We have to defend open debate and democratic government against fears of dark forces and betrayal

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Most of us never see most of the social media that feeds conspiracy theories about the European Union. As we have all learned, the algorithms operate to feed back to consumers stories that confirm their existing views, not challenge them. When the wilder beliefs filter through into letters to newspapers, the deepest prejudices have often been removed.

A letter in the Yorkshire Post last week, for example, warned of the threat of German domination, and referred to the re-emergence of ‘militarism in Germany’. Anyone who follows German military expenditure will know that German forces are under-equipped and poorly trained, suffer from a budget allocation much smaller than the UK spends on defence, and are rarely deployed. But the anti-Brexit blogosphere, taking its cue from the Bruges Group and other sources, has latched onto German calls for a ‘European army’ – an ill-defined concept that enables them to avoid hard questions about national defence and strategic priorities – and mispresented it as a wicked German plot to conquer us all.

Echoes of this alternative reality, in which a German-dominated Europe again (as in 1940) threatens democratic and sovereign Britain, pop up in Brexiteer speeches. Mark Francois peppers his speeches with references to ‘resistance’ to European occupation and the Second World War. Sir William Cash MP, who has dedicated his whole career to identifying European integration as a German-led plot, brought out the whole vocabulary of ‘appeasement’ and ‘abject surrender’ in a recent speech, repeated in an article for the Telegraph. With justification, anti-Brexit Conservatives like Nicky Morgan and Alastair Burt have accused him of fuelling the threats of violence that flood into their inboxes. Nigel Lawson has gone even further than Bill Cash, in hinting that ‘insurrection’ would be justified if Parliament fails to deliver the Brexit that ‘the British people … demanded.’

Into my Inbox this morning came a long message to all parliamentarians from a hard-line Brexiteer which provided links to a series of Facebook and Youtube postings which take the lid of what is being peddled: about Hitler’s plan to create a European super-state, about Guy Verhofstadt and Mrs. Merkel following Hitler’s agenda, but also about ‘the EU as the enemy’, the alleged assassination of an investigative journalist who uncovered the depths of the plot, and even references to Rothschild, Soros, and ‘Cabbalistic’ Jewish plans to impose a global world order. I haven’t read them all, and failed to find any references to the Templars or the Freemasons, but much of the irrational alternative reality that drives the hardest Brexiteers is laid out there in one long message.

So that’s part of what we are up against: fears of global conspiracies circulating on the internet – and, for all we know, promoted and paid for by right-wing billionaires or agents of hostile governments – which are echoed more subtly by leading figures in the Brexit campaign. Difficult to argue against, when the roots of irrational belief are so deep and the support that leading figures lend is so comforting. You and I will have warmed to Greta Thunberg’s speech on the facts of climate change, and her insistence that political leaders can no longer deny them. But remember that Nigel Lawson has consistently denied these facts, that the Global Warming Policy Foundation has shared premises with Brexit Central (and with the Taxpayers Alliance), and that we are dealing with a denial of reason and evidence supported by major newspapers, by what appears to be a majority of Conservative Party members, and by many on the hard left (how else do we explain the resurgence of left-wing conspiracy theories about ‘Jewish capitalism’ and secret plans to impose their preferred global order?)

This is the darker side of the populist surge. Those journalists and politicians who attack ‘the elite’ and ‘the establishment’, while insisting that they are men of the people even if they went to Eton or live in offshore tax-havens, are really attacking the politics of reason and evidence: implying that those who cling to hard evidence and political compromise are betraying the instincts of ordinary people. It’s a seductive argument, because it’s impossible to demonstrate that they are wrong in their own terms – but dangerous to democratic government and an open and tolerant society. We have to find a way of defending the complexities of open debate and democratic government, and of discrediting the populist counter-elite who help to give credence to underlying fears of dark forces and of betrayal.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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32 Comments

  • Tony Greaves 25th Apr '19 - 8:51pm

    Yes.

