Brexit has exposed some old approaches to revisionism.
It's an interesting problem. Most of the people who voted to leave the EU aren't racists, nationalists or bigots. I know that's true because they keep telling me that's true. But there's a small detail that makes that seem rather tenuous. It turns out that if you actually ask them which laws, which EU plans, which parts of the current EU structure they dislike; which of these things actually encouraged their vote in the first place, well that turns out to simply evaporate. The one thing they keep coming back to is immigration.
So here's the problem. Immigration is demonstrably a good thing for Britain. It makes us wealthier, operates many of our key public services and protects the elements of the country we claim to love. Freedom, tolerance, humour, culture. You know, British values. So if immigration is a good thing and every leave voter, when pressed on their reasons, can only name immigration then how on earth do they justify that contradiction without admitting that it's racism and bigotry that drove their choice.
The answer is simple, of course, they state that they don't have a problem with immigration, it's uncontrolled immigration. They don't have a problem with EU laws per se, it's the simple fact that the EU can exert any kind of legislative influence at all that causes them concerns. They want an independent, sovereign Britain.
Logically that sounds like a solid argument, of course. Why shouldn't Britain be independent and sovereign? Firstly it's hard to argue you're not a nationalist if you can't come up with an argument other than 'we should retain national control'. Secondly there's a striking historic parallel.
In 1861, following the election of abolitionist Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency, a number of states declared themselves independent from the Union. A few more joined them, at least one left to rejoin the Union, but this created the Confederate States of America and was the reason for the American Civil War. I'm actually not going to be talking about that period in history because it isn't the part that's relevant. The war lasted until 1865, the illegal Confederacy was reabsorbed into the Union and the reason for the war in the first instance, the fundamental belief among many in the Confederate States that some people should be able to own other people, became moot as slavery was abolished nationally.
So the piece of history I'm going to look at isn't that part at all, it's not so perfectly defined in terms of its dates but it essentially begins in the early 1900s, grows for about twenty years, fades in the 1930s and then reappears in the 1960s, since when it's remained a fairly prevalent part of US politics and culture.
It's called 'The Lost Cause'.
The Lost Cause is a revisionist approach to the civil war period of US history. It essentially claims that:
Just because it's revisionist doesn't mean it's wrong. Any number of historic events have come to be seen in a different light long after the fact. But in order to understand what makes it revisionist and wrong we should look at the more orthodox equivalent, not merely more accepted among historians but very definitely the version of events that the Confederates themselves, at the time, believed.
Based on their own speeches, diaries, recollections, it's clear that during the war Confederates believed:
It's because the actual, real, historically accurate reasons for the Civil War would be unthinkable to a 20th Century American. In order to believe in the actual cause of the war, as opposed the the revisionist lost cause you have to believe in white supremacy, that slavery is a good thing and that the 13th Amendment to the US constitution is illegal (the amendment that abolished slavery after the war). Overall, of course, you have to believe that you, a current American citizen, are living under a tyrannical regime that enforced northern values and economics onto your state and therefore you must be in favour of overthrowing the US Government.
So, before we move on, we really have to look at the tenets of the lost cause and see if any of them are based in reality. So lets start with the big one. Slavery wasn't the cause of the war, the story goes, it was a war over the rights of states. Well, yes, up to a point that's true. But only because you're re-framing the question in a spectacularly dishonest fashion. It was about the rights of states. In practice, however, only one right was at issue and that right was, inevitably, the right to keep slaves. In fact there's another little piece of evidence here. When northern states, where slavery was illegal, refused to return escaped slaves back to their southern owners on the, not unreasonable, grounds that there was simply no such thing as a slave in the north, so there couldn't be an escaped one, the southern states responded. Did they nobly stand up for states' rights? No. Of course not. They demanded that the federal government force the northern states to comply with their need to have slavery recognised in the north, at least long enough to have the fugitive slave sent back to his owner. The southern states believed in states' rights when the US Government wanted to impose the abolition of slavery, they were adamantly opposed to states' rights when a northern state wanted to free slaves. Arguing it was about states' rights is therefore simply misrepresenting the truth.
OK, so, slavery was made out to be a horror by the north, allegedly. Slavery was nothing more than a different terminology for indentured servitude. Is that remotely true?
No. It's utter rubbish. An indentured servant was a citizen and entitled to all the rights and protections under law. The power dynamic between a teenage chambermaid and a wealthy landowner might make it very difficult to secure equal justice under the law in practice, for sure, but it was nonetheless your right to be treated as a citizen. Legally your employer couldn't beat you, limit your food or lock you in your room. You couldn't be bought and sold. As an indentured servant you had a contract. It might be, in fact usually was, limited in time and you couldn't be transferred to another employer without your permission. Additionally if you were offered a better position and the new employer was willing to pay off your remaining debt then your current employer had no right to refuse. In other words, if you wanted to change job then you simply had to find an employer willing to buy you out and the transfer would happen even if your current employer opposed it. Then, of course, there's the nature of the salary. An indentured servant often got no wages, or only a very limited amount, but that was because they had sold their labour in the future for a lump sum payment up front. It wasn't uncommon for the daughter in a family to be indentured, generating a sum of money. The son would then be sent off to university with that money, returning to become a lawyer, doctor or accountant and set up for life financially. Once he'd gathered the money he needed he would pay off the remainder of the indenture and his sister could leave work.
Then, obviously, there are the more social aspects. Indentured servants could marry, bear children, choose where and how to live. It was illegal to deny them access to their families. Indentured servants had access to the same basic employment rights as anyone else, so they got holidays, could attend church and even have sick days, usually making up time in lieu. The hours and days they would be expected to work were in the contract.
So slavery? Well, not the same thing at all. A slave didn't invest their labour in a lump sum of money, instead they were bought and sold as a commodity, with none of the money coming to them or their family. Slaves couldn't marry, couldn't refuse sex, even if its purpose was to breed slaves together to produce a new generation of slaves. Slaves did not have the freedom to practice religion, were not entitled to holidays, did not have the rights of a citizen, could be legally beaten and tortured and worked until they died with no recourse to rest or other support. Technically it was illegal to kill a slave, but only if death was intentional, it was perfectly legal to starve, torture or beat a slave as a punishment and if they died accidentally then that was just too bad.
Escaping slaves were criminals by definition and the law would punish them and return them to their owners. An indentured servant leaving employment early was in breach of contract, which could lead to punishment when it came before a judge. A slave was a criminal by declaration, no judge would ever be involved and if the owner thought the slave more trouble than he or she was worth then the arbitrary and summary punishment could be death. Simply asking a local notable to attend the execution was enough to establish the legality of capital punishment.
In fact there is an almost perfect model of indentured servitude still operating in the US today (and around much of the world). A 19th Century indentured servant was essentially in the same position as a modern soldier in the US Army. Contracted to serve a specified term under specified conditions but with the option to buy yourself out, you likely receive a signing bonus and at least some training up front before serving out an agreed number of years. You remain a citizen, of course, and there are some limits on your personal freedom but that's in exchange for guaranteed employment conditions and other benefits.
So, when your elderly Irish American grandmother tells you that her ancestors were indentured servants and so they had it just as bad as African slaves, just remember she's talking rubbish. Utter rubbish. Her ancestors were no more slaves than is a current serving Corporal in the US Army.
Finally, the lost cause was lost due to being outnumbered, not through being morally deficient. Is that true? Well, arguably, yes. There's no doubt the the Confederacy was fighting an uphill battle in terms of personnel, equipment, wealth and other tangible resources. But some of that was down to moral failings. West Virginia abandoned the Confederacy and jumped into the Union because its citizens couldn't be part of slavery, switching manpower and other resources in favour of the north. Perhaps more compelling, the southerners' vision of the worth of a slave meant they were not used as soldiers. Not until it was far too late. That means again this was a moral position that acted as an anchor on Confederate victory. However, Confederate leaders were mostly no less competent, Confederate equipment was mostly no less modern. Overall it was the larger population and greater resources that finally ended the war in the Union's favour. It's also true that while the Confederacy won a number of major battles they never won a significant battle on Union soil, almost the entire war was fought inside the Confederacy, never a good sign if you intend to emerge victorious.
But all this leaves one question about the lost cause unanswered. What could possibly make it appear so strongly in the early and again in the mid 20th Century?
