The Evolution Of Brexit – (II) The Straw Man


As promised, the second part of my “Brexit trilogy” to celebrate the first anniversary of the Brexit vote. A week late, I know. But the fate of EU citizens in the UK and Brits in Europe took precedence over celebrating the Brexit vote. In a similar fashion to Brexit, I got a bit muddled, overrun by events, and rushed to the conclusions before passing through the middle.

In part I, we saw how a new “species” of UK voter appeared, Homo brexitus, severely disillusioned with the establishment – the British establishment. But how on earth did he manage to vote for Brexit, instead of voting against Westminster as soon as he got the chance? The answer lies with the appearance of another “species” which played a defining role in the evolution of Brexit – the “Straw Man”.

The Straw Man’s fallacy comprises substituting a person’s actual position or argument with a distorted, exaggerated, or misrepresented version of the position of the argument. When the Remainers praised the EU for its defence of free movement of goods, services, capital and persons, the Brexiteers equated freedom of movement with uncontrolled immigration. It wasn’t any sort of immigration either – it was the refugee kind of immigration. Nothing to do with the French or Dutch, this was about the Syrians. If you don’t believe me, take another look at the billboard featuring Nigel Farage in front of thousands of dark-skinned  men, women, and children, with the chilling catch-phrase “Breaking Point”. As if all these people had EU passports and could freely move to the UK which, by the way, doesn’t form part of the much despised Schengen Area – synonymous with free movement without passports. Could all these migrants really come to Britain legally? Of course not. The argument concerning immigration from EU countries was brilliantly distorted, exaggerated and misrepresented by the Leave camp, and Nigel Farage in particular.

But the Straw Man not only had the capability of distorting the arguments of the Remain camp to his own advantage. He was also able to act on two intrinsic weaknesses of Homo brexitus – paranoia and hypochondria.


What’s up Doc?

Have you ever had that feeling that everything is against you, and you can’t do anything about it? If that happens once in a while, that’s part of life. More often, you should consider changing jobs. All the time, then you most probably resemble people suffering from hypochondria and/or paranoia. [beautifulquote align=”left” cite=””]“…and now Doctor, my 37th symptom…”[/beautifulquote]

Hypochondriacs visit the doctor, or other health professionals, convinced that there’s something wrong with them. Furthermore, there’s nothing the doctor can say that will put their minds at rest. The hypochondriac knows exactly what he’s got and who gave it to him. The big enemy of the hypochondriac is…himself, or rather, his own body. Fuelled by the incessant search for bodily perfection in present day society, the hypochondriac feels every twitch in his body as a foreboding of a certain death.

Paranoids, on the other hand, don’t usually have a problem dealing with their own bodies. Their problem lies with other people’s bodies. A paranoid feels constantly threatened by visible or invisible outside forces. The “mob” is out to get them, even if this “mob” is living peacefully and legally as a next-door neighbour. In the street, on the train, at home…the threat is everywhere.

“I don’t understand them … I don’t feel very comfortable in that situation…” Nigel Farage, 2014 

Some unfortunate patients actually suffer from both paranoia and hypochondria. Not only are they convinced that there is something physically wrong with them, but also believe that their many doctors are persecuting them by not wanting to treat their illness.

Did the “Leave Camp” rhetoric cause mass hypochondria and paranoia?

Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage made it absolutely clear that foreigners were threatening to take over the UK’s towns and cities. Not hearing a word of English before the London underground train reached Green Park was, for poor Nigel, a real cause for concern. The fact that Farage himself admits that he’s no good at languages, and that London gets millions of foreign visitors every year is neither here nor there. Farage was, of course, the leader of the extreme right-wing party UKIP. However, inciting racial hatred is not only the trademark of politicians belonging to extreme right-wing parties. Middle ground politicians can also, willingly or not, make remarks that will fuel the already hypochondriac and/or paranoid voter’s mind. A good example of this is to be found in a speech made in 1991 by the French politician Jacques Chirac. [beautifulquote align=”left” cite=””]“Add to that the noise and the smell, and the French worker goes crazy.” Jacques Chirac, 1991[/beautifulquote]

He was alluding to the fact that France could no longer “afford” handing out benefits to what he called “polygamous immigrants”. He added that due to the noise and smell coming from an immigrant’s council flat, it was no surprise that his French neighbour would “go crazy”. Well, to be honest, if my neighbour were playing loud music and having a barbecue at 3 in the morning, I’d go crazy too.

Chirac, of course, went on to become president of France, but not without criticising his predecessor, François Mitterrand, for an “overdose” of immigrants.

Noise, smell, overdose? Sounds more like the back streets of the Red Light District in Amsterdam. Not that I would know anything about that, of course.

“One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasized conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it  invariably shows.”       R. Hofstadter, 1964

As with many things, the Americans are way ahead of us, and US politicians have been playing on people’s anxieties and fears for years, if not centuries. The historian Richard Hofstadter, in an article published in Harpers Magazine in 1964, described what he called “the paranoid style of American politics” as “an old recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.”

The technique is simple and effective. All you have to do is “predict” that if nothing changes, the whole of society as it now is, will collapse. Political systems will fail and moral values disappear. Nevertheless, the voter has a unique opportunity to avoid certain disaster by casting his vote in the ballot box. The “point of no return” will have been avoided.

In fact, during the referendum, both sides tried to play on people’s fears: collapse of the financial markets on the one hand, mass immigration and its consequences on the other. The contest was a foregone conclusion. Voters could hallucinate much better over the unavoidable invasion of the UK by European migrants than over the loss of a few pounds in the City.

For the overwhelming majority of those who voted “leave” on June 23rd 2016, money from the City had no smell, but European migrants did. We have to thank the Straw Man for that.