The alarming decline in the national broadcaster’s impartiality means I can no longer justify paying the licence fee
BBC Complaints PO Box 1922
Thursday 15 February 2018
To whom it may concern,
I have been a loyal and appreciative viewer of the BBC’s TV output, across all its channels, and an occasional listener to its radio services, for most of my 48 years. I have on the whole been very impressed with, and proud of, the broadcaster’s programmes. And during that time, I have always paid my licence fee, or my share of the licence fee, in full.
Viewing habits are changing rapidly. In my flat we now spend so much time watching the likes of Netflix on our computers that we didn’t turn our TV on for a year. When it came to arranging a new phone/broadband/TV package a couple of years ago, therefore, we didn’t bother signing up for a TV service. So while we still have a television set, it now receives no signal – we have no means to pick up transmissions. For the past year, I have continued to pay the licence fee, because I occasionally watched programmes on my laptop via BBC iPlayer, and because I wanted to support the national broadcaster in its work.
In recent months, however, I have noticed an alarming decline in the BBC’s impartiality. Representatives of the far-right party Ukip, as well as members of even more extreme political groups, seem to be invited on to every political programme, even though they have no MPs and a dwindling membership. Pro-Brexit voices seem to outnumber pro-Remain at every turn. Appearances by members of the shadowy hard-right Tory subgrouping, the European Research Group, outnumber those by moderate Tory MPs, even though they make up less than 20% of the party. And barely a week goes by without a story about the Question Time audience being infiltrated by Tory councillors or Ukip rent-a-bigots.
Many of your presenters (Andrew Neil, Andrew Marr, David Dimbleby, John Humphrys, David Dimbleby) seem happy to let Brexiters dodge questions, deliver cherry-picked statistics and make misleading, unsupported claims unchallenged, while constantly interrupting those who believe the UK is better off remaining in the European Union. Sarah Sands, the incumbent editor of the Today programme, is a former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, an unabashed conservative, and backed Zac Goldsmith in the 2016 London mayoral elections, and frankly, it shows.
With the rise in the price of food, holidays and electronic goods owing to Brexit, I’m going to have to start making some savings somewhere. And frankly, it is hard to justify the continued fee of £147 a year to support the institution that helped to bring this about; an institution that has, as Nick Robinson’s recent article in the Radio Times revealed, decided largely to suppress the voice of half the country; an institution that has abandoned its charter remit to report news accurately, and to represent all constituents in this country fairly, in favour of some spurious notion of “balance”; an institution that seems to be cheerleading the slow exsanguination of democracy in the UK.
This being the case, I am writing to let you know that I will henceforth be discontinuing my licence fee payments, until such time as the BBC ceases to be an instrument of propaganda for the increasingly illiberal elements in this country. The television will continue to live in darkness, without a signal box, and I will no longer watch any BBC programmes on iPlayer. (I am sending a copy of this letter to the TV Licensing Authority.)
Shame. I was quite looking forward to following the adventures of the first female Doctor.
At UoL, we believe the only letters you need after your name are the initials of your football team
Early adulthood should be an eye-opening, mind-blowing time; a time of exploration, of testing limits, of finding out who you are and what you can do. Last year, 49% of young British people chose to do this in so-called “higher education”. But the overwhelming majority – 51% – still believe the best place to start their journey is here, at the University of Life.
At UoL, you’ll learn the value of hard work. Of straight talking. Of family. Of community. And, in the absence of any achievements of your own to build your identity around, of blind, belligerent nationalism.
… and what’s more, you’ll learn all this for nothing. That’s right – here at UoL, our fees are the lowest in the land, at precisely zero! No overdrafts, no debt repayments hanging over you for decades. (Some will try to argue that the £400,000 less you’ll earn over a lifetime than regular graduates partially offsets this saving, but to them we say, “Shut up!”)
The beauty of the University of Life is that you’re not tied to any one campus or cluster of hideous redbrick buildings. The UoL is anywhere and everywhere! (Although in practice, since you have no set lectures to attend, tutors to present essays to or exams to sit, and since you’ve never picked up any knowledge of the outside world and thus been motivated to explore it, you’ll probably just stay in the same poxy, fake-Mulberry, five-shots-for-a-fiver, WITH-SHANE-RICHIE-AS-BUTTONS! town where you grew up.)
Why put up with a pokey, draughty, dingy, noisy, single-bed hovel in a hall of residence? Save yourself the earache and ballache by continuing to live with your parents until you’re 26!
No rent, no bills, plus the added bonus of a personal chef and laundry service, and a neverending flow of free advice on your every life choice, from people who know a thing or two*!
*Sometimes as many as three.
At most universities, you’ll meet vast numbers of people from all sorts of places and backgrounds, with diverse religious beliefs, lifestyles and political views. But come on, who wants to put themselves through that rigmarole? You’re much better off sticking with the crowd you went to school with, plus maybe a couple of blokes from the warehouse.
Forget rarefied conversations with curious minds about religion, philosophy and politics. What’s wrong with bantz about the transfer window and the fucking lungs on that?
You’ll never have to bother learning how to structure a logical argument or express yourself clearly and cogently. Just run with whatever half-formed thought pops into your head. Whoever needed to be able to organise their thoughts, or critically analyse newspaper headlines or politicians’ soundbites anyway? It’s not as if the government will ever ask you to make any crucial decisions on the country’s political and economic future!
Sure, if you want to hobnob with toffee-nosed twats called Caoimhe and Olivia and Tariq, go to Durham or Edinburgh or York. But if you want the real low-down, come and mix it up with good, real, honest, hardworking people like Terry and Barry and Mick. (The only toffee-nosed twats you should ever have dealings with are the ones who graduate, become far-right politicians, and swear on their fob watches that they’re “men of the people”. Them, you unquestioningly vote for.)
(Girls, this goes double for you, because participation in higher education among women is so high now that the sex ratio at the University of Life is, shall we say, skewed in your favour. So step right up and take advantage of all those free and single Terrys, Barrys and Micks! Please.)
So you may not have access to world-class collections of books in calm, comfortable surroundings, but when it comes to reading, who could ask for a better setting than the public library? If yours hasn’t closed down, that is. And anyway, duh, internet!
UoL may not boast hundreds of clubs and societies to cater for every interest situated conveniently on your doorstep, or thousands of people of a similar age to pursue those interests with, but there’s probably a choir or a winemaking club or something somewhere near you! Use your bloody initiative!
And while regular universities may offer unparalleled sport and leisure facilities, the big, wide world has plenty to offer too. There’s darts and pool and Sunday kickabouts and probably at least an hour a week when the council pool isn’t given over to screaming, pissing kids or fucking aquarobics. Besides, after a lifetime of carrying round that sequoia-sized chip on your shoulder, you’ll be as strong as an ox!
Here at UoL, people are your books, the streets are your lecture halls, and the world is your campus. We teach armchair expertise in just about every subject you can imagine, but we specialise in the following subjects:
Media studies (esp the Sun, Mail, Express, ITV)
Hagiography (of football players, pop stars and YouTubers)
Modern languages (Gibberish, Utter Bullshit and Cant)
Rest assured – no one will ever lecture you at the Uni of Life!
You never really graduate from UoL, of course, because there are no exams and no degree certificates and, well, no structure, feedback or development of any sort. But that’s not to say you’ll go home empty-handed!
Most of our students go on to become extraordinarily proficient in their chosen skills. Mainly because once they’ve landed one job, it’s almost impossible for them to switch careers or get promoted.
We’re proud to have been the training ground for a huge number of the most famous and powerful figures in public life. Our most prominent graduates include:
Zac Goldsmith MP
Sir Jimmy Savile OBE, KCSG
Peter Sutcliffe, aka the Yorkshire Ripper
Thomas Hamilton, Dunblane mass killer
Choose freedom. Choose independence. Choose simplicity and familiarity. Choose reductive, black-and-white thinking. Choose simple solutions, even though, being simple, they’ve been tried a million times before and never once worked. Choose the same pub every Friday and the same Chinese every other Thursday. Choose a stag do in Riga before you turn 28. Choose staring blankly at your phone over the dinner table because you ran out of things to talk about years ago.
The dwindling band of Brexit zealots are demanding that Remain voters stop ‘talking the UK down’ and get behind them. But do they mean it?
It hasn’t all been doom and gloom since June 23rd 2016. For one thing, I’ve made some amazing new friends. But just as importantly, I’ve grown as a person. Thanks to hundreds of calm, rational and unfailingly polite debates with Brexit voters, I’ve learned more about the EU, economics, history, logic, and the valid concerns of my fellow countrymen than ever would have been the case had the UK chosen to remain.
Just my little drollery. The truth, of course, is that I’ve had a handful of vaguely enlightening discussions with Brexiters, but that the majority have gone one of two ways:
2) I post witty observation about Brexit; Brexiter screams blue murder at me; slanging match; block.
At a rough guess, in 21 months, I’d say the sentiments below, or some variation thereon, have made up 75%-80% of all the replies I’ve had from Brexit voters and supporters of the far right.
At first, I thought this was a silencing tactic – a bid to bully Remainers into accepting defeat and starting to help plan the UK’s future. After all, these jibes were, in the early stages, interspersed with cries of “Get behind Brexit!” and “Stop talking Britain down!”.