It's very clear, in fact, that the rise of the lost cause theory is tied intimately with first the Jim Crow era and second the rise of the civil rights movement. In essence it has nothing to do with the civil war, it simply pretends to. What it's about is finding excuses, social justifications and even historic justifications for letting African-American citizens know they were inferior to whites. To that end it was used to glorify the Confederates, justify the building of statues and memorials and, all the time, make it clear to non-white southerners that they were not equal.
So, after all this rambling about things an entire ocean away, what does this have to do with Brexit? Actually it isn't Brexit at all really, it's Brexit revisionism, the Brexit lost cause. You see, in this version of events, Brexit isn't about immigration or nationalism, it's about state's rights. And just as in its historical parallel this is a deliberately misleading re-framing of the argument. It is, in fact, about state's rights, the right to control immigration and run a nationalist judiciary and legislature.
What's different this time is that the revisionist view is built in from the start, because the real underlying motives for Brexit are just as unpalatable today as the real motives for the Confederacy are today. It's just that 150 years ago you could be honest about being a racist white supremacist and you wouldn't get banned from Twitter for it.
Now you might argue, in fact many do, that immigration and nationalism are not the only justifications for Brexit. The problem is if you try to justify that. It turns out you can't argue a logically sensible position for Brexit unless you're in the tiny minority of wealthy individuals who can use it to elevate themselves over the masses. The only irreducible position that can't be argued down is the nationalist, anti-immigration one and since that is demonstrably against the interests of Britain and the British people that makes it more than clear that your only remaining argument is not based on the realities of life but on the preconception that Britain would be 'better', 'more British' or somehow 'more important and influential' if it was just a little bit more nationalist and racist. It's not a new argument, in fact it's possibly one of the oldest arguments for anything, but it is a sad departure from human rights, global understanding, empathy and civility.
It's a new lost cause, only this time it may not yet be lost. Our British Confederacy, with its racism, nationalism and furious defence of the illogical and indefensible may yet win the war. Fighting against it is actually very difficult, mainly because of the complete disregard of facts or valid interpretation of events that is the staple product of parts of the media.
A simple example. During the period immediately after the referendum a group of MPs (Members of Parliament) voted against a government amendment intended to allow the Prime Minister to force a unilateral deal through the House of Commons. A short while later a group of judges applied the law and insisted that Parliament had to have a vote on the proposed government plan to implement the referendum result. They ruled that way essentially because the bill that provided the legal framework for the referendum specified its purpose was to provide advice to Parliament. In exchange, Parliament would lend its sovereignty to the referendum result, a fair exchange. Prime Minister May decided that she could use an archaic law that existed before the English Civil War to make use of Parliament's sovereign authority without actually consulting Parliament. Such a move would be the first time in the best part of 400 years that a peacetime PM had declared herself an absolute monarch on an issue.
On both occasions the Daily Mail newspaper ran front-page headlines about the individuals who had the temerity to prevent the PM from declaring a dictatorship. On both occasions the Mail chose to attempt bullying and intimidatory tactics by printing the faces of the people on the page. On both occasions the Mail used highly charged and utterly inaccurate terminology to refer to them, 'traitors' and 'enemies'. Bear in mind this was the rhetoric that a domestic terrorist was using as he murdered a sitting MP, Jo Cox, during the referendum campaign because he, seemingly an avid reader of the Mail, thought it treasonous to disagree with him.
Here's the little secret that I haven't heard many people discuss. MPs who vote against the PM's bill are not 'traitors'. In fact it's only possible to print that headline if one of two things are true:
Parliament's job is to challenge aspects of government policy on behalf of the interests of the wider nation, including those who did not vote for the current government. Their only route to treason would be if they voted with the government on an issue where they truly believed the people were not being well served by it.
As for the judges, branded 'enemies of the people'? Well they were applying the law. This, by the way, was the law written and passed by the government of which Mrs. May was a member and for which she voted. She actually tried to use political pressure to force an independent judiciary to break a law that she had voted into force written by a government in which she was a Cabinet Minister. It is the most breathtaking attempt by a British PM to break the law in many years.
It may be tempting to blame the Mail, the Express and other right-wing hate-peddlers for the incivility and lack of appreciation for the rule of law or the incitements to hatred or even the simple factual innacuracies that brand as 'traitor' anyone trying to stop a Prime Minister from breaking the law in order to set herself up as an unchallenged dictator; very, very tempting indeed. There is actually a wider picture here and it may be a legacy of British values from a time before the Mail was cheering for domestic racists and terrorists, in fact it dates from a time when the Mail was cheering for foreign racists and terrorists, it dates from back in the '30s, when it served as the unofficial British newspaper of the Nazi Party. Our free press is, literally, free. It is not subject to pressure from governments to stop it publishing what it wants. Of course that freedom carries a potential risk. Actually more than one.
One obvious one is that if the press is free to print whatever it wants then it's also free to print lies, propaganda, innuendo, hatred and print that on behalf of its billionaire owner, pushing his oligarchic agenda even at the expense of his readership.
There's another issue though. In Britain, more than most countries, there's a tradition that journalists don't go after each other. Like the way piranhas don't usually turn on each other, there's an understanding, a professional courtesy. Two mosquitoes may feed side by side on the bloated beast that is government, but they don't feed on each other.
Now, this may have made sense at a time when the possibility remained acute that at any moment the freedom of the press might be curtailed, and it's certainly worth mentioning that the Trump administration's assault on the press does justify some communal defence in America, but in Britain there seems to be a deplorable lack of progress in holding the press itself to account for its behaviour.
I know it may be a very difficult line to cross, after all, a free press is a free press, if you believe freedom is important then you have to accept that some of its practitioners will have a different view, a different interpretation of the same events. But leaving the op-ed to one side for the moment, why is there no consistent fact-checking story in the paper that can analyse the extent to which other newspapers are not offering a changed perspective but are actually engaging in outright misrepresentation.
Who, ultimately, holds the Mail to account for its endless lies? If the free press is essential because without it there would be no mechanism to expose the mendacity of government, religion and corporates then why is it that other news outlets, themselves these days usually giant corporations with extensive political and business interests, somehow get a pass?
With respect to journalists everywhere, just because you have the right to express whatever opinion you want it doesn't immunise you from legitimate challenges to your positions.
Journalists are, at least in the main, human. They make mistakes. When, many years ago, the Guardian published a cheerful piece on the science behind the film 'Jurassic Park' it was never going to be more than a gentle look at how Hollywood and reality have an intermittent relationship at best. It was never going to be hard-hitting journalism. Nobody was going to be exposed as a criminal, a fraud or a toxic influence on society. No government corruption or corporate espionage would form the justification for the piece. It would be, frankly, froth. It ended, however, with a memorable line, which all these years later I can only paraphrase as 'the funny thing is that the very title is wrong, as the dinosaurs were Cretaceous, not Jurassic animals'.
Pretty much any ten-year-old child could point out that this is simply wrong. It is factually inaccurate to a comical degree. I assume the writer got confused between the Jurassic and the Triassic, which would also have been wrong, of course, but would have had a decent grain of truth behind its error, as the Triassic only saw a relatively small number of dinosaurs begin to emerge towards its end. This is, obviously, human error. To err is human, to correct, spell-check; as a modern journalist might pronounce. Expecting perfection from anyone is a ludicrous standard and a, literally, impossible aim.
It does seem, however, that there are a few rules that can be applied to prevent the press from making incorrect pronouncements that are not errors, but calculated misinformation. I forget who it was said that if you don't read the paper you're uninformed, if you do read it you're misinformed, but I can say it is true today to a degree unprecedented in my lifetime.
So, the first way the free press fails. Commercial pressure. Essentially think of this as the viewing figures, the advertising money and the circulation numbers. A free press must not only be free from interference by government it must also be free from interference by its own commercial interests. This is a principle as important as stating that being free from control is not the same thing as being free from criticism. An obvious example can be found in the Andrew Wakefield scandal. For those who've forgotten, Wakefield was a medical doctor who was engaged in research. He was an ambitious man and he felt there was a way he could become a spectacularly wealthy one. He had assembled a group of parents of children with diseases of the digestive tract and autism symptoms and, with their hopes and dreams at his back, conducted a number of experiments on these children looking for answers to what could have caused their illness.
In fact, and this is the key thing, he wasn't doing that at all. In fact he was being primed by an advocacy group, a lawyer, to find a predetermined result to his research. The lawyer wanted Wakefield to find that the disease, and various secondary factors including autistic spectrum disorders in the children, were caused by negligence in the manufacture or testing of a specific childhood vaccine, the MMR.
