A day on the Manchester People’s Vote Stall.
I am an absolute novice at political campaigning. My political engagement prior to this September consisted of ticking my box at general elections and reading the news, but as things started looking bleaker and bleaker, Parliament lurching from crisis to crisis, I started to feel more and more angry and disenfranchised. This government wasn’t speaking for me. The opposition wasn’t speaking for me, I had to find a way to make my voice heard.
I explored my frustrations with friends and colleagues and it soon became clear that I was not alone. Other people were feeling this too. The sense that objective truths no longer mattered to our government, that lies were perpetuated with more lies. That the referendum was won narrowly, based on misinformation and illegal overspending by the Vote Leave campaign and those affiliated to it. This, it became clear in many conversations with my peers, could hardly be ‘will of the people’ – the favourite soundbite of politicians who are marching this country to the brink of destruction with eyes wide-open. Alongside this, Leave supporting politicians continued slyly rolling back the fabulous promises they had made to voters. Many prominent Brexiters now claim they had always warned people of the hardship they would face, but that this was a fair exchange for sovereignty. In fact, there is video upon video that demonstrates that the same people who now say they were honest about the economic and social implications of Brexit promised a better life for British people, more jobs, a host of free trade agreements and frictionless trade, more money for the NHS… the list could go on.
A second fairly-run vote (aka no illegal political targeting and overspending) based on the evidence that we now have cannot be a betrayal of democracy, when it was roundly, resoundingly betrayed by the Leave campaign in 2016.
I started this blog as a way to help young people to get involved in the Brexit debate, to show that there are still ways to get involved and claw back a place within the political discussion from which we have been excluded. However, I am going to level with you – I am also self-motivated by the levels of dread and anxiety I feel not just about the prospect of a ‘no deal’ Brexit but also where our political discourse is headed.
I’m a History PhD student and have studied totalitarian nationalism and tactics extensively. If I could point to three factors unifying the rise of these movements across states in the 20th century, I would say they are:
Step 1.) Misinformation and Propaganda
Step 2.) Selling one group a fantasy based on taking the rights of another
Step 3.) Emergency decrees that circumvent the power of parliament
No, we haven’t reached step three yet, but steps 1 and 2 seem horribly familiar. The bending or complete disregard of truth is particularly dangerous, as the German philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt has demonstrated in her book ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’.
“Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.”
I suppose the point I am trying to make is that I am not opposing Brexit for Brexit alone, and the disastrous economic and social consequences it will have, but for what it has come to symbolise and how it is influencing our access to the political system. If you voted to remain and have serious doubts about the path our government has taken, they don’t want to hear from you, thank you very much (insert will of the people and betrayal of democracy soundbite here).
The meaning of truth has become eroded and facts are being fabricated by those who want to leave the EU at any cost. Experts such as the British Medical Association and large supermarkets who guarantee our food supply are being dismissed with vague statements by the government and decried as liars and opportunists by more hardline leavers. People who are making valid interventions into the feasibility of Brexit, rightly highlighting the economic and social hardship it will bring, are silenced with ‘the will of the people’. This is not how political decision making should work. New evidence that calls into question the current path should be explored in full and a democratic decision should be taken on whether we are prepared to bear the consequences. Silencing fact with slogans has never ended well.
This brings me to today, where I spent my morning in the icy cold on St. Ann’s Square in Manchester on the People’s Vote stall. We got some abuse, as you would expect, but far more manifold were the voices of those who were scared, deeply scared by the direction Britain is taking. I spoke to many EU citizens who live in terror of having to leave the homes they have made in Manchester, who say the uncertainty is becoming unbearable and they feel anxious all the time. Advocating to leave the EU and implicitly or explicitly supporting the current Brexit process is impacting people. It is making the lives of EU citizens in the UK, who had no say in the referendum, feel precarious. Why are we letting the government make people feel sick with anxiety and why are we not protesting against a government that is making people we care about feel unwelcome?
This is not ok.
Others were terrified of the rise of the far-right and worried about shortages of vital goods. One lady told me her son’s partner was diabetic and she feared for her health. Many were worried about new evidence published by The Times today that Whitehall will not be able to cope with a ‘no deal’ Brexit and the fall-out would affect almost every aspect of public life.
What scared me most though, was not the abuse I received from a small handful of die-hard leavers, but the apathy and complacency I saw from many of my fellow citizens. ‘I don’t really care about Brexit’ they said as they rushed past, or ‘It will be fine’. I don’t trust it will be fine. If any of the countless expert reports are to be trusted, the predictions of enormously reduced capacity at our ports, food and medicine shortages, the tariffs that will apply to our imports and exports, diminishing our trade and driving up food prices, the government’s own leaked papers on a ‘no deal’ Brexit which outlines the chaos which would ensue, we will not be fine.
Anyone calling for a ‘no deal’ Brexit is willing to risk lives. This has to be said. We are risking lives for an ideologically motivated vote, built on lies and electoral fraud and will make millions poorer as well as diminishing our standing in the world. Brexit is a mass delusion and it’s becoming very very dangerous.
At the end of the day, our Brexitometer revealed clear results (though participants were obviously self-selecting!). A majority of people who took part in our survey want Article 50 to be revoked and Brexit to be cancelled. I agree with them and I think this would be wonderful, but no politician would shoulder this burden, though it would be the right thing to do. This is why I am campaigning for a People’s Vote. I am convinced that at this stage it is the only course of action that could restore democratic legitimacy to the process. Only a small minority voted for Brexit believing there could be a ‘no deal’ scenario, public support for Theresa May’s deal hovers in the low teens or twenties, neither of these paths have a real democratic mandate. The decision has to go back to the people.
If you believe that Brexit is going badly wrong and disenfranchising a large part of the population to achieve an outcome that is far from anything people were promised in 2016, stand up and say something. You don’t have to support a People’s Vote to do this. You can write to your MP to say they should revoke Article 50, you can speak to your friends who feel the same way and ask them to join you in contacting politicians, going to marches and attending rallies.
Democracy didn’t end in 2016.