2016 has been the year of many things. Death has been running amok and taken from us some of the very greatest musicians and artists and there has been immense political upheaval, the magnitude of which hasn’t been seen for decades with the worst potentially still to come in less than a week. It’s as if Pandora had accidentally knocked open her box while paying tribute to Lemmy’s ‘Ace of Spades’ over New Year and couldn’t close the lid.
There have also been undertones to a change that, whilst not unique to this year, is growing and becoming rooted in our society. I cannot remember ever living through a year which has felt more divided, more ill at ease, more hateful. Abuse, predominantly aimed at women on social media seems almost commonplace, racial tensions and hate crimes are increasing and demagogues like Donald Trump have successfully manipulated and cultivated this division, fear and hatred. As James O’Brien said on his LBC show, if you were someone who sold bile in 2016, you would have made a tidy profit.
Still, the reaction to a High Court decision yesterday, though not entirely surprising or completely unique, has been unlike anything we have seen for some time. The front pages of some newspapers today went beyond hyperbolic and by glancing at them you would have guessed that we had gone to war with Germany for the third time in a little over a century or that a group of men had plotted to assassinate our monarch in Parliament. What had actually happened was that three judges had ruled that our MPs, elected by us, the British people, should have a vote on triggering the now-famous Article 50, the most referenced bit of political paper since Liam Bryne’s ‘Mo Money, Mo Problems’ note.
Being a ‘leftie luvvie’ I am not a regular reader of certain newspapers, a revelation that I’m sure they will live with. However, their headlines are almost impossible to ignore and their vendettas against refugees and welfare claimants in particular have contributed towards a toxic environment for many. On the issue of Brexit they are no longer simply sowing the seeds of division but are now supplying the ammunition, digging the trenches and are shelling the ‘enemy’. For that is exactly the language and rhetoric they are now using. They have declared war and are employing the tactics they have cultivated and used for decades; intimidation, scapegoating and degradation.
The Daily Express leads with the tubthumping ‘Today this country faces a crisis as grave as anything since the dark days when Churchill vowed we would fight them on the beaches.’. The Sun has a not-so-subtle front page where it places Gina Miller, a businesswomen of Guyanan heritage, next to ‘Loaded foreign elite defy will of Brit voters’. The Express also provide a helpful biography online. She has since been subjected to racist online abuse. The Daily Telegraph lifts ‘The judges versus the people’ headline from the recent OJ Simpson series whereas the Daily Mail helps to calm things down by opting for ‘ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE’; both newspapers feature photos of all three judges, presumably so you can shake their hand with congratulations if you see them in the street. The Mail Online also points out that one of the three is ‘openly gay’ and so presumably should have been nowhere near a constitutional decision as great as Brexit. That, or the fact that he was an ex-Olympic fencer should’ve disqualified him. Either way, this headline was later altered. No idea why.
Thankfully, the Government Minister Sajid Javid was on last night’s Question Time to bring some clarity and perspective to the court ruling. Again, just to reiterate, this ruling gave our democratically elected Parliament the opportunity to vote on Article 50 and has, in no shape or form, stopped Brexit, a point clearly lost on Javid who described it as a ‘clear attempt to frustrate the will of the British people’. I would also take issue with his assertion that the referendum result had been ‘very, very clear’. These sorts of lines have been repeated by luminaries such as Iain Duncan Smith, one of those MPs who champions Parliamentary sovereignty up until the point where it is extended to his colleagues. I do not believe that a result with a victory margin of under four percentage points is overwhelming, especially when you take into account the varying demographic inconsistencies with the vote, especially concerning age and geography. Yes, Britain voted to ‘leave’ and we should absolutely continue with the process; however, this was not by any means a landslide and over 16 million people voted to remain. To attempt to shut down any attempt at debate and for a collective approach to the biggest constitutional change in Britain for decades is wrong; it shouldn’t be a partisan issue but what Brexit actually means is being defined behind closed doors by about a dozen people. This is hardly representative of ‘the British people’.
The hypocrisies of the ‘Leave’ campaign are there for all to see. Officially at least, one of their main pillars of the campaign was to ‘Take Back Control’, to ensure that it is UK sovereignty that is king, to not be in the pocket of the unelected elite in Brussels. Now, our judges in the High Court, there to enforce the law of the land, have ruled that our democratically elected MPs have the right to vote in the longest established Parliament in the world, they are ‘ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE’. These hypocrisies are no great surprise and might have actually be reasonably funny if they didn’t feed into a narrative that is altogether more dangerous.
The shutdown of debate and scrutiny is bad for the process and aftermath of Brexit, not to mention bad for Parliament and bad for democracy in this country. What is arguably even more dangerous, is the way that people are vilified and aggressively pursued for daring to speak out and campaign (or even daring to do their jobs effectively). Media hounding and a lack of ethics is nothing new for some publications; the phone hacking endemic casts a shadow over journalism in the 21st century. Neither was Brexit the advent for social media abuse or growing divides in our country. However, the discourse in this country has undoubtedly grown darker.
Brexit might not have opened Pandora’s Box, but it has kicked open the lid and given permission to the things lurking within to come out and fester. What we write and say does matter, it does influence, it can shape and alter the direction of our society. We all have to take responsibility, not just as journalists and politicians, but as people; we too are stakeholders in how we want Britain to look and feel. Just a few months ago Jo Cox was tragically murdered by a man who gave his name in court as ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain.’. Today’s headlines has echoes of this language; it seems that we have learnt nothing.