So whatever Wakefield 'found', it was always going to suggest that MMR (the Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine) was harming children and giving them autism. When the lawyer told him he didn't have enough fabricated evidence from blood tests he decided to secure additional fabricated evidence from biopsies and other minor medical procedures. As his procedures were fraudulent he had to conduct these procedures himself. Unfortunately that led to one of his offences. He was not licenced to practice these procedures, so every time he took a biopsy he was actually committing a serious assault on his underage and vulnerable patient. In his eagerness he also failed to get, in many cases, the required permission from the parents anyway. How confident can we be that his results were determined by what he 'wanted' them to be rather than what they actually were? Well, long before his results were in he'd already patented an alternative vaccine to the MMR and was already making a clinical case for its adoption.
Eventually he provided his, rather bland, results to the Lancet journal and it seemingly raised no eyebrows. This was mainly because he had deliberately ensured it was a work of epic dullness, intended to get a few subtle results into the literature without attracting any attention. For his plan to work, however, he did need attention.
As soon as the paper was published he called a press conference in which he declared, though his paper had not, that the MMR vaccine caused autism, that it was essential to switch to a new vaccine at once and that he strongly suggested his own, not that he made it clear that he owned it. Meanwhile the lawyer was gearing up to take the manufacturer of the MMR to court, on a trajectory to garner spectacular legal fees.
Within minutes of the press conference the medical and scientific community had begun to examine the claims and immediately it became clear that they were based on some astonishingly poor evidence, even had the evidence not been fabricated. The sample size was absolutely tiny, a large number of the patients had been eliminated from the data set for one reason or another, the experimental protocol was poor and the first questions began to emerge about whether Wakefield had secured the appropriate permissions, whether he was even qualified to do the work he had done. In the background the suspicious timings of the lawsuits and Wakefield's patent application were also being raised as distinct conflicts of interest. Even Wakefield's decision to publish a soporific technical paper and then base a shocking press event off it were clearly evidence that all was not well. Over the next few weeks data obtained in other trials was examined and it clearly showed Wakefield's results were not repeatable. As public interest grew a series of new, and much larger, studies were commissioned to see if there was any support for Wakefield's position. Eventually those results would disprove all of Wakefield's theories. In parallel the lawsuits were falling apart as soon as they were examined by experts. Other than Wakefield himself, now a professional liar for hire, it was proving impossible to get any other doctor to take the stand in defence of the MMR-Autism link, simply put, everyone knew he was lying.
Eventually the original paper would be retracted and Wakefield's corruption, fabrication of results, conduct of illegal medical experiments on children, his inability to secure appropriate paperwork, the deliberate attempt to defraud the medical world and his massive and undeclared conflict of interest led to him being brought before the appropriate committee and struck off the register, stripped of his medical licence and he narrowly escaped (and unjustly) a substantial prison sentence, mainly because the desperate and terrified parents of his victims were still overwhelmingly believers, after all every other doctor simply told them it was bad luck that their child was ill; which is unsatisfying, for all the advantages it holds by simply being true.
In many ways, therefore, this is a story about the system working exactly as it's supposed to. A dangerous man who tortured children in furtherance of his own wealth and who held the entire medical profession in contempt was identified, stopped, expelled from the community and the self-correcting nature of the scientific method was once more proven successful and powerful.
But the description above is merely the factual part of the story. There's another part and it branches away from the actual events during the Wakefield press conference. In the middle of this straightforward case of fraud, torture, corruption and eventual justice an element was about to join in the fight and this element was the press.
Let's get a few things straight from the beginning. Immediately after the press conference it was not obvious that Wakefield was a fraud and a torturer. He, for some reason, had not announced that to the press. It was known, right then and there, however, that Wakefield had deliberately understated his thesis in the paper and then expounded freely during the conference. It was known that his sample size was pathetic, that he had used an awful experimental procedure, that his results were highly questionable, that his assertions were completely uncorroborated and that he had conducted the experimental procedures himself without anyone else checking his work.
In other words the press didn't know the whole horror of this monster's deceit and fraud, let alone his horrible physical assaults on defenceless children, but they did know, right there, as they were walking out of the conference and calling their offices, that Wakefield was proposing something extraordinary and offering almost no reason to believe him.
The journalistic response should have been based on a model a bit like this. A man calls a press conference to declare that he has found a living dragon. Recently he has published a paper that suggests a small area of a rock-face in Wales has slightly lower basalt composition than most of the rocks around it. His paper asserts that as fact despite having only taken a few samples and he, it seems, gathered the samples alone, tested the rocks alone, wrote down the results alone, and provided no documentation in support of them. The paper doesn't actually mention the word 'dragon' but he tells you, in a shocking press conference, that lower basalt numbers are indicative of dragons. Other than that he claims he saw the dragon. He doesn't have a picture or a footprint, he tells you to believe him because he's a dracologist. At this stage you don't know that he just founded a company called 'Dragon Tours' which will make him a fortune once people start demanding to see the dragon for themselves. You also don't know that a law firm has been paying him for years to find a dragon, even if they don't actually exist. But despite not knowing these things you would, and should, already be very reluctant to accept his word at face value. His claim is extraordinary and so his supporting evidence must be very strong indeed. As his actual evidence is weak to the point of farce you would, rightly, go off to see if anyone else could actually corroborate any of his story.
Just to line up the thought experiment with actual events, it would later emerge that the basalt numbers were not in fact low and he'd never let anyone else see the samples or the tests, that he had maimed a security guard when trespassing on the area to carry out his experiments, that he had invented numbers for his results, that he had deliberately chosen the smallest possible number of sites and discarded any rocks that didn't look like they supported his new business. Hundreds of other people would later try to find evidence of his original findings and they would all find the opposite. Eventually, disgraced, he would be expelled from the Guild of Dracologists.
A reluctance to believe Wakefield would be natural and presumably plenty of journalists felt that way. It was not how the press actually reported the events, though.
There are any number of possible reasons that might explain why the press, and particularly the tabloid papers and the daytime television output of the commercial flavour, jumped enthusiastically on this story and breathlessly filled their output with it for months. Sure, in the interest of balance they would sometimes have someone on who could explain that there was no evidence to support the assertion, but to a viewer or reader that always feels weak, as if they're just waiting for more evidence before they can endorse Wakefield's position, where in fact the opposite was true. This is no Jurassic mistake, however. The upshot of this one was huge. Firstly there were significant risks that unvaccinated children would die or be seriously harmed by this misinformation. Secondly there are, always, people who for one reason and another cannot be vaccinated, or at least not yet. Very young children are at risk from measles but below a certain age they are incapable of effectively seroconverting the vaccine to provide protection. By not vaccinating other children you were rolling the dice on how many babies would survive.
Though these consequences may seem shocking they are actually the least of the problems. There remains, many years after this disaster, an ongoing reluctance to trust science. People still resist vaccination, they still distrust medical advice, they still think the pharma industry is secretly manipulating them.
These feelings are causing deaths and serious harm but, even though he was and is a monstrous caricature of selfish and publicity hungry lies, Wakefield isn't to blame for that. That lies squarely at the feet of the media. Newspapers and television programmes began instructing their audience to kill themselves and they knew, all along, that this was exactly what they were doing.
How do we know? Because much as we might bemoan the lack of scientific literacy in society as a whole, and with good reason, our journalists are not actually illiterate idiots, on average.
It came back to bite them of course. A proportion of their viewers, once they actually began offering truthful information, deserted them in the belief that they were now falling in line with the great conspiracy or whatever and those people now get their news from the ranting blogs of the clinically insane. But still, the journalists knew they were pretending to offer balance, to offer all the facts, but they were actually repeating the vile and criminal outpourings of a lone child-abuser as if they held some merit when weighed against the world's scientific evidence. If the reason isn't that they have the intelligence of a pot-plant or the education of a dry-stone wall then it must be something else. It is. They were editorially in pursuit of the scoop. In the aftermath various editors came out and defended not only their right to freely express themselves but also their absolute responsibility to pass on this potentially vital information to their viewers and readers.
That is not what they were doing. That is a lie. They were shouting fire in a completely un-burning crowded theatre and didn't care how many people got trampled to death in the ensuing fear. They did it because a newspaper with the word 'FIRE!' emblazoned across the front page sells more copies. This was an editorial decision to accept the casualties among the readership as collateral damage beside the true goal of outperforming their rivals.
