggestion. What makes the ERS think that producing a commonly agreed “minimum data set” would be anything but fraught, contentious and ultimately impossible?

Besides which, the key issue of the EU referendum was intangible: do we think that British democracy is best preserved inside the EU or without? One can come up with endless (often contradictory) statistics debating the economic benefits, but what could one possibly collate to form the “minimum data set” to vote based on democracy?

As political blogger I have read scores of history and politics books including some of the definitive critiques and praises for the EU, and the more I learned the less I realised I knew. In fact, as referendum day inched closer and closer and I saw other, established journalists and politicians make continual fools of themselves with their superficial and misleading analyses, I found it harder, not easier, to write. There is so much that I don’t know about how the EU works in practice and how international trade functions that I’m loathe to write much at all, and I actually spend spare moments reading some of this stuff and trying to learn. So what would be the Electoral Reform Society’s ideal minimum reading list for the country?

But of course they are not suggesting a reading list at all. When the ERS propose a minimum standards set, what they really mean is a short list of bullet points emphasising all the ways that Brexit could harm the economy in the short term, assuming a worst case scenario. They want a beefed up version of the government’s already utterly immoral £9 million propaganda leaflet sent to voters before the EU referendum. Just to altruistically ensure that people are “better informed”, of course. Right-o.

Is the current system perfect? No. Many Britons did complain that they felt they lacked sufficient information, or that they could not trust the information they were given. One could scarcely escape these modern-day Hamlets bleating their confusion on BBC Question Time. But in fact, while the status quo may be far from perfect, the giant flaws in more activist approaches like that proposed by the ERS are far worse.

Will people sometimes make their referendum decision judgements based on poorly chosen criteria? Yes, of course they will. Would seeking to prevent this by artificially restricting the terms of the debate be any better? No, it would be a thousand times worse. Rather that power sits with sometimes-confused citizens than with politicians or civil servants with very fixed ambitions of their own.

Besides, the awkward fact remains that while many voters may have liked to complain about not having all of the required information handed to them on a silver platter, a proportion of them were simply covering for their own laziness. As an ardent Brexit supporter I know I’m supposed to be waxing lyrical about the deep wisdom of the British people right now, but the fact is that there are a lot of stupid people out there, on both sides of the debate – people whose bovine cries of “but nobody is giving information” belies the fact that they haven’t watched the news in years because the TV remote got buried under a pile of pizza delivery boxes.

But the worst recommendation from the ERS report is yet to come:

An official body – either the Electoral Commission or an appropriate alternative – should be empowered to intervene when overtly misleading information is disseminated by the official campaigns. Misleading claims by the official campaigns in the EU referendum were widely seen as disrupting people’s ability to make informed and deliberate choices. Other countries including New Zealand have successfully regulated campaign claims – the UK should follow suit.

Again, this reeks of mistrusting the electorate – of course, we already know that the ERS does so, it is the very reason for this report in the first place. But to see it spelled out quite so blatantly is remarkable indeed. For in the opinion of the ERS, citizens are not mentally equipped – even in the Age of Google, when everybody has a smartphone in their pocket capable of accessing the accumulated knowledge of mankind – to analyse political messages and determine truth or untruth, validity or invalidity. Rather, we are apparently in need of some external authority to pre-screen our reality for us.

How on earth this is supposed to work is beyond comprehension. Set 100 top-tier university students the essay question “The EU brought peace to Europe. Discuss” and you will get 100 different subjective arguments, each with a unique perspective and most drawing from at least some unique sources. Say the Leave campaign takes a dislike to such a claim by the pro-EU side: what threshold would they have to meet to bring a complaint, and who has the final say as to whether the statement is misleading or not? And if a statement is found to be misleading, what should be the remedy? Front-page advertisements by the Electoral Commission in every national newspaper? Another propaganda leaflet through everyone’s door? Interrupting Coronation Street with some breaking news?

As a policy prescription it is entirely unworkable, but as a middle class, metro-leftist sulk at the supposed lies and deceit of the Bad Man Nigel Farage and the Evil Tor-eees it makes perfect sense. And sadly, that is precisely why the idea of a Referendum Censor entered the Electoral Reform Society’s report.

And shockingly, this leads the Electoral Reform Society to conclude that given the nature and outcome of the EU referendum campaign, maybe we would all be better off eschewing future freewheeling referendums for the safety and security of “parliamentary democracy”, preferring this to even their recommendations for more pre-determined, moderated, government-mediated future referendum campaigns:

Given the frequency of party-political imperatives behind the calling of referendums, it is worth asking: what are the conditions where a referendum is really the best way of settling a political question? Perhaps parties and politicians should make a habit of reflecting on some of the difficulties around calling and then responding to referendums, and – where possible – seek to find a way through the thicket of representative democracy instead.

Douglas Carswell sees many of the same flaws in the ERS report that this blog also identifies:

How do you give people more control over government? I’ve always believed the answer is direct democracy: more decisions made by voters, fewer by politicians and officials. But the Electoral Reform Society seems to think the opposite. They want to give officialdom more control over direct democracy. Why?

The ERS’s latest recommendations come from its scathing report on the referendum campaign. I also thought some of the conduct in the campaign was disgraceful. But much of their critique is misplaced.

There is, for example, barely any criticism of the Remain propaganda issued by Downing Street at taxpayers’ expense. And no mention of the use of the civil service as an extension of the Remain campaign. Apparently, co-opting the organs of the State to gain an unfair edge is no big deal.

The report also says people felt ill-informed, and the campaigns provided disinformation. Yet there is no admission that many of the outlandish claims came from supposedly independent “experts” – many of whose warnings, especially on the economy, have already been proven wrong.

And concludes:

But the big problem with the idea of official arbiters for campaign information is not the practical execution, but the premise behind it. In a democracy, we already have an arbiter: it’s called the people. The whole point of democracy is that voters analyse what they are told by the opposing sides, and make their own decision.

Underlying the ERS’s report is the sense that people can’t really be trusted to know what they are voting on, so instead we should let unelected technocrats decide for them. That’s not the kind of electoral reform Britain needs.

And yet the report makes some worthwhile observations despite its inherent biases. The information made available to the general public through the media was indeed shockingly bad, as the ERS complain, with MPs and household name journalists alike vying with one another for the title of Most Ignorant on a daily basis. More galling for sites such as this, those of us who strove to deepen our knowledge were routinely shut out of the discussion.

I doubt there is a better-researched and thoroughly produced political blog in the whole country than eureferendum.com, and Dr. Richard North’s “Flexcit” Brexit plan, yet few have ever heard of it thanks partly to the establishment closing ranks against somebody they view as an outsider but also to the fact that the Westminster political/media establishment are lazy, and don’t like putting in the hours of work it takes to speak confidently and knowledgeably on the real intricacies of Brexit and international trade.

But whatever the individual merits of each point in the report, it still ultimately comes back to the question of why the report was produced in the first place. Had the EU referendum result been inverted and the Remain side triumphed in a 52-48 victory, would the Electoral Reform Society still have produced a report, albeit one streaked with fewer Remainer tear stains? I’ll be generous and say yes, they probably would.

But would the content of the report and the ensuing recommendations be identical to the current version, with its overt worries about misinformation and an ill-informed population? I very much doubt it.

And that tells you everything you need to know about the political bias of the Electoral Reform Society.

 

Electoral Reform Society - ERS - EU Referendum Report - Brexit

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