Woolly journalism

There is too much woolly talk and poor journalism on the subject of Brexit. Too many people asserting that one referendum vote is enough – enough to turn history on its head. One moment in time – and we have a paradigm shift.

An example was on Radio 4’s The Long View, with Jonathan Freedland, this morning (1st August). I missed much of it, so if I do it an injustice I apologise. One of the contributors recognised that the way the country is split is a big issue – with big Remain majorities among the young, the educated, and city dwellers.

But another suggested that academics (I think we’d consider them educated) were horrified because, whereas elections over the years had been squabbles between right and left, now their own personal interests were affected. The suggestion being that their opposition was self-interested and self-indulgent. But – they, the academics, know – and I know – and my friends know – and a few million others out there – we all know – that our concerns lie at a deeper level – about a way of looking at the world, with an open not a closed mind – about being European and internationalist – taking a positive rather than a cynical view of the world – looking to the future with optimism. (It’s there writ large in the comparison between all the enthusiasm and aspiration of the Democratic convention last week, and the negativity of the Republican convention the week before.)

The programme enlisted Diarmaid MacCulloch, Oxford historian, to make a ‘long view’ comparison between Henry VIII’s break with Rome and Brexit. It took a long time for the implications of that break to work through the country, to rework the fabric, to change irrevocably beliefs and practices – twenty years, forty – and longer. Could we be in for something similar this time – a slow, gradual, inexorable change to a different view of the world – to a different world?

To my mind the very notion that there’s a comparison is absurd. I’d agree that Henry’s decision was pretty arbitrary, a whim, the result of an obsession, influenced by a (un)favourable reforming wind from the continent, and an executor and manipulator in chief who knew how to execute (too literally) and manipulate – yes, maybe we can have fun drawing comparisons. But that there are any real searching comparisons with any relevance for our time – that’s a load of baloney.

A 52:48 vote in favour of an ill-thought through proposition based on misleading and sometimes mendacious arguments does not represent a paradigm shift.

As another example of bad journalism we have Ed Conway in The Times. (I’m relying here on a summary of his article in The Week).

The wider world is all too keen in Conway’s view to blame the world’s problems on the Brexit: ‘Britain’s great gift to the world: a giant pre-cooked excuse for absolutely everything.’ That’s nonsense, he says. We’d all agree. And it’s not of course what the wider world is saying. Brexit is, however, part of a big picture that the wider world does find worrying.

For Conway the problems in the world economy have been ‘baked into the system’ for some time. To be specific: unemployment rates, productivity, demand. But it’s been ‘easier to blame (problems) on Brexit’.

Arguing from one dubious proposition to another, he goes on to suggest that ‘if anything Brexit presents an opportunity’. ‘For years G20 members have been paralysed in the face of a global showdown. If Brexit provides an excuse for tackling this by spending more on infrastructure, tearing down regulations, printing more money, so much the better’.

An excuse to spend – to spend our way out of a crisis. Brexit it seems could be an excuse for throwing caution to the winds. More an argument I associate with the Corbynite left.

There are good arguments for increased spending on infrastructure, and there’s a debate about whether a further dose of QE would be helpful. But that debate should have nothing to do with Brexit. Unless it is – as this is how I’d construe Conway’s argument – we spend and print money out of desperation following a post-Brexit slump in economic performance and confidence.

I started with The Long View, and a massive non-sequitur – Henry VIII and Brexit. And I’m ending with another – Brexit and global economic reform.

The pre-referendum debate was characterised by wild assertions and woolly thinking. The post-referendum ‘debate’ is sadly no better.

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