  • Echo chambers are a big problem on all sides of debates. It’s also worth reflecting you cannot really have open debate if you poison the well, like suggesting most conservatives have abandoned reason and evidence.

  • Toby Greaves and William Wallace – a powerful philosophical and political combo! One thing I learned when I got re-elected in my ward last year was that you can’t fight liars on Facebook. You oppose them in other forms of media, preferably edited and proof-read by yourself or reliable colleagues, and promoting a different vision as to what you stand for.

  • Richard Underhill 26th Apr '19 - 12:11am

    The BBC Question Time live audience is carefully balanced, unlike it radio equivalent.
    Asked whether Donald Trump should have a state visit to the UK Green MP Caroline Lucas described him as a racist and a bigot and several other unpleasant accusations. She added that he did not win the popular vote. She was vigorously cheered.
    Vince Cable calmly said he regarded being invited to a banquet with the Queen as an honour. Caroline Lucas said “Don’t go”. Vince said he had declined the invitation and had also declined an invitation for the King of Saudi Arabia. He was enthusiastically cheered.
    We have close relatives in the USA. My brother married an American, having initially emigrated to Canada. My wife’s sister had married an American serviceman. They mainly lived in the UK. Their son married an American and now live in the USA.
    Having met numerous Americans in the Liberal International (Democrats) I have asked whether they would reform or abolish the Electoral College, which distorts the election of their Presidents. The answer was YES, but they have not yet achieved this objective reform.
    The election of George W. Bush was also a disgrace, although approved by their Supreme Court, with the unhappy consequence that the UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was dragged into an illegal war.

  • For an article purporting to decry Global/Brexit conspirators it seems to accept/promote more conspiracy theories, of its own, than a Walmart bookshelf.

  • David Evans 26th Apr '19 - 9:03am

    This is all very true, but it is much easier to say than do.

    Lib Dems have to realise that this pernicious evil is out there and how all pervasive it is, and this article is a good start to this. However, in general we have to accept that the Liberal Democrats are appallingly poor at getting ourselves organised to oppose this stuff. A few doubtless do it at a personal level, but there is so much out there, they cannot win on their own. We need to continuously oppose and undermine these people and their opinions, but we need a lead from the party to enable us to do it.

    One small factor in this is the fact that for too long we have allowed ourselves to be undermined and almost written out of the news in the years since coalition. The press and the BBC ignore and undermine us – Vince appeared on Question Time last night and made some very telling points in several areas, but that applause he got was muted because so many people are unaware of what we have done and achieved. Caroline Lucas in contrast got frequent huge ovations by simply stating a few simple home truths and saying the Greens have the answer.

    We have to make it so people once again get to see and hear of Liberal Democracy as part of the mainstream, with solutions to people’s problems and so we have to get ourselves noticed. We don’t do this by debating ever more learned but dull and worthy policy motions amongst ourselves at conference, designed to say nice things but not say anything controversial for fear it might get noticed and upset someone. We have to deliberately go out and grab people’s attention and also be organised enough to make the BBC etc take notice.

    A first step would be for party HQ to set up and support a network of Lib Dems to monitor and complain to the BBC regularly when we are ignored or sidelined and instead some Farageist mouthpiece is given time on the air to promote their particular brand of poison. People who are trained and supported to do this. And we need high profile figures to make sure that these complaints are noted and acted on. Then we need to find and roll out ways to influence other areas of the media.

    It’s a big job, but it is one we have left to a few motivated individuals for far too long and we need to do it better. And we need to do it now.

  • Please, once again, can credit the average guy out on the street with some sense of reasoning.

    I have been opposed to UK membership of the EU for many years, and yes, I have been subjected to the whisper-in-the-ear German domination program: I can make the cognitive leap from EU opposition to – horror of horrors – actually liking and admiring the German people.

    Cue the ‘Neo-Nazi’ accusers.

