The following article is written in part by William Davies and published in The New York Times, on May 11, 2017.
LONDON — Britain today confronts a variety of deep, even existential, uncertainties. The terms of its exit from the European Union, the country’s long-term economic prospects and Scotland’s future within the United Kingdom are all in the balance. In contrast to these unknowns, the outcome of the general election on June 8 already feels concrete: The Conservatives, consistently between 17 percent and 20 percent ahead in the polls, are on course for a landslide victory.
In calling this election (despite promises not to) and in her campaigning for it, Prime Minister Theresa May is exploiting this contrast. The Conservatives are being presented as a new type of “people’s party,” under which everyone can huddle to stay safe from the multiple storms that are brewing. Mrs. May and her party are treating this election as too important to be reduced to political divides. With no explanation of how, she claims that “every single vote for me and Conservative candidates will be a vote that strengthens my hand in the negotiations for Brexit.”
This is where Mrs. May’s strategy and rhetoric become disconcerting. Ever since she took over from David Cameron last summer, she has spoken as if Britain is a nation harmoniously united, aside from the divisive forces of party politics and liberal elites seeking to thwart the “will of the people.” The first part of this is simply untrue: Forty-eight percent of the public voted to remain in the European Union, while the other 52 percent held various ideas of what leaving could or should mean in practice.
Mrs. May’s idea that her opponents are merely playing self-interested political “games” is a classic populist trope, one that suggests that constitutional democracy is really an obstacle standing between people and leader. The prime minister’s rhetoric since calling the general election has implied that the best outcome for “the national interest” would be to eradicate opposition altogether, whether that be in the news media, Parliament or the judiciary. For various reasons (not least the rise of the Scottish National Party) it is virtually impossible to imagine the Labour Party achieving a parliamentary majority ever again, as Mrs. May well knows. To put all this another way, the main purpose of this election is to destroy two-party politics as Britain has known it since 1945.
One way in which Mrs. May has aggressively pursued this outcome is in her unusual framing of the choice before the British electorate. We are used to politicians presenting policy proposals and promises to the public. Of course, in practice this involves spin doctors seeking to cast their party’s policies in the best light, news outlets twisting the message depending on their political biases and many voters turning away in disgust because they don’t believe a word politicians say. That’s the routine.
The Labour Party, despite occasional populist swipes at the news media, has been sticking roughly to this script. There is a certain irony in this, seeing as Labour, under the socialist leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has become viewed by many pundits and voters as an implausible party of government. But Labour has nevertheless been regularly putting out clear and reasonably worked-out policy proposals since the election was announced on April 18.
By contrast, Mrs. May has made scarcely any statements regarding policy. Her speeches and campaign literature are peppered with the slogan “strong and stable leadership,” a phrase she then recites on the few occasions that she takes questions from journalists or members of the public. The very basis on which she is asking to be trusted and to be elected seems different from an ordinary policy platform. From a leader of a party still in thrall to Margaret Thatcher, Mrs. May’s virtual silence on the economy is astonishing. The decision to vote Conservative is not to be based on knowledge of what a Conservative government will do — nobody has much of a clue about anything right now — but because of the desperate need for “strong and stable leadership.”
May doesn’t speak to us in the recognisable language of a first world liberal democracy. She loathes our proud heritage of human rights. Her inauthentic glittering generalities, delivered robot-style, mask an underlying ideological narrative of scorched earth neoliberal policies, the details of which she refuses to share with us.
That said, it isn’t terribly surprising. If the votes in the general election were to be cast on the strength of public policies, rather than wedge issues and cringeworthy dog whistling slogans, then the Labour party will most certainly win. The Conservatives have left a blaze trail of antisocial policies, which the public have thus far been slow to register. A win for the Conservatives in June will be regarded as an endorsement for the party to finish dismantling the social gains of our post-war settlement: legal aid, welfare, the NHS, social housing and a genuine democracy.
May’s has previously stated her support for a Bill of Rights, one that doesn’t “bind the hands of parliament”. The Conservatives still intend to try and repeal our existing Human Rights Act. This is very worrying, since human rights were designed originally to protect citizens from authoritarian governments like this one.
The Conservatives have already taken away legal aid, which is so clearly contrary to the very principle of equality under the law. In fact they have turned legal aid into an instrument of discrimination. The government has also tried to dismantle another vital legal protection – judicial review – which has been used to stop them from abusing political power on several occasions.
The years immediately after the second world war marked a turning point in the history of human rights, as the world reeled in horror at the rise of fascism and the Nazi concentration camps, there came an important realisation that although fundamental rights should be respected as a matter of course, without formal protection, human rights concepts are of little use and consolation to those facing persecution.