But something felt … off. Crowing and sneering aren’t traditionally the most effective methods of building consensus. Who among us, when taunted by the school bully, didn’t immediately go home and plot grisly revenge?
In my case, at least, these tired, unimaginative, incoherent slurs (the fact that they can’t be bothered to think of any new ones a year and a half on is insulting in itself), in both tone and content, have had the opposite effect to the one ostensibly intended.
When I voted in the referendum, I was maybe 80/20 in favour of the EU (in part because some of the tabloid lies, like the “bloated bureaucracy” and “accounts not signed off” had penetrated even my critical faculties). But my pro-Remain position has hardened with every passing day, partly because every bit of research I’ve done has either vaporised an old EU myth or turned up yet another advantage of membership, but mostly because of the winners’ jeering and gloating. As of January 9 2018, you couldn’t detect any doubt in me about the rightness of my vote in the Large Hadron Collider.
If they really wanted to get us on side, surely the Brexiters would be using more conciliatory language? Something like, “Hey, look, Leave won. Sorry, let’s make the best of it”, or “Great match. Tough luck. Now, any suggestions as to what we do next?” But no; the majority persist with their playground taunts, using language (and emoji) specifically designed to alienate, to inflame, to enrage.
I usually divide Brexit trolls into three tribes. They’re not always easy to tell apart, and there’s overlap, but they are distinct breeds. (NB these archetypes are not intended to encompass all Brexit voters – just the annoying, inarticulate, abusive ones.)
The good old-fashioned troll, the internet original, what we might formerly have called an imp, contrarian, or Devil’s advocate. A sad individual, deeply bitter about something – usually a glaring disparity between demand and supply of sex – and among the most likely to suit up and shoot up a school. Depending on his level of commitment, he can actually be halfway inventive in his use of language, and have done at least some superficial research on the subject at hand.
The paid troll; the Skopje/St Petersburg teenager with an iffy grasp of English idioms who sometimes forgets to turn off his location. Spreading disinformation, stoking dissent and generally increasing unhappiness in the west is his day job, but since it only pays about 250 roubles an hour, he’s not that committed.
Finally, we have the hardcore Brexiteer, whose ferocious antipathy towards all things forrin and anything resembling a fact render him firmly committed, no matter what, to eating only produce grown in the British Isles, picked by British hands, and delivered by British McDonald’s employees (the white ones, natch).
For the Gammonite (from the nickname for the pink and sweaty old racists who make up the average audience on the BBC’s Question Time – the Wall of Gammon), nothing less than an adamantium Brexit will do. After all, Britain is so fucking amazing (in spite of containing 48% Remainers, enemy-of-the-people judges, luvvies, students, women, gays, trans people, Labour voters, Green voters, Liberal Democrat voters, liberals, scroungers, immigrants, the BBC, the Guardian, vegetarians and disabled people), it doesn’t need to trade even on WTO terms. WE’LL TRADE ON OUR TERMS, OR YOU WILL SUCCUMB TO THE CANNONS OF HMS VICTORY, FORRINER!
I know – at least, I hope – that there are some Brexit voters out there who genuinely want us all to put our differences behind us and start working together on a new vision for the UK. (If you’re reading: hard pass here. Sort your own mess out.) But you really don’t hear a lot out of this group, if they exist. The most vocal, surviving exponents of Brexit only seem interested in mocking, shocking, and blocking.
And I’ve just figured out why. It doesn’t matter which of the three tribes you’re dealing with: none of them actually wants us to “get over it”. For their various reasons, they all want us to carry on moaning till the day we – or more likely, they – die.
The first two groups’ motivations are obvious. Kevin’s sole raison d’etre is to cause and enjoy pain in others. If Brexit is cancelled, he’ll probably just switch sides and start taunting the defeated Brexiters.
The drones have no more interest in ending hostilities. Their function is to sow division, to widen the cracks in western society. Of course they want the conflict to continue. The prospect of the UK suddenly coming together, holding hands and vowing to make a success of Brexit is their worst nightmare (well, second worst, after Brexit being cancelled).
But what about the Gammonites, the dwindling band of Brexit zealots who would rather eat a hundredweight of horseshit than learn a word of French? What do they have to gain from prolonging the fighting?
These are, it would seem, people with precious little experience of success. They tend to be older, balder, and unhappier than most; they didn’t go to university, they married someone they didn’t like, if they married at all, and they haven’t travelled extensively or otherwise ticked any boxes on their bucket list. So, in the first place, they want to wring every last possible drop of joy from this rare thing in their lives: a victory.
Moreover, Brexit for them is a victory without a trophy. It has brought them nothing concrete, so far, barring more expensive holidays and 10% on their monthly food bills. And you can’t exactly flaunt that to the grandkids. Yeah, so in a few months’ time they’ll have some shiny blue passports, and maybe even some stamps, to help them jubilate. But in the meantime?
Sad tweets by liberals and students! OK, they’re not tangible, as such – Schadenfreude is no Jules Rimet trophy – but you can, in a pinch, print them out and wank joylessly over them.
(The most remarkable moment of Trump’s presidency win in the US for me was not the win itself, but his supporters’ chosen manner of celebration. No one seemed excited about the sunlit uplands that would magically materialise under Donnie’s rule; all that mattered to them was … liberal tears. It wasn’t the victory in itself that was important; it was their perceived enemy’s defeat.)
(Don’t click on that link. It’s Infowars. It’s just there for reasons of journalistic rigour.)
Finally, I think, despite their bullish idealism, most Brexiters know, deep down, that their victory is as empty as a Ukip youth rally. The referendum was their first taste of success; but if Brexit is pursued to its logical conclusion, it’s likely to be the last success that any of us, barring a handful of non-dom billionaire disaster capitalists, enjoys for at least a generation.
The reason they’re still doing a victory lap 19 months after winning a trophy made of shit in a rigged three-legged race is simple: they know, as soon as they stop, two of those legs will be chopped off.
Well, trolls, I have excellent news for you. We Remainers have no intention of moving on, or getting it over it. We won’t stop “crying” or “moaning” or pointing out the flaws in your risible attempts at a plan until Brexit is reversed, and we have our tolerant, open, compassionate, brave country back.
A beginner’s guide to the UK’s newest language – a fascinating creole of English and bullshit
Until recently, there were 11 native languages in the United Kingdom: English, Welsh, Scots, Irish, Cornish, Angloromani, Scottish Gaelic, Shelta, British Sign Language, Irish Sign Language and Northern Ireland Sign Language. But some time in early 2016, a 12th tongue sprang forth.
Brexitese, at present attested for the most part only in written form, is superficially similar to standard English. Its grammar is identical (if simplified), and it draws on the same word pool. However, the Brexitese rules of punctuation are looser, and it has a far smaller vocabulary, to the extent that its users often have to support their text with cry emojis. Words of more than two syllables are generally shunned altogether.
The most striking feature, and the most problematic for learners of the fledgling tongue, is that the meanings of many Brexitese words differ slightly – sometimes markedly – from their standard English equivalents.
Here, then, for the benefit of those who wish to properly comprehend our isolationist brethren, I shall be compiling a brief guide to the most common of these linguistic “false friends”.
English meaning: System of government under which a governing body, elected by the people as their representatives and advised and assisted by a civil service with the relevant expertise, takes decisions regarding the laws of the land. In a properly functioning democracy, these representatives are selected through free and fair elections, the citizens should participate actively in politics and civic life, the human rights of citizens should be protected, and the rule of law should apply equally to all citizens. Also known as parliamentary democracy.
Brexitese meaning: System of government, long since abandoned by most civilised societies, under which the people themselves take decisions on matters about which they do not have the first fucking clue. Votes need neither be free nor fair, and the human rights of millions of those affected by those votes can be trampled on whenever the winners see fit. Aka ochlocracy.
Examples: “You hate democracy”; “Stop trying to overturn democracy”.
English meaning: Excessive bureaucracy or adherence to official rules and formalities.
Example: “Our businesses will only thrive when they are free of EU red tape!”
English meaning: Form of government under which one person, or one small group of people, retains absolute power over a nation, with no or few constitutional limitations. Generally characterised by corruption, the extensive use of propaganda, the suppression of basic civil liberties, and the imprisonment, exile or violent removal of dissenters.
Brexitese meaning: Voluntary partnership with a prosperous trading bloc, which also happens to handle some of the smaller, administrative apparatuses of state. Constitutional limitations all over the shop, none of which can be altered without the consent of all member states. Characterised by tolerance, mutual understanding, compromise, and a commitment to upholding civil liberties.
Example: “We’ve had enough of this EU dictatorship!”
English meaning: Any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.
Brexitese meaning: Any system of government – but particularly violently oppressive ones – that happen to have used the word “socialism” in their name, however disingenuously.
Example: “The Nazis weren’t rightwing, they were socialists!”
English meaning: The authority, granted by the electorate to a party or candidate that wins a vote, to carry out a policy explicitly spelled out before that vote.
Brexitese meaning: The authority to do anything the winners of an election want, regardless of what was voted on.
Example: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” 52%: “Leave the European Union.” Brexiters: “Great, this means we have a mandate to leave the EEA, EFTA, the single market, the customs union, Euratom, Horizon 2020, Erasmus, and the jurisdiction of the ECJ.”
English meaning: The authority of a state to govern itself or another state; freedom from external influence.