By any realistic standard it was not merely negligence, it was attempted murder, admittedly of the corporate variety. In the aftermath every editor of a guilty publication or programme should have been sacked. In fact that should have happened within a few days of the story breaking. Editors pursuing commercial benefit are in direct opposition to a press that serves any useful purpose at all. Imagine, for a second, if that had happened. Imagine if the story was barely off the ground, had not yet embedded itself into the public' mind and suddenly it was eclipsed by a story about half a dozen editors from the national press being sacked over the gross dereliction of duty that led to them publishing lies in pursuit of commercial gain. It just might be that in that case Wakefield's crimes might have had the rug pulled from under them so early that he became a laughing stock and not a threat to public safety.
Of course, much more often, it isn't the editors, or at least not principally the editors.
The murderous corruption of the media is mostly the responsibility of the owners, the media barons, their editors are simply ordered to fall into line. This is 'yellow' journalism. A media entity twisted so it doesn't serve the interests of its customers but instead exclusively serves the interests of its owner.
There's no question this is much more dangerous, because the owner doesn't just want the scoop or want the publicity, he or she wants the entire output of the media group to act as a personal propaganda machine, excitedly endorsing any argument the owner likes, suppressing or attacking any the owner dislikes. The owner's enemies are villified, mocked and threatened in print and, denied any understanding that the drink they've been handed is poisoned, the cultist readership goes out and murders, burns, beats and abuses the owner's enemies.
Again, and it's a real issue, if you have a free press then they have to be able to print whatever they like, so we hit a real problem with this propaganda. There is an alternative, however, and it should be carefully considered.
We could have an offence of propaganda added to the law codes. We could have a definition whereby if a media entity regularly acts in a way that tends to push their customers' opinions in one specific direction, to mobilise them rather than inform them, then the owner could be found guilty. Such a criminal conviction would come with a trivial fine, certainly no brutality in the punishment, but it would make it illegal for that person to own shares or other influence in media companies or run a media entity privately. It would act rather similarly to the US rule that specifies certain forms of media may only be owned by Americans, to prevent the US media being bought by a foreign power and used to undermine the country. This is better, however, because it criminalises a person based on their actions, not their citizenship.
Now you could argue that this will prevent the media from criticising the government or offering a position from a specific perspective. In other words you could argue that the sytem we have now, despite its flaws, is better than the alternative. In order to believe that you have to believe that a paper like the Daily Mail, which famously uses headlines that would have been too extreme for the Nazi party publications, serves some positive purpose other than giving its fascist, racist, megalomaniacal owner an army at his beck and call and a large enough readership that he cannot be challenged, not even criticised, by the government for fear he'll mobilise his brainwashed forces to destroy just one more name on his enemies list. It is essential that the media can criticise the government. That does not, ever, make it acceptable that it's a one way street. In the United States it is possible for a Donald Trump supporter to read the New York Post, watch Fox News and never be exposed to a single word of criticism of the president. Meanwhile the political opposition, the other media channels and any notable individual who dares criticise the government becomes the target of vile abuse.
Of course it's acceptable for Fox to say what they want. Under a fair system, however, where people have a limited bandwidth for information and get used to the style and presentation of a single outlet, it is criminal for Fox to uniformly offer a single, uncontested and out of context, view of the world.
Actually, while Fox is symptomatic of the problem, that's a fairly easy one to fix. If the entire organisation refuses to offer a balance then make them commercially liable for paying for a daily segment from a rival publication. If, during the Fox News programme, ten minutes must be set aside for a scripted piece delivered by CNN or NBC or whoever, then there may be a more balanced and nuanced vision of current affairs on display to the viewer. In fact I have it on good authority that Fox itself would more than welcome this rule. I know because their motto is 'Fair and Balanced'. This does not prevent a media entity from taking a point of view, it simply requires that it acknowledge that other positions exist and that, when they are not junk science peddled by child-abusers, they may also be worthy of consideration. A decent editor has no fear of debate, no fear of split opinions. No editor of any worth seriously believes that allowing for the existence of a well reasoned response will prevent them from offering their own take. Only someone intending their output to be used to build a cult would fear that.
Ultimately this leaves us with a basic problem. How do we know if the balance we are providing is an important alternative view of reality that our audience should consider or is the spittle-filled ranting of an extremist torturer?
We know because of two things. Context and hindsight. Nobody gets it right every time, but most of the time a decent journalist or editor knows where a real equivalence can be found and if their piece is factual and all of the alternatives are fraudulent then they can simply declare there's no place for balance in this particular subject. As for hindsight, within a few months, a few years, it will become abundantly clear if an editor or an owner has been generally fair. If they haven't then it can be up to a jury to determine whether the resulting propaganda was unintentional or malicious. Don't like the idea of pure press freedom being challenged? That pure press freedom is limited by any number of laws on libel and similar, it is regularly challenged on the basis of accuracy and as long as an independent judicial process is the arbiter it would remain free of government interference.
In exchange for this minor restriction we could end up with a media that serves the people, rather than one that weaponises them in the service of an unelected billionaire of shady background and racist ideology.
Still worried about press freedom? Andrew Wakefield is still a regular on the talk-show circuit in the US. He is frequently introduced as a doctor, despite the fact he isn't one. He still spouts his lies and he still convinces people to risk their lives and those of their neighbours. Outbreaks of measles are on the rise in the States and people are dying. Would it really be so terrible if sitting next to him on the sofa was someone who could let him have his say and then point out that he's not a doctor and was struck off for performing illegal medical experiments on children and committing fraud and deception. Does that comment somehow prevent Wakefield from having his freedom of speech? Does it harm the viewer? Or does it raise the possibility that the viewer might actually be slightly better informed?
If all of this sounds fine then there's one remaining problem. Even if it was possible to present all possible sides of an argument, and it usually isn't, the sofa on your daytime chat show simply isn't large enough, not all positions are equal.
Is it reasonable to have a response from a climate-change denier, a holocaust denier or a flat-earther on a piece that otherwise would present the position of received wisdom? No. Obviously not. Now here's the place a judgement call comes in. If you're an editor you have access remember to an entire body of narrative, not everything has to be covered in every piece. So, when you're doing a piece about space exploration, volcanoes or earthquakes it isn't necessary to invite a flat-earther. The fact that flat-earthers still exist is an interesting story in its own right but it doesn't need to be covered every time you discuss the International Space Station. Instead, occasionally, invite a flat-earther on to debate their position with someone who actually understood what they were taught in school and come prepared to accept that if the debate is fair then your invited eccentric is probably going to end up looking like a fool and a liar and may well storm out because they're not being taken seriously.
There are holocaust deniers. Hiding that fact is a disservice to your viewers. Until holocaust-denial can elevate itself from the insular rantings of the antisemitic and conspiracy-minded it must be debated in a way that makes it clear that it, itself, is the extraordinary claim that must be defended. Until it has passed that hurdle you can't invite a denier on to talk about Holocaust Memorial Day and whether it is appropriately commemorated. There may well be a legitimate divergence of opinion about how we remember the Holocaust but everyone involved has to accept that it happened much as the history texts record. If your position is that it never happened or the numbers killed were vastly fewer than generally accepted then you don't get to be part of that debate until you first get over the hurdle of debating your extreme position and defending it effectively.
Without going too far into numbers of fatalities, something I find uncomfortably insulating from the horror of the time, I recently encountered a theme online. In it the Holocaust dead were listed as a much lower number than is accurate, but more specifically, the losses of life during the Allied bombing of Dresden were also elevated dramatically. The upshot of the story was that, though the Holocaust happened, it was less murderous than Dresden and therefore should be ignored going forwards.
Some investigation was called for. In case you're wondering why I had to investigate it's because my memory of the loss of life at Dresden was poor. So, here are the facts, again deliberately avoiding the dehumanising numbers. Dresden was horrific. Nobody would claim otherwise. Whether it's a war-crime in the strictest sense depends on whether you believe that in a total war the entire population of a country has essentially been mobilised and therefore is a target. If you don't then using level bombing or strategic bombing indiscriminately on a population known to include a high civilian proportion is likely a crime. If you do then it's an act of war but not a crime.
It is not, in any way, equivalent to the Holocaust. It is not the same thing, and the argument presents a false equivalence. For the record, not only did many more people die during the Holocaust than during the bombing of Dresden, but more people were murdered in the Holocaust during the bombing of Dresden than were killed in the bombing. In other words the three days of bombing killed fewer people than just three days of the Holocaust. And the Holocaust lasted years. So, given these numbers are widely available, what could possibly motivate someone to push this patently false narrative?
