The endorsement game: why Britain’s liberal centrist media must share the Brexit blame

How to endorse right-wing populism while pretending to be part of a reasonable center ground

It’s Endorsement Week and Britain’s liberal centrist establishment once again did what the liberal centrist establishment does: cower out of supporting a party (Labour) that is its only hope of averting the very Brexit that they allegedly stand against, as well as the horror show that would be five years of a Boris Johnson government. I am talking, of course, of the Economist and the Financial Times, the country’s two main liberal centrist publications, which for reasons that I find quite flabbergasting, have not received a smidgeon of the blame for the political mess that Britain finds itself in despite having significantly contributed to it.

It is conventional wisdom to blame Britain’s media for much of the current political malaise. On one hand there are the obnoxious right-wing tabloids like the Daily Mail and the Sun which have spent years promoting a toxic Euroscepticism that has contributed to the widespread support for Brexit. These have been tabloids that have consistently told their working class and conservative readerships that their problems are not caused by Whitehall but by Brussels; that the country has more to fear from immigrants than elites; and that somehow Brexit is going to usher in VE Day-like euphoria. “Believe in Britain!” they say, obliviating the mountains of evidence of how Brexit is going to deepen the immiseration that nine-years of Tory government has already inflicted on working people.

The contributions of the tabloid press have been compounded by the lack of partiality among that other great British media institution, the BBC. In the age of 10-minute YouTube snippets, the BBC has become a market for clickbait extremism, rather than provide a platform for moderate, reasoned views. Just count the times Nigel Farage or Jacob Rees-Mogg have appeared on BBC Question Time, where in the leadup to the referendum it almost seemed like they had an open invitation each week. Surely more reasonable pro-Brexit voices could have been given airtime rather than these shock jocks? It is true that a state-run institution like the BBC must offer both sides of the argument to maintain some semblance of impartiality and avoid accusations of partisanship. It does not follow that it has to offer the most radical sides just to increase viewership.

Stay the course

So where in this does the liberal centrist media fit in? The story begins in 2015, with both the Economist and the Financial Times endorsing David Cameron over Ed Miliband in that year’s general election, one which would kick start the madness of the half-decade that followed. By the logic of the liberal centrist establishment, “Red” Ed was a menace to the British economy at a time of painful recovery from the 2008-09 financial crisis. “On May 7th voters must weigh the certainty of economic damage under Labour against the possibility of a costly EU exit under the Tories”, the Economist wrote, warning that although Miliband’s fiscal plan “makes more macroeconomic sense”, they seemingly could find no reason to trust Labour on it. Most naively, it believed that reason would triumph over passion if an EU referendum would take place:

“[S]uch is the suspicion many Britons feel towards Brussels that a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU is probably inevitable at some point. And we believe that the argument can be won on its merits.”

The FT echoed many of the Economist’s sentiments, warning that Miliband’s economic agenda was too focused on inequality and offered the risk of higher taxes (as if a 50% top marginal tax rate on high earners and a mansion tax were going to break any millionaire’s bank). Once again, the risk of leaving the EU was noted but ultimately minimized:

“There are risks in re-electing Mr Cameron’s party, especially on Europe. But there are greater risks in not doing so. Its instincts on the economy, business and reform of public services are broadly right. Mr Miliband has not offered a credible economic prospectus and would apply a brake on enterprise. In the circumstances, the FT would like to see a Conservative-led administration.”

If Miliband was too radical for liberal centrist tastes in 2015, it comes as no surprise that neither publication had the stomach to support Corbyn’s “loony left” in 2017. The Economist, who has consistently caricatured the Labour leader with communist-style caps and red stars, took the cowardly route of endorsing the Lib Dems, notwithstanding the fact that they had been driven out of government two years earlier and were now perennially maligned for having failed to temper the more savage Tory austerity policies in the five years of the coalition. The FT, to their credit, at least had the guts to endorse Theresa May. “Mrs May is the safer bet” it wrote, but its claim that “accepting her as prime minister does not amount to a blank cheque” seems less like an admission of reluctance as it is an attempt to disguise its obvious sympathies with the Tories on the crucial economic front (which is probably of most interest to FT readers).

The Economist’s head-in-the-sand strategy continued in 2019 with yet another Lib Dem endorsement, despite this being their most incompetent lot in recent memory. Unfortunately, the FT has also signed up to the cowardice by refusing to endorse any candidate at all. We might as well not vote and hope that an election will be annulled and the candidates replaced if zero voters go to the polls. With the Tories holding a double digit lead a weak before the election, any non-endorsement is implicitly a Tory one regardless of whether you say it outright. This kind of editorial cynicism is disgraceful given the stakes involved in an election like this.

Stay the course

The original sin of liberal centrism (or as the Economist describes itself, “radical centrism”) is that its contempt for the ordinary suffering of people is masqueraded as technocratic aspirationalism. It is akin to saying that we care more about the poor than the left because we actually want a growing, competitive, business-friendly economy, only to later act baffled to why anti-elite sentiment arises in tandem with the inequality those policies generate. If either publication was half as good at political forecasting as they claim to be it would have been obvious that a defeat of a leftist like Miliband was not likely to return Labour into the hands of the Blairites but rather, deepen its socialist undercurrents. The result was the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader later that year. In retrospective, I’m sure most liberal centrists would have preferred a Miliband government over the great Brexit tragicomedy that followed. Yes, he was much more leftist than the Blairites than preceded him. But hardly a socialist.

The other problem is that the explicit support for a man (David Cameron) whose 2015 manifesto included such a potentially catastrophic outcome as leaving the EU was reckless and irresponsible regardless of how it was justified. This is akin to saying that someone who says they will start a referendum on a nuclear war against Russia should be given the benefit of the doubt; after all, such decision will be “won on its merits”. Both the Economist and the FT seemed to be endorsing another coalition government in the hopes that the pro-EIU Liberal Democrats would temper the Eurosceptic urges of the Tories. But it is another example of piss poor political analysis that neither seemed to consider the possibility of a Tory majority. Furthermore, you can’t endorse coalitions or hung parliaments, as both seem tempted to desire in 2019. And in this scenario, there’s no guarantee that the Lib Dems won’t throw in their lot with the Tories either, dashing hopes of a restrained Labour-minority government.

It is a testament to both publication’s marketing and brand power that they have weaseled their way out of any blame for Britain’s political malaise. This shouldn’t be. Both the Economist and the Financial Times, in their pathological rejection of any real left that isn’t economic conservatism in disguise (as the Economist‘s call to “vote conservative” for Blair in 2001 shows), have betrayed not just British voters but betrayed the very ideas that they stand for as every new right-wing candidate becomes increasingly more uncomfortable to endorse (explicitly or implicitly) and every new left-wing candidate becomes even more unacceptably socialist. This downward spiral only leads to one thing: extremists in power.

Whether it’s the millions who have suffered needlessly (or even died) from Tory austerity, whether it’s the lost European future cruelly stolen from the country’s youth, or whether it’s the Thatcherite mentality that continues to see human effort and dignity as subservient to the needs of capital, Britain’s liberal centrists must wake up to the fact that they have played a major role in this appalling state of affairs. As difficult to accept for a side that believes to hold a monopoly on dispassionate reason and rationality, the “timid ignorance obstructing our progress” – to quote the Economist’s famous motto – is squarely on their side these days.

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