Doublethink: Remain means Brexit – Brexit means Remain

When vital words lose their meaning, then democracy will die

Geoffrey M. Hodgson

Theresa May once told us that “Brexit means Brexit”. We were not made any wiser.

In George’s Orwell’s famous book 1984, the all-powerful Party has the slogans “War is Peace”, “Freedom is Slavery”, “Ignorance is Strength.” We are much closer to that Orwellian World of doublethink now.

In the local elections on 2 May 2019 there was a surge in the vote for the remain parties – Liberal Democrats, Greens, Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru – who do not want Britain to leave the European Union. In a campaign with “Stop Brexit” as their by-line, the Liberal Democrats gained over 700 council seats, their all-time best performance.

Meanwhile, the two main parties who “respect” the illegally-gained referendum result and who are trying to get some kind of Brexit deal, suffered badly. Labour failed to make net gains against the worst government in more than a century, and the Tories themselves lost heavily.

The following day, Prime Minister Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and other leading Labour politicians all admitted that their results could have been better. They were seen as evidence not simply of voter discontent. They drew the remarkable conclusion that the surge in the Remain vote meant that the people want them to “sort” or “get on with” Brexit.

Hence voting for Remain means voting for Brexit. The Orwellian world of doublethink has finally arrived, 35 years after the book predicted. Remarkably few media interviewers or presenters, including from the corrupted BBC and the populist ITV, have challenged this interpretation of the election results. Ignorance is strength. Remain means Brexit.

Brexit means Remain

But in this Orwellian world, Brexit means Remain too. We are now into double doublethink.

On 22 April 2019 we saw the popular TV presenter Richard Madeley hosting the popular ITV programme Good Morning Britain. Madely insisted on the programme that if the UK remained in a customs union, then that meant that the UK was still a member of the EU.

The brilliant and indefatigable Femi Oluwole tried to put Madeley right. Femi is an expert in EU law. But it was to no avail. The idea that remaining in a customs union means remaining in the EU prevailed on a popular ITV programme, which boasts about 700,000 viewers daily.

It got even worse. On 4 May 2019 the Tory MP Mark Francois was interviewed by Femi. First Francois claimed that any customs union with the EU mean that the UK would still be “in the EU”, then “in effect” still be in EU, then he switched back to “in the EU”.

Francois is an opportunist, pandering to the ultra-Brexiteers who dominate his party. It is possible that, unlike the poorly-briefed Madeley, he knows the truth. Hence the wily use of the “in effect” fig-leaf here and there.

I did some polling myself. I did my best to get Leavers to participate, but any Twitter poll of mine will have a sample bias toward Remainers. The poll has a relatively small sample of a few hundred responses, and the results have to be used with caution.

Amazingly, despite the likely Remainer bias, 22 per cent on my poll thought that the statement “If UK is in a customs union with the EU, then it is still a member of the EU” is true. 73 per cent thought it was false. 5 per cent of respondents did not know.

Overall, that means that over a quarter of respondents did not know that it is possible to be in a customs union with the EU and not be in the EU. If it were possible to compensate for the likely Remainer bias, then this figure would probably be higher.

Turkey – already in the EU?

Turkey has a well-established customs union with the EU. This means that its trade tariffs and duties must match those of the EU. It also means that Turkey is heavily embroiled with EU agreements and EU regulations. But Turkey is not a member of the EU.

An EU member state is subject to the privileges and obligations of membership. The member states of the EU are subjected to binding EU laws in exchange for representation within the common legislative and judicial institutions. Turkey has no representation in the European Parliament, and no seat in the Council of the European Union or the European Council. Other than via op-in agreements, it is not bound by EU laws.

But, according to my poll, something around 20 per cent of the British adult population seem to believe that being in a customs union means being a member of the EU. According to them, Turkey must be a member of the EU.

So why did Boris Johnson and Vote Leave tried to scare people during the 2016 referendum by say that Turkey was “to join” the EU? If a customs union means EU membership then Turkey was already a member. But Vote Leave itself implicitly denied this.

According to the mistaken 20 per cent, if the UK stays in a customs union after declaring it has achieved Brexit, then Brexit has not truly happened. This particular Brexit means Remain. Many people, including some politicians and TV presenters, seem to believe this.

A threat to democracy

Whether these misunderstandings result from deceit or ignorance, they are fatal for rational discourse in a democracy. If different groups of people are using the same words to mean very different things, then meaningful conversation is impossible.

