BY SAM HOOPER
Warning of economic Armageddon didn’t work, and nor did peddling ludicrous conspiracy theories about government perfidy. So now, prominent Remainer opinion-setters are resorting to tear-stained pleas that Brexit is so personally stressful as to be injurious to their mental health.
One of the more annoying aspects of modern political journalism is the way that those who cover events increasingly seek to insert themselves into the story, either by oversharing on social media, grandstanding during press conferences or writing tell-all books full of juicy campaign gossip which inadvertently reveals just how much the journalistic class traditionally suck up to those in power rather than holding them to account.
In Brexit Britain, however, this is being taken to a whole new level with newspaper columnists and TV talking heads – particularly those of a pro-establishment, pro-EU Remainer persuasion – taking a break from offering soundbites and analysis to let us all know just how traumatised and stressed Britain’s imminent departure from the European Union is making them feel.
First up this week was Matthew Parris, with a long stream-of-consciousness confessional in the Spectator:
My spirit is restless and I must confess. This Brexit thing is driving me slightly mad. And I do mean that clinically: not as a rhetorical flourish. My mental state, like that of so many I know on both sides of the Remain/Brexit divide, is capable of medical diagnosis. A shaft of insanity has pierced our interior lives. I really am becoming a Remainiac.
Is it not the first and clearest indication that the balance of one’s mind has been disturbed that, when having done all one reasonably can to achieve a result, one simply cannot let something go? What is the point of waking up at 3 a.m. and fretting sleepless until sunrise that we are leaving the European Union? What is the point of reading every one of the Times readers’ online posts beneath one’s column (they numbered more than a thousand last Saturday) and actually trying to answer scores of those many that are critical of one’s point of view? One knows perfectly well one will never change their minds, and they know perfectly well they will never change one’s own. So what are we doing staring at our stupid screens and taking verbal jabs at each other when outside the sun is shining?
[..] Well (you may say), isn’t that what fierce public debate on important questions of politics is all about? But no, not really. In my time I’ve taken sides with some passion on many great political questions, variously suffering reverses, chalking up victories or acknowledging myself impotent to influence the outcome — yet have always been able to sleep. But this ridiculous Brexit thing is spoiling my summer, spoiling my life; and I can see it’s doing the same for my adversaries on the Leave side too. I’m beginning to pine for a perhaps-imagined golden age when a Conservative-led coalition was in power and we didn’t all hate each other and the EU thing — whichever side you took — was just a minor irritation.
Of course, Britain’s EU membership and slow subsumption into antidemocratic continental political union was never just a “minor irritation” to those millions of British citizens who wholeheartedly objected to the project and would have loved to have made their feelings directly known at the ballot box much earlier, if only they had been given the opportunity. But then Matthew Parris displays that peculiar, almost robotic lack of empathy for people outside his own social caste common to many prominent Remainers, and so he could not have possibly known this.
But unlike many other prominent Remainers, at least Parris has the self-awareness to recognise that his behaviour may be counter-productive:
I mentioned the first indication of a disturbed mental balance: being unable to let something go. But I think there’s a second too, perhaps more worrying still. It’s when you self-diagnose and know this is the case, know you’re going crazy, know you’re self-harming, know that friends who tell you to leave Chazza alone because he isn’t worth it, are right — yet feel no inclination at all to mend your ways.
Like the paranoiac who is persuaded by the patient rationality of a kindly counsellor that ‘they’ are not all out to get him, but pursues his own mad train of reasoning undeterred by what he accepts to be wise advice, I rave on into the night.
I know it’s doing no good. I know I’m boring my readers; know there’s almost nothing left to be said; know that the voice in my head, my mother’s voice, telling me I just need a good night’s sleep, is right. But I’m not going to take a blind bit of notice of it. Having seen friends and colleagues drawn to their professional ruin by a fixation they cannot shake off, I resolve this summer to trudge forward, head down just like them, towards the wreck of whatever reputation I have left for dispassionate objectivity.
How bracingly, unexpectedly honest.
Not to be outdone by Parris, though, fervent EU hagiographer and Remainer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown then immediately took to the BBC Daily Politics studio to confess that Brexit has left her “feeling on the edge of madness and mental illness”:
I’m so glad that Matthew wrote this. I am behaving, feeling kind of on the edge of madness, of mental illness with this.
[..] I can’t go anywhere anymore, including with distant relatives, and not have a fight. I was at a wedding party last week, a wonderful wedding party – and it isn’t even left or right – and there were people from Momentum at this wedding party talking about why they were Brexiters, I had a big fight with them. And I had to go out and, like, cigarette smokers, get deep breaths, and I thought what are you doing, this is a wedding party.
[..] I can’t talk to relatives; I even had a fight with somebody on the bus, normal citizens talking about why they wanted out because they didn’t want foreigners here, I got up and had a fight. I think I’m there with Matthew.
