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5:42pm on Monday, 10th October, 2016:



Some of the articles I'm seeing about Brexit from both Remain and Leave campaigners are insulting someone's intelligence. I'm not exactly sure whose, though.

One of the positions that caused a recent slump in the pound was the suggestion that a hard Brexit was not desirable but would be acceptable. Why would the government say that? The usual "so their rich friends will get richer" argument doesn't apply here, because their rich friends don't even want to leave the EU. No, there's something else going on.

It's pretty obvious what it is, too: it's a negotiating tactic. The EU is saying "if you want access to our single market, you have to play by our rules" and the UK is saying "OK, well we don't want to play by your rules so I guess we won't be seeking access to your single market". The EU, which regards itself as the one with something to sell, thereby has its teeth pulled: the UK is essentially announcing that if the price is too high, we don't want to buy. The EU took a similar view when David Cameron went round asking for concessions before the referendum: "we have what you want and it's take it or leave it". It didn't give Cameron a bean, because it thought what it was already offering was quite sufficient to win the vote. This was a miscalculation. Theresa May's announcement that a hard Brexit is a possibility was telling the EU not to make the same miscalculation a second time. It may be a large, single market, but it's stagnant and protectionist, and if there are too many strings attached, well, the alternative is actually acceptable.

Likewise, when the government announces that there won't be a Commons vote on the final offer from the EU, that's also a negotiating tactic. Parliament is, like the Labour party, at odds with those whose votes matter to it. Labour MPs don't want Jeremy Corbyn as leader, but the members do. MPs in general don't want to leave the EU, but the electorate does. If the House of Commons were to vote on whatever deal the EU eventually offers, it's pretty certain to be voted down no matter what it is. Knowing this, the EU would make no concessions whatsoever in its negotiations, confident that the UK couldn't proceed unless Parliament agreed, which it wouldn't. Thus, by saying there won't be a vote, the UK ensures that the EU has to negotiate more seriously than it would if it knew there was going to be a vote.

Now that both of these are negotiating tactics is quite clear to me. The government means them to be seen as tactics and the EU negotiators will be seeing them as tactics. That's what they are.

However, that's not what I see in the various newspaper reports and comment pieces that cross my path. There, the possibility of a hard Brexit is pitched as being some kind of needless, reckless, feckless act by a government that believes so much that the UK is going to soar once free of its imaginary chains that it's willing to burn every bridge it can to do so as soon as possible. Alternatively, it's pitched as being an immense opportunity for the UK to break free from the repressive, stifling confines of the EU prison and escape to glory.

Similarly, the dismissal of a Commons vote is described in outraged terms as being an assault on democracy, steamrollering a right-wing agenda through against the will of the people. It's also described as being the epitome of democracy, side-stepping an obstructive elite that puts its own vested interests above those of the people it's supposed to govern.

Now if you're a journalist on either side, you know that at root your depiction of what's happening isn't what's happening. Well, I hope you do: if you're writing these pieces in the genuine belief that you're reflecting the primary motivations behind them, well you shouldn't be in the job. You're adopting the perspective that you are because you want to sell this point of view to your readers. So, do you think your readers are buying it? Wouldn't you have to have rather a disparaging view of them to do this? Don't you respect their intelligence?

Well let's suppose you do. We'll assume that you and your readers all know the real reason behind the announcements, but you're choosing not to focus on that because your aim is to undermine or shore up the process (depending on which camp you're in). Nevertheless, someone at some stage has to buy what you're saying rather than accept what's actually going on, or you're wasting your time. So what about those readers who cross-post your articles to Facebook? Did they buy your argument? Or are they too smart for that and are instead trying to persuade all those unsmart people who don't read the same newspaper?

Basically, anyone who concocts an interpretation of events which makes no mention of the actual rationale involved either doesn't understand that rationale or is expecting that at some point in the readership chain there will be people who take what's been written at face value. It's a cynical manipulation of those people, and an insult to the intelligence of everyone else.

I think maybe I play too many games...

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Copyright © 2016 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).