Consequently, it cannot be claimed that the meaning of Brexit is generally clear, and it is “the will of the people”. It is no longer reasonable to say that the 2016 vote in favour of Brexit must be “respected” when there is inadequate agreement on what Brexit means, and at least one-fifth of the population misunderstand the basic facts of what being a member or non-member of the EU means. To many people, some Brexits mean Remain.

If our parliamentary system ever regains a measure of sanity, then one of its first acts of legislation should be to place constitutional voting thresholds in the use of referendums, especially those that could lead to major constitutional changes or the removal of our rights. Even a 60 per cent threshold may be unsafe as a basis for legislation, especially when over one-fifth may not understand what the proposition in the referendum means. A super-majority of over 60 per cent must vote for a proposition for it to have any advisory or compelling force.

Television channels such as the BBC, ITV and Channel Four have a public service broadcasting obligation as a condition for the licence to broadcast. This system has clearly failed us. They have a duty put out the facts, even if the public or the politicians do not want to hear them.

Television presenters that put out falsehoods such as “being in a customs union with the EU means being a member of the EU” should be reprimanded or sacked. A schoolteacher or lecturer that repeated similar falsehoods would be deemed incompetent and would face a similar fate. There can be no short measures here. Our democracy is in severe danger.

Driven to extremes

The level of public misunderstanding over what Brexit or Remain mean puts the Tory government and its current Labour opposition in great difficulty. To move toward Brexit, they need to agree to the “backstop” conditions, involving a customs union with the EU, so as to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The alternative is a no-deal Brexit that would put the UK economy into recession, destroy the Good Friday Agreement and threaten peace in Ireland and even on the British mainland.

Both the Labour and the Tory leaderships have edged toward a Brexit that avoids a no-deal outcome and keeps a soft border in Ireland. A group of Labour MPs led by Stephen Kinnock want to go even further: they are pushing for Norway-style status after Brexit.

But the current level of misunderstanding over the meaning of Brexit and Remain puts all these Brexit solutions into great difficulty. Any Brexit deal involving a customs union or Norway-style membership of the Single Market, will be seen by around one fifth of the population as not Brexit but Remain.

Given this confusion, many Labour and Tory voters who support Brexit will see their parties as betraying the referendum results that the party leaders themselves have urged everyone to “respect”. Meanwhile, Labour and Tory voters who support Remain will see the enabling of Brexit as contrary to the national interest and a removal of individual rights.

Any deal-bound Brexit has now become extremely difficult and potentially unpopular. Any deal with the EU must involve some kind of customs union with the EU. But such solutions will alienate large numbers of Brexiters and even more Remainers. The Brexit discourse has polarised, with supports of Remain on one side, and advocates of “no deal” on the other.

Nigel Farage understands this. Before the 2016 referendum he advocated a Norway-style Brexit model. He now says that any customs union is a betrayal and he is pushing for no deal. Thanks to his frequent appearances on the pro-Brexit BBC and ITV, he is piling up his electoral support and pulling over large chunks of Tory voters.

Labour is suffering badly. For three years they have played the duplicitous game of trying to look pro-Remain and pro-Brexit at the same time. But when politics moves to extremes no-one wants to buy fudge. As the Labour MP Ben Bradshaw put it on Twitter shortly after the May 2019 local elections:

“This was the first Electoral test of our policy of ‘constructive’ ambiguity on Tory #brexitshambles. It showed that when you cower in the middle of the road on the biggest existential crisis facing Britain for generations you get squashed.”

As a result, as Bradshaw admitted, lifelong Labour voters were deserting to the Liberal Democrats.

The battle now is between those that are campaigning for Remain, including the Liberal Democrats, the Green party and Change UK, on the one side, and those campaigning for the most extreme and damaging of all possible Brexits, on the other. The Conservatives and Labour are piggies in the middle. They will be the losers.

Over two thousand years before Orwell, the great Chinese philosopher Confucius wrote:

“If names are not right, words are misused. When words are misused, affairs go wrong. When affairs go wrong, courtesy and music droop, law and justice fail. And when law and justice fail them, a people can move neither hand nor foot.”

Today, words have been misused. Law and justice have failed. Politicians are immobilized. A catastrophe is brewing. We must avert it.

Double doublethink – where both Remain and Brexit are given their opposite meanings – is making meaningful dialogue impossible in a divided country. Unlike we act firmly and quickly, our democracy could be disabled. Difficult and dangerous times are ahead.

6 May 2019

May 6th, 2019 by