Nothing Beyond Their Slogans

Brexiteers, Corbynistas and Trump supporters share one thing: no coherent policies

Nick Cohen

When a traditional opposition prepares for power it expects media scrutiny. As a government in waiting, it will have scrutinised itself, argued about its plans in private meetings and party conferences, and taken submissions from sympathisers. Questions from the media are the next stage of the process. At times, they may be welcome: a sign that journalists are taking their chances of winning seriously.

Everyone shouts about alleged political bias, but the dominant media bias is so obvious it is almost invisible. It is the bias towards power. Governments receive more scrutiny than oppositions. Leaders of a party receive more scrutiny than backbenchers. An opposition that looks like winning receives more than an opposition that is going nowhere When St Mark said “for he that hath, to him shall be given,” he might have been talking about politics. Media coverage is close to being a game of winner-takes-all.

The charge levelled by the far Left and Right that established opposition politicians are part of “the system” is true in a limited sense. American conservatives are now denounced by extremists as “Republicans in name only”; British social democrats are told in their turn by the far Left that they are “red Tories”. Both are damned for playing the game or yearning to play it. They think they know how to use the system and change societies while abiding by its rules. Their institutional quality is captured best by the archaic British titles “the official opposition” or, and more embarrassingly, “Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition”.

Despite the cringing forms of address, opposition politicians are not necessarily lackeys. If Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush had replaced Barack Obama either would be more effective from a traditional right-wing point of view than Donald Trump. Virtually any Labour MP you can name would do a better job of hurting the Conservative party than the current far-left leadership. If you navigate the modern world with old ideas of Left and Right you are bound to get lost. The Brexit movement that is now driving Britain, the Corbyn Labour party and Trump presidency are not more right-wing or left-wing than their competitors. The best way to understand them is to stop thinking of them as political movements at all. They are cultural movements that never prepared for power because they never thought they could win. As such, their leaders are closer to satirists than politicians. They have scathing critiques of the status quo but no coherent programme to change it beyond blustering slogans. Inevitably, they could not tolerate the media scrutiny that followed their victories because even they did not believe they could win.

You can argue as much as you like about the lies told about the EU by its British opponents. But whether they told the truth about straight bananas or not, the fact remains that they convinced millions to live in a mental universe where Europe was a successor state to the USSR. As a satire of Brussels it was as effective as the Left’s satire of “late capitalism”. But just as the Left could not give an account of what would replace late capitalism (for if it is truly “late” its days are numbered and plans for a replacement should be well under way) so UKIP and the Tory Right had no plans for taking Britain out of the EU.

Nothing showed their shock at winning the referendum better than their complaint the next morning that the civil service ought to have a strategy for taking Britain out of the EU because they most assuredly did not. As the civil service would undoubtedly have said “it’s too risky and complicated, so our strategy is stay,” their hectoring demands revealed only their naivety. To this day they remain the sorest winners I have seen. They dedicate their energies to attacking their opponents rather than producing anything resembling a realistic account of Britain future. The periodic eruptions from the Right about the BBC abandoning the strict balance of the referendum campaign show it does not understand the responsibilities of power. Journalists who are not right-wing propagandists will inevitably ask harder questions of supporters of leaving the EU than supporters of staying in the EU because — and I am sorry if this is too deep for you — supporters of leaving the EU won and are taking us out of the EU.

For the same reason, journalists who are not left-wing propagandists will ask hard questions of Jeremy Corbyn for reasons which ought to be clear but somehow are not. The other day a television reporter made the point to Corbyn that, if he truly wanted to fight the Conservatives, he would step aside and allow someone better qualified to lead the opposition. Corbyn erupted. “It’s your responsibility to make sure the opposition voice is heard as well as the government’s voice,” he cried. “It’s your failings.” It really isn’t. Politicians have a responsibility to convince the public. When they fail as abysmally and humiliatingly as the far Left has failed, they blame the media to avoid accountability for their own mistakes.

Corbyn’s reaction showed that the far Left is as much of a satirical movement as the Brexit Right. You only had to have listened to the Corbyn-supporting comedians to know how good they were at attacking the status quo and how few ideas they had to replace it. To Corbyn’s mind, journalists who refuse to do his job for him are revealing their own corruption and prejudice. I will not go on about Donald Trump — too much has been written about him already. Let us just say that he is not a president who believes freedom of the press is an essential liberty.

The bias towards power can blind journalists. It makes them focus on the status quo, when the one safe prediction you can make about a status quo is that it will not last. American reporters were dismissing the idea that Trump could win until the moment of his victory. British journalists failed to examine the strange mixture of third-worldism and identity politics on the liberal Left because they never thought its obsessions could matter.

Now they must unlearn everything they thought they knew. The financial crisis and the great waves of migration have propelled radicals to power who were wholly unprepared for it. For all their apparent differences, they have one feature in common: they regard the normal questioning of a democratic society as an intolerable affront.

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