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We're Making the Same Mistakes on Brexit as We Did in the Arab Spring
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In the Arab Spring of 2011 much of the foreign media covering the protests in Egypt gathered in or around Tahrir Square in Cairo to report the daily confrontations between demonstrators demanding the overthrow of the regime and security forces seeking to preserve it.

The scene in Tahrir was the backdrop to countless television interviews with opposition activists and what happened there was portrayed as a barometer which would tell the world if the Egyptian revolution would succeed or fail. When President Hosni Mubarak resigned on 11 February many television viewers and newspaper readers got the impression that the revolutionaries had won and Egypt was entering an era of freedom and democracy.

Except this was not true: the state and army never lost control of the essential levers of power and two years later Egypt was back under the rule of an even more brutal and authoritarian government.

The journalists who had focused their reporting on Tahrir had got their facts right, but they necessarily got a very selective and, as it turned out, misleading view of what was happening in Egypt, a country of 90 million people.

During the uprising in Libya a few months later, the television cameras were similarly trained on a square in Benghazi that protesters had permanently occupied. Intelligent, articulate English-speaking opposition leaders were available for interview in a nearby building. None of this was necessarily phoney, but it was a highly sanitised version of developments in Libya. Talking to people away from that much-televised square, it became swiftly apparent that the leaders so frequently interviewed had little authority and that Libya was likely to fall apart after the defeat of Gaddafi.

I was reminded of Tahrir and the crowded square in Benghazi when watching journalists and politicians interviewing and being interviewed on College Green opposite the Houses of Parliament over the last week. It has long been a favoured venue for broadcasters because it is a convenient location for MPs, with the dramatic parliament buildings as a backdrop.

Watching this relentless Brexit coverage, I had the same uneasy feeling as I had had in Cairo and Benghazi – that the focus was too narrow and, for all the talk of crisis, dangerous trends were being ignored or given insufficient weight.

The scene on College Green is probably the nearest one could get to seeing the famous “Westminster Bubble” in the flesh, its most regular inhabitants being journalists rather than politicians. Though frequently accused of being out of touch, MPs have to visit their constituencies, meet voters and speak to party activists. Political journalists are more exclusively metropolitan by the nature of their jobs and less in touch with the rest of the country. MPs speaking in the Commons talk about a wider range of topics than when they are giving interviews to news outlets.

All professions suffer from deformation professionnelle and this is certainly true of journalism. Some of this is unavoidable: news means supposing that something new and significant is happening day by day, even when evidence for this is scant. This inevitably leads to a short-term take on events.

A negative aspect of venues such as College Green or its equivalent around the world is that they foster a dangerous herd instinct in which some themes are relentlessly pursued and others marginalised or ignored.

Journalists traditionally give good marks to people who talk to opponents, even when nobody is giving any ground on matters of substance and conversations or negotiations are a waste of time. But by treating the near dead heat of the 2016 Brexit referendum as a case of winners and losers the government destroyed the basis for compromise, if it ever existed.

Everybody believes that everybody else cannot be quite so attached to their beliefs as they claim and will blink at the last, This is dangerously over-optimistic in the present case. I was talking to people in Dover this week, Remainers, who said they had no doubt that if there is a second referendum or Brexit is cancelled then there will be sustained violence.

They add that the EU may well have been unfairly scapegoated and blamed for grievances for which it was not responsible, but these grievances themselves are real, run very deep and have been further envenomed by the referendum. Any hope that the crisis can be defanged at this late stage is wishful thinking.

The extreme Brexit wing of the Conservatives, for all their talk of taking on the world, remain aggressively ignorant about the way it works. They assume Britain has cards in its hand that are not there, so the EU will always come out on top in any negotiation. This is then blamed on incompetent negotiators, a failure of will or, most dangerous of all, a stab in the back.

The same parochialism extends to the UK. The DUP is now treated as a respectable party representing the interests of Northern Ireland, despite its long record as a sectarian Protestant party in permanent confrontation with the Catholic and nationalist population. The DUP alliance with the Conservative Party is destroying an essential precondition for peace in Northern Ireland, which was British government neutrality between the two communities.

