Covid-19, Brexit, and denying reality

Pretending Covid-19, Brexit and climate change don’t matter: why do some people need to ignore reality?

On 24 March 2020 Paul Bullen, formerly leader of the UKIP group on Cambridgeshire County Council, put out a jaw-dropping tweet where he said:

“Isn’t it about time we stopped this nonsense. The majority don’t care about Covid-19, don’t care if they catch it and know that it won’t have any adverse effects. Do we really want to kill our economy? Let’s get back to work, open our pubs and restaurants and get back to normal.” (click to view tweet)

After the Brexit party chose not to stand candidates against sitting Tories, Bullen became an independent candidate in Huntingdon Constituency in the General Election, where I stood for the Liberal Democrats. He took a position that was strongly in favour of Brexit. In hustings he repeatedly claimed that climate change, though real, is not the result of human activity, and that, if elected, he’d not be beholden to any party line, but would speak for his constituents.

I don’t know Bullen well enough to speculate on what he actually thinks, and note that this twitter account seems to have been deleted.

What this does crack open an interesting question about a set of attitudes on Brexit, Covid-19 and climate change more widely.
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“Getting back” what was never lost: the tragedy and the impossible task

Brexit “gets back” what was never lost — Boris Johnson has set up himself (or his successor) for failure when this becomes obvious. The consequences will be serious.

The vox pops in my social media feed on 31 January sent a shiver down the spine. There were comments on getting back “our freedom” (that we never lost), “our independence” (that we never lost), our “sovereignty” (that we never lost), our “democracy” (that we never lost) and “our industry” (that we have lost, but not because of the EU).

That’s a heady mix. On social media people were quick to lampoon these positions — with good reason — but people are believing them.

Economics

The brutal reality is that these positions show the depth of the failure thinking that has accompanied Brexit. We can’t get back what we never lost. But globalisation is changing the world radically. The real loss of sovereignty and the real limit on what governments can do is nothing to do with the EU, but does come from increased global connectedness.
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Brexit party standing aside for the Tories coinciding with a Chinese investment decision — both are parts of a much bigger picture

Early in November 2019, the news that a Chinese company was buying what’s left of British steel injected some reality into the seriousness of Brexit party’s decision not to stand candidates against the Tories.

Jingye Group: buying British Steel

Sometimes the coincidence of what happens to appear in the same news broadcast is startling. 11 November 2019 saw the news that Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party was not going to stand candidates against the Tories, and that the Chinese Jingye Group was to buy British Steel.

In the past many people voted Conservative because they saw it as the party of stability, and have had a rude awakening recently as it has abandoned that position for a strongly pro-Brexit and economically reckless position. It was looking as if the Conservatives’ chances would be reduced by Brexit party candidates siphoning off the pro-Brexit voters. Standing those down removed that threat and, by focussing on Labour seats, put pressure on Labour to support Brexit.
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Repercussions of a sadness around Brexit

The People’s Vote march on 19 October 2019 had a sadness to it — akin to depression — and which should be taken seriously.

People’s Vote march, 19 Oct 2019

A friend commented that she was struck by the sense of sadness. There was also fear, but much less of the carnival-like atmosphere of previous marches. One of the hallmarks of emotions in groups is that, if they affecting the whole group, they are less obvious because people don’t look around and see others in a radically-different space. My friend’s words called my up short, and made me wonder.

Freud’s essay Mourning and Melancholia suggests that the big difference between the two is that, in mourning there is real grieving for something that has been lost, such as after the death of a loved one, but in melancholia, though the sadness is real, but it’s not so clear what has actually been lost. That’s part of the territory of depression.

19 October 2019 was a day of high drama in Parliament — in its first Saturday sitting since the Falklands invasion. The media has been awash with speculation and interpretation — often adding more heat then light. Perhaps that’s justified, but I wonder if it was also a distraction from something much harder to name.

An un-nameable loss

I could point a finger at both the Conservative and Labour parties, suggesting that they’ve both lurched to extremes, leaving many of their traditional supporters with a sense of abandonment. I could point to the serious threat of Brexit, in both economic and cultural terms. But these have all been around for a while. They don’t adequately explain the sadness now.
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Brexit and the blindness of ambition, through the lens of the Mahabharata

The ancient text of the Mahabharata seems to speak into the latest craziness of Brexit — speaking of the folly that comes with blind ambition, and the price paid by the next generation.