    It never ends.

  • Chris Bertram 26th Apr '19 - 9:15am

    @David Evans: “A first step would be for party HQ to set up and support a network of Lib Dems to monitor and complain to the BBC regularly when we are ignored or sidelined and instead some Farageist mouthpiece is given time on the air to promote their particular brand of poison.” Too right. Paddy would have been all over the BBC (and ITV for that matter) like a rash, but he’s no longer available. We need an attack dog at Great George Street, one of our senior peers would probably be a good option.

  • William Wallace 26th Apr '19 - 9:59am

    Doug: I’m talking about the slide away from reasoned argument in the open on the right of British politics, alongside (and giving some support to) the wilder conspiracies that circulate on the web. Read David Goodhart in last Sunday’s Sunday Times, or Douglas Murray in this week’s Spectator – or Boris Johnson every week. Dismissal of the 1 million people who marched against Brexit, in several papers, as ‘the longest Waitrose queue in history’ elides with attacks on ‘the liberal elite’ as assuming superiority over the feelings of ‘the people. That’s you and me, and in David Goodhart’s writing all those who went to university and travel abroad…..

  • Peter Martin 26th Apr '19 - 10:01am

    @ LWW,

    “A letter in the Yorkshire Post last week, for example, warned of the threat of German domination………”

    I’d agree that German militarism isn’t the problem in the EU. But we all know that Germany is the dominant power. During the Greek crisis of 2015 Angela Merkel was the voice of the EU. My take on all that was that she should have stayed out of it. The European Courts and Institutions should have been used to resolve the dispute between Greece and Germany. Just like any other dispute that might arise between countries.

    The German economy, with its ordoliberal economic approach, and I’d include the Dutch in these comments too, is the worst type imaginable to be at the centre of the Eurozone and the EU. The German capitalist class are addicted to the idea that have to sell more to everyone else than they buy from everyone else.

    So there is always a net influx of euros into Germany which leaves the other euro using countries short and in recession. They can only get them back by borrowing them back. Inevitably this puts them into conflict with EU fiscal rules – if it’s Govt doing the borrowing which it usually has to be. The Germans then complain that the rest of the EU are fiscally irresponsible and need to learn how to live within their means etc etc. I’m sure we’ve all heard those comments. The idea seems to be that everything would work fine if everyone was like Germany. But Germany works because there is only one Germany. We can’t all run export surpluses.

    There is a fundamental economic contradiction which is tearing the EU apart and Brexit is just one manifestation of this. Yes, I know the UK doesn’t use the euro but it still causes us problems.

    If we ask our German friends about Greece and Italy and we’ll hear (Not!) how much unity there really is in the EU. The EU, labouring under the problem of German set fiscal rules, far from creating the conditions for peace, is increasing the chances of serious international disputes. The most worrying is what will happen when Italy goes bust (which it probably is already except no-one will admit it) and leaves the Germans holding a Trillion euro bad debt.

    https://www.businessinsider.com/italy-perma-recession-systemic-crisis-threatens-eurozone-2019-4?r=US&IR=T

  • Dilettante Eye 26th Apr '19 - 10:18am

    “Lib Dems have to realise that this pernicious evil is out there…”

    “..instead some Farageist mouthpiece is given time on the air to promote their particular brand of poison.”

    “I’m talking about the slide away from reasoned argument”

    It’s perfectly possible to have a reasoned argument and then agree to disagree, without being labelled with derogatory adjectives just because you don’t see politics through LD lenses.

    Politics is changing at such a rapid pace, I really shouldn’t have to explain why these sorts of comments are outdated, but clearly some LDs can’t or won’t evolve in the light of the changes demanded of politics, by voters.

  • Peter Martin 26th Apr '19 - 10:45am

    @LWW,

    “……..as assuming superiority over the feelings of ‘the people.”

