Generally Speaking

The Tale of Truth and Lie

– and the Other Pandemic

There is a well-known saying about falsehood, credited variously to Mark Twain, Winston Churchill and others, which goes something along the lines of a lie going half way round the world before truth gets its boots on. The following rather delightful version was published in an 18th century book of sermons by the English polymath Thomas Francklin:

Falfehood will fly, as it were, on the wings of the wind, and carry its tales to every corner of the earth ; whilft truth lags behind ; her fteps, though fure, are flow and folemn, and fhe has neither vigour nor activity enough to purfue and overtake her enemy.

1787, Sermons on Various Subjects, and Preached on Several Occasions by Thomas Francklin. (Google Books Full View)

Truth has neither vigour nor activity enough to pursue and overtake her enemy.’

Now isn’t that the truth. Thomas Francklin had no inkling that it would one day be possible for ideas, true or false, to spread to, quite literally, ‘all corners of the earth’, or that they wouldn’t need wings, winds, steps, or even time, to do so. But of course he didn’t mean his words to be taken literally—he was saying something about human nature which is just as valid today as it was two centuries ago, which had its origins in primitive society. And which, at this moment in time, is at the root of one of the greatest threats that humanity has to face – a virtual pandemic of false information.

I will start by considering two ideas—two messages—two tales to use Francklin’s word. I’ll call one Truth and the other Lie. And I’ll consider them as viruses competing for dominance in the ‘culture medium’ of modern, hyper-connected society—on the analogy of the Covid virus spreading throughout the hyper-connected world of international travel. (If you picture the charts you sometimes see of air routes and data highways linking all the countries of the world—both of them looking like nerve tracts in some giant brain—the analogy is obvious)

Truth

At first sight Truth seems to have all the advantages in this contest—it is Truth, after all!—the ‘Sword of Truth’, cutting through Falsehood and gleaming with Righteousness. It is Logical, it makes Sense.

It is backed by all the experts—or OK, most of the experts!—Oh, for heaven’s sake—all but three out of every hundred experts, and even they have hardly a single respected scientific paper between them!—Oh, give it a rest!

Truth is based on Evidence and it can be Tested and Verified. Truth, my children, is Sacred. You just have to accept it. Or as I remember my headmaster James (later Sir James) Cobban putting it in his final reply to an uppity 6th Former, ‘I am right and you are wrong’.

But then again Truth is Dull. It is flat, objective, and unemotional. What’s worse, it makes a Virtue of being like that. Which is sickening,

And Truth is Complicated. As Oscar Wilde pointed out, ‘Truth is never pure and rarely simple’. And it is often Difficult. One of the things we learn at school is that science (formalised Truth) is inaccessible to all but a few nerds. You only have to see the scientific illiteracy of contestants on TV quiz shows relative to their knowledge of celebrity culture or even the arts.

Which makes it another big snag that Truth cannot be Certain (except perhaps in limited areas like mathematics). But that’s what Science insists on telling us—scientific truth can only ever be provisional (even though it is the best explanation so far achieved for reconciling a host of reliable observations by generations of painstaking observers—but that’s complicated too, Oh dear!)

And Science can have an infuriatingly smug certainty that cries out for challenge by any self-respecting, red-blooded person. And some of the implications of its discoveries about reality are too deeply uncomfortable and disturbing for many rational and well-meaning people to accept—for example the many worlds hypothesis in cosmology, or the conclusion, which is insisted upon (with a vehemence which is surely unscientific) by what we might call scientific fundamentalists, that life—and for that matter the whole universe—is ultimately purposeless.

On top of all that ‘truth hurts’.

Charles Barsotti, 1933-2014, The New Yorker

Indeed, Truth can be frightening. Especially when it comes to climate change. Or , as Al Gore put it gently in the title of his classic book: the truth about the climate crisis is ‘Inconvenient’. So anyone who helps us to doubt this kind of truth is going to be popular.

And Truth is Constrained; it is held, most of all by itself, to a higher standard than Lie. Just as it takes a spotless car to show a spot, one proven lie can utterly destroy that precious thing, Reputation. While the thirty thousand and first untruth from a well-known liar is just part of his expected style, a single ‘spot’ on a proudly honest man can cast doubt on the truth of everything else he says.

Which brings me finally to that tedious thing, Morality, and the further constraint on Truth that it has to obey the Rules of civilised behaviour.

Lie

So what about message ‘Lie’?

Let’s face it – Lie’s got all sorts of advantages in the race for viral spread. Thomas Francklin was talking about the ease with which false information could propagate in the ‘culture medium’ which existed in 18th century England. In those days it could only spread by human contact, or through letters and/or printed materials among the literate (who were about 90% of Londoners and a smaller proportion elsewhere.) But, even so, Francklin saw there was a serious problem with virus Lie that he needed to warn about.

In the ‘culture medium’ of today’s hyper-linked world, where the spread of untruths is unconstrained by distance or even time, the inherent advantages of Lie are vastly amplified. Our minds—evolved for survival in the world of first-hand experience—have little instinctive grasp of the sheer scale of what is happening in this new, unnatural environment, and modern society has hardly begun to appreciate the threat, still less to erect defences against it.

For starters, instead of having to justify itself through cool, logical explanations aimed at the head, Lie can go straight for the gut and evoke the power of Emotion.

By evoke I mean awaken, or bring out something deeply buried—some instinct, passion, feeling, prejudice. Especially, it can bring out the ancient, tribal hatred of anything perceived as other. Truth thinks the modern world has moved on from this sort of primitive stuff, but Lie knows perfectly well that it hasn’t and plays that card for all it’s worth. Which can be devastating, and we forget that at our peril.

