EU Referendum

They know not what they do


A guest post by Pete North.

The senseless slaying of Jo Cox is a tragedy. This post, though, is not about that. It is about something far more profound.

What is not at all surprising today is the media reaction: shallow, quick to point fingers and ultimately untrue. But the initial rumours that this was a politically motivated attack had an air of plausibility. In a news environment where the pressure is on to be first breaking a story, it is almost forgiveable that journalists would get the basics badly wrong. On the other hand, you would think a vessel like the Spectator would be one to set an example. Clearly not.

But like Alex Massie, I believed the first reports without question. I was neither shocked nor surprised. If I check back on my blogs and social media, I'm pretty sure I would find words to the effect of a prediction. It is the anticipation of such which makes first reports so utterly believable. The atmosphere is certainly conducive.

Massie has it that: "When you shout BREAKING POINT over and over again, you don't get to be surprised when someone breaks. When you present politics as a matter of life and death, as a question of national survival, don't be surprised if someone takes you at your word. You didn't make them do it, no, but you didn't do much to stop it either". He argues that:
Sometimes rhetoric has consequences. If you spend days, weeks, months, years telling people they are under threat, that their country has been stolen from them, that they have been betrayed and sold down the river, that their birthright has been pilfered, that their problem is they’re too slow to realise any of this is happening, that their problem is they’re not sufficiently mad as hell, then at some point, in some place, something or someone is going to snap. And then something terrible is going to happen."
As a Europhile, Massie believes the rhetoric to be entirely baseless. In so doing, he absolves himself and his creed of any wrongdoing, implying that it is Brexiteers who share a collective responsibility. This is a cheap shot. But taking this theme further is Polly Toynbee. She writes:
There are many decent people involved in the campaign to secure Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, many who respect the referendum as the exercise in democracy that it is. But there are others whose recklessness has been open and shocking. I believe they bear responsibility, not for the attack itself, but for the current mood: for the inflammatory language, for the finger-jabbing, the dogwhistling and the overt racism.
She concludes: "Contempt for politics is dangerous and contagious, yet it has become a widespread default sneer". Superficially, she is right. One could say this irrespective of the events of today given the political mood. But what she does not convey is the extent to which politicians themselves have created and/or contributed to that contempt, and how and why they have gone about so doing.

And there's the rub. Politicians and figures such as Ms Toynbee are the authors of their own misfortunes, not least by distancing themselves from the democratic process, aligning the UK with the EU. There is the old adage, respect has to be earned. So indeed is contempt. MPs have lost our respect and earned our contempt. Whether this incident is related, they have sown the wind.

And though we learn more of a bright and caring MP serving the community in which she was born, this is something of a rarity these days. Our perceptions of MPs are forged by those parachuted in by party headquarters, often privileged and lacking any genuine connection to their constituencies. They themselves have engineered this disconnect.

And when politicians take it upon themselves to belittle and pathologise the views of whom they serve; marginalising issues of identity, heritage and culture, sidelining such for the politics of a remote metropolitan bubble, they set themselves as a breed apart. Toynbee gives us a further clue:
Democracy is precious and precarious. It relies on a degree of respect for the opinions of others, soliciting support for political ideas without stirring up undue savagery and hatred against opponents. “Elites” are under attack in an anarchic way, when the “elite” justice minister can call on his supporters to ignore all experts.
Except that we are not seeing expertise. We are seeing deeply political activism pushed out to us via prestigious institutions, dressed up as irrefutable fact. The very act of registering disagreement is viewed by Toynbee et al as a rejection of expertise - thereby aligning oneself with the unenlightened, the savages and the racists. It precludes any possibility of an honest debate. If there is an atmosphere of contempt then the chief architects of it are Toynbee and her fellow travellers at the Guardian.

As contemptible as that is, leaping upon such tragic events to make full use of the political capital it affords them, while the body of Jo Cox is still warm, is a new low even for the Guardian. Little wonder then that the public may be inclined to ignore their protests.

Toynbee further concludes that: "Something close to a chilling culture war is breaking out in Britain, a divide deeper than I have ever known, as I listen to the anger aroused by this referendum campaign. The air is corrosive, it has been rendered so. One can register shock at what has happened, but not complete surprise".

How could one disagree? But there is a staggering lack of self awareness in this. The snobbery and contempt which our ruling classes heap upon the people is the culprit. What has transpired here today in the media, divorced from the tragic events surrounding the death of a well liked MP, serves as a marker for a social rift. This will not be healed, whichever way this referendum goes - and especially not if we remain in the EU. It will be a triumph of establishment connivance.

In that regard, though the initial reports of today's events proved to be entirely baseless, that sense of anticipation that one of their number will pay the ultimate price should be heeded well. There is a sense that the unleashing of something quite ugly is now inevitable. 

With that in mind, perhaps Massie and Toynbee should contemplate further and consider the idea that a political union forged without the direct consent of the people cannot possibly preserve the peace.


This piece was originally posted on the Pete North Politics Blog, where additional commentary can be found.