Serious Talk About Brexit – Part 2

(Well, mostly serious — with a sidebar on RINOs, WINOs, BRINOs, TINOs, and Tiggers.)

(Part 1 here.)

UPDATED! Those making an honest, fact-based cost-benefit analysis of Brexit are coming back to say, “Leave the EU? Are you barking?” But those wedded to Leave as a political ideology (almost a religion) are turning every fact-based study counterclockwise (putting their thumbs on the scale, so to speak) in order to continue stoking the emotional fervor for Leave. Apparently, “It’s all about democracy.” Toffee-nosed Tories like Jacob Rees-Mogg are transformed almost overnight into humble servants of the common folk — the latter demanding that politicians deliver Brexit or else.

But who was it who aggressively propagandized the common folk (sometimes using dark or foreign money) in order to persuade them that Brexit was something like re-fighting the Second World War or repelling an invasion of terroristic foreigners? I admit this is an oversimplification, but to me Brexit looks like something dreamt up by a clique of eccentric millionaires of the English aristocracy, then put over on the common people by appealing to the worst sentiments in human nature.

(Note: To describe the architects of Brexit as eccentric millionaires may be misleading in that it suggests they act without rhyme or reason. One theory is that at least some of them act with the quite specific intent of turning the UK into a so-called “low-regulation” country where workers’ rights and environmental protection standards are gradually eroded, taxes are lowered, government services are drastically reduced, the NHS is privatised, and food safety falls well below EU standards. Perhaps the mascot for UKIP should be a chlorinated chicken!)

There is presently a similar populist phenomenon in America. Donald Trump has got millions of people begging the government to make them poorer by taking away their health care and lavishing billions on an unnecessary border wall with Mexico. Trump seems increasingly unhinged from reality; to subscribe to his views and policies, one has to intentionally blind oneself to the real world data coming in from reputable professionals whose life work has been to know whereof they speak. So, we can take this as a symptom of populist movements which lead to a dangerous disconnect between real world facts, and policies based on unicorns or folk devils: That symptom is increasing reliance on “alternative facts” and spinning the tale.

I am an American, and am familiar with the “ugly American” and “oafish American” memes which at some points in history have been absolutely spot on, and whose ingredients include imperialism, disdain for anything foreign, and a desire to dominate rather than participate coequally. But have a gander at this video of MEP Nigel Farage addressing the European Parliament just after the 2016 referendum:

Doesn’t he seem to be acting out the worst stereotype of an ugly Britisher? Yet, this type of snide, superior attitude (and corresponding disdain for the EU) is an oft-encountered feature of the Leave movement.

To high EU officials, Farage is both Mr Brexit and Mr Big Mouth. He’s well-known to go out of his way to insult and abuse people just for sport, to be loud, obnoxious, and obstreperous. In the above clip, at 4:10 he famously tells the EU Parliament: “I know that virtually none of you have ever done a proper job in your lives, or worked in business, or worked in trade, or indeed ever created a job. But listen, just listen…”

To the average viewer possessing sense and sensibility, such massive put-downs worthy of an insult comic would be the main takeaway from his speech (plus the loud boos Farage certainly earned). Here’s a quick mashup of the same event, with more comments from MEPs:

But strangely, just after this eccentric performance Farage was interviewed by BBC News, and the accompanying chyrons seem to treat him as a sober statesman, e.g.: “Nigel Farage: The UK is a beacon of hope to democrats.”

Farage is proud of being the perennial “pantomime villain” in EU Parliament, but how does this set the table for Brexit negotiations? Keep in mind that his music-hall comedy act does not consist only of personal abuse.

He’s on record wanting the European Union to fail and die, and never misses an opportunity to gloat over any setback. Thus, he’s about as welcome as a skunk at a garden party; yet he’s arguably the most visible (and audible) face of the UK in Brussels, sapping good will at every opportunity.

To the EU, Brexit represents the odd, temporary victory of no-nothing big mouths like Farage. The EU is committed to minimising the damage incurred from UK withdrawal, while remaining true to core principles.

Compared to Farage’s Eurosceptic or Europhobic view, most young people (who will be the inheritors of whatever policy is adopted) have a completely different view of the EU. They have their British identity, true. But they don’t see that identity as being fundamentally in conflict with the EU. Having grown up with things like open borders, hassle-free travel, cheap and easy access to food and medicine produced in the EU, and close friends who are from the EU, their attitude tends to be open and welcoming. They too want the best deal they can get from the EU, but they’re more apt to believe it can be gotten by staying in. They don’t see the UK as being in a geopolitical conflict with the EU, and don’t agree with the far right that those who fail to support Brexit are “traitors.” Nor do they think the EU is run by (pick your stereotype) Nazis, Soviets, or George Soros. Their daily experience does not lead them to believe that British sovereignty is in danger from EU membership. The two can easily coexist.

