False narratives

That politicians, aided by a pathetically compliant media, can create a completely false narrative will hardly be news to anyone. What may be surprising, however, is the ease with which this can be done and the speed with which this false narrative can become lodged in the public consciousness. Certainly remarkable is the fact that this can happen even when the narrative is so transparently false as to more closely resemble the stuff of fairy tales than meaningful political analysis.

Undoubtedly, part of the explanation for the way these false narratives so rapidly and completely gain currency is the willingness of ‘experts’ to go along with them. Or, should we say, their reluctance to challenge the political fiction.

Take Professor John Curtice, for example. Given his impressive array of relevant qualifications and titles, we might reasonably anticipate that he would be professionally inclined to scrutinise the notion of “a choice between a hard or a soft withdrawal”, in relation to the UK’s departure from the EU. But no! He appears to just accept this narrative without question; commenting on it as if ‘hard Brexit’ and ‘soft Brexit’ were firmly established concepts within the realm of political science, rather than merely the coinages of party spin doctors subsequently absorbed into the cosy consensus of the British media.

To be fair to the good Professor, it is entirely possible that he did express misgivings about the idea of a choice between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ Brexit, but those comments didn’t make it into the article. Not out of any intent to mislead, I hasten to stress. That would be a gross dereliction of journalistic standards such as might bring the profession into serious disrepute. It’s simply a matter of limited space and time. Of course it is!

A desire to be fair to the priesthood of experts also bids us point out that questioning the cosy consensus of the mainstream media is a sure way to find oneself sitting in an unheated office watching the bank balance shrink while waiting for a call from newspaper editors and TV/radio producers who have unfortunately lost your contact details. You’re not a ‘respected expert’ unless the right people have you on speed-dial.

But, taking the reports of Professor Curtice’s comments at face value, what do we find? We find him going along with the idea that the UK’s Brexit negotiation is like some kind of buffet of options spread out before Theresa May from which she can pick and choose the tastiest morsels whilst turning up her nose at the soggy vol-au-vents and curled sandwiches. Does that sound at all realistic? Is that the way things work in the real world? Or is it a false narrative created for dubious political purposes?

At the core of this false narrative is the assertion that the outcome of of the EU referendum represented a vote to leave the EU, but not a vote to quit the single single market. There has been a distinctly unsubtle post hoc redefining of the choices presented in the referendum. According to this revised history, the question was not ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’, but ‘Should the United Kingdom keep those bits of European Union membership that it wants while dumping the rest?’.

We are now being told that the single market is actually something totally separate from the EU itself. If you think you remember the single market being mentioned quite a lot during the EU referendum campaign, you are mistaken. If the UK now ends up outside the single market, it’s not because that is what people voted for when invited to do so by the UK Government, its because those nasty foreigners are being totally unreasonable.

The reality, of course, is that privileged access to the single market is now and always has been reserved to EU member states. Non-members may acquire access. But only on terms determined by the EU. Terms which impose a significant cost and/or limit access in significant ways. Privileged access to the single market is inextricably bound up with accepting the duties and responsibilities of membership.

The UK has, over decades, demonstrated an intransigent unwillingness to accept those duties and responsibilities whilst arrogantly demanding all the privileges of membership as a right deriving, not from acceptance of the terms of membership, but from a staunch belief in British exceptionalism. Hence, another false narrative which portrayed the UK as exceptionally regulated by the EU while in fact the UK had more opt-outs than any other member state. The reality denied and concealed by this false narrative is that the UK was more pampered than put-upon.

So powerful are the forces which peddle these false narratives that the mad Brexiteers were able to convince a sufficient number of people a golden future was there for the taking if only the UK could escape the clutches of the evil EU. When the stark reality of what they had induced people to vote for came home to them, the mad Brexiteers instantly set about pretending the vote meant something else altogether.

And it appears they have succeeded. If, as a poll has suggested, “nine out of 10 people want the country to remain in the European single market”, it seems there has been a widespread if not general acceptance of the patently ludicrous notion that voting to quit the EU didn’t mean voting to quit the single market.

It’s not difficult to see why Leave voters would be so eager to seize upon this false narrative. After all, voting to quit the biggest single market in the world would be a pretty stupid thing to do. If they are offered a plausible way to deny that this is what they did, of course they’re going to grab it.

The question is, who will they turn on when reality dawns, as it surely must? Who will they blame when the EU puts its terms on the table and says take it or leave it? Looks like yet another false narrative will be required.

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2 thoughts on “False narratives

  1. Geejay

    One of your best pieces yet, Peter. I particularly like your analysis of the “respected expert” – the cosy coterie of trusted group-thinkers who will reflect the “party” line, the media/BBC unionist narrative rather than point out that the emperor is in the all-together. Rarely, if ever, do we hear the voices of the iconoclasts, those prepared to challenge the consensus. It’s always the same old usual suspects like the IFS or the good Prof.

    I’ll be sending a coin or two for the electric meter – don’t want your typing fingers getting frostbite.

  2. Robin J Barclay


    I have to agree with Geejay’s opinion of this piece and to that end, I hope you don’t mind me sharing this link to Facebook.

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