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The twin sagas of Trump and Brexit, and four aspects of Brexit that keep me awake

December 2, 2018

I’ve been away from the UK for the last month, travelling in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. I’m ashamed to admit that wherever I am in the world, I can’t shake off the damnable habit of checking the news sites on the internet first thing in the morning.

More than ever, it seems, the dominant stories boil down to a constant SOS signal: Trump-Trump-Trump, May-May-May, Trump-Trump-Trump.

There are many aspects of both sagas – Brexit and the Trump presidency – that I still struggle to understand two years after the events that kicked them off. Long ago I lost count of the analyses I’ve read that have attempted to explain them. Some are convincing. Some are bunkum. Others provide answers that lead me to think that they haven’t entirely hit the nail on the head.

Many of the credible theories seem to be centred not on conspiracies – though there are plenty of those drifting about – but on human nature. How easily emotions can be manipulated. How readily people accept lies, even when they know they’re lies. How acquiescent people are of politicians who break laws, yet outraged when others do so. How fearful people are. How angry. How tribal. How entrenched in their views even when presented with evidence that might lead them to other conclusions. Depressing stuff.

That said, the experience of watching Trump and Brexit unfold has not been entirely negative. I’ve learned plenty on the way.  For example, the pervasive and unbalanced influence of the wealthy on the American electoral process; the lengths that politicians on both sides of the Atlantic will go to preserve their careers to the detriment of the national interest; the power of the social media and the ease with which it can be exploited in pursuit of political ends.

There are four key issues that that keep nagging at me.

The position of Britain’s public service broadcaster on Brexit ranks high. There was a time when I would look to the BBC by default for an unbiased view of the political issues of the day. In its international coverage this is still the case. But from the moment that the referendum result became clear, it seems that the Beeb has followed a “line to take” on Brexit. We are leaving, and that’s that. Efforts by large numbers of citizens to advocate a second referendum have been covered grudgingly if at all.

It’s almost as though those that govern the BBC consider any view other than that we’re leaving the EU to be unpatriotic, not to say subversive. They might argue that when World War 2 broke out it would have been inappropriate to present “Herr Hitler’s position” in the interest of balanced coverage of the war. So now that the people have decided, any contrary views on the legality of the process or the possibility of rethinking the decision have, for most of the past couple of years, remained in the background.

Only now, when the awfulness of no-deal and the sub-optimal quality of Theresa May’s deal have become apparent, have the BBC and its flagship programmes started taking seriously the possibility that the situation might be resolved by asking the electorate the in/out question again.

Added to that, the BBC’s willingness, in the interest of “balanced coverage” to invite bigots and cranks, who represent the views of a tiny minority – Tommy Robinson, Gerard Batten and, endlessly, Nigel Farage – to appear as equal debating partners alongside those who speak for major political parties is wrong-headed and misguided. Blowhards like Tim Martin of Wetherspoons might be good value in terms of entertainment, but their participation in shows like Question Time is the reason why I avoid current affairs TV like the plague.

I fear that the BBC has suffered reputational damage since 2016 that will take years to repair.

The next juicy bone of contention is the claim by demagogues that overturning Brexit and the ending Trump presidency would result in civil unrest and violence. You would expect such assertions by the likes of and Farage and his US counterparts. But when the same arguments are made by mainstream politicians and commentators, then we have reason to be concerned.

Not about violence, but about what sort of country we are. Either we are a nation that upholds the rule of law or we are not. You can be sure that if the Leave result in the 2016 referendum had resulted in outbreaks of street violence, it would have been dealt with by the police, just as were other outbreaks of civil unrest over the past thirty years, from poll tax riots to anti-globalisation demonstrations. We should not be intimidated in any shape or form by threats of violence in reaction to referenda, legislation or court judgements.

Protests are fine, violence is not fine. And the same presumably would apply to civil unrest in response to the impeachment and removal of Donald Trump, despite the complication that American citizens tend to be armed to the teeth.

In neither country should the fear of violence ever be a factor in the exercise of democracy and the application of the law.

Then there is the issue of whether or not the 2016 referendum result was obtained by illegal means. Our government seems to have determined that the Brexit rollercoaster should not be halted or called into question because it apparently believes that unanswered questions – about the source of the Leave EU funding, the role of Cambridge Analytica and its foreign owners, the influence of Russia and the failure of Facebook to prevent its user data from being harvested for political purposes – are immaterial, and any wrongdoing is unlikely to have affected the result.

The government, and Theresa May in particular, may be right. The big question, though, is whether its failure expeditiously to pursue lines of inquiry into potential wrongdoing around the biggest political decision for 80 years is a legitimate political tactic undertaken in the national interest, or whether it is effectively a coup d’état.

Carole Cadwalladr, the journalist who has been largely responsible for flagging up the torturous web of influence peddlers and money sources behind the Leave campaign, asks why we do not have our own version of the Mueller Inquiry to examine the matter thoroughly and impartially. If that ever happens, it will most likely present its findings after the fact of Brexit. By that time, we will have left the European Union, and the question of whether a coup d’état took place will be academic, except of course for the perpetrators. It will have been a very British coup.

Last but not least, if a second political earthquake were to occur, and in a new referendum the electorate voted to remain in the European Union, I wonder how much thought we will have given to our future within the Union.

Will a substantial portion of the electorate be embittered by having been deprived of “their Brexit”? What will be the effect of a generation of politicians having to deal with EU institutions despite their opposition to our membership? How will the other 27 members of the EU react having to deal with a government formed by a Conservative party that has firmly branded itself as the “Brexit party”, or by a Labour party that has been at best ambivalent? How easy will it be for us to function effectively within an organisation which suspects us of lacking commitment to its raison d’être? Will we encounter the suspicion of a spouse whose partner has been unfaithful?

None of these concerns should prevent us from continuing our membership of the EU. Nor should they stop us from vigorously pursuing our own agenda on reforming EU institutions if need be. But for that to happen there would need to be a cull of the political leaders who got us into this mess in the first place. Perhaps there would need to be new alignments within the existing political structure. A new centre party? I doubt it. Political organisations need deep roots if they are to thrive, and it takes time for those roots to grow. A coalescing of moderates from both of the main parties around the Liberal Democrats? Maybe, but only if the Lib Dems acquire a compelling agenda and leaders who can capture the imagination of the electorate. They have failed to do that since the 2015 general election.

One thing is clear – to me at least. If we remain in the European Union, we should do so with enthusiasm and commitment. It’s hard to see us doing that with Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and their acolytes still at the helm. They should be replaced with leaders capable of adapting to the new reality. As for the Brexit ultras in Parliament, they should either form their own party or go back to running their hedge funds.

In the United States millions of voters have grown tired of Trump’s never-ending reality show. At least they had the chance to register their discontent in the recent mid-term elections. They will have the option to rid themselves of him in less than two year’s time.

Here in the UK I am one of many who are weary of the whole undignified political shambles around Brexit. I’m appalled by the near paralysis of government over the past two years that has diminished our ability to address social, political and economic issues more worthy of our attention. I’m also angry at the distress and anxiety our cackhanded leaders have caused to millions of residents from the rest of the EU who contribute so much to our society and our economic well-being, and to our own citizens who live in other parts of the EU whose lives will be disrupted as the result of our obsession with ending freedom of movement. And I fear for the future of my children and their children, who will have to make a life in an inward-looking country diminished by the mistakes of my generation.

No doubt we will muddle through whatever the outcome from the present mess. But it all seems so bloody unnecessary.

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