Getting Cross About Brexit?

Have you, like me, been getting cross about Brexit? I think there are a number of different reasons why I have been getting cross about it. And crucially, some of these reasons are not tied to the referendum result. Here, I thought to share my reflections. I would like to think that these reflections invite important questions about our understandings of “deliberation” in modern democratic societies. But its real merit may very well be just an opportunity for me to get something off my chest. If you wish to know why it weighs heavily on my mind, let me just say that most of my first year law students could not vote in the referendum in 2016. The future lawyers I train in 2017 did not vote on what will undoubtedly shape decades of their lives. It saddens me quite a bit.

Nonetheless, thought to share a short sketch of some reasons why I have gotten cross and why I think I should “take it easy”. I do not intend this piece to be an analysis of Brexit and its consequences. As reflection pieces go, it is a rather personal and messy one. The reader ought to be wary of presuming too many causal relationships between the various headings.

Getting Cross About ‘Facts’

The EU referendum and the  “Brexit means Brexit” manifesto by Prime Minister Theresa May has brought about lots of discussion. (Difficult to be sure what she or the UK government actually means by it, not then, and not more recently.) These discussions continue to involve fact checking and raising questions about “facts”. There is a struggle to delineate between what one could describe as “self-existing facts”, and, “facts” that are a matter of judgment and choice. One could ponder the complexity with the following questions:

  • Are facts only those things that, like atoms with a physical border around it, once joined or divided become something else, and no longer facts?
  • Can opinions be treated as facts?

One intellectual test with these two questions is not whether “facts” meet or do not meet the implicit requirements within each of those questions. Rather, to contemplate the political struggle that ensues in a population. There are some people on some topics that can only consider the suggested meaning of “facts” in each question as a matter of “either/or”. Meaning to say, if it is “yes” for the first question, then necessarily it is “no” for the second. Another group, or the same group on another topic, may be able to engage the meaning of “facts” in those two questions in a more reflexive and flexible manner. The political struggle I’ve mentioned is most obvious when these different ways of thinking meet one another.

Casting the Brexit discussions under this light, many have expressed their deep disappointment with the duplicity, lies and the relatively meaningless populist slogans used by various officials and commentators. A recent example of one expressing disappointment is Richard Dawkin’s contribution to “Viewsnight”. Not to mention those who were disappointed by what Dawkin’s said. Other classic examples are the questioning of expertise and journalism (liberal media, fake news, alternative facts). The issue of significance, I think, is that the informed, uninformed and the misinformed get clumped together. All the reasons, fears, confirmation biases, conspiracies and choices all lumped into a toxic whole. Toxic not because it is innately evil, but rather because it is undecipherable. This lumping of everything together, from the informed through to the misinformed, is detrimental for everyone. It makes a mockery of trying to contemplate what it means to “be informed”.

Getting Cross About ‘Debate’

At the heart of the issue of “facts”, “opinions” and “information” is the question of debate. Not any kind of ordinary debate, but the kind of debate that creates a public justification for a society to do things a certain way. The notion of public justification contains two conceptual presuppositions. The first is what some political philosophers have described as “the will of the people”. The second is what some political philosophers have described as “public discourse”. Perhaps arising by virtue of my training as a lawyer and academic, I am rather comfortable with knowing that these two phrases are incredibly contentious. Not only that, I am also comfortable with asserting that those phrases should be contentious. Otherwise one could easily think that “will of the people” = “public discourse”. The words in these phrases have a nice ring to them – will, the people, public – but they are aspirational ideas. I do not suggest we abandon them, but rather, to treat them with care.

Despite being unable to define them perfectly, these phrases help make sense of what is happening when one’s opinions confront the opinions of others. A valuable vantage point from which to understand the deliberative processes of any society. To put this in other words, the ideas that underline those phrases influences and frames democratic deliberation: the journey from a cacophony of divided opinions into a consensus. Indeed, a key proposition I am making is that “consensus” is better understood as some future condition. As opposed to being tied to existing parameters in absolute terms. To put the matter of consensus in such terms helps develop an acceptance that there will be compromises after one puts their opinions forward. This means, it is reasonable for one to expect that deliberations about the compromises that follow “referendums”, would likely be as hard-fought as any initial survey of a population’s opinion. The difficulty we all need to contemplate upon is the extent to which one converts opinions into decisions so as to end deliberations. The difficulty I’ve noted concerns how we think about what constitutes the “ending of deliberation”, in any society about any given issue.

