Locked-in syndrome (LIS) is one of the most terrible, and frightening, clinical conditions. The victim is totally paralysed, unable to speak or move. The brain continues to function and remains fully aware, but communication is next to impossible – achieved at best by a painfully worked-out code based on flickerings of the eyelid.
But there is another form of locked-in syndrome, and it is causing havoc across the world. It can be seen as almost the opposite of LIS. Communication is not only possible, it is in full flood. The brain, however, loses its cognitive ability, able only to repeat, ever more loudly, the convictions that built up before the onset of the paralysis that ultimately triggered the overload.
We see this in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and in the endless dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. It’s the reason the Troubles in Northern Ireland went on for 35 years and why Sinn Fein and the DUP cannot form a new executive at Stormont. Kim Jong Un and his henchmen are convinced that America wants to invade North Korea – taking on China in the process – and that the only way to prevent this is by lining up a slew of nuclear missiles on a hair-trigger. Donald Trump, himself in thrall to the idea that the U.S. needs a 2,500-mile wall to keep out Mexicans, is Kim’s perfect foil. If anyone can out-crazy Kim, it is Trump, which is why it is a good thing so many ex-generals – who know a thing or two about the downside of Armageddon – are currently on standby in the White House.
But most of all, outside of war and rumours of war, we see locked-in syndrome in the ongoing, seemingly endless feud over the rights and wrongs of climate change. It doesn’t seem to matter how much scientific evidence has accrued to demonstrate that CO2 emissions have led to a warming of the world’s oceans, causing sea levels to rise and accelerating an increase in the number of hurricanes, tsunamis and tropical storms. It is deemed irrelevant – in fact, gosh darnit, a happy coincidence – that ships can now pass through the formerly mythical North West Passage. Alpine glaciers everywhere may be shrinking and breaking away, but so what? Nothing to do with us. Deniers view warnings of climate change as nothing but green propaganda, peddled by so-called scientists and their supporters who, if they could, would force us all to drink herbal tea and eat maggots instead of steak.
Why politicians and scientists would wish to push such a line remains unclear, but the presumption among deniers has to be that they are the sort of people who want to live in yurts and raise their children as transgender hippies. Some, I will concede, are exactly that. Personally, I cannot hear Cumbayah without reaching for my revolver. Most, however, are driven by mounting evidence of a breakdown of long-established weather patterns that are in large part attributable to our addiction to the internal combustion engine. They are warning us that it is we, the children of the twentieth century, who have created the crisis, and we who must work to put it right.
It is hard to know how the mindset of denial comes about as it generally has little or no connection with the known facts. But in most cases it looks to be all of a piece. Climate deniers in America will almost all have voted for Trump. They believe in the right to bear arms and the need to end immigration. They reject evolution in favour of Creationism. They are nostalgic for coal-mining and tough policing and cry when they listen to country music – especially songs that praise strong men and strong women whose lives have been laid waste by cruel fate. They are ruthless and sentimental by turn.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
In Britain, climate deniers will overwhelmingly have voted Leave. They don’t trust Europe and they are opposed to large number of foreigners living in their country, who they believe are out to take their jobs, and probably their women. I am not saying all, or even most, Brexiteers are climate deniers. It is likely that some member of the Green Party voted Leave. But just about all climate deniers are Brexiteers. You only have to read the comments on pieces in the Telegraph by Christopher Booker or on Facebook by Rod Liddle, to see the truth of this.
They are angry people, middle-aged or older, who feel left out of the conversation the world has been having with itself for the last three decades. They want life to continue on as they imagine it used to be. They want to control their borders, but they also want to control nature. If they are fundamentalist Christians – which in the U.S. would normally be the case, in Britain much less so – they take their cue from Genesis, in which God promised Adam dominion over the Earth and all its creatures, with no made-up nonsense about CO2 emissions.
Locked-in politics is immutable. Argument is a waste of time. The only way to move forward is by strict adherence to prior opinion.
Turning to Brexit itself, it is perfectly true that there are Remainers who would not accept the UK leaving the EU even if millions of teenagers and old-age pensioners raised their fists along the south coast and shouted out “We’re mad as Hell and we’re not going to take it any more!”
They, too, are locked in – and delusional. But the reality is that most Remainers have refined their opinions over the thirteen months since the referendum. Overwhelmingly (Tony Blair excepted), they now concentrate their efforts on achieving a practical settlement that will enable the UK to govern itself while moving forward in a practical partnership with its neighbours.
Hardline Brexiteers, however, see no reason to compromise. They want out and they want out now – or at any rate by March, 2019. And they don’t want to pay a penny. None of the arguments put up by the EU cut any ice with them. The way they see it, Jean-Claude Juncker, Michel Barnier, Guy Verhofstadt and Donald Tusk are the enemy, out to destroy British freedoms and impoverish our people. How they square this with the fact that during our 43 years of EU membership we rose from being the Sick Man of Europe to being the world’s fifth-largest economy is beyond me.
They have no time for the notion that the 27 are on one side of the negotiating table and Britain, per force, on the other. They think both teams should be on the same side and that the talks should result in a shared endorsement of UK demands.
This is locked-in thinking. The British used to be known as able negotiators. Our Foreign Office was for many years regarded as the Rolls-Royce of diplomacy. Not any more. What the Brexit talks have revealed most of all to the 27 is how inept we are, and how confused, determined somehow to get our way while offering little or nothing in return. The fact that the referendum created a crisis in Europe that will take years to resolve is, to the hard men and women of Brexit, their business, not ours. More than that, there are many who hope the EU will wither and die after we take our leave.
Is it too late for us to change? Can David Davis stay the course for more than two hours at a time and actually put flesh on the bones of his separatist ambition? Maybe. Who knows? But as Barnier keeps reminding us, l’horloge fait tic-tac.
If we are to make a last-gasp success of Brexit and unlock a settlement that both sides can live with, we have to accept two things: first, the 27, with seven times our population and a higher rate of economic growth, have their own entirely legitimate agenda, which we must recognise and address; second, BMW is not going to come running to our rescue. One other thing: all those “brilliant” trade deals we were promised in the weeks following the referendum – they are going to take years to negotiate, and if we don’t agree reasonable transition terms, we will end up screwed at both ends.
I am fairly certain of this. So does this mean that I, too, am locked in? No. A fervent Remainer, I accept that, come 2019, Britain will no longer have a seat on the European Commission or on the European Council. Neither will there be British members of the Strasbourg parliament or of the European Court of Justice. There may be those in the Leave camp who consider that renting space in the Single Market and the Customs Union for a year or two after 2019 is a betrayal of the 51.9 per cent of voters who voted No in the referendum. But in Continental Europe the long-term direction of travel will be clear, with buffers at the end of the final stretch.
If we do manage to put in place transition arrangements, the court in Luxembourg will continue to adjudicate disputes over trade and market regulation, as well as the Four Freedoms, including Freedom of Movement. But as soon as we complete our exit, that, too, will go, and the UK will once more be a sovereign power. I greatly regret this. I regard it as a backward step. But I do not dispute that it will happen and I will learn to live with it.
In their turn, Leavers must accept that their impassioned emotional attachment to a hard Brexit – in which we give nothing and receive as much in return – is illogical and counter-productive. Only with compromise and goodwill (on both sides) can the talks that are currently so dangerously becalmed be brought to a fruitful conclusion.
As for climate change, I shall leave the last word to hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Their actions speak louder than words.