The genius of James O’Brien’s Germany+ reframing (see Part 1) is that it gets us beyond the Leave/Remain dichotomy and returns us to the fundamental question: What’s the best deal? Imagine you put a diverse group of voters to a blindfold test of different deals available, using neutral labeling such as Option A, Option B, Option C, etc. Each option would be summarized in neutral language, with no appeals to sentiment, patriotism, or bias of any kind, and no promises of unicorns — only facts that can be agreed upon as accurate by a neutral regulating body composed of respected figures representing diverse views, but no obvious crackpots, demagogues, or politicians-on-the-make.

Under those conditions, it wouldn’t surprise me if a majority of voters chose the option which (when the blindfold was removed) turned out to be Germany+, a.k.a. Remain.

The sad and absurd fact is that after three years of messing about with Brexit, trying to figure out what it would actually mean in practice, a great many experts have concluded that it would mean a poorer UK with a reduced standard of living — especially for those already living in poverty. Under one scenario there would be further depreciation of the British pound, as well as a rise in prices for fruit and veg imported from the EU during late winter/early spring. Under that scenario, some working class families might be reduced to a diet of mostly beans on toast. (Call it Project Fear if you like; it remains a possibility.) And as noted in a lovely dance with language by Baroness Bull in the House of Lords:

Perhaps the biggest threat to women is dependent on what happens to our economy if — and after — we leave the EU. Any negative impacts of an orderly Brexit, or, in the worst case, of leaving without a deal, will hit women — specifically, the most vulnerable women in our society — hardest. Reductions in public spending have a higher impact on women, as the primary users of public services. Cuts in public sector employment or pay disproportionately affect women because of their greater concentration in this sector. Strains on social care increase pressures on women because they are more likely to care for elderly or disabled family members.

Baroness Bull of Aldwych

Again, the problem with large, complex systems with many variables is that no one knows for sure what will happen when you throw the switch on a massive, fairly sudden change. It might come right in the end, but that could take years. In the meantime, a great many individuals and small businesses could go under; and some global firms might minimise investment.

There’s an increasingly odd disconnect between the happy talk of Brexiteers and the real world data coming in. According to The Times, the government have now quietly drawn up plans for a “hardship fund” to be used to offset the negative effects of a no-deal Brexit:

No-deal hardship fund planned for surge in jobless

Ministers are planning a “hardship fund” for Britons impoverished by a no-deal Brexit.

A leaked document from the cabinet committee dedicated to preparing for a chaotic rupture with the European Union reveals the extraordinary scenarios being prepared for in Whitehall.

Other measures under consideration include using “tax and benefits policy” to offset rises in the cost of living, protection for parts of the country “geographically vulnerable” to food shortages and sourcing alternative food for schools, prisons and hospitals.

The plans were drawn up at a meeting this month of the EU exit and trade (preparedness) committee, which is chaired by Theresa May and attended by almost every cabinet minister.

–Henry Zeffman, Political Correspondent

Pity that bit about hardship not being on the big red bus. 😉

Only a few years ago people were saying: “Brexit — What a lovely idea!” Now they’re saying: “Brexit — We made it through the Blitz, we can make it through this.” That’s a scary lesson in how expectations are being managed. Good news, citizens! Your chocolate ration has been raised again: from 30 grams to 20 grams per week.

How We Got Here

It troubles me that lately both the the UK media and politicians seem to have given up questioning how we got here — how the nature of the referendum and the means used to win Leave have led us to the present morass, this inability to reach some kind of deal or consensus. Of course, any reckoning of how we got here must include the “ugly Britisher” act performed by Nigel Farage at EU Parliament for years on end.

I suspect most EU officials are mature, practical people who don’t want to respond with ill will toward the UK, and are trying in good faith to negotiate a withdrawal deal which is fair to all parties. But how many daily insults from the likes of Farage can they withstand, knowing that his style of rhetoric leads to the burning of EU flags in the streets of Britain, and on social media?

Neither the Tories nor UKIP, nor those even farther right, have a clear sense of the ideals upon which the EU was founded, and toward which it tries to gravitate. Quoting Lord Davies of Stamford:

The Tory party has never understood the moral force or the genuine idealism behind the European Union, or its genuine commitment to the concept of solidarity. … The idea that the EU would take a permanent stand on behalf of the Irish, who are rightly defending their right not to have their country divided in half by a hideous permanent border, will not have occurred to them. They will have said, “Oh no. There’s no way that the EU, with 500 million people, will allow a country of 2 million or 3 million to stand in its way”. They were completely wrong on all those points — disastrously wrong.

Brexit is not just bad policy, but bad policy arrived at by questionable means, and championed by questionable figures.

Due to the considerable deception involved in selling Brexit to UK citizenry, when it comes to actual implementation the pieces just don’t fit. There doesn’t seem to be a deal which can be cobbled together to satisfy all (or even most) factions.

Brexit as a concept has built-in structural problems. It was always likely to be deeply divisive; always likely to reanimate the Irish “troubles” and reinvigorate the call for Scottish independence; and as Tony Blair has pointed out, at one end of the Brexit deal spectrum you get a “pointless Brexit,” while at the other end you get a “painful Brexit”:

More and more, Brexit comes to resemble the thing that couldn’t be done, the carpet that couldn’t be laid. You tack it down in one place, it just sticks up in another.