For example, Prime Minister David Cameron, in calling his 2016 Brexit referendum, assumed that the majority of voters would be guided by their heads (Informed and expert opinion then being overwhelmingly in favour of the UK remaining in the EU, as indeed it still is). Otherwise he would never have taken such a risk with the country’s future. But he fatally underestimated the power of Emotion—and the way hot nationalism and xenophobia can trump cool reason. And the rest of that, along with Britain’s international standing, is history.

The next advantage that Lie enjoys is not being constrained by quaint, old-fashioned things like Duty, Morality, Conscience, Guilt and Apology.

So Lie can be any message at all which presses the buttons of instant attention. And we know what those are well enough: Novelty, (‘The news’ – ‘Tonight’s main story’), Sensation, Horror (‘Man Bites Dog!’), Something Unexpected, Celebrity, Lust, Outrage, Pictures of Babies/Boobs/Atrocities, Stories of Little Davids besting Goliath Authority (Horatio at the Gate, Passport to Pimlico, Whiskey Galore).

Tuned to press one or more of these buttons, and dressed up in multi-media finery, Lie can launch itself into cyberspace and stand a chance of ‘going viral’ – finding itself passing on and multiplying like a nuclear chain reaction (think A-Bomb), regardless of time and distance, at the mere mouse-clicks of countless intermediaries—some malicious, some genuinely believing the message, some just having fun—anonymously and without personal consequences of any kind.

So we find ourselves in the midst of this pandemic of false information, hate mail and vicious and desperately-hurtful social media attacks on the finest of people—particularly on the finest of people. Dr Rachel Clarke, who writes heart-breakingly of caring for patients dying of Covid-19, is one current example. But the brave scientists who warned so many decades ago about the looming climate emergency experienced similar attacks, much of it seeded by professional deniers who creating doubt about the truth until it became almost too late to respond.

Another factor in the new situation is the distorting power of the artificially-mediated view. This is a subject I first wrote about in my book the Paradox of Progress. I had learned from my experience in general practice to glimpse, no more, the hidden/automatic power of our minds to focus on one tiny object of attention to the exclusion of the total experience hidden in our subconscious which is enormously larger than we can ever realise. In plain words, we get things out of proportion. But in the hyper-linked experience of the online world, even this selectivity of our perception has been immeasurably amplified. So that some spiteful and hate-filled obscenity typed by a lonely weirdo looms and utterly dominates the teeming multitude of decent people who are out there, entirely hidden from view.

But there is still one more factor in the spread of false information which is even more recent—it is the deliberate micro-targeting of individual people with emotive messages tuned to their personalities.

There is a sequence in the Channel 4 docudrama Brexit—The Uncivil War in which we saw Dominic Cummings, Director of the Vote Leave campaign, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch, visibly reeling as the potential of this technology is revealed to him. In a secretive meeting on a park bench he is depicted being offered illicit access to Facebook’s vast archive of personal profiles, including astonishingly-detailed insights into their individual susceptibilities.

The story is documented elsewhere, as is the fact that the agency offering the ‘service’ was financially underpinned by a rich American as a trial run for its application during Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential campaign. But I have seen little evidence that many people, or indeed many politicians, have fully understood this potential of social media, when used by unscrupulous people to bypass long-established checks on the dissemination of extreme ideas and inflammatory lies, and target them, completely ‘under the radar’, with terrifying precision, directly into the minds of people chosen for their susceptibility to those particular messages.

The possibility that this was a decisive factor in 2016 is regularly discounted by commentators. But in that case it must be a coincidence that its arrival as a viable technique coincided exactly with two ‘earthquake’ election results which confounded virtually all informed expectations. Even Boris Johnson, it seems pretty clear, never expected to win the Brexit vote, or even saw it as part of his plan.

The Outrageous Leader

To return, one last time, to Thomas Francklin and his 18th Century warning. And to the significance of the fact that he preached it in a sermon. Because it was all about Morality—fighting the good fight against the Evil of Falsehood. Because the ultimate enemy of Falsehood is Truth.

We have explored the vulnerability of Truth in the modern world, but yet again, something utterly new has happened recently:

Consider this weird item in the reporting of Joe Biden’s inauguration. Something said to a New York Times reporter by a man who was waiting to cheer Donald Trump’s arrival in West Palm Beach, fresh from ducking out of the ceremony going on in Washington:

“He gave us freedom,” said Valéry Barto of West Palm Beach, who sported a Make America Great Again hat and waited nearly three hours before Mr. Trump rolled by. “He was for us. Now it’s going to be all messed up.”

Patricia Mazzei and Julia Echikson New York Times 21 Jan 2021

What possible ‘freedom’ could Mr Barto have been talking about?—which he thought explained why he loved Donald Trump with such passion and devotion. Along with ‘us’—that astonishingly—indeed terrifyingly—large proportion of American people?

In my two previous posts since last November’s election I have developed the idea that Trump’s unique appeal was to challenge all aspects of established Authority, for example what he called ‘The Washington Swamp’ and, of course, the liberal press. But crucially, and this was my insight, he also challenged the authority of Truth and Reason of itself. As though it was some looming ‘other’, imposing rules and restrictions on their God-given freedom to think and do what they liked. That, I believe, is the deep reason they loved him so uncritically, and why they continue to do so—because his rhetoric didn’t merely fly in the face of reason—he rejected Reason altogether. He told them that Truth did not exist.

