Trump is President. Brexit Will Happen. But Opposition to Both is Fundamentally Democratic
In 1951, the prime minister Clement Attlee arrived back in the UK to prepare for a snap general election. Upon landing a reporter asked him whether he would like to explain his party’s plan for the upcoming campaign. “No,” he replied and walked away.
If the story is apocryphal, it is certainly contains an ecstatic truth, as Werner Herzog would say.
Leaders from Neil Kinnock to Jeremy Corbyn can attest that the media now operate in a post-deferential age. The scrutiny we put politicians under has increased. It can be unfair at times. But it is certainly better. Scrutiny is essential in a democratic society.
On Friday, Theresa May met Donald Trump. They held a joint press conference at which the BBC’s political correspondent, Laura Kuenssberg, asked the president about his differences with May on abortion, torture, immigration from Muslim-majority countries and relations with Russia. Looking at his British guest, Trump - half-joking - replied, "That's your choice of a question? That's it for that relationship."
Right-wing commentators have already spoken of the supposed “toxic” attitude of the media towards the new president. So it was inevitable that Kuenssberg faced anger from his supporters. Always a decent scotch egg short of a picnic, Katie Hopkins tweeted of her shame that Kuenssberg thought she represented Britain. If it seems only a few weeks since there were calls for the same Kuenssberg to resign for misrepresenting Jeremy Corbyn’s view on shoot-to-kill, that is because it is only a few weeks.
The idea that Kuenssberg asked a legitimate question, and was not trying to represent anyone, seems not to occurred to her critics; that Trump’s press might be less “toxic” if he were passes many by.
Brexiteers are just intent on stifling debate on the spurious grounds that to question and to oppose is undemocratic. The reverse is true
Belief is not only belief, it is also a definition. How often is the verb "to be" used when expressing political ideology? Our political beliefs are linked to our emotional identities. When firmly-held convictions are questioned, it is not our politics that is being questioned but our ever-fragile sense of self. “The fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt," as George Smiley said.
Trump’s aside to May may have been a joke. It may reveal a narcissist’s intolerance to opposition. The answer we come up with depends who we are.
What is undeniable is that Trump does not react well to opposition. Whether it be Meryl Streep or the New York Times, he seethes. He has refused to answer questions from unfriendly media. His press team have threatened the media with a fight over their coverage of his presidency. His travel ban on citizens from Muslim majority countries not only flies in the face of reason but it stretches the use of Executive Orders to illegality.
It is not surprising that Trump praised Brexit at his press conference. We may overplay the parallel: the media is the opposition to Trump but in the UK it is sections of the media that are trying to shout down scrutiny.
However, Trump speaks about trade and immigration with the same casual simplicity as a Daniel Hannan or John Redwood talk of "taking back control". Both before and after the referendum Brexiteers admitted that they had no plan. The Leave campaign may have said that leaving the single market was a consequence of leaving the EU but they published no binding manifesto. Individual campaigners were not bound by anything. They have since been careless with their “promise” on NHS funding. Yet, it seems, that any plan that is not Theresa May’s “clean Brexit” plan is somehow undemocratic.
The ad hominem jibe “remoaner” may lack the wit of Oscar Wilde but it is funny. However, those who use it display their anti-democratic dent.
Since the referendum there has been no post-Brexit general election. There has been no great debate in parliament. In a representative democracy it surely stands that the losing side be allowed representation in their national debating chamber. Right now Brexiteers are just intent on stifling debate on the spurious grounds that to question and to oppose is undemocratic. The reverse is true. The paranoia reveals the opportunism. The intolerance reveals the hidden uncertainty, as if their ideas will not stand rational opposition.
To the victor belongs the spoils. But they don’t always keep them
We can either believe in democracy or not. Proponents of direct democracy might wish to consider what then happens to minority opinion; those who opposed a referendum on Britain’s relationship with the EU might wish to consider the long-term consequences of not holding a referendum. Yet surely both sides can criticise David Cameron for the manner in which he carried out that referendum. We have a government elected on a Remain platform carrying out an “extreme” form of Brexit. The only democratic mandate it has for this is a binary referendum.
In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became prime minister. Her party was elected on a plurality of the vote. Their three subsequent election victories saw their vote share decreased. They governed for eighteen years with little regard for those who did not vote for them. Legitimacy comes in many forms. Their political legitimacy obscured that, after so long, their moral legitimacy waned. When they lost office, it took them nearly two decades to regain a parliamentary majority. To the victor belongs the spoils. But they don’t always keep them.
Trump is president. Brexit will happen. Barring impeachment or a public clamour for a second referendum, these facts will remain. The idea that a single vote should call an end to debate is fundamentally illiberal. Yet the attempt to shut down criticism goes further: those who derided Kuenssburg on Corbyn cheered her on when she questioned Trump. Our identities are as complicated as they are inconsistent. We all become hypocrites.
The essayist, Francis Bacon once said, “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”
I repeat the quotation without comment. However, perhaps not everything changes.
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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