Brexitese meaning: Precise definition unclear – no Brexit speaker has ever been able to give an example of how leaving the EU will increase Britain’s sovereignty – but saying it seems to make them feel a lot better. An interjection, perhaps?
English meaning: 1. Of an extent, amount, or intensity considerably above average. 2. Impressive or grand.
Brexitese meaning: The way things used to be, or, at least, how I remember them being, when I was young and carefree and people still wanted to have sex with me.
Example: “Make Britain great again!”
Freedom of speech
English meaning: The legal right to broadcast one’s views or feelings freely. (Very few societies permit total freedom of speech – not even the US, which has restrictions on the expression of obscenity, child pornography, defamation, incitement to violence and true threats of violence.)
Brexitese meaning: My right to broadcast my feelings. Especially the offensive ones. You lost, so you have to shut up, for ever.
Will of the people
English meaning: The overwhelming consensus of opinion among the body of a population.
Brexitese meaning: The unspecified ramifications of one poorly informed decision, made one day more than 18 months ago, by 27% of the population, many of whom only did so as a protest vote. In English, we would render this “The whim of a quarter of the people.”
Enemy of the people
English meaning: One who acts against the interests of his nation and/or his countrymen, typically by violent means.
Brexitese meaning: Anyone who expresses even the tiniest doubt about the wisdom of dragging a country out of the world’s richest trading bloc for no good reason. Examples include judges, young people, liberals, scientists, economists, actors, philosophers, “metropolitan elites”, and 16.1 million Remain voters.
English meaning: A person who betrays someone or something, such as a friend, cause, or principle.
Brexitese meaning: Anyone who has the temerity to use facts, reason and evidence in an argument, instead of blind emotion.
English meaning: In office not as a result of a popular vote, but by another means, such as interview, test, examination, or competition.
Brexitese meaning: Wrong.
English meaning: A statement made by someone who knows it to be wilful; a deliberate attempt to mislead.
Brexitese meaning: A prediction made in good faith in order to dissuade someone from pursuing a dangerous course of action.
Example: “But Remain lied too! Instant recession, austerity budget, world war three …”
It takes courage to admit you were wrong. As Leave’s lies unravel, more and more Brexit voters – 305 and counting – are showing it
On 23rd June 2016, 17,410,742 people voted for the UK to end its 43-year membership of the European Union. They did so after a Leave campaign chock full of lies, distortions and scare tactics, many of which have been exposed as such in the days since the referendum.
Bit harsh on yourself there, Leila – you’re far from alone. Many others have struggled with the idea that so many tabloid newspaper journalists and politicians could lie so brazenly, and so clearly contrary to the interests of the country, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that this is what’s been happening.
Welcome aboard the good ship Remain, Peter’s friend.
Like a reformed smoker, Michael’s now quite the virulent anti-Brexit campaigner.
Not exactly a full-throated recantation from Gordon, but it’s another vote in the bag. (Tweet has since vanished – I think Gordon runs one of those apps that automatically deletes all tweets more than a month old. The reply below, however, survives. Because of eventualities like this, I’m going through this post replacing all embedded tweets with screenshots.)
Aaand two more recruits, courtesy of Kristian.
It was almost certainly in your top three, Beth, but I won’t press the point.
This one came courtesy of @StuartBudd1 on Twitter.
According to this study, the number of people who regretted voting Leave was already greater than the margin of victory for Leave – and that was in October 2016. As the scale of the task facing the UK government and its rank unfitness to undertake it become ever clearer, that number can only have risen.
There are doubtless hundreds, possibly thousands more Bregretters – it only took me an hour to collect the examples above. Feel free to send me any more admissions of error you may find (after thanking them for their courage and honesty, natch). The case for a second referendum – or, preferably, a simple retraction of article 50 – grows stronger by the day.
Bregretters found since 20/9/17
I may have made a rod for my own back here. Mind you, I’ll take a rod up the tradesman’s if it stops Brexit.
(A revealing little exchange, that one. Despite the wailing of Liam Fox and various shady corporate-sponsored thinktanks, there has been much speculation that the BBC has given far too much prominence to advocates of Brexit – and especially of hard Brexit.)
(That last post was retweeted by the @BrexityRegrets account, which had, as of 18/12/2017, winkled out 95 more people who have had second thoughts since 23/6/16.)
Inspired by a broadside of hatred and scorn from hardened leavers (and doubtless a few Mercer trolls) on 18 December, I decided to broaden my search and started finding more Bregretters in unexpected places like Mumsnet:
And here’s one from the Student Room:
Ooh, just found a Facebook group that should turn up a few more. Here’s one:
I’m reserving a special mention for this guy, who I found only because of the dedication of frothing Brexadi @JohnWebbWindsor on Twitter. Thanks, John!
This is proving to be quite an inexact science – there are possibilities of duplications, of course, and there’s no telling whether all the people concerned are telling the truth (although it’s hard to see why someone would make something like this up). Take this tweet thread, for example:
In the interests of fairness, I’ll only count this as one more Remainer. (PS: thanks for your bravery and honesty, Simon!) In any case, this is only supposed to give a general picture of the momentum building against a hasty and calamitous exit from the EU.
300 down. Only 599,700 to go.
Having hit the 300 mark, which I think is enough to make my point, and having realised that this page now takes a solid hour to scroll through, I’m going to be a little less rigorous with the updates, although I will continue to post links below every now and then.
Words are the clothes we wear in the virtual world. And in the past year, they’ve helped me make some of my firmest friends
Can you love someone you’ve never met? Search engine says no:
A trawl of the net suggests this is the majority view. Human beings, after all, engage with the world and each other via their senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell (and at least four others, according to my QI Book of General Ignorance). All entail close proximity.
Besides, the internet is groaning with stories of how “I fell in love online but then we met in real life and he turned out to be 90/a ring-tailed lemur/a twat”. Love can only be real if you can be certain that the person is real, right?
Why, then, do literature and film offer so many tales of incorporeal love? Les Liaisons Dangereuses is a series of seductions by letter; ditto Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse. In Cyrano de Bergerac, Roxane is won over by the words of Cyrano (delivered by the oafish mouth of Christian). In Miklós László’s 1937 play Illatszertár – better known to most in the form of the 1940 Sullavan/Stewart romcom The Shop Around The Corner and the DEAR GOD WHY 1998 Hanks/Ryan remake, You’ve Got Mail – George and Amalia, two feuding employees in a Budapest gift shop, are each engaged in a romantic correspondence with a stranger. The twist, of course, is that they’re pen-fucking each other.
Steve Martin lusts after a cerebellum in a jar in The Man With Two Brains. Joaquin Phoenix goes all googly for a virtual assistant in Her (which I don’t quite buy, because while the idea of a woman who obeys your every whim and never complains is vaguely appealing, the idea of a partner who knows everything is not). And Beauty and the Beast and the Frog Prince are just two of countless fairy tales dealing with people falling for the intangible essence of a person rather than their physical self.
These are all fictions, but they are fictions that resonate, because we like to think that, deep down, we’re not shallow, and that we can love a person for their soul rather than their superficial, transient features.
In any case, it’s not as if remote romancin’ is a new phenomenon in the real world. Thanks to the social taboos around spending time alone with unmarried members of the opposite sex, love letters formed the greater part of the courtship process for centuries. Mozart and Constanza Weber, John Keats and Fanny Brawne, and Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning are just three of the more famous examples of loves forged or fortified in ink.
People have been holding torches for faraway souls – royalty, soldiers, actors, writers, Tannoy announcers – for as long as they’ve had imaginations, and the absent can get to you just as effectively as the present. This poor woman was so deeply affected by someone she met online that she ended up being prescribed the anti-anxiety drug Ativan.
The secret to this spooky action at a distance, of course, is humanity’s tour de force: language. With words, you can create a representation of yourself that is not confined to one point in space or time.
Some scoff at the idea that Russian- or Robert Mercer-sponsored Twitterbots and targeted Facebook ads might have influenced the EU referendum result and Donald Trump’s victory. To them, I mention only that half the human race still allow their every waking moment to be governed by diktats set down in books written 2,000 and 1,400 years ago.
Words are the clothes we wear in unreality. You don’t (often) get to make them, but you get to choose them, and how to combine them, and the “richer” you are, the wider the options open to you. With time, a spellcheck, maybe even a friend’s judicious eye, you can step out into the virtual world as if fresh from a Gok Wan makeover.
As the very existence of the field of forensic linguistics proves, your use of language is as unique to you as your fingerprint (assuming you’re not a copy-and-pasting Brexit fanatic). Your language reveals everything important about you: your values, your interests, your sense of humour, your level of education, and usually, despite your best efforts at airbrushing, your attitude to the world.
And it was precisely the discovery that others shared my values and humour that, over the last few months, brought together one of the most cherished groups of people I’ve been part of.
For me, it’s been the sole silver lining to Brexit. After bonding on Twitter over the inanities of the far right, a few of us started a chat with a view to meeting up at the March for Europe in London in March 2017. Only a handful made it, and we didn’t actually hang out for that long, but the chat chuntered on, and slowly, as we found more like-minded souls, we added them. Boys and girls, straight and bi, from Manchester to South Africa to Moscow, liberal and anti-fascist, mostly of a similar age (with me as extreme outlier).
There have been six or seven meet-ups now. Drinks on general election night were followed by an Ethiopian meal, then a canalboat cruise, then an eggs benedict sleepover. Geographical distribution means I haven’t met them all yet, but I’ve checked off about half the group in six months.