President de Gaulle once said that “the most common error of all statesmen is to believe firmly that there exists at any one moment a solution to every problem. There are in some periods problems to which no solution exists.” He was speaking in 1958 about ending the war in Algeria, a conflict so violent and complicated as to make Brexit seem clear cut by comparison.

ORDER IT NOW

De Gaulle did succeed in ending the Algerian conflict, which might give some hope to the British as they grapple with Brexit. But Julian Jackson’s magnificent book, A Certain Idea of France: the Life of Charles de Gaulle, points out de Gaulle’s practicality and avoidance of wishful thinking. This is what was lacking among the politicians and journalists in Tahrir Square and Benghazi eight years ago – and much the same is true of College Green today.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain 
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  1. DFH says:

    The scene on College Green is probably the nearest one could get to seeing the famous “Westminster Bubble” in the flesh, its most regular inhabitants being journalists rather than politicians.

    And now they want legal penalties for any plebs who dare intrude upon it

  2. treating the near dead heat of the 2016 Brexit referendum as a case of winners and losers

    52-48 (turnout of 72.2%) is not a ‘near dead heat’ – in fact it’s a much stronger endorsement than every election in the UK in the last half-century.

    Below I present a handy table, with relevant details of the winner of each UK electoral contest in the last 50 years – showing the winner’s proportion of votes cast; the electoral turnout; and the percentage of votes of eligible voters that were cast in favour of the winner.

    A lot of people are innumerate, I’ve highlighted the highest value in the relevant columns (i.e., greatest proportion of votes cast; greatest proportion of the eligible electorate)

    If 52-48 is your definition of a near dead-heat, and if a dead-heat impugns the electoral legitimacy of the ‘winner’ (i.e., if you repudiate mandate theory), you will find it very hard to make the case that the UK government is legitimate.

    I’m OK with that view, since I know to an absolute mathematical certainty[1] that representative democracy is a shibboleth… but I bet that’s not your view, Cockburn: you just think that the voters got it wrong.

    Think about 52:48 (×72.2%) – on a single issue. 37% of the EVP agreed on a single issue: more than agreed on any Prime Minister since 1970 – and, a fortiori, more than agreed with any individual policy difference between the major parties during that time.

    [1] You want data? I’ve got your data right here; I have a PostgreSQL database containing turnout and candidate-count data for every election in every major Western democracy, for the entire 20th century (including elections which were non-full-franchise, which are a priori illegitimate).

    • Agree: atlantis_dweller
    • Replies: @Bill Jones
    , @Philip Owen
  3. Anonymous[772] • Disclaimer says:

    Making the Same Mistakes on Brexit as We Did in the Arab Spring

    We?

    You – a low rent shill – did what they told you to do.

    “We” (everyone else) – had better options.

    Thanks for playing. Please don’t call. We’ll call you. 🙂

  4. I guess “We” here means the Metropolitan Liberal Elite?

  5. plantman says:

    Another typically defeatist piece from staunch “Remainer”, Patrick Cockburn. Does he ever stop beating the same drum??

    Here’s vintage Cockburn–

    “A negative aspect of venues such as College Green or its equivalent around the world is that they foster a dangerous herd instinct in which some themes are relentlessly pursued and others marginalised or ignored.”

    Got that? In other words, those parks and other locations where ordinary people can voice their points of view in public, are a danger to establishment politicians and their media mouthpieces like Cockburn.

    Here’s more Cockburn:

    “The extreme Brexit wing of the Conservatives, for all their talk of taking on the world, remain aggressively ignorant about the way it works. ”

    “Extreme Brexit wing”??? You mean, the people who want to reclaim their independence from the bloodsucking corporate superstate, the EU? Is that what Cockburn is referring to?

    Imagine for a minute, if the courageous Cockburn had been around 200 years ago and in a position to offer his insightful counsel to George Washington and the founders of this country? What do you think the result would be??

    My guess is that the Union Jack would be seen from coast to coast while America languished in a permanent state of colonial dependency. That appears to be Cockburn’s vision for the UK too.

    • Replies: @Philip Owen
  6. “They assume Britain has cards in its hand that are not there, so the EU will always come out on top in any negotiation. This is then blamed on incompetent negotiators, a failure of will or, most dangerous of all, a stab in the back.”

