In a week which will see a new Prime Minister emerge, Everyday Analysis editors Ben Moore and Daniel Bristow reflect on the aftermath of the European Elections and what influence they are having on UK politics today.
Daniel Bristow: It would be nice to start with what amounts to a hyperbole; with a sentence like: ‘the discourse of news coverage and political commentary in the run-up to the weekend of the European elections on the BBC and the British arm of Sky News has been extraordinarily divisive.’ But there is nothing extraordinary about it; it is par for the course. So ordinary is this discourse in fact that it has slipped into the broadcasting (and broadcasted-to) unconscious to the extent that, when it slips out – in scripted or off-the-cuff remarks – it often goes unremarked. We can be prone to forget that an analysis of language used by these institutions and their pundits at this obvious level is necessary, as we work, perhaps, under the assumptions and aegis of our own unanalysed beliefs in something like ‘common sense’ (a signifier we should always be wary of, as Roland Barthes, Louis Althusser, and so many others, have acutely warned us over and over). If I may respond to the aired episodes of Question Time and This Week on Thursday 23 May 2019, and very briefly refer to an interview the following day on Sky News…
Let’s take first the semiotics and role of milkshake, and ‘milkshaking’, as it was ‘debated’ on Question Time. This was a response to the phenomenon that occurred in the UK during campaigning for the elections, in which far-right candidates were doused in milkshake by protestors, and which led to the police advising outlets like McDonalds not to sell their milkshakes during rallying (whilst Burger King proudly tweeted that they would continue to, etc., etc.). Although a bit of a sideshow, it was treated deadly seriously by the framing of the debate on QT (although interestingly, first as farce, then as tragedy by Camila Cavendish, who relished a newspaper headline that ran along the lines of ‘Lactose for the Intolerants’, before coming in line with an audience member that no, of course, it’s actually not funny…). Yet, there wasno discussion of specificity: nearly unanimously, the debate was framed around first, milkshake’s use as a heinous weapon of assault; and second (in the same breath), its being a gateway to far worse (which – by the same kettle logic – is an admission of the milkshake as an innocuous projectile; the second clause contravening the first in the same sentence). (Is milkshake a gateway drug? Does having a few lead to cravings for Molotov cocktails?)
In the reactions to their milkshakings of the likes of Tommy Robinson and Nigel Farage there was a marked difference to that of Ed Miliband, who, when egged during a TV interview, took off his jacket, made a quip about the thrower no doubt not being a fan of his policies, and continued answering questions (what does this say for the ‘hardman’ image peddled by the likes of Robinson?). What this shows, in the context purely of the QT debate (with its no doubt blanket policy of panellists being required to condemn the milkshakings), was that there was no (room being made for) discussion of the meaning of its targets. This was true pretty much across the board (after Cavendish’s faltering volte-face), except in the case of Miatta Fahnbulleh, whose words were met with jeering from the crowd when stating that because of the hate discourses promulgated by these far-right figureheads, figures have shown that since their rise to prominence (through platforming by the BBC, for example) there has been a spike in people of colour having felt discriminated against. Certain members of the crowd called for respect for the ‘humanity’ of the protests’ targets, whilst certain members (also) jeered at the mention of discrimination (which it was being demonstrated was a result of the very dehumanisingdiscourses of the far-right, whose promulgators’ humanity – it was being argued – must be respected… What kind of an admission on certain members of the audience’s part was this?).
Afterwards,This Weekrenewed the class war it barely even attempts to thinly veil anymore. When boiled down, during the show Andrew Neil seemed to suggest that the 2008 banking crisis happened because in the end ‘lap dancers’ were given free rein to play with vast amounts of money (querying: ‘haven’t you seen The Big Short?’), seemingly completely absolving bankers of their sins. Thereafter, three jokes were made about homelessness by Neil, along the lines of guests Alan Johnson having to become a busker and Michael Portillo winding up selling The Big Issue, and Neil himself ending up living in a cardboard box (NOFX’s term was ‘hobophobia’ for something like this phenomenon of making homelessness the butt of privileged joke-making). The humourlessness of the supposed ‘satire’ of This Week seems beyond misguided, steeped in a sort of dystopian decadence in which an understanding of ‘tongue-in-cheek’ has completely passed it by; in fact, it seems to be a show to which the other cheek has been turned, and into which it’s stuck its tongue.
In the Sky News interview, Adam Boulton (with his trademark obliviousness) discounted those working-class people, who have suffered and lost lives, that Owen Jones mentioned, as subhuman, in his admonition of Jones as not being able to respond ‘on the human level’ (a recontextualisatoin of Jeremy Corbyn’s words that he must have believed he could imperviously cop out on) to Theresa May’s tears over her resignation, when Jones responded that he felt less than no sympathy for her, especially as she never wept over the Windrush deportees who suffered at the hands the ‘hostile environment’ of her own making, for the Grenfell victims, or those of her government’s workfare policies.To sum up these media biases and wayward discourses (even if ‘for they know not what they do’ and are), as (our James) J. A. Smith puts it in his Other People’s Politics: the likes of‘the BBC’s role [has become] less “fake news” than an editorial policy that erodes the veracity of facts by – in the name of balance – consistently following an expert claim with one by some crank who happens to believe the opposite; a policy exacerbated by its decision in the 2010s to “diversify” by including more radical right voices in general.”
