I’m listening to King of America, Elvis Costello’s 1986 album, while receiving my fourth and final dose of Cytarabine for this chemo cycle. Unlike the over-produced and rather directionless ‘Goodbye Cruel World’, this album still works for me 32 years on as the songs and production remain coherent for the whole hour.
The first track is ‘Brilliant Mistake’, and the first verse seems to resonate when listened to against the backdrop of Trump and Brexit. I hope fervently that in a couple of years these brilliant mistakes will have been consigned to the dustbin of history. But if not, well, a few listens to ‘Suit of Lights’, also on this album, will probably make me feel a little better.
Brilliant Mistake – Declan MacManus
He thought he was the King of America
Where they pour coca-cola just like vintage wine
Now I try hard not to become hysterical
But I’m not sure if I’m laughing or crying
I wish that I could push a button
And talk in the past and not the present tense
And watch this hurting feeling disappear
Like it was common sense
It was a fine idea at the time (*)
Now it’s a brilliant mistake
(*) I was obviously never convinced that Trump or Brexit were fine ideas, but understand why many people thought they were. Hopefully change is coming …
A poll conducted on Monday 18th June 2018 found that 73% of those asked said the claim of a ‘Brexit dividend’ was a lie. 11% of respondents said that there would be a Brexit dividend, with the remaining 16% undecided. The sample size was 1,003, with a margin of error +/-3% (*).
A fake graph to demonstrate confirmation bias
If you’ve read this far, your initial reaction to this ‘poll’ is likely to have been determined by your existing beliefs about Brexit. If you oppose Brexit, you were probably more likely to have seen this as further evidence that your view is right. If you support Brexit you probably haven’t even read this far, but will have dismissed or ignored this article on the basis of the headline itself.
A psychological explanation often offered for this effect is confirmation bias (Darley and Gross, 1983). Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek evidence to confirm your existing beliefs rather than look for evidence that might counter them. Regardless of the actual truth of the information, finding support for your beliefs boosts your confidence in them. Crucially, this makes it less likely that people holding these beliefs will alter them.
Many people on the pro-EU side of the debate are placing a lot of faith in calling for a ‘people’s vote’ on the final EU exit deal. They express confidence (often citing the way that opinion has subsequently changed on the Iraq War pursued by the Blair government) that people won’t be fooled again.
I remain unconvinced that the outcome of any such referendum would be different.
Although opinion pollsters YouGov claim there has been a slight drift towards people thinking that the decision to leave the EU is a bad one, the difference is nothing like as pronounced as the shift over the Iraq War.
There’s also another important difference compared with the Iraq War – Brexit is a current issue. On both sides of the argument, people still have a lot of psychological capital invested in their beliefs. Much of the shift in opinion over the Iraq War seems to have happened afterwards, when it was seen to be both a disaster and with a premise based on a lie.
The challenge for those of us who want no truck with Brexit is to overcome the confirmation bias of the leavers. If I was well enough to attend, I’d be at the march in London on the 23rd June. But no matter how large and well organised it is, it’s unlikely to have much impact in shifting opinion.
What’s needed as well are emotional, media attention-grabbing demonstrations of the benefits of remaining in the EU. The equivalent of the Farage/Rees-Mogg fish throwing incident, if you will.
(*) For the avoidance of doubt, these figures are completely made up. Sorry. (But that doesn’t mean they bear no resemblance to the truth and that the Brexit dividend isn’t a lie, naturally).
Update 18th June – 2200:Sky News has published a genuine poll in the last few minutes that does indeed indicate that the majority of those asked say the ‘Brexit dividend’ claim is a lie.
Darley, J.M. & Gross, P.H. (1983). A hypothesis-confirming bias in labelling effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 20-33.
Immediately after Theresa May took power following the referendum she had a brief window of opportunity to unite the country behind a common course of action. Given the narrowness of the victory for the ‘leave’ side, a leader who genuinely had the interests of the country at heart would have aimed for the greatest possible degree of consensus.
Instead, she was weak – pathetically weak – and decided to ignore the 48.1% who had voted ‘remain’ – which, of course, included her. But her decision-making turned out to be far worse than weakness. The appalling tone in which political debate is currently conducted is due in large part to her disgusting ‘citizens of nowhere’ speech. I hope that she regrets her choices, but I’m not convinced that she does.