What strikes me as particularly shameful is that leaders of the two main political parties seem engaged in a massive reenactment of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Neither is willing to face the naked truth that Brexit is a sham solution to some very real underlying problems — problems which are best solved whilst remaining in the EU.

If what we truly have is an Emperor’s New Clothes problem, this explains why compromise is so difficult. Those who smile wanly and commend us to adopt pleasant compromises are (in effect) suggesting that the Emperor is partially clothed — a view which pleases no one. (Perhaps he’s wearing only a jockstrap and a clown hat.) The 2016 referendum has arguably created a rift which — like the Catholic/Protestant rift among the Irish — leads to a binary split: Brexit is either the greatest thing since sliced bread, or else it’s total rubbish. Lord Davies claims it’s total rubbish:

This is rubbish. That is the point: this is total rubbish. We are buying hot air. There is nothing in it at all. There are no countervailing economic benefits from Brexit, no economic gains or economic revenues. Not one has been mentioned in the months of discussion here, and not one exists. None exists outside the fantasies of the Government. It is a very serious matter. I do not know whether the Government have deceived themselves, ​but they must not be allowed to deceive the British people.

–Lord Davies of Stamford

Some “good government” types take the position that yes, Brexit is mostly rubbish, but the people did vote for it, so we have to respect their wishes and enact it anyway. But to do so is to reject the very benefits of parliamentary democracy over direct democracy: The Greek philosophers were highly suspicious of direct democracy, having observed firsthand that the common people can easily be misled by false arguments or the arousal of base passions. (Perhaps a big red horse?) Such is the case with Brexit. In a parliamentary democracy, the duty of elected leaders is not to be a rubber stamp for popular sentiment, but to make decisions that will most benefit their constituents. Now, a tough question: Are the MPs who admit that Brexit is mostly rubbish but vote for it anyway really “good government” types? Or are they cowardly politicians, afraid to do the right thing lest they be punished by rowdy Leave voters?

It is in this context that we have to admire members of the new Independent Group. They’re like canaries in the coal mine, giving us all valuable feedback on how toxic British politics has become. They’ve defected from both Labour and Conservative parties, and have coalesced around the need for a People’s Vote. Such a vote, if politically feasible, would not solve all Brexit-related problems; but it would at least clarify whether — after seeing what Brexit looks like in the doing (and the government’s incompetence to implement it) — the people still want the government to proceed. If (as I’ve suggested elsewhere) Brexit is a phenomenon related to the madness of crowds for tulip bulbs and Internet stocks, then the hope for Remainers is that the fancy has largely passed, dampened perhaps by economic reports which trickle out (or are leaked by government officials) that Brexit will likely entail hardship and a lower standard of living for the British people.

The End Game

For both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit may have become a no-win issue. If Brexit is actually implemented in some form, the results may range from suboptimal to catastrophic. Better in the end to find some way of avoiding Brexit, perhaps via a People’s Vote. But whilst a Remain solution may yield better results for most Britons (and avert problems with Scotland and Northern Ireland), both May and Corbyn fear the political repercussions of turning back from the brink. Having hitched their wagons to the black star of Brexit, they fear looking weak, foolish, and indecisive. They dread the backlash from those common folk who have been propagandized to believe that Brexit is “all about democracy,” and that any failure by government to deliver Brexit should be greeted with violence in the streets, and more death threats to politicians.

It’s hard to see how this ends well. But truth will out in the end, so better to be on the side of truth, even as a latecomer, and even if it costs you votes. Perhaps some coalition of Tory Remainers, Labour Remainers, and fledgling Independents will do something brave and noble in the end. But there’s not much time left. (The House of Commons has plenty of green benches, but sadly, only one Green MP: Caroline Lucas.)

The EU can’t tell May in an obvious manner how to resolve the present impasse. But they’ve strongly hinted that they would be willing to reopen negotiations if she were to relax her red lines and work with Labour to come up with a soft Brexit that could garner wide cross-party support.

A soft Brexit is what Tony Blair also calls a “pointless” Brexit. He’s mostly right; but a soft Brexit is also a relatively harmless Brexit. At some point, the majority of politicians — both Conservative and Labour — may want out of this Brexit debacle. But they’ll want a fig leaf for doing so. So, a soft Brexit is also a fig leaf Brexit. If May and Corbyn reach a soft Brexit deal whereby the UK remains in both the Customs Union and the Single Market (or some variations thereof possibly renamed for cosmetic purposes), they can adopt the public stance that they’ve delivered Brexit for the people. Hoorah for Democracy, and let’s move on! Remain would be better, but political leaders fear it. It would leave them standing “alone and naked” (to coin a phrase).

So an extension of Article 50 followed by a negotiation leading to a soft Brexit is another possible end game scenario — maybe the best we can hope for, given the political realities.

I vote we call it a “Meat and Two Veg Brexit.” The “meat” would be an agreement (at least in principle) to exercise greater control over immigration. (The details can be fudged.) The “two veg” would be membership in the Customs Union and Single Market. Don’t mention Norway, or Germany, or the war, and people just might go for it! “What about that Theresa May, then? She gave us a right proper Meat and Two Veg Brexit. How’s that for democracy, mate?”