On the election itself, a brief word. Out of the two single-issue parties, spare Change UK (a party who couldn’t even make up a name for themselves that doesn’t mean exactly the opposite of what they stand for in relation to the one issue they were running on: staying the same in regards to Europe) didn’t even chart. Instead, the country turned a fluorescent blue that burned itself into the retinas – a billiously hypertoryfied hue – as the Brexit Party won out. And yet the result was only able to be read, by the ‘moral majority’ (another splendid Cameronism (after Reagan) that’s blindly and unquestioningly been stood behind by the collective superiority-complex of the media and liberal middle classes), as a decisive win for ‘remain’, in a referendum that happened three years ago (a congealed signified having become stuck under the ballooning battery of current signifiers). That is, the media discourse construed the results as majoritarily going to ‘remain parties’ (forgetting that there wasone single-issue remain party, which got obliterated); therefore, these moral (re)counters of the votes disqualifed any and every vote for parties based on something other than the leave/remain split (votes for the Greens from conscientious people wanting to see environmental concerns better represented in European Parliament, for example; votes for the SNP – who the English press make no bones about co-opting into these figures at this point– based on their incredible track record in Scotland in general; votes for Lib Dems… for some reason… Not to mention what might have motivated votes for Labour, by remainers, by leavers, by eithers, and by neithers). Thus – so the discourse goes – as the far right take a bigger share of the reins across the European Parliament, the most essential thing still is to remain in union… The Liberal Democrats – members of whom only a few weeks ago were as split as ever on whether they would go into coalition with the Conservatives again – get credited with some sort of ethical political stance, in comparison to Labour, who have been clear enough on the party that brought us the whole Brexit debacle in the first place: to not, under any circumstances, get into bed with them. 2010 is not beyond the living memory of anyone who will be of voting age if a general election takes place in the very near future: for the old adage-loving liberals, that one about history repeating looms pretty large. There was something Jacques Derrida once said about his near-contemporary (and sometimes nemesis) Jacques Lacan in his paper ‘For the Love of Lacan’ (which can grate a little, as well as being pretty funny): ‘what wouldn’t Lacan have said?’ Who wouldn’t the Lib Dems placate? Indeed, we must ask: who would the liberals open the door – with a bow to the ground – for? Bet you, the devil we know.
To risk a phrase: for the totalitarianism of our current conjuncture’s media discourse, equivocation equates to something like terrorism. That is, things must be unequivocal: refusal to condemn must be read as tacit support (in the case of the milkshakings’ framing); votes otherwise than for the Brexit Party must be readas for (the ‘abstract noun’) ‘remain’ (just as abstention has always had to have been read as ‘apathy’ by majoritarian media); not weeping for a weeping outgoing PM must be read as emotional impoverishment, the historical record set squarely aside. Critical thinking on the part of conscientious electors; this seems to be what this discourse construes to itself as truly subversive and which must be protected against at all costs (lest the grip on the discourse itself begins to slip away…).
Ben Moore: One of the interesting things about the EU election in the UK is that empty signifiers were both very successful and very unsuccessful. Change UK behaved as if ‘none of the above’ was a sufficient platform to run on, but paradoxically in this very assumption showed themselves to be deeply wedded to a traditional two party system. Seeing themselves as outliers in their own parties, they were not equipped to adjust to multi-party politics because in effect their only move was to say ‘we’re not Labour or the Tories’ (to which the Greens, Lib Dems, SNP and so on could respond, neither are we). Change UK took it as self-evident that what voters really wanted was a moderated version of the existing party structure, Labour-lite or Tories-lite, while also seeing themselves as preserving the ‘real spirit’ of these parties, which they believed the parties themselves had compromised. They attempted to simultaneously break away from the main parties and to represent the continuity option. In doing so they have negated themselves out of existence.
On the other hand, the Brexit Party refers only to its own existence. It is the logical extension of Theresa May’s derided ‘Brexit means Brexit’ catchphrase, which it has fairly successfully redefined as ‘Brexit Party means Brexit’ (along with its other implicit slogan, Brexit means Farage). But it has only been able to do this because all the groundwork has been laid by May and others – it can cash in on the massive disjunction between the idea of Brexit, the promise of it, and the difficulty of any specific version of it being realised. Brexit is shown to operate as a master signifier that disdains any contact with concrete signifieds. It is therefore highly appropriate that the Brexit party is not, in legal terms, a party but a company, because what it is doing is the oldest trick in the capitalist playbook – selling the sizzle instead of the sausage. Such a party cannot have policies, because it reduces all policy to slogans and symbols. It represents only itself.
This peculiar doubleness of the UK elections, in which empty signifiers both win and lose, is duplicated in the paradoxical relationship between the UK results and those across the EU, in that the UK outcome crystallises the main features of the European picture precisely while the UK seems most preoccupied with its own affairs. The main story of the EU elections was a substantial drop in the centre-right (EPP down 42 seats to 179) and centre-left (S&D down 38 seats to 153) parties, counterbalanced by a rise in the centre-ground (up 39 to 106), the Greens (up 24 to 74) and Nationalist parties (up to 58 from 0).This should be familiar to UK readers as it is a good summary of the national picture, where a Conservative collapse and Labour drop in support were accompanied by the rise of the nationalist Brexit Party, the resuscitation of the Lib Dems and a growth in the Green vote. Only the scale of the Brexit Party’s vote marks this out as an unusual situation.
In a vote which has been almost entirely fought in the symbolic sphere, due not only to the Brexit Party and Change UK (to which we might add the Lib Dem’s ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ tagline), but also because UK MEPs may only take up their seats for a matter of weeks, rendering the whole exercise academic, it is telling that in the very paroxysms of the UK’s schizophrenic attempt to pull away from the EU, it has ended up closely mirroring the politics of the continent. It is tempting to read this struggle in psychoanalytic terms, as a combination of resistance and transference. Which one wins out remains to be seen, but diagnosing the situation in this way might lead us to suspect that the UK risks being caught in a combination of what we could call the Brexit Party and Change UK positions: believing in its own empty rhetoric of change while remaining under the spell of a master discourse defined from outside.
Daniel Bristow and Ben Moore are co-editors of Everyday Analysis