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MICHAEL WHITE: Farage unites Leave voters while Remainers are still split

Charge of the right brigade, Martin Rowson for the The New European - Credit: Archant

The week which saw Nigel Farage unite Leave voters while the Remain vote stayed split.

On our Easter journey to Cornwall for the annual family gathering in St Ives we stopped for coffee with Rachel, our teacher friend in Somerset. Hardly a prude in raising her own kids and highly-experienced in dealing with other people’s, she let rip at the perils of unrestricted internet access on young minds.

‘They see so much sex and violence it desensitises them,’ she protested. ‘Parental guidance is only guidance, Miss,’ her charges say when they tell her what they’ve been watching.

That’s the point, isn’t it? Video games like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto V, online gambling in all sorts of addictive guises, TV triumphs like Game of Thrones, whose graphic sex scenes and gratuitous violence (not to mention all that effing and blinding) would not have been allowed 20 years ago, they are all now so normalised that we barely notice how far and fast society’s acceptable boundaries have moved. Everything is coarsened by it, adults as well as the kids.

So too with politics, I thought, as Rachel talked in her back garden. Can you imagine Conservative party activists tolerating the kind of abuse routinely directed at Theresa May, their party leader and prime minister, being hurled at Ted Heath or Margaret Thatcher? Yes, I hear you roar back. Heath was loathed on the Europhobic fringe and Thatcher by much of non-Tory society which blamed her for even more than she deserved. The Creggan sniper who shot Lyra McKee last weekend is the spiritual grandson of the IRA men who tried to murder the former prime minister in Brighton.

But the scale and intensity of the fear and loathing is far worse now, the speed of transmission unimaginably faster via social media. It is much more mainstream, more polarised and more intolerant. MPs who are paid to know better use words like ‘traitor’ and ‘betrayal’ against colleagues with whom they merely have political disagreements.

Nice-but-daft Bill Cash was banging on about ‘appeasement’ in Monday’s Telegraph (pro-appeasement itself in the 1930s), prompting Remain Tory Nicky Morgan to ask aloud if Cash’s language doesn’t contribute to the death threats she and others endure. Of course it does.

Inevitably it is our June State Visitor, Donald Trump, who has turned such abuse into Twitter art form. Not content with campaigning and conducting diplomacy by 280-character soundbite, he barges into anything that catches his attention – ‘fake’ climate change warnings or how best to fight the Notre Dame fire – and normalises a level of aggressive ignorance. So the most shocking thing about Robert Mueller’s fastidious report on the Russian hacking affair is that it wasn’t deemed shocking enough to finish him. It was hardly the vindication Trump claims. The president was saved by staff ignoring his illegal orders. ‘The US constitution prevailed,’ say smug commentators. Not really, because acceptable norms have been further degraded. It is not a comforting thought as faltering America confronts the rising power of China.

Nearer home, similar signs of constitutional Death Watch Beetle are visibly at work on our own affairs. The first session of the 2017 parliament was stretched to two years for the government’s convenience. Now we hear low-level discussion of how a new Queen’s Speech can be avoided when ministers have virtually no legislative programme to offer voters except their stalled Brexit. Or how they can manipulate this centuries-old tradition to try again with Meaningful Vote Four on the May deal.

Ten days before May 2’s important local elections 40% of Tory (in)activists – average age 72 – told pollsters they intended to vote for Born-Again Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. Are the 40% in their dotage? Or is their zeal for a supposedly pure Brexit such that they would prefer to facilitate prime minister Corbyn’s impure version rather than embrace some form of Tory compromise? Do these comfortably-off oldies really yearn for John McDonnell pointlessly to ravish their savings?

The Commons returned to Westminster on Tuesday after an 11-day Easter break, but not after any kind of breakthrough that press or politicians could immediately detect. Desultory talks with Labour in search of a soft Brexit formula were put on hold until then, hopes of a deal fading as both sides manoeuvre to avoid blame.

Clutching Brussels’ latest act of largesse, her Halloween Brexit deadline of October 31, May went to ground, to church and constituency chores. Her tormentors went on the warpath in search of two illusions: a pure Brexit and a new leader (one with ‘extraordinary charm and nimble feet’ as the prisons minister, Rory Stewart, sarcastically puts it) who can painlessly deliver that nirvana – and them.

With ‘senior’ MPs like Nigel Evans, tawdry and self-important, to the fore, some dreamed up fresh plots to remove May in June by changing the party leadership rules they themselves had ineptly misused last December. If that wasn’t disreputable enough, local activists threatened a symbolic ‘no confidence’ vote rather than campaign to stave off the predicted 500-1,000 council seat losses on May 2. Others were reported to be staging discreet talks with the Brexit party, whose European election campaign was skilfully launched by Born-Again Nigel in tandem with Jacob Rees-Mogg’s breakaway sister, Annunziata, ‘Nancy Mogg’ as David Cameron once reportedly urged her to become.