Sidebar: Night of the BRINO

Here in the states, we’re used to strife between the Republican right and far right. Moderate Republicans (a nearly extinct breed) who fail to support far right causes are often accused of being RINOs: Republicans In Name Only.

You may also know that our lunatic president, Donald Trump, is obsessed with building a huge, multi-billion dollar border wall to keep out Mexicans purported to possess excessive amounts of duct tape. The question has arisen: How do we pacify him, shut him up? One answer: Put up a Fotomat, call it a wall, then get the hell out of Dodge!

The Fotomat, an extinct structure belonging to an era when family snaps needed to be developed in a photo lab. It is here memorialised in oils by Skowhegan, whose technique is unusual — the clouds being fashioned with a palette knife, the medium being a mixture of Brylcreem and ground Lifesavers. Reproduction courtesy https://www.fotomatfans.com/fotomat-1984/

The Fotomat solution, if implemented, would be a WINO or Wall In Name Only. (Obvious headline: TRUMP BORDER PLAN SAVED BY WINO.)

Likewise, the BRINO acronym (attributed to Jacob Rees-Mogg) stands for Brexit In Name Only. Picture a Brexit so soft and delicate that its breath can barely be detected against the bright-burnished vambrance of a suit of armour. Who knows? March 29 could turn out to be the Night of the BRINO:

Typical false advertising. What they don’t tell you is that Night of the Lepus includes a cast of thousands… of bunny rabbits!

One thing’s for sure: If a you’re a politician who’s been selling Brexit door-to-door, a suit of armour is recommended attire. 😉

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

P.S. Hate to ask, but since Anna Soubry is a Remainer and favours a People’s Vote, might she be a TINO? A dated joke, as she’s now left the Tories and gone Independent or “Tigger”:

There’s a new bill to ban dog meat consumption. Would that apply to Brexit as well? Is there an ethical way to dispose of dog meat like Brexit, without eating it raw as some are doing?

* * *

Serious Talk About Brexit – Part 1

With a sidebar about The Independent Group and Mrs Pritchard

I continue to care about Brexit for a number of reasons:

– It’s like watching a slow-motion train wreck, but with some possibility that the wreck might still be averted, perhaps by getting the Conductor to stop sleepwalking or robot dancing.

– It’s very sad for the UK, the EU, the world at large, and all the people who are likely to be adversely affected.

– I want to see the UK thrive in the present and in the future, but Brexit looks to me like a retreat into the past. That never works. (Maybe it should be called brexosaurus rex.)

I take the subject of Brexit seriously, but often treat it with humour because that’s my approach to reality in general. Humour is not just entertainment, but also a way of stepping outside the system and looking at things in novel ways that the bureaucratic process (or a purely logical mindset) might filter out.

So much has been said about Brexit, and I’ll try to avoid stating the obvious or oft-repeated. Still, let me begin by discussing a couple of terms which have arisen during the Brexit debate:

Blindfold Brexit: This term suggests that by and large, people don’t really understand what Brexit is or how it will affect their daily lives. Before we can really understand the concept of leaving the EU, we need to understand what it has meant to be part of the EU for 45 years. This is, to some extent, specialist knowledge. One needs to examine all the ways in which the UK and EU are intertwined after nearly half a century of intense cooperation. It’s a study of complex systems, including how the two are joined economically, politically, legally, culturally, and even physically (via the Channel Tunnel) — taking into account things like frictionless trade, ready access to health care for the 300,000 British pensioners living in Spain, and the sense among the younger generation of Britons that they can easily live, work and study anywhere in Europe and greatly benefit from the experience.

Understanding what being in the EU has meant also entails fully valuing the peace dividend — that benefit conferred when European nations engage in a long-term strategy of cooperation. It means recognizing that the tide of history post-World War II is toward greater cooperation between nations, in order to avert further world wars and tackle global problems with global strategies. The UK can express its leadership qualities most effectively through participation, not isolation. Decisions are made by those who show up.

By contrast, the Leave campaign seemed to mischaracterize the nature of historic cooperation between the UK and EU, to frame issues deceptively, and to play on jingoistic passions which discourage fact-based inquiry and obscure the genuine issues at stake.

The concept of a “blindfold Brexit” gives rise to the terms “Brexit fantasy” and “Brexit reality.” Voters were arguably subjected to a marketing blitz which tried to hook them on Brexit fantasy. Three years later, as the data comes in from economists, industry leaders, and affected citizens, Brexit reality seems far harsher than the pleasant fantasy voters were spoon-fed. This naturally spurs interest in a second, fact-based referendum, or a super soft (Norway style) Brexit which does minimal harm.

Questions of national identity and how people feel about the EU are certainly important. It is a matter of balance. The trouble is, the Leave campaign seemed to stress nationalism and fear of foreigners, while making unrealistic promises about economic benefits, and downplaying the complex problems which might arise from Brexit.

It is not a simple matter, and may be likened to a difficult surgery about which expert advice is desperately needed. In this sense, it may be argued that Brexit was not an ideal question for a referendum in the first place. Suppose I have heart trouble. I know full well that the experts are often wrong. But should I put the question of my surgery to a footballer, a manicurist, and a pub crawler? On balance, I place more stock in the opinion of a heart specialist, even knowing he or she might be wrong.