Death of Duryodhan

For some time now I have been working my way through the Hindu epic the Mahabharata, serialised on Indian television in the 1980s, and now on youtube. At its core is a huge war between two sets of cousins. It’s sometimes cast as a war between truth and untruth. Like all wars, its causes are complex.

Part of the explanation is that king Vichitravirya’s elder son, Dhritarashtra, was born blind, so his younger brother, Pandu, was named Crown Prince. Dhritarashtra succeeds to the throne after his brother’s premature death. That contains the seeds of a deadly for succession between the sons of Pandu and of Dhritarashtra — not helped by Dhritarashtra’s blind loyalty to his son Duryodhan, despite his obvious rashness, which stands in marked contrast to the wisdom of Pandu’s elder son Yudhishthira.

This evening I’ve been watching episode 92. In which Duryodhan, the last of Dhritarashtra’s sons died. There is a telling exchange between Dhritarashtra and his courtier, Sanjay:
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Remembering the liberty message of the Liberal Democrats among the Brexit madness

The Liberal Democrat result in the European Elections has shown that the #BollocksToBrexit message has finally got through. But my twitter feed in the last couple of days makes me think that our position on civil liberties is also very relevant to the chaos around Brexit and all that this stirs up for people.

Recently there was an article in the Telegraph about secret talks between some Tory donors and Nigel Farage with a view to a pact to avoid Tory Brexiteer and Brexit Party candidates standing against each other.

My twitter feed had a string of comments from people alarmed at this. The sharpest I saw was from @bulshdetector on 16 June 2019: Continue reading “Remembering the liberty message of the Liberal Democrats among the Brexit madness”

Lessons from the Mahabharata in the context of D-day and Brexit

The Hindu epic the Mahabharata offers a way to think about the absurdity of attempting of commemorating D-day at the same time as trying to leave the EU set up to prevent another war in Europe.

Abhimanyu, fighting in the Kurukshetra war

The last few minutes have seen a startling justaposition in my news feed, in quick succession I heard:

  • On BBC Radio 4’s The World at One there was coverage of the 75th anniversary of D-day, with a reminder of the seriousness of the task and the sheer amount of support from other countries that enabled this to succeed, which flatly contradicts the idea that “the UK won the war” in it’s own strength.
  • A video from Russia Today showed both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt advocating leaving the EU with no deal — immediately followed by a commentator pointing out the damage that’s already happened and how much worse “No deal” would make things.
  • Also on The World at One was a tiny comment about Rory Stewart (also pitching to become Tory leader) explaining that it is crazy to imagine that the EU will re-open negotiations, or to think there is money for drastic tax cuts.
  • I’m slowly working my way through the Hindu epic the Mahabharata, as serialised on Indian television, and caught a moment where two mothers whose sons are on opposite sides in the war at the heart of the story console each other. One asks the other whether she will pray for victory: she doesn’t want to force the choice on God who has to disappoint one of them if they both pray for this.

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Dangerous support for a “strong leader”

Recent research from the Hansard Society shows a majority of Britons favouring a “strong leader who would break the rules”. This is a dangerous next step in the saga of Brexit.

Dangerously popular

The Hansard Society’s recent 2019 Audit of Political Engagement shows “54% say Britain needs a strong leader who is willing to break the rules”.

That research was done towards the end of 2018: it seems a fair guess that the present state of shambles around Brexit will have seen that number going up since then.

The Guardian coverage of this report on 8 April highlights the sense of concern: it was entitled “UK poised to embrace authoritarianism, warns Hansard Society”, with a subtitle “Public attitudes emerge that ‘challenge core tenets of our democracy’, says report”.

This connects with something I blogged recently about the Brexit saga in terms of failed dependency — of the raw emotions exposed when the sense of failed dependency. A very natural response is to seek a leader who can be trusted (or gives the impression that they can).

The Audit of Political Engagement also shows people thinking the government shouldn’t have to worry so much about votes in parliament, that more important decisions should go to referenda, puts public trust in MPs even lower than it was in the expenses scandal, and says 74% trust the military to act in the public interest, but only 34% say the same of MPs (and 29% say it of political parties). On top of this, it adds that 50% say the main political parties don’t care about people like them, 63% say “the system” is rigged to help the rich and powerful and the proportion who don’t think that political engagement can change the way the UK is run has hit a 15 year high.

