There are many reasons why I despise the whole Brexit saga. But the biggest one is less about my personal politics than my parenting values.
So while this post inevitably touches on politics, it’s less about the implications of Brexit than it is about the actions and behaviours that this affair has engendered. Our politicians – and this includes MPs on both sides – are particularly cuplable here. But we, the great British public, have in many cases behaved just as badly.
We are setting a dreadful example for our children. What will they learn from our attitudes, actions and behaviours over the past three years? Here are six key Brexit lessons that I find profoundly depressing.
1. Devaluing expertise
Knowledge, as the saying goes, is power. Unless knowledge comes into conflict with the agendas of those in power, in which case ignorance trumps expertise every time.
Will our kids learn that it is now perfectly acceptable to dismiss the knowledge, advice and forecasts of experts? Indeed, it was Michael Gove who said that “people in this country have had enough of experts.”
Who needs knowledge? Who needs experts? No one, apparently. Particularly if their forecasts don’t fit our politicians’ preferred narrative.
Increasingly, it seems many people are willing to trust their own uninformed opinion over fact-based analysis too. They point to how often forecasts are inaccurate. And confidently claim how the experts are biased because they are part of some socialist conspiracy.
But while forecasts are sometimes inaccurate, more often than not they’re there or thereabouts. And if experts were so unreliable, why do governments pour millions of pounds into the forecasts on which they base their budgets and policies?
Those are the facts. Experts matter. Knowledge is valuable. And yet they are gleefully dismissed by politicians and people alike in the court of public opinion whenever it is convenient to do so. Don’t bother with school, kids. Your opinion is what really counts, no matter how little you know.
2. Divide and conquer
Our children are also being taught that it’s acceptable behaviour to demonise anyone who dares to disagree with us. Politicans talk of uniting the country while driving a wedge between opposing factions.
Anyone who sits on the other side of the debate is automatically wrong, an idiot, or even a traitor. They are vilified and victimised. There is no allowance for the possibility that two alternative interpretations of the same facts could be equally valid. There is no attempt to seek to understand the other’s viewpoint, the foundation of genuine compromise.
All that matters is to demonstrate that I’m right and you’re wrong, and to shout down and mock those who disagree. We don’t debate; we demolish, and by any means necessary. Divide and conquer.
3. Be a bully, not a diplomat
Politicians often stretch the dictionary definition of certain words right up to – and in many cases beyond – any reasonable limit. One such word is ‘compromise’.
The dictionary defines compromise as: “an agreement or settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side making concessions”.
A politician’s definition of compromise is more like: “getting the other side to agree to give me everything I want”.
Let’s be clear about this. This is not a phenomenon that is new or unique to Brexit. But it is something that has been honed to a fine art during this process. Make unreasonable demands. Then blame the other side for not giving in immediately.
Does this sound a bit like a typical toddler/parent scenario? It does to me.
It’s also very much the actions of a bully trying to force another child to give up their lunch money. And they then act surprised when the other child, having stood up for themselves, refuses to share their food with them. How dare they!
No right-minded parent would teach their children to behave like this. And yet this is the example our politicians are setting for us. Except that the proverbial toddler acts in a far more civilised and reasonable way.
4. What you say is more important than what you do
Which brings me on to the next lesson. Our kids are learning that it’s more important to say the right thing than to actually do it.
Again, this is nothing new. Politicians have been making empty manifesto promises since the dawn of time. Lower taxes. £350 million a week extra for the NHS. Promising to put the toilet seat down in future.
Hey kids, just say what people want to hear. Don’t worry about actually doing it because the people who swallowed the lie will either (a) have forgotten about it by next week or (b) bend over backwards to pretend they knew all along it was just a hypothetical promise, not a real one. Accountability, shmacountability.
5. Words as a weapon
Politicians and ordinary people are both at fault here. I am appalled by the cavalier nature with which we have become willing to weaponise words – and then deny all responsibility for the consequences.
As a writer and a lover of language, I place great stock on choosing my words carefully. I’m well aware of the impact a misplaced – or carefully placed – turn of phrase can have. How often have we seen politicians use language evocative of war and crime to describe the other side? Those who dare oppose their world-view aren’t dissenters; they’re ‘traitors’. How often does debate descend into barely veiled threats?
People listen carefully to what those in positions of authority say. Words have power, and those who artfully select their words to incite hatred or violence in others and then quickly claim that, of course, they didn’t mean it like that are being disingenuous. They know what they’re doing. It’s calculating. And it’s cowardly.
I want our children to understand the importance of choosing their words carefully. To say what they mean – and mean what they say. And to recognise that their words carry weight. The pen – or the speech – truly is mightier than the sword. Words are so easily weaponised and have the capacity to do so much more harm to more people over a greater range than a bullet or a bomb can ever do. But they can also do great good. I know which I’d prefer my kids to be doing.
6. The end justifies the means
Lastly – but perhaps most damaging of all – we are teaching our kids that getting results is all that matters. It’s okay to lie, ignore convention or even break the law if the end justifies the means. (I must remember that the next time I get a speeding ticket.)
Just get the job done. It doesn’t matter how. Deny and belittle the value of knowledge. Divide and conquer. Behave like a boorish bully (and cry wolf if you don’t get your way). Value saying the right thing over doing the right thing. Use words to get others to carry the fight to your enemies, while you plead innocence.
Win at all costs. The end justifies the means.
Are these really the lessons we want to teach our children? Like it or not, these are the lessons they are learning.
One way or another, the dust will settle on Brexit and we’ll move on. But at what cost? We are forgetting how to behave like a civilised nation. Inch by inch, the bar is being lowered. And we don’t even seem to notice, much less care.
That’s the worst thing about this whole affair. Never mind the arguments over whether leaving the EU is a good or a bad thing. This is the legacy Brexit is creating for our children. It is unequivocally, to my eye, a bad thing. I don’t like it at all. And that’s the real reason I hate the Brexit saga.