Leave/Remain isn’t actually a terribly big question, outside the minutiae of the trade deal itself, and it’s my observation/experience that in the absence of deals, deals get made. The purpose of the GATT, and the WTO, and the Doha Round, and the - keeping reading, this blows over - meeting in Bali in 2013 was to lower tariffs and trade barriers, et cetera, and the obstacles to all that effort weren’t stubborn trade barriers, because everybody wanted them gone, but the combination of self interest and human nature most commonly expressed by politicians. [See also US:China, but we’re not going there.] We can trade together, once we get the politics out of the way.
The benefit of this latest catharsis, I would like to think, will be to get both our attention and the politicians'; to force a working together without obfuscation or manipulation. We had a vote that split the country down the middle. Then, instead of examining why so many people were against the Divine Right of Kings, we climbed into our entrenched positions and waited for somebody to invent the tank. Break the stalemate. Which didn’t happen. So we’re still in our trenches hurling insults at each other. Or rather - correct me if I’m wrong, politely if you don’t mind - the Remain side is making a lot of noise while the Leave side has drawn the curtains and kept its voting intentions to itself.
I hope I can say that without taking fire from both sides. I accept that there is no such thing as “A Remainer”, while the term “The Brexiteers” once referred to a small number of politicians and now seems to be used most commonly to impugn the motives of the majority of the (voting) electorate. I’m not making a political point here, but it does seem to me that we need Sellars & Yeatman* more than we need Barnier & whoever’s running our side this week. The Parliamentarians are Right and Repulsive (no offence, but maybe tone it down at bit), while the Royalists are Wrong but Wromantic (sic) in their belief that the Golden Hind can set sail and make trade deals all around the world.
But we’re still facing each other across the barricades. And now we’re going into a straightforward old-style political fight without any real acknowledgement that (a) everything’s changed, and (b) everything’s stayed the same. What’s changed is that technology has brought us together - in the sense that we’re gathered around the castle with our pitchforks and flaming torches and smartphones, rather than dispersed across the surrounding countryside, unable to organise**. What’s stayed the same is that the people inside the castle have their own priorities and interests, et cetera, and are just ever so slightly pleased with themselves for being on the inside. They know better, right?
Or however you want to put that; there does seem to be a new sense to the term “haves and have-nots”. I’m going to try to finish this without mentioning the closing scene of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945 - oh, rats!), and to help me in that (already failed) endeavour, I did write a piece here a while back suggesting that, come mid-2019, we wouldn’t be able to tell whether we’d left the EU or not, but what I really wanted to say was: Brexit doesn’t matter because the existence of splits, breaks, ruptures, trade and other wars leads to people trying to mend them. We fall out; we make up.
Except that we can't start making up until we acknowledge the fall-out, or bring it to a head perhaps. These days, it seems possible just to go on falling out - for a while anyway; the punch-up will come, and the longer we hold it in, the worse it will be. None of us know the future, but I’d guess that the outcome of a straightforward negotiation between two parties - we’ll call them the EU and the UK for the sake of the story - would tend to be at least mutually a little bit acceptable in the short to medium term, and not actually the key determinant of the future or anything else in the long term. Things happen, the world changes, et cetera. I’m excluding from this simple equation such extraneous factors as a hysterical news media with a 24-hour rolling news cycle to fill with low-budget reporting. And both sides’ inclination to persist with their passive-aggressive slanging match while the underlying split gets wider.
What I’m really trying to say is, Brexit doesn’t matter because it can’t matter. We can’t know the future. We can’t be certain of our entrenched positions. We can get past Brexit and make it our next step to argue for closer ties with the EU (or for leaving the EU), but we can’t fix on that one thing and hold it responsible for the whole unknowable future. And while I’m at it, I might as well go on to say that news isn’t news. Things happen, and they’re part of the given. They’re showing The World At War (1973-1974) again on one of the Freeview channels and they’ve got to the bomber war: shots of children being children in the ruins of Berlin; for them, those ruins were part of the given. We live our lives and change goes on. [Yes, I know what happened next.]
Events happen, and they’re terrible. I’m not saying otherwise. When they’re reported, they evoke a reaction. Non-events happen, and they’re nothing. When they’re reported, they evoke a reaction. For news to work as news without provoking a disproportionate reaction and thus destabilising us, there needs to be a zero value. It happened in numbers.
I’ve just gone online and waited through the pop-ups and ads - yes, I accept your cookies; no, I don’t want your notifications; I’m not a woman and I don’t have a 401k so I don’t want your app - and for my reward, I can bring you (cut and paste) this quotation. "The Indian [or numerical] zero, widely seen as one of the greatest innovations in human history, is the cornerstone of modern mathematics and physics, plus the spin-off technology." That’s Peter Gobets talking, secretary of the Zero Project. Thank you, livescience.com. And while I have your attention - football may be “everyone’s game”, as another of these ads says, but I don’t watch it.
A zero value for news. Some way of going on air to deliver the news that nothing much happened today. Difficult, of course, and globalisation doesn’t help - there’s always something happening, somewhere. But could there be an alternative to the current arrangement? Instead of flying off somewhere and reporting on whatever’s happening there, which would be expensive, we give ever-greater prominence to ever-tinier stories. Today’s big political interview: another obscure politician says he’s going to vote against the deal. Uh huh. And now we’re going live to our reporter outside the building who’s going to summarise what we just said and then do a vox pop with somebody who says yes and somebody who says no.
Zero value would be a kind of news version of the weather forecast. It would be both real and honest. “It’s been a quiet day across Westminster, with no big votes scheduled. Tomorrow looks like being another quiet day…” A man can dream, right? What I think is news, or might one day be the worth-mentioning angle on what’s happening at the moment - is that while those people in Westminster are kicking the political football back and forth - or the can down the road, or whatever - the rest of us are still at odds. Brexit will end up as a compromise deal signed at the last minute after all-night talks - because that’s how everything ends up these days - and politicians will talk to cameras about how wonderful it all is. They’ve always made very clear that this is exactly what they wanted all along - news less easily scripted in advance would be good, no?