Well, I think it's a special case of 'whataboutism', the idea that you can excuse anything, however vile, by claiming that something else, opposed to the perpetrators, was worse. So, back to the main point. If you decided that there was enough public interest in this story to warrant a discussion in the media then you could invite one of these Dresden whataboutists onto your show and put them against a historian. The topic of the discussion would have to be about this extreme and eccentric position and why it is held. You don't invite the whataboutist to discuss the commemoration of the Holocaust until they have first overcome the hurdle of demonstrating that their position holds merit.
It's actually not that complicated.
In the UK the BBC recently apologised for repeatedly inviting former Chancellor Nigel Lawson onto its programmes to talk about climate change. It's a subject he's spectacularly poorly qualified to discuss and in which he holds a microscopic minority opinion, but he often was permitted to advance his crackpot theories without meaningful challenge. Before he could be interviewed about this subject he should have first had to defend his position against the weight of evidence. He would have been instantly exposed as a total fraud on the subject.
In psychology the Overton Window is the range of acceptable normal behaviour. It essentially defines where we find a pretty universal level of discourse, supporting a method by which respect can be tempered with criticism.
If you, put simply, disagree with a politician's perspective but frame it by calling him names then it's historically true that your point, however valid, would be less influential. In general the Overton Window has shifted over time in many ways. Terminology that is derogatory because it refers to people with learning difficulties or disabilities in general, terminology that is racially, sexually or culturally offensive or betrays hatred has slipped outside the window over time.
If you're on the right-wing of politics you might refer to this as being 'political correctness' and, if you are on the far right, or alt-right, you might feel that it has 'gone mad'. It is actually a natural consequence of the way society changes and it has nothing at all to do with politics.
The term 'political correctness' is a problem for a start. It was coined to represent a specific variant of propaganda being pushed by totalitarian governments. In Nazi Germany or Stalin's Soviet Union a statement might be issued by the government that was factually inaccurate but could be described as 'politically correct'. These activities are looked upon with scorn, rightly, though there are circumstances when it is a government's duty to conceal certain unpalatable things from the people for a short time.
As it is often used today by the reactionary right it has an entirely different meaning. It is now being used to refer to the choice of words being used to describe something that is actually unconnected to politics. There are still countless examples of actual political correctness in the world today, which is why it's so essential that we resist the right wing attempt to change its meaning. A good example is from recent events in the US. A number of times, in Florida's state agencies and in the federal government of Donald Trump, guidelines have been issued that insist that the terminology 'global warming' or 'climate change' must not be used in official documents.
Actually this restriction of terminology is not uncommon, government guidance in the UK has required the removal of the term 'handicapped' and the substitution of the term 'disabled'. The terminology change, in itself, is not political correctness. It only becomes political correctness when the changing of the terminology is intended to deceive the reader or obscure the truth. Referring to disabled individuals by that term in no way disguises the situation, it is merely changing to a term that people find less offensive because it has a slightly different shade of meaning. Broadly the terminology these days is that a person has a disability, they are only handicapped by the failure of society to provide any method for adapting to the disability. It is therefore inappropriate to refer to a person as handicapped, except in a specific context. My disability is a mobility problem and is inherent to me. My society could have handicapped me by failing to provide support, if I lived somewhere else I might be much less, or much more handicapped, but my disability is attached to me no matter where I live or what I'm doing.
It is a relatively subtle distinction, to be sure, but it matters. It isn't political correctness because it isn't pretending that a situation is changed by changing the words we use to describe it. Preventing the use of the term 'climate change' in a Florida state document is political correctness. It is intended to force the authors of such documents to refer to things as 'flooding', 'natural disasters' and the like. In doing so they are deliberately using propaganda to change a person's understanding of events from something that is a global phenomenon that requires action to a more local problem, after all floods have been a part of life forever. That is political correctness. In the ensuing press conference you might see a question put to an official in which a journalist asks if the recent flooding is associated with climate change. Such a journalist, in Florida, would not be offered a correct, even if couched, answer because it is policy to answer that question incorrectly. For the record the correct answer is that it isn't generally possible to attach individual weather events to climate change. Climate change does, however, cause an increase in the frequency and severity of major events.
While individual events on a curve are hard to associate with underlying causes the approved response to a reasonable question is the perfect essence of political correctness. It is a lie, or at least a wildly incomplete and unhelpful answer, and it is one approved by the Governor of Florida and therefore required to be the official line.
It sounds as if our choice of terminology and therefore the Overton Window are closely allied, but that's not true. The Overton Window describes a more general approach to discussion, especially in public. In other words both of the examples above fall within the window whether you follow the government policy or not, they are all acceptable terminology. It is only the lie peddled by the government that is politically correct, but even it is well within the window.
It's fair to say that Donald Trump operates using a different Overton Window than most of the US political players. Sure, he openly mocks the disabled, screams at his followers to revile and ignore the free press, uses very uncomfortable misogynist and racist language and these are all indicative of a very different approach to political inclusion, but that's not the only way it happens. You see my Overton Window is different from yours, just a little. Or, perhaps more clearly, the Overton Window in a bar, late at night, among friends is not the same one as the Overton Window at work, or among family, or at a job interview.
Donald Trump, when campaigning for President and after taking up residence on Pennsylvania Avenue, uses an Overton Window that is probably fairly familiar to people having a drunken discussion in a roadside bar. It's just odd that he doesn't adapt to the window that he finds in Washington political life. He screams at people, he uses childish adjectives as schoolyard name-calling for his opponents. He refers to 'traitors', 'enemies of the people' and decries every negative story about him as 'fake'.
His repeated use of 'enemies of the people' to refer to the press, well, except for the professional sycophants who lie for him on command, is particularly interesting. The phrase was, in one form or another, used by all the 20th Century's dictators, but it was most commonly employed by Stalin. He used it, mostly, to refer to political opponents but remember that category would naturally include any member of a free press. It was used as justification for the party to shout down any dissent and it was also a term frequently used to refer to those whose next journey would be to a Gulag. On Stalin's death the country was led by Nikita Kruschev, a war hero and very astute party member. Among his edicts were a declaration that the phrase 'enemy of the people' must no longer be used. It was associated with tyranny, with the government trying to silence or marginalise any form of differing opinion and with brutality, both directly and by the hand of enraged mobs gulled into attacking the targets so thoughtfully identified by Stalin.
For the President of the United States to use a descriptor so vile and with such toxic historic precedent that Nikita Kruschev banned it as part of moving on from the tyrannical Stalin regime, well, it's unfathomable to a modern mind. If you are not outraged by this behaviour from a sitting President then you just haven't been paying attention.
Remember, however, this is a President who enthusiastically declared himself a 'nationalist', a term used for right-wing dictatorial regimes such as those of the Axis powers during the Second World War. The same President has constructed concentration camps to incarcerate people found illegally crossing the border into complex prison environments. This President has, on dozens of occasions, demonstrated loyalty and support for white supremacists, neo-Nazis, fascists, racists and purveyors of hatred. Of course that might be that he's just a genial sort who doesn't want to say anything offensive.
But it isn't. He's singled out the Mayor of London for a series of vitriolic and illiterate attacks, utterly based on nationalist fantasies, and the only question we must ask is whether he's so stridently aggressive towards Mr. Khan because he's Muslim or because he isn't white. Seriously, just imagine that mental process. We don't know if it's Mr. Trump's racism, his Islamophobia or some combination of the two that drives him to invent reasons to attack the Mayor of the capital city of one of his nation's major allies. He constantly attacks organisations that offer succour to the poor, defend the helpless, provide services to the marginalised and defend freedom of speech.
He is sufficiently ignorant of both history and any functional self-awareness that he sees every criticism as personal and unfounded. There's a reason for that of course. When he uses schoolyard bullying to refer to 'Lyin Ted', 'Crooked Hillary' or 'Fake News' he is doing so without any justification or evidence. So when someone refers to him as being the most incompetent, self-absorbed, racist and divisive President in modern US history he is entirely comfortable firing back because he assumes that they are also insulting him without justification. It doesn't occur to his deeply limited analytical capabilities that actually some people are criticising him for very well-founded and exquisitely documented reasons.
And then there are the lies. Mr. Trump seems incapable of saying anything without lying. It's important to understand that we have to eliminate from consideration his constant errors. Sure, he's ignorant, incapable of concentrating on important things and doesn't care to try, so this means his speeches and comments are full of inaccuracies, more so than any recent global political figure, but that's just down to his fundamental intellectual limitations. We also have to discuss his deliberate, calculating, lies.
