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Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Brexit and the Politics of Sanctimony


In 48 hours or so as I write the votes for the United Kingdom to leave or remain in the European Union will have been cast and counted. After a brief hiatus, the vituperation, abuse, and misinformation that has characterised the campaigning will resume. The referendum has certainly awakened thousands of Brits from political disengagement and apathy, but the tone of the campaigning will leave a bitter taste, whatever the result.

There's a reason people once thought it impolite to speak of religion or politics in public, outside private meetings of like-minded enthusiasts. A great many people are incapable of doing so without getting hot under the collar, and the referendum has been a firestorm of self-righteous spleen.  

I have read a lot of comment threads on local Facebook pages and newspaper websites. Mainly, these were from the Guardian and the Daily Mail, representing the opposite ends of the Brexit spectrum. They've usually left me feeling pretty depressed because of their tone of intolerance and bigotry. The great qualities of ordinary British people are still evident- such as national pride, independence, stubbornness, humour. But the moderation and fair minded-ness for which the British are renown around the world is far less evident. The prevailing tone is one of sanctimony. You don’t have to go on social media to be self righteous, but it really seems to help.   
This might be an artefact of social media itself. A lot of people seem to use it to complain about things in a tone that they dare not use in any other medium or in verbal discussion. Many, though by no means all, are not very clear or fluent in their political analysis or written communication. Why shout at the TV or harangue passers-by in the street when we can instantly publish our incoherent rants on social media, the ultimate vanity publishing system?  

The indecorous tone for public comment and debate was probably set by mass broadcast media in which anger and excess, personal insults, slander, sleaze, and gossip have become far more common over the past twenty years. Political marketing was invented in the USA and the Donald Trump campaign is finding new depths to scrape in the bottom of the populist barrel of invective and mendacity. British habits of politeness and reserve remain widely evident in physical interaction, but on social media they have vanished. I think the personal vilification of politicians, so common to see now, has been especially damaging to debate and democracy.         
There’s a curious disconnect between the Britain I read about in the mainstream and social media and the one I physically inhabit. I seldom encounter rudeness or bad behaviour in person when I’m out and about. Where I live, people still leave doors unlocked, many say ‘good morning’ in the street, most car drivers are courteous, and most pubs and restaurants friendly and congenial. But seen through the internet, the world I seem to inhabit is in a tumult of violence, injustice, crime, and prejudice.

I’m sure I wander about in my own little daydream and miss most of what’s really going on. I’m equally sure that the internet can make relatively distant and exceptional events seem closer and more commonplace than they really are. There is much in the world to get angry or frightened about, and it’s all there on our smartphone at every waking moment. A lot of people, me included, are wasting far too much time reading stuff on our smartphones that gives us a cortisone hit of nervous stimulation. Sanctimony is addictive.      
News and comment on social media is written to elicit an emotional reaction, and it does, as we declare our self-righteous anger toward some wrong or other. The EU referendum has provided a particularly fertile platform for every imaginable complaint. On a local Facebook site, referendum comment has often been semi-literate, ill-tempered, and propagandistic. Indeed, quite a few posts seem to be from pages and identities set up for the purpose of propagandising for the ‘leave’ campaign. People actually sit there for hours to jump into comment threads, hiding their true identity, like self appointed secret police. The motives of politicians on both sides are impugned, opposing views are met with vilification, and language is often violent and racially chauvinistic.
It seems to me, that most of the arguments on both sides as articulated in the mainstream media are speculative, misinformed or deluded. The UK is mad to even contemplate leaving a decision with such complex implications to a public referendum. The economic, demographic and legal issues are challenging enough for specialists. The EU has become a media myth that tends to be blamed for or credited with everything that people like/dislike about life in Britain. The social media arguments are a dialogue of the deaf, but they’re hardly relevant- the campaign has become driven by emotion. For many in the leave campaign it seems to turn on an idea of Britain that is stuck in 1952. For the remain side, it seems to be based on a slightly rosy notion of global togetherness.

And then there's immigration, the go-to topic for lazy politicians. All problems of domestic resource allocation can be reduced to immigration- school funding, the national health service, welfare benefits, prisons, you name it- all will be magically solved if immigration limits can be enforced. Apparently. Even though the UK has an ageing population that is about 90% white and British born. But that's irrelevant.   
Most disappointing of all is the social division that will linger long after the referendum is old news. A vote to remain in the EU will have many Brexiters crying fix and bitterly attacking the Prime Minister and other remain politicians for allegedly misleading the public. The hysterical press will become even more hysterical, and thousands of social media activists who briefly found a cause and platform will have to find another way to vent their spleen.

A vote to leave the EU will have the Labour hard left and the Tory right wing equally triumphant, as both seem to think that leaving will precipitate a socialist revolution, or a capitalist one, depending who you listen to.
Polls are ambiguous, but there seems to be a middle class of professionals swayed by the economic arguments for staying in, a lot of poorer and less educated people who feel that the EU is the reason they’re fed up with everything, and a cohort of older, retired voters who feel that Britain has lost some of its national glory by being in the EU. Different business sectors side with their own perceived interests. My local Facebook is hugely pro-leaving as are most of the vox pops I've seen on the TV. If there is a vote for remaining in the EU, it'll come from people who are keeping their opinion to themselves. That's what happened in the general election, to the pollsters' embarrassment. This time, the silent majority hiding behind their suburban net curtains may be rather more divided.    
I’d like to think that the referendum has got everyone a bit overexcited and once it’s over people will calm down. I’d really like to. But Britain is in a liminal zone of tension and uncertainty, along with possibility and promise, and the sense of flux will continue beyond the referendum, whatever the result. More spleen? We've hardly seen the start of it.      

Update: Well, I must admit that was unexpected. The UK voted to leave, roughly 51% to 49% on a 70% voter turnout. The Prime Minister has said he'll resign, the Scottish leadership is calling for another referendum to leave the UK, as are Northern Ireland. Possession or lack of a university degree was the best predictor of voting intention. Areas of long term structural economic decline voted to leave. I voted to remain in the EU mainly because I thought the economic and political consequences would be long term instability for the UK and for Europe. The stock market, the currency and investment plans are already weakening precipitously. I hope I'm proven wrong in the longer term, but I can't see anything positive for the UK or world economy in the UK leaving the EU. The silent majority of older voters who swung the general election did indeed swing the referendum, with a large majority of over 60s voting to leave, along with large numbers of unemployed and lower paid people. A large majority of under 30s voted to stay in. The main political players of the remain campaign are already rolling back on some of their more outlandish claims, and we are heading for some sort of fudge, with much residual bitterness. The great British people have spoken, the politics of sanctimony have won the day, and we stumble back to the future. It feels like the 1970s all over again.