There is much trouble when using the phrases “will of the people” and “public discourse” in the context of debates (i.e. referendums and their associated campaigns). When can we decide to treat a referendum as reflecting the will of the people? Or in other words, in what circumstances may the will of the people be treated as ending deliberations? The converse seems just as important, that referendums mark the beginning of deliberations for the “will of the people”. Disappointingly, we can observe that the UK Government’s position is that the people have deliberated, and now all that remains is negotiation. Theresa May’s Cabinet does not seem keen to have the Supreme Court, House of Commons and the House of Lords deliberate on the topic. A risky exaggeration to make, but there is value in contemplating referendums to be civil wars fought with words. Perhaps people are getting cross because of a warlike mentality that many adopt as they navigate this political fault line. People want the debate to end, and are willing to use more coercive techniques to avoid discussion and debate. In such light, the uncritical pragmatism of asserting, “the people have spoken”, brings a coercive tenor to conversations about the persuasiveness and practical effects of the referendum result.

Getting Cross About ‘Unrestrained Nationalism’

Another reason for getting cross was the lacks in public communication, particularly with regards to simplistic expressions of patriotism and nationalism. Some of the failure can be described in practical terms, for example with regards to those who were allowed to participate in the referendum. Not only were my students excluded but also (nearly?) all who were exercising EU rights and making positive contributions to British society. The failure was also on the level of deliberation. Seems to me that neither the remain or leave campaigns went beyond their pre-determined opinions. The eurosceptics and europhiles remained totally committed and often chose to fight each other rather than persuade and inform public audiences. Each campaign seemed to favour staying within the confines of their constituent’s preexisting perceptions of nationalism and supranationalism (particularly when positive or negative).

In collective terms, most people did not know much about UK’s membership in the EU in the first place, much less what to do about abandoning membership. This is not to say that many people were not persuaded by various conspiracy theories about assessing the merits of membership. Conspiracies about a European superstate, Tory power politics, xenophobic nationalist middle England, we were all susceptible to some form of bias. Not all biases are unworthy. For example, I tend to be biased against Nigel Farage’s and more generally UKIP’s politics. Farage’s constituents did not elect him as an MP, but were willing to elect him as an MEP. There is much to reflect upon with this bizarre situation that Farage, as a public figure in the UK, could be an MEP but not an MP. Whatever the merits, this matter of Farage’s status in UK politics has become history, even before there has been an opportunity for members of the public to reflect upon and collectively understand it.

The EU referendum was a politically bifurcated contest. Between visions of national sovereignty writ large or supranational cooperation writ large. Whether these visions could be described as being clear and obvious? Whether they were accurate or ‘good’? Whether we know how benefits could be accrued under either vision? Looking back at the referendum and the continuing conversations we have to admit that these questions have not been discussed in any great detail. It was, perhaps, amongst academics.  Unfortunately it did not find much traction with government and the general public alike. Notwithstanding, surely we knew – even if just intuitively – that we needed some measure of national sovereignty and some measure of supranational cooperation. The ‘real’ question was a matter of striking a balance. This has not been addressed adequately. And importantly, we have not yet learnt to address it.

My personal opinion on this “balance” is that EU institutions did strike a desirable balance, particularly on rights. The problem was long-term durability and the heavy task of working out the differentiated responsibilities and costs to maintain these rights. Instead, everything “EU” was framed in lofty terms: common, single, union. Begrudgingly, I must admit that these frames were perceived to be mere rhetoric to many audiences. And thus, EU institutions lost the audiences that felt left out of this lofty vision and philosophy. In sum, my view is that the best course of action was always (and remains) collective reform and not unilateral withdrawal. I guess I am, rather unashamedly, a multilateralist.

Trying To Take It Easy

My affirmation of multilateralism comes from an interest in international law and international history. There is a subtle difference between taking it easy to the extent of not bothering, and, taking it easy to be more diplomatic. In this regard, I am particularly worried. History reveals that human beings have tended to wage wars first and strike peace deals later. As we argue passionately about Brexit, it may be that we have become accustomed to not showing restraint because we presume that war is impossible. I am not so sure. Hot words and opinions can become acts of violence. Words are not just descriptions of things and one’s thoughts. Words are also agendas and action plans. Words about “foreigners” make it easier to treat them as enemies during times of war. Europe has seen these sorts of words and wars before, and it was a huge credit to the EU institutions to try to avoid such words and thoughts.

