BY SAM HOOPER
In the course of arguing on Twitter recently, I received back the following piece of friendly psychological analysis from a longtime follower and antagonist.
The text reads:
“You are almost always wrong, as if you’re from another planet. I’m starting to feel pity, not sure if for you or for the people who have to suffer the consequences of what you keep saying with grave conviction. Please take a step back and reflect.”
Now, I don’t necessarily take issue with the charge of being “almost always wrong”, nor even the insinuation that I hail from extraterrestrial origins. But the funny thing is that I am actually a rather introspective person, and do spend quite a lot of time stepping back and reflecting on my beliefs and political worldview – perhaps in fact never more so than now, when law school has limited my available time to write.
Also, having never attained any level of fame or recognition from my writing (save a solitary appearance on the BBC and the very occasional retweet from a famed Twitter bluecheck journalist) I have not been subject to the temptation to lapse into permanent “transmit mode”, that gnawing need to be seen by my legions of followers as an all-knowing sage, privy to Great Knowledge and the secret schemes of the political elite.
In fact, performing a word count search on my blog reveals that the word “introspection” appears over 30 times in more than 20 articles – usually in the context of me demanding that certain politicians, journalists or other actors engage in some introspection as to their recent behavior, and precisely because I hold myself to this standard of regular self-reflection and accountability.
So I do take it somewhat personally when it is suggested I “take a step back and reflect” on my position on Brexit, because that is something I frequently do anyway. Having begun my age of political awareness as a devout europhile and even ardent euro-federalist, I already know many of the arguments in favor of the EU and against Brexit inside-out, without needed to hear mangled recitations of them from the Continuity Remain lobby’s telegenic campaign mouthpieces. In some cases, I was spouting many of those same tedious lines about “friendship ‘n cooperation” while pro-EU “celebrities” like EU Supergirl and Femi Oluwole were probably still watching children’s television rather than the evening news.
Having been on a journey from ardent euro-federalist (I once proudly wore a polo-shirt emblazoned with the Euro logo, soon after the single currency’s launch) to reluctant supporter to resigned leaver to committed Brexiteer, I have naturally examined and re-examined my views and the evidence supporting them on repeated occasions. That’s what it is to change one’s mind. And when it comes to the question of Britain’s European Union membership, I would always sooner listen to someone who once held an opposing view only to change their minds – whichever side they ultimately end up on – because at least I then know I am dealing with someone who has likely evaluated conflicting evidence or willingly exposed themselves to alternate viewpoints. The result is almost always a more productive exchange of ideas, and the avoidance of those dreary social media debates where two ideologues simply sling dueling talking points at one another with no intention of engaging in real debate.
Thus I continually questioned my beliefs before I started taking a more outspoken role in the Leave movement. Was the EU really as harmful to our democracy and impervious to attempts at reform as I had come to believe? Were many of the benefits of EU membership really replicable through other means that did not involve supranational government? Was the EU actually the best we could hope to do in terms of looking at governance beyond the nation state at a time of globalization? Were there realistic prospects of spurring that broader international discussion through Brexit, or would it be an act of national self-mutilation that had no ripple effects beyond Britain? Would it be better to just bide our time sheltering inside the European Union while we waited for someone else to finally address the pressing issue of balancing global governance with national (and local) democracy? Does it look like anybody else is about to step up to the plate and begin that work? Is the EU actually going to step up, admit its past failings and respond in a humble new citizen-centered way?
I also inevitably thought about how history would judge the positions I took and the statements I made, particularly at a time when social media records every throwaway remark or careless retweet, creating a rich seam of information that can be used by the unscrupulous to destroy one’s reputation and career. If Brexit was likely to fail and its opponents succeed in portraying it as a doomed nationalist spasm fueled primarily by xenophobia, was it worth the risk of me sticking my head above the parapet and supporting it? With so many powerful people on the pro-EU side, Remainers never seriously had to worry about being viewed by the history books as a latter-day Nazi if Brexit succeeded despite their opposition – they had more than enough manpower in the political, commercial, academic and cultural arenas to effectively absolve themselves from any blame for standing in the way of Brexit if it did lead to good things. Not so Brexiteers – like the American revolutionaries who would have been hung for treason had they not prevailed, history’s judgment would likely be merciless to Leave advocates and voters if Brexit did not go well, even if the fault was that of saboteurs determined to ensure that it not succeed.
Even after winning the referendum in 2016, I questioned my choices. The very next day, as Brexiteers toasted victory, I travelled with my wife and friends to Greece on holiday. As we passed through the EU flag-starred lane at passport control, I again asked myself if my decision to support Brexit had been a mistake; whether the EU, imperfect as it is, was the best we could do; whether it were better to remain in a vast bloc and regulatory superpower that looked likely to centralize further and become more powerful, even if it meant the further atrophy of British democracy, in order to remain “in the club”.
And of course the dismal events of the past two years – as Article 50 was triggered prematurely and without a plan, negotiated ineptly by a government sorely lacking in expertise, held to account by a Parliament full of MPs who cared more about appearing superficially knowledgeable or striking partisan poses than actually understanding the important minutiae on which everything depends, watched over by a debased and infantilized national media which either failed to contain its bias or do its due diligence – only led to more such introspection. Was it all a terrible mistake? Was there never anything good to be won? Was it inevitable that things would end up this way, with our government, opposition and legislature beclowning themselves in front of the world on a daily basis?