    From the standpoint of a skilled negotiator, taking a “No Deal” Brexit off the table is either stupid or disingenuous: The EU, particularly Germany and France, have a lot more to lose than the UK. All Mrs. May had to do nearly two years ago was lay out the terms and tell the EU to take it or leave it and then wait for them to warm up to a more favourable compromise. The fact that she continues to grovel before Lord Juncker, Lord Tusk, Lord Macron, and Lady Merkel shows she has no serious interest in taking the UK out of Europe.

    • Replies: @Philip Owen
  7. eggplant says:

    God knows why you persist in publishing this dripping wet lefty.

    • Replies: @NoseytheDuke
  8. @Kratoklastes

    Thanks for that. I was going to similarly debunk his lie but you did a far better job than I would have done.

    Anywhere I can get a copy of your database, It’s been 20 years since id this might be a fun topic to get back into it.

  9. donut says:

    You got a weak hand ? Then bluff .

  10. @eggplant

    Probably for the same reason that I still read The Guardian, I like to see what brain-shit-food is being shovelled out for mass consumption on any given day. Here at least we have the benefit of better commenters along with much better software that allows multiple comment threads to be followed in a meaningful way.

    I doubt that Cockburn is winning many, if any, hearts and minds here but I do like to think he’s reading the comments for feedback..

  11. “The journalists who had focused their reporting on (whatever) had got their facts right, but they necessarily got a very selective and, as it turned out, misleading view of what was happening” in almost every story they’ve covered for the last 5 decades.

    Are you mule-whining fucks ever going to learn to do your decidedly simple jobs, or are you just going to keep fucking the duck and writing lame non-apologies and writing shit like this, with the hand-wringing and the “I know what we need to do!”, without actually doing it, cuz of those sweet, sweet clicks the lazy way earns you?

    What say you, Patty?

  12. @Kratoklastes

    You are not comparing like with like. General elections are not binary. You have omitted all the referendums that took place in this time peruod., In particular, of course the 1975 referendum that confirmed the decision to join the European club. One might think that you are avoiding something.

    • Replies: @Kratoklastes
  13. @plantman

    What bloodsucking superstate?

  14. @The Alarmist

    We are leaving. We are asking the EU for some of the benefits of membership. This is not possible. Brexit means Brexit.

    • Replies: @The Alarmist
  15. @Philip Owen

    Ask the Welsh how their nobles stood up to the English and their open coffers.

  16. @Philip Owen

    General elections are not binary

    Irrelevant. The proportion of voters that support a government, is the absolute cornerstone of the ‘mandate’ theory; in parliamentary democracies this is ‘mediated’ because government-formation is linked to seat counts, and seat-count and vote-count are not co-terminous (in most democracies, about 1 in 10 elections results in government being formed by the party who fails to win the ‘popular’ vote: in such cases, the government’s legitimacy is always questioned, particularly if the seat-count is close).

    In particular, of course the 1975 referendum that confirmed the decision to join the European club. One might think that you are avoiding something.

    7One might think that, but one would be wrong. The 1975 had a lower turnout than the Brexit referendum – both relative to general elections of the time, and also terms of registered voters and VAP (the gap between VAP and registered electorate was much narrower in 1975; political engagement was generally greater).

    The 1975 vote centred on whether or not to continue membership in the Common Market (entry into which was undertaken by the Heath government in 1973 without a vote). Think of it as “Pre-EU Brexit”: “Remain” won – for the Common Market not the EU .

    It’s interesting that you would assume I was avoiding something, then either ignorantly (or deliberately) completely mischaracterise the thing ‘avoided’. Why would that be?

    For those playing at home, the 1975 referendum went 68% in favour with turnout of 62%.

  17. Why is this crap even published on UNZ.com? All the libtard cliches in one bowl…

  18. eah says:

    The vote for Brexit was more than 2.5 years ago — if nothing of consequence has happened until now, the problem is larger than a few “mistakes”.

    The latest estimate released is that total net migration to the UK in the year ending June 2018 was 273,000.

    The vast majority from outside the EU — I’m sure even a larger number of people who voted for Brexit would vote against this ongoing invasion from outside the EU.

    • Replies: @eah
  19. eah says:
    @eah

    273,000

    That’s roughly a city the size of Leicester.

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