    I’d say there is a lot of that about. Those of us who consider the EU to be a failing project are told we can’t spell, we write in uppercase etc. There was even one Remain marcher who carried a placard which didn’t seem to have any real substantive point to make, other than the wording was grammatically correct! It wasn’t actually. There was no verb in the sentence, for a start.

    https://www.trendsmap.com/twitter/tweet/1109567775687802880

    The crack about the longest Waitrose queue is fair comment. IMO. It seems that Remainers can dish it out but they can’t take it.

    All Lib Dem MPs, apart from Nick Clegg, voted for the referendum to take place. So why do that if you are going to reject the result?

  • Dilettante Eye – You say “It’s perfectly possible to have a reasoned argument and then agree to disagree,” and then demean others with “Politics is changing at such a rapid pace, I really shouldn’t have to explain why these sorts of comments are outdated, but clearly some LDs can’t or won’t evolve in the light of the changes demanded of politics, by voters.”

    I suggest you consider whether you really believe that it would be possible to “agree to disagree” with Donald Trump on his wall. You may want to agree to disagree, but he won’t.

    Nick Clegg once asked Tim Farron “Where did you get those facts you used?” after one of the practice sessions prior to Nick’s televised debates with Nigel Farage. Tim, who played the part of Nige simply said “I made them up.”

    Putting it simply, there are people out there who are simply out to win – agreeing to disagree is not on their agenda, and nice woolly ideals like agreeing to disagree is what allows them to win, and each time they win, they get stronger and Liberalism gets weaker.

  • Yes, the liberal response needs to be strong and – dare I say – as ruthless and determined as the Brexiters have been.
    I don’t know what to make of the country, we’ll, England and Wales, at the moment. Last nights BBC QT was a case in point, an incoherent reactionary actor who [I think, favoured de-populating Africa – even though according to his fellow brexiters that’s where we’ll be trading soon) , who referred to Caroline Lucas as ‘woman’ and loves Trump being cheered. Even when he said that the system is broken, but then don’t mess with the system …. ??

    Note to BBC, filling your studio with brexit-signalling ultras might seem like a good idea for tv but it isn’t, and it is inflaming this lack of regard for logic and sense.

    As the shining-with-pride-that-I’m-a-Leaver woman said, not getting brexit is making us ill.

    Well, yes.

  • Returning to William’s article, in most of the media we have little proper debate. Even the BBC thinks it has done its job by showing a bit of the argument from one side and a bit from the other, but no communication between them. There needs to be plenty of opportunity immediately to challenge what the other has said; this rarely happens. Even in the TV debates leading up to elections, all too often when someone wishes to challenge they are told ‘you have had your turn and we must now move on’, cutting off what could have been an important correction to something someone said which was wrong.
    There was one exception to this when Newsnight did a 10 week series with different people each week from each side discussing Brexit; the same very small studio audience each week of undecideds were asked to comment at the end of each programme. Unfortunately very few people would have seen that and no transcript was produced for public consumption.

  • David Evans makes a good point about being strong with the media. Just over 2 weeks ago Simon Kelner wrote in the Independent urging the need for Lib-Dems but complaining that we are not around. I wrote a letter pointing out the media is partly to blame for that. Although my letter was not published, since then there has been a number of quotes from Vince and Layla and general references to Lib-Dems.
    So maybe if more of us and our HQ wrote strong sharp messages (not spin type press releases) to all sections of the media we would get some attention.

  • Richard Underhill 26th Apr '19 - 12:30pm

    Vince Cable will be on BBC tv Politics Live on Monday 29/4/2019.

  • David Becket 26th Apr '19 - 12:47pm

    BBC On Line News “Party by Party” UK guide has pictures with all party descriptions and some 16 lines of text (18 for Farage) with Lib Dems and Green relegated to the bottom of the list, no picture and 6 lines of text.
    Somebody at George Street should be going mad over this.