These are situations where he has claimed something and been corrected on multiple occasions and still claims it, usually for specific political aims. It's important for him to be popular so he will tell anyone who is willing to listen that he's very popular and has the polls to prove it. He needs to be seen as a new political movement so it's important to claim that he had the largest inauguration crowd ever. It's important that he's seen as being blessed by some form of deity, so naturally it didn't rain on his inauguration. All of those are lies. Not errors, not mistakes, not him mixing up two things in his head. They are lies. Those sorts of lies are really only important because of the sheer number of them but there's one, underlying, falsehood that is worth keeping in mind.
Mr. Trump believes that there is no such thing as facts. When confronted with them he simply decides he has a different belief or a different opinion. A smarter operative might try to declare that his 'analysis' is different. Kellyanne Conway, who appears on television in defence of the administration regularly, coined the term 'alternative facts' to refer to this phenomenon. Essentially in Mr. Trump's White House any facts presented to the President have to then be adapted to fit the belief system that is acceptable to the preferred narrative. It is, in fact, an almost perfect dictionary definition of political correctness.
In the UK the Conservative Party, or Tory party, has been one of the two largest and most influential political parties in recent years. Traditionally it is a conservative movement, believing in low taxes, low regulation, high personal responsibility, a weaker welfare state and social provision. It believes in private enterprise over nationalised industry and so it begins its political narrative on the right of the political landscape.
It is, however, a large and very electable party. It has a lot of room within its ranks for people at the extreme right, but also plenty of rather more centre-right perspectives and, overall, its senior figures have been able to maintain a sensible right-wing basket of policies, appealing to rich and poor quite readily.
Long before the dawn of the 21st Century it was already clear that the single issue that couldn't be massaged away with partial give and take was membership of the EU.
It was a Tory government that took the UK into the EEC (European Economic Community) as it was called then. Membership expressly included a belief in a shared common market and the ongoing process of slowly making the member nations align more and more closely together until, perhaps, eventually Churchill's dream of a United States of Europe could be finally achieved.
With the later addition of customs alignment and an independent EU civil service, leadership and elections the EEC no longer reflected what the Union was, so the name was changed to the European Union, EU. In fact this change in no way affected the way the organisation operated. It was still a collective of sovereign nations, the EU's development was still governed by the heads of government of the member states, no portion of sovereignty was stripped from the individual nations and the collective decisions could only become realised by unanimous support of the relevant governments ratified and entered into their own bodies of law. At its heart the EU is just a collection of, admittedly complex, international treaties. The EU is inefficient, as are most large organisations, and it is very slow to react to changing circumstance, but its strength is that it allows complete autonomy of operation for member states as long as those decisions don't break an existing treaty.
Some people are familiar with a particular graph that describes the main political positions on a single curve. It's mostly a very rough estimate but it is illustrative of the types of government that are most commonly seen. On the graph the top is authoritarian, the bottom is libertarian, the left is socialist and the right is capitalist. Almost all political realities appear on the graph somewhere in a broad 'U' shape. Essentially if your politics lean very left or very right then the political framework tends to be quite authoritarian. If your politics are fairly centrist then your political framework tends to be more libertarian.
It's worth, therefore, naming the corners of the graph. The top left, authoritarian socialism, is approximately communist. The top right, authoritarian capitalism, is approximately fascist. These two, while fairly extreme positions, are actually fairly close to the curve, because of the 'U' shape, and are therefore sometimes seen in reality.
The bottom corners are very far from the curve, so encountering them in the real world is almost unimaginable. At the bottom left we might find some forms of collective Marxism, like the way a Kibbutz is run. At the bottom right we would find libertarian capitalist society, or anarchy, a common theme among dystopian science fiction. In practice, while a person might hold those sorts of views, they do not generally exist in the form of governments. If you want to know what that might look like, however, watch 'Blade Runner'. A society in which corporations, not governments hold all the power.
For any large and diverse party like the tories there is a rough alignment with the main centre of the philosophical party, right of centre, not especially libertarian or authoritarian. Each generation of tories has tweaked this to each new political reality, something they have been so successful at that the party is sometimes known as the 'Party of Government'.
In a flexible, negotiable party the members can all find a way to get some of what they want from the party while accepting that the things they have to relinquish are still roughly within their acceptable range.
Membership of the EU, however, posed a specific problem. EU membership is not something you can easily shift a little bit closer to or a little bit further away. It's a binary position, in or out. As the tories are a right-wing party a proportion of the membership is expressly nationalist and nationalists don't want to be part of the EU.
For many years this problem grew and became more acute. The party was deeply divided on the issue. The tories were not alone in this, in fact. On the left of the UK's political spectrum the Labour Party found itself in the same position. Labour's divisions, however, wouldn't become a significant issue until later.
In the UK there had, inevitably, been nationalist political parties all along. Most importantly there was a group called the British National Party (BNP), an overtly nationalist and right wing party that deliberately courted the members of society who were swayed by arguments of race and appeals to imperial past. Organisations like Combat 18, a neo-nazi group, would never be able to gain traction in a political sense, but they could recruit members for the BNP. The BNP itself was often a purveyor of hate, sometimes violently so. But its growth into a major political player was seemingly far from practical. There just didn't seem to be enough racists to make it a threat to the established order.
With the benefit of hindsight, this was a very misleading opinion. It turned out there were plenty enough racists, plenty enough right-wing nationalists to form a powerful political entity. The reason for the BNP's utterly marginal position was because it was unable to distance itself from acts of violence committed by its members. Plenty of racists, not enough of them thugs.
By the beginning of the 21st Century a new political player came into being. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) was an overtly nationalist, racist, bigoted political party but it was not associated with violence. While the details of the rise of UKIP would occupy a huge volume on its own, the thing we need to understand here is not what UKIP did but what its existence and growing influence caused the tories to do.
David Cameron became leader of the Conservative Party during a difficult time. UKIP was becoming more vocal and more of a threat to the tories. It was very unlikely that traditional Liberal or Liberal Democrat voters would join UKIP, they were too libertarian, not nationalist enough. Some Labour members were more likely candidates, because the authoritarian nationalism associated with the more extreme socialist wing of the party could relatively easily lend itself to single-issue voting. Those people would be very unlikely to become lifelong UKIP supporters but they could, for a short period of time, accept a more capitalist philosophy in exchange for winning the single boon of a departure from the EU.
The big threat, however, was to Cameron's tories. A significant proportion of his membership was vehemently opposed to the EU, they were already on the more capitalist and authoritarian wing of the party and it could be worryingly easy for them to change horses at a moment's notice. Cameron saw that there was an actual risk that as much as half of his traditional tory membership might jump ship and they would take with them a large proportion of traditional tory voters. He might oversee the complete collapse of the Conservative Party.
As UKIP rose the Labour Party responded by appointing an authoritarian socialist to lead the party. Jeremy Corbyn was a superannuated trade-union leader, ill-equipped for politics on the national stage. He was curt, uncommunicative, indecisive and lacked any measurable charisma. He was, however, Labour's hedge against UKIP. Jeremy Corbyn, leaning heavily towards communist ideology, was deeply opposed to the EU. In this manner Labour prevented a mass exodus of members to UKIP.
Such largely cosmetic changes wouldn't be enough to silence the more nationalist tendency in the Conservative Party, however. David Cameron made the decision to take a huge gamble. If he won, the tories would be safe for a generation. If he lost, well that was unthinkable.
David Cameron offered to hold a referendum on membership of the EU. Why a referendum? Because if, as would have been much more logical, he'd simply held a ballot of party members to determine party policy on the matter then whichever side lost would now clearly identify that they were members of a party with which they had irreconcilable differences. It was likely to hasten the collapse of the party.
Instead, put it to the people. Then, if you feel you lost the argument you can't be angry with the party for that, if you leave the party you seem like a petulant child, a poor loser. As political strategy it was first class. As long as the vote went the right way and the UK voted to remain part of the EU.
With the tory party winning a majority in the ensuing general election Cameron was forced to put his proposal into action. It is here that we begin to see and understand the catalogue of failures that took a party-wise but government-stupid idea and turned it into a national catastrophe.
The first problem was the formation of the campaigns. The people in charge of the campaign to remain in the EU were led by David Cameron himself. Not only did he believe there was no danger of losing, otherwise he wouldn't have called the referendum in the first place, his driving position was one of party unity. It was inevitable, in fact it was the whole point, that many of his fellow tories would be leaders on the other side of the debate. Because his aim was party unity, not attacking the other side, he would be almost entirely passive, refusing to call out the endless lies and misleading statements by the opposition. He was a conflicted, unpopular and largely oblivious figurehead with motives that were opaque and not focused on the actual referendum.
