Saturday, 31 May 2014

Fear and loathing in UK politics

I had an interesting Twitter exchange with Peter Hitchens (reproduced in full below) in which I took issue with his (and others') celebratory reception of the results in the European elections.

It was - if you can be bothered to read it - not entirely a satisfactory debate.  I don't think Hitchens was especially clear about what he believed and why, beyond some assertions that I think could be questioned.  I don't think my own counter-arguments were especially cogent either.

Pondering, as you do when you argue and leave issues unresolved (let's give Hitchens the benefit of the doubt and accept that he was almost certainly too busy to reply, rather than crushed by my last tweet) I wondered why I felt so strongly about UKIP.  What was the logical argument  against celebrating their apparent victory in what can only be labelled a free and fair election?

I think - and I only put this forward as my own, current, idea - that there are two arguments for considering the May results a"bad thing'.

The first is that the vote for UKIP is an irrational reponse to the situation in which we find ourselves. The second is, by contrast, that the success seemed to have been built on an abuse of emotion.

The irrational vote

Voting in any free election is as subject to emotion as it is to rationality. That's a given.  But if people were making a rational decision to put an X next to one of UKIP's candidates then I would suggest they didn't think it through. Or we're working on inadequate evidence.

For a start, these are European elections. The clue, as they say, is in the title.

A party that champions withdrawing from Europe utilises a European mechanism to gain a measure of power, in Europe.  Well, there is, possibly a tradition the 'fight from within' but bear in mind that UKIP don't want to fight within Brussels, they just want to leave.

So that's an interesting way to exercise the legitimate power they claim to have from the electorate. Vote us into the body that we say has so much (too much) control over your lives ...and we'll leave it.

At the heart of this is the logic (and I wouldn't question that there is indeed, a logic) that Britain is better off governing itself.  There is no question that, in fact,we do. 

Some time ago, we elected people (admittedly under a less fair system than the version of PR that returned Mr Farage) who took us into Europe. They didn't, I'll admit, double check with us that we really wanted them to govern.  But then they didn't double check, for example, that we wanted an NHS some years before nor, for that matter some years later, that we wanted to spend billions on an IT system (that didn't work) for the NHS.

Incidentally, the last time we were asked about something it was about a fairer electoral system. We couldn't be bothered. Prior to that? We voted to join Europe.

But Britain does, indeed, govern itself through elected officials of which (currently) none belong to UKIP.  But we also, in fact, govern ourselves (and several other countries as well) through a similar democratic system called the European Parliament.

Bemoaning that 'we' don't get our way in this somewhat larger entity is a bit like complaining that not all national policies favour the Kent consituency where Farage lives.  Of course, in these kinds of systems, there will always be compromise.

But more than this; the idea that we can 'take back power' is a fiction. Back to where? To Westminster?  But that is the exact same institution that decided that it was, on the whole, in our interests to be a part of Europe. And, in addition, the logic suggests that once back in Westminster, power should be further devolved, indeed to Kent and Leicestershire and Cornwall.

But then why stop there? We can't have Maidstone telling us in Hastings what to do. We can't have those in Hastings telling us in Rye what to do.  We can't have people in Rye telling me what to do in my own home.

Where does independence end? And why is Nigel Farage the final arbiter of that?  

There is a further, logical problem.  It lies in the notion that somehow Europe 'over-regulates'.  The argument is, roughly, that if we weren't in Europe, we wouldn't have to submit to European regulations. Try telling that to countries such as the USA who have to sell to the EU.  If we trade with Europe, they will impose regulations on our products and, indeed, our businesses.

If fact, you might expect that if we leave Europe, those that remain might feel justified in imposing additional regulations on us and setting standards that favour their own products and services.  A non-EU country that wants access to one of the biggest markets in the world would go to Germany or France or the Netherlands.

Ah but, the critics might reply, if everyone in Europe feels as we do (look at the rise of 'anti-European' parties) then maybe everyone will leave the EU.  And then?  Well then you'd have 28 countries making their own regulations to suit themselves.  Would it really be better for a UK company to have to meet a completely new set of regulations for every country with which it traded?

Ah but (again the Euro-sceptics object) we want a single market, but not all the regulation and imposition of straight bananas.  OK, so how do you get that without being 'in' and negotiating?               