But like I said, screw the real-world stuff. Mostly we talk shit. We share pictures and jokes and tweets that we love, as most groups do, but we also flirt, sympathise, praise, share intelligence on Nazis, and sometimes get wasted and stay up all night playing Twitter Countdown. Oh, and because we’re all snowflakes that melt at any temperature above -272C, the slightest ill-considered comment can send any of us hurtling out of the group, only to return after three days or so of grovelling and cajoling.
In what’s been an exceptionally difficult year for me, thanks to some serious health problems, the Tits have been an endless source of support, fascination and joy (and grief, but nothing comes without a price). Less spooky action at a distance, more strong nuclear force.
The argument that virtual interactions are plainly inferior to real weakens with every passing day. The ability to share pictures, audio and video has already narrowed the perceptual distance between us, and as the functionality of social media is slowly engineered to replicate real-world interaction (Facebook and Twitter likes are nods and smiles; retweets and shares are laughs; gifs, I guess, are goofy facial expressions), so our online and real-world experiences fall into ever closer step.
You can’t entirely trust those visual and auditory signals, of course – catfishing is a real problem – and you still don’t get any hormonal chemistry online, one of the principal components of attraction.
Well, not directly. Recent studies have shown that getting likes and retweets from an online crush can cause a similar spike in the “love hormone” to that caused by physical contact. How fucked up is that? A little character appears on your phone, as a result of someone you’ve never met typing something into their phone a thousand miles away, and causes an actual chemical change in your brain! People can change your mood, and your mind, and your heart, from afar.
Then of course there are the aspects of remote relationships that are superior to their physical equivalents. Objectivity. Disinhibition. Novelty. The thrill of the not-quite-known.
In fact, if I ruled the world, I might insist that all future human relationships be conducted on a virtual basis. Because based on my record, I’m better off keeping the flesh well out of it. I might have a shot at charming your pants off from 500 paces, but move me 499 paces closer and chances are I’ll just soil my own.
People are, after all, just an idea, even when they’re in your arms. Sure, your proximate senses give you a firmer grip on that idea, but ultimately, you have no way of knowing for sure whether they are real, whether the sensations in your fingertips haven’t just been planted there by some malign entity. You might be living in the Matrix.
Meanings change fast. We use the word “virtual” these days in opposition to the word “real”, forgetting that until very recently its only sense was “almost or nearly as described”, ie pretty much as good as the real thing. I’d argue that before long, its semantics might morph again, so that it comes to mean “better than the real thing”.
“Hold up, Bodle!” you cry, smirking. “This is all very well, but you’ve missed out one crucial element. If you never meet someone, you can’t have sex with them.”
Patriotic American with a passion for Ukraine, or Putin-sponsored paedo troll? Tough call
On 18 February 2014, anti-government protesters and police clashed violently in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. The fighting left at least 80 people dead and 1,000 injured. The protesters were calling for the removal of the president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was seen as being too close to Russia and a threat to the country’s burgeoning relationship with the EU. They got their wish: Yanukovych fled on 22 February, and a government more sympathetic to the people, and the west, was put in place. It was a bitter blow to Vladimir Putin’s hopes for greater influence in his former vassal state.
On 23 February 2014, an individual going by the name of Adam Baum registered as a commenter on the Guardian website.
Baum’s first comment, at 4.35pm GMT, is innocuous enough: an anodyne remark under a piece about the American healthcare system. Forty minutes later, though, he weighs in on a topic that will prove to be very dear to his heart.
The article is an opinion piece by the Observer’s Nick Cohen about Ukraine and Russian money-laundering. The YouTube account hosting the video Baum links to has been deleted, but it’s a fair guess, judging by the rest of his posts, that it was some conspiracy theory about TV coverage of the Sochi Winter Olympics, which had recently finished.
Twenty-seven of his 67 comments over the next three years are devoted to the Ukraine crisis, all firmly on the side of Putin and Russia and against the west. Most of the rest are about – have you guessed already? – Brexit, and the last two, posted in January this year, are a defence of Trump and a dig at Hillary Clinton.
So what, you say? Perhaps Mr Baum is a Russian-speaking resident of eastern Ukraine. Perhaps he has every right to have an opinion on these issues. Well, this is where things get weird.
On his Guardian profile, Baum describes himself as a “political analyst and commentator” interested in “global issues”. But I could find no mention of a recognised political commentator of that name anywhere. In fact, I couldn’t find any third-party mentions of anyone called Adam Baum fitting this person’s description.
So I downloaded his profile picture and carried out a Google image search. And wouldn’t you know, the photograph doesn’t seem to depict “Adam Baum” at all, but a certain Nick Bateman, a 30-year-old male model from Canada. Moreover, you’ll notice a little black, blue and red flag superimposed on the photo. Kudos to you if you get this one in the flags round of the pub quiz, because it turns out to be the emblem adopted by the People’s Republic of Donetsk, a self-proclaimed but largely unrecognised state in eastern Ukraine almost certainly supported by Putin.
That would at least tie in with the ethnic-Russian-in-Ukraine story. But why the fake pic? And if he is in Donetsk, why, in his third Guardian comment, does he tell us this?
Note: “I’m an American.” This would all have remained a mildly baffling nothingburger, were it not for the fact that in Baum’s last comments, in January this year, he provides a link to a post … on the Facebook page of one Adam Baum.
I say Adam Baum’s Facebook page, but the chap depicted at the top (see main image) looks rather different from our Ukrainian Arizonan Canadian friend. This man, it transpires, is British model David Gandy, 37. (Hey, if you’re going to post a fake picture, you might as well set the bar high, eh?)
Now we begin to see a broader – but no less confusing – picture of Adam Baum. His bio says he is self-employed and “looking for a FaceBook Relationship with an intellectual & sexy Woman”. His friends aren’t public, but two people are listed as “family”: one an obvious fake sub-porno model account, inactive for three years, the other someone called John Ayaz, with no public details and a profile picture of the Indian actor John Abraham – another imposter.
None of these accounts are quite what you’d expect, either from a middle-aged Arizonan or a Russian spy. They’re a mix of putative personal photos (mostly stock shots stolen from Greek and Turkish websites), memes, crackpot conspiracy theories, shit jokes, anti-globalist propaganda, and, disturbingly, dozens of pictures of scantily clad or naked women. In some cases very young women.
A few are outright pornographic, and one shot on his Twitter feed looked very much like a photograph of Britney Spears spattered with semen, but most are just glamour shots of borderline anorexic teenage models like the ones below. Among his “liked” pages are those of Liberty Grant, a 14-year-old singer, and Laneya Grace, a model aged 13. He’s a member of five public Facebook groups: something about Syria/Ukraine, a Putin fan page, a porn group and two pages devoted to teenage girl celebrities.
The deeper you dig, the more slippery the identity of this person or persons becomes. Baum’s English, good on the whole, is marred by the occasional serious lapse, and not of the type that a native speaker would make: “The #US Coup Junta has given the peaceful #Maidan protesters a bloodstained Fascist reputation to live down” (why hashtags on a comment? Suggestion of automation here?); “We were put here with all that we needed to be fruitful and share in with thanks for it going to are all common creator”; “From my dead cold hands”.
Halfway through his Guardian history, there’s a particularly startling moment: beneath a story about diplomatic calls leaked on YouTube, he has posted a comment entirely in Russian. Was this a drunken mistake? (Once you’ve posted a comment on the Guardian website, you can’t delete it.)
Here’s a rough translation: “I’m all for the California idea … the main problem here will be that it seems the Chinese beat you to it. Before the overthrow of the regime there, America should look closely at Cuba. Florida may be up for a referendum on secession. [laughs]) Why would Baum be interested in California? Simple: the Californian independence movement is one of a number of causes believed to be supported by Vladimir Putin in his campaign to destabilise America and Europe.
But according to Russian friends of mine, this is clumsy, unidiomatic – the sort of result Google Translate might produce. English may not be Baum’s first language, but it doesn’t seem as though Russian is either.
Of all the “personal” pictures I checked out, I could find only one that wasn’t obviously lifted from somewhere else, and that shows the One World Trade Center in New York. Not terribly helpful. He’s no tech wiz, because in three years of posting comments on the Guardian, he never figured out how to use the “link” tool.
He follows only 49 people on Twitter: radical political commentators of left and right, “alternative media” (bullshit artists), cosplayers, porn, Trump, alt-right propagandist Paul Joseph Watson, and Julian Assange. His bio links to a video on the sharing service RUTube, the Russian YouTube, showing someone apparently being shot in Ukraine in 2014. His 57,000 tweets, made at the rate of about 25 a day, are as eclectic as the rest of his output, and rarely provoke a response from any of his 2,000 followers. The most informative resource is his profile on VK.com, which describes him as a 42-year old resident of Los Angeles. Which sort of fits with some of what we’ve seen. But that just raises the question of why an LA resident has a profile on Russian Facebook in the first place.
As for life history, all we have is that bizarre reference to Arizona jail time. It seems an odd thing to make up, and since he never refers to it again (but does leave a couple of comments on stories about US jails), it seems unlikely that it’s part of some elaborate cover story. I think the individual behind Adam Baum really did serve time in prison. The event he describes took place in 1998, which would put him in his late 30s or early 40s – consistent with the VK.com bio, and in the same ballpark as Gandy.
