NOW THAT Brexit-Halloween is past, and the “will there/won’t there be an election” suspense has broken, we find ourselves flung into full-on campaign mode. It feels simultaneously familiar and disturbingly new.
What is new is how ubiquitous polarisation and demonisation have become in our political discourse. I’m thinking of last weekend’s footage which showed Nicola Sturgeon addressing an independence rally at George Square. With beguiling simplicity, she equated “Tories” with Boris Johnson, and then with Donald Trump, the ultimate bogeyman. She then posited this personification of evil as the mortal enemy of an “open, welcoming, diverse, inclusive Scotland”. The speech prompted a tweet-fest of Nuremberg allusions, as irony was layered on irony.
Everyone seems to be at it, at once both perpetrator and victim, ever ready to up the demonising ante as if there were no tomorrow. Of course, moments of extreme political discourse are nothing new, but perhaps what we are seeing now with 24-hour news, social media and everyone glued to their mobile, is a kind of spiralling mass frenzy. Everything is moralised, yet ethics go out of the window, as the discursive struggle for power, virtual and real, justifies every means: “Brexit, do or die”.
This week the Conservatives were caught out falsifying footage of Keir Starmer apparently stumped by a question about Labour’s Brexit policy. In reality, he had given an immediate, fluent and plausible answer but this had been edited out. The shocking thing was that night party chairman James Cleverly defended the action as borne of a need to “shorten ... a lighthearted, satirical video” which highlighted Labour’s “chaotic” stance on Brexit. There was no explanation, no apology, no acknowledgement that such tactics are unacceptable. Instead the Conservatives appeared to bask in the attention online as twitter and facebook feedback loops attracted millions of views.
Sharing the headlines with the Starmer story was Jacob Rees-Mogg’s reflection on radio that he and his wife would have ignored the fire service’s advice to stay put had they been caught in the Grenfell fire. It spawned outrage from across the board and calls for his resignation. Yet what he said - and it was said with evident compassion - was entirely reasonable, even if it was unguarded and capable of being misconstrued.
The common sense thing to do in case of fire is to run, and Rees-Mogg will not have been the only person to have comforted himself by imagining that that’s what he and his family would do in a Grenfell-type situation. Thinking for oneself rather than blindly following the authority of church or state is the key injunction of the Enlightenment, and perhaps that comes more readily to those possessed of high levels of social and educational privilege. Either way, the alacrity with which people across the political spectrum wrote off the comments as victim-blaming condescension, and the commentator as beyond the pale, is shocking. It’s as if there is no space left for anything but the most extreme polarisation and denunciation.
I don’t know if this is because of the Brexit referendum, and before that in Scotland the Independence referendum. It’s in their nature for referendums to polarise, to force people into either/or positions. How people voted in these referendums, or would vote in the reruns that the losing sides are endlessly striving for, has become identity-forming: Nat or Unionist, Leaver or Remainer. Both referendums churned up traditional party loyalties, as their afterlives have trounced them with new tribalisms.
As the Brexit and Independence stand-offs drag on, it is ever clearer that neither is the clean fix that their acolytes proclaim. Both are fatal enchantments. The fantasy of winning the lottery is preferable to the here and now: the nitty-gritty thanklessness of managing finite resources amid infinite demand, or the pain of addressing mushrooming social injustice.