A disheartening argument yesterday on Twitter, with a fellow Brexiteer.
It started when I pointed out to her that I don’t think Mrs May’s Chequers plan is quite the disaster that many are portraying it as, to which she responded, with an air of condescension, that I clearly wasn’t aware that David Davis had put forward an “alternate” white paper, sending me the first section of it, to read.
I duly responded that I had already read it, explaining that I had also read many of the remaining 23 sections, as well as the official white paper and various analyses. I then – because, of course, what self-publicising blogger worth her salt can resist the opportunity – sent her a copy of the blog that I had written giving my thoughts on all of them.
Her response? “Your blog doesn’t say much, it just whinges a lot”
With the greatest of difficulty, I resisted the mental urge to reach into the computer monitor, through the ether separating us, and throttle her. I erased the angry response I had started to type out, and forced myself to consider the fact that maybe – just maybe – I need to be a bit more open to criticism. Just because I believe my blogs are wonderfully written, well-researched and well-argued, it doesn’t necessarily follow that everybody else agrees.
So my eventual response was simply “Wow. Okay. Well, it wasn’t intended as a whinge; it was a serious attempt to get to the bottom of what is being proposed”. I then pointed out that I voted for Brexit, still want it to go ahead and so was disappointed that she, as a fellow Brexiteer, was so keen to just dismiss my opinion. Especially as – get this! – her Twitter bio states “If you want to debate Brexit, fine, but engage – don’t just dismiss what you don’t like”.
I politely suggested she may want to follow her own advice.
Somewhat surprisingly, the discussion then continued in fairly civilised tones, with a bit of back-and-forth about the relative difference between Davis’ proposals and those put forward by Mrs May. Unsurprisingly, we were actually in agreement on many points but small areas of disagreement and misunderstanding kept cropping up.
And then came the big reveal. Suddenly she admitted that she’d assumed I was a Remainer. That she read my blog with that assumption in mind, and couldn’t really recall what it said that confirmed her suspicion but she remembered it talked about no economic benefits of leaving!
I pointed out that I hadn’t written anything about there not being any economic benefits of leaving – that I actually believe there are huge economic benefits to leaving. What I had expressed in the blog, was my frustration at the fact that the various white papers had made no attempt to quantify those benefits!
And at that point – whether out of embarrassment or just the usual rudeness that Twitter somehow provokes in people – she declared that much though my blog may be of great interest to me, she had only skim-read it and had better things to do with her time than to continue arguing with me, bidding me a curt “Bye” at the end of her tweet.
Now, I’m no Twitter snowflake. I can handle robust debate and I am certainly just as guilty as the next person, of making incorrect assumptions about the person I’m debating with and then trying to cover up my embarrassment at getting the wrong end of the stick. We all do it. All the time.
But the reason I found the whole thing a bit disheartening was because that little petulant exchange, sadly, is a pretty accurate representation of the deeper divisions at the heart of the Brexit vote. And a very poor indictment of the state of our public debate.
I’ve written about this topic before – not specifically in the context of Brexit, but the wider context of political discussion, and the tribalism that lately seems to overtake every debate, and every analysis.
No longer do we listen to, or read, a point of view with an open mind – hearing, or reading, every part of it before making up our minds about how to respond. Nowadays, it seems, too often, the first thing we ask ourselves is “Who is putting forward this opinion? To what political tribe do they belong? “ And we use the answer to those questions, to decide whether or not to give the opinion any credence.
My Twitter opponent had come to the incorrect conclusion, right from the start, that I am a Remainer. Her responses to me were therefore hostile from the start. Once she realised I had voted for Brexit, she calmed down and discussed the matter a bit more rationally – but then went off the boil again when I pulled her up on her incorrect assumptions.
The problem is, it’s no longer even a binary divide. It’s not just Remainers vs Leavers. It’s hard-core Remainers who will stop at nothing in their attempts to reverse Brexit, to moderate Remainers who really don’t want Brexit to happen but accept that actively trying to stop it is anti-democratic, to fence-sitters who voted for Remain because they were convinced by Project Fear, but are now starting to wonder if they should have voted Leave, to those teetering on the other side of the fence who voted Leave but can no longer really remember why and are wondering if they made a mistake, to moderate Leavers who just want the government to get on with negotiating our exit on the most favourable terms possible, to die-hard Leavers who are fed-up with having to try to negotiate anything, think the 48% of the country who didn’t vote to leave are just cowards and sore losers, and think we should just walk away right now without a deal, and damn the consequences. And various other camps in between.
And is it any wonder we’re so divided? Those still fighting for us to remain in the EU, love to point out the fact that not everybody who voted to leave, voted for the same thing. There was no clear manifesto that set out what a leave vote would mean. Yes, we were constantly told by the Remain campaign that a vote to leave would mean leaving the single market, and leaving the customs union – but we were also told by almost everybody on the Leave side, that leaving the EU would not mean losing our access to the single market, that it is just as much in the interests of the EU to give us a free trade deal as it is in our interests to want one.
Except, of course, as we are discovering, allowing us to leave its institutions while granting us a free trade deal, is not in the EU’s interests. Perversely, politics trumps economics as far as the EU Commission are concerned – we are not dealing with reasoned negotiators, but with ideologically-driven careerists who would sooner bankrupt their member countries than give away any concessions that could be seen to damage their overall political project. The great irony is that the very reason many of us voted to leave the EU, is the exact thing that is making it so hard for us to do so.
Theresa May, as we all know, has never been a great believer in Brexit. And maybe, had David Davis been given free reign in negotiations, we would be in a better position than we are now. But I’m not convinced about that. Given the divisions within her own cabinet, with many MPs actively fighting to block any of her efforts, and an EU that is completely intractable in negotiations, I quite frankly find it fairly incredible that she has managed to make any progress whatsoever. And while it’s tempting to agree with hard-core Brexiteers who say that we should simply walk away without a deal, do we really want to push such a strategy when we know that not only the 48% who voted Remain, but also a significant proportion of those who voted Leave, would not support doing so?
Calls for a second referendum on the final deal are, understandably, mounting. It’s all very well David Davis and Steve Baker talking about the “alternate” white paper that they had been working on, with its focus on “mutual recognition” of standards rather than a “common rulebook”. But unless they are prepared to force a vote of no confidence in Theresa May – and win – and put their proposals to the EU – and expect them to be accepted by the EU – then all they are doing is creating unnecessary noise and division. Divisions which the Remainers will be more than happy to exploit.
If we have any hope of Brexit going ahead, we need a unified strategy from those who are – and have been – its most high-profile cheerleaders. That means Boris Johnson, David Davis, Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom, Gisela Stuart, Daniel Hannan, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nigel Farage and Arron Banks all need to get their heads together and start singing from the same hymn sheet. Sadly I fear that for too many of them, individual ambition will continue to outweigh any chances for collaboration. And the divisions within Parliament – and the country at large – will simply deepen.