By Oliver Henryk Roberts
Following Brexit has been a profoundly unglamorous experience. It hasn’t been remotely close to exciting and it appears to have left many of us on the ground completely bungled as how to live with it.
Far more than once I’ve witnessed people declare they ‘don’t bother with Brexit anymore’ only to start a 20-30 minute monologue lamenting the basic arguments and their impasses.
As of the writing of this piece, there is one calendar year March 29, 2019, till Britain is no longer a member of the EU. The implications of what lies ahead, leave close to no party on the political spectrum happy – an immigration biased softest “Hard Brexit” with a one year transition period.
From business to Brexiteers, one is left wondering, irrespective of stance, how a deal is in place that the overwhelming majority have varying degrees of dismay in?
One may feel liable to lament the decision or the referendum itself, the role of the EU in this process, however, I’d argue Brexit’s process is casting a shadow over realities holding the roots of despondency.
Craig Oliver’s Unleashing demons gives a day to day, on the grounds account of the referendum campaign (and it’s run-up) as a spin doctor for No. 10, who effective immediately went to work for the ‘remain’ campaign.
Some bias should be confirmed here; Oliver was a spin doctor for the Prime Minister, (replacing Andy Coulson no less…) there’s clear love in this book for David Cameron that won’t be shared by all.
Furthermore, the book projects the ardent belief in ‘compassionate conservatism’ without realising many across the political spectrum view this term as a joke or delusion for the oblivious.
Yet, in fairness to Oliver, this is a roaring page turner that drops insight only available from such an intrinsic position. The book holds the increasing unravelling chaos this referendum provided and some remarkable insights are on the media itself.
2016 was truly the straw that broke the camel’s back of the mass media’s relationship with social media – veins of impartiality were perused to the point where truth or lies were not differentiated – all to compete with the non-stop, social media news cycle, in a now over-saturated market.
Oliver makes clear those in the campaign had a sense of the landscape they occupied was changing. A chapter titled ‘What it’s like to be Ed Milliband’ sums up the realisation an austerity mandating Conservative Prime Minister was now an enemy to the right-wing press.
More amusingly, Cameron himself declaring at one point ‘the bloody Guardian’ was the only place he found balanced coverage of what he actually said (pp. 224).
In an exchange at a campaign stop at a Mini Cooper factory, Oliver covers a passing exchange with BBC’s Laura Kussenberg (pp. 350-351).
He expresses to her; that any political stance is left gunning for hyperbole to just get on the news in the current instant, brief, get a ‘splash’ conditions of media prediction. He describes Kussenberg as having not considered this, an alarming reaction from a front line face of the BBC.
While the oft meshed relationship between those in media and those in political bodies leaves much to be desired, surely a greater focus on the mechanisms of such needs examining in a time where the truth appears in jeopardy.
It is clear media working conditions have not helped but exacerbated political and social division in recent years, yet three moments from this book’s accounting of the campaign trail capture the distance between real issue and the referendum.
Oliver recounts a ‘reasonable man’ speaking to the Prime Minister during a ‘Remain’ campaign stop, talking of the pressure in his child’s classroom, of the teachers time being understandably absorbed with children whose native language is not English (pp. 207).
The author himself recounting the EU’s trade-off for the single market of “potentially unlimited immigration” as concerning, despite himself being “as metropolitan and as liberal as they come” (pp. 318) – accepting the ‘Remain’ campaign was offering something many people found impenetrable as a binary.
Finally, in a debate prep toward the end of the campaign, Alistair Campbell asks participant Angel Eagle, “What is the number that immigration should be set at to make sure the country isn’t full?” Eagle is described a motionless for ten seconds before responding, “I have no idea how to answer that.” (pp. 303)
These examples are brought to light on the grounds that none of these concerns has been abated by this referendum, its result or its course to this day. The course of the result has been an immigration centric one, and in spite of that, these immigration, numbers and pressures of concerns, are still not near answered.
Britain is in desperate need of a space in which discourse on the reality of immigration can be had without our immigrant citizens feeling threatened and or dismissed, we owe this to one another – though undoubtedly this referendum has placed a question mark above the term “we”.
British politics’ is in no position to hold onto a cultural mainstay of suppositious ‘knowing’ – our representatives and bodies must do the uncomfortable of addressing the country in front of them, not the one they wish it to be.
Perhaps the most telling instance of this is Oliver’s recounting of the PM’s encounter with a student ‘remainer’ who attacks the campaign, speaks of coming from immigrants yet having concerns and an eye on Turkey (at the time), Oliver calls her “a confused attention seeker” (pp. 277).
A dichotomy of views, an insecurity in their stance, a heritage at an impasse with unwanted demands of citizenship – this writer would argue the “confused attention seekers” need more adherence from our politics and its players, our ever-smaller world will not produce less of them.
Let us hope that Brexit’s aftermath, irrespective of its conclusion, is one where the complexity of public concern is placed higher than the political Darwinism this referendum opened the doors of.