Most perplexing of all, across all these accounts, Baum never really seems to have any meaningful interactions with anyone. His Facebook posts get no likes or responses, ditto for his tweets, and there are no comments under any of his ripped-off blogs. If he is a paid Russian shill, Putin ain’t getting much bang for his rouble. (It’s worth noting, though, that his mere six pages of comments on the Guardian site generated more than 100 pages of responses.)
I messaged the Twitter account asking him to explain who he was and why he was so interested in Ukraine, and he immediately blocked me. I sent him a message over Facebook asking the same thing; no reply came.
I have three vaguely plausible theories as to what we’re dealing with here. One, a Ukrainian national in his early 40s, now living in the States, who has maintained an interest in the motherland and swallowed a load of conspiracy tosh. Two, a seedy failed glamour photographer supplementing his income by spreading dezinformatsiya for Vlad or Robert Mercer. Or three, a full-time employee of Putin’s who inexplicably thought the best choice for his fake persona would be a kiddie fiddler.
I might be able to narrow it down if I did some more combing through his online corpus, but frankly, I don’t have unlimited time to devote to one small cog in what I now firmly believe to be a colossal propaganda machine.
Human operatives, directing automated and semi-automated accounts, are poisoning the waters of discourse with lies and propaganda, most of it directed against Muslims, liberals, and the EU. The extent of these operations is not yet clear, nor exactly who is behind them, although suspicion has alighted on Vladimir Putin, big tobacco, big sugar, and billionaire investor Robert Mercer, among others.
It’s even harder to tell just how effective the campaigns have been, but the fact that both Brexit and Trump won in defiance of virtually every prediction – Trump in exactly the electoral colleges he needed to – strongly suggests something fishy was going on.
Thing is, we all believe that we’re independent thinkers. We think we’re savvy enough to look at the available facts and form sensible opinions therefrom. But the painful fact is, not many of us are right. Many people – especially those who haven’t got the time or the inclination to look into matters for themselves – tend to go along with the majority view (or at least the consensus among their identity group – their class, their neighbours, their political party).
The catch was that only one person was actually being tested. The rest were plants. The surprising conclusion of the research was that if the plants all insisted on giving the wrong answer, 32% of the test subjects, instead of defending the correct solution, caved in and went with the flow. (In the control group, where there was no pressure to conform, subjects gave the wrong answer only 1% of the time.) Subsequent tests with different subjects and criteria reported the effect to be smaller, but it is undoubtedly there.
We’re all familiar with the phenomena of mass hysteria and mob mentality. When all your friends feel a certain way, there’s huge pressure, both internal and external, for you to go along with it, because you don’t wish to rock the boat, or be considered the odd one out. It’s how most cults and religions work.
I am no longer in any doubt that this is a human weakness that Vladimir Putin, or Robert Mercer, or whoever, is pulling out all the stops to exploit. If you can change the minds of 33%, or 15% – sometimes even only 2% – you can start rigging results to go your way. Remember, the Solomon Asch experiment was a relatively clear-cut issue. How much stronger could the conformity effect be if the matter at hand were something more complex and less obvious, like the relative costs and benefits of leaving the EU?
In online and telephone polls before the referendum, Remain was winning comfortably until about two weeks before the vote. The proportion of “don’t knows” held steady at about 20% for most of the campaign, narrowing to 10% immediately before the vote. The margin of victory on the day was less than 4%. What changed these waverers’ minds?
Analysis of social media activity has shown that in the final days of campaigning before the referendum, messages promoting Leave outnumbered those promoting Remain by anything from 3 to 1 to 7 to 1, depending on the platform – even though we know that younger people are far more active on social media and that young people were far more likely to vote Remain. A similar phenomenon was observed immediately prior to the US presidential elections. How many of these messages were from people like Adam Baum, and how many floating voters did they hook?
One thing’s for sure: you need to be very, very concerned about Baum and his friends. Yes, even you, Brexiters. Because the point of this barrage of misinformation was not just to help win Brexit and elect Trump. Vlad (or Bob) is not done yet. He wants our countries divided, conflicted, broken. And his efforts to turn Brit against Brit and American against American are having a side-effect: they’re destroying our reputation in the eyes of the rest of the world.
You may not be a racist Leaver, and this may not at heart be a racist nation, but because these troll armies are shouting their xenophobic tripe so loudly, other countries are starting to believe we are. EU citizens and UK nationals are leaving in droves and investment levels are through the floor. The decline in tourism to America since Trump took power is projected to cost the US around $7.5bn this year (and that estimate was made before Charlottesville). Regardless of whether Putin and Mercer achieve their long-term goals, the short-term damage could still be immense.
I was inspired to carry out this work partly by the recent sterling efforts of Mike Hind and Conspirador Noreño in outing an industrious Russian troll on Twitter, @DavidJo52951945. “David Jones”, who has over 102,000 followers including a number of Ukip MEPs and has been tweeting anti-EU, anti-immigrant propaganda for years, was finally, conclusively proven to be a Russian plant this week. (Do check out Conspirador’s highly informative and entertaining thread on it.) I would like to think that, if a few more people can start hunting down and exposing these trolls, then we can start fighting back against the tide of disinformation that’s threatening to swamp our democracies.
I don’t expect everyone to put as much time as I have into these activities. But I would ask you, when you next come across a suspicious account, not to ignore it and hope it goes away. These people aren’t going anywhere any time soon. Challenge them. Report them. Inform the photographers whose copyright they have violated. If you’re on Twitter, tweet about them, and maybe someone else will be able to take up the cudgels. Our society, our very way of life are under attack, and since our governments don’t seem willing or able to do anything about it, the job of protecting them falls to us.
UPDATE, 30/8/17: I feel vindicated. (Screenshot from the “Make Adverbs Great Again” tool, which I’ve only just discovered, that grades Twitter accounts on their likelihood of being trolls.)
Theresa May says the “best and brightest” EU migrants will always be welcome in the UK. The fact is, thanks to her and the Mail’s rhetoric, they’re already leaving
The first thing I hear when Mathieu and Pauline welcome me into their home is an insistent buzzing-and-slushing noise. Mathieu apologises profusely and hurries to turn off the offending washing machine. Pauline shows me through to the immaculate kitchen and offers me tea: “Would you like an Englishy one? Earl Grey?”
Both French and either side of 30, Mathieu and Pauline are two of the 3 million-plus EU citizens who chose to build a life for themselves in the UK. But that life is over. In light of the Brexit vote and the events that have followed, they’ve decided, with heavy hearts, to move on.
According to immigration law experts Migrate UK, the exodus is because of the political uncertainty surrounding EU citizens’ status, and further labour shortages should be expected. Managing director Jonathan Beech says: “Until the government ends uncertainty among EU citizens by guaranteeing rights to remain in the UK after Brexit, we are likely to see a continuation of these trends, and potentially the start of a Brexit ‘brain drain’ from the UK.”
Of the people I spoke to, none could remotely be described “spongers” or “low-value” workers. These are young, healthy, skilled, taxpaying contributors to society, who speak impeccable English and are well integrated into their local communities.
Mathieu and Pauline moved here in 2012, just in time for the Olympics, not so much drawn to the UK as repelled by the culture in France. “The system is so inflexible there. There’s a lot of nepotism, racism, a pervasive culture of sexism, and there are too many strikes,” says Pauline. “In the UK, no one gives a shit that Theresa May is a woman, or that David Lammy is an MP,” adds Mathieu. “You don’t get that in France.”
“So you came here because it was more tolerant and open?” Hollow laughter ensues.
Pauline works as a contractor for the NHS, Mathieu as a software engineer, which gives them a combined salary of £75,000; that’s £11,000 tax and £7,000 national insurance that the government won’t be collecting next year. And since Pauline has undergone one minor operation and Mathieu has visited his GP twice, you could hardly call them a burden on the state.
So where have they chosen for their new start? “Canada. It’s not just Trudeau – even if it had been Stephen Harper, we’d have thought about moving there,” says Pauline. “They love immigrants in Canada,” says Mathieu. “And as English-speaking French people, we are their dream immigrants,” Pauline concludes, her eyes twinkling briefly.
Only Mathieu currently has a job lined up in Quebec, but it turns out they’ll earn more from one income there than they do from two here – their money will go further, too. “House prices! Oh my God! Our friend just bought a five-bed house there for £220K!” “The water’s free, the electricity’s very cheap, food is super-cheap, electronics … Jackpot! We might just end up thanking Brexit.”
Which brings us to the $64m question. When did they decide to up sticks, and why? “It wasn’t actually Brexit,” says Mathieu. “I was expecting it, to be honest. People are pissed off, the system is broken, inequality is growing, people don’t want to be under rightwing Angela Merkel, the problems in Greece. It’s what the government did after Brexit.”
The tone until now has been overwhelmingly of sadness, disbelief. But suddenly a tinge of anger enters Pauline’s voice. “I’m disgusted by the attitude of the Tory government. They’re using us as leverage. It’s been 11 fucking months. All that time they could have said, ‘You’re welcome to stay,’ but they didn’t. They could have condemned hate crimes, but they didn’t. They could have told Amber Rudd to shut up. They could have told the Daily Mail to shut up.”