For my age group (?), it is my ‘grandparents generation’ that experienced World War II first hand. That harrowing period in human history was followed by many amazing innovations, such as the creation of the UN and many other supra-national and trans-national institutions, and an explosion of nation states. These innovations benefitted my parents’ generation and mine. Benefits might include the immense personal wealth that average middle-class families enjoy today, and the level of care for the vulnerable that is attempted on the global scale.

But we should not think of these benefits without reminding ourselves of their dark sides: the weapons manufacturers and stockpiles, and, the level of national debt around the world are just two examples. However, because of recent “peace”, it seems most average citizens who feel like they are just getting about their lives, have become rather blind to the peace settlements that shape their existence. Failing to perceive how similar the current tensions are to the conditions that preceded past wars. In fact, it might be the “sleepwalking into war” bit that is most reminiscent. We have grown accustomed to thinking more about whether we can finance a new car or re-mortgage our homes than to think about the roots of war in history.

My own thinking on this is that the words we use to describe states and institutions should fit with a larger purpose: our explanations of states and international institutions as peaceful covenants we make to one another.

Like many, I have gotten rather cross whilst speaking about Brexit with friends and family. More times than I’d like to admit. When one thinks what they think and do is “true”, “right” and “good”, they tend not to count the times. Somewhere deep in our human psyche we expect things to be going swimmingly all the time. Even the pessimist is thinking about the good times as a reference point even if they are expecting things to go the other way. In terms of political philosophy, Michael Sandel sums up by saying “people want politics to be about big things”. It would take a rather brave person to argue that there are bigger things than “war and peace”, “love and hate”, and “good and evil” in the background of human thought and practice.

All through these moments of “getting cross” and “sharing opinions”, it seemed so much as if I was creating these penetrating analyses of the current situation. Yet, there remain mysteries and worries. Were the public, beyond the immediate conversations, ready for any of these analyses? Surely, if people don’t wish to engage with opinions, all this so-called “penetrating analysis” would appear to them to be mere speculation. Several times, I had to tell the person I was speaking to that I was not cross at them. Simply frustrated at the situation.

One of my colleagues made a helpful observation. Arguably, being close to retirement may have made the observation a little easier to make. Coming to the end of a long period of stable and well-rewarded work, brings some advantages. It is easy to have faith in one’s own wisdom, to have the strength to moderate one’s predictions, and to possess a degree of immunity from the practical effects that may arise from things not going their way. He observed that we must not forget that life and work “will go on”. The British style “keep calm and carry on”. He did use a metaphor, of a boomerang, to describe the current socio-political climate.

I like the metaphor of the boomerang. It has the capacity of capture both the danger and beauty of human endeavour. A beautiful image of the current ferment as a boomerang, arching across the sky, one that “we” flung into the air. It captures dangers too. That instead of catching it upon its return, it catches us unprepared. This metaphor of the Brexit deliberations moving like a boomerang might be helpful, and could inspire us to be better informed and also to cope with disenchantment. Might remind us to prepare ourselves for the return of the boomerang, to prepare us to catch it. And also to remind, that if the returning boomerang hits us awkwardly, that we do not turn to fury.

Deliberations in societies are never quite an easy thing. We would like the neatness of village elders and national parliaments being able to simply represent the will of the community. In reality, this was a conceptual idiom that simply did not accord with reality. In reality, communities had diverse opinions and their representatives had contrasting interests. There was not just the question of cooperation amongst representatives, but also the question of deliberation within the community. The more they could see things from each other’s perspectives the less dogmatic they could be of their own, a more ‘shared perspective’ had to be strived towards. Seems to me, where members of the community can bear this anxiety of being uncertain with their own views, they might just see the promise and aims of deliberation. Without which there is only a thin line to cross from comity to enmity.

I recall an apt comment someone made during my undergraduate days: “The more certain the future, the more uncertain people become. The more uncertain the futures, the more certain people become.” Sounds a lot like Francis Bacon’s Preface to his Instauratio Magna.