Richard North, 10/05/2018  

On this blog, I find myself repeatedly referring in general terms to "the debate" on Brexit, my term taking in the national discussion on how we leave the EU. Latterly, though – if belatedly – it has occurred to me that there isn't any debate at all.

What we actually see are disparate groups and individuals stating their fixed positions and then constantly repeating them, without deviation or alteration. There is no discussion as such – no exchange of views, none of the classic thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis.

Mostly, the protagonist seek to take control or dominate information sources and limit the access of the holders of non-conformist opinions to them. They will then ignore with a view to marginalising sources not under their control, pretending that opinions and facts they disagree with simply do not exist.

This is a variation on sending people to Coventry – an idiom stemming from the 17th Century. You don't hear the term spoken very much these days, but it retains enough currency for it to be defined in Wikipedia.

The definition is interesting. Its meaning is deliberately to ostracise someone. Typically, says Wikipedia, this is done by not talking to them, avoiding their company, and acting as if they no longer exist. Victims are treated as though they are completely invisible and inaudible.

By 1811, we are told by Wikipedia, the meaning of the term was defined in Grose's The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, as follows:
To send one to Coventry; a punishment inflicted by officers of the army on such of their brethren as are testy, or have been guilty of improper behaviour, not worthy the cognizance of a court martial. The person sent to Coventry is considered as absent; no one must speak to or answer any question he asks, except relative to duty, under penalty of being also sent to the same place. On a proper submission, the penitent is recalled, and welcomed by the mess, as just returned from a journey to Coventry.
In its modern iteration, the "punishment" is applied to those guilty of non-conformist thought, applied most visibly on Twitter. In an active manner, it is achieved by "blocking" people with whom one disagrees. In a more passive way, such people are simply not "followed", "liked" or re-tweeted. Their posts lie dormant, without response, never opening up a dialogue. They are ignored.

If this encapsulates the treatment of dissidents, it has far wider effect. They are never given platforms in the media, nor invited to speak at conferences, nor brought into consultations, debates or other public venues. They are truly treated as if they are "completely invisible and inaudible".

Outside its now substantial and growing circulation, that has been the fate of this blog for many years. We do not appear on the blogrolls of many of the high-profile political sites (although we used to, until removed). Rarely, to the point of almost never, is the blog recognised in the legacy media, even to the extent of references to being removed from comment threads, when posted by readers.

This, of course, is by no means specific to this blog – although, in taking a robustly independent line, we find ourselves shunned by both sides of the divide – "leavers" and "remainers".

But each group does it to other groups. The "left" does not talk to the "right", "leavers" do not talk to "remainers", "ultra" Brexiteers ignore Efta/EEA supporters, and the Westminster "bubble" ignores just about everybody, to the extent that they act as if no-one but themselves have any opinions.

As someone born and bred a Londoner, one always has a special affinity for the places in which one was raised, but London is different and the Westminster political "bubble" even more so.

This I discovered when I moved to Yorkshire and met the residents of God's own country. They believe themselves to be the most fortunate people in the world – the very definition, or so I thought, of parochialism. But this does not even begin to compare with London. They do not believe they are the best. They simply don't recognise that anyone else exists.

In that context, to "send to Coventry" comes naturally to the bubble-dwellers. They don't have to work at ignoring others. But when they apply their minds to it, the exclusion is almost total. If the "bubble" decides you don't exist, then you truly are invisible.

Layered over this is the other phenomenon of "prestige", which has much to do with the class-ridden nature of our society. Persons of low prestige cannot communicate with those who consider themselves at a higher level. You can talk to them, but you're wasting your time. If you lack the all-important "prestige" you do become "completely invisible and inaudible".

The result of all this is that any debate that goes on occurs only within groups, but not between them, and certainly not with outsiders or low[er] prestige individuals. Thus, there is no spread of information between groups: things that may be well-known to one set may be completely unknown to others – or rejected by them as being non-conformist.

Under such circumstances, a mature political debate is all but impossible. And the evidence of this confronts us daily. Basic, solid information, essential to the proper functioning of any debate, is neglected and ignored, simply because it originates from the wrong source.

Each group sticks to its mantras as firmly as any religion adheres to his holy scriptures or a cult to the words of its leader. There is virtually no cross-fertilisation and, as time goes on, lines of demarcation become increasingly rigid.

And here lies the explanation for the extraordinary ignorance amongst some groups over the details of the Efta/EEA option. To declare that the "Norway option" – as so many insist on calling it – puts us in the "pay – no say" position is not representative of information flow. It is an article of faith which defines its holders.

Anyone who disagrees with this mantra thus defines themselves as an outsider – a member of a different group or, worse still, a dissident individual. To be so instantly renders them "completely invisible and inaudible". There can be no question of debate – you cannot debate an issue that doesn't exist, where the received "wisdom" of the group is all there is. There is no other opinion but the opinion of the group. There are no facts, other than the "facts" that the group approves.

Most recently, we saw this in a Policy Exchange report addressing: "Solutions to the Irish border". Published yesterday, there is nothing new there – simply reheated factoids which we have seen before from Legatum and its allies.

It is here that the "Coventry" dynamic becomes most evident. It doesn't matter, for instance, what the likes of Michel Barnier might say. Like, such people are completely invisible and inaudible.

At least we can take some comfort from this – it isn't personal. It doesn't matter how many times Barnier stands up and warns that there will be no agreement until the Irish question is resolved. He is invisible and inaudible – he can be neither seen nor heard.

This then allows the quite obviously ridiculous situation where cabinet ministers and the prime minister are discussing competing versions of customs arrangements for Northern Ireland. That both are unacceptable to Brussels is completely irrelevant: in the minds of the protagonists, Brussels simply does not exist – its views don't have to be taken into account because, likewise, they don't exist.

We saw another example of the dynamic yesterday when I reported on taoiseach Varadkar stating that, if real and meaningful progress on Brexit was not achieved at the June European Council, "it is difficult to see how we will be able to come to an agreement by October at all".

Yet, the UK negotiators – personified in David Davis – do not recognise this June deadline. It is invisible. And while the news was conveyed in the Irish Times, nothing appeared in the UK media. To them, the statement was also invisible and inaudible.

Where we go from here is not easy to say. Without a true (or any) debate, opportunities for changing minds are limited. We have to watch the ghastly charade play itself out to its predictable end. Only once reality has intruded can we move in behind and start cleaning up the mess.

The one good thing about being the invisible man, though, is that when we do decide to act (and take off the bandages), no one will see us coming.

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