The Commons lacks an ambassador for common sense


The Commons lacks an ambassador for common sense

Sean Walsh describes Parliament’s discussion over Brexit as being like a bad undergraduate seminar in which nobody’s done the reading.

The Cambridge philosopher John McTaggart used to argue that time is “unreal”. The argument is difficult but in essence suggests that we have two ways of looking at time one of which can’t account for the intuition that time must include change, and the other of which involves an inconsistency. The details need not detain us. His Cambridge contemporary (and student) GE Moore had a reply to McTaggart that went something like this: if time is unreal then how come I’ve just had my breakfast?

“I’ve just had my breakfast” – simplicity disguising genius.

Moore, you see, has a reputation amongst philosophers for being its ambassador on behalf of common sense.

And the defence of common sense as a respectable philosophical position is a necessary corrective given the propensity of philosophers to interminable wrangling over issues that for the rest of us just seem bizarre. What is the nature of time? Does matter exist? How do I know that the world around me isn’t an illusion? These are questions that most of us would answer as follows: it’s five past ten; I just knocked on a door; I just do. These may or may not be worthwhile replies to deep questions but at least within philosophy there is a tradition willing to argue that they are at least as good as the High Table alternatives.

Brexit, at least as discussed in our House of Commons, lacks an ambassador for common sense.

Last Wednesday’s sequence of “indicative votes” was a farrago of nonsense. MPs arguing about the fine-grained distinctions between “Common Market 2.0” and “EEA+CU” and the relevant contrasts with the execrable Withdrawal Capitulation are like those philosophers who argue about angels and pinheads.  But without the intellect. How many of those legislators have read the Withdrawal Agreement? Have any of them? It was like an undergraduate seminar in which not a single student has bothered to address the primary literature. I’ve had to be tutor in charge of many of those seminars. They were invariably unilluminating. There was always a ringleader who never quite got the issue but could rely on the fact that neither did anybody else. I drank quite a bit in those days, I had to be “on game” to spot the fraud.

Who, in the Brexit context, could that ill-informed ringleader possibly be?

Let’s not forget that this cabaret of the absurd was instigated by a cabal of morons who wanted to (if we extend the analogy slightly) install the ever-hapless Oliver Letwin as its principal Don. Mr Letwin, you may recall, once allowed a burglar into his house at 3am because -having been caught short between discrete acts of housebreaking- the swag-waving miscreant wished to use the toilet. Without being unkind, could we not entertain the idea that if the Brexit process should be handed to anyone then, following an indicative vote, we might be better had it been given to the burglar? At least he could spot a negotiating weak spot.

Meanwhile, outside the Commons seminar room, just as the rest of us know that time is real, we know also that Brexit requires a clean break from the EU and that a clean break means not staying within the orbit of the institutions which define it. Most of us, in other words, know better than our political unrepresentatives what “leaving the EU” actually means in practice, whether that practice is the day to day governance of our country by people answerable to us, or own capacity for living our lives without the petty intrusions of a managerial class the remoteness of which is both geographical and democratic.

So, let’s indulge the analogy yet again by doing what analytical philosophers are trained to do, which is to identify and assess underlying assumptions (with perhaps a peppering of playful invective).

The Speaker, John Bercow, climbed off his booster seat on Wednesday and in response to a point of order announced that of the proposed motions that were submitted he had chosen a “representative” subset themselves indicative of a “range of views”. In one characteristically portentous utterance he managed an encapsulation of just why this whole discussion has since June 2016 been conceptually flawed. Since the day of the referendum result an assumption has been in play that a compromise way forward is possible. It is supposed that there is such a thing as a spectrum of available positions from “no Brexit” through to “no deal”. Therefore, it seems natural to suppose that the “truly Brexit” position resides somewhere along this line. The Remain insurgency has exploited a conceptual confusion in service of the further exploitation of a psychological datum: that we naturally take the “reasonable” position to be one that resides between two “extremes”.

But the assumption is false. No such spectrum exists. The conceptual space surrounding Brexit is not linear at all. There is “Leaving the EU” and there is “Not Leaving the EU”, and all the versions of a “soft Brexit” are properly assimilated into the latter category. Sometimes things just are either this or that. That things are binary does not mean that they are simple, but to introduce complexity is not to dissolve the simplicity but to distort it.

It is for this reason that what ostensibly are “sensible compromises” are in fact modes of capitulation. Questions around whether (for example) a customs union arrangement is consistent with an independent trade policy are second-order derivatives of the structural issue: that there is no spectrum and to be attached to one part of the EU is to be enmeshed in its dynamism in toto. And it is a misunderstanding of the same structural issue that has allowed a spurious set of speculations about which “version” of Brexit a fictitious and composite Leave voter was “really voting for”.

So, let’s stop falling for the con. Next time the Boles-Letwin-Soubry types place obfuscation before simplicity remember Professor Moore and simply say, “Sorry, I’m busy having my breakfast”.

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  • Sean Walsh
    Sean Walsh
    Sean Walsh is a former university teacher of philosophy. He has a doctorate in the philosophy of artificial intelligence and his current research interests are in the philosophy of mind, metaphysics and the philosophy of religion. He is also interested in philosophical issues around addiction. He lives in Wiltshire and works with addiction and recovery agencies, and with a homeless charity. He runs a lot.
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