There is also this to be said about large, complex systems: When making major changes that are untested, no one can be certain of the outcome. An outgrowth of this view is that those championing Brexit are not true conservatives, but rather reactionaries. (Nod to Anna Soubry*, who might agree.) They are steeped in foolish derring-do. “Full speed ahead, and damn the torpedoes!” But if, as experts predict, Brexit will mean a poorer UK and at least some breakdown of existing systems, it is not Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, or Jacob Rees-Mogg who will feel the shock. Rather, it is those who are presently just getting by, but will go under should economic conditions worsen.

*I sometimes indulge in a stereotyped view of the Tories, but there are some like Anna Soubry whom I genuinely admire for their courage and integrity. (See below for exciting news about Soubry!)

Given that the existing relationship between the UK and EU has been built up over 45 years, it may be argued that the true conservative position would be to make any changes gradually, preserving as much as possible of what is beneficial, and avoiding any sudden shock. But what we appear to see is a reactionary approach gaining the upper hand. The choices presently being pushed by the ruling party are not between good and bad, but between bad and worse — between shooting ourselves in the foot, or both feet.

This brings us to two other terms: “blackmail Brexit” and “sleepwalking to no-deal Brexit.” The basic stance of the blackmailer is to say, “If you don’t do X, then I shall do Y.” As has been repeated ad nauseum, Theresa May’s strategy seems to be running down the clock to late March, then hitting MPs with a binary choice: either my deal or no deal. She is like some digitised rhinoceros ramming a shed, trying to get her deal through by sheer force and dint of repetition. But imagine if her deal should win the day! How excited can one get about writing home to say, “Good news! I only shot myself in one foot and not both feet”?

The position of the Tory party is that no-deal must be left on the table as a negotiating tactic with Brussels. But this is very dangerous due to the strong possibility of sleepwalking to a no-deal Brexit. To understand this danger, we need to recognize a fundamental problem with political bureaucracies. Far from being adroit and able to stop on a dime, they tend to be clumsy and subject to inertia. They are like huge ships whose course is quite difficult and time-consuming to correct, even where the will exists to do so. You can switch off the engine, but the vessel may continue in the same direction for several miles.

On an issue such as Brexit, positions tend to harden over time, rather than becoming more flexible. Just look at the history of warfare, including World War II, the Vietnam War, and the War in Iraq. One would have expected cooler heads to prevail, or deals to be reached at the last minute; but instead positions hardened and leaders found no way out. Perhaps some leaders wished to avoid or quickly end these wars; but neither they nor the institutions they represented possessed the necessary creativity and brinksmanship. In this vein, if we look to both the May government and the House of Commons, do we really have faith that they can come together at the eleventh hour and avoid a no-deal Brexit? This seems highly doubtful, especially since some in May’s own party are clamouring for no-deal — not as a negotiating tactic or empty threat, but as a consummation devoutly to be wished. Given the deceptive nature of the Leave campaign, Brexiteers are not much trusted outside their own circles.

A no-deal Brexit is like a gun which some moderate Tories claim Theresa May only needs for protection. Meanwhile, ERG members are saying, “Yes! Yes! Give us the gun! We want to shoot it off. If we run out of feet, we can always shoot our arms and legs!” This naturally puts non-certifiable MPs in mind of gun control. 😉

So the risk is high, but what is the reward? What crumb might Brussels throw at the last moment to justify the risk of a no-deal Brexit? Caving on the Irish backstop? Is that likely, and would it even be beneficial in the long run? A cost-benefit analysis suggests that the risks greatly outweigh the rewards, and that the right course for Parliament is to take no-deal off the table through binding legislation.

The nature of the political forces at work is that we are gradually being groomed to accept a choice between bad and worse. We need the insight and courage to step outside the system and return to fundamental questions about Brexit: What is it really (in the doing, not the selling), and will it really benefit the UK? If not, then by all means change course, rather than being carried along by the inertia of entrenched political interests, whether Conservative or Labour — both of which have grown increasingly strident and extreme. Quoting Tony Blair: “We’re not in a state of hypnosis to do this. We can assume consciousness. We have free will, and it’s past time to exercise it.”

brexit-may-corbyn-boat-throwing-up-bertrams

The Four Nations of the United Kingdom, The English Aristocracy, and Hubris

I love the English, and indeed the United Kingdom with all its complications. Most readers will know that the UK consists of four nations: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. But much of the power remains with the central government in Westminster. It rests with the English, even though the other nations have so-called “devolved governments” which allow them to make many decisions locally.

When you love someone, you get to know their best qualities, but also their worst qualities as well. The worst quality sometimes exhibited by the English aristocracy is a sense of superiority which can lead to arrogance, superciliousness, and hubris.

In hubris, one badly misreads a situation due to excessive pride or self-will. Now, truth be told, the Welsh, Scots, and Northern Irish view Brexit as primarily an English invention. Some support it, some don’t. Of crucial importance, the majorities in both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. The Scots in particular are hopping mad about being dragged kicking and screaming out of the EU by the English, and are threatening to secede from the Kingdom.