It is notorious that anything Trump didn’t like he labelled ‘Fake News!’—in what seems a gloriously-ironical coinage from the teller of more ‘false or misleading claims’ than almost anyone else in history.

And his response to the Washington Post’s fact-checking (above) was simplicity itself—he just dismissed it as more fake news—giving his followers another target for their outrage into the bargain.

His special counselor Kellyanne Conway joined in the fun in that famous Meet the Press session on January 22, 2017, describing White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s manifestly-false claims about the size of his inauguration crowd as ‘Alternative Facts’.

Once he had given his followers permission to escape the constraints of this tyrant Rationality, the sky was the limit. Conspiracy theories, climate change denial, vaccination rejection, paranoid ideas about distant or alien groups, authorities – ‘Brussels’ for the Europhobe, ‘Washington’ for the frontiersman – ‘others‘. Logical argument bounced off followers like water off the oiliest of ducks. Rationality, they hymned, was ‘just another theory’.

And so it went on, Trump found he could say absolutely anything at all, however outrageous—climate change was a hoax—Covid would just disappear ‘like magic’—and the starkest of evidence to the contrary made not the slightest difference to the faithful.

And so to the end, when he simply refused to acknowledge the evidence that he had lost the 2020 election, let alone heavily, and went on repeating, over and oven again, in strident tones and without evidence, that the election had been ‘stolen’. Even after his pathetic rump of lawyers made fools of themselves and the claim had been thrown out by every level of the judiciary throughout the land.

And even then a large proportion of Americans continued to believe his word against all the evidence, and the most devoted among them massed in Washington waving ‘Stop the Steal’ banners. They continued to believe after he whipped up an armed mob which then invaded the Capitol to try to prevent the formal recognition of Biden’s victory, and they did so even after lawmakers of both parties had cowered in the Chamber of the House in all-too-justified fear for their lives.

But even after all this his followers continue to take his word for it that the election was stolen, and a large number of Republican lawmakers persist in challenging the validity of the result. And still a crowd in West Palm Beach cheered him for giving them their ‘freedom’.

Nor is this just an American phenomenon, a similar downgrading of truth has infected public life in England. In his new book, The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism, Peter Oborne says “I have been a political reporter for almost three decades, and I have never encountered a senior British politician who lies and fabricates so regularly, so shamelessly and so systematically as Boris Johnson.”

Once again, the significant thing for me is how little Johnson’s supporters seem to mind. As William Davies comments in his review of Oborne’s book, “In a sane world this would be a political obituary”. He continues, “The question is why [this catalogue of proven lies]—and books such as this—do [Johnson] so little harm.” And his explanation is like the beginning of my own: “[in the contemporary world] where our honesty and character are constantly being tracked by managers, credit-raters, customers and one another, there is a certain relief in the spectacle of the outrageous leader who seems immune. ”

OK, Johnson and Trump are ‘outrageous leaders’, and huge numbers of people love them for it. I suggest it is because they have released their followers from long subjugation to Tyrant Truth.

Immunisation

Pulling these threads together, it is clear that something in the modern world has unleashed a terrible anarchy. It is one of the greatest threats to democracy, to civilisation, and even to humanity itself. But social distancing isn’t going to work this time.

Currently there is a wave of wild disinformation threatening to hamper the anti-Covid vaccination effort. In an attempt to raise herd immunity to this virus, Cambridge University has released a free computer game Go-Viral which tutors you in the tricks commonly used to make lies spread. They have evidence that seeing it from the inside like this increases people’s real-life resistance to misinformation, making them less likely to pass it on, and so breaking the cycle. Give it a try—I learned a lot.

Another sign that the fightback has begun is the main op-ed in today’s Guardian (9th Feb), by Timothy Garton Ash, What are facts? What is fake news? A new battle is coming. He emphasises the vital role of the independent press and responsible public service broadcasting.

The BBC itself has tended to fail in this solemn duty through seeing its news service in terms of entertainment. Controversy is another trigger button for viral spread, which I omitted from my list above, and BBC producers love it. For years they kept the aging fossil-fuel lobbyist (and ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer) Nigel Lawson on hand to ‘balance’ any new call for action by an eminent climate scientist who had spent a whole career in the field, and to undermine the urgent message with blatantly untrue claims. I remember hearing one such programme when they actually gave Lawson the last word. No wonder climate change denial is still rife today.

It will be evident from references in this post that I subscribe to two independent newspapers, the Guardian and the New York Times. Both are free of political or billionaire sponsorship and they depend entirely on voluntary support from ordinary people. I see it as a public duty to do my bit, and I hope anyone reading this feels the same. The motto of the Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian, is ‘Comment is Free, Facts are Sacred’.

The ultimate enemy of Falsehood is Truth. The greatest lie of all is that Truth does not exist. And the greatest Truth of all is that Truth does exist, and that it can be known.

And that’s the truth.

Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” 1819

PS – It will be apparent to anyone who has read this far that this post has lacked any of the buttons which make for viral spread. Except perhaps Controversy, but we shall see. I rarely get more than a handful of readers for my posts, except for the two I’ve done since President Biden’s election. But I would dearly love to hear what people think of this one, so any comments would be really welcome. Please don’t be shy. I’ll try to write something lighter next time, with nice pictures. And jokes. But now I have everything else to get back to.

Why I am not ‘moving on’ from the Cummings affair

This is based on a letter I sent yesterday to my MP, who is a Conservative back-bencher and former Minister.

