The pro-Brexit press has not been slow to ham up its angst over anyone who dares to question the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
Just a few months after the vote to leave, the Daily Mail was railing against “Bremoaners and their plot to subvert the will of the British people”. The Daily Express, meanwhile, announced that it was “Time to silence EU exit whingers” and to “forget arrogant remainers”.
When the high court ruled that Article 50 could only be triggered by an Act of Parliament, the Mail responded with an astonishing front page describing the three judges as “Enemies of the people”. The Sun piled in too, asking: “Who do EU think you are?”
Just last month, the Daily Telegraph branded Tory rebels “The Brexit mutineers” on a front page which featured portrait shots of the 15 MPs who had voted against the Government on the question of enshrining the date of Britain’s EU departure in law. One of the rebels, Anna Soubry, described the incident as a “blatant piece of bullying”.
Following the Government’s defeat on the so-called “Grieve amendment”, the Mail has used the same formula. Featuring images of the 11 Conservatives who voted to secure a meaningful parliamentary vote on the final Brexit deal, the front page asks (rhetorically one imagines): “Proud of yourselves?” It also, in case you were wondering what the answer ought to be, describes the wicked 11 as “self-consumed malcontents” who have decided to “betray their leader, party and 17.4m Brexit voters”.
On the plus side, media front pages like these have led to some terrific social media pastiches. One re-imagining of today’s Mail splash – by Mollie Goodfellow, formerly of this parish – saw the headline transformed to “Proud of our elves”.
— Mollie Goodfellow ?? (@hansmollman) December 14, 2017
For many though, media attacks on those in Parliament or elsewhere who argue against a hard Brexit or who wish for a greater sense of ministerial accountability, are invidious, further inflaming an already polarised situation.
There is, of course, another side to the coin – and there have plainly been some strident criticisms of Government figures and others who are perceived to take a hardline over Brexit, even if it results in a “no deal” scenario.
But the persistent theme of betrayal is what marks out the assault on “Bremoaners”; the sense that any questioning of Britain’s EU withdrawal, or indeed the manner of our exit, is somehow traitorous in the face of the referendum result. Even to point out that the victory for the Leave camp did not give a mandate for any specific mode of departure is to ask for trouble.
In essence, we are witnessing a battle for democracy. Was the referendum its zenith or its nadir? And does the one-off vote trump the very thing it was, for many, seeking to protect: the supremacy of UK law and British parliamentary authority? That, on the face of it, is the conclusion one must draw from some of the recent front pages we’ve seen in Brexit-supporting papers. To disregard that obvious paradox is disingenuous and intellectually stultifying.
But is it dangerous too?
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For some on the receiving end it is undoubtedly troubling. Soubry was surely not alone to feel that the Telegraph had “bullied” her when it described her as a “mutineer”.
And Lord Thomas, the Lord Chief Justice who was among the three judges branded an “enemy of the people” by the Daily Mail, told a select committee that he had felt obliged to ask the police for advice following the negative coverage of the court’s Article 50 decision.
Provocative front page headlines which present Brexit as a battle between victorious leavers and loser remainers are hardly likely to help heal the societal rift over our EU withdrawal. And they will doubtless encourage a minority of conspiracy theorists who believe there will eventually be a Brexit fudge or no exit at all.
What’s more, there is something profoundly disturbing about free speech which appears not to grant that same freedom to contrary viewpoints.
All that said, it is interesting to note that rebellious MPs have not been made fearful of voting against the Government as a result of being held up to pillory by the press. Nor have judges been cowed by nasty front pages. And critics of Brexit are, if anything, emboldened by facile headlines that present their legitimate opinion about this country’s future as rank treachery.
Maybe it’s because the coverage is as hammy as a pig in a blanket; or perhaps it’s due to the fact that attacking an MP for highlighting the importance of the legislature’s role in holding Government to account is so obviously feeble. Either way, attacks by pro-Brexit papers aren’t working.
Parliamentary democracy, on the other hand, most defiantly is.