Reflections on the Grassroots for Europe Conference

by Colin Gordon, Oxford for Europe

The recent, excellent and highly successful Grassroots for Europe conference, “Where Now For Remain?” devoted a set of important sessions to three interlinked subjects: “The Post-truth Age – how can we bring truth & honesty back to politics?”, “Brexit Isn’t “Getting Done”! – keeping the public informed as the Brexit chickens come home to roost” and “Democracy in Crisis – how do we achieve a parliament that represents all the people?”. These three highly relevant themes were addressed in valuable talks and discussions by some of our best commentators and activists.

These are not, of course, just theoretical discussions. They relate to an immense struggle in our society which directly concerns our future freedom, security, values and well-being, not to mention our planet and our species.

So, it is also a matter of great importance to try to ask the questions that go to the heart of the current conflict, which clearly identify the enemies and dangers that face us, and thus enable us to effectively mobilise and target our own forces. In this note I would like to propose a few small tweaks to the way these conference discussion themes formulated our core problems.

The wording of the first session title doesn’t feel exactly right to me. Truthfulness has not been eliminated from politics. It is not the case that everyone has given up on truth or that all politicians have become liars. Truthful politics exists, but it labours under serious challenge. The generalised discrediting of politics is on the other hand at the core of our opponents’ narrative, and a premise of the Brexit-colonised BBC’s policy of fake equivalence – as in its core narrative about the Referendum that “lies were told on both sides”.

From 2016 to 2019 (and for decades before) the Brexit campaign and its media sponsors have fought a campaign of systematic and massive lying which has become increasingly overt, shameless and acceptable. The lies have become ever more deeply interwoven with the politics of identity and hate and – totally in line with Putin’s and Trump’s playbooks – the mass incitement of cultural civil war. Voters have been groomed and corrupted, cognitively and emotionally, to enjoy and share emancipation from truth, coupled to the populist amalgam of subaltern resentment and fantasies of dominance and privilege. As Polly Toynbee said in introducing one session, we are “up against a machine of lies”; Michael Dougan (an invited speaker, prevented from attending by bereavement) said before the referendum that the Leave campaign practised “dishonesty on an industrial scale”. There is indeed an industry which services such activity in this campaign and others, and its history has been written[1].


Political lies are prosperous and popular. Trump the liar (and, in lesser, effete pastiche, his imitator Johnson) is adored and trusted for his lies, because he intoxicates his followers in a clownish festival of hatred and violence, emancipated from the restraints of truth, and from other restraints. The notion that truthfulness in politics is enlightened self-interest is now valid only where certain behavioural rules are still in place. In many cases, they are not.

We need to be clear that the other side has a general agenda, via this and other means, to hollow out and eviscerate democratic politics, the rule of law and any operative notion of the public good, and that the politics of both lies and hate are integral to this purpose. Mass disbelief in all politicians – which also means mass tolerance of political lying – isn’t an endogenous natural effect of modern life or the internet[2]. It is a deliberately, intentionally cultivated effect of massive, calculated and heavily funded interventions.

How do we fight this? We need, and have begun developing, new kinds of public collective action, and new kinds of counter-information[3].

George Monbiot wrote a great article recently on this, citing the Finnish government’s work on training citizens to recognise and resist fake news[4]. That has to be part of the solution, but is only part. The assumption that the sponsors, creators and distributors of fake news are themselves untouchable, and that the makers of aggressive information war cannot be fought, are disastrous errors which must be challenged.

This requires more than just a vastly improved supply of truthful public information and education – though these are most certainly required. There has, in addition, to be a positive programme, indeed a new Marshall plan, to detoxify, deprogram and immunise citizens who have become addicted consumers of hate and lies. These tasks now have to become major, mainstream strands in all progressive politics.