I cannot express how profoundly worried I am by the fact that Dominic Cummings is not only still in post, but still wielding extraordinary power in Westminster. I want to know what on earth this means. And I want to know what hold this deeply-sinister man had over the Prime Minister, the Attorney General, the Minister of Health, and even the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that led them to trash their moral authority, and in the case of the Attorney General her clear duty under the Separation of Powers, by making public statements on the record in defence of what was so obviously indefensible behaviour.

They tried to take us all for fools, but it did not work because we are not fools. The resulting loss of the government’s moral authority, and its abject failure to punish Cummings’ gross irresponsibility, has been the cause, not only of further national humiliation in the eyes of the world, but of an unknowable number, possibly in the tens of thousands, of coronavirus deaths which could otherwise have been avoided.

‘Move on, nothing to see here’

I know the Prime Minister wants us to ‘move on’. I know he has declared the Cummings affair ‘closed’. But that is the trouble with throwing away your moral authority – you lose the right to respect for such appeals. If it had been me that had behaved as Johnson and the others have behaved, I would in addition have lost the right to something even more precious, something beyond price, my self-respect.

But in my small life, and in the small lives of my father, and of my closest friends, that reputation for honour, for integrity, has not been thrown away. And nor has that self-respect. And that is why we do not ‘move on’. And that is why the Cummings affair is not ‘closed’.

It simply beggars belief that with our proud history of scientific, medical and governmental excellence, the UK’s, and specifically England’s, response to the coronavirus pandemic has been one of the worst, or even by some measures the worst, in the entire world.

Mr Johnson has shown himself incapable of the slightest shame or apology for his dreadful performance. But as an intensely patriotic citizen, I personally feel a deep sense of humiliation for my country. While Johnson obviously thinks apology is a sign of weakness, people worthy of admiration see it as a strength. This government has brought shame on us all and all I could say to my own MP, who had been Minister of Education under Mrs May but escaped reappointment by opposing Johnson, was to congratulate him on his good fortune in not being part of it. The current attempt to shift blame onto senior civil servants just underlines the sub-Trumpian rottenness of these third-rate people, whose only qualification for office was their unswerving commitment to the imbecile cause of Brexit.

Which brings me to my explanation for the extraordinary immunity of Cummings. There is only one issue which is sufficiently massive to explain the bizarre dominion of this ‘unelected bureaucrat’ (to use one of the Brexiters’ favourite phrases). Having been the Director of the Vote Leave campaign, he has chapter and verse on aspects of the 2016 referendum which render its result invalid and he has threatened to spill the beans if he is sacked. That would cut the ground from under the government’s sole uniting cause and place them in a wholly untenable position. Avoiding that is more important to them than anything else. Even the health of the nation and its international reputation.

The asymmetry of the Brexit debate

The trouble with what is now almost certainly the pro-EU majority in Britain is not that they are ‘moaners’. They don’t moan enough. Too many are ‘bored’ with the whole chaotic saga and have switched off. They don’t talk about it, and they dare not think about it. Still less do they try to influence the outcome.

It is not that those who wish to remain in Europe are undemocratic. Exactly the reverse, a great many believe, however despairingly, in the democratic legitimacy of the 2016 referendum. Otherwise the cries of protest would be overwhelming. That is why it is so important to point out, as I have been doing from the start, that the way the 2016 referendum was a conducted was a travesty of democracy. Read more…

Brexit: We are all more susceptible to persuasion than we like to think.

I was a young doctor. I had it in my power to help this guy. So I did.

He was a drug rep. Sitting opposite me in my consulting room. Half a century – most of a lifetime – ago. He had been waiting outside for much of my morning surgery, as reps used to in those days, hoping I would see him before I started on my paperwork and visits. As usual it had worked – me being too soft-hearted to say no and send away a fellow human being with a wasted morning.  ‘There but for the grace of God’, and so on… Read more…

Not the ‘will of the people’


48% or 52% of an apple?

To Damian Hinds, MP for E Hampshire and Secretary of State for Education

 9 April 2018

Dear Damian

You may remember that I never accepted the validity of the 2016 referendum. I gave my reasons in a letter to the (Alton) Herald immediately after the result and last November I added a further ten reasons in a blog post which I shared with you. Only one voice disagreed with me. This was on Twitter and when I asked the anonymous author to specify which parts of my piece they disagreed with, they said ‘all of it’, because I was a ‘remoaner’. At the other end of the intellectual spectrum the people who agreed with me included a professor at the Institute of Advanced Studies, Princeton, which is where Einstein and Gödel worked. I sent you his comment as well. Read more…

Further evidence that Brexit is going ahead on a false premise

This new report of massive alien (Russian) interference in the 2016 EU Referendum  has excited far less comment in Britain than reports of similar interference in American democracy have excited over there. ‘New analysis by 89up.org confirms the scale of Russian Media influence during Brexit vote dwarfed the main Vote Leave and Leave.EU campaigns, driving anti-EU propaganda, disinformation and fake news to influence voters’

This is yet another reason why the ‘Brexit’ vote cannot be said to represent the democratic ‘will of the people’ to add to those given in the post immediately below this one.


Meanwhile, among the many messages of agreement that I have received since that November post, I quote here a particularly powerful comment, quoting Edmund Burke, from a friend who happens to be a very distinguished American academic:


“I am so glad to see you pursuing the truth and logic of this lamentable situation. There is one overarching principle that is completely misconstrued by many members of parliament. It is so evident that you do not bother to state it (taking it as a tacit given). 

“Greek democracy involved the ability of a broad swath of citizens (not slaves or women) to directly vote on laws and regulations. This rapidly became untenable as populations grew and issues to be decided became almost hopelessly complex. The modern world—the UK included—has entirely replaced the direct democracy of the Greeks by representative democracy, in which a small set of legislators is deputized by an election process to make laws and decisions for the country. The technical inability of the average citizen to understand the detailed consequences of most laws, foreign relation treaties, business regulations, defense policies, … makes direct democracy an impossible form of government today.

