Sunday 20 October 2019

Harry Potter and the Beast of Brexit

The People's Vote march yesterday was a good opportunity to catch up on family news with my brother, Owen, as we shuffled along from Hyde Park to Parliament Square. We were joined by my colleague Amy Orben, appropriately kitted out in blue and yellow.

Amy and Owen, People's March, Oct 19 2019
As with previous anti-Brexit marches, the atmosphere was friendly, many of the placards were jokey, and the event was enlivened by the presence of unexpected groups who reinforced our view that the UK is a friendly, inclusive, if somewhat eccentric place. I saw no signs of aggression, except right at the end, when a group of thuggish young men stood outside a pub by Trafalgar Square, shouting insults at the marchers.
Morris not Boris dancers
But the underlying mood was sombre. There was a sense of inevitability that Brexit was going to be pushed through, regardless of the damage done to individuals and to the country. Propaganda has won. The 'Will of the People' is used to justify us accepting a bad deal. The phrase is seldom challenged by journalists, who allow interviewees to trot it out, alongside the mantra, 'Respect the Referendum'.

But it's nonsense, of course. The deal that Johnson has achieved respects nothing and nobody. It bears no relation to what the 52% voted for. Many people now realise they were conned by the pre-referendum propaganda, which promised a Brexit that would fix all kinds of problems – underfinancing of the NHS, immigration, housing, jobs, even climate change. As Sadiq Khan memorably said, nobody voted to be poorer. And few people would think the break-up of the United Kingdom is a reasonable price to pay for Brexit. It would take just 5% of Leavers to change their vote to Remain to change the outcome to favour Remain.

Even so, I'm not confident that another Referendum would lead to success for Remain. The problem is that Johnson and his cronies use dishonesty as a weapon. I feel like a character in a Harry Potter novel, where the good people are put at a disadvantage because they take ethical issues seriously.  That's why it's so important to hold our politicians to high standards: we have the Nolan principles of public life, but they lack teeth because they are just ignored. Meanwhile, those who want to preserve the country that we were proud to be part of – the one that came together so magnificently for the London Olympics in 2012 – aren't good at propaganda. Imagine if we had someone with the talent of Dominic Cummings fighting on our side: a propagandist who, instead of promoting fear and hatred, could manipulate people's opinions to make them feel pride and pleasure in being part of an inclusive, intelligent, peace-loving nation. Instead, those opposed to Brexit are divided, and show no signs of understanding how to campaign effectively – always put on the back foot. When we discuss the contents of Operation Yellowhammer, we are told this is Project Fear: an official government report is dismissed as Remain propaganda. Rather than making a pro-active case for remaining in the EU, we are manipulated into defending ourselves against preposterous accusations.

Despite the jokes and banter, the people marching yesterday were angry. We are angry to see our country wrecked for no good reason. I could put up with taking a personal hit to my standard of living if I could see that it benefited others – indeed I regularly vote for parties that propose higher taxation for people like me. The thing that is hard to stomach is the absence of coherent answers when you ask a Leaver about the benefits that will ensue after Brexit. I'm a rational person, and Brexit seems totally irrational – harming so many sectors of society while benefitting only the vulture capitalists. Meanwhile, on the international stage, our competitors and enemies must be enjoying the spectacle of seeing the EU being weakened, as we engage in this act of self-harm.

In the right-hand column below, are potential benefits of Brexit that have been put forward by the few people who actually engage when asked why they want to leave. In the left-hand column, I list risks of Brexit that are, as far as I am aware, adequately documented by people with expertise in these areas. Some of these, such as supply problems, are more relevant to no-Deal Brexit; others apply more broadly. There are dependencies between some of these: damage to farming, social care, NHS, science and Higher Education is a consequence of loss of EU workers: both from reluctance to live in a xenophobic country, and from legal restrictions on their employment here.  Disclaimer: I'm not an expert in politics and economics and I'd be glad to modify or add to the table if people can come up with well-evidenced arguments for doing so*.
My analysis of risks and benefits of Brexit
*Owen has commented on this (see below)
J.K. Rowling was prescient in her novels, which vividly described the triumph of propaganda over reason, of violence over peace, of the bully over the meek. With the Beast of Brexit, exemplified by Boris Johnson and his cronies, we see all these themes being played out in real life.

It is particularly galling when politicians argue that we have to have Brexit because otherwise there will be riots. In effect, this is saying that those who marched yesterday are to be ignored because they aren't violent. Of course, there are exceptions: I gather that it was not only Remain politicians who had to run the gauntlet of an angry crowd yesterday. Jacob Rees-Mogg was also verbally abused by a group of Remainers. I'm glad to say I have seen nobody defending such behaviour by either side. But politicians should not underestimate the genuine anger that is felt by Remainers, when people like Rees-Mogg claim in the Spectator that 'Everyone is saying “Just get on with it.” Moderate Remainers and Leavers alike are saying: “For goodness sake, please just finish it off.”’ One would hope that the thousands of moderate, peaceful marchers yesterday might disabuse him of that idea, yet I'm sure he'll continue to make these specious claims. Meanwhile, we are excluded from 'the People', are told we are undemocratic because we want a vote, and that we'd only be taken seriously if we started rioting.

