John Major famously referred to his Eurosceptics as ‘bastards’. Now they’re reverting to the original meaning of the word and forwarding the compliment.
A curious, but perhaps predictable, feature of the Brexit campaign has been its constant portrayal of many Remain commentators as being in some way illegitimate. This is consistent with the theme of grievance that has been pursued, sometimes under the wire, by the Brexiters: the idea that the Other is meddling with ‘our’ sovereignty is a potent card to be used wherever possible.
It wasn’t too surprising when French and German politicians’ musings were dismissed as though they were crude bullying. Well of course there would be ‘consequences’ to leaving the EU. Surely that would be the point? But the Brexiters reserve for themselves the right to say how foreign governments would react to the UK leaving the EU. Could it be that other countries won’t be ‘begging us’ for trade deals after all? Bastards!
As to th’legitimate. Fine word, ‘legitimate’!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top th’legitimate–: I grow, I prosper;
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!
Edmund, King Lear, Act I Scene II, 17-22
But one of the claims of the ‘out’ campaign is that exit would lead to a renewal of British democracy. That didn’t stop the Telegraph splashing on the news that charities like Greenpeace were causing ‘outrage’ by campaigning on the side of Remain. No matter that Greenpeace isn’t a charity. No matter that the Telegraph has given room for Mark Littlewood from the IEA (a charity) to argue the Brexit case. Charities that don’t toe the line and which argue on behalf of their beneficiaries must be silenced. Bastards!
Then there were the public servants, like Bank of England boss Mark Carney. Given the potential shock to the British economy, you would expect Carney to be the expert witness welcomed by all sides. Yet Carney’s comments to a select committee went down very badly, and he was criticised for providing the standard establishment view. Bastard! For it is crucial to the Brexit campaign that it should portray itself as plucky outsiders and not a collection of small-state fanatics, former special advisers and professional politicians, all as insider as you can get.
Which brings us to the heart of the Establishment. Prince William was roundly condemned for an anodyne speech which was seen as vaguely Remainy. But when his grandmother was reported as expressing a Brexit view, the same media outlets wanted more. The Sun argued that we were entitled to know. (Actually, under the constitution we are entitled not to know, thank you.)
Today’s contribution by Boris Johnson is a textbook example of the art. Johnson tells us that President Obama is going to make an argument. It would be reasonable to hear Obama’s argument from Obama himself but Johnson presents the president’s case on his behalf, no doubt accurately and fairly. Johnson pretends to address Obama’s argument (though he doesn’t, not really) but his real purpose is to kick the American in the shins before he even starts. Thus the Telegraph’s splash headline: ‘BORIS [sic – newspapers don’t even pretend to be even handed these days] RAGE AT “HYPOCRITE” OBAMA’. Bastard!
The Brexiters must have thought they were very clever to label the Remain campaign ‘Project Fear’. But the case for exit is largely made (even though it does not largely rest) on notions of identity, of Us (we and the politicians referred to in first name terms) against the Other. By themselves taking up the mantel of ‘Project Bastard’ and stoking paranoia it is they who are flinging the fear.