It’ll be a compromise. Or a fudge. Or one of those words for something that makes no difference. And unless somebody does a very good job, very quickly, of recognising and addressing the strength of feeling on both sides of this issue - then 17 million plus 14 million equals, wait a minute, 31 million voters will feel that their politicians have let them down. In opposite directions. Those politicians will have our attention. And we’re already gathered around the castle. Shouting at each other. We've had one civil war; it won’t take much.
*1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England by W C Sellars and R J Yeatman (1930).
**Here's a paragraph from Patricia Finney's book How to Beat Your Son at Computer Games (2012, Climbing Tree Books). "The Publisher ... starts talking loudly – as Publishers do – about a commission for the cover of another book, written by him for another Publisher. He comes up with an idea for it that's so good I can't believe it's not been used before." She's talking about the cover of my book Who's Afraid of the Media-Political Complex? (ditto), which you can find in the column on the right. Being naturally modest, I can't quite bring myself to identify the person identified as "The Publisher", and that book's out of print anyway, but the cover makes my point about smartphones, pitchforks and, er, hammers and cocktails.
I don’t feel incompetent, but it’s a role that works well enough in conversation. I use FaceTime, Skype, Facebook and Messenger, blah, blah, video and audio, perfectly competent, yada yada, and while I don’t agree that code is poetry, I’ve written some of both. I’ve met various not very convincing robots, and I’ve had conversations with jam-jar-sized prototypes that turned the lights on and off to show how clever they were. I can do that. Come to think of it, I’ve written books - back in the days when books were printed - about the technologies that would soon be with us. Back then, late nineties, references to “the intelligent fridge” meant roughly what “the internet of things” means now.
So I can claim a certain vague awareness of the technology all around me, although I’m a deliberate late adopter and my fridge is still stupid. Technology is a means not an end, and while it so happens that I’m using a Chromebook to write this post on Google Docs, it doesn’t matter to me that I usually start the week’s posts in a Moleskine journal. Writing with a felt-tip. TMI? It does matter to me that I’ve just gone to the Moleskine website and found the message UNWRAP YOUR PASSION superimposed on a picture of a Christmas present being unwrapped (red paper) to reveal a 2019 diary, but I refuse to be sidetracked.
No, I don’t. My diary for 2019 - sorry, my PASSION for 2019 - is a Filofax insert in a leather Filofax-style organiser (is that the word?) made from leather brought up from a wreck. Here we are. It’s Russian reindeer leather brought up from the Metta Catharina in 1786. How come I own this? Must have bought it (I dimly remember my Filofax phase). I’ve had it for years, keeping it safe (by forgetting about it), and just recently (found it again and) decided to buy the insert and use it as a diary. I suppose I could wrap it up and then UNWRAP MY PASSION, but I think I’ll just carry it around. Deserves to be used, is my current thinking. The Metta Catharina went down in Plymouth Sound, all hands saved, and much of the leather was worked by the craftsman Robin Snelson, of Penryn. So perhaps I have a complete provenance.
I went to the Moleskine site because there’s usually a paragraph about the late Bruce Chatwin and how he used to use Moleskine notebooks - at least there used to be, on the paper that falls out when you buy a new Moleskine notebook (the full story is online) - and I had an idea about crafting a sentence in which I gave up on harnessing the power of technology and instead harnessed the tradition of Bruce Chatwin - but it didn’t really work. I do find that my Moleskine notebook switches on very quickly, displaying a blank page in the time it takes me to get it out and open it, but I’ve got to the point where I regard all these things as tools, so I won’t make a big deal out of that.
But it does still seem to be an (optional) tribal ritual for my age group to be faux-incompetent with technology. My friends comment on apps that are just helpful enough to tell you why they won’t help you. Outside my peer group (by which I mean, when I’m fraternising with people younger than I am), I’m old enough and technology is still young enough for me to be assigned an “old guy doesn’t get it” role without even a hearing. Same response, only more so, if I do start muttering about technology needing so much help to be helpful. [No, I still haven’t configured that microphone. It’s not exactly progress to render my expensively “smart” phone obsolete.]
There’s no such thing as technology. Not in the sense we use the term. There are the tools we use. I qualify as a “cyborg”, by some definitions, because I wear spectacles to enhance my natural vision. I don’t feel like a “cyborg”, by the definition I’d find quite quickly if I read enough science fiction. Any kind of tool is a form of technology, although it’s not helpful to know that. I’ve just put the word “technology” into the default search box on this laptop, without thinking to click the link to Google first, and my technology tells me, “Yahoo is now part of Oath.” Which has expanded my knowledge very slightly while failing to answer my question.
No doubt there’s a story behind Oath’s decision to adopt (absorb) Yahoo, just as I’m sure there are reasons why Facebook wants to be a telephone. There are also the tools we don’t use. Technology is “science or knowledge put into practical use to solve problems or invent useful tools,” I discover. That’ll do. Science, in case you’re wondering, is “knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation”.
Uh huh. So we start by getting to know each other, and the natural world around us, and then we use whatever we find out to solve each other’s problems and develop tools that we might find useful.
Maybe we should try that some time.
What’s that? Sorry? You want to enhance my online experience by putting cookies into my computer? Look, I’ve got so many people at so many companies working to enhance my online experience already, by doing exactly that with their cookies, and so far, it’s pretty much the same online experience as it’s always been. So … oh, okay. Maybe you’ll do something new and interesting.
But I’m still keeping the tape over the inbuilt camera, thank you very much.