But out of hubris, some Brexiteers wrongly assume that the thread which weaves together the four nations is so strong that nothing they could do would rend or tear it. Whatever the English aristocracy decides (their thinking goes), the other nations will have to go along with in the end. This way of thinking is wrong. The alliance between the four nations is a fragile one, and if the English forcibly pursue a major policy initiative (e.g. Brexit) which the Scots and Northern Irish oppose, this may have the long-term effect of tearing the Kingdom apart. The same nationalist sentiment which Brexiteers have unleashed to justify leaving the EU can easily arise within individual nations, so that they too vote Leave: Leaving the UK.

Peace in Northern Island is also fragile. The legendary “troubles” can easily start up again. The opposing forces which fought bitterly for three decades have not gone away, and the Good Friday Agreement was not a permanent solution, but rather a long-lasting truce which has (thankfully) held until the present time, with passions still running high beneath the surface.

“Zombie” Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg seems oblivious to the human suffering which could ensue in the event Brexit leads to a hard border:

As ERG members like Rees-Mogg have pulled the Conservative party farther to the right, Theresa May has responded by pandering to their demand that the Irish backstop be removed, weakened, or replaced by unspecified “alternative arrangements” which critics claim don’t currently exist.

Do not doubt that Northern Ireland is still like a vial of nitroglycerin. Don’t even think about a hard border between NI and the Republic of Ireland, or you may set off an explosion. This is why the EU 27 remain strongly opposed to any compromise on the Irish backstop.

The Germany+ Option

If you follow Brexit, you may have heard of options like Norway+ or Canada++. James O’Brien, a broadcaster with LBC (Leading Britains’s Conversation), has come up with something he calls Germany+:

Whether as a thought experiment or an experiment in framing, it’s a valuable addition to the debate. You can read more about it in this Twitter thread:

In case you missed the reveal, or the penny hasn’t dropped, O’Brien is actually describing Remain, i.e. the deal which the UK presently enjoys with the EU. He’s calling it Germany+ to see who bites. Very clever!

This helps us focus on the underlying question behind Brexit: Can the UK get a better deal than it already has with the EU? If not, what would be the point of Brexit? Unless (as was sometimes said of fancy handkerchiefs), Brexit is for “showing, not blowing” — an attitude (of defiance) toward the EU, rather than a substantive policy proposal which (if implemented) would actually benefit the UK.

This way of framing things highlights the oddness of voting Leave based on sentiment, when most of the practical questions surrounding Brexit involve trade, borders, health care, employment/unemployment, appreciation/devaluation of the pound, and attracting or discouraging business investment.

Here’s a thought: Is it possible that some Brexiteers who are wedded to Brexit for purely sentimental reasons (e.g. nationalism, racism, or belief in the natural superiority of the English aristocracy) might be shading the facts in order to boost the popularity of Leave? Could they be deceiving the fellows at working men’s clubs into thinking that in addition to being some sort of patriotic revival movement, Brexit will also make them richer and improve their quality of life? Don’t the facts suggest the very opposite?

As regards Brexit fantasy versus Brexit reality, this leads back to the oft-posed question, “Did people really vote Leave knowing it would make them poorer?”

Increasingly, businesses are shouting right out loud, “We’re closing this plant because of Brexit. We’re shuttering this airline because of Brexit. We’re moving our facilities to Amsterdam because of Brexit.” Here, the evidence that Brexiteers are sentiment-based rather than fact-based is this: As the data comes in from businesses saying point blank that they’re closing or leaving because of Brexit, the argument from Brexiteers is: “Oh, these were just badly run companies in highly competitive fields. They say they’re folding because of Brexit, but we shouldn’t believe them. They’re only using Brexit as an excuse.”

So, the party of business no longer trusts businesses to give honest feedback about why they’re leaving. Blame has to be relocated away from Brexit at all cost. Media spinners must come up with “alternative facts” to explain away the frank complaints from business owners that Brexit is already costing them millions.

brexit-uk-closed-for-business_v2Another way of deflecting these complaints is to blame it all on Remainers, or even on those Leavers who don’t agree with the Prime Minister’s withdrawal plan. According to this manner of spinning, Brexit would have gone swimmingly well if only everyone had gotten on board. Brexit isn’t bad for business, only uncertainty is bad for business. Therefore, don’t you dare put the brakes on Brexit, or rethink the wisdom of the policy. Just conform, conform, conform. If you won’t vote for May’s deal, we’ll strap you down and inject no-deal intravenously. Belt up and eat your Brexit! But in truth,

1. Brexit was always flawed policy.
2. That Brexit would be highly contentious was entirely forseeable.
3. Even at this late date, the emphasis should still be on getting the best deal possible for the British people, even if that turns out to be Remain.

Even the most wackadoo Brexiteers aren’t suggesting that the UK should have no trade with the EU, that travel to EU countries should be banned, or that all security arrangements should be scrapped. These things will always continue in some form, and that form will always constitute a “deal.” The Leave/Remain dichotomy tends to obscure this essential fact.

