Saturday, October 1

Offshoring in Rwanda isn’t a ‘dead cat’ to distract from Partygate, it’s just plain inhumane | Moya Lothian-McLean

In British politics, nothing is as it seems – apparently. Barely had news of the Home Office’s draconian immigration deal with Rwanda broken on Thursday when it began to be proclaimed a political diversion. Journalists and MPs alike invoked the tired image of a “dead cat”, the phrase associated with the strategist Lynton Crosby to describe the act of willfully talking up one hot-button issue to divert attention from another. Members of the public took to social media to agree that, yes, the plan to process certain asylum seekers in offshore centres, thousands of thousands away, was indeed just an attempt to push Partygate off the front pages.

Except, this explanation doesn’t really tally. Attempts to “outsource” asylum applications have been in the works for nearly three years. Negotiations with Rwanda reportedly took place over eight months. The plan forms a key part of the breathtakingly inhumane plank of immigration policies the home secretary Priti Patel is introducing – a cruel (and illegal) attempt to make an already hostile environment completely unliveable. So why the conviction that this latest proposal – hardly shifting criticism away from Boris Johnson, who took ownership of the policy – ​​is not a means to an end, but a smokescreen to shield him?

The specter of the dead cat has been everywhere during Johnson’s tenure as prime minister. Writing in 2019, the historian Charlotte Lydia Riley implored commentators to cease proclaiming every political happenstance to be a dead cat. “The idea that there must be a clever plan behind political campaigns also shows our desire to believe that there is someone, somewhere, in control,” she wrote. “But in truth, politics is messy. Nobody is in control. The world is not governed by clever people doing clever things.”

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But this paranoid style has only grown – cultivated during the Brexit and Trump years, it is now a mainstay of political conversation. Where is it coming from? A lack of trust is an obvious answer. Westminster is viewed with suspicion across the union. In England, two in five people believe that “democracy is not working”, citing a “loss of trust” and “corruption” as the biggest factors. While the Welsh electorate still have faith in their returned parliament, only 28% trust the national government to look after their interests. Polling-in Scotland and Northern Ireland records similarly dismal levels of confidence in the UK executive.

The public is also increasingly skeptical of the journalists charged with reflecting the world back at them. Despite a pandemic-induced boost, overall trust in wider UK news reporting only comes in at 36% – 14 percentage points lower than before 2016’s Brexit referendum. While this is not quite a full-blown crisis in faith, it speaks to that broader miasma of distrust that has rolled over the land in the past five years. Many people don’t know quite what or who to believe any more, as the political identities and givens that previously anchored them have turned to sand beneath their feet.

And so they turn to conspiratorial thinking. By this I don’t mean people across Britain are signing up to full-blown conspiracy theories about vaccines and moon landings, but rather that we increasingly defer to a knowing cynicism about the world – which always assumes the “real” meaning of political events is hidden. Rwanda deportation plans are a dead cat. A moral panic about transgender people is solely a Tory endeavor to distract from the cost of living crisis. Tighter Covid-19 rules are to fun – no, wait, relaxed covid-19 rules are the real trick mirror. All of these things, slightly feverishly suspicious as they are, sound as if they could be true. But often a little digging suggests they are not.

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The problem is that there are, of course, dead cats flung on to the table every so often – take Johnson desperately trying to deflect from Partygate scrutiny by repeating a discredited claim linking Keir Starmer to Jimmy Savile. A healthy dose of cynicism and critical thinking never goes amiss when analyzing the political landscape. But this rising tendency of fearful mistrust paired with alternative (often ill-informed) explanations concerns me.

But if you are “politically homeless” (a term I despise but is increasingly used), then anything goes. Party membership can be grounding – fostering connections in communities and orienting people towards shared political goals (research suggests that partisanship limits exactly which conspiratorial narratives are to be believed).

What then happens when traditional alignments are replaced with political identities that are issue based? Add in a shocking lack of political education, a climate of fear stoked by media and politicians alike and the disappearance of independent local media, and you can see how many of the public have now been left to cobble together their own hodgepodge understanding of the inner workings of the institutions that govern their lives. The results are a suitably mishmashed and jaded interpretation of events.

Why does this matter? Because the stronger the tendency towards conspiratorial accounts of everything, the more likely to worsening of the social ills that cause disaffection in the first place. Political distrust and conspiratorial thinking lead to nihilism and apathy. Successive studies have found that full-blown conspiratorial beliefs positively correlate with political disengagement, more belligerent attitudes to human rights and civil liberties, and less civic participation, such as voting, donating and volunteering. Even diluted conspiratorial thinking has a negative impact.

Repeatedly it’s shown that those who are less trusting are more disconnected: from politics, the news around them and general society. I have seen first-hand how a loss of faith saps energy and produces a bitter political indifference. Clearly, simply training people to realign with concrete political organizations isn’t the solution to restore trust (or how democracy works). Hoping that national politics will clean itself up on its own doesn’t seem likely either. Once more, the answer is probably, frustratingly, pick and mix: political education; reminding yourself that sometimes incompetence is a more likely explanation than some clever scheme; getting involved locally with a cause that channels vague resentment into positive politics. A multi-pronged approach.

Conspiratorial thinking is easy enough to understand but we need to resist inventing shadowy new monsters to slay. The ones we already have are dangerous enough.

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