In a campaign fuelled by toxic rhetoric rather than political reality it is worth considering the message of the great 18th-century rhetorician and political writer, Joseph Addison. Addison’s politics were all about inclusion, collaboration and reconciliation: approaches that would serves us well both during the referendum on Thursday and throughout the inevitable slow violence of its aftermath.
Facts, figures, fears and feelings
On Thursday 23rd the UK will be faced with a near impossible decision. Not only are we invited to take a stake in an unprecedented gamble but we are left to decide the best course of action using data that is practically unverifiable. So-called facts and figures have been massaged to such an extent in recent weeks that public confidence in government statistics is apparently so eroded that quantifiable evidence doesn’t seem to matter anymore. This last week, book-ended by vigils for unthinkable tragedies, has proved to some that popular political rhetoric in the West has become brutally simple; reduced to easy dichotomies such as Us and Them.
I’ve been reflecting a lot this weekend on my own unwavering inclination to Remain. Yes, I fear for the economic repercussions of leaving and I’m deeply anxious about the cataclysmic impact that exiting the EU will inevitably have on the University sector. But actually, my feelings go deeper than that to an aspirational belief that it is best to embrace diversity, to broaden communities, to collaborate and pursue a common good for all. My head seeks rationale justification, my heart reaches for philosophy and ideology. It is for the latter reason that the Remain justification I’ve found most persuasive is Patrick Stewart’s account of life before the EU.
I fear, though, that this impulse to side-step discussion of legislation and bureaucracy to instead nourish feelings and beliefs (or anxieties and animosities) is apparently the great strength of the Leave campaign.
Lessons learned from being mildly trolled
On Saturday, feeling confounded by the reported swell in Leave support I shared a link on Twitter to Stephen Bush’s article ‘Brexit: the day after.’ The short essay forecasts a sharp decline in the value of sterling, prompting the Bank of England to increase the basic rate of interest, in turn triggering an immediate crisis in Britain’s housing market and a ‘toxic cocktail of rent rises.’ Meanwhile, Bush predicts that Scotland would likely leave the UK to remain in the EU whilst the other 27 EU nations negotiated Britain’s exit amongst themselves.
Within minutes of sharing the link I found myself ‘Quote Tweeted’ by Leave supporters who explained that my lack of confidence in the ‘sovereign power of England’ was unpatriotic and my fear-mongering predictions just plain ‘wrong’, that Britain would prosper (‘and that is a FACT’) and that the economy would be easily repaired if there weren’t so many immigrants coming in all of the time (this last one I found particularly irksome and there’s a pretty decent counter-argument here).
Once I’d gotten over the initial adrenaline surge of being mildly-trolled I realised this was actually a good opportunity to try and figure out the allure of Leave.
The Twitter-conversations I had over the next few hours were enlightening. Most seemed happy to discuss their thinking with me. One Twitter-user was especially generous with his time, imploring me to have faith in Britain. In fact, everyone I interacted clearly had the nation’s best interests at heart. What is more, some claimed to be weary with always putting others first. Justifications for this logic drew on a heady mix of different factors, many of which seem unrelated to each other (and at times to the EU question) but as a combination culminated in a feeling of long-term exploitation and under-appreciation. For instance, one recurrent frustration arose from a correlation being drawn between austerity and immigration. Some forcefully explained to me that they felt they were tightening their belts to pay benefits for EU migrants.
Unfortunately, leaving the EU is unlikely to ease austerity for those with the least. Boris Johnson summed it up with his suggestion that plotted on a graph BREXIT’s economic repercussions would resemble a ‘Nike Swoosh’, with a sudden sharp drop and then a steady incline. Who are the people best suited to weather that initial storm? Surely, it is the Boris Johnsons and the Nigel Farages of this world, not the very people they’re relying on to vote this eventuality into being.
My point is, however, that the conversations I had weren’t about facts, they weren’t even about the pursuit of facts. They were about feelings and beliefs. The EU decision was transfigured into a bigger, and perhaps simpler, decision. The perceived choice seemed to be between continuing to suffer on behalf of others or to finally put ourselves first, regardless of what might actually happen after Thursday. The affirmative act seemed more important than social, political or economic reality.
So, if we’re putting the stats to one side in favour of making a vague ideologically-informed stand, let me suggest another choice.
Free-Holders and Fox-Hunters: An 18th-century choice
I was listening to two guest speakers debate the referendum on BBC Radio 2 last week. Their discussion over, the show opened up the phone-lines. The first caller made an impassioned case against the EU grounded in the premise that Britain has its own great industrial history and would be better off making all of its own products anyway. Just look at Land Rover, he said.