I would rephrase the question asked in the initial referendum thusly:

If the UK can get a better deal and improve its standard of living by leaving the EU, would you support that decision?

The key word is “if.” It would then have been up to experts in diverse fields to study the problem exhaustively and reach a consensus not based primarily on sentiment, unicorn worship, magic beans, or EU hatred, but on what genuine benefits can be achieved, and at what risk or cost. This would include the long-term benefit of the peace dividend which comes from EU membership, and the long-term risk that leaving the EU might fracture the Kingdom.

Some data from experts is flowing in now, in the final days before the March 29 deadline. But unfortunately, there’s a disconnect between the real world data and the sentiment-driven political momentum for Leave. The experts are increasingly telling us that Brexit is (to use the technical term) “bad mojo.” But Leavers are swinging the lamp and spinning the tale, claiming the experts are wrong and businesses who say they’re leaving because of Brexit are just fibbing.

The facts are moving in one direction, but the political demand for Leave is moving in the opposite direction. This is very bad, and does suggest that UK politics is currently broken. Yet, there are exciting developments!


Sidebar: The Independent Group and Mrs Pritchard

Call me a terrible UK politics geek, but I’m genuinely excited that the self-proclaimed “three amigos” — Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston, and Heidi Allen — have defected from the Conservative Party and joined the new Independent Group alongside several former Labour MPs who likewise defected. It’s a sort of Amazing Mrs Pritchard moment:

The sun seems to be shining on these new independents.

One senses their joy in breaking away from the rigidity and extremism of their respective parties, and trying to create something new based on shared human values, not the old party machine. May their efforts be crowned with success, and may many more join them!

I don’t want to go completely bendy bananas over them, or fall victim to “any port in a storm” syndrome. It remains to be seen whether they can keep their movement relatively pure, when much of the political system revolves around money and entrenched interests, and treats anyone who tries to change that as a threat to be put down.

Calling it an Amazing Mrs Pritchard moment actually implies this dual nature of new political movements. They may begin with great hope and promise, but are sometimes brought down by money matters or internal strife. It takes a lot of love and shared human values for refugees from both the Tory and Labour parties to form a lasting coalition which works. That being said, I do see in them genuine idealism and a real longing to change things for the better. We shall see!

Here, my identity as a spiritual seeker overlaps with my occasional role as a political commentator. I know that if you try to change things for the better, you may be subjected to hatred and harassment. At least three members of the new Independent Group — Luciana Berger, Anna Soubry, and Sarah Wollaston — know this all too well. The threats they’ve received in the past can’t be brushed aside so easily, given that MP Jo Cox was brutally murdered in 2016 by a political extremist. Three years later, Twitter abuse hurled at politicians is often punctuated with the hashtag #JoCox as a grim reminder.

Politics in the UK, the US, and many other nations has become toxic. We seem to be going through a cosmic period in which people are driven to extremes of difference or polarity. As in Yeats’ immortal poem “The Second Coming,” the centre cannot hold, and the worst are full of passionate intensity.

I’m tempted to switch poets in midstream and say: “Well, what can a poorboy do/ ‘Cept to sing for a rock n’ roll band?” But I’ll quietly resist the urge. Better to quote the immortal Sri Chinmoy:

No more am I the foolish customer
Of a dry, sterile, intellectual breeze.
I shall buy only
The weaving visions of the emerald-Beyond.

–Sri Chinmoy, “Visions of the Emerald Beyond”

Stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon (we hope).

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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EU’s Juncker hasn’t read his George Lakoff

Today’s topics: Brexit, poindexters, I am not a nerd, and yes we have no bananas. Oh, and Donald Tusk’s “special place in hell” comment.

In an impassioned (for him) but possibly counterproductive speech, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said he had a message “for those who are saying that the Commission is composed by blind, stupid, stubborn technocrats…” What was his message? No one knows, because the audience quickly drowned him out with cries of “They’re right!”

Okay, maybe they didn’t, but the point is: This is a prime example of what George Lakoff might call “negative framing,” e.g. Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” speech, or Monty Python’s “There is no cannibalism in the British Navy.”

Once you plant the image in the mind of your audience that the EC might at least possibly consist of blind, stupid, stubborn technocrats, you then have to fight to overcome that image. I like President Juncker well enough, but this is a gaff which invites parody:

What Juncker should have done is open with a couple of jokes about bendy bananas, or perhaps a musical number entitled “Yes, We Have No Bendy Bananas.” Then, once the crowd was warmed up, he could have continued on a positive note: “I come to you today with good news! EC members have excellent eyesight and fare well on intelligence tests. They’re super flexible. They include sports jocks and passionate lovers. No, there are absolutely no poindexters in the EC. Oops! I did it again…”

Monty Python served up a prime example of intentional negative framing in “POLITICIANS – An Apology”:

We would like to apologize for the way in which politicians are represented in this programme. It was never our intention to imply that politicians are weak-kneed, political time-servers who are concerned more with their personal vendettas and private power struggles than the problems of government, nor to suggest at any point that they sacrifice their credibility by denying free debate on vital matters in the mistaken impression that party unity comes before the well-being of the people they supposedly represent. Nor to imply at any stage that they are squabbling little toadies without an ounce of concern for the vital social problems of today. Nor indeed do we intend that viewers should consider them as crabby ulcerous little self-seeking vermin with furry legs and an excessive addiction to alcohol and certain explicit sexual practices which some people might find offensive.