“So instead, the UK has representative democracy. The duty of a representative was well stated by Edmund Burke:

“It ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

“Forget for the moment the fact that popular referendum is an utterly inappropriate way to make a decision on so complex an issue; forget the fact that the voters were lied to and were lamentably ignorant of the likely consequences of an ‘exit’. Burke eloquently points out that the fundamental duty of a member of Commons is to decide the issue on the analysis of the likely consequences of Brexit for her/his constituents. The members of parliament who bleat ‘we must carry out the will of the people as expressed in the referendum vote and exit the EU’ and use this as the basis for their vote in Commons on Brexit are failing at a fundamental level in their moral obligation to the voters. Their voting should be determined by a rational analysis of consequences to the people they represent, regardless of how it might influence the likelihood of their being reelected, and regardless of the ‘expressed wishes’ of an uninformed electorate.”

Britain’s exit from the EU is going ahead on a false premise – 10 more reasons why what is happening now is not, and never was, ‘the will of the people’

3 November 2017

Theresa May says the reason she is continuing to lead Britain out of the European Union is that she is “delivering on the will of the people “.  This is in spite of her previous convictions, eloquently expressed two years ago, and very probably in spite of her better judgement today. The same can be said of the many MPs—including my own, Damian Hinds—who previously made up the parliamentary majority for Remain but who now claim this same justification for their altered course. Even pro-EU newspapers, the Observer for example, have declined to question the validity of the June 2016 vote as a democratic expression of the will of the people.

But I question it. I questioned it immediately after the referendum, writing a letter to our local paper pointing out that the Leave camp had secured its result

  1. by telling lies,
  2. by deliberately inciting hatred and xenophobia,
  3. by allowing its media to give an exclusively partisan account of the issues,
  4. and by shamelessly urging voters to discount the wisdom of ‘experts’“.

For these and other reasons I said that calling the result  ‘the will of the people’, would be “to say the least, disingenuous” and it would be irresponsible not to question its validity. My letter was given prominence in the Alton Herald and a great many people, not just in the town, went out of their way to thank me for it and tell me how strongly they agreed with me.

Since then nothing has happened  to raise the slightest doubt in my mind about the points that I made. On the contrary, some have been strongly reinforced. To give one example, deep in a long Spectator article describing how the referendum was won, the director of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings, asked himself the question  “Would we have won without £350m/NHS?” and replied ” All our research and the close result strongly suggests No“.

But now, with a YouGov poll showing a majority believing Britain was wrong to back Brexit (final point below), a whole list of additional reasons have accumulated to make it even clearer that what is happening was never the ‘will of the people’ as expressed in the 2016 referendum, and that the government is pursuing its ‘Brexit’ agenda on a false premise. Here is my attempt to set out these further arguments:

  1. Anecdotal but widespread evidence that people’s votes were cast for reasons which had nothing to do with the real issue (and, let us not forget, in the general expectation of Remain winning.)
    • Everyone was in ignorance of the immensely complex implications. (This was inevitable and entirely understandable. It is now quite clear that nobody understood these implications.)
    • Some voted as a general reaction against irksome restrictions/regulations/safeguards which are inevitable in any modern society, but which for years, encouraged by the overwhelmingly Europhobic media, people had been habitually blaming on ‘Brussels’.
      There was the notorious  bendy bananas myth, but a better example of this was the staged banning, of obsolete, inefficient (in other words hot) light-bulbs. The Daily Mail and others campaigned against this, ignoring the fact that pressure for this reform largely originated in Britain and that it was in fact a triumph of enlightened international action, enabled by the EU, of which we should all be extremely proud!
    • Many voted as a general protest against austerity,  the Conservative government, David Cameron, George Osborne, and against what was probably perceived, especially in strongly Leave-voting areas, as a posh metropolitan elite.
    • Some older people voted because they couldn’t forgive the Germans for the Second World War—one of these is a dear friend of mine who made sure of getting her postal vote in early. Two others separately gave this as their reason while talking to fellow-canvassers in our High Street (extrapolate that to the whole country!).
    • There was even ignorance of what the EU actually was (for a brief period after the announcement of the result ‘What is the EU?‘ became the second commonest search term on Google.)
  2. Subsequent arrogant and bullying behaviour by the triumphant Leavers.
    • Attempted suppression of comment and debate, including debate in parliament.
    • The extension of the hate campaign which had been so successful against foreigners to include the ‘remoaners’, ‘whingers’, ‘traitors’, ‘enemies of the people’, ‘saboteurs’, ‘citizens of nowhere’people like me in factwho had the courage to speak out for almost half the nation.
    • The appropriation of our national flag and the very names ‘Democracy’ , ‘Patriotism’—even ‘decent people‘—by the divisive anti-EU cause, which still tries to deny the fact that people can be loyal and proud members of a hierarchy of nested communities – family, locality, country, continent, planet, and so on.
    • Vicious attacks and threats against individual MPs and senior members of the judiciary for scrupulously and courageously doing what is unequivocally their duty and their job.  To take a relatively mild example of this, instead of answering the legitimate arguments of the Governor of the Bank of England, they repeated try  to ‘shout him into silence’.
      (It seems to me that the failure by any of the prominent advocates of Leave to repudiate these outrageous abuses lays them open to the charge of complicity, and casts grave doubts on their fitness to be responsible leaders of a law-abiding society.
      If I were a convinced Leaver I would, at the very least, be apologising to my fellow citizens for this behaviour and seeking to build bridges instead of acting in ways that exacerbate division.)
  3. Things have changed since the votes were cast.
    • The election of Donald Trump in America—a possibility which seemed remote or even impossible at the time of the referendum—and the unfolding story of his erratic behaviour in office, has produced a fundamental change in the international geopolitical environment. Carol Cadwalladr puts it neatly: “Britain tying its future to an America that is being remade – in a radical and alarming way.”
    • The undermining of confidence in objective truth in public life and especially in journalism. This phenomenon blossomed during and after the American presidential election, but was already established in this country during the referendum campaign. Social and print media are thus employed to disseminate blatant and deliberate misinformation. Having established this environment of distrust, any opinion or fact that is challenging or inconvenient (not just the size of an inauguration crowd) can then be routinely attacked and neutralised by the label ‘fake news’.
  4. “Not what we voted for.”—unforeseen consequences of the Brexit process:
    • Contrary to sweeping promises, the exit process is not easy and is not going well.
    • We are not in a strong position in negotiations with Europe. It is increasingly clear that we need Europe more than it needs us.
    • We are not in a strong position in negotiations with anyone else.
    • Far from hastening a predicted disintegration of the EU, the example of Britain’s referendum appears to have strengthened Europe and weakened anti-EU sentiment within the populations of the remaining 27.
    • ‘Hard’, ‘crash-out’, or ‘no-deal’ Brexit, i.e. leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, was specifically ruled out:  Daniel Hannan, a leading behind-the-scenes architect of Leave, declared “Absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the single market” Yet the extreme  advocates of Brexit are now demanding that the 2016 vote be treated as an unquestionable instruction to do exactly that.
    • The NHS is losing large numbers of precious EU staff, as are agriculture and other vital sectors of our economy. The ill-effects of making these people feel unwelcome in Britain are incalculable.
    • The NHS may be opened up to US investors as a necessary sweetener for a new trade deal.
    • The unfolding evidence of unpreparedness and incompetence, even delusion, on the part of the small group of politicians who have been entrusted with the implementation of the Brexit process.
    • The fact that, rather than a balanced, cross-party group of the most competent people available, the future of the country is being decided, potentially for generations to come, by a small, unrepresentative group defined by their obsessional anti-EU convictions.
    • Previously unacceptable public expressions of xenophobic hatred have been unleashed and to some extent legitimised.
      The deliberate cultivation of hatred is something that has been suppressed in this country and elsewhere for a long time, partly because it is so easy to do, so powerful, and so corrupting. George Saunders, in his 2017 Man Booker Prize winning novel Lincoln in the Bardo speaks of “our revived human proclivity for hatred-inspired action“.
      The notorious ‘Breaking Point’ poster appeared, as it turned out, on the same day that the British MP Jo Cox was murdered by a zealot in a frenzy of xenophobic hatred. Its image of Nigel Farage, in front of a picture of desperate refugees fleeing the war in Syria, had nothing to do with the EU or with Brexit but was deliberately designed to incite this gut reaction.  “This was not done on the hoof,”  boasted Arron Banks afterwards, “We played to win – we weren’t going to play Queensberry rules.
      This explosive growth of targeted hatred has been intensified by the new ubiquity of social media. Its almost simultaneous appearance during the United States presidential election, again employed overwhelmingly by only one of the two sides, is one of the features that may account the widely-perceived similarities between the Leave and the Trump campaigns.
    • Although there are indications they may soon be forced to back down, the government has persistently refused to release 58 studies of the economic impact of leaving the EU (on the grounds that to do so would weaken our negotiating position). However, we do know that:
      · the UK government is spending hundreds of millions of pounds, and hiring around 3,000 bureaucrats and lawyers, to cope with Brexit.
      · Chancellor Philip Hammond admits that a Brexit ‘no deal’ will mean less money for NHS and social care. (Thus even further undermining the £350m a week slogan which Boris Johnson has recently reiterated).
  5. Possible subversion of the democratic process by a new and largely hidden technique of ‘data mining’ which enables the targeting of individual people whose susceptibility to persuasion is revealed by personality profiles derived from the analysis of millions of Facebook posts.
    • This new technique was used by one side only.
    • Vote Leave and Leave.UK paid millions of pounds to tech companies Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ for these services and subsequently claimed that they had swung the referendum (In the same way that these techniques and companies were subsequently claimed to have secured the election of Donald Trump).
    • Vote Leave’s director Dominic Cummings has said: “Without a doubt, the Vote Leave campaign owes a great deal of its success to the work of AggregateIQ.  We couldn’t have done it without them.”
    • This was allegedly enabled by an American billionaire, Robert Mercer,  partly as a trial run for the subsequent Presidential campaign.
  6. Questions about the use of ‘dark money’, and possible illegality in the funding of the Leave campaign which have been raised in Parliament and described by Andrea Leadsom, replying for the Government, as ‘incredibly important‘.
    The fact that the almost £9m which Aaron (also Arron, amongst other names) Banks says he contributed in cash, loans and services to pro-Brexit causes was the biggest donation in British political history.
    And Banks’ reported comments: “We were just cleverer than the regulators and the politicians. Of course we were”, adding that he didn’t break the law, rather that he “pushed the boundary of everything, right to the edge. It was war.
  7. The fact that the agenda continues to be set, and popular perceptions continue to be distorted, by a predominantly anti-EU national press which is owned by a handful of extremely rich, foreign or foreign-domiciled men, whose motives for fighting  relentlessly for Brexit are obscure.
    Joris Luyendijk, a Netherlander who is leaving Britain after living here with his family for five years, puts it this way in the November 2017 edition of Prospect Magazine:  “…Not only the division, but the way it had been inflamed. Why would you allow a handful of billionaires to poison your national conversation with disinformation—either directly through the tabloids they own, or indirectly, by using those newspapers to intimidate the public broadcaster? Why would you allow them to use their papers to build up and co-opt politicians peddling those lies? Why would you let them get away with this stuff about ‘foreign judges’ and the need to ‘take back control’ when Britain’s own public opinion is routinely manipulated by five or six unaccountable rich white men, themselves either foreigners or foreign-domiciled?”
  8. On the day when Theresa May triggered Article 50, Nigel Farage reportedly raised his pint glass to toast “Well done Bannon, Well done, Breitbart. You helped with this hugely.
    If true, this bizarre tribute to two leaders of the American far right is a disturbing pointer to what is alleged to be a pattern of cooperation between avowed opponents of liberal democracy on both sides of the Atlantic and possibly in Russia, suggesting that they may have conspired together to influence our EU referendum.
  9. We now know that the scheme for securing the economic future of Britain which the advocates of Brexit envisage rests in large part on the reduction of taxation and public services and on the rescinding of regulations, environmental / domestic / workplace safeguards, and of workers’ rights. That such a ‘bonfire of regulations‘ would be against the interests of the majority of ordinary people is surely beyond dispute.
  10.  Electoral issues
    • Remain: 16,141,241 (48.1%)
      Leave: 17,410,742 (51.9%)
      Total Electorate: 46,500,001
      Turnout: 72.2%
      Rejected Ballots: 25,359
      Didn’t vote: 12,948,018
      Therefore: Didn’t vote for Brexit: 29,089,259 (63% of the electorate)
    • Polls suggest that of those who didn’t vote (possibly because some accepted the predictions that Remain was bound to win) a large majority would have chosen Remain.
    • 16-18 year olds, who overwhelmingly would have chosen to Remain, have a strong case that they should have been enfranchised in a vote so crucial for their futures.
    • Slightly less clear-cut is the argument that the 2.5 million EU nationals resident in Britain should also have been given a vote. Probably a large majority of these would also have voted Remain.
    • MPs who raised their concerns about the disenfranchisement of these two groups prior to the vote  are said to have been reassured on the grounds that the referendum result would be advisory rather than binding. I have raised this with my MP and in his reply he did not deny it.
    • A recent YouGov poll indicates there is now an overall majority for Remain.  This adds to a pattern of poll evidence that a majority of the British electorate almost certainly want to remain in the EU. As time passes and the population ages, this majority is likely to increase.

