This year’s headline news stories – Brexit and Trump – have stirred up unprecedented political turmoil and debate, and brought into sharp focus the rising sense of frustration that the two sides of the left vs right argument have with each other as they become more diametrically opposed and desperate to impose their version of how the world should be. This, combined with 24 hour news and the social media information explosion, has been leading to a shift in the way that politics works and how the electorate has reacted to it.
The debating landscape has got messier and it has not been helped at all by the protagonists who have led it. On the one hand we have senior politicians telling blatant lies, Donald Trump being the obvious example, and on the other hand we have commentators accusing people of telling lies when all they were doing was expressing an opinion. This happened a lot during Brexit. Most prevalent, and also a constant feature of the Brexit debates, was that old chestnut of politicians and commentators not answering the question they are asked. You may remember from years past Michael Howard and William Hague in TV studios being asked the same question repeatedly and finding ever more convoluted ways of not answering it, but they may have been better off just telling the truth and living with the consequences. Their preferred approach just said to the viewer ‘you cannot trust this man, he won’t answer a direct question’. Yet in today’s time-poor world interviewers have a set of questions to get through so don’t want to dally for too long on one single point, which allows the evasive politician to wriggle off the hook. Both sides of the table seem to play the conversation as though it is just a game. But it isn’t, and I can’t be the only person screaming at the television or radio “why don’t you answer the question!” where it is obvious that they won’t be able to because logic does not allow this, and getting annoyed not only with the slippery answers but also the failure of anyone to cut through their waffle and get them to confront the point they are trying to avoid so that their argument can be tested properly. Here’s a random yet perfect example from a recent episode of BBC Question Time:
A lady in the audience proposed that some of the foreign aid budget be used to fund health and education costs incurred by illegal immigrants in the UK. A Labour MP was asked to respond. Now this put him in a difficult position as this was something he had not prepared for but to a neutral observer could be a proposal at least worth thinking about. However, he could not be seen to be anti-immigrant or in any way attacking foreign aid as these days this opens you to an accusation of racism, which could be career-ending for a Labour politician. Yet if he pooh-poohed the suggestion he could be seen as so stuck in his thinking that he would not entertain new ideas. So he completely ignored the lady and started talking about a different point raised by a panel member. David Dimbleby interrupted and asked him to address the question, which he stumbled over so the questioner was asked to repeat her suggestion, which she did very clearly. The MP listened attentively, then once again completely ignored her point and talked about something else. He knew that if he filibustered for long enough the question would be forgotten and the chairman would move on in the interests of time, which is indeed what happened.
Of course examples abound from both sides of the political divide. This is extremely frustrating for the viewer and is perhaps why it has helped those public figures who use less smoke and mirror subterfuge and just say what they think, to start to gain more popular support over the last few years, even though this approach regularly results in ‘gaffes’ where they have been politically off-message or over-stepped the previously defined social norms of acceptability. Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump. Now, Gert Wilders in Holland. Notice anything about this list? Yes, they are all from the right – the left are much more careful to keep on-message. And yet, the groundswell of popular support appears to have moved to these talk-first think-later leaders. Their deficiencies in verbal guile and their tendency to not just step into a man-trap but to personally prepare the trap that they then step into, has not, in the grand scheme of things, significantly dimmed the cause they were fighting for (a case to the contrary could be made for Boris, of course, but Boris is always an exception). Yet when you think about it this is hardly surprising. How many great leaders of history were known for waffling and trying not to give a firm opinion? People warm to someone who says what they think, doesn’t appear to have had much media training, and does not attempt to deceive by avoiding hard questions even if they risk a gaffe. They are more like us!
And here is where we stray into ‘populism’. David Cameron illustrated that he did not really understand what it means by declaring that it caused his downfall and he wants to fight it. The word populism derives from popular, so if you want to fight something that is popular you are likely to become unpopular. Perhaps Mr Cameron has nothing to lose on this front but for a rising politician this could be an unwise strategy.
Populism has come to mean a rising up of the people against the ruling classes, but surely this just means that a lot of people hold a similar view and have expressed it through the methods available to them, most recently Brexit and the USA elections. The signs are that various upcoming elections in Europe may continue this trend. Is this not just democracy, and if so, why is this a bad thing? Was not the SNP victory in Scotland populism? Does David Cameron need to defeat that too? Well yes, actually, maybe he does, or did, but he can’t so he won’t.
Populism in Europe currently favours the right, who are reacting to years of being governed by the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ as they are now known. In Britain a slender majority want to go back to a different set of ‘British values’ that, amongst other things, focus on British residents rather than putting people from other countries at the front of the queue. Meanwhile the movement striving to be populist under Jeremy Corbyn is wanting to go even further back, to the 1970s, a grim world that most of them are not old enough to have experienced and therefore would not understand why that could be a very bad idea indeed.
The far left do have some perfectly laudable aspirations, it is just that many of them are troubled by realities and evidence, and so, in order to divert attention from this, a method of argument utilised quite frequently recently by left-sympathising audience members has been to loudly boo their opponents in TV debates as though the strength of their boo will define the measure of their superiority. UKIP representatives in particular have been subjected to regular audience abuse and cries of ‘shame!’, as though their opinions were scandalous and disgraceful, yet they represented 12.6% of voters at the last election and in most cases are not actually saying anything particularly awful. This more hostile atmosphere was fostered during all those Brexit TV debates where the contenders flung soundbites at each other as a substitute for substantiated facts (because most of the available facts were just interpretations of data that could be read numerous ways depending on your point of view) and the audience felt compelled to act out the part of the baying mob in a Roman amphitheatre. This has encouraged political debate to become livelier and angrier, a dangerous mix because the two sides are drawing further apart. Left or Right, Remain or Leave, all parties are entrenched and just do not see the point of the other.