As Private Eye’s tribute cover noted, Nigel and Nancy made an improbably comic ‘Power to the People’ couple. You couldn’t make it up. You don’t have to. It happened. Farage has always been susceptible to what he thinks of as a bit of posh. Easy to mock, PG Wodehouse would have loved it. But is that wise? How many times have thoughtful Remainers urged each other to forswear the comforting perils of condescension towards Farage and – much more important – towards his passionately sincere supporters? Narrowly but instantly ahead of Labour and well ahead of May’s Tories in early polls, Brand Nigel looked pretty slick compared with Gerard Batten’s launch of tarnished UKIP’s Euro-campaign.

Shock tactics being UKIP’s desperate strategic gambit, Batten produced a couple of unsavoury eccentrics, still on the candidates list despite their sexual and canine Nazi nastiness. UKIP duly plunged in the polls. It is Farage’s talent that he brings a squirt of saloon bar aftershave to his ‘No More Mr Nice Guy’ routine. It bolsters his dubious claims to have kept hardcore types at bay during his UKIP phase. He didn’t and he doesn’t. He is a facilitator for whatever comes next, after voters finally realise that Farage-ism is no more than a collection of empty but well-delivered slogans, its leader the Philip Green of retail politics: getting out with his stake just before the old firm collapses. Farage has normalised the vocabulary of ‘betrayal’ and ‘traitor’ much as right-on leftie TV producers have normalised the F-word on BBC1, if not so far on CBeebies.

As Tory HQ is re-learning to its horror, the Farage brand is also strong enough to overcome his chaotic approach to organisation and policy that helped collapse UKIP’s Strasbourg contingent from 24 in 2014 to just three today. Farage may be toxic to millions of voters outside his 20% core, but like a Game of Thrones army of the dead the core marches on. Grim stuff, but genius compared with the failure of assorted Remain factions to get their rival act together.

Corbyn Labour is still trying to play the Brexit card for the benefit of voters (not all Labour) in key northern seats while presenting its best Remain smile in the south. So much for principle, but it won’t work as realpolitik tactics either. Tom Watson’s plea in the Observer for an unambiguous endorsement of a second referendum seems to have stimulated Farage (memo to self: ‘I must target Labour’s Brexit vote’) more than it has Corbyn. Keir Starmer apparently wants to make a ‘confirmatory vote’ part of any deal with May. But surely May’s loyalist Tories can’t pay that price.

As for the rest, Libs Dems, Greens, Change UK (formerly the Tiggers), SNP, this column expressed the wistful hope before Easter that the pro-Brexit vote might be the one to splinter, torn between loyal tribal Tories and UKIP Mark I and Farage’s Mark 2. Not looking that way yet, is it? But my pious wish that Remainers might devise a united platform – shared candidates even – doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere fast either.

If the country is polarised and the Brexit vote coalesces behind Farage with Tory complicity (what Bill Cash would call ‘appeasement’ and ‘collaboration’ in other circumstances) then the onus is on Remain to splice together its own alliance. After all, the evidence tells us that Brexit is an issue which transcends party loyalty. London journalists like Gavin Esler and The New European’s Rachel Johnson on Change UK’s candidates list are not a sufficient response.

In the Times Francis Elliott reports that People’s Vote (PV) chiefs are aware they need to broaden their appeal beyond the London-centric south and to get beyond the hyper-rational economic arguments by appealing to emotion. That’s consistent with the complaints I hear from political friends who have done business with them. ‘Take Back Control’ was cynical but effective in 2016 and ‘Tell Them Again’ threatens to make a similar impact in the European elections on May 23 and in any referendum which unexpectedly materialises between now and Halloween. Elliott reports that PV is toying with ‘Now We Know’, to entice pro-Leave moderates who can see the opportunity costs of Brexit piling up as other problems are neglected. A work in progress, I’d say.

In any case, Remain needs to address the core emotive issues which delivered Brexit, of which immigration and sovereignty – both legislative and in terms of those independent trade deals – are still the most salient, despite thunderous warnings that much of it is fantasy. If you ruin the Good Friday Agreement at the Irish border, you can expect no trade deal with us, Nancy Pelosi tweeted last week. I hate to say this, Nigel, but the speaker of the US House of Representatives – at 79 she routinely gets the better of your friend, Don – is a more important Nancy than Nancy Mogg. Surely Remainers should be using their vestigial influence in Brussels (‘collaborating with the enemy’ in Bill Cash talk) to persuade the EU27 to accept that these problems will eventually have to be addressed whether the Brits leave or don’t. The challenge of south-to-north migration can’t be ducked.