So in response to the atrocities committed during the war, the international community sought to define the rights and freedoms necessary to secure the dignity and worth of each and every individual. In 1948 the newly formed United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), one of the most important agreements in world history.
Democracy is one of the universal core values and principles of the United Nations. Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the principle of holding periodic and genuine elections by universal suffrage are essential elements of democracy. These values are embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and further developed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which enshrines a host of political rights and civil liberties underpinning meaningful democracies.
Human rights, democracy and the rule of law are core values of the European Union, too. Embedded in its founding treaty, they were reinforced when the EU adopted the Charter of Fundamental Rights in 2000, and strengthened still further when the Charter became legally binding with the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009.
A legally binding human rights framework must be applied universally, and implemented without the “interpretation” and interference from individual governments. Furthermore, the State must fund the means of contract enforcement and free and fair trial legal costs, for those who cannot afford it.
If the State fails to fulfil this contingent function, then citizens simply cease to be free.
Pinochet claimed that Chile needed a “strong and stable leadership”, following his coup d’état. He went on to become adept at using his power to kill his political opponents – the “saboteurs”.
Government policies are expressed political intentions, regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences.
How policies are justified is being increasingly detached from their aims and consequences, partly because democratic processes and basic human rights are being disassembled or side-stepped, and partly because the government employs the widespread use of propaganda to intentionally divert us from their aims and the consequences of their ideologically (rather than rationally) driven policies. Furthermore, policies have become increasingly detached from public interests and needs.
No wonder the Prime Minister chooses not to discuss Conservative policies and future policy proposals.
Opposition and a plurality of perspectives are essential to a democracy. To dismiss anyone with a different view as a “saboteur” is to speak the language of tyranny. This translates as “democracy is sabotaging May’s government.”
“In a way, the world-view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it. They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening.” George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The primary purpose of propaganda, for Orwell, is to eliminate individual thought and expression. In using euphemisms and metaphors, for example, which one does not create by him or herself, an individual neither creates his/her thoughts nor chooses his/her words; the process of thinking is completely eliminated.
Hannah Arendt wrote Origins of Totalitarianism during the 1940s, a period following on from the atrocities of world war two. Her research raises some fundamental questions about how tyranny can arise and also, the most dangerous forms of political scapegoating and dehumanisation, and the horrific inhumanity to which it can lead. Arendt’s analysis of propaganda and the function of intentional state lies seems particularly relevant here and now in the UK.
Arendt explained that in Nazi Germany, the opposition was poorly equipped to fight the state because they didn’t understood either the purpose of propaganda or the language of totalitarianism.
The language reveals an intent. So, for example, when the Nazis formulated propaganda about the Jewish community, the opposition would focus on the lack of truth content, and meticulously fact-check the statements made, revealing them to be lies.
However, Arendt goes on to explain that the propaganda was never intended to be a statement of fact, it was meant to be an outline of intention.
The Tory creation of socioeconomic scapegoats, involving vicious stigmatisation of vulnerable social groups, particularly endorsed by the mainstream media, is simply a means of manipulating public perceptions and securing public acceptance of the increasingly punitive and repressive basis of the Conservatives’ welfare “reforms”, and the steady stripping away of essential state support and lifeline provision. That the othering rhetoric appeared in the media – the deliberate political act of spoiling and stigmatising a group identity – signaled the government’s intentions towards those groups that were targeted.
The linguistic downgrading of human life requires dehumanising metaphors: a dehumanising socio-political system using a dehumanising language, and it is becoming familiar and pervasive: it has seeped almost unnoticed into our lives.
The political construction of social problems also marks an era of increasing state control of citizens with behaviour modification techniques, (under the guise of paternalistic libertarianism) all of which are a part of the process of restricting access rights to welfare provision.
The mainstream media has been complicit in the process of constructing deviant welfare stereotypes – folk devils – and in generating moral outrage that is primarily emotive, rather than having any basis in rationality, from the public.
McGill University political philosophy professor, Jacob T. Levy says “The great analysts of truth and language in politics [including] George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, Vaclav Havel – can help us recognize this kind of lie for what it is…. Saying something obviously untrue, and making your subordinates repeat it with a straight face in their own voice, is a particularly startling display of power over them. Sometimes – often – a leader with authoritarian tendencies will lie in order to make others repeat his lie both as a way to demonstrate and strengthen his power over them.It’s something that was endemic to totalitarianism.”
Arendt and others recognised, writes Levy, that “being made to repeat an obvious lie makes it clear that you’re powerless.” She also recognized the function of an avalanche of lies to render a populace powerless to resist, the phenomenon we now refer to as “gaslighting”:
“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command… And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth.” George Orwell, Nineteen eighty-four.
Kitty S Jones.
I don’t make any money from my work. But you can contribute by making a donation and help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.