Yet after all of my questioning, my answer remains the same – Britain was right to vote to leave the European Union. I was right to campaign for Britain to do so. Even now, we are right to pursue Brexit and to resist those who would like to simply maintain the status quo in our governance and relationship with the EU. The fundamentals have not changed – indeed, Continuity Remainers seeking to overturn the result have generally still not bothered to discern precisely what those fundamentals are, in order to better communicate with Leave voters.
I do, however, wonder whether my far more famous and eminent counterparts on the Remain side have ever once engaged in the kind of introspection and self-questioning as to their stance of opposing Brexit and uncritically embracing the EU that I perform on a routine basis regarding my opposition to the project. And I strongly suspect that many of them have not.
Do you think for a moment that James O’Brien, LBC’s anti-Brexit polemicist-in-chief, as ever once taken a break from his task of finding the most inarticulate, confused and angry Brexit supporters to “defeat” in argument on his show to question any of the fundamental issues about the EU and Brexit that I and other Brexiteers consider every day?
Do you think that eminent celebrity academics like AC Grayling ever once take a break from rending their garments and peddling conspiracy theories on Twitter to consider whether they might themselves be trapped in a closed ideological echo chamber which prevents them from fulfilling the basic academic and scientific duty of exposing their dogmas and hypotheses to scrutiny and criticism from alternative perspectives?
Do you think that grandees like Tony Blair and John Major ever really stop and reconsider the pivotal moments in their administrations, and ask themselves whether they might have ever misjudged the march toward greater EU integration without public consent? Or is it more likely that they are simply desperate to cement their legacies rather than concede potential error?
Do you think that progressive-left religious leaders like the vast majority of bishops of the Church of England – people who are supposed to unite the nation in faith but who have often chosen instead to use politics to divide us while idolizing a slick salesman’s vision of European unity – have ever prayerfully reflected on their behaviour?
Do you think that issue-illiterate, virtue-signaling woke celebrities like Gary Lineker and Eddie Izzard ever engaged in a serious evaluative process of understanding valid complaints about the EU and the driving forces behind Brexit, or is it more likely that their publicists simply spotted a good opportunity for them to effortlessly win acclaim from the chatterati?
Do you think that the self-regarding doyens of the prestige international media ever take a break from communing with Bono to learn the causes of populism in order to question whether their very actions might contribute to the problem, and whether their uncritical acceptance of the legitimacy of bodies like the European Union (and consequent feeble scrutiny of them) was harmful to the very democracy they claim to defend?
Do you think that the plum voices of the BBC ever take a break from smearing UKIP voters or flatly declaring without evidence that Tory MPs belong to the “far right” in order to question whether they are really promoting the cause of truth and serving the whole of society?
Do you think that shamelessly biased Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow ever actually seriously considered whether he was wrong to negatively highlight and criticize the number of “white people” attending a pro-Brexit rally in Westminster?
In all of the above cases, I believe that the answer is probably “no”. Convinced of their righteousness from the start, these individuals and many others switched into permanent transmit mode on 24 June 2016 (and in some cases long before), never once subjecting themselves to the discomfort and potential cognitive dissonance of questioning their own assumptions.
Maybe these people have actually forfeited the public trust and the right to their bully pulpits in the media.
Maybe when evaluating how Brexit is being attempted, resisted and portrayed in the media, we should ask ourselves who is actually engaging in an intellectual exercise of any kind, and who has simply lapsed into triumphantly bleating articles of faith, with little questioning of their own side. I would argue that many of the latter can be found in prominent positions on the Continuity Remain campaign, or at the apex of those organizations and industries which most strongly support it. And ironically, many of them can also be found publicly marveling at the inability of Brexiteers to reconsider their stance, question their dogmas and change their minds.
The truth is that Brexiteers have had nearly three years of unremitting exposure to the scorn, derision and hatred of many of the most respected and influential groups in our society – the politicians elected to our Parliament; the people who staff our civil service, lead our educational institutions, run our largest companies, lead our charities and edit our newspapers; the people who act in our favorite films and television shows, entertain us with their stand-up comedy or represent us at the pinnacle of professional sports, literature, music and the arts. Three years of this unremitting negativity and hostility from opposing forces in the most powerful reaches of the country; three years of embarrassing failure after failure by the people tasked with executing the decision we made at the ballot box on 23 June 2016, and still there is no overwhelming desire among Brexiteers nor the country as a whole to scrap Brexit and remain a member state of the European Union.
You could say that this is emotion over reason, that it is faith over fact, that it is a desperate act of confirmation bias by people who simply don’t want to admit to themselves that they were wrong. But every single one of these attack lines is also a piercing dagger which can just as easily be aimed right back at the heart of the Continuity Remainer “resistance” movement – people who despite being rebuffed at the referendum against all the odds and opinion polls have still not engaged in any kind of meaningful introspection at a group or individual level, and many of whom never once questioned their stance on Brexit, prior to nor after the referendum.
We are continually told that Remain voters and their movement’s heroes are more highly educated – even more moral – than those of us who had the nerve to imagine a future for British democracy outside the European Union. We are told that they are stringent disciples of reason while we are base creatures motivated by nativist superstition and easily led astray by nefarious outside influence. But it’s all a total sham. Theirs is a priesthood with no monopoly on fundamental truth, just a desperate faith in the European Union as the solution to problems which it has shown no capacity to meet.
There is indeed an emergent quasi-religious movement in Britain, one which holds its truths as unquestionable dogma, which views nonbelievers as automatically “lesser than” and which blindly fetishizes a flag as representation of all that is good and true in humanity. But the new faith militant in British politics is not the fractured and browbeaten Brexit movement. It is the Cult of Continuity Remain, and the banner under which it triumphantly marches bears the twelve yellow stars of the European Union.