Opinionista Justin McCarthy 30 June 2016

Brexit: Abandon the scapegoating and look in the mirror

Britain’s in a spot of bother. The Conservatives are divided, Labour is imploding and somebody gave Nigel Farage a stage and a microphone, which will be a bitch to reclaim. Almost everybody has a Brexit scapegoat to lash, many of which are alarmingly pathological. Almost nobody is looking deeper than the thicket fringing the woods for the underlying cause – which just happens to be the very people who led the country straight into this mess.

The Brexit debate, before and after the referendum, isn’t actually about immigration. Nor for that matter is it about the economy. Or sovereignty. Or indeed racism or Polish plumbers or Romanian waitresses. These headline-grabbing topics are how emotions are made manifest, what a significant majority of politicians, analysts, the media and the upper classes either ignore or deliberately shirk. Which may explain why so many of them were caught flatfooted. The referendum was, and still very much is, about anger, frustration and fear. Anger at a succession of governments taking the underclass for granted, frustration born of strings of empty promises and fear of the unknown.

This fear is palpable on all sides. Remainers are afraid of a future outside of the EU – of the “uncharted waters” Britain faces (as if there is any certainty should it remain). Brexiters are afraid of a future where they have even less determination over their own affairs, paralysed and disaffected as they already are. Which is precisely why they won the day – their fear is grounded in decades of lived political stagnation. That the Tories are divided is evidence of an entrenched malaise. That Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was patently ambivalent is telling. That Nigel Farage, leader of the UKIP (a party with just one seat out of 650 in the House of Commons) was gifted so much attention is damning.

The Remain camp fretted over trade and economic impacts, projecting at best uncertainty, at worst doom and gloom. What this group of clever, erudite people once again failed to face is a good dose of honest reflection. Evidently their privilege doesn’t extend that far. It was Winston Churchill who said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”. If that sounds patronising it’s because it is; but sometimes that’s exactly the thinking required to unscramble an egg.

Economic arguments never win elections (or referendums) because when the chips are down, the language of economics is about opaque things like forecasts and predictions and boring stuff like data and charts and graphs. Admire him or detest him, Michael Gove (a Brexit champion) nailed it when he proclaimed that the British people “have had enough of experts”.

Too bloody right they have, but every highbrowed left-leaning politically correct unthinking reactionary knee-jerked predictably into howls of derision, demanding a second bite. Economic predictions are remarkably defective, fundamentally complex and infuriatingly unreliable. If I’ve learnt one thing well in half a lifetime in advertising it’s that in public communications, complex arguments always fail. Not because the man in the street is a mug, they fail because s/he becomes conscious of the effort to persuade that in turn raises instinctive resistance. Resistance creates a mental barrier that annihilates any appetite for reason. Some call it a bullshit detector, persuasion scientists call it the cognitive response model – it’s not necessarily what a messenger says that carries the persuasive effect, it’s what the recipient says to themselves once they’ve heard the message. You’d be better off trying to teach a feral cat to swim.

Which brings me to the Brexit camp, whose supporters have been cast as primitive, ignorant, xenophobic bigots by the self-appointed high priests of erudition bristling with unreflective rage, condescension and contempt. This same belittling attitude is on display across the Atlantic, where the bog-standard, glib establishment response to Trump is to blame the immorality of ordinary people rather than admit that he, like Boris (or Bojo if you’re chummy with him), is a product of the very system whose principles they purport to have baked into their DNA. All the Brexit camp did was shine an intensely focused light on that which created the anger, frustration and fear. Which is why, if you really insist on a Brexit scapegoat, let it be David Cameron. He’s the one who carelessly took Britain to the precipice in a dreadfully miscalculated gamble to settle an internal disagreement. As a learned friend of mine put it, “referendums are almost never a good way to decide policy”. Indeed they aren’t.

It was Cameron’s arrogance born of disconnected, stuffy elitism that led him to the craps table with Britain’s national interests stuffed in his pockets. Nick Clegg, former deputy Prime Minister in Cameron’s cabinet, highlighted this casual indifference in a piece in the Financial Times: “I remember asking the prime minister whether he was sure he could win a referendum designed to settle an internal Tory feud. I was breezily told that all would be well, of course it would be won.” Nick Cohen of The Guardian, whose distaste for Johnson appears to limit his capacity for intellectual rigour, is just one of many high-profile British political journalists who chose to play the man, in so doing missing a golden opportunity to send his multitude of erudite high priest readers a reminder about ingrained arrogance. “The real division in Britain is not between London and the north, Scotland and Wales or the old and young, but between Johnson, Gove and Farage and the voters they defrauded,” he opines. But this is diversionary bollocks. Cameron gave them the platform, the British people exercised their right to be heard.

Article 50 issues aside, Britain has suddenly arrived at its moment of political truth sooner than the US, which is just warming up for their O.K. Corral showdown. That Donald Trump made it this far has astonished everyone with the possible exception of Donald Trump. Should he prevail, Brexit will resemble pensioner discount Thursdays at the local Spar. Who will elitist Americans blame if their neighbours turn on the establishment they’ve repeatedly returned to power, largely unchecked? Nobody worth listening to ever promised democracy would be an easy ride, yet they’re repeatedly surprised when it isn’t.

If in doubt ask the Greeks. The self-appointed high priests of the West sniggered and mocked that tragedy, blind to the rising tide of resentment in their own downtown hoods. Conditions spurring the Greek crisis were very different, but the underlying principles aren’t. Many governments repeatedly fail to address the ever-widening class gulf. Between rescuing reckless banks with tax dollars from battered homeowners so that executives could award themselves unconscionable bonuses, to pouring trillions into spurious military interventions, paid for with revenue diverted from healthcare and the corpses of foolhardy young loyalists, so that their families could be repaid with the wrath of extremist ideological terrorism, to strings of broken promises, empty rhetoric and bald-faced lies while fed a steady patois of indigestible flotsam condescendingly offered as a salve, they fail to recognise the barbarians amassing at the gate.

The elite have enabled this larceny – it’s not only come to pass on their watch, it’s been vigorously defended. While they’ve swallowed austerity by downgrading their family ski trip by a week, their blue collared compatriots have downgraded their nutritional intake. Decades of pitiless indifference to this reality have constructed an impassable moat around the political class, compounding the sense of betrayal. Now that the barbarians have reached a tipping point, they’re blithely incriminating the rise of populism on the populist politicians. For all the lustre in the lives of the upper class, it’s rather curious they can’t detect the metal in irony. DM

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