Of course there will be faults and omissions in this list –  it is no more than the honest product of my common sense. But at least it can’t be written off on the grounds that I am an expert.

What is clear is that several of these factors could have swung the vote sufficiently to produce the marginal victory for Leave. Indeed, as I have shown, several of them were triumphantly claimed to have done so. Acting together, however, they overwhelmingly invalidate the pretence that it is, or ever was, the ‘will of the people’ to separate Britain from the European Union at all, let alone unconditionally. If politicians continue to use the 2016 vote as an excuse for switching off their judgement and their responsibility to do what is best for our country, not to mention the wider world, let them be warned that a better list than this will be raised by history against their memory.


I have found writing this piece uncomfortable and disturbing. Parts of the story strike me as being profoundly sinister. I am also aware of the hatred and abuse that such things provoke in the current polarised environment (see above). Nonetheless, they are things which need to be said and yet, on the whole, are not being said. It seems obvious to me that they need to be heard and thought about by responsible Leavers much more than by Remainers. Unpleasant though the task has been I have felt compelled to persist with it because I see some very, very important issues at stake for our democracy and for our country, which extend far beyond the issue of EU membership, crucial though that obviously is. And for some reason I have a ridiculous idea that I might actually make a tiny difference.

All my life, ever since my two years as an embassy child in America, I have been intensely patriotic. Attending a conference in Reykjavik this summer, however, I felt, for the first time in my life, actually humiliated by my nationality. I do not like that feeling, and I do not want our foreign friends to think that some of us were aware all along of the emptiness and folly of the reasons being given for the mistake we were making, but were too lazy, intimidated, or—most un-British of all—fatalistic to speak out. That really would be something to be ashamed about.


26 February 2018 : I have now added an eleventh item for this list in a further post  whilst at the same time quoting a particularly thoughtful and pertinent reaction I have received from America.

To Reykjavik for the Nordic Congress of General Practice

Back home now after a week in Iceland. Primarily for The 20th Nordic Congress of General Practice, a huge event with 1,500 delegates in the magnificent new Harpa Conference Centre and Concert Hall for which I and four fellow GPs ran a workshop on the subject ‘Doctors as Social Activists’. Link to my presentation

Views of the astonishing Harpa conference centre

I was describing my efforts since retirement to challenge organised climate change denial. Link to my presentation

1,500 Nordic GPs coming out for coffee break from one of the plenary sessions in the main hall

This was the very opposite of a freebie because we paid all our own expenses and discovered, having dutifully followed the advice to book flights and accommodation well in advance, that all five of us would have to pay the £700 registration fee for the conference.

This was on top of Reykjavik being, with Tokyo, currently the most expensive capital city in the world, even without the devalued pound, so that everything – food, trips, entrance to exhibitions, goods in shops – was more than twice as expensive as at home. Nonetheless, Lesley and I gritted our teeth, tightened our belts (I lost 3½ lbs on the trip) and took the opportunity to see something of this fascinating country and its admirable people.