The second problem was the complete lack of detailed information from the remain camp. It wasn't hard to find and exploit the obvious lies and weaknesses of the leave campaign but no serious attempt was made to do so. The voting population was deeply let down by not being exposed to the actual facts associated with the choice.
It's now been a few years since the campaigns and we can see a few things very clearly that were unclear during the time it would have mattered. They weren't unclear by accident, they were unclear by design. Making them clear would have run the risk of fracturing the tories further. A significant portion of the debate would also require traditional Labour voters to make a decision. That decision was also heavily compromised. Jeremy Corbyn was Labour's new leader. He had reached that position with a groundswell of popular support despite being seen largely as an outsider, or possibly because he was seen as an outsider. Jeremy Corbyn was deeply opposed to EU membership, he was, and is, an authoritarian socialist, on the top left of that U-shaped curve. Membership of the EU, though absolutely in the best interests of working people and their needs, was a stumbling block in an authoritarian future where whole industries could be nationalised at the stroke of a pen. That was the future Corbyn wanted, that was why he would happily sacrifice human rights, worker protections, core freedoms and pretty much anything else on the altar of a socialist government with the simple independence that might grant the freedom necessary to carry out his broader plans. In fact traditional Labour voters would be expected to be staunch defenders of the EU, as it protected them from oligarchs. So Corbyn, populist, nationalist and isolationist, would agree to campaign for remaining in the EU. This was the will of his party and so he would carry it out. Corbyn was almost completely uninvolved in the referendum campaigning. He did just enough public presentation to be able to defend his behaviour but never said anything remotely interesting or helpful and let his rising numbers of loyalists know in no uncertain terms that he was adamantly opposed to the EU, hoping many of them would vote to leave. Millions did.
In the actual campaign he, or his people, claimed that he did his duty, giving pro-EU speeches and the like. They further asserted that he was largely ignored by the media, his actions largely unreported. This was, and remains, a toxic lie. If the leader of the opposition makes a speech, gives a statement or wants to give an interview he will automatically be given all the access to media he desires. The reason the media didn't report much of his activity is that it didn't have much activity to report.
So the remain side was disastrously led, full of ambiguity, the two most senior political figures in the entire debate were both arguing for remain but one was doing so only as part of a wider plan to support the party, while the other was barely visible at all and had clearly made it known that he was being forced to vote to remain in the EU against his wishes.
As for the campaign to leave the EU? Well that was a different matter.
While the leave campaign didn't have a single party leader in its camp, apart from UKIP, naturally, it had a few things going for it. Firstly it had recruited a number of charismatic people to act as front men. Secondly it had absolutely no scruples about its campaigning. Bear in mind that Cameron was barely able to say anything beyond a vague platitude for fear of alienating parts of his party and Corbyn was constantly reminding people that he wanted to be on the other side, it was just his willingness to abide by the collective decision-making of the Labour Party that forced him to be there.
So let's talk a little bit about the lies:
Firstly, campaign finance. We have now had time for critical reports to be levelled at both sides, and both sides have been criticised. It is worth mentioning, however, that where the remain campaign made an error here or there, the leave campaign deliberately set out to buy the vote illegally. It is people like Aaron Banks who are being prosecuted for criminal activity and he, obviously, was in favour of leaving.
The biggest lie was the most comprehensive. During the campaign people were told that they could have a clean break from Europe or a new negotiated status to provide preferential access to the EU. These were collectively nicknamed a 'hard brexit'. At the same time other people were being told that they would most likely be voting for continued membership of the single market and customs union, while leaving the EU institutions. All these options were considered 'soft brexit'. There was form in this area. Canada had a deal that would look very much like a hard brexit while Norway was running a very similar model to a soft brexit. Voters were repeatedly told that the 'detail' could wait, for now they were being asked a simple question. Jacob Rees Mogg, a leading leaver, spoke in Parliament about the fact there would need to be two votes; one would determine if the public wanted to leave, the second would determine the manner of the leaving.
For any voter worried about the difficulties of finding the right solution to leaving the campaign constantly smudged any form of detail as to what a leave vote might mean while simultaneously explaining that the eventual deal with the EU would be astonishingly simple to arrange, 'the easiest deal in history', 'should take about a day'. All of this was entirely lies.
Other lies received plenty of coverage. The leave campaign famously suggested that leaving the EU would make the UK richer to the tune of £350 million each week. A lie. The leave campaign also ran a series of vile racist and nationalist stories about floods of undesirables pouring into the country. A lie, and a bigoted one. Yet, due to a lack of leadership on the remain side and, inevitably, the propaganda machine run by nationalist newspapers, few of the voters seemed to consider it important that one of the campaigns was lying constantly.
If we were to list the lies that would be the entirety of this piece, but it's worth understanding that there was push back in the other direction. Predictions made by the remain campaign that leaving would actually be quite complicated and challenging and that we would take a significant economic blow were given a label, 'Project Fear', where voters were told that they were being threatened into compliance.
Of course the racist agitprop depicting floods of foreigners pouring into the country was, according to the leave campaign, never intended to irrationally frighten people at all.
The reason this label was so easily spread was this myth of balance. Journalists were seemingly forced to devote the same amount of time to the liars as to those trying to be honest. To not do so would have led to cries of bias, but to actually allow this 'balance' was to mislead the audience.
The project fear label has been astonishingly effective. Years after the referendum it is still being used to describe any concerns about the process of leaving the EU despite the fact that many of the worries of the remain campaign have largely come to pass, implying it was actually 'project reality'.
To an impartial observer the facts are extremely clear:
Almost immediately David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister. The most senior tories in the leave campaign ran for cover, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg all disappeared. Theresa May, the former Home Secretary became the new Prime Minister and immediately set about taking a bad situation and making it catastrophic.
To understand why we need to look back at the purpose of the referendum.
The text of the law that framed it specified it was intended to act as advice to Parliament. Parliament would then do its job, limiting any egregious government actions while remembering the referendum result in its deliberations. As PM, May had a different interpretation. She declared that the referendum gave her the power to decide everything unilaterally. She decided Parliament wouldn't be consulted on the detail of the plans at all. She enacted Article 50, the device that then sets in motion a 24 month process after which the country would automatically leave the EU, so before which all relevant negotiations must have happened.
More fundamentally she decided that the meaning of the vote was that the country had opted for her vision of brexit, a very, very hard brexit with almost no commonality remaining with the EU at all. She explained to anyone who would listen that she had voted to remain, and maybe she did, but her voting record in the House, her public statements while Home Secretary and other, secondary statements implied that was at best a wildly incomplete understanding of her position, at worst just another lie.
She was taken to court and since the law, which she voted for, prevented her from acting as a dictator she was required to give Parliament a so-called 'meaningful vote' on the options ahead. Immediately she switched to her backup plan. She did nothing at all.
She had set the clock running on the date the UK would leave the EU, 29th March 2019. She now did nothing for a year before beginning some very basic negotiations intended to provide a framework for a transition period, of indeterminate length.
During this process it became clear that there were a few problems for which she had absolutely no solution.
So she waited. She was pressured into putting the vote before Parliament towards the end of 2018, and she decided, against procedure, to delay it until the new year. She then intended to put forward her plan again, assuming it failed to pass the first time, six weeks later. Now, that would mean that there was literally no time at all for any alternative. MPs would have to vote for her brexit deal or the country would crash out of the EU in a chaotic mess. No alternatives would be possible because despite the court's ruling she had decided the meaningful vote would be anything but, it would be a vote where the MPs were blackmailed into supporting something almost universally hated because she had carefully arranged for the alternative to be unthinkable. Defying the court? It’s right in her hitting zone, she’d been found in contempt of court decisions before, while Home Secretary.
Parliament, however, struck back. John Bercow, the Speaker of the House, allowed an unusual motion to pass against the PM's continuation motion. In it the PM would have to bring back an alternative proposal just three days, not thirty days, later. If that failed it could allow Parliament to vote on extending the leave date in Article 50, for example, taking away her ammunition for her dictatorial plan.
In response she threatened to strip him of his future honours and an ongoing role in Parliament. Mrs. May seems to think that threats are the only thing she can do. She might be right, she's been comically bad at all other forms of government.
Before we look at what happened next we should take a brief look at the actual facts, against which all of this was taking place. People who voted to leave repeatedly claimed that they did so for any number of reasons.
