Although politics, like human nature, self-evidently thrives on emotion, the politics of the ongoing, if unofficial, Remain campaign indulges in blatant manipulation. And as the EU Withdrawal Bill returns to the House of Commons this week, bringing the debate to a post-referendum fever pitch, Brexiteers must brace themselves for another manipulative onslaught.
There are four types of Remainer manipulation, all of which deliberately invoke feelings of guilt and shame. One is the appeal to the interests of children. This emerged last week when the Justice minister, Phillip Lee, resigned over ‘the Government’s wish to limit Parliament’s role in contributing to the final outcome’. But right at the forefront of his resignation statement, he emphasised that ‘if, in the future, I am to look my children in the eye and honestly say that I did my best for them I cannot, in all good conscience, support how our country’s exit from the EU looks set to be delivered’.
You would, of course, have to be very wicked indeed to question the motives of a man who is ‘looking his children in the eye’. In any case, what right did we ever have to hold a referendum on EU membership if future generations were going to pick up the bill? And of course, the votes of 17.4 million people count for nothing compared with the interests of a tiny, innocent child.
Lee’s language closely echoed other Remainer voices. The Brexit debate ‘must be…in the interests of the people—in the interests of not just my generation but my children and my grandchildren’, as Anna Soubry has pontificated, while in the Upper Chamber Lord Newby has emphasised that ‘many Members of your Lordships’ House will know how keenly their children and grandchildren feel on this issue’. And another ardent Europhile, Baroness Wheatcroft, claims to know ‘at least one person in this House who was vigorously opposed to the idea of a referendum who has changed his mind because he says that his grandchildren would never forgive him if he did not support the amendment’. So Brexiteers are selfish, thinking only of their own selves. They should feel guilty and ashamed.
But children are not the only victims of Brexiteer wickedness. So too are Remainer MPs. Again, during the week Anna Soubry portrayed herself as just as much a victim of Brexit as small children. She had to be flanked by six armed undercover police officers at a public meeting, she told the House of Commons, to fend off pro-Brexit assassins, enraged by her intransigent pro-Remain stance. How could you not admire such a principled and brave woman? Shouldn’t you feel ashamed for supporting the same cause as crazed, psychopathic killers? But we hear rather less about the death threats that leading Brexiteers also receive, and indeed so many others who stand in the public eye: Andrea Leadsom has received such threats and so too, allegedly, have several Vote Leave donors.
In the eyes of Remainer manipulators, such victimisation of their own number is just a mere trickle in a much wider torrent of ‘hatred’ unleashed by the June 2016 referendum result. ‘Hatred’, like ‘terrorism’, is of course a particularly charged and manipulative word. You can’t sympathise with someone who is labelled as ‘hate-filled’. It is hard to even ask if he or she might have a point of view. We can imagine what George Orwell would have made of the term, and how it suppresses freedom of expression. But over the past two years there has been a marked increase not in ‘hate crimes’ (define them as you will) but in accusations of such an increase as Remainers try to make Brexiteers feel guilty for the imaginary consequences of their wrongdoing. Just enter these terms on a search engine and see what it throws back at you.
For some extreme Remainers, any increase in ‘hate crimes’, real or imaginary, leads to one final form of manipulation. This is reductio ad Hitlerum – the most desperate form of manipulation. It was deployed by Lord Roberts of Llandudno at the end of April during the Report stage of EU Withdrawal Bill. ‘What we are doing here must involve Parliament. I would like to see it involving the people as well, but it must certainly be in other hands. We cannot let an enabling Act of the United Kingdom possibly lead to the catastrophe that took place in Berlin in 1933’. If Brexit does go ahead and Remainers become more desperate, then we must expect to hear more parallels. It will become the last refuge of the Remainer.
So what does the politics of manipulation tell us about the Remain cause? It is a reminder of how Remainers managed to lose the referendum: instead of giving a positive reason to stay in the EU, they evoked crude emotions – Project Fear- in a bid to scare people away from national independence. And it reveals, too, a certain contempt for the rational capacity of ordinary voters and, by extension, for the democratic process. In that respect, the politics of manipulation remains true to the spirit of the European Union.