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 Acopy Critical-Times-sos2-960-finished copy - CopyThe future of an illusion

HOT’s Sean O’Shea reflects on the recent Brexit preparatory talks, criticises the use of militaristic rhetoric in the conduct and narration of our relations with the EU and asks if democracy and progressive politics are going to be relegated to Room 101 on the 8th of June?


“If democracy is destroyed in Britain it will not be the Trotskyists, or subversives but this House which threw it away.”

 “Parliamentary democracy is, in truth, little more than a means of securing a periodical change in the management team… If the British people were to ever ask themselves what power they truly enjoyed under our political system they would be amazed to discover how little it is.”

Tony Benn


It all started with a kiss, as dinner dates often do. But it ended in disaster. Theresa May thought things had gone rather well. The Brexit preparatory talks had been constructive. However, Jean Claude-Juncker (President of the European Commission) thought that they had been on entirely different wavelengths. He reported as much to his friend, Angela Merkel (Chancellor of Germany) who later announced that as far as Brexit goes, the British were wasting time on ‘chasing illusions’.

Conflicting perceptions of events are common enough when married couples become estranged and lists of stuff that cannot be talked about can accumulate, sometimes leaving little that can be safely discussed at all, except perhaps the weather – and even that can be contentious. This is how lawyers make their money.

It was reportedly going to become the longest divorce case in history, and within twenty four hours the estimated cost of this divorce settlement was raised from sixty billion to an estimated hundred billion Euros. By this stage, the usually calm Theresa May was not pleased. If our Brexit ‘illusions’ were going to be shattered she was going to become ‘a bloody difficult woman!’ She would ‘declare war on Brussels’ and ‘unleash her fire’ on Europe. No more kisses thank you very much.

Later, laughing David Davis (Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union) tried to calm the waters by assuring us that there’s nothing in the treaty of Lisbon that specifies a cost for leaving. This is all ‘open to negotiation’. He went on to declare that most of what we read in the papers is ‘gossip and spin’. Donald Tusk (President of the European Council) alarmed by the intemperate tone of the debate, appealed for ‘moderation and respect’ and warned that Britain’s exit was bound to fail if emotions continued to run wild.

The commentariat were not impressed and were already in a catastrophising mood, speculating that the affair could now take ten years, involve much social and economic misery for the British people, and possibly end up before the International Court of Justice. We weren’t just talking about an ordinary divorce between two parties, but an extraordinary, unprecedented and exceedingly fractious divorce between a single party and twenty seven other parties, all with their own points of view and their own cherished ‘illusions’. What a mess!

So what’s clearly needed is ‘strong and stable leadership’ not a ‘coalition of chaos’. The ‘saboteurs’ i.e. people both within and outside the Tory party, who happen to hold different political views to those held by Theresa May, must be decisively defeated, if not eradicated, so that she may be empowered to stand up to Claude and his cohorts and win ‘a good deal for Britain’.

In a calculated and opportunistic act of political cross dressing, this once committed Remainer was  determinedly on her way to winning support from both left and right of the political spectrum for what her critics call ‘an economically disastrous and delusional hard Brexit project’.

A different perspective – some common illusions

From a Buddhist perspective, much of what we regard as reality is an illusion. This is the case in the field of human relationships as well as in the relations between states, where differing perceptions and expectations can sometimes be so incongruent as to make communication and/or peaceable co-existence impossible.

At school we are taught that all questions have an answer and we are duly rewarded for providing the expected answers. However, many of the most important questions in life don’t have any single ‘right’ answers and many more don’t have any answers at all. They are moral issues with which, as human beings, we have to engage, hopefully with open hearts and minds, but sometimes with a great deal of anxiety and anguish, and with no assurance of a favourable outcome to the choices and decisions we make.

From a Socratic point of view, questions tend to lead to further questions. His pedagogic style emphasised his own lack of knowledge and the importance of being able to live with uncertainty, but nonetheless wisely and virtuously. If we are attentive and have the patience to respect and listen to the voice of our own reason and other people’s points of view, we may revise and enrich our experience and understanding of the world and hence act together in pursuance of the common good.

This view runs entirely counter to the ethos of contemporary politics. Here participants’ critical faculties and sense of moral restraint seems to desert them. They become passionately convinced of the ‘rightness’ of their own views and equally passionately convinced of the wrongness, and sometimes wickedness of others, who happen to hold different opinions. A state of ‘war’ prevails between opposing parties, and this battle is often conceived as a righteous struggle unto death, the usual casualties of which – as history amply demonstrates – are the ‘truth’ and the safety and welfare of ordinary citizens.

An elective dictatorship

At times of social upheaval, people commonly experience a need for strong leaders on whom they can project their hopes and expectations. Politicians often succumb to the temptation of gratifying this need and may demand, or forcibly acquire, extra powers so as to have the strength to win the battle against an imputed enemy – in Theresa May’s case this seems to include European politicians and bureaucrats as well as all politicians and parties who dare to oppose her at home.

It’s worth recalling that under our dysfunctional first-past-the-post electoral system winning a majority of seats does not mean that the majority of people support the winning party. The Tories won the last election with 37% of the vote on a turnout of 66.1%. In other words, as a factor of those eligible to vote, they secured the backing of 24% of the population. The Greens got over a million votes and got only one parliamentary seat. This means that 76% of those eligible to vote remained effectively disenfranchised.

If at the coming election the Tories are successful in gaining a further 10% they will still have only a minority of the votes, but this may be enough to ensure the dominance of a Tory government – in England at least – for the foreseeable future. The country will have become what the late Lord Hailsham called an ‘elective dictatorship.’ Democracy and progressive politics as well as compassion, respect and moderation could end up being relegated to the oblivion of Room 101.

As for Socrates: He was the archetypal man of reason and, like Tony Benn, he was quite critical of prevailing models of democracy in the Athens of his day. He eventually withdrew from public life believing that a good person who fights for justice is quite likely to be cast out of the city or even killed. Unfortunately this didn’t save him from fulfilling his own prophecy and being condemned to death by his fellow citizens.



Posted 18:30 Sunday, May 7, 2017 In: SOS

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