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Bonnie Greer: Welcome to the Age of Gaslighting

The Age of Gaslighting is upon us.

The dictionary definition is this: ‘Gaslighting is a form of manipulation whose purpose is to cause the victim to doubt their own perception, memory and sanity; to destabilise.’

The term comes from the 1938 play, Gas Light, by that master of English pre-war melodrama, Patrick Hamilton.

The plot: in a fog-shrouded and night-bound London, a woman is disturbed by the mysterious comings and goings of her husband. The evil Jack tells the heroine, Bella, that he is not coming and going. He is not flirting with the servants. In fact, he tells her, she is going insane.

A detective turns up and persuades the woman that she is being played, and everything is being orchestrated by footsteps in a supposedly empty flat and the flickering of gaslight. The play was made into a film and there are two classic versions.

The most well-known is the glossy, 1944 all-star production made in the golden era of Hollywood, filmed at MGM and starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and a very young Angela Lansbury.

Bergman goes beautifully insane under the direction of the king of ladies’ movies, George Cukor. The film makes it very plain that Boyer is guilty because he speaks in a very heavy French accent which becomes more marked the guiltier the film reveals him to be. It is 100% war-escapist audience-fodder.

But the lesser-known version is the better one: this 1940 British film starred Anton Walbrook, made immortal by his role as the impresario in that sine qua non Michael Powell masterpiece The Red Shoes.

The 1940 Gaslight is darker, filled with shadows, eerie. And it provides the one ingredient that the Bergman version does not: you really believe that the heroine is going insane. You want to believe it because in that belief lies certainty, comfort, a shutting-off of thinking, striving. It is a replication of the womb-state and it feels like home.

The Conservatives have been gaslighting us about Brexit for a while now. Brexit’s ‘daddy’, as shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry labelled Boris Johnson in a brilliantly raucous address at the Labour Party Conference, tries his best to confuse and obfuscate. But the clock is ticking.

The big issue is the one that Liam Fox, Trade Secretary, is meant to be sorting out. Tariff rate quotas are a nightmare, immensely complex and convoluted. This is the definition from Wikipedia: ‘A tariff-rate quota (TRQ) is a trade policy tool used to protect a domestically-produced commodity or product from competitive imports. A TRQ combines two policy instruments that nations historically have used to restrict imports: quotas and tariffs. In a TRQ, the quota component works together with a specified tariff level to provide the desired degree of import protection. Essentially, a TRQ is a two-tiered tariff. The first Q imports entering within the quota portion of a TRQ are usually subject to a lower tariff rate called the Inside tariff quota rate or ITQR. Imports above the quota’s quantitative threshold (Q) face a much higher (usually prohibitive) Outside tariff quota rate or OTQR. The Q units are called the quota volume, and this volume serves as the cut off between the ITQR and the OTQR.’ etc. etc.

See what I mean?

Tariff quotas also require precise calculations for every commodity. This is the basis of the deal with the EU, the deal that Fox assured us all would be ‘one of the easiest in human history’.

To say that this should have been done and dusted before Article 50 was invoked is an understatement. We can only hope that the civil servants, the so-called ‘sherpas’, have this well in hand. Or it will be the mother of all Hard Brexits.

But the Tories and their enablers in the press and surrogates who talk on air will have us believe that all is well. Gaslight. And not just them.

At the Labour Conference, the party has faced criticism from many of its own members for avoiding a vote on the UK’s membership of the Single Market.

To head off the row, the party’s ruling body published a one-and-a-half page statement, light on specifics, outlining its Brexit policy, which the conference voted to back. It said: ‘Labour is clear that we need tariff- and impediment-free trading relationship with the EU. Labour’s priority is an outcome that puts jobs, living standards and the economy first. The precise institutional form of the new trading and customs relationship needs to be determined by negotiation. Labour will not support any future arrangements that see the introduction of a hard border or which restricts free movement between Ireland and the UK.’

Put aside the fact that the UK is the supplicant – ie, the party asking for a deal – Labour’s position is constructed in order to lead voters into its realm of ‘magical thinking’. Jean-Claude Juncker has said repeatedly that the ‘EU will not run on parallel lines’. Yet Labour in government will somehow change this. As with the Tories, the gaslight is flickering

I’ve asked friends, Labour activists, why the party cannot be a bit clearer on the subject of Brexit. Their various replies run along the lines of: ‘We don’t want to do the Tories’ work. We want to watch them split. The people pushing for a vote are part of the coup against Jeremy’ and so on… This is meant to provide what Henry Kissinger called ‘constructive ambiguity.’

This an attempt to make the electorate believe that there are no splits in the Labour Party, that there is no contention around Brexit and what to do; that there is unanimity.

As they say where I come from: ‘Everybody is sitting around the camp fire, holding hands and singing that lullaby, Kumbaya.’

It has always been bewildering to me as to why the Labour press team/public relations office cannot manage the press. After all, this is what they are there to do.

Everyone knows that the mainstream press is right-leaning to right-wing and inherently anti-Labour. Labour-hatred is in the DNA. Ground Zero for anyone working in the press shop should be a strategy to take this on. Instead the party treats some press people like something to be held away from itself with tongs, the undesirables wiggling on the end. I vote Labour. That is why all of this matters to me.

Gaslighting on the left serves the same purpose as gaslighting on the right: to keep you out of the way and keep you quiet. Labour should, for this new incarnation, adopt plain-speaking.

This is not the same as speaking plainly. Plain-speaking risks push-back, dissent, disagreement, change.

At the relatively quick Brexit debate, at which a vote was not taken – a vote that might have shown us the will of the membership – plain-speaking was the young person who said: ‘You’ve voted away the massive opportunities that the Erasmus Programme. You’ve voted away the chance for young people to work and live in 27 other counties.’

Clarity was Thomas Haines, who identified himself as ‘Stroud CLP, 18 years old’, and said :’People my age like living in different places. We like working in different places. I believe that Labour is the best thing for this country. And I believe that staying in the EU is the best thing.’

These young people, the party’s future – the future of this country – blew the gaslight out.

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