Are we right to mock Theresa May, or is she caught in the impossible position of trying to deal with the wreckage of her predecessor’s mistakes, over Europe and in calling a referendum without planning for both possible outcomes, and the divisions in her own party?
Almost since the moment when she became Prime Minister it has been tempting to mock Theresa May. From her 2016 conference speech, when she seemed to have abandoned her previous support for EU membership and managed the meaningless “Brexit means Brexit”, through vacuous comments on the “will of the people”, to her performances as the “Strong and stable” “Maybot” in the 2017 General Election.
But is this fair? Her disastrous speech speech to the 2017 Conservative Party Conference begins to flag up another side. As it stands, she may well go down in history as the most unfortunate Prime Minister in a very long time. In the long view of history, she may get credit for courage in an impossible situation, and come to be seen as one of the high-profile victims of Brexit.
That conference speech said more than its words. Letters falling off a sign, someone playing a prank, and a nasty cough could be seen as bad luck. But things are rarely as simple as that, and it can be worth asking what is happening unconsciously in the seemingly-accidental.
People who already felt disenfranchised and voted Leave are now discovering they were lied to: it is hard to imagine this not fueling resentment.
Vote Leave seem to have ridden a tide of resentment to a narrow referendum majority, and immediately had to start admitting to lying in their campaign. The lies were impressive and, combined with the idea that experts are not to be trusted, were irrefutable. They played on the fears and anxieties of people who already felt left behind. They spoke to people struggling from years of austerity and feeling ignored by “elites”.
What happens to these people as they realise they were taken for a ride by a faction of that “elite” that played on their vulnerability? What is happening to people who voted Leave because they wanted change, and are increasingly horrified to find out what that change looks like, or voted out of protest and discover that their vote has consequences?
In this video, Michael Dougan offers a brilliant and well-informed exposition of the EU.
Truth has sometimes felt like a scarce commodity in the referendum debate. It’s hard not to read the Leave campaign’s claims about Turkey being on the point of joining the EU with catastrophic effect, or the mythical £350 million a week to Brussels, as lies.
The Remain campaign has not been so extreme, but has tended to quote statistics without proper respect for uncertainty. For example, there are lots of projections of what Brexit would cost the UK economy. The actual numbers depend on the assumptions in the modelling. The broad conclusion is that Brexit would harm the UK economy, but being too exact gets into a discussion of whose model is best, and can undermine the conclusion that Brexit risks serious economic problems.
Do watch this video, in which Prof Michael Dougan offers a very coherent academic assessment of the situation.
After the referendum, Michael Dougan released a second video on the new situation: click here to watch.
Evidence to Treasury Select Committee
Michael Dougan was one of four witnesses to the Treasury Select Committee on 5 July, along with Robin Niblett, Sir Emyr Jones Parry and Raoul Ruparel. The video feed is remarkable: my reading is that it makes the leaving of the EU seem absurd, and the negotiations to be about damage-limitation.
It seems profoundly in the interest of the UK and of the EU to abandon Brexit (and get on with being constructive members of the EU after this mistake).
Since the murder of Jo Cox and the arrest of Thomas Mair, there has been lots of speculation on how this is to be understood. It is worth adding a group perspective to this.
One of the ideas in group relations is that we are all in various groups, and sometimes what we do makes most sense if it is seen in the context of the group. It’s possible to push that too far, but it can be a helpful way of looking.
What goes with this is an idea that, when there is pressure on a group, someone eventually acts in a way that addresses it. This isn’t necessarily a great leader. In fact is often the weakest member of the group — their weakness meaning they are least able to resist the pressure of the whole group.
As a mundane example, a while back I was on a late-night train, where people were interrupted by a “replacement bus service”. We were all annoyed. One person was obnoxious to the railway staff. Was he the person who was putting into words what we all felt? Was our embarrassment at his bad language also embarrassment at the language we were tempted to use?
This way of thinking flags up a concern about how we respond to terrorists. If they are the unstable extreme of the community from which they come, then acting against the whole community actually increases the strain and makes terrorists more likely.
The Bank of England has recently highlighted “risks of adverse spill-overs to the global economy” from a Brexit vote, and flagged up concerns about pressure on sterling, in addition to worries it had already voiced. It may be no surprise that supporters of Vote Leave are keen for these not to be heard.