In the case of Brexit, as Monbiot also says, we need a major, sustained programme to properly inform and educate the public about the European Union. Jon Danzig, the creator of the admirable Reasons to Remain online site[5], rightly castigates the historic failure of the pro-European movement to adequately counter decades of Eurosceptic propaganda. Such longstanding failure is not a convincing qualification for further decades of continuing leadership in this role. This new public education campaign needs, as Andrew Adonis and Will Hutton said in their excellent book[6], to be coupled to an information programme about the massive injuries inflicted on the UK population and regions by austerity, and the real policy solutions to those evils. We are now seeing these injuries swiftly aggravated by the damage of Brexit, the snake-oil which was successfully peddled to UK voters in 2016 as their cure.

In the aftermath of the Remainers’ defeat in the December 2019 General Election, we have continuing opportunities and duties to resist. Individually, many people need to take time out to care for themselves, recover from campaign burnout and restore neglected lives and relationships. It would be hard to say whether Brexit has so far done more damage to the mental health of its irrational and feckless supporters, or of those who know and suffer its malignant truth. Some of us, mostly no doubt with wholly kind intent, are inviting fellow campaigners to chill out and take extended time out from public action for deep reflection, meanwhile allowing Johnson sufficient rope to hang himself and time to stumble into failure (though we are also commonly advised to expect a wait of 20 years or more to reverse last month’s result).

Talking of Brexit chickens coming home to roost over the coming year may be a dangerously reassuring optimism. During 2018-9 we imagined that the proof of the impossibility of an acceptable Brexit deal would lead that project to collapse of its internal contradictions, leaving the People’s Vote to win out at the “last man standing”: instead, Brexit hardliners routed their internal opposition, opposition parties shafted themselves and each other, and unaccountable spin-doctors shut down the People’s Vote offices for the sake of personal pique; while at the same time the greatest right-wing assault on our politics since the 30s was being consistently, sometimes decisively facilitated by powerful elements within the hard left. Excellent commentators have demonstrated with severity and rigour that Brexit has no strategy for governing, and never had one. They neglect to add that governing has always been a notion linked to a notion of the public good, whereas Brexit is not, and never was a project for the public good.

Despite much talk of “lessons learned” from our defeat of 2016, we are now being invited to double down on our core error of 2016 and after, when we accepted the imposition by would-be expert calculators and HQ policy wonks, armed by secret focus group findings, of timid messaging triangulation and procrastinating self-censorship, leaving us with a pro-Remain campaign that never dared to campaign effectively for its own objective. The notion of Rejoin, we are told, should not be heard about until Brexiter opinion is willing to tolerate this.

But while we chill out, recalibrate and recalculate, the damage of Brexit, including its poisoning of the body politic and massive violence to public mental health, is not going away, and the Brexiters should not be expected to meekly give up power after leading us to disaster. Unhindered by a demoralised and demobilised opposition, our government is moving fast and aggressively to push the Overton window of political normality further to the hard, racist, antidemocratic right. To be sure, our problems now are not all about Brexit. But Brexit itself was never just about Brexit, and the assault on EU membership was never an end in itself. It is rather that the Brexit campaign is ever more visibly, in our UK specific setting, a focal moment of a concerted, worldwide assault on public freedom, equality, democracy and our fundamental rights and securities. At this moment, a very large share of pro-EU political passion is invested in the demand for electoral reform, whose lack, it is argued, decisively prevented a pro-Remain majority from stopping Brexit at the recent election. But the crude mechanism of FPTP elections has not normally been enough to compromise our entire democracy (just as, conversely, PR has not always been a sure protection against dictatorship). What has happened has been the coincidence of its most ruthless exploitation, linked to a populist assault on dissent, armed with overwhelming media and social media dominance, ruthlessly applying in the service of oligarchic wealth an extreme toxic form of friend-enemy propaganda serving to vilify all legal, civil and parliamentary restraints on executive power.

At the very least, all progressive forces must now fight hard to mitigate the damage of Brexit and prevent Brexiters from achieving their maximum aim of the most savage possible version of no- deal. We need to grasp every opportunity to push the whole project back until it retracts into something as close as possible to a Brexit ‘in name only’, as close as possible to the Remain outcome which will always be in our overwhelming collective interest. From that point, the campaign to Rejoin (which there is no need to self-censor in the meantime) should be pursued with maximum effort until it succeeds. The fact that the currently dominant forces remain so eager to coerce and bully unreconciled dissenters to renounce all of these hopes indicates that the other side knows it still has reason to fear.