“The Daily Mail is hate speech,” Mathieu interjects. “‘Enemies of the people’? That’s Hitler, that’s literally Hitler! In France you would get prosecuted for that bullshit.”
It was the rapid poisoning of the atmosphere, they say, that made up their minds. “People tend to look on us with scorn and suspicion now,” says Pauline, “and I don’t think that’s acceptable, when you have given so much and made so much effort to integrate.
“My boss invited me into a meeting, and he said to me, ‘Brexit is good news. It’s not personal – it’s not against you – we’ve just to get rid of those Polish scroungers.”
Mathieu reserves special venom for Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage: “‘We’re going to give money to the NHS. Oh no, you know what? We lied. We’re going to stay in the EEA. No, that was all lies, too.’ And the British people don’t care. I expected people to throw eggs at Number 10, to be honest. But nothing.”
Now it seems that lying is a habit the Tories can’t shake. “‘The NHS is not failing because of cuts, it’s because the immigrants came,’ they say. ‘The housing shortage is not because we’re not building enough, it’s because the immigrants came.’”
“We’re really concerned about the British people – it breaks my heart to see so many people going to food banks, to see disabled people getting their benefits cut to nothing,” says Pauline, unprompted.
The mood has turned sombre again. “We were invited here, they needed us,” says Mathieu, “and now suddenly they are telling us that everything is our fault.”
The decision to leave was rather more momentous for Melissa. For one thing, she’s been here longer, having arrived from Germany in 2009. For another, she’s older – in her late 30s. Last but not least, her partner is British.
Melissa came to the UK because she loved to travel, wanted to experience a different culture, and spoke excellent English. She first set up home in Norfolk, but a year later met Sean, an automotive engineer a couple of years her senior, and when a job opportunity arose for him in the Midlands, they moved there together. She works from home as a freelance translator, earning £30,000-£40,000 a year, most of it from German clients.
The main factor in their decision to go, she says, was the work situation; carmaking is one of the areas most likely to be adversely affected by Brexit. “If the economy goes too far south, Sean might lose his job. We feel like rats leaving a sinking ship.”
But money wasn’t the only consideration. “The language being used reminds me very much of what I learned in my history lessons in Germany,” says Melissa. “‘Traitor’, ‘enemy of the state’ – it’s very worrying.
“Because I work from home, I’m not exposed to much xenophobia, but I did get a few people giving me the Hitler salute.” It’s Sean who bears the brunt of the abuse, mostly from his staunch Brexiteer colleagues. “One of them once turned round to him and said: ‘You’re sleeping with one of them, so you’re just as bad.’”
The couple’s plans to move to Germany are now at an advanced stage. While Sean speaks no German, his skills mean he will have little trouble finding a decent job.
“The referendum result has been a massive, massive blow. Both Sean and I are heartbroken. We’ve lost some very good friends over this. It was not an easy choice, but we don’t see a future in the UK any more – the country he was born and I chose to make my home and was very happy in.”
Since Melissa does most of her work for German clients, the UK won’t particularly miss her talents, although Sean will be harder to replace. Mathieu and Pauline, too, foresee big problems for their employers. There are only two or three people in the country with Pauline’s particular expertise, and it would take 18 months to train a replacement. When Mathieu’s boss was headhunted by Apple over a year ago, he had to deputise – and he’s still deputising, because they haven’t been able to replace him. And that’s with easy access to all 28 EU nations. The prospects for the company are not bright; only a handful of the staff in his team are British – there’s little appetite for computer science degrees in this country – and several other EU nationals are considering a fresh start.
Lara is another one whose skills will be sorely missed; she’s a GP. According to an estimate made last summer, EU immigrants make up 10% of registered doctors and 4% of registered nurses, making the UK health service one of the world’s most dependent on foreign labour. And with the GP system already being described as “on the verge of collapse”, that’s a talent pool the UK can ill afford to lose access to.
Lara, in her early forties and of mixed French and Mediterranean heritage, will also be taking a British partner with her when she goes, and two children. Again, she says, it wasn’t the Brexit vote per se that forced their hand. “Initially, after the vote, I thought, ‘It’ll be all right, they’ll guarantee our rights,’ but they never did.”
She too lays much of the blame at the door of the immigrant-bashing tabloid press. “Basically, all these endless stories about EU citizens stealing jobs and being scroungers made me feel not at home. I was in shock. Surely this is not the country I’d spent the last 22 years in? It suddenly felt foreign to me.”
While she hasn’t personally received any abuse – her English is flawless, her dress and appearance unexotic – she has witnessed some unpleasantness. “One of our patients – ex-army, I think – started shouting at some of the other patients, Polish and Asians, in the waiting room. ‘Britain’s for white people, get out of my country …’ I don’t think anyone would have said any of these things before the referendum.”
So next year, instead of taking home £48,000 as a doctor in the UK, she’ll be earning a little less to treat French patients instead. It’s her friends and colleagues, she says, that she’ll miss most. “I have amazing work colleagues. Even though some of them voted leave because they felt the EU had an unfair advantage over Commonwealth people.”
Linda, too, will be taking a native Brit with her when she leaves. Aged 37 and originally from Turku in Finland, she arrived here in 2003. “I had basically loved Britain since I first came here aged 16 and spent a month in Devon on a language course. I travelled all around Europe Interrailing, but nowhere else felt so ‘homey’.”
She runs a small market research company with a British business partner, for which she claims a salary of £70,000. “We started the company five years ago, and have grown to a team of 10, mostly Brits.”
As with everyone I interviewed, Linda considered applying for permanent residency, but found the process too daunting. “I reluctantly considered applying for PR about four months after the referendum. Having looked at my 14 years in the UK, no five-year period was simple or straightforward enough to not worry that it wouldn’t pass the hostile approach of the Home Office. For example, I’ve studied twice while I’ve been here, although working part-time both times, and I’ve been ‘unemployed’ (while building the company and living off my savings).”
Crunch time for Linda and Ian was the Conservative party conference in October 2016, when Theresa May first signalled her willingness to lead the UK to a hard Brexit. “We’d toyed with the idea of leaving from the morning of the referendum, but I’ve spent almost my entire adult life here, and leaving at 37 didn’t really appeal. But it became apparent to us that under Theresa May, the environment would become hostile for EU citizens, and we realised there was really no future here for us if Britain left the single market.” Ian works in the tech industry, which, they fear, will fade to nothing in a UK cast adrift from the bloc.
The lack of support from the government, and the failure of the Lords’ amendment to article 50 on EU citizens’ rights, came as a further blow. “The uncertainty was taking an enormous emotional toll on me, especially as I was recovering from the burnout I got from the early years of building the business. The anxiety was pushing me back to depression and Ian felt it was important to get me out of the UK for my emotional well-being.”
Linda is in no doubt that Britain has become a less tolerant and hospitable place since the vote. “I would go as far as to say it’s hostile,” she says. “I came to the UK partly because I felt it was more open-minded and tolerant than the country I grew up in – needless to say, that illusion has now been totally shattered.”
Are there any circumstances under which they would cancel their plans, or consider coming back? A soft Brexit, maybe? “Nothing. I can never feel at home in England or Wales again. But if Scotland becomes independent, we will strongly consider moving there, as that was our original plan.”
So as soon as they can make the arrangements, they’re relocating to the Netherlands. They’re sad to be leaving their friends, but she also has more mundane concerns: “I will miss having Amazon Prime, and going to Boots!”
One of Pauline’s greatest fears is losing access to Marmite – “God, I love Marmite!” – but mostly, she says, they’ll miss the Brits. Well, some of them.
“In the UK you find the very worst of people,” chips in an impassioned Mathieu. “Uneducated, almost as bad as Americans. But you also have the best people – oh, my God, wonderful people – who are so logical, considerate, articulate … They know how to talk. They are perfect.”
The trouble, apparently, is that there just aren’t enough of them. “I still have emotional attachment to the people – but people are not a place,” says Pauline with a sigh. “Home is literally where the heart is, and our heart is not in Britain any more.”
The Tories, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have all promised, as part of their manifestos, to make the rights of EU citizens in the UK one of their top priorities after the election. Alas, it looks increasingly as though that might be a case of shutting the strong stable door after the horse has bolted.
I believe the UK is great. If only it could stay that way
I’m getting a teensy bit ticked off with being told that I hate my country. “You think we can’t survive on our own,” Leave voters inform me whenever I dare to point out any potential pitfalls of the UK’s departure from the EU. “Stop talking the nation down, traitor!”
Because I don’t hate Britain in the slightest. I have lived and worked in the UK all my life and am proud of it all ends up. So to set the record straight, I’m going to roll out the union jack bunting and sing hallelujah for the nine industries in which my country leads the world.
The UK is the second biggest player in the world in aerospace engineering, excelling particularly in wing technology, one of the most specialised and lucrative areas. Last year, the UK aerospace sector grew by 6.5% to £31bn, 87% of which was exported. The industry employs 230,000 people in all, and unlike, say, banking, the whole country benefits, with large operations in Belfast, Broughton in Wales, Birmingham, Derby, and a huge cluster of activity in the south-west.
No fewer than 12 of the UK’s universities feature in the top 100 universities worldwide, from Oxford, widely admired for its excellence in the arts but also making huge strides in science, to Durham, with its world-renowned physics department and the pioneering Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World. There were 2.3 million students at the UK’s higher education institutions in 2015-16, providing 400,000 jobs and directly generating around £2bn for the economy each year – on top of the incalculable value of giving an outstanding education to a third of the populace.