Another painful measure of the yawning economic and cultural divide in Britain and elsewhere came to our screens over Easter when Extinction Rebellion’s foot soldiers disrupted central London and (much less so) other cities to advance the imperative of climate change reduction. Is shutting down public transport an appropriate tactic or merely annoying? Will more unaligned voters be persuaded to join the cause or itch to man the water cannon?

Is Emma Thompson’s presence (after an un-green flight from LA) a joy or a provocation? Should she leave the publicity to Greta Thunberg, the precociously earnest teenage Swede? Or does that infantalise public debate, like electing an actor to be Ukraine’s next real-life president? Should the police have danced less and arrested more – or vice versa?

Our answers tell us which side we are instinctively on. But evident sincerity about the transcendent issue of our time (we have saintly David Attenborough’s word for it) is not enough. Brexit zealots are sincere too, even Nigel Farage probably half-believes in his nice little earner. We need ways of thinking and language that bring us back together, ways less drastic than the fire that nearly destroyed France’s greatest Gothic monument and briefly united left and right, the secular and the faithful, in Macron’s fragile republic. That requires leadership and imagination, both in short supply.

It’s worse than that because powerful forces are at work that seek to divide us, forces that become bolder and more powerful with every passing day when they go unchallenged. Books are published every week about the need to bring the tech titans of Silicon Valley and their aspiring imitators to task, accountable for their often-wickedly dangerous content – porn and gambling as much as fake news and hate – and taxable for the vast profits they accrue from harvesting our individual views on everything – from Tesco to Man City, from Greta Thunberg to Nancy Mogg – and selling it on. It’s very real and hard to spot, let alone to quantify its vast scale.

And it impacts on all we discuss in TNE each week because the playing field is not level, the two sides are playing on different pitches to different rules or, rather, a lack of them. Forgive me for mentioning Carole Cadwalladr again (I don’t know her personally) because she’s only one voice among many, not a professor or tech renegade, but a feature writer on the Observer who has become something of a symbol. She stumbled upon a life-changing discovery after going home to South Wales to find out why the old coal-and-steel town of Ebbw Vale (now green and shiny) had voted 62% for Brexit when it has strikingly few of those immigrants local voters talked about, but plenty of EU Objective One funding for poorer regions.

The way she told it at the lecture (you can find it online) she bravely gave the other day, in the presence of what she called ‘the Gods of Silicon Valley’ at the annual TED conference in Vancouver, was that an Ebbw Vale woman got in touch with her after the Observer published her puzzled article.

The woman explained about the Facebook posts she’d seen before the referendum, telling her about millions of Turks flooding into Britain (courtesy of that nice Mr Farage’s Leave.EU campaign, you may recall). Oh really? When Cadwalladr went to hunt for these personally targeted ads she found they weren’t there any more. There is no archive. Only Facebook knows exactly what it gave a platform to – 
and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg isn’t telling.

Cadwalladr called this ‘the biggest electoral fraud in Britain for 100 years’, since caps were put on election spending and bribing voters made illegal. It’s what put her on the trail of Cambridge Analytica, the shadowy, now defunct data farmer supported by US billionaire, Robert Mercer. Brexit, she told TED, was the experimental petri dish for Trump, the canary in the coalmine where techniques were honed to spread hate and fear. ‘Silicon Valley is a crime scene,’ its tech titans accessories to the crime of subverting our democracy.

The writer got a lot of applause in the hall, but angry feedback from the titans’ PR teams who promised factual rebuttal – but failed to deliver it. Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, who deigned to be interviewed on stage the next day, proved to be chillingly free of emotion or responsiveness, Cadwalladr reports.

To its credit Theresa May’s embattled government has outlined faltering steps to regulate the titans which the Observer’s own tech pundit, Professor John Naughton, deems a modest step in the right direction which others might usefully follow.

The EU is also moving. There’s no time to waste since Naughton routinely audits violent websites which lure vulnerable people into what he calls ‘a vortex of conspiracy theories’ in which we are all victims and a few of us take violent responsive action – most recently in Sri Lanka, in Christchurch and too many other places. I am mightily relieved that the Notre Dame fire has not yet been blamed on the usual suspects, though it may just be that I read the wrong websites.

This is what we’re up against. This month one of the Sunday magazines interviewed an SAS type-turned-TV-celeb, who insists he doesn’t have post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He voted Remain but now says a no-deal Brexit would toughen us all up and restore lost community values. ‘What is the point of the House of Commons? What is the point of democracy? Why don’t we go back to dictatorship?’ Simple solutions to complex problems. He sounds more like Gerard Batten material than Nigel n’ Nancy’s cup of gin. But we live in strange times.

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