“We cannot make good news out of bad practice.” So wrote famed American newsman Edward R. Murrow.
Another way of saying this is, of course: we cannot make bad practice into good news. This is especially true when it comes to something as historically significant as Brexit.
As a social commentator and futurist who is regularly engaged with the media, I consider myself - I hope not arrogantly - to be a relatively astute follower of the news.
Yet I, like many relatively informed British citizens, struggle to identify the key features of the 580-page Brexit deal document which will soon be put to the vote in the House of Commons.
Our media and press feature a lot of headlines about the political to-and-fro between London and Brussels and about the internal struggles within Parliament.
Most, however, give relatively little space to an accessible explanation of what the deal actually means in practical terms.
For all the punditry, few government or media outlets seem to be addressing what it means for the things people sought when they voted, albeit by a smallish margin, to part company with the EU.
These include our ability make trade deals and our ability to control migration and maintain - or recapture - independence in terms of our legal system.
Little is said or written, either, about what the proposed deal might mean for our standard of living in the medium-to-longer term.
Partly, of course, this is because nobody can definitively predict the future. This is generally true about any issue, but very specifically so in the case of something as convoluted as Brexit.
A good many Brits, I think, are waiting for the so-called “meaningful vote” debate in Westminster, hoping that it will provide some clarity on major points within the deal. Alongside that, we hope for a description of what still remains to be negotiated during the transition period over the next few years.
Yet, the political debate may come too late. People are not able to contact or instruct their MPs on specific areas of concern within the deal if they’ve not been informed about the deal’s contents. In a way that is free of legal and administrative jargon
I think the public is relying on Parliamentarians to actually “do the deal” and rightly so. Voters don’t need to cross every “T” and dot every “I”.
Yet everything is happening in a blur, as if we’re in a desperate race to a finish line and don’t have time to understand the big themes covered in the deal’s fine print.
In the words of a BBC presenter who interviewed me today, it’s a bit like we’re signing up to a social media service without reading the fine print. Looking at the current data-protection records of groups like Facebook and Google, we all know how well that turns out for the user!
The rush toward a resolution makes people very suspicious about the motives of the EU. This institution has made many lofty pronouncements about championing democracy in the world. In recent decades, however, it demonstrated an inclination to ignore democratic votes if they interfere with its centrally-devised strategic objectives.
In the case of Brexit, the EU has sometimes made emollient noises toward the British populace, while fairly obviously trying to push the UK into a corner. It is openly sending a message to countries like Poland that a divorce from the EU comes at a hefty price.
From the British perspective, if this deal is passed by Parliament amidst widespread public confusion, we’ll end up trusting our own political classes even less than we do today.
Trust in politicians remains somewhere near an all-time low.
This was reflected in the global trust survey conducted again this year by the Edelman communications group. The survey of 33,000 people in 28 nations, measured relative levels of trust between citizens and major public institutions, such as media, business and government.
The 2018 results were instructive for the UK. Only 36 percent of Brits trust government and its administration. This compares with 63 percent who say they trust the mainstream media. In a press release following last year’s survey, Edelman said that levels of trust were at an all-time low. Many nations, it said, face a “crisis of trust”. This is true of the UK.
In the face of this, the British government continues to ask for blind trust from the electorate. This is the only deal we’ll get, it seems to suggest, so trust us to make it work.
Trust, however, is not blind. It is informed by performance and strengthened by accessibility.
Prime Minister Theresa May and her negotiating team - if not her cabinet - might well have done the best deal possible in very constrained circumstances. They may or may not have practised good management. Yet they appear to have omitted one important aspect of leadership - the ability to bring people with them on the journey.
Mrs. May’s position is an unenviable one, to be sure. Feelings among the wider population are divided on the very idea of Brexit, often bitterly so. Leadership demands the ability to display resilience, sharpness of focus and stubbornness of purpose. These are all qualities Mrs May has in abundance - and they’re very handy in the face of a negotiation as complex as this.
They must, however, be married to a common touch. This is the area in which British government leaders have failed thus far. People do not feel that they are either well informed or engaged.
This is not to say that we should hold a second Brexit referendum. On the contrary, as I’ve written elsewhere, a second vote, were it to place no-Brexit on the menu, would present grave challenges to British democracy going forward.
A second Brexit vote, if it offered to overthrow the 2016 referendum, would leave a great proportion of the population asking: “When does any vote represent the final vote on anything?”
Are we to become a nation that keeps voting until we come up with the “right” answer, as defined by either political elites or lobby groups?
I voted Remain in 2016, but with huge reservations about the direction of the EU, with special regard to “ever closer union”. Recent moves toward forming a European army reflect that those concerns were not without merit.
A unified army might be sold as a means of policing immigration, for example. In reality, it constitutes another plank in the building of a platform for a uniform political establishment, a United States of Europe.
In 2016, I like many other Remainers accepted the referendum result. I still believe that Britain is innovative and productive enough to make a go of this in the longer term.
Some have argued that holding a second vote, with a no-Brexit option, would be no “big deal”, because we already hold parliamentary elections every few years. There is, however, an obvious difference between the two types of vote.
We do hold national elections every few years, but we don’t cast a vote and then overturn that vote before our elected representatives have had an opportunity to act on its decision. That’s exactly the scenario represented by a vote to overturn the Leave result.
We’d have voted to leave the EU and then told to vote again before that vote has been carried out.
Former government leaders who insist that Britain hold such a vote are demonstrating the type of political pomposity that caused many people to vote Leave in the first place.
It is time for the British government to look beyond the walls of Westminster, explaining to the electorate, in clear terms and as concisely as possible, the potential wins and losses contained in the proposed Brexit deal.
It is time for those MPs - if not parties - who oppose the deal to explain why they are doing so, in non-partisan terms.
In short, it is time to at least make a start toward a process of long-term national reconciliation while creating the best platform for the UK’s long-term future.