Emotional hijacking?

The emotional arguments are, perhaps, more thorny.

Why did people feel that the UKIP represented their best interests?  What convinced voters that a vote for UKIP was a good move?  I can't believe it was entirely logical.

One issue was, I think, the rhetoric.  I'll concede that politicians haven't been very good at communicating what they intend and why.  Likewise, what opportunities have the electorate had to question the governmental response to the global financial crisis, or bankers bonuses or, for that matter, our relationship with Europe?

The problem here, in part, is a lack of democratic engagement. Again, the system doesn't involve its citizens very much.

But I think there is a wider issue with the emotional content of the debate that ensues, perhaps shaped by a feeling of impotence. Our voice doesn't count, so we have to shout louder (or shout ever more incendiary words) to make our feelings known.

Some politicians, perhaps instinctively, have recognised this - as indeed - many media people have.  The reponse is to provoke more of this kind of language and the expression - I might say the 'normalisation' - of disaffection. And alongside, the normalisation of selfishness.

The process, for promoting unease, which I suspect is fairly well documented in studies of propaganda (I must read about it...), runs something like this.
  1. Find out what worries people (fairly easy as we all have worries) something like health or our income.
  2. Make it specific. So not just health, but something like "If I fall ill, will I be looked after? Will I even get better?"
  3. Now take a (not necessarily a related) matter that you would like to promote. Oh, let's say...Europe.  And, maybe add in another (again, not necessarily related fear or matter).
  4. Now nail them together in a statement that implies causation without explicitly linking them.
  5. And stir.
What you get is something like -

The NHS is under stress, less money, more regulation and yet we have completely open borders with a limitless number of Eastern Europeans able to come to the UK and access our health services.

The statement is laden with implications that require substantiation before they can be understood. As I've just said, there isn't enough political engagement or debate to thoroughly question such statements.  

Furthermore, the immediate response to these kinds of assertion is a limbic, stress response; someone (with apparent authority) is warning you, alerting you to danger; your brain-stem responds with a slight dose of fear.  You are being manipulated into associating worry for your own health and future with the 'problem' of immigration.

It's telling I think that pretty much every issue that the UKIP (and to a lesser degree, many of the other parties) promote, can be summed up as a kind of fearful "Yeah, what about me?"

Sadly there isn't an obvious emotional counter argument. How can we counter such conditioning unless by logic and reason?

The simple fact is that we're not required to deliberate over our political decisions. Our one political act (a blunt pencil X, in a box, on a piece of paper - a chimpanzee could do it) simply infantalises us.  It's an irritant, even ,which may be worse, a duty.

In every other aspect of life if we feel any kind of compulsion to do something simple and there is no obvious cost for non-compliance we expend the minimum effort to minimise our feelings of cognitive dissonance.  If I can get away with minimal time, thought, effort, I will.

Swimming against the current 

Since we are relentlessly assured both by commercial and political communications to put ourselves first that is, largely, what we do.

Since we are told, and indeed learn by experience, that we are powerless and our contribution to political debate is a single X every five years, then that is what we accept.

Since we are told, again relentlessly, to be afraid - of the 'others' who are trying to take away what we 'own', of each other, of illness, of death - we live our lives defensively alert to any reminder of these threats.

UKIP - and, as I say, other parties as well - depend on this. They remind us of our worst fears - of our worst selves - and keep us impotent and fearful.  They say, they can change things, but they ask in return for more power. Trust us they say; we're different.

A true liberation politics would be to give power to the people. Not as individuals, to be divided and conquered and not as represented by political parties that exist only to exert power and not a for-profit companies that exist to collect surplus value for the owners but as families, associations, co-operatives, self-help groups, art organisations and many others that exist for mutual benefit and are not owned by the few.

UKIP unsettle me, not because they propose a revolution, but because they are the epitome of political self-serving manipulation.   They frighten me because they demonstrate that the disengaged, irrational public (that's me and you) are so easily manipulated. 

See my other blog at and this especially on a Marketing Illusion.

* I apologise if these prove not to be in quite the correct order. Some messages overlapped and it's quite difficult to reconstruct a reliable thread. If any corrections are notified, I'll gladly update this.

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