Almost all those reasons do not stand up to scrutiny.
Those who argue sovereignty should be in the UK failed to realise it never went anywhere, moreover when Parliament actually acted in a Sovereign manner they branded it traitor.
Those who argued immigration was uncontrolled and therefore people were coming in to the country to use the health service, schooling and social provision without actually securing work had been told that the EU's borders policy made such control impossible. That was a lie. EU members can absolutely deny the right to reside in their own country if a person is unable to find acceptable work.
Those who argued that the original EEC was just a trading bloc and the country was never asked if it wanted to join a political union were wrong. The EEC was always a political union and trade freedom was one part of an alignment between governments.
Those who argued that the EU was unelected, unconstitutional, unregulated or failed to get its accounts audited were wrong, or in most cases knowingly lying. In some cases, such as Nigel Farage, they were people claiming that the EU was undemocratic at the same time as they held democratically elected positions in it.
Those who argued that the passport shouldn't be burgundy any more, yes, really, that actually became a topic of discussion, were just fantastically stupid. The UK chooses its passport colour like any other nation, even those in the EU.
In fact, there is only one reason for voting to leave that makes sense for the vast majority of people, those who don't own a massive multinational corporation. If your problem with immigration isn't that you think it's uncontrolled or that you think it's unbalanced in some way then it makes no sense to leave the EU. But, and this is a completely fair point, if you're just racist enough that you want to send a message to the government that you don't want any more foreign people and you'd quite like to begin getting rid of the ones that are already here, then that, absolutely, is something you could do by voting to leave. It's a badge you can wear that says, "I'm a bigot, there are millions of us, we live in a democracy and I want my government to therefore do much more to represent the bigots, who I feel have had a raw deal recently."
If you're comfortable with being one of those people then brexit is for you.
I strongly suspect that most, possibly almost all, of the 17 million people who voted to leave the EU are not accustomed to describing themselves in that way. So, ultimately, if you voted leave and you're not a bigot then there's only one possible conclusion. You voted for the simple desire to be paid more attention by a government that is increasingly ignoring your concerns. It was a protest vote but you actually did have something to protest. You were lied to with extraordinary efficiency by an amoral political cabal while the opposing group of politicians were useless by design and the press was a propaganda engine run by nationalist billionaires to prevent you having an informed view. Worse, by voting to leave you handed the country over to that cabal of capitalists. The same cabal that, all along, your government was actually listening to instead of you. You saw the opportunity to make your government listen to you and, unfortunately, the effect was that they listened to your demand that they not listen to you but instead to the institutionally powerful people they'd been listening to all along.
It's a horrifying situation really. The government wasn't listening to your concerns. The reason was because your concerns were stupid. The reason they were stupid was because they had become your concerns because the press, social media, politicians and a constant barrage of lies and misinformation had manipulated you into wanting something stupid. The reason those machinations had manipulated you was because the powerful people who ran the media and paid for the misinformation campaigns actually wanted to leave the EU because it was in their interests even though it wasn't in your interest. Once these people had encouraged a weak tory PM to offer a referendum to save his party they then used their wealth and power to buy the result. Giving them exactly what they wanted all along. Because before, despite their wealth and power, there had been just enough control in the hands of Parliament to tell them that what they were demanding was stupid, self-interested and not in the interest of the country. So those people, whose desires were already taken very seriously and listened to in a way a typical citizen couldn't even dream of, now had a way to curtail the sovereignty of Parliament by mobilising an army of the misled, an army they had created and misled, to bypass the protections built in to the political system. Meanwhile the poor voters who never knew what they were voting for, intentionally, and who were now going to pay the price for the result, intentionally, were shouting meaningless slogans simply because it was hard to accept how they'd been manipulated. Of course it could have failed. The next PM could have immediately declared that the result of the referendum had to be allied to British law and so the brexit must be soft. But she didn't. Since the only way to force her vision of brexit through was to go on a constitutional crime-spree that would have impressed Butch and Sundance by its scope and length she must have known the problems it would cause. So it seems reasonable to assume she is also bought and paid for, not by her public salary, but by someone else. They bought David Cameron by buying enough tories to manipulate him. They bought the referendum result they wanted. Theresa May then acts illegally and irrationally on a breathtaking scale in furtherance of the same agenda. Is it really so unreasonable to assume they bought her too? After all, politicians are cheap things to buy, compared to the money that can be raised through manipulating a country with an economy measured in trillions. And all this time the people of Britain are being lied to, consistently, by hate-filled propaganda engines.
And democracy, voting, isn't actually happening if the electorate is ill-informed. Voting only makes sense if the voter understands what they're voting for. 17 million people are either bigots or were misinformed about their voting. If it's the former the country is done. If the latter then the referendum can be cheerfully torn up and we can go on with our membership of the EU.
But all this sounds as if Theresa May never had a plan at all and just bounced from one failure to the next. I don't believe that's true. I think the actual sequence of events was this:
After the referendum there were four plausible outcomes, each with problems. We could remain in the EU, but that ran the risk of angering those who already felt the government wasn't listening to them and would now seemingly have proof of that. We could break from the EU entirely, something called a 'no-deal' brexit, but nobody at all campaigned for that during the referendum, people on both sides constantly referred to it as unthinkable. We could remain part of the European Economic Area but leave the EU's other institutions, something that would be a 'soft' brexit but would lead to us having to remain bound by EU regulations while surrendering any right to affect how they were written. We could have a negotiated trade deal with the EU, offering preferential access to the market but without any other obligation, but that caused problems under British law, might still tie us to the EU's regulations and would also lead to huge economic turmoil.
I think Theresa May looked at all these four outcomes and realised that the only one that actually made sense was to tear up the referendum result, but obviously that wasn't acceptable to her, or her owners. So she built a plan. She would get Parliament to sign off on leaving the EU, but would do so before she began to explain her ideas for what that would look like. This was essential because the way that process was written immediately ruled out both staying in the EU and remaining in the EEA. So the options were now down to two, either a no-deal or a hard brexit.
She then, essentially, did nothing. Her purpose here was to run down the clock. As the actual leave date, now enshrined in British law, approached she would offer her deal to Parliament and essentially have left it too late for them to say no, as the alternative would be the unthinkable no-deal brexit. In fact her deal was a disaster, illegal under international treaty and clearly something that practically nobody at all had thought they were voting for. Nonetheless she thought she could make it happen because she was holding a gun to the head of Britain and saying 'agree to my deal or the country gets it'.
For anyone who's seen recent British politics happen in front of their eyes that actually seems like a plan that really could work. The only shock here is that eventually Parliament did start to demand answers, vote down her deals, try to put together alternatives. That's the surprise, that Parliament actually began to do its job. And that's rather sad.
And this process overseen by the first ever PM to lose a vote of confidence in the house, the same PM whose rabid anti-EU agenda led to her being convicted of contempt of court while Home Secretary over her determination to scratch human rights legislation from British law. An objective that, naturally, was very dear to her heart and to the billionaires who help her career and that couldn't be achieved until Britain was out of the EU. She was so determined that this must be the outcome that she demanded we take remaining off the table immediately, before we even knew what we were negotiating for. The same woman who, just days away from the leave date still refused to take a no deal brexit off the table because she said she needed it to keep the EU in honest negotiations. Of course that was just another lie. She needed it to blackmail Parliament. That's why in May's mind there cannot be any going back to the beginning if we find it too difficult to find a way forward.
After all, isn't that how things are always done? Don't you, generally, negotiate for what you want while still having the choice to back out if you don't like the deal?
Instead Theresa May jumped out of a plane with a bundle of craft supplies in the hope she could make a parachute on the way down.
She went to buy a car and began by announcing that she had to have this car no matter what the price.
She sold her house before viewing a new property, knowing that if she couldn't agree a deal she'd be homeless.
Britain is sitting on a tree-branch with a saw, cutting through the branch to separate us from the EU’s tree while screaming that the tree needs us to stay above the ground, not the other way around.
Who leaves the EU before they've even found out what it would mean?
The answer is someone for whom the ends are all that matters, the means are irrelevant. Someone who counts the votes before deciding what was on the ballot. Someone who sees their fellow human as just a natural resource to be exploited and tyrannised. Someone who sees democracy as just another obstacle to be overcome on their way to accumulating as much personal power as possible. Someone who sees no moral problem with using their wealth and their position to manipulate the electorate and therefore subtly erase democratic process from a democratic country.