Nick Cohen

The Brexit bunch are the real referendum whiners

The Brexit bunch are the real referendum whiners
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In an age of fanaticism, it was always unlikely that the urge to censor would be confined to the left. If you think that the insults conservatives have thrown at liberals will not boomerang back to injure them, consider the following examples of right-wing invective.

Conservatives claim millennials are ‘special snowflakes,’ unable to handle criticism – a generalisation that crashes and breaks on the vast number of exceptions. To concentrate on specifics for once, it is a matter of fact that the world’s most special snowflake is Donald Trump. He and his supporters target judges, journalists and any other critic. No slight is forgotten or forgiven. Their skin is so thin a student union’s sociology-reading LGBTQ equality officer seems to have the leathery hide of a battle-hardened war veteran in comparison.

In Britain, we have seen the preposterous and faintly sinister spectacle of a triumphant right insist that those of us who think that leaving the single market will betray our country’s best interests must stay silent or lie about our true beliefs. If we do not, we are 'enemies of the people’. That phrase was once associated with communists. Tellingly, the nationalist right has now taken it up. It is as keen on imposing group think as the millennial left. Right or left, the purpose is the same: to prohibit challenging arguments and reinforce the unquestioning acceptance of the tribe’s taboos. If you condemn one group of censors but not the other, you reveal yourself to be more than a hypocrite. You show you are an unthinking man or woman, who is incapable of self-examination. At moments when your tribe is in the ascendancy you are a danger. For the rest of the time, you are an insufferable bore.

Then we have the supposedly new phenomenon of ‘virtue signalling,’ which again is meant to be an exclusively left-wing vice. It may well be that you, like me, doubt the sincerity of people whose fight against injustice consists of a ‘like’ on a Facebook page, or a few coins in a charity box. But do you also condemn people who stand for God Save the Queen, or the millions who wear poppies on Remembrance Sunday rather than providing help to physically and mentally ill veterans which cost them real time and money? Do you notice that writers you read follow the Fox News code and never challenge your preconceptions? Intellectual conformity is the most common form of virtue signalling there is. The writer assures the reader that he or she is free from heresy. The reader has his or her virtue confirmed.

Now, once again, we have the right imitating the left. For years I have been uncomfortable with right-wing writers who condemn leftists who believe that the media brainwash the workers to vote against their interests. It’s not because they are wrong but because they never apply the same standards to themselves

You only have to follow Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters to know that they will never accept an ounce of personal responsibility for the rout the far left will inflict on the Labour party. They will remain virtuous. They will remain unblemished. They will have lost only because the media imposed a false consciousness on the electorate.

The difficulty with  false consciousness theory is not that the public, or large sections of the public, cannot be influenced by propagandists. (Two-thirds of Donald Trump’s supporters believe the straight lie that Barack Obama was a Muslim, according to a poll). False consciousness theory fails because it fails the Abraham Lincoln test. It holds that sinister figures can lie to all of the people all of the time and get away with it. If you believe that, you must believe that people or the majority of people are incredibly stupid, which raises the question why try to fight for them? The logical conclusion of your misanthropy would be to shun your moronic country and pursue your private pleasures and interests.

False consciousness has never just been the fake-news theory of the left. From the Tories of the 1790s who tried to ban and prosecute Tom Paine, to today’s right-wing press, conservatives are just as likely to say that the reason why they are not respected is because a wicked media has poisoned the debate. Except in this case the secret manipulators of public consciousness work for the BBC.

As if to prove the point, a group of mainly Tory and mainly anti-EU MPs damned the corporation today for not rejoicing in the happy-clappy style of the true believer in Brexit. The MPs accused the BBC of being ‘pessimistic' and 'skewed’ in its Brexit coverage. They threatened its future and then made the extraordinary claim that the BBC was undermining ‘our efforts to carve out a new, global role for this country’. Needless to add they produced no detailed analysis of BBC programmes to support their allegations. There are three easy responses to make here, none of which earns their keep.

First, you could say that Scottish nationalists, Corbynite socialists and the pro-Brexit wing of the Conservative party all criticise the BBC so the corporation ‘must be getting it about right’. In fact, it is perfectly possible that all the BBC’s critics may be right. But if you are going to say that one or more of them are, you have to come armed with evidence, which the Tories fail to do.

The second is to say that the BBC seems to be in love with Nigel Farage and regards any moment when he is not on air as a wasted moment. But that argument misunderstands the nature of ‘news’ at the dumbed-down corporation. On television in particular, BBC current affairs is as much about entertainment as news. Its producers favour extremists of all types because they make for lively television. That’s all there is to it.

Finally, people are saying that the doltish politicians managed to release their letter on the day Brexit pushed inflation up. But that is just bad luck and does not invalidate their argument.

The real criticism of them is that they won yet are still whining. The far left clings to false consciousness because it helps them endure defeat. The Brexit right is embracing false consciousness in its moment of victory.

This strange twist reinforces the oddest result of the referendum: it is the victors who are whining the loudest, the pro-leave side which is most unhappy. As I have said before, the strange phenomenon of sore winners can only be explained by secret fears. They know they sold the public a false bill of goods. They suspect Brexit might end in the most awful mess, and to escape the inevitable retribution that will follow they are getting their excuses and their retaliation in first.