A few calls later someone phoned in to stress that though Land Rover is a British company it imports parts from all over Europe and employs manufacturers from all over the world. It is the 21st century, they said; we live in a global community. It was at this point that my mind turned (as it so often does in times of great stress and confusion) to the eighteenth century and to one issue of an obscure early eighteenth-century periodical in particular: Joseph Addison’s Free-Holder.
Addison’s Free-Holder, which ran for 55 issues between December 1715 and June 1716, is a text that I spent a lot of time reading during my PhD. The Free-Holder was a Whig-sponsored periodical but you wouldn’t realise this if you picked one up at random. For the undiscerning reader it was simply a weekly periodical about the hobbies, interest and responsibilities of the property-owning gentleman.
There is a single issue of the Free-Holder which gets cited far more than all the others. Even Samuel Johnson (who declared his dislike for the Free-Holder in general) acknowledged in his Life of Addison that this particular essay was one of Addison’s finest prose works. In this best-known issue Addison’s fictional editor, Mr Free-Holder, goes for a walk in the country and encounters a Fox-Hunter.
The Fox-Hunter assumes that since Mr Free-Holder is clearly an affluent, articulate property-owning gentleman he must also be a dyed in wool member of the Tory squirearchy. He launches into a string of toxic anti-Whig insults, ultimately concluding that the current Whig parliament is ‘a parcel of factious sons of whores.’ He follows this up by lamenting that ‘all these foreigners will never be loved in England, Sir; they have not that wit and good breeding that we have.’ Shocked by his attitude towards foreigners Mr Free-Holder asks him if he has ever travelled. The Fox-Hunter shakes his head, explaining that ‘he did not know what travelling was good for, but to teach a man to ride the great horse and jabber French.’
Mr Free-Holder accompanies the Fox-Hunter back to his home in the hopes of somehow persuading him to consider an alternative perspective on some of these issues. The subject upon arrival is again that of ‘these foreigners’ and international trade. The Fox-Hunter has previously complained about the ‘inconveniences of trade’ arguing that ‘he had always been against all Treaties and Alliances with foreigners; our wooden walls, says he, are our security, and we may bid defiance to the whole world.’
It is when the Fox-Hunter then produces some of his own prised possessions – the products of trade – that Mr Free-Holder finally encourages him to reconsider some of his own views and opinions, pushing him to realise himself that his argument is hypocritical. He does not tell, he shows:
‘After supper he asked me if I was an admirer of punch; and immediately called for a sneaker. I took this occasion to insinuate the advantages of trade, by observing to him, that water was the only native of England that could be made use of on this occasion; But that the lemons, the brandy, the sugar, and the nutmeg, were all foreign. This put him in some confusion.’
The Fox-Hunter’s beloved British punch is like Land Rover, a British product comprised of European parts. This is, obviously, a satirical demonstration of Britain’s reliance on international trade and import. It is a Whig-sponsored parody of the Tory Fox-hunter and the men he represents. At the same time, though, it is also a powerful demonstration of Addison’s philosophy at large as he strove through both his state-craft and his writing to always meet political insults and polemic spleen with polite conversation. For Addison, the best way to win over an opponent was through the pursuit of reconciliation, ultimately incorporating them into an ever-broadening community.
Addison’s message: You’ve got to be in it to win it
As Addison stated elsewhere in the Free-Holder, his political philosophy was a kin to that of the Romans ‘who did not subdue a Country in order to put the Inhabitants to Fire and Sword, but to incorporate them into their own Community, and make them happy in the same Government with themselves.’
Essentially, Addison’s message was that solutions can only be found through compromise and conversation and, frankly, you’ve got to be in the room when the decisions are made to make a difference. Though Addison was far more capable of political sleight-of-hand than is often noted by his biographers, in trying to develop an alternative to political name-calling and character assassination I do think he was onto something important.
Hate and anger are easy and disconcertingly effective ways to win someone over. Above all else Addison wanted to take hatred and anger out of the equation and replace them with politeness, which in the early 18th century meant listening carefully, talking calmly and swapping the splenetic for a sense of play and an emphasis on finding a mutually-beneficial solution.
In that famous issue of the Free-Holder Addison is showcasing the power of such an approach. The Fox-hunter’s insults have no lasting effect but Mr Free-Holder’s logic leaves his combative listener in state of political (and arguably existential) confusion.
We would do well to remember Addison’s philosophy of politeness, reconciliation and community, not just on Thursday but over the coming years. Looking beyond the referendum to the inevitable slow-violence of its aftermath Nicholas Lezard this week quoted Shakespeare: ‘So foul a sky clears not without a storm.’ This campaign, powered by fear and anger, has opened wounds more likely to fester than quickly heal.
So, in keeping with the spirit of this whole referendum, all too keen to reduce politics to rhetoric, I’ll end with a rhetorical question that Addison posed in 1716 that proves all to relevant in 2016: Who do you want to be? Fox-Hunter or Free-Holder?