The UK owes its growing stature in AI largely to the existence of Google DeepMind, a company founded in London in 2010 and bought by Google in 2014. But a veritable explosion of innovative AI startups over the last few years, including language processing specialists VocalIQ, machine-learning keyboard SwiftKey, digital marketer Phrasee and neural network developers Magic Pony, has put the UK at the very vanguard of the field. Many recent developments – voice recognition software, predictive text and autonomous vehicles – have been driven by UK-based tech firms, leaving the UK uniquely poised to be a serious player in this young but booming sector. According to Accenture, artificial intelligence could add £654bn to the UK economy by 2035.
Expertise at small-scale production and innovation are the two key drivers of the UK’s electronics success. While it can’t compete on an industrial scale with the likes of Japan and Korea, it can produce little marvels like the Raspberry Pi, which has now sold more than 12.5 million units. The UK electronics sector, the fifth largest in the world, has an annual turnover of £80bn a year and employs 800,000 people.
The life sciences – pharmaceuticals, biotech and medical research – are another area where the UK has taken giant strides in recent years, thanks again in large part to its thriving higher education system. We have a particular talent, it seems, for small molecules, therapeutic proteins and vaccines, and are among the chief voices on the Human Genome Project. By most metrics, the United States is the only country with a more cutting edge in matters medical; we’re ahead of the pack in neuroscience, parasitology and material science, and are the second most prolific producers of medical research papers – a jolly good show for the country with the 21st biggest population.
Life science projects in the UK contribute £56bn a year to the economy, support 482,000 jobs – which again are well distributed across the country – and attract more direct foreign investment than in any other European state.
We may suck royally at Eurovision, but in the broader scheme of things, Britannia rules the airwaves. Domestic success often translates into success abroad, and we export £1.4bn worth of songs every year. Since the Beatles, we’ve seen acts from Pink Floyd to Adele, and Elton John to One Direction go global.
In 2015, British artists accounted for more than a quarter of all the albums purchased across Europe.
TV and film
Despite the best efforts of Channel 5 and the BBC’s comedy department, the UK still enjoys a reputation for top-notch television, and as a result, sales of UK-made programmes hit £1.3bn in 2015/16. TV, film, radio and photography (which the ONS unaccountably lumps together) provided 260,000 jobs in 2013 and produced a GVA of £10.8bn.
While UK Sport’s trophy cabinet may not exactly be heaving at the moment, for a nation of 64 million souls, we punch well above our weight. As well as the impressive medal hauls at the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympics, we’re always there or thereabouts in world tournaments of football, rugby and cricket, and are disproportionately represented in tennis, snooker, boxing, cycling, hockey, canoeing, rowing, fencing, darts, squash, polo, sailing and golf. Even in off years, sport generates around £20bn for the economy.
(Australia, for what it’s worth, aren’t even the reigning champions of Australian rules football. Papua New Guinea are.)
The future (aka, the punchline)
So there you have it! Britain really is great! We may no longer be a fearsome military power or an industrial powerhouse, but we’ve carved out a new niche for ourselves, at the heart of a global economy! So much for Talky McDownerson!
Hang on a sec. Who’s this? Oh, hi, TM. I see you’ve compiled a summary of reports from the respective fields on the predicted effects of a hard Brexit.
(These are not the opinions of cloistered academics, faceless journalists, or “out of touch” economists. These are detailed, fully researched assessments by people either within, or intimately involved with, the trades concerned. These people have no intrinsic bias towards Europe, only first-hand experience of how their businesses interact with the European Union and to what extent they depend on it.)
The list of worries expressed by leading figures in the aerospace industry is as long as the non-EU passports queue at Gatwick. Long border delays for parts in the event of departure from the customs union. Concerns about access to the best talent from the EU. Rising costs if the UK is forced out of the European Aviation Safety Agency.
Other EU countries – Germany and Spain in particular – are already vying for contracts after Brexit in the hope that trading conditions no longer favour the UK.
“I’m scared witless” – Stephen Cheetham, chief executive, PK Engineering
“We are very worried about the impact of Brexit on the whole Airbus discussion”– aerospace supplier interviewed in Financial Times
“In terms of attractiveness … in terms of political stability, the UK goes down” – Andrew Mair, chief executive, Midlands Aerospace Alliance
I won’t spend too long on the impact of hard Brexit on financial services, as it’s one of the few areas the media have widely reported on. Suffice to say that the uncertainty caused by the vote alone has already wrought significant damage, with investments withheld and jobs and offices relocated to the mainland. The loss of passporting rights in the City of London is certain to prompt a mass exodus; rival financial centres from Dublin to Frankfurt to New York are salivating at the prospect of pillaging our capital of its coveted, lucrative institutions.
If David Davis walks away from the talks with the EU in September, as he seems intent on doing, he will be wiping out tens of thousands of jobs and setting a match to tens of billions in tax revenue.
In 2014-15, 20% of all students in UK higher education (437,000) were from abroad. While EU students are only liable for the same rates as UK citizens, those from outside the EU are charged more, so foreign students collectively pay £5bn a year in tuition fees –14% of universities’ total income. In addition, non-British students add around £26bn a year to the economy through their spending on and off campus, and indirectly support around 200,000 jobs.
But funnily enough, it seems not all foreigners are keen on being used as bargaining chips in negotiations or being attacked for speaking their own language in the street. Cambridge University has already seen a precipitous drop of 17% in applications from EU students, and Manchester University recently announced plans to axe 171 staff jobs, at least partly, according to the University and College Union, because of Brexit.
The UK needs foreign nationals for its burgeoning AI industry more than most, suffering as it does from a critical shortage of digital skills. Far too few people are studying AI and other computer sciences to fill the positions locally, and almost 13 million British adults lack even the most basic IT skills. As a consequence, the IT sector recruits almost a third of its workers from elsewhere in the EU. For reasons discussed above, a hard Brexit is likely to drastically reduce the UK’s access to this talent pool. Reports of skills shortages are already emerging.
Since AI companies can set up almost anywhere, it’s primarily talent that attracts them, and if the UK loses its grip on the cream of Europe’s geeks, the business will go elsewhere.
As a footnote, a parliamentary report in October 2016 concluded that Brexit had thrown a crucial legal framework for AI and robotics, the General Data Protection Regulation, into doubt. It’s also jeopardised the free flow of data between the UK and the continent, crucial to the UK’s competitiveness.
Google DeepMind was founded by a British man born to Greek Cypriot and Singaporean parents, a Kiwi, and a Muslim Brit. Under the monocultural, send-’em-all-home regime proposed by nationalist Brexiters, it would never have seen the light of day.
A survey of the tech sector in early 2016 found that 84% felt it would be in the sector’s best interest if the UK stayed in the EU. Six per cent were undecided.
“A lot of organisations are now looking elsewhere to base their Innovation Labs for artificial intelligence” – Chris Rosebert, head of data science & AI, Networkers technology recruitment
“The funding that the research community has taken advantage of to hold its position internationally [in artificial intelligence and education research] has all come from the European Union” – Prof Rose Luckin, UCL Institute of Education
Insiders in the electronics industry have expressed fears about CE certification (European conformity). Tests to ensure that products meet agreed safety and quality standards are expensive, and if the UK adopts a different set of standards – in order, for example, to harmonise with America’s FCC – smaller British companies are unlikely to be able to afford to market their wares in Europe.
A more pressing problem is trade: if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal, it will have to renegotiate free trade deals with other countries from scratch, a process that can take a decade or longer. In the interim, all British products would be subject to stiff tariffs (we’re not even guaranteed WTO status) and thus far more expensive than their competitors.
Fujitsu, Samsung and Hitachi (the second biggest private investor in the north-east after Nissan) are among the many electronics firms who have cautioned against a hard Brexit, warning that changes to the free movement of labour, customs operations and data passporting would mean job losses, a reduction in investment, and headquarters being relocated.
A report by thinktank Public Policy Projects, led by former health secretary Stephen Dorrell, warned that leaving the EU could have a damaging effect on the UK’s pharmaceutical and biotech industries. (It might also, by the by, adversely affect Britons’ access to the best drugs.)
Concerns include extra administrative burdens on clinical trials, additional checks and possible blocks on imports, patent protection, increased difficulty securing marketing authorisations, and a reduction in pharmacovigilance (oversight of safety standards, monitoring, risk management, transparency). The loss of the European Medicines Agency, and the 900 jobs and influence that go with it, will be a bitter blow regardless.
“The effects on the Life Sciences sector are likely to be substantial. This is because the UK would no longer keep access to many of the benefits of the EU system, such as the centralised procedure for marketing authorisations, the EU portal for clinical trials and the Pharmacovigilance database” – Toby Sears and Sally Shorthose, Bird & Bird Commercial Law
Visas for touring bands. Customs restrictions on merchandising. Increased production costs for vinyl. Copyright issues. Licensing. Higher tour expenses. Exclusion from the Digital Single Market. Cultural quotas. Dearer iTunes downloads. A hard Brexit would throw a sackful of spanners into the UK’s well-oiled music machine.
As a result, trade bodies AIM, the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA), Featured Artists Coalition (FAC), Music Managers Forum (MMF) and Musicians Union all threw their weight behind Remain. In fact, one survey found that 91% of the music industry was in favour of the UK holding on to its membership.