We are sorry if this impression has come across.

— Monty Python’s Flying Circus, s03e06

As for poindexters (a.k.a. nerds), this YouTube attempts to explain the derivation:

Props to Simon Whistler! (I’ve seen a lovely portrait of his mother.) But the video fails to note that the term “poindexter” was further popularized by The Simpsons TV show, which emerged in the late 1980s — the same period in which Admiral John Poindexter gave testimony to Congress about the Contragate scandal:

Note memorable examples of framing in the clip. There can be a cascade effect to memes. This one may include the Poindexter from Felix The Cat, the Poindexter from Revege of the Nerds, but also the Poindexter brought to you by the U.S. Navy — which like the British Navy, has no history of cannibalism. Or at least, very little.

Poindexter from Felix The Cat

Poindexter from Revenge of the Nerds

The King of Poindexters: Admiral John

Was there really an outbreak of “Poindex-teria” in 1987? The author of this Chicago Tribune piece seems to have tongue (rather than pipe) firmly planted in cheek:

The country loved it. Young men flocked to barber shops to get “Dexter-dome” haircuts. Young women made passes at men who wore glasses. There were T-shirts: “Poindexter: What a Way with Words!” There were buttons: “We Luv Ya, Dex!” There were even bumper stickers: “Pipesmokers Do It With Their Teeth.”

At Navy recruiting stations, the lines stretched into the street. And things were even better at tobacco shops.

“It’s been unbelievable,” exclaimed one happy pipe salesman, whose store had a life-size cardboard Poindexter propped in the window. “It was the way the TV showed every puff rising to the ceiling–just mesmerizing. People come in here–they’ve been listening to this guy’s testimony for days–and all they want to know is, ‘What’s he been smoking?'”

— Rick Horowitz, “I Wish I Could Hold A Pipe The Way He Does”

Anyway, there are limits to George Lakoff’s theories on framing. But in the most trivial case, it’s easy to see how we can communicate better by creating our own positive frame, rather than trying to rebut someone else’s negative frame (Juncker’s fatal and risible mistake). As Lakeoff says in “The Power of Positive Persistence”:

Framing is about reclaiming our power to decide what’s important. Framing is about making sure WE set the terms of the debate, using our language and our ideas. … There’s a place for angry response and outrage. That’s only human. But we also need strategic action to make sure every passing day fuels positive action towards progress.

Sadly, Brexiteers did a better job of framing the issue than Remainers: a big red bus with a baldfaced lie about giving £350 million a week to the NHS, plus appeals to World War II nationalism and fears of Turkish hordes invading Britain. Deceptive framing obscures the real issues, arousing people’s passions about non-issues, leading them to make bad decisions.

What are the spoils of Brexit victory? Bendy bananas and faux sovereignty:

Brexiteers will poo-poo the prospect of a bananaless Britain as Project Fear. Meanwhile, unemployment is expected to rise, and The Guardian cites a new study claiming that Brexit is already costing the UK £500 million a week.

Jean-Claude Juncker seems like a good enough fellow, and the EU is an essential organisation for maintaining peace in Europe, as well as planning for economic prosperity and environmental responsibility. It does have its nerdish, technocratic aspects, but that’s no reason for the UK to up and leave it. A recent (fairly rude) comedy sketch on the German heute-show had a brilliant sugggestion, which was for Britain to stay in the EU while blowing off its rules whenever it suits them, just as Germany does. Quoting mock correspondent Birte Schneider, “English people, you can still stay in the EU and be an egotistical a-hole.”


Sidebar: Tusk comment spurs row in House of Commons – Bercow in top form

While quite funny, this clip is an example of dueling frames: The first MP (Peter Bone) frames Tusk’s comment more or less as “To hell with Brexiteers!” while the second MP (Joanna Cherry, who quotes Tusk more accurately) frames it as “Those who promoted Brexit with no plan for safely implementing it are deserving of blame.” Speaker John Bercow adds a note of levity by referring to Bone as a “delicate flower” easily wounded. The clip is a mini insight into UK politics, with Tory Brexiteers trash-talking the EU, and rebel Scots defending it. The trash talk got more toxic on Twitter, accompanied by the ritual burning of the EU flag:

Two of the more over-the-top responses to Donald Tusk’s (understandable) expression of exasperation at some who promoted #Brexit

What was it Monty Python said in their apology? “…never our intention to imply that politicians are weak-kneed, political time-servers who are concerned more with their personal vendettas and private power struggles than the problems of government, nor to suggest at any point that they sacrifice their credibility by denying free debate on vital matters in the mistaken impression that party unity comes before the well-being of the people they supposedly represent.”

Oh well. Maybe some right-wingers can do without fruit, veg, and jobs. They can live on hate alone.

Let’s go out on a cheery note with Bananarama singing “Cruel Summer” and throwing bits of ‘nanas at police:

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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