It’s ridiculous. A row over the removal of ‘Easter’ from an egg hunt. On a poster headed ‘Easter Fun’. Found via a link on a front page headed ‘Easter Time’. In a sane world, it wouldn’t fly. In a sane world, it would be shot down by a media that spoke truth to power. But this isn’t a sane world.
There was never a halcyon time where sanity and reason prevailed but, post Brexit, we have been propelled into some of the darkest and most confusing times I can remember. The row over a Cadbury’s egg hunt may seem trivial given the big lies making hay across the world but it is a simple symbol of how such things now play out and, more crucially, the motivations behind all parties when they do.
We now live in a world where their reality is the only reality. Where once this was the preserve of a clutch of outliers on social media who refused to believe in anything that was accepted fact, refused to engage in debate or shift their position one iota, this is now becoming the de-facto position of anyone in any kind of authority or with any kind of stake in a breaking story. Fact crumbles in the face of obstinacy and politically expedient positions.
Witness our Prime Minister’s reaction to Eggxit. Push points of her vicar father and membership of the National Trust solidify a data driven political strategy that allies her with a set of values that chime with her current defender of British values schtick. Shoring up (once again) what is perceived as the Tories current weak spot, the territory to the right ignored (even cut adrift) by the Cameron / Osbourne alliance but now the only game in town with the centre ceded by Labour and unattainable for now by the Lib Dems. Politics as usual? Removing the UKIP threat is the only goal.
Witness the Bishop of York wading into the row, claiming outrage on behalf of the Quaker Cadbury family with a bombastic claim that the company were ‘spitting on the grave’ of the Cadbury founder, somehow missing the point that Quakerism believes all days are holy days and therefore do not celebrate Easter. Or indeed, that Cadbury were quite happy to lead the charge in making chocolate eggs for a celebration in which they didn’t participate. Or that the link between Easter and eggs is more cultural than religious and harks back to paganism. Along with our PM this was the Church staking their claim to primacy, surreptitiously stating that Christian belief defines the behaviour of national institutions as the UK is a Christian country.
Such statements and behaviour carry a darker tone, less surprising from the Conservative Party than the Church and, whether unintended or deliberate, like Brexit carrying a dangerous message beneath its seemingly reasonable surface. For who is to blame for this decoupling of ‘Easter’ from ‘Egg’. Is it Cadbury? Forced into a position the company issued a statement that said they wished to encourage people of all faiths to take part, a weak PR misstep at best and a dereliction of duty at worst, looking less an affirmation of values and more a flimsy catch all response to any issue of religious tension. Thus, focus shifted from the company to those much derided ‘liberal values’ and, by extension, multi-culturalism. Which, given the history of the company and its pioneering social values, is both miserably depressing and totally unexcepted in this topsy-turvy create your own reality world.
Signs of this cultural push back are everywhere and, as ever, the trivial masks the reality.
Take another non-story of the week, Leggxit, the Daily Mail’s return to Benny Hillism to belittle both the gains of feminism in the public sphere and a serious constitutional crisis forewarned by those who opposed the Brexit so publicly backed by the title and its (non-domiciled) owner. Little surprise that its female writer was rolled out to defend the piece; after all, if a woman wrote it, it can’t be sexist, the oldest trick in the book and akin to UKIP’s endless front rowing of their handful of ethnic minority members.
The PM, in sharp contrast to Eggxit laughed it all off. Laughing at outright sexism is a known strategy, deployed not just by men but those women who felt that feminists were, well, you know, not ‘proper’ ladies. It was the default response to uppity women who objected to wolf whistles and bum slaps in years gone by, the chauvinistic defence of ‘it’s just a bit of a laugh, where’s your sense of humour?’, was, I thought, given the take-down a few decades ago. Now it’s not just back but backed by our PM. Expect a return to scantily clad ladies being chased by sweating men any time now on ITV Encore.
Then today, as if to confirm that we really are running the clocks backwards in the UK, The Sun have revisited a past headline with a new xenophobic update transferring ‘Delors’ to Senors’. Well, they’re all foreigners, aren’t they? No mention there of the Gibraltarians caught in the crossfire that they so forcefully voted against.
Now here’s where it gets serious. Recall the stories around Cambridge Analytica and their role in securing success for both Leave.EU and Donald Trump by micro managing data captured to tailor messaging to garner votes and target resources? The push of the story revolved around the data and how it was being used. Little thought was given to the other side of the story, the morality of a world in which political messaging was being perverted and manipulated to give individuals the exact message that they desire. That was accepted without any serious comment.
We are complicit in accepting that our political leaders are driven solely by personal and party gain and further that we are powerless to stop them. We have lost belief in our own power, whether through ennui or fear. The concept of public service, of proposing the tough, unpopular decisions for a greater and more lasting public good, is now at its lowest ebb in my memory. Fellow travellers here are the Labour Party, implacably opposed to Brexit yet triangulated to accept the ‘will of the people’ in a desperate (and likely futile) attempt to shore up votes and seats. A bill to repeal hanging, formalise state abortions or even create a public national health service would seem impossible in the current climate given the forces that would immediately swing into action as they did around Brexit to squash all debate. Too often our response is to disengage, leaving a rump of self-interest that can be exploited and manipulated to maintain and strengthen the type of power that puts us all in, eventually, a desperate position.
And this is not just a UK issue. For UKIP’s seizing of the political agenda despite little real public support (one borrowed MP), see also the Front National polarisation of the French political system to Oui or Non for Marie Le Pen, removing real choice to a binary call. Likewise, Germany's ADP, seizing headlines to corral a similar position in their domestic politics. A real functioning democracy, with its mess of compromise and shades of opinion is being reduced to a Push / Pull system bolstered by unregulated political outrage and systematic vote grubbing policy positions engineered to game the system rather than create a better reality.
Which is the fear. I grew into adulthood believing that the big battles were won. That sexism, racism, isolationism was confined to the history books. I accepted that our politics would always be flawed and tainted by self and party interest but that certain lines once drawn, could not be erased. Bereft of real leadership to mount the push back across culture and politics that is necessary to confront these vested interests and challenge the non-realities that are being transformed into fact in front of our eyes requires a new set of channels, new forms of leadership and community, new commitment to a shared cause, built on compromise around basic beliefs about truth, facts and morality. As Europe knows from the thirties, pretending things aren’t how they are doesn’t solve anything. Disengaging is not an answer. Poking fun from the sidelines changes nothing. Now, more than ever, is the time to stand up.