There was a quite surreal segement on the Today Programme on 16 June, when Bernard Jenkin, of Vote Leave, was interviewed and attacked Bank of England Govenor Mark Carney for (as he saw it) breaking the purdah rules that prevent civil servants and publicly-funded bodies speaking out on the referendum, and David Cameron was quoted as saying this was an attack on the Bank’s independence.
The frustration is real. The slowdown of 2008 has had serious effects. Austerity has been painful and the government doesn’t seem concerned. Work is more fragile than we’d like, housing is painfully expensive, worries about the NHS are real and there are fears about immigration.
There’s palpable anger at politicians among at least some of those wanting to vote for Brexit. I’ve heard personalised reasons “I’m voting out because David Cameron wants us to vote in” or “because I don’t want George Osborne to be Prime Minister”. I’ve heard general things like “to teach them a lesson” or “to make the EU change”. I’ve heard grander arguments like “stand up to globalisation” or “take our place in the world”.
I can understand each of those reactions. Before the last General Election I went to a party where one person said he was thinking of having a tee-shirt made with the words “I’m not voting for any of them because they are all liars”. I’d gone the other way and tried to make a difference by standing for parliament.
In many of my doorstep conversations with people who say they want to vote out of the EU, I have been left with a sense that it is those who stand to lose most from leaving the EU who are actually being tempted to do this. It’s as if their fears are being played on for the benefit of politicians whose careers would gain from Brexit.
The snag is that the fears are real. The photo comes from an article on research by Demos which highlights a perception that ethnic minorities are more able to influence things. That fits with a sense of alienation and fear I have been encountering on the doorsteps among the less wealthy and predominantly white people who have been talking of voting for “Out”.
If people are afraid of losing their job, or struggling to afford somewhere to live, and the blame can be pinned on “immigrants” coming “because of the EU”, then the government is neatly absolved of responsibility. The EU becomes the scapegoat, so voting for Brexit makes sense. Except that scapegoats are always symbols for the problem, not the actual problem of government failures.
The campaign for a vote to remain in the EU has been taking up a lot of my energy for what feels like a long time. Why does it matter?
The quick version
The short, doorstep comment is that the EU matters because of the peace and the stability, the opportunities and possibilities it brings.
The longer version…
The European Union matters enormously. It has been the context of British political and economic life for decades. It’s tended to under-state its contribution, so people are often not aware of how many development projects or pieces of investment begin in the EU. The contribution has been so great that we can take it for granted — and sometimes rail against its supposed shortcomings without bothering to look at the whole picture. The referendum changes this. Suddenly it might not be there. This posting is not about whipping up fear, but is about expressing some of the richness in which it is rooted, and the contribution it brings.
Culture and history
Europe has a long and convoluted history. There’s an intertwined heritage of culture and religion. There have been centuries of Europeans trading with each other, fighting with each other, sharing cultural influence and sharing faith. Up close, it looks like a story of rivalry. At a distance it looks more like the squabbling of long-married couples, where the words shouldn’t obscure the depth of the connection.
Immigration is a good thing. It is a good thing culturally and economically. We would be diminished without it.
My life is vastly enriched by friendships with people who have come to the UK as immigrants and others who are the children of immigrants. They include people who came seeking asylum and people who came seeking a better life. My life is enriched by other friends who have emigrated, through whom I have valued networks of friends in many other parts of the world.
Economically too, migration matters. People sometimes talk as if there are a finite number of jobs and immigrants increase the competition. This is nonsense. Immigrants come, they work, they buy things, their presence boosts the economy. They create more work and more possibility.
A study published in 2014 showed that European migrants pay substantially more in taxes than they take in benefits. They arrive having finished schooling, and all the costs to the state of bringing people to adulthood.
I’ve heard several people recently talk of the “politics of untruth”, as if things have moved into a particularly surreal space in the age of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. What happens when truth disappears? Are there unconscious things drawing people to vote in a way that makes life worse?
The crude answer is that people believe what they need to believe, which is not primarily about logic. The assertions that EU membership costs £350 Million per week and that Turkey is about to join the EU bringing mass migration have been thoroughly discredited. The fact that people are still believing them says a great deal for people’s needs and fears. Working with unconscious fears is also core territory for psychoanalysis.