Nick Cohen

The quack doctors of Brexit ignore the cure to Britain’s strife

The quack doctors of Brexit ignore the cure to Britain's strife
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The British are like patients with an incurable illness. Thinking and worrying can do no good, but those who understand Britain’s sickness can think of nothing else.

Rationally, we understand there is nothing we can do about Brexit until and unless the balance of forces shifts in Westminster. No one knows what will happen next. No one can say when the European question will be settled, and we will be free to to get on with our lives as best we can. All options have been discussed to the point of exhaustion and beyond. But like patients who cannot shut their illness from their minds, we can’t help ourselves. We talk in circles in arguments without end. Brexit was meant to bring back control, but has left us impotent and at the mercy of impostors promising miracle cures.

Just as the promoters of frankincense essential oil therapy, Vitamin-C chelation, Proteolytic enzyme therapy, the Ketogenic Diet and the Budwig Protocol (which sounds like a bad Robert Ludlum thriller) prey on the desperation of  the terminally ill, so quack politicians prey on Brexit Britain.

The fit is close to perfect. The sellers of "alternative" treatments assure cancer patients that 'you hold the power to unleash your natural healing capabilities'. Positive thinking can succeed where chemotherapy has failed. The promoters of Brexit still say we can have the benefits of being in the EU while leaving the EU, if we just try harder. Boris Johnson imagined Donald Trump, and by extension himself, in charge of Brexit. 'He'd go in bloody hard...There would be all sorts of breakdowns, there would be all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he'd gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere.' Shout at foreigners to make them understand you. Knock them about, and unleash Britain's power. All that is needed is a triumph of the will and the impossible will become possible.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Boris Johnson of the left, tries to convince his limitlessly credulous followers that he can negotiate a better deal that, in the words of Labour’s six tests, will 'deliver the 'exact same benefits' as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union,' while leaving the single market.

To ask Labour how it can possibly deliver the impossible is to break the spell with negative thinking. Labour wants a 'jobs first' Brexit, and the mere act of wanting can make it real. Or as the 'natural remedy' sites say, doctors won’t tell you that 'our body contains innate superpowers to ward off disease-causing culprits that medical science has barely scratched the surface on'.

The leaders of left and right want you to believe in their innate superpowers too, and hope you won’t notice that, as with homeopathic and Bach flower remedies, there’s no real difference between May’s terrible Brexit and Corbyn’s terrible Brexit. Both will reduce Britain to the vassal status of being a rule taker rather than a rule maker. Both will hurt jobs and living standards. The only real difference between them is that Corbyn has believed in Brexit all his life, while May has not.

I had a friend who was dying with cancer, and turned to hugely expensive 'alternative' treatments when conventional doctors said there was nothing more to be done. I didn’t have the heart to dissuade her or utter one word of criticism. She was still young. She wanted to live. She wanted to see her child grow up and worried about who would care for him when she was gone. I had nothing but sympathy for her, but nothing but contempt for the charlatans, who profited from her desperate willingness to clutch at any hope. The same standard should apply to today's voters and the politicians they so foolishly trust.

I understand why Labour supporters still chant the oxymoronic slogan “Love Corbyn, Hate Brexit”. They want a fairer country that is less mean and miserable, and cannot accept that the leader they idolised will betray them unless they force him into line.

The genuine racists aside – and it is a fair bet that every genuine British racist voted leave – I sympathise with leave voters too. You cannot have net migration running at 300,000 a year, year in year out, and not expect people to resist the cultural change. Membership of the EU certainly does constrain Parliament’s freedom of action. The politicians, who led them on, and even now refuse to recant as all their roads lead to the mire, are another matter. They are our quacks and should be treated as such.

The great debunkers of the quackery, Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst, have counted almost 4000 double-blind studies of acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic therapy and herbal remedies. Herbal medicines can claim a few successes, but their benefits have been overhyped. Those small exceptions aside, none of the treatments is endorsed by reputable medical research. Alternative therapists get round the absence of evidence for the cures they peddle with a tactic that has become familiar since 2016. They accuse doctors and 'big pharma' of conspiring to do down the competition. Clinical trials are not conducted by impartial researchers, they say, but are faked by partisans with their own covert agenda, Likewise the Tory right dismisses civil service impartiality and blames the failure of their fantasy on Olly Robbins and Britain’s diplomats for 'forcing a weak Prime Minister into a soft Brexit'.

From left and right, politicians compete to denounce knowledge that might spoil their worlds of make-believe.‘The people of this country have had enough of experts,’ says Michael Gove. ‘The age of experts is over,’ says the shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon.

So it is. And the age of the idiots is upon us. We have just about time to stop the quackery. The double-blind trials alternative therapists so hate are designed to eliminate bias, and so could a second referendum. I don’t accept the objection that a people's vote will divide the country: we are already divided and will stay divided, people’s vote or no people’s vote. I am far from sure that my remain side will win this time. But it will be our final opportunity to have an honest rather than a biased debate and the voters will finally know what they are voting for. Whatever the result, that will be healing process. 

Written byNick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

Topics in this articlePoliticsbrexituk politics