The Turnip Kingdom
A dinner-time conversation illustrating why the UK chose to emulate the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea
Sometimes life creates situations that no novelist would dare to fabricate for fear of being criticized for clumsy contrivance. No political satirist, for example, would have created a character like Donald Trump — he’s simply too stupid, too ignorant, and too repulsive to be convincing as a character. Until 2016, readers would have rejected the idea of such a creature stumbling into the White House as being incredible. Any good editor would have turned down the manuscript and asked for a re-write to make the lead character more relatable. Surely no human being can be so utterly without a single redeeming feature? Trump is far too mono-dimensional (or moron-dimensional) to work as fiction.
It turns out, however, that real life is far less constrained by credibility than are novelists and editors. In real life absurd, stupid, and self-destructive things happen all the time. History, in fact, is largely the record of human folly repeated endlessly down the ages — a record from which we resolutely learn nothing at all.
Folly is seen so reliably throughout the course of human affairs because we’re not evolved to cope with complexity. Our brains seek simple patterns because thinking burns glucose — precious calories that for 98% of our evolutionary history were needed more to power muscles than to power brains. When confronted with complex reality versus simplistic fairytale, we’ll opt for the fairytale 99.999% of the time. And for most of our evolutionary history on the savannah of Africa and the primordial forests of Eurasia, that was generally good enough.
We’re now living through a period when this basic fact of human existence is more on display than at any time since the end of World War II. Populism, leveraging modern communications technologies, has swept the globe and the thin veneer of civilization is being torn away in nation after nation. But what do ordinary people make of it all?
Ordinary people are unable to differentiate between the quotidian acts of life such as going shopping and watching mindless entertainments on television from the acts that fundamentally change the future. For ordinary people, political actions have no consequences they can envisage. For ordinary people the slogans and memes they are fed by those who effortlessly manipulate them, and which they repeat under the illusion that these are their “ideas” to be defended, are reality.
A little while ago I happened to have dinner with two delightful people I’ll call here Donald and Iris. Both are retired, and both left school at sixteen to make their ways in the world. Together they managed to earn enough to buy a small flat (apartment) in which they will see out their days. Both regard themselves as patriotic, and both voted for Brexit.
These are two genuinely well-meaning people. They’ve been married for forty-seven years and are still affectionate to each other; an affection comingled with the good-humored teasing that comes from intimate knowledge of each other’s foibles that are now accepted as being integral to who they are both as individuals and as a couple. They are the sort of people who’d never knowingly cause harm.
So of course I was curious to understand why they voted to destroy the nation they are so proud of and cause irreparable harm to millions of younger people by voting for Brexit.
Not surprisingly, I heard precisely what I expected to hear: the slogans they’d been fed by Brexiteer propaganda. They genuinely seemed unable to comprehend that everything they’d been told was self-evidently false. Donald is a life-long reader of The Daily Mail, a right-wing propaganda rag that’s the UK’s print equivalent of the USA’s Fox News. While Donald served in the UK armed forces and is proud of the UK’s role in defeating fascism eighty years ago he is entirely oblivious to the fact that The Daily Mail was the UK’s strongest proponent of fascism up until the early 1960s and has continued from time to time to make efforts to rehabilitate the UK’s own fascist Party led by Sir Oswald Mosley. When The Daily Mail isn’t trying to resurrect fascism, it’s busy pretending that the European Union is the successor to Hitler’s Germany.
Not surprisingly therefore, Donald and Iris have a child’s notion of reality. Iris genuinely believes that since the 2016 referendum that gave a narrow majority to the Brexiteers, the EU has been preventing the UK from leaving. In reality, as anyone who’s spent even one minute looking for real-world facts would know, the EU has done everything possible to ease the UK’s transition while the UK has blundered, stumbled, and fallen over itself through a delightful mixture of sheer incompetence combined with an unassailable belief that if only the UK throws a large enough tantrum then Mummy EU will give the spoiled UK all the free ice-cream it’s demanding.
In the world of The Daily Mail (which is supported in its unfounded bias by the BBC dutifully repeating everything said by Brexiteers as if it were true rather than providing commentary on the huge disparity between what Brexiteers claim and what all the evidence clearly shows) the EU is an evil organization trying to crush brave British spirit. Bumbling Boris Johnson’s endless mantra of “remember the spirit of the Blitz” leads people like Iris and Donald to conclude that the UK is at war with the EU. Although they love visiting Europe and lament the fact their British friends have all sold their properties in France due to Brexit, they also simultaneously believe the EU is The Enemy.
