Richard North, 26/04/2019  

Fifteen years ago, almost to the day – actually on 22 April 2004 - the late Helen Szamuely and I started up a new blog which we called "EU Referendum". Our purpose then was to campaign for a referendum on what was to become the Lisbon Treaty and then, in the fullness of time, to campaign for the "no" side when and if the referendum was called.

This was two days after Tony Blair, then prime minister, had promised a referendum on what was still being called the European Constitution. Promising to "let the people have the final say", Blair had told a packed Commons, "It is time to resolve once and for all whether this country, Britain, wants to be at the centre and heart of European decision-making", concluding with the defiant statement: "Let the issue be put - and let the battle be joined".

Launching the blog was our response to that challenge, when our strap line (in the days when we had one) was: to "rehearse and discuss the issues relating to one of the most important political issues of the day - the UK referendum on the EU's constitutional treaty".

Two years after our launch, we were rejoicing in occasionally reaching 2,000 hits a day and were well on our way to recording our first million after a slow start of 250,000 hits in the first year – roughly four days-worth of traffic at our current rate.

Even then, we'd already established what was to become a tradition of publishing our main posts of the day overnight, calling it our "Horlicks", after the eponymous bed-time drink. The blog has since settled down to a single post a day, maintaining the "Horlicks" tradition with an essay of typically 1,300-1,500 words on a topical issue.

Since our launch those 15 years ago, I have missed posting only twice. The first time I was locked in a police cell awaiting "trial" for non-payment of Council Tax. My other period of slackness was occasioned by a break for open heart surgery. Otherwise, blogging has been a seven-day-a week operation.

Over the years, the blog has brought me many good and lasting friends, but probably many more enemies, some of whom quite obviously loathe me with a passion. It is quite possible that I would have made those enemies anyway (or some of them), although writing a blog (for me, at least), seems to be a highly efficient way of making them and keeping them motivated.

By coincidence, yesterday's blogpost triggered a spirited conversation about why I seem to have alienated so many people. For one reader, this was easily explained by my propensity freely to call people "cretins", "media whores" and – especially "liars".

I would certainly readily admit to fairly liberal use of the word "cretin", and especially when referring to Thierry Cretin, a former director at Olaf, although it is somewhat of an exaggeration to assert that the term "media whore" has been freely used. Its one and only appearance on this blog was in 2009, when I was actually quoting someone else.

But what really seems to bring out the ire is when I call people a "liar", as I did on Tuesday when I branded Anand Menon, director of "The UK in a Changing Europe", in such a fashion. This is why, I am told, my ideas "are so totally ignored", for which I have "no one but myself to blame".

This idea that I have brought my fate upon myself has now become so pervasive that it itself is having an impact on the debate, especially in the rarefied atmosphere of the social media. But it rather begs the question that we have in fact been ignored.

As it happens, we're not ignored. This blog takes 60,000 hits a day and I can see who reads it from the stats programme. But it suits the feeble minds and the self-appointed bigots to spread the myth that we're out on our own. Many of my naysayers would kill to have the "reach" we have, when some of their websites have hit rates in the hundreds.

Nevertheless, I have been known to complain about being ignored by this government on Brexit, but that is in the context of almost everyone being similarly treated . I also point out (but rarely complain) that some of the media and establishment blogs deliberately "no platform" and any of my work.

But to assert that the treatment afforded to this blog is the result of my robust use of language is putting the chicken before the egg.

For instance, in the case of Menon – who calls himself a "bitter and twisted observer of politics" – in May 2015, just before the launch of The UK in a Changing Europe – he contacted me with a view to a meeting. I readily agreed, whence he kept putting it off, not once but many times, running into 2016. I offered to come to London to see him - at my expense - at a time entirely to suit him. He refused.

Even then he was fully acquainted with the blog, yet in his own writings has almost completely ignored it. Only once did he use one of my blogposts, which he republished, in response to which I published a follow-up. That was more than two years ago, and nothing of mine has ever been used since.

Interestingly, on my two posts, there were over 180 comments. On the "changing Europe" site, there were fifteen, most (if not all) from readers of this blog (and myself). The academic readership of Menon's blog did not take part in the debate.

That, in my view, is an illustration of where the truth probably lies. The academic community which Menon serves showed no interest in a debate in a vital area of concern: the role of the "expert" in Brexit. The impression is that the greater concern is to control the debate rather than partake in it. In that context, publishing me looks to have been an aberration, never to be repeated.

But the significant thing here is the timeline. From before the launch of Menon's organisation, I have never been invited to any of the seminars he or his group have organised. Quite obviously, I have been frozen out of the debate – and that was long before I made any hostile comments about him or his organisation. In fact, I have in my own personal records a number of e-mails in which I offered him friendly advice on the presentation of his website.

The "no platform" treatment, therefore, goes way back in time – some of it before I even started blogging. That stems from the fact that I worked with Ukip, when it was then the fashion to ignore the party and pretend it didn't exist. Even when we were trying to make serious contributions to the debate, we were ignored.

As to insults, we've had them all, from "fruitcakes", little Englanders, Xenophobes and all the rest, down to the crude, unbelievably vitriolic comments that have to be deleted from this site.

Nevertheless, I called out Menon as a liar, not to insult him but because he is a liar. The self-important academic claque, of which he is part, were the Europhile establishment and opposed to anything I stood for long before the referendum. Now they still want to control the debate, and will prostitute themselves to that end - which is exactly what we are seeing.

In that context, the term liar can be regarded as factual, which is more than can be said of some of the epithets directed at me. But accusations of insulting behaviour come easy – and can be highly productive. There has, over time, emerged a new strain of rhetoric, where exaggerated offence is taken at even mild (or non-existent) rebukes – a technique we've come to call "weaponising indignation". It can be used to evade debate or any engagement.

An important facet of this development is the narrow, one-sided definition of the insult. Any "rude" words are exploited, yet insufferable condescension, couched in polite terms, is not only permissible but commonplace. In my view, though, there is nothing quite as insulting as the pompous, patronising refusal to engage that we get from so many of the academic fraternity.

Bizarrely, this even spreads to politics. In a trade that has spawned books on "the art of the political insult" (for which Churchill was famous), even mild criticism of MPs can be treated as mortal insults. Where "hate crime" is emerging as a major preoccupation of the police, we seem perilously close to creating in England the crime of Beamtenbeleidigung - insulting a public official – extracted from the historic Prussian penal code.

But, when taking offence now no longer even needs an insult, it becomes the perfect device for controlling the debate, legitimising censorship of a most insidious kind and providing an excuse for actions which would otherwise prove difficult to justify.

Therein lies great danger. Robust exchanges are a traditional part of British politics. All those who enter that domain must expect to suffer the occasional bruised ego and, if weaponising indignation becomes an acceptable technique, we stand to lose a great deal.

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