Tuesday 27 September 2016

Anger has become the default emotion in political discourse

Published 25/06/2016 | 02:30

Paul Murphy TD
Paul Murphy TD

We can be shocked at the UK's decision to leave the EU, but we can hardly be surprised. The Leave vote is a logical progression of how politics across the western world, including in this country, has been moving for the past five years or so.

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The politics of reason and common sense has been replaced by the politics of protest and alienation - the latter best captured by leading Leave campaigner Michael Gove's revealing comment that "the British people are sick of experts".

Facts and measured arguments have been drowned out by ill-informed rants, clichés and conspiracy theories, fuelled by social media. The 'men in suits', the 'elites', 'officialdom', 'the establishment', Brussels, the ECB, Angela Merkel are the new bogeymen - the source of all our ills.

Easy solutions to complex problems are central to this narrative. 'Let the banks fail.' 'No way, we won't pay.' 'Tell the EU to get stuffed.' 'Build a wall across the border with Mexico.' It's the politics of the lowest common denominator.

And after Brexit, nobody can cling to the notion that it doesn't have consequences.

Edward Snowden summed it up better than anybody when he tweeted that the Brexit result demonstrated how quickly half of any population can be convinced to vote against itself.

The parallels with history are chilling. It was hard not to think of the immortal line of the British foreign secretary Lord Gray on the eve of World War One when he said: "The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."

There are also echoes of the 1930s when democracy was so disastrously undermined.

Of course, there is a need for perspective.

Nobody is going to war. There are no jackboots on the streets. But there is undoubtedly an ugliness and a dangerous populism in political discourse. Anger is the default emotion.

And it's the politicians who are playing that game - in Ireland, the UK and the US - that are gaining. The 'anti-politics politicians' who decry the so-called elites that they, of course, want to usurp.

A few years ago, the suggestion that in early 2017 Boris Johnson would be meeting Donald Trump as British prime minister and US president respectively would have been greeted with hilarity. Nobody is laughing any more, except perhaps Vladimir Putin.

Nigel Farage, head of a party with one MP, is probably now the single most influential politician Britain has produced since Margaret Thatcher. We are talking about Britain, a place with a

deserved reputation for tolerance, even-handedness and moderation.

They're not alone. Experience, expertise and steadiness count for little - they may even be a hindrance - where politics has been become akin to 'Celebrity Big Brother'. Notoriety and infamy are assets, instead of barriers.

Getting to the top in politics used to be a tough slog - a slow process of working your way up the ladder. Nowadays, a few appearances sounding off on a TV show allows you to get straight past 'go'.

The Brexit result, the march of Trump, the rise of the Right in Scandinavia and the recent Austrian presidential election are the most obvious manifestations of that. But we're not immune to it in this country.

There may be widespread puzzlement at Britain's decision, but we would silly to presume that we couldn't be in that exact position in relation to the EU in five or 10 years' time. We can.

It's not so much about a rise of Euroscepticism - though that is certainly there - more the increasingly unrealistic nature of political debate and rampant populism and demagoguery that is the real worry.

Common sense has gone out the window. The recent talks to form a government were held up at the 11th hour by the issues of turf cutting and the western rail corridor. And these are probably the more benign examples of how the political narrative has shifted.

The centre ground - for 90 years the mainstay of politics in this country - is looking like an increasingly lonely place. The hard Left, some of whom have welcomed the British referendum result, is in many ways setting the political agenda.

Paul Murphy's by-election victory in Dublin South-West in 2014 has probably been the defining moment in politics over the past five years. It caused Sinn Féin to shift sharply to the Left, which in turn impacted on Fianna Fáil's position and by extension that of the current Government. He won't like the comparison but in terms of impact, Paul Murphy is similar to Nigel Farage.

The administration's minority position is clearly a barrier to decision-making. But even if a government had an overall majority, it's doubtful whether the political climate that exists at the moment would allow for any difficult or unpalatable decisions to be made.

How that will stand up to the new post-Brexit world is deeply worrying. Even allowing for the best-case scenario - a relatively smooth exit with a compromise agreement whereby Britain maintains a trading relationship with the EU - the Government's room for fiscal manoeuvre will be greatly restricted.

A less than best-case scenario scarcely bears thinking about. If that did come to pass, it's difficult to see the current Government getting through one difficult budget. And that raises the obvious question as to what would come after that.

Nobody knows the answer for sure. But in the current climate here and abroad, it's difficult to see moderate, centrist politics triumphing.

The reaction to Britain's vote to 'Leave' in this country has been largely one of amazement that an electorate could so blatantly act against its own best interests.

Can we in Ireland be entirely confident that we won't make exactly the same mistake?

Irish Independent

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