The limbo of perpetual betrayal

The most powerful weapon of the right-wing elites trying to crash us out of the EU with no deal is the narrative of betrayal.

From the beginnings of UKIP Nigel Farage has depicted the EU as stealing what makes Britain British. He continues to rally ordinary hard-working people to rid us of the traitors in our midst so that a new golden era of proud and triumphant patriotism can bloom on lawns and in pub gardens across the land.

With his decision to support Leave in 2016, Johnson understood the seductive power of this story, and with it the rich fuel it could provide to propel his career. Indeed, in his many years ridiculing the EU as a journalist he helped to create the very dynamic that he is now using to gamble with the future of the United Kingdom.

And the story is far from over. For those politicians cynical enough it is the gift that keeps on giving. Like a cancer it has spread from propping up the careers of a few journalists and fringe politicians to engulfing our entire political system.

Whereas before it was only faceless EU bureaucrats who were scapegoated to sell copies of the Daily Mail, Sun, Express, and Telegraph, it is now anyone who doesn’t toe the most extreme line of Brexit. And as a power-grabbing strategy for right-wing politicians, it has worked remarkably well so far.

(Incidentally the rise of Brexit betrayal in public consciousness was due in no small part to UKIP failing to gain any MPs in our first-past-the-post electoral system. Ironically, European-style proportional representation would have delivered UKIP MPs to match their national vote share, and it would arguably have been much more straightforward to expose their lack of substance a long time ago).

When Farage and the Tory right finally got their referendum, the new traitors were remain-supporting metropolitan elites betraying ordinary people with their fear-mongering and deliberate attempt to over-complicate the question by involving “experts”.

When Theresa May negotiated her deal with the EU, she became the traitor for not negotiating a deal that delivered on “the will of the people” (despite no-one having asked the people what deal they wanted). Most MPs who voted against it also of course became traitors, where as those who voted against it because they wanted a harder Brexit became heroes.

And now we face the greatest betrayal of all. We finally have a hard Brexit government willing to enact “the will of the people” by crashing us out by any means necessary. And here are the politicians determined to thwart it again by uniting in opposition to no deal and trying to pass legislation to stop the disaster.

This is the backdrop for the crucial next few days. All signs are that Johnson wants the opposition and rebel alliance to succeed so that he can shout “Betrayal!” and call a “People vs the Politicians” election (where he will genuinely attempt to presents himself as “one of the people” with a straight – if laughably smug as always – face).

A general election without the brutal reality of a no deal Brexit exposed is much easier to fight than one where the consequences have been with us for at least a few months (like Schrodinger’s cat, no deal only exists for a brief moment in time before it’s necessary to confront the reality of physical inconveniences like the Irish border).

But despite the fact that Johnson’s immediate next task would of course be to (surprise, surprise) negotiate with the EU, the chances of the howls of betrayal distracting everyone from this and leading to electoral victory seem depressingly high.

And indeed even after a no deal Brexit has taken place, the narrative of betrayal can continue. No longer will it be UK politicians thwarting the will of the people, but Europe will be portrayed as continuing to exert its malign influence even once we are out by not agreeing to whatever demands we make (no matter how abstract and unthought-through).

The lack of instantly agreeing a trade deal with identical benefits to full EU membership will be portrayed as wholly the EU’s fault, and nothing to do with the incompetence and arrogance of Brexiteers like David Davis and Boris Johnson, who despite repeated and ongoing failures seem to think they can strong-arm an entire continent into submission because Britain once had an empire and was the home of the industrial revolution.

The narrative has to end at some point, with the whole ridiculous illusion exposed, and at that point we can start talking about how to rebuild our utterly wrecked political system. But we could have a very long way to go.

The fact that Corbyn has finally shown himself capable of bringing together disparate voices of opposition is a hugely welcome development, and everyone involved should be congratulated for finally showing a bit of maturity. But if the attempts to block no deal this week succeed then it presents problems of its own.

The narrative of betrayal will be stronger than ever, and we may need to strap in for the same betrayal message to be repeated whilst our political institutions crumble and our public services continue the tragic rot that has been wrought on them for almost a decade of Tory rule.

The crucial question must be how do we puncture the bubble? How to break through and tell the truth? There is a nuanced complexity in maintaining and evolving a viable economic and political relationship with our European neighbours. But millions of people believe the simple story that continues to be fed to them, and those of us opposed to no deal must make efforts to simplify and amplify our own narrative.

This is our challenge, and it is one that we are not grasping with enough urgency. A united opposition to no deal Brexit provides a huge opportunity to tackle it, but we must move fast.

Much as Dominic Cummings manipulated millions through Facebook in 2016, as opponents to no deal we must massively up our game when it comes to taking the opportunities presented by social media. Whilst the right-wing press has been instrumental in driving us to the edge of this cliff, their grip on the narrative may be more vulnerable than we think.

Because the truth is that it’s Brexiteers like Johnson, Rees-Mogg and Farage who are the cynical elites manipulating ordinary people for their own gain, not the opponents of no deal. Posts like this are shared within social media bubbles, but there is little evidence that the right messages are getting through to the voters who really matter.

If opposition groups come together to share data (appropriately anonymised of course) and execute a coordinated digital marketing strategy then we have a shot of succeeding in a way that could match the success of the Vote Leave victory in 2016. But the status quo is opposition groups (including political parties of course) working in silos.

All the signs are that they are flying blind in individual attempts to take on an adversary who had the (albeit cynical and in breach of electoral law) foresight to work with the likes of Cambridge Analytica three years ago, with all the devastating consequences that are still playing out today on both sides of the Atlantic. I hope very much that I’m wrong, and that there is collaboration happening behind the scenes between opposition parties and the many other groups opposed to no deal so that a consistent messaging strategy can be agreed and effectively executed.

With a general election this autumn now a near certainty, and finally some cause of optimism amongst those finally united in political opposition to no deal, targeting the right swing voters with the right messages will be absolutely crucial. If we fail at this task, the limbo of perpetual betrayal will continue indefinitely, with ever more ominous consequences for democracy.