I was particularly depressed to hear that some politicians had said they would support Boris Johnson's deal because they had received death threats from constituents. Have we really come to this? Are politicians saying to the people who marched yesterday that we'll only be listened to if we threaten to kill our opponents? Once we get to that point, we have lost all that is great about Britain. It is feeling perilously close.


  1. Dorothy -Great to join you on the march yesterday. I share your sense of alarm about the polarised attitudes and the pure propaganda that has driven the referendum result fuelled by the press that is largely owned by foreign billionaires with their own agendas.
    A few item to add to your check list of risks and benefits of leaving:-
    Leavers often say that "our laws are now dictated by Brussels" - I have rarely heard anyone name a law that they disagree with that came from the EU although right wing business owners might cite employment regulations and 'red tape'. There is also confusion between the ECJ which deals mainly with trade disputes in the single market and the EU Court of Human Rights which is separate to the EU and we will not be leaving.
    Secondly Brexiteers - especially the right wing Tories claim that we are restricted from striking our own FTAs whilst in the EU- true to a point but we would be leaving the world's largest and richest free trade area- on our doorstep- on the hope of securing deals that will never compensate for what would be lost.
    Regarding the risks and losses of leaving:
    The wholesale de-regulation that is implied by the Johnson deal in the name of 'red tape reduction' would put at risk environmental protection, food safety, agricultural standards, employment rights, product safety etc. Everyone complains about regulation until there is a big problem eg BSE crisis-'mad cow disease'
    Internal security re terrorism and organised crime would be affected by reduced EU wide cooperation.
    Lastly leaving on these terms would be a major victory for hard right politics and would take us towards a US/ Trump style low tax deregulated society and probably a Johnson government for 5 years- this may not be seen as a problem by some brexiteers until the disastrous impacts on our country begin to show.
    There is a lot to be concerned about but there was also reason for optimism yesterday- there is a large body of the public that is caring, intelligent and determined to retain our country's culture as an outward looking modern nation. We need to pull together to encourage a shared vision of hope. My view is that it is the climate crisis that could be the issue around which young, old, rich and poor and all race could find common purpose. Owen.

  2. I was also at the march, and agree with your blog. I found it to be a friendly experience, but with a somewhat sombre mood as we all grapple with sustaining hope after so much reason to despair. I didn't see anger, so much as a sense of injustice from people who want to play fair against opponents who are not playing fair and have both the media and the money to get their message across more effectively.

    Here are my additions on pros and cons:

    As a member of the EU we would be included in measures to reduce tax evasion, and increase transparency in both individual and corporate finances - something that seems to be driving the billionaires behind Brexit, who seek a deregulated economy where they can continue to evade paying their fair share by using offshore and international strategies that leave the rest of us poorer. Many of the super-rich have also bet against Britain, by shorting the pound, having already made millions from doing this for the Brexit vote in 2016. This includes both major backers of the current cabinet, and individuals within it.

    I think another part of what is forgotten is that at the moment we contribute to a central EU pot that is able to determine safety standards and regulations, but will have to pay the entire cost of this to go it alone in every sector, from food to medicine to machinery. When combined with the funding we get to support various projects, particularly in more deprived areas, this will cost more than the contributions we currently make to the EU, but the resulting protections will be much weaker - intentionally so, to allow greater profits from the companies backing Brexit, including those in the American right wing.

    As to reasons to leave, I think the main ones are imaginary - by which I mean things that people have been made to believe through implicit messages that will not happen in practice. There is a desire for change, and a sense of being left behind and having nothing to lose for people at the bottom end of growing inequality, especially in ex-industrial areas of the UK with high unemployment. The irony being that like Trump's campaign, the desire to "drain the swamp" and vote in an everyman you'd meet in the pub, has in fact voted in the very swampiest of swamp-dwellers, and millionaires who are even further from the lived experience of the working class. There are worries about immigration that come from ignorance and fear, and in no way match the reality (that immigrants are a net gain to the country economically, can already be controlled by our government, and are in fact being welcomed with the left hand whilst the right tells them to go away because we have skills shortages all over the country). There is a desire to understand how decisions are made, and to feel their vote counts. And somehow this has been merged with the fear of progress - that the straight white male is losing out to women, LGBTQ+ folk and people of colour - rather than seeing that this is levelling the playing field and lifting everyone upwards. Finally, it flags the way that the law hasn't kept pace with technology, and the claim to be only a conduit and not a publisher has allowed social media platforms to shirk responsibility for the lies proliferated upon them in a way that print media cannot. To me these are all issues that need addressing, but Brexit isn't the solution. And I very much hope that some people who voted for Brexit in 2016 are beginning to see that.