But why is Britain’s imminent departure from the European Union so profoundly and earth-shatteringly disturbing to the likes of Matthew Parris and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown? Why is this event so much more weighty than any other political setback they may have endured in the past?
Part of the answer is that they are in fact not reacting just to Brexit, but to what they think that Brexit represents – Britain turning toward being a more introverted, hostile and unpleasant place – in a way that no other single political decision (such as a tax cut or education reform) alone can symbolise replicate. This much is evident from the Twitter timelines and public pronouncements of much of the #FBPE #WATON “Brexshit” crowd – not only do they (correctly) see Brexit as far harder to reverse than a normal political policy shift, they also fear a sea change in the character and fortunes of Britain.
But there is also something deeper and more obvious at work, driving this unprecedented hysteria from a group of commentators and public figures who generally love to portray themselves as calm, reasonable and pragmatic – the fact that the likes of Matthew Parris have never really known until now what a true political setback feels like. In recent decades (and in the case of younger pro-EU activists, their entire lives) many of the EU’s loudest cheerleaders have never known what it is for their political agenda to stall, their worldview to be repudiated or their preferred policies not to be enacted.*
For these opinion-setters and those they represent, general elections – supposedly the greatest regular opportunity for political change and democratic course correction in this country – have been largely meaningless, their outcome worth tussling over on a superficial level but never reaching the level where it might have grave or existential consequences for present trajectory of the country or for their own lives.
A decade after Tony Blair’s New Labour government took power, the top rate of income tax had not been raised from the level set by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1988. Meanwhile, privatised industries had not been renationalised, nor was there any likelihood that they would be, to the chagrin of the Corbynite Left. And to the frustration of more conservative citizens, six years of Tory rule had seen no halt to the march of social progressivism or the persistence of a broken welfare and immigration system by the time of the EU referendum. It was not that there was no popular dissent against the effective bipartisan consensus on these issues, it was merely that in each case the political class had effectively decided to lift the “correct” course of action out of the bothersome influence of electoral politics.
Thus the Matthew Parrises of this world have long slept easy in their beds, knowing that Britain would be run as a technocratic social democracy with swathes of policy outsourced to the EU where the public could less easily interfere, and that broadly pro-business and pro-middle aged, middle class homeowner policies would prevail whoever sat in 10 Downing Street. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader gave an early wake-up call that not everybody was entirely happy that the country was effectively being run for the personal benefit of Matthew Parris and others like him, but even then it was airily assumed that Corbynism would flame out and that moderate establishment centrism would reassert its dominance within the Labour Party, restoring balance to the universe and predictability to their lives. A pleasant predictability utterly lacking in the far more precarious and uncertain lives of millions of fellow citizens whom Matthew Parris and his cohorts barely deigned to notice, but a pleasant predictability nonetheless.
This is why what we are now witnessing from many establishment commentators more closely resembles an hysterical toddler’s tantrum than reasoned analysis or advocacy. With Brexit, something very precious of theirs (to their mind, their natural right to see the arc of history bend favourably toward their wallets, careers, lifestyles and preferred holiday destinations) has been rudely stolen – and they are not going to take it lying down.
Unfortunately, this strangely unmoving bid for public sympathy will prove to be just another failed tactic to add to the gallery of missteps and forced errors of the Continuity Remain campaign. Insulting Leave voters and accusing them of xenophobia or racist tendencies didn’t work. Casting aspersions about the intelligence and education attainment of Brexit supporters (as though a degree in chemistry or gender studies imparts some special wisdom about the best forms of government to secure freedom and prosperity) likewise did not work. Resorting to unhinged conspiracy theories (such as in-house Remainer intellectual AC Grayling’s insistence that the UK government planned to provoke China into sinking a Royal Navy frigate in order to distract from difficulties in the Brexit negotiations) failed to generate anything other than derision and embarrassment.
And now this belated establishment bid for public sympathy will also fail; not only because it makes a mockery of real mental illness and those who face stresses and mental difficulties of an infinitely more severe nature with none of the financial and social cushions enjoyed by prominent media personalities, but because those people now seeking sympathy in their time of “trial” have tended to show an astonishing disregard – and sometimes outright contempt – for the worries and concerns of those they now paint as the enemy and pick fights with at wedding receptions.
The next time a famous and well-remunerated journalist or opinion-setter takes to the television studios to bemoan the harm that Brexit is apparently doing to their mental health, they should first perform this role-reversal thought experiment: imagine that rather than Brexit being the first time in their life that they didn’t get their way on a matter of deep and abiding personal importance, that it was the first time that they ever knew victory. What might that have felt like, to have been so disenfranchised and overlooked for so long?
Any pro-EU personality of honour and dignity might then pause before flaunting their mental trauma and parading their emotional scars before a nation with far more important things to worry about.