Those wag­ing war against re­al­ity are doomed to fail­ure

The New European - - Agenda - JAMES BALL’S DE­CON­STRUCTED

It is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly clear that the mod­ern po­lit­i­cal war isn’t one against poverty, or against crime, or drugs, or even the tech gi­ants – our mod­ern po­lit­i­cal era is dom­i­nated by a war against re­al­ity.

And at first glance, its pro­po­nents ap­pear to be win­ning: Don­ald Trump’s men­da­cious cam­paign landed him in the world’s most pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal of­fice. The false claims of Vote Leave – £350 mil­lion a week for the NHS, 70 mil­lion new im­mi­grants from Turkey – played a huge part in win­ning the EU ref­er­en­dum. And from cli­mate change to any num­ber of other is­sues, the side deny­ing the facts seems to have the up­per hand.

Given that, it’s per­haps not sur­pris­ing that when it comes to Brexit, groups from all sides of the po­lit­i­cal di­vide – though let’s be hon­est, es­pe­cially pro-brexit Con­ser­va­tives – are stick­ing to that triedand-tested for­mula: deny­ing the facts, telling a story of the world as you’d like it to be, and wait­ing for the votes and ap­plause to roll in.

We saw this at the Con­ser­va­tive con­fer­ence, as Brexit sec­re­tary Do­minic Raab de­nied a no-deal Brexit would ground flights – de­spite a pub­lic doc­u­ment re­leased by his own govern­ment cat­e­gor­i­cally say­ing oth­er­wise. We saw it when Raab crit­i­cised the EU and Re­main sup­port­ers for “politi­cis­ing” the Ir­ish bor­der – a bor­der which played a large role in a decades-long civil war, well within both liv­ing and po­lit­i­cal mem­ory.

And we see it ev­ery time Brex­i­teers try to wave off con­cerns about no-deal, and on vir­tu­ally ev­ery oc­ca­sions former for­eign sec­re­tary Boris John­son opens his mouth.

Given the ap­par­ently storm­ing track record of such po­lit­i­cal de­nial of re­al­ity in re­cent years, it’s easy to see why lead­ing politi­cians are tempt­ing to carry on wal­low­ing in a warm bath of sooth­ing non­sense – but they’ve missed one key fac­tor.

It is easy to deny some­thing that’s a few years in the fu­ture. All you have to do in this sit­u­a­tion is be more con­vinc­ing than your op­po­nents, and since they’re bur­dened down by in­con­ve­nient facts, and the dif­fi­culty of fore­cast­ing, you’ve got a very good chance of win­ning.

This was at the core of the Leave strat­egy of la­belling Re­main’s warn­ings as ‘Project Fear’: if Re­main say some­thing will be a dis­as­ter, they’re scare­mon­ger­ing. If they don’t, then why don’t we take the leap and leave?

It might be an amoral po­lit­i­cal strat­egy but, as we’ve seen, it’s cer­tainly an ef­fec­tive one. Yet it only works when we’re talk­ing about the fu­ture, and it only works when the fu­ture is not that close. We’re about to see what hap­pens when post-truth pol­i­tics meet cold, hard, re­al­ity – which is far less im­pressed by vague as­sur­ances and wild ac­cu­sa­tions.

If we ac­tu­ally en­counter a no-deal Brexit and vot­ers see the con­se­quences for them­selves, it will be very hard for politi­cians who have spent two years telling peo­ple not to worry to tell the pub­lic any­thing at all. We are, at most, five months away from start­ing to see those ef­fects be­gin in earnest: if no-deal looks at all likely – let alone in­evitable – the fall­out from it will be­gin be­fore March 29, 2019, even if it gets far worse af­ter that date.

Our politi­cians have, when it comes to the EU, got so used to just say­ing what they would like to be true that they gen­uinely seem to be en­tirely obliv­i­ous to the fact it won’t work if peo­ple feel the real ef­fects of their lies and mis­di­rec­tions – and they have vir­tu­ally no plan for what to do if it hap­pens.

To a lesser ex­tent, this is a bul­let that Labour and the Peo­ple’s Vote move­ment need to bite: we are com­ing very close to the point where hav­ing an ac­tual re­al­is­tic plan might come back into fash­ion. So even if it doesn’t yet be­come Labour’s pub­lic po­si­tion – which re­mains to essen­tially ask for the im­pos­si­ble, a deal with all the up­sides of Brexit with few of its down­sides – the party needs an ac­tual plan for what it would do if it found it­self in power with three months un­til d-day, how­ever un­likely that is.

Sim­i­larly, the Peo­ple’s Vote needs to start giv­ing peo­ple as­sur­ances as to how it could work to ac­tu­ally se­cure a vote and de­lay the con­se­quences of no-deal in the mean­time, that go be­yond glib as­sur­ances of just some­how mag­i­cally se­cur­ing ex­ten­sions or de­lays. We have rea­son to hope th­ese are pos­si­ble, but owe it to the pub­lic to ad­mit they’re not a given, and may not come with­out a price.

UK and US pol­i­tics have reached a de­press­ing place, dom­i­nated by char­ac­ters with, at best, a loose grip on re­al­ity, and ap­par­ently lit­tle con­cern about the con­se­quences of their ac­tions. But in some ways the UK is in a worse po­si­tion than the US: while Trump can be sat­is­fied by a ‘rene­go­ti­ated’ Nafta trade deal that in re­al­ity is lit­tle more than a re­nam­ing ex­er­cise, so it be­comes ‘his’, our politi­cians are try­ing to fun­da­men­tally rene­go­ti­ate our key po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic al­liance from a po­si­tion of delu­sion. Start­ing a po­lit­i­cal fight with re­al­ity, like jump­ing out of an aero­plane, is clearly an ex­hil­a­rat­ing and en­joy­able ex­pe­ri­ence – un­til sud­denly, it’s not.

Photo: Christo­pher Fur­long /Getty Im­ages

IN DE­NIAL: Boris John­son

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