That’s a heady cocktail. Like the scepticism around MPs, referenda assume we can’t trust parliament — it shifts the decision from politicians expected to find out facts and deliberate with each other to find a way forward with broad consent, to people coming to positions without the facts or the deliberation. That’s dangerous: lots of people would be tempted to vote “yes” to lower taxes and “yes” to more money for the NHS, but those two contradict and it takes information and deliberation to reconcile them. Continue reading “Dangerous support for a “strong leader””

Projecting imperialist fantasies onto Europe

There’s a wild — and delusional — optimism at the heart of the fantasy of a hard Brexit and trading on World Trade Organisation rules. The idea of “lots of trade deals” has been dubbed “British Empire 2.0”. What binds these together is people dealing with the awkward legacy of empire by projecting the negative emotions onto the EU and fantasising that we can capture the imagined glory of empire again.

The problem now is unresolved things from the past being worked out in the present, with the UK seeing its own imperialist tendencies in the EU, rather than acknowledging them, chasing an ill-conceived flight of fancy that tries to recapture the past without recognising its shadow, doing real damage in the present and even more serious damage to our future.

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Xenophobia and Brexit (again)

Early in December there was a revealing juxtaposition in my media feeds. There was a story by Matthew d’Ancona in The GuardianLet’s be honest about what’s really driving Brexit: bigotry”, and the Daily Mail inadvertently providing evidence.

Protest in Newcastle soon after Referendum result

The Guardian piece put a persuasive case for seeing bigotry at the heart of the support for Brexit. It is persuasive but not totally compelling, in that I know people who voted Leave out of a sense of alienation or wanting to waive two fingers at politicians, and others who voted Leave because life has been very tough and they felt that “something has to change” — without thinking too closely of the possibility of things changing for the worse.

And the Daily Mail ran one story appealing for volunteers to help in the NHS, and another proudly proclaiming that 11,000 people had come forward.

What’s intriguing about the Daily Mail story is that the claim has been that “immigrants are taking our jobs”. Though the reality is that immigrants also boost the economy and therefore create jobs, this has been a real fear. But Brexit is leading to staff shortages in the NHS, and the Daily Mail is proud of people volunteering to plug the gap, then something else is going on. Volunteers are not paid. The Daily Mail initiative has turned “immigrants taking our jobs”, which sounds like an economic argument, into “we should be prepared to work for nothing”, as a price (apparently) gladly-paid for getting rid of foreigners.

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What madness is this? Approval of Brexit deal soon after Armistice day.

The European Council has approved the Brexit settlement. Coming so soon after its members were at the ceremonies marking the anniversary of the end of the Great War, this should cause people to stop and think.

What Madness is this?

Today’s meeting of the European Council (25 November 2018) endorsed the EU withdraw agreement. In the words of European Commission President, Jean Claude Junker:

 

“To leave the European Union is not a moment of jubilation. It is a moment of deep sadness.”

 

“There are no smooth divorces.”

 


It is a day to weep.

With its characteristic professionalism and generosity, the EU has enabled some sort of agreement. Virtuoso work behind the scenes by negotiators means the deal that has been negotiated a lot better than it might be — though still well short of simply staying in the EU.

But it is a day to weep.

It is a fortnight since European leaders gathered to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War — the “Great War”, the “War to end all wars”. The determination to end war in Europe is what called the EU into being.

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Quasi-religious support for Brexit

One of the recurring themes in commentary on support for Brexit is that some of it is “religious”. That offers a way to think about some of the anxieties leading people to support it, even if Brexit itself is not the answer, and would harm more of its supporters than it helps.

Front page of The Sun, 13 June 2016

From the Leave side, Aaron Banks has spoken of “true Brexit” and Nigel Farrage accused Theresa May of “not believing in Brexit” after the General Election. Jacob Rees Mogg has accused other members of the parlimentary committee on Exciting the European Union of being “high priests of Remain”. From the Remain side Rafael Behr has written of the dangers of following the “scriptures of Rees-moggery”, and it’s not unusual to hear support for Brexit dismissed as “religious” when it seems to ignore economic reality.

There are a range of attitudes among Brexit-supporters I’ve spoken with, but the more strident support for Brexit is coming across as having a religious quality.

Some will want to bracket together religion and support for Brexit as irrational, and leave the argument there, but this short-changes both religion and what the support for Brexit. This matters because winning a “People’s Vote” on the terms of Brexit needs some who voted Leave in 2016 to vote the other way, and avoiding the damage that would come from alienating a substantial minority needs a large number of people to change sides. For people to switch sides means they need to feel that their concerns have been heard.

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