If you respect the electorate, you’d tell them the truth about a hard-Brexit

"The only thing more concerning than the economic and social contractions of Brexit is the stigmatisation of anything other than near-jingoistic optimism"
"The only thing more concerning than the economic and social contractions of Brexit is the stigmatisation of anything other than near-jingoistic optimism"

By Nick Barrett

The people, we are told, have spoken and it is now the job of the politicians to enact our alleged will by any means necessary. Such an attitude means that those who continue to object to the country's current trajectory are dismissed as arrogant, patronising and of being in contempt of the democratic will of the public. Such accusations are almost as boring as they are predictable, but their prevalence is in itself quite remarkable, as is their ability to silence dissent. 

A common misdiagnosis of 'post-truth politics' is the suggestion that fake news, filter bubbles and confirmation bias are merely the by-products of Mark Zuckerberg's imperium. Critics of the idea have pointed out that those in power have lied to their people for thousands of years that and that yellow journalism is nothing new either. All this is true, but what makes this 'post-truth' era distinctive is not the behaviour of liars but the attitude of the deceived. For instance, before Britain's referendum on European Union membership last year, a poll by Ipsos Mori found that voters typically estimated the number of migrants living in the UK to be 31% of the population. The actual portion of migrants in Britain is 13%. Remarkably, instead of reconsidering the issues when confronted with the real figure, respondents would question the validity of the data and insist that they were right. This pattern of behaviour suggests that the electorate might not notice the imminent fall in immigration implied by the government, but it could also mean that they may be immune to accurate descriptions of a defining factor pushing us all towards our new status as a Trump-friendly tax haven on the edge of the world.

Plato once observed that as democracies age, class-based deference often slips away, and respect towards authority often goes with it. Such a prognosis has led to a culture of timidity and fatalism within political circles. The accusation of being 'out of touch' hangs like an axe over the heads of journalists, politicians and activists who know that their careers are partly the by-products of an inherited middle-class advantage. As a result, the misplaced scorn of the guilt-ridden is discharged from almost every ideological direction upon those who dare to say the electorate might be less than infallible. The contradiction at the centre of this carnival of cowardice is that the people who stand to lose the most from a hard-Brexit are those the political class are so terrified of offending, working class Leave voters.

Leaving the European single market, which currently accounts for over 44% of our exports, will almost certainly disproportionately hurt the people who voted for it. The European project was designed with the specific purpose of making another war on the continent inconceivable by entangling industrial activity across borders. The principle at the heart of almost every act of European integration over the last 60 years was to make going it alone as awkward and as expensive as possible for any one given country.

Not only is a weaker pound likely to reduce consumer spending power, but cheaper exports won't be able to compensate for it if new tariffs hinder our international supply chains. French and German companies who gain from being part of the single market will probably play along with a punitive EU negotiating position to preserve their favourable trading environment. Meanwhile, with an ageing population, the UK will remain heavily depended on unskilled migrant labour. Without the right to freedom of movement, the government and the companies who rely on such workers will be burdened by new and expansive layers of red-tape while the voters who have been encouraged to expect a dramatic reduction in immigration will find themselves paying for a labour shortage that they probably won't even notice. And so it is more than likely that Brexit will exacerbate most of the factors that created it in the depressed towns, cities and regions that made it possible.

How can democracy respond to any of this without a culture of honest and open inquiry? The only thing more concerning than the economic and social contractions of Brexit is the stigmatisation of anything other than near-jingoistic optimism. The notion that it is somehow insulting and patronising to raise these vital issues strikes me as deeply patronising in itself. When I was growing up, I was taught that if you respect people, you always tell them the truth, even if you know they don’t want to hear it. In contrast, if you don’t respect somebody you pat them on the head and tell them that what they did was good because they did it. That's patronising. 

The stakes are awesome. Across Britain, hard-working EU nationals are losing sleep as hostages of the government's negotiation, and across Europe, Brits are reconsidering their careers and ambitions under a cloud of political uncertainty. As Putin and his petulant puppet in the White House undermine the post-war order, European solidarity will become more important than at any time in living memory. Meanwhile, Trump's draconian immigration policies have shown that the enlightened notion that an individual's circumstance of birth should be incidental to their ambitions in life is once again a counter-cultural idea in the west. These are not normal times.

Margaret Chase Smith, one of the first Republican senators to publically criticise the tactics of McCarthyism, once wrote that "the right way is not always the popular and easy way. Standing for right when it is unpopular is a true test of moral character." Those who know that Britain and British people will be poorer outside of the single market should ask themselves whether they care more about their street cred than the future of their country.

Nicholas Barrett is the deputy editor of the TheStrix.com. You can follow him on Twitter here.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.


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