This is the mental universe within which charming Donald and delightful Iris exist.
In addition, of course, there’s the lure of nostalgia. Iris can’t understand why Britain can’t make everything it needs “at home” and so “save jobs for our people.” In her mind, Brexit will mean the UK becoming self-sufficient in everything except the Prosecco which she enjoys on a weekly basis and which is for her ultimate proof that the EU needs the UK far more than the UK needs the EU. After all, Britain is currently the number one export market for Prosecco. The fact that the EU exports 4% of its collective GDP to the UK while the UK exports 47% of its collective GDP to the EU is literally beyond her comprehension. The Daily Mail has told her that the UK holds all the cards.
The inescapable fact that the UK is still failing utterly to reach even the most threadbare deal with the EU is another thing that Donald and Iris ascribe to the perfidy of the EU, but the inconsistency of their beliefs is in no way apparent to them: the UK holds all the cards but is incapable of negotiating any kind of deal whatsoever.
Donald and Iris will never be able to grasp the simple fact that they’ve been lied to by The Daily Mail and thus have been gloriously duped. It would never occur to them to attempt to seek out information from other sources to fact-check the assertions made by their favorite newspaper and Brexiteer politicians. In a world of predatory foxes, Donald and Iris — like so many of their compatriots — are naïve rabbits happily munching the sweet grass of Brexit propaganda utterly oblivious to the intent of the drooling foxes all around them.
Iris thinks Brexit will enable the UK to “be great again” at ship-building. She doesn’t understand that Brexit will increase the cost of raw materials and thus make British products even less competitive. She doesn’t understand trade or comparative advantage. She knows nothing of the $40 billion per year earned by British financial services in the EU; all she can see is 12,000 ship-building jobs that were lost over forty years ago (and which had nothing whatsoever to do with the European Union). Donald and Iris know nothing of the UK government’s own estimates that Brexit will cost over 800,000 jobs in the coming decade — to say nothing of the 1.7 million additional jobs that will not be created as a result of Brexit and thus a severe diminution of UK exports. As far as Donald and Iris are concerned, if The Daily Mirror and Boris Johnson say the EU is to blame for everything the British are about to suffer then it must be true, because The Daily Mail and Boris Johnson told them so.
Donald and Iris also can’t see how demonizing the EU creates a one-way road to escalating conflict. They know about World War II only through “patriotic” films and nostalgic TV shows. Somehow there was a nasty man called Hitler and the British stood alone and then won the war. End of story. So they know nothing of how artificially creating enemies and scapegoats inevitably leads to the gas chambers and the killing fields. They don’t understand how their obedient support of “democratic” Brexit pushes the UK further down this unwise path. For them, everything Brexit is “democratic” and that’s the highest praise imaginable.
Iris and Donald were genuinely unable to process the information that Hitler was democratically elected.
Iris, though she’s a Scot, thinks it is terrible for the Scots to be thinking of leaving the UK. Why would anyone think that leaving a union would make things better? How would the Scots be able to afford to pay for things if they left the UK? Countries should stick together because they’re better off that way.
She and Donald see no contradiction between their belief that the UK has every right to leave the EU and their belief that Scotland has no right whatsoever to contemplate leaving the UK.
In short, Donald and Iris repeated every Brexit sound-bite they’ve been fed and every meme they’ve been exposed to. No actual thinking has occurred at any point over the last four years, and they are perfectly comfortable merely parroting someone else’s propaganda. They live entirely in a circumscribed mental universe that is simple, and simplicity is its over-riding merit.
Donald and Iris illustrate, far more perfectly than any novelist would be permitted to craft, precisely why unqualified representative democracy is a total catastrophe. Serious decisions with profound consequences are made by people who are entirely ignorant of every pertinent fact. Serious actions with decades of consequences are proposed by blustering morons purely in the interests of their own self-advancement and dear sweet dupes like Iris and Donald fall obediently into line and unknowingly vote for catastrophic self-harm because that’s the simplest thing to do.
Iris and Donald are nice people. But as the 1930s conclusively demonstrated, nice people can be persuaded to do terrible things.
It’s a shame no one ever learns anything from history.