  • marcstevens 26th Apr '19 - 1:57pm

    It was good to see Vince on QT last night and to hear is sensible commentary. In spite of all the inappropriate ageist comments he gets from some posters on here, he soldiers on without their hubris.

  • Peter Hirst 26th Apr '19 - 2:00pm

    What we need is much better education from primary school on the pros and cons of social media and using the internet. It probably will mean that children will grow up being less trustful of everything they see, hear and read. I can’t see any alternative.

  • Peter Martin 26th Apr '19 - 2:48pm

    @ William Wallace,

    “I’m talking about the slide away from reasoned argument in the open on the right of British politics……………”

    Aren’t the pro EU centre left just as bad? There has been a near total collapse of the mainstream centre left in Europe. It’s almost impossible to get centrist parties like the Lib Dems to face up to the reality that “the EU project” is just not working for the average person in either the UK or the EU. If pushed there might just be a grudging acceptance that the EU is “not perfect”. Of course nothing is perfect much it’s really much worse than that. The europhile EU left would rather lose their electoral base to the far right than face up to the reality.

    How many seats do the Lib Dems have left in the West Country? Zero. And it’s just a co-incidence that this has happened at exactly the time as you have adopted an uncritically pro -EU stance?

    https://www.newstatesman.com/world/europe/2018/05/collapse-europe-s-mainstream-centre-left

  • Yeovil Yokel 26th Apr '19 - 2:54pm

    Peter Martin – last time I looked Bath was in the West Country, and Wera Hobhouse is its Lib Dem MP.

  • Richard Underhill 26th Apr '19 - 3:01pm

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siân_Berry said that the Greens had not been consulted about running a single list for the elections to the European parliament.
    Catherine Bearder’s recent Report Back to constituents covers an elephant sanctuary in Botswana, a conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade in October, plastic pollution including coffee stirrers, a ban on pesticides that harm bees and calls for a People’s vote on Brexit.
    She did say that we will keep fighting for an Exit from Brexit’ until 29th March.
    And Now Beyond That.
    Leaflets for Remain in the 2016 referendum made the point that action on climate change needs large, influential bodies, such as the EU.
    Deniers, such as Digby Jones, a crossbench peer, say that the major polluters are USA, China and India and the remainder (including the UK) do not matter much, although they can suffer the consequences. Does he remember that we were cut off from the European continent by rising sea levels caused by melting ice?
    India is having a general election and has suffered from monsoons changing their usual behaviour.
    The Chancellor of the Exchequer is in China and will be likely to report to the Commons on his return as a representative of the UK government.
    The American President is US, but other political leaders are available.

  • Peter Martin 26th Apr '19 - 3:12pm

    @ Yeovil Yokel,

    OK Point taken. I was forgetting that Wera Hobhouse won that seat in the 2017 election. So you’ve gone from zero to one in the West Country?

  • Dilettante Eye 26th Apr '19 - 3:46pm

    David Evans

    “I suggest you consider whether you really believe that it would be possible to “agree to disagree” with Donald Trump on his wall. You may want to agree to disagree, but he won’t.”

    The arguments reasoned or otherwise were set out in front of US voters between Clinton and Trump, and the US voters elected Trump for four years. The fact that some don’t like that democratic outcome has much more to say about them.

    If President Elect Trump is true to his word, or reneges on his word, the voters can judge him on his record in office and tell him to clear his desk in 2020 if they so wish.
    I like that direct Hire n Fire democracy, which is why Brexit is so crucially important, to the very core of who is in control (i.e. voters, politicians or civil servants) within our UK politics.

    If the answer is not voters, then it is not a true democracy

    Sadly articles like these tell me that some ! LDs just don’t like British people, don’t trust British people, find the British thick and unruly, and hold British voters in contempt, until they listen to liberal reasoned arguments and vote correctly.

    So if the LD core message is ‘We hold the British voter in utter contempt, but please vote for us anyway’, then that message is coming over very loud and clear, but as a strategy to get LDs elected, it appears to be quite a dim affair.