Her catastrophic miscalculations during the process of leaving the EU (Davis, Johnson and Fox! ECJ red lines! early election! no customs union! no to the EEA! no plan!) and in particular, her choice of words, have led directly to the country’s current difficulties.
Once a genie is out of a bottle it is difficult to see how it will ever go back in. It helps no-one to demonise the ‘other’ as a gammon or a remoaner or anything else. What’s required now is a way of reconciling differences, so that the minimum possible damage to the people of the UK results from the Brexit nightmare. You don’t reconcile different groups to each other by hurling insults. More importantly, there’s another group to consider (certainly the majority) – everyone else. They certainly won’t be won over by such childish name-calling.
Politics in the UK needs to become less of a zero-sum game, and adopt structures that encourage consensus and power sharing. Electoral reform is therefore an essential prerequisite for a post-Brexit society, not a nice to have.
The country will need to find a new common cause – a positive one, rather than harking back to the dark days of Empire – to enable the current divisions to start to be repaired. No number of royal weddings or appeals to a mythical bulldog spirit will deliver this.
However, my fear that it is now far too late to have any reasonable chance of finding a way out of the mess the country is in for a generation or more. Many people I know view the inevitable economic and cultural damage that Brexit is causing as being sunk cost, but the damage will be lasting. Public discourse has been seemingly poisoned beyond repair. If there is to be a realignment of politicians across parties, it will come too late to save us by next March. And a realignment will never happen if all we do is insult each other. Political differences are the life-blood of a healthy democracy, but they need to be expressed constructively.
People of goodwill must work together to defeat the intolerance that has descended on our country. Delivering such an outcome would be a truly patriotic cause worth supporting.
As I mentioned in my last post, I recently wrote to Pauline Latham, MP for Mid-Derbyshire, to ask about the impact of leaving Euratom and the EMA on lymphoma patients (*).
My first question was:
I understand that your government intends to withdraw from Euratom as part of our exit from the European Union. Could you advise me what the impact of this decision will be on the availability of medical radioisotopes used in the treatment of my condition, for example, during a PET/CT scan.
The substantive response to this question came in the 5th paragraph of her letter to me.
I do not believe that leaving Euratom will have any adverse effect on the supply of medical radio-isotopes. Contrary to what has been in some reports, medical radio-isotopes are not classed as special fissile material and are not subject to nuclear safeguards. Therefore, the UK’s ability to import medical isotopes from Europe and the rest of the world will not be affected.
[…] isn’t certain, and will depend on what future arrangements are negotiated. The UK may find it harder to guarantee a supply after leaving.
That my MP is happy to be held accountable for any interruption in supply of medical radioisotopes caused by an exit from Euratom and the EU is therefore commendable.
My second question was:
Furthermore, I also understand that the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has decided to relocate from London and that as part of our exit from the European Union, alternative arrangements to approve medicines will need to be made. Could you reassure me that plans have been enacted to ensure that approvals will not be disrupted after our exit, and that there will be no additional waiting time for new treatments to be approved compared to citizens of the other 27 European Union countries?
Her response to this concern was rather less clear-cut.
The UK is fully committed to continuing the close working relationship with our European partners, and as part of the negotiations the Government will discuss with the EU and Member States how best to continue cooperation in the field of medicines regulation (including with the European Medicines Agency).
Our aim is to ensure that patients in the UK and across the EU continue to be able to access the best and most innovative medicines, and be assured that their safety is protected through the strongest regulatory framework and sharing of data.
We’re 13 months away from our EU exit. Hope is not a strategy. There’s no obvious plan here as far as I can work out and her answer worries me a lot. Especially when you hear Leslie Galloway, the chair of the Ethical Medicines Industry Group, talk about the issue. He provides a cogent argument that the consequences of leaving the EU will be that new medicines will be delayed by up to two years. For mantle cell lymphoma patients, such a delay could be the literal difference between life and death.
EMIG (Ethical Medicines Industry Group) Chair, Leslie Galloway, tells @BBCRadio4 that leaving the EMA could mean patients are forced to wait for life-saving medicines and may miss out on important clinical trials.
I start my first cycle of chemotherapy on Thursday. Many people currently seem to think that Brexit is purely about what kind of trade deals we can strike. It quite clearly isn’t. We need to remember that, and make sure that our MPs remain accountable for all of their decisions on this matter.