Apart from the conference we were lucky to be in Reykjavik for Iceland’s National Independence Day (from Denmark : 1944). In spite of a cold wind and intermittent downpours, the atmosphere was festive and friendly. We felt it a real privilege to be there. We heard the President give a speech and then an actress gave a beautiful recital of a poem in Icelandic. Then there was a parade to the fair-ground around the lake, where there were circus acts and the world’s oldest strong-man competition.


The houses and buildings in Reykjavik were extraordinarily varied, often brightly painted, and quite a few had large murals painted on them.


The famous Hallgrimskirkja cathedral dominated from the top of the city, It was striking outside, although the concrete was currently under repair – testifying to the extreme harshness of the climate. The inside was serenely beautiful, with the most magnificent modern organ I have ever seen, being played while we were there.


We were unlucky with the weather, but we shared a car for a day out to the Snaefellsjoekull National Park north of the city, and took a coach trip around the ‘Golden Circle’ on our last day – our only really sunny day.

The Golden Circle is very much a tourist route but you see the junction between the American and the Eurasian tectonic plates (separating at about a centimetre a year) at the Þingvellir National Park, the magnificent Gullfoss Falls, and the geysers at the Haukadalur Geothermal Area.

Everywhere you see beautiful blue lupins, apparently a recent, deliberate introduction to stabilise and enrich the soil (lupins of course being nitrogen-fixers) which are proliferating at an incredible rate and seem to be broadly welcomed.  You can see them in the foreground and in the hills in the picture bottom right above. We were told that the country was 85% covered by trees when the Vikings arrived, but they cut them all down for fuel, housing and ships.

 

One thing which surprised us was the sheer size of the country – more than 300 miles East to West and 200 North to South. So we only saw a small part close to Reykjavik.

And this yellow door was the entry to our little room, with its blind to make it dark when it ought to have been night.

Entente Cordiale never more important

How to celebrate the 10th anniversary of our twinning with the town of Pertuis, Provence, way down there in the glorious south of France? And return the compliment of their having named a major roundabout

(circle in American, Rond-Point in French) after us, showing the genuine warmth of their appreciation of the link with Alton.

Well, by a sheer stroke of serendipity, there was a second bird, as one might say, just waiting to be killed with this stone. Because, by a curious historical anomaly, Alton has for some years rejoiced in the possession of two parallel roads both called Whitedown Lane. That’s more Whitedown Lanes, you must agree, than any town strictly needs.

two-roads
OS map showing too many  Whitedown Lanes

And, by a further happy chance, one of these two Whitedown Lanes was completely devoid of houses, so that nobody would have to change their postal address were it to be renamed – obviously a no no if it had been otherwise.

So, the responsible authorities swiftly agreed the proposal, new road signs were ordered and erected, Google (if not as yet the OS) updated their map,

pertuis-avenue
Pertuis Avenue on the (Google) map

and the unveiling of the new road sign was arranged for the Saturday morning of the Anniversary visit by two dozen of our friends from Provence – the 22nd October. Just over a week ago.

First thing that morning I loaded the car with potted greenery and set off to join Don in decorating the sign, leaving Lesley to finish breakfast with our two French house guests

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Not quite the breakfast Ramond and Simone  gave us in Pertuis last year

and then take them to the Mayor’s reception in the Town Hall.

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Nearly ready for the unveiling

It is an amusing thought that Altonians will have as much difficulty pronouncing Pertuis Avenue as  Pertuisians presumably have with Rond-Point d’Alton.

But less amusingly, while I was bending to plant the flags you see on the left of this picture, a bag of rubbish thrown from a passing car bounced off my shoulder. Which interested me, because the marksman either showed astonishingly quick reactions coming round the corner, or, much more probably, took the trouble to get his driver to turn round and come past again for the sole purpose of expressing his (I assume his) xenophobic venom. Which suggests a level of calculated malice sufficient to raise an appreciative editorial eyebrow  at the Dailies Mail or Express. Indeed, should either of these publications wish to award a prize, the till receipt from the Petersfield MacDonalds which the lobber thoughtfully enclosed in his grubby bundle might help them in tracking him down. (Funny that – Petersfield says more ‘Telegraph’ to me, but ‘Daily’, just the same.)

I had these thoughts during the hour I spent guarding (yes, in these Brexit times it did seem to be necessary) the site,

p1090332

while Don, in his capacity as Twinning Association Chairman, joined the meeting in the Town Hall.

Passers-by, hearing why I was grumpy, fell over themselves to cheer me up – “Here – let me take the rubbish so that you can forget about it” “That sounds wonderful, I was just setting off for Dartmoor but I love France and I’ll stay for the ceremony” (She did, plus her dog) “Can I get you a cup of tea?” To which – “How very kind of you, but there isn’t a loo…”

The happy Ceremony

That afternoon, in the town, was endlessly heart-warming. Everyone seemed to know about the Anniversary visit. Walking with our guests around King’s Pond, we introduced them at random to a lady with two children feeding the ducks near us and found that she was an enthusiast for twinning, and that her son was corresponding, through school, with a contact in Pertuis. And the little son who was with her, probably no more than five, had learned a few words of French and exchanged them, in an utterly charming scene, with our visitors.

Happy faces at the dinner at the end of the weekend

On the way back from leaving Simon and Raymond at their coach on Monday morning, I stopped to photograph the three flags flying on the Alton War Memorial flag poles, a symbol of our better selves, and of hope for the future.

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Entente cordiale never more important

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