“Those copyright rules have a huge impact on our business, and there is a very strong feeling among our members that the UK needs to be at the table to make sure that those rules are working in the interests of UK companies” – Geoff Taylor, chief executive, BPI
“Adopting an isolationist position is a huge mistake” – Colin Lester, CEO, JEM Artists management company
“The biggest impact would be not being able to influence EU regulation, particularly around intellectual property and the Digital Single Market” – Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general, CBI
“A victory for Brexit would be economically, politically, socially and culturally disastrous – for all of us” – Martin Mills, founder, Beggars Group, and David Joseph, CEO, Universal Music UK
A 2016 survey found that 63% of television executives believed the UK’s creative industries would fare better within the EU, outnumbering those who favoured Brexit by three to one. Another survey without a “don’t know” option came in 85/15. Their main worries were barriers to trade, economic damage limiting people’s purchasing power, and the loss of EU funding.
The picture is replicated across all the creative industries, from our hit plays, to our world-renowned dance troupes, to our novelists, our artists, our fashion designers. Many of these sectors, after a catastrophic drop in EU funding on top of the cuts imposed by recent Tory governments, face decline and possible collapse.
In addition to the measurable, practical difficulties above, there’s the less quantifiable but nonetheless important role of the UK’s “soft power”. Now that the UK is leaving the EU, English may soon cease to be an official language of the bloc – only Ireland and Malta speak it, and it’s not the only language in either nation – and now that it’s harder and less attractive for Europeans to come and work and study here, fewer people will bother learning English. Why would they, when there are easier options in France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Poland? As fewer people understand English songs and TV shows, so fewer people will buy them.
“This decision has blown up our foundation. As of today, we no longer know how our relationships with co-producers, financiers and distributors will work, whether new taxes will be dropped on our activities in the rest of Europe, or how production financing is going to be raised” – Michael Ryan, chairman, Independent Film and Television Alliance
“Leaving the EU would be an utter disaster for the creative industries” – Ed Vaizey, culture minister
The main short-term effect of a hard Brexit on sport will be the changes to freedom of movement. Football players, for example, from South America as well as Europe, will find it much harder to gain a UK work permit if freedom of movement is lost. Cristiano Ronaldo, Thierry Henry and David Ginola might never have played in the Premiership if the UK had not been in the EU.
Similarly, the Kolpak agreement, under which sportsmen from Africa, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP) enjoy the same rights as EU players, will become void, meaning that the UK’s cricket, rugby and polo teams, among others, will be denied access to a valuable pool of players.
The international series of NFL games played every year in London may well cease, according to Maria Patsalos, a sports immigration lawyer at Mishcon de Reya LLP.
All 20 Premier League clubs were in favour of Remain.
“It is important that if we want the best league in the world, then we remain in the EU” – Jonathan Barnett, football agent
So where does this leave us?
Oo, looky there. That’s right. Literally every single one of the things that make modern Britain great depend partly – in some cases entirely – on our membership of the European Union; on close cooperation with partners, on minimal barriers to movement and trade, on the free and frictionless exchange of ideas, on attracting the cream of talent from 27 like-minded nations, on a reputation for tolerance, openness and fairness.
Sure, if Theresa May and co can somehow wangle us a good deal – keep the UK in the European Economic Area, giving us a status similar to that of Switzerland or Norway – then these jewels in the UK’s crown may survive largely unscathed. But no one bar a handful of spittle-flecked zealots believes we will get a good deal, because the EU will never retract its insistence on free movement as a condition of free trade. And since the Tory government has made it abundantly clear that they will take no deal over a bad deal, that means, in all likelihood, no deal. Adamantium Brexit. Armageddon for all the above.
I wouldn’t be so worried if Brexiters had offered a single suggestion as to what we can replace them with. We’ll never be competitive in steelmaking or textiles again – unless you’re willing to toil for 100 hours a week for less money than a sweatshop worker in Hyderabad. We don’t have much in the way of natural resources, our military strength is ranked below Italy’s, we’ve slipped to 20th place in the world education tables and are plummeting in the press freedom rankings. Cool Britannia is now a distant memory; since the referendum, the world now thinks we’re a bunch of arrogant, ignorant xenophobes. What will be the foundation of the New British Empire? Poverty tourism? Virtual-reality fox hunting? Jam?
You can’t turn back time
What the most ardent Brexiters fail to realise is that times have changed. Yeah, sure, Britain was once great, ruling the waves, duffing up Frogs and Krauts and all that. But then the empire collapsed, and other world economies, following our example and borrowing our technologies, started catching up. By the early 1970s, we were starting to struggle.
“Things were so much better before we joined the EU,” the Brexwits baa, apparently forgetting (cheers, nostalgia fallacy) that in 1973, many still lived 10 to a house and shared an outside toilet with next door. No one had a home computer, no one had a mobile phone, most people were lucky even to own one black and white television and a gramophone. Few could afford to go on holiday or eat out, child mortality was at 2%, and people were still dying of smallpox. Sure, so there was more of a sense of community and some people were still leaving their front doors open, but things were, on the whole, shit.
(It’s worth a reminder at this point that, even when Britain was truly great, things were by no means great for all Britons. The quality of life for all but the landed classes was miserable. Most people lived in abject poverty, public health was appalling, public sewerage was primitive where it existed at all, citizens were still subject to conscription, most people couldn’t vote, and the average person was doing well to live past 50. Success was only success for the few. Furthermore, most of the UK’s wealth was accrued at the expense of its colonies; it plundered their resources and enslaved or otherwise exploited their peoples. And those options, as far as I am aware, are no longer on the table in the 21st century.)
When it became clear that we were starting to lag behind our neighbours, we realised that a new strategy was required; so we swallowed our pride and joined the European Economic Community. And within that community, we adapted. We learned a new way of operating. And we did so so effectively that over the next four decades, our growth within the EU outstripped that of all other members.
The UK’s per-capita GDP increased by 2.1% in every year of our membership of the EU (compared with only 0.9% during the empire “boom” of 1872-1914). The key to our success was twofold: a language, culture and history shared with America and other English-speaking nations on the one hand, and geographical proximity to and membership of the European trade bloc on the other, made us the perfect bridge between the two. We might have ceded our pre-eminence in manufacturing, cotton mills and subjugating brown people, but in their place, after a period of painful adjustment, we built new temples. We ceased to be a powerhouse, and became instead a hub: a beacon of collaboration and commerce, a focal point for like-minded, progressive, creative thinkers.
I like to think of it this way. Prior to joining the EU, the UK was an independent organism: a lion, if you like, but one with mangy fur and rotting teeth. It made alliances where necessary, but it was basically self-sufficient, though its hunting prowess was fading fast.
When the UK joined the EU, it was forced to make compromises. It was no longer completely free, but this had its advantages; since it no longer had to take care of all functions, it could specialise in a few. Over the course of its 40 years of membership, the UK evolved from a discrete animal into something more like a vital organ within the larger beast that was the EU; a heart, say, or a lung.
Now, all of a sudden, ardent Leavers expect that lung to leap outside the host body and thrive by itself. (Like any animal deprived of a lung, the EU will suffer, but it will survive.) Some of them don’t even think we need a transition phase.
With their tireless, vainglorious, ill-informed insistence that the UK can succeed alone, a bunch of people who know as much about the way the modern world works as Kylie Jenner knows about thermodynamics have mortally endangered every single industry the UK worked so hard to lead the world in.
Congratulations, Brexitards. You killed your country.
There has never in my lifetime been a more clear-cut case of light versus dark
Just a little post on why I am such a passionate Remainer.
I wasn’t actually all that pro-EU when all this referendum business started. I mean, I knew it was expensive, and could be more efficient, and sometimes seemed a little in thrall to the neoliberal economic model. But I also knew that it conferred huge benefits, in freedom of movement and trade and cooperation with our European neighbours. That was, frankly, enough to decide the matter for me.
And as if that weren’t enough, look at the Leavers themselves. Gove. Johnson. Hannan. Farage. Banks. Duncan Smith. Rees-Mogg. Hoey. Even May, when she switched sides, went from steely, sensible woman to bitch from hell. Can you think of one person associated with the Leave campaign with a scintilla of compassion or wisdom?
For me, this is no longer about clinging on to the status quo, or protecting against personal loss (although Brexit has already been costly to me not just financially, but in terms of opportunities lost and friends forced to leave).
No, now this is just about making sure the bad guys don’t win. There has never been, in my lifetime, a more clear-cut case of light versus dark. And I’m not about to step into the darkness, or even the penumbra, in the interests of an easy life.
Fuck you, Farage, and Banks, and Cummings, and Putin. For as long as there is breath in my body, I shall fight your perfidious Brexit.
Footnote: the Tories, the Daily Mail and their cabal of piss-breathing liars would have us believe that half of all Remainers have suddenly changed their minds and thrown their weight behind Brexit. This just three weeks after another poll by the same firm showed that people who thought Brexit was a bad idea outnumbered those who supported it for the first time.
Of course, this claim, like pretty much everything else that comes from a far-right source these days, is bollocks. I was going to devote a post to explaining why, but handily, @HelenDeCruz, bless her cotton socks, has saved me the trouble. (TL:DR; the questions were poorly phrased and the headlines were misleading.)