(*) A copy of my letter is available here and the reply is here.
I find myself intrigued by Lord Digby Jones’ recent tweet.
Grammatical errors aside, if we have such a strong negotiating position with the EU, as Lord Jones believed would be the case before the referendum, then no amount of talking down by supposed ‘enemies within’ should matter. That he now thinks that it does matter suggests he may have been wrong about the strength of the UK’s position. Now, call me naive if you wish, but I find it unlikely that a distinguished Lord would have deliberately lied to us. The only alternative explanation is that he was skillfully conned by the leave campaign. He doesn’t need to apologise for that – many good people including my MP were seduced by their siren call. There’s no disgrace in being wrong, provided that you attempt to repair any damage you may have inadvertently caused through your misjudgment.
If enough people who, like Lord Jones, were duped by the leave campaign tell their MPs that they’ve changed their minds, then there is still just enough time to put things right. An exit from Brexit is possible. After all, as David Davis once pointed out, if a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.
I do, however, want to agree with Lord Jones on one specific matter. We should never give in to bullies. For example, people who use the term “Remoaner” in an attempt to belittle their opponents and shut down democratic debate.
So perhaps, on balance, Lord Jones would like to apologise after all.
I haven’t really felt like writing much about politics since June 24th gave a narrow, but important victory to those who believe our future is better outside of the European Union. Well, either that, or they wanted to give the mythical ‘liberal elite’ a good kicking. There’s increasing evidence to suggest that some who voted to leave regret their decision. I’m pleased that some people feel like that, but as time travel is impractical, regrets without action seem rather pointless. However, the general increase in support for the Liberal Democrats (in real polls rather than opinion polls, fortunately) continues and membership numbers appear to be healthy too. I suspect that some of those who now regret their decision on June 23rd and want to move beyond such feelings and into constructive action have joined the party – welcome!
And then November 9th arrived. After the initial shock I felt, I’ve been avoiding the news like the plague. Classic fm (at least, for 55 minutes every hour) has got a new devotee. News programmes are too depressing, particularly when they endlessly turn to Farage and others of his ilk for their opinions. I’m genuinely concerned for my many colleagues, friends and acquaintances in the US who have already been affected by Trump’s rhetoric. I hope his success doesn’t inspire his followers to turn hateful words into hateful actions(*). Like Brexit, the narrowness of Trump’s victory makes it all the more frustrating for those of us who believe that misogyny, racism, homophobia and xenophobia have no place in this world.
But that’s where the similarities in the triumph of the new right on both sides of the Atlantic stop. The American electorate can throw Trump out in 2020 (or chose to keep him on until 2024 of course) – assuming that he doesn’t do something really stupid and dangerous in the meantime. Indeed, the one piece of news I did watch this morning was Christopher Meyer, a former UK ambassador to the US, talking about how the UK government should approach a Trump presidency. He was quite clear about the importance of our political leaders and diplomats ensuring that they get to know the Trump camp really well now, without delay. May has been rather slow off the mark with a call due sometime today, 10th in the queue, well behind other world leaders. The UK needs to retain as much influence with the US as possible to dissuade him from turning what I hope was campaign bombast into, well, bombs.
The problem with Brexit is that it is very likely to be permanent. Once we’re out of the EU, it will become impossible to return with anything like as good a deal (no contributions rebate, for example) as we have now. That’s assuming that the rest of the EU would have us back on any terms, anyway. But return we will want to. The loss of freedom of movement and the resulting economic decline will eventually be too much for us all.
Since the US election results came in, I’ve been humming the tune to ‘I believe’. This song featured on an episode of Not the Nine O’Clock News some 37 years ago, after the election of Ronald Reagan. If you’ve not heard it before, the YouTube link is below. Some of the references are a little out of date – “I believe that JR really loves Sue Ellen” may not mean much to some, but the sentiments of the song still hold. Especially if you substitute Ronald Reagan for Donald Trump in the last line.
I’m proud to be a citizen of Britain, Europe and the world. These things were never contradictory and they never will be. Patriotism is not the same as petty nationalism. I’m convinced that finding ways to win the arguments for Liberalism with good grace and humour is the best way to defeat the demagogues.
(*) The discursive psychologist inside me knows that words accomplish social action, and so such distinctions are moot.