Whatever the natural inclination may be to chill out, we now have clear moral duties of solidarity with EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens in the UK. We must build new campaign alliances with pro-democratic forces in the EU nations, and indeed in the USA, Russia, Brazil and Turkey. The Grassroots for Europe conference rightly gave a large share of space to these topics.

Our movement needs a strategy, it needs focused goals, it needs to rebut the attacks it encounters,and it needs to know its adversary. We have been witnessing the invasion and capture of sections of our state, politics and civil society by a combination of foreign state actors and their proxies, hard right lobbies, oligarchs and media power[7]. We need more “opposition research”, and we need to make more use of the research that has been so far done. The better people are informed about this, the darker their diagnosis of where we are now. We have to act in the hope that the darkest assessments are not yet true, and that our loss of our democracy is not irreversible.

Dedicated, sometimes justly celebrated, often unsung and unpaid investigators have compiled a mass of evidence and data on these actors and their links, and this knowledge has increasingly filtered into social media and alternative news services, like the excellent Byline Times[8]. But the gulf between political truth and public understanding is now so wide as to compromise functioning democracy. Over the last year especially, new guerrilla initiatives like Led By Donkeys, Remainer Now, SMIU and other grassroots information campaigns addressed this challenge in new, creative ways. Our struggle isn’t over, but we know now it is long-term. We need much more of all this work, not less.

We need to redesign our pro-EU movement for a new phase of campaigning, and we’ll be discussing how. Much has been created and built over the past three years – as our friends in the EU have gracefully acknowledged. There may be things we can learn from the new Sardine movement in Italy. Maybe there are things they can learn from us. Much has been rapidly improvised from imperfect materials under difficult circumstances. Neither self-starting grassroots activism nor political leadership, specialist lobbying, media skills, funders or fund-raisers by themselves have all the answers. Working together, much has been achieved and much more is possible – and necessary. We do not need to build a monolith. We need structures that are creative, dynamic, functional and flexible, and sensible cooperation with allied oppositional campaigns and parties fighting for constitutional reform, the rule of law, equalities, climate action, tax justice and the NHS. We need to avoid wasteful rivalries and beauty contests for the role of top opposition campaign. Solutions, and the people who deliver them will emerge through action, not inaction.

We’ve had good moments, bad moments and two terrible moments. The best moment for me which still has inspiring value was the mass nation-wide people’s protests on August 31st against the prorogation of Parliament, which mobilised a united super-coalition against a direct assault on our democracy. That assault continues, that threat has not abated. We need to reassemble that coalition, that sharp sense of danger and that will to resist, and make them fully operational, and not just for a day. If necessary, for decades.

Taking care of ourselves and others is a necessary part of a smart politics. Speaking out together and without yielding to fear is better for the soul than enforced silence. Public resistance to malignant government, a good in itself, is also one of the best antidotes to the mental toxins of Brexit, or the disorder one now hears referred to as ‘Brexit brain’.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Ari Rabin-Havt Lies, Incorporated: The World of Post-Truth Politics (2016).

[2] Essentially the thesis of Matthew D’Ancona, Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back (2017).

[3] For a helpful overview, see two books by Timothy Snyder: On Tyranny (2017), and The Road to Unfreedom (2018).

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/18/demagogues-power-rewilding-party-trust-power- government. See also: https://www.facebook.com/DoubleDownNews/videos/2505562666430699/ https://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2019/05/europe/finland-fake-news-intl/

[5] https://www.facebook.com/Reasons2Remain/

[6] https://www.littlebrown.co.uk/titles/will-hutton/saving-britain/9781408711217/

[7] Three books – none of them focused centrally on Brexit – together offer the best deep understanding of where Brexit comes from: Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, and Snyder’s (2018).

[8] https://www.byline.com/

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