The dangers of a push-button Brexit

2016 vote offered a binary choice of in or out. Any new vote must expand the

Credit: Pixabay/Geralt.
CC0 Public

wife grew up in rural New York State, where many working-class families kept
horses. One day her best friend came to school and told everyone about her new
cream-gold Palomino, comparing it to the cantankerous ponies the girls were
used to riding. “You just send the right signals and it does what you want.
It's a push-button horse.” 

are everywhere these days, though not on horses. They’re on our phones, cookers
and washing machines; on trains, planes and buses, cars and lifts. Buttons act as physical
shorthand, taking us out of danger or discomfort and getting us to the office.
Smooth under our fingers, they direct our energy forwards as if by magic while
our minds turn to the next need or desire. Buttons work so well that we forget they’re
even there.

Plotnick’s new book Power
Button: A History of Pleasure, Panic, and the Politics of Pushing 
us of their presence. The push button was first used to call servants, creating
a convenient distance between commander and command. Early critics of
push-button technology criticised this distancing function and the narcotizing
effect of constant convenience. EM Forster's 1909 story ‘The Machine Stops’ opens with Vashti, his
female protagonist, surrounded by buttons: buttons for food and clothing; buttons
for music and literature; and buttons to talk to friends—as well as an
isolation knob “so that no one else could speak to her.” 

Leave campaign provided a ‘No’ button for people to press for Brexit, and an
isolation knob for people to ignore each other. The campaign also linked this
button to an imagined reality, an ideological dream-time where, so the story went,
we would control our own laws, our own money and our borders; a time when
everyone would have a job, foreigners would know their place, austerity would
disappear and tea would flow piping hot from taps; a fantasy as real as a
Narnia with coconuts.

have to admire their ambition. This reality was never true, and is simply unachievable
given the way European economies link together in an intimate regulatory
, but at least they had a vision. By contrast, the Remain campaign
was unable to offer any picture of the future other than more of the same, arrogantly
assuming that ‘NO CHANGE’ would be the rational button that rational people
would press. But this just explains the machinery, the Brexit buttons.
What of the method? For this we might blame an earlier generation.

the early sixties Scottish novelist Alexander Trocchi turned away from
writing books to launch a “cultural revolt.” His 1963 essay “A Revolutionary
Proposal: Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds” looked admiringly at
Trotsky and Lenin, who with their “thousand technicians” took the railway
stations, telephone exchanges and powerhouses, leaving “the old men in the
Kremlin” alone with their own irrelevance. His revolt was meant to work by
similar means. Rather than overthrow governments it would “outflank” them,
seizing the “grids of expression and the powerhouses of the mind.”

Brexit campaign seized social media – our modern “grids of expression” –
pushing immigration through this grid in an “invisible insurrection” from
the right. All too often the mainstream media also fell in with this narrative.
A 2017 report from the Policy Institute
found that coverage of immigration more than tripled during the campaign, and that
“migrants were blamed for many of Britain's economic and social problems” in
media coverage that was “acrimonious and divisive.”

of a push-button horse, UK Prime Minister Theresa May is riding a Brexit
unicorn made of little else but xenophobic fantasies; a unicorn that’s approaching
a very bumpy landing. An English-driven Brexit will do little to quell the
desire for an independent Scotland, but much to accelerate its arrival. And
though Labour MP Diane Abbott may be right in warning that a new referendum may just reawaken
discontent, it’s hard to see a parliamentary path that doesn’t end in

as we enter a new battle of bad ideas, something obviously needs to change. Why
not a change of direction from the left? Moving towards a people’s vote, a
radical remain-and-reform platform could renew left forces both here and across
Europe, and policies like a European New Deal
(proposed by the Democracy in Europe 25 movement or DiEM25) would win converts. Or do
we travel further down the populist road of a European Union distant from its
citizens, a Europe where one in four voters now votes for a populist party?

problem with buttons is the paucity of information they provide. The 2016 vote
offered a binary choice of in or out, with the button pressed in anger and fear
as the winner. With any new vote, the conversation should be expanded to a
wider vision of social prosperity, cultivating a politics of hope rather than a
knee-jerk reaction to social despair. We need an affirmation of unity rather
than an affirmation of unicorns; a cantankerous politics rather than another
push-button nightmare.


CC by 4.0