    In all seriousness, why is a party some of !, whose members are openly hostile and contemptuous of British voters even still dabbling in British politics?

  • Katharine Pindar 26th Apr '19 - 5:39pm

    William’s valuably informative article on some dangers to our democracy has produced a few miserably inappropriate responses. Peter Martin has seized the opportunity to ride his own hobby- horse, on the supposed threat of German domination through the economic policies he dislikes which are followed by the EU. David Evans welcomes the article but then castigates our own Conference for supposedly passing ‘ever more learned dull and worthy motions, designed to say nice things but not to say anything controversial for fear it might offend someone’ – arrant nonsense, what for instance about the motion declaring for a wealth tax? And Dilettante Eye, whoever you are, apparently thinks that electing a President who has the power to do all the harm Trump is doing for four years is preferably to our own democratic system. Ever-troublesome critic, unnecessarily destructive supposedly activist Lib Dem, or outright enemy, what do any of them contribute positively to debating this important subject?

  • David Evans 26th Apr '19 - 6:23pm

    No Dilettante Eye, all your post proves is when you are caught out, you can’t answer an argument but just change the subject and return by a circuitous route to your own hobby horse. So it is you who hold people in contempt not the Lib Dems here. Agree to differ, don’t make me laugh!

  • Surely, today’s prize for the best comment must go to expats: this article promotes more conspiracies than a Walmart bookshelf. Brilliant!

  • David Evans 26th Apr '19 - 7:01pm

    Katharine, I suggest you really must read the documents you refer to in your posts rather than just mention them by name, when you call other’s posts “arrant nonsense.” Policy Motion F34 Promoting a Fairer Distribution of Wealth, debated at conference in Autumn 2018 does not mention the term wealth tax at all!! Instead it called for a mere four points on taxing wealth: Equalising the tax treatment of income from wealth and income from work (i.e. CGT Reform); Streamlining the taxation of intergenerational transfer (Taxing gifts); Reforming the system of pension tax relief and finally introducing additional bands on council tax and reviewing (Wow this is really radical) the case for replacing council tax.

    You may think this is really cutting edge stuff, but in fact hardly anyone outside the Lib Dem virtue bubble even noticed it.

  • @Richard sad they want to reform the electoral college. It’s a very liberal system designed to deny pure majority rule. It’s there so the President cannot just appeal to the masses in population centers but must convince voters throughout the country. It gives the states more of a say than the “popular” vote with its bias to populous states.

  • You know these global conspiracy theories. I think I may have spotted one. In this one dark money from possibly hostile foreign powers flows into political coffers. These so-called opponents have shadowy sinister motives and they are evil. They include leading politicians who are able to sway votes in entire countries through propaganda disguised as party political broadcasts and different views on society. Without them everyone would agree on everything like they did the recent past.
    Personally, I have a different theory. It goes like this. There was never really a political consensus. What was called liberal democracy in 2016 was very different from that of the 80s which was different to that of the 70s and to that of the 60s and so on. This is because politics changes in accordance to changing circumstances and electoral pressure. . Ideologies come and go. Political “truths” wither on the vine. Nothing lasts forever.

  • Peter Martin 27th Apr '19 - 9:43am

    Katharine Pindar,

    I understand that most Lib Dems have an emotional attachment to the EU. It’s a nice idea to have a sense of European ‘oneness’. Therefore, you don’t really want any “open debate and democratic government”. You want everyone to toe the pro-EU line and heartily sing ‘Ode to Joy’ as the EU anthem. No-one should make any smart alec remarks about Waitrose queues, for example. That’s natural. It’s just human nature.

    But when there is credible evidence that there is a serious flaw in the architecture of the EU’s common currency which very likely will lead to economic catastrophe (if that’s an allowable description of a 2 trillion euro mess) it’s also denialism.

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