Now after the Brexit vote, we have the introduction of the ‘moral high ground’ tactic, currently being utilised by Remainers who tell us that the 52% who voted to leave the EU were ‘lied to’ and therefore didn’t understand what they were voting for because they lacked the mental agility of the Remainers to assess the pros and cons and work out the best option for themselves. None of the Leave voters apparently realised we could have to leave the single market if we wanted to curb free movement of labour, despite it being on record that every major politician (Cameron, Osbourne, Gove, Johnson, Leadsom etc etc) on both sides spelled this out whenever they were asked during the referendum debate. Faced with this evidence a few weeks ago, Nick Clegg dismissed it as ‘a few selected clips’, which says it all. Thankfully the Liberal Democrats and the Nicky Morgans and Anna Soubrys of this world are here on behalf of the Remainers to put this right and fight for a solution that keeps us in the single market and does not destroy jobs and lives, because clearly the government will be doing all they can to engineer a solution that destroys jobs and lives, won’t they?
The Brexit debate also saw UKIP being regularly tarred with the ‘racist’ brush because short of accusing someone of being a paedophile or murderer this appears to now be the most horrifying label you can apply to someone. The word racist has been bandied about so much now it is in danger of becoming devalued. We all know that the left were using it to shut down every discussion about immigrants until people summoned up the courage to point this out publicly as a tactic. But the risk of being accused remains, and I can’t be alone in thinking that this is partly what has led to the populist backlash because people were fed up with being told what they can and can’t say about immigration. It has even got to the point now where if a white British person does an Australian or a French accent, or an American attempts a British accent, no one bats an eyelid but if they attempt an Indian or Jamaican accent it is racist. Does that not say more about the accuser than the imitator where only one of those people is making skin colour an issue? Imitating people, irrespective of where they come from, is not racist and never has been otherwise no-one would attempt a regional accent and a lot of impressionists would be out of a job. For this argument to have any authority it has to be consistent, which it clearly isn’t. So let’s please stop trying to be offended by this.
This leads me to one significant feature of modern political debate, which I’m surprised is not called out more often. It is the practice that I will call ‘miscusing’ (derived from ‘mis-accusing’ and meaning ‘to accuse someone whilst knowing full well that the accusation is false’), where a debater will preface what they think will come across as a killer argument with a sentence on what their opponent believes. This happens constantly, and you will see it whenever there is a debate on immigration. “Nigel Farage says he want to put a stop to immigration”, begins one politician, “well, I find that abhorrent. In my view…. etc etc”. That’s miscusing – Nigel Farage has never said he wants to put a stop to immigration, he just wanted to have some control over the numbers. But it fits your argument to claim that he has, so you can take some unjustly earned moral high ground.
All through the Brexit debate we heard over and over again about how immigrants are the foundation of the NHS, pay their taxes, come here to work, bring diversity and prosperity to the country, and so on. The Remainers stated this ad nauseum as though it was a winning argument, all on the premise that the Brexiters were planning to stop immigration. But this was clear miscusing. No-one from the Leave side had ever stated that immigration would be stopped or limits put on NHS recruitment so it was a pointless argument. Yet it got whoops and cheers from the Remain supporters so they carried on with it, as well as the constant accusations that Leave campaigners hated immigrants, again not evidenced by anything that anyone on the Leave side had said or done. From the Leave perspective, it was all about the numbers, plain and simple, but to acknowledge this made a trickier argument, so who could lavish the most praise on immigrants became the default approach and both side wasted many hours of TV debate time in doing so. I watched a lot of those Brexit debates and if I had a penny for every time I heard a panel or audience member launch into an emotional speech about how the NHS would collapse without immigrants I would be a lot wealthier. But not once did I hear anyone, from any side, ever say they wanted to take immigrants out of the NHS and stop them working here. There just wasn’t an argument to have.
Nick Clegg was a practised miscuser. He is so in love with all things EU that he regularly made up statements about what the other side stood for in order to demolish the position they hadn’t taken. For example “The Brexiters said that 80 million Turks might come here soon unless we left the EU” which of course was a complete miscusation; the argument was that 80 million Turks could be entitled to move to the UK – that’s a huge difference and no-one from the Leave side ever suggested that the whole of Turkey would emigrate to Britain because it is patently nonsense. But Clegg followers would leap on statements like this and clap furiously as though it completely justified their cause.
Miscusing, though, is common to all sides and parties and is to my mind no better than lying. Claiming your opponent is planning to put a tax on chimneys then triumphantly denouncing them for this dreadful imposition is not so impressive when it’s not true. So is this part of the new ‘post-truth’ world, where opponents in debates lie about each other in order to further their cause?
I am just an ordinary member of the public with no political affiliations and no campaigning background who thinks his views and opinions are founded on common sense (doesn’t everyone), although you can tell I lean further to the right than the left. But I also strongly believe in policies like limiting senior executives’ pay and not privatising everything – there is nothing wrong in cherry-picking the things you believe in, indeed to do otherwise would be to blindly follow because someone told you to (see ‘religious belief’). Whichever standpoint you take, you will find people who consider you an idiot for taking it and will be highly unlikely to change their minds based on the force of your argument. You in turn will be unlikely to listen to them and immediately revise your own views to align with theirs if you think they are talking nonsense.
So politicians have their work cut out to convince us. Unfortunately, I am not sure that they are always doing this in a way that will benefit us all both now and in the fast-changing world that is our future.