ZOOM is a remarkable new medium. The virtual communities that can now convene at any agreed moment mean that lecturers can reach large (but invisible and anonymous) audiences, a great boon in these days of plague.
However, absence of that special feedback which comes from being physically in a room with human beings may lure participants into making observations which, faced with a live audience and sensing risk, they might not otherwise express.
Therefore this medium presents both a danger for the speaker – because you have no idea who you are addressing – and a benefit for Zoom listeners, in that they may learn things a speaker might not have intended to impart, but which, whether unconsciously or from vanity, are let slip by a gesture, a tone, a word.
So it was on the recent occasion of a ‘book launch’ for Professor Robert Tombs’s much-acclaimed history of the Brexit experience entitled This Sovereign Isle.
The virtual venue was the premier London think-tank Policy Exchange. The fabulous convening power of its director, Lord Godson, had assembled an A-list panel of commentators: Lord Frost, the lead Brexit minister; Lord Mandelson, the Remainers’ Remainer and former EU Commissioner; the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and founding chairman of Policy Exchange, Michael Gove MP – a leader of Vote Leave – and the former Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who famously wouldn’t want the Prime Minister to drive her home.
The audience was, by definition, unknown to them or to itself. But for the purposes of this article, it included other historians, a social anthropologist, social psychologists, economists and former intelligence officers – all silent watchers. Some of them have compared notes and this is what they learned.
The event opened as might have been expected, with a characteristically modest and incisive introduction of his book from the author. Lord Frost then addressed the book substantively, echoing some of the praise which it has garnered in press reviews.
He nailed it by reminding everyone that Brexit was first and last about sovereignty and democracy, with the people having the right to elect those who make the laws they must obey.
Then proceedings appeared to go off on a tangent which had little to do with the book under discussion. Mr Gove made a reference to it, but devoted most of his remarks to praise of Lord Godson’s convening powers and a plea for mutual tolerance between former Remainers and Leavers.
He employed high-flown language, ascribing ‘nobility’ to both points of view. But the other two contributors were having none of it; and that is what made the event so transfixingly interesting to the silent watchers.
Ms Rudd quickly pinioned the book as one written only for Leavers, and more specifically men, because she apparently considers Brexit a male vanity project, which manifestly is not so.
She extracted one point and one footnote to pour scorn, and then plunged into an extravagant display of the first two stages – and especially the second – in the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief.
Almost five years on from the referendum and still in denial that she and her side had lost, she raged repeatedly in passive-aggressive anger at the book and at the world that she no longer controlled.
There was an open admission that she was still very sore over the referendum result, with no corresponding awareness of the reasons why she was on the losing side, nor any apparent respect for a clear democratic vote.
Such bitterness unfortunately meant that her contribution became discourteous to the distinguished author and the audience who wished to hear about his work.
However, the main event of the afternoon came from Lord Mandelson. His body language and his always carefully chosen and quietly menacing words also both boiled with passive aggression and a fundamental refusal to accept that he had lost.
A man accustomed to power, he showed it. Leaning forward, repeatedly he employed the ‘dominance’ verbal tic, starting each intervention with a slightly exasperated, ‘Look’. (The more commonly heard verbal tic of jobsworths and those less self-confident of their authority is, of course, ‘so’.)
What was it that he would have us see and hear? There was a stiletto putdown for Lord Frost and nothing much about the book.
He spoke of the need for nimbleness to seize opportunities (not that he thought many exist) and to mitigate the harms of Brexit, which he took as read.
But he had much bigger fish to fry. This is where one wonders whether he was betrayed by the medium, for without overtly spelling them out, he told the silent watchers two things of great importance.
First, that it was (of course) his wish, but more interestingly in his view, distinctly within the realms of possibility, that the United Kingdom would rejoin the EU in a few years’ time.
The subtext here is that he considers all Brexit bets to be off after the next general election. As he elaborated that thought, it was suddenly apparent to the silent watchers that we were hearing, in fact, the next agenda of what Professor Tombs has carefully named the neo-Jacobite sect of ‘ideological and professional Rejoiners’, of which Lord M, along with Ms Rudd’s brother Roland (of the ill-fated People’s Vote campaign), is a doyen.
And how might that come about, given that the disgraceful efforts – by every and any legal or parliamentary ruse – to block our leaving or to encumber leaving with so many chains that we might as well not, have failed?
What Lord Mandelson told us – twice, but not in so many words, and each time with a slow and crooked smile – was that they’d cheerfully break up the United Kingdom to get their way.
He twice mentioned his Financial Times letter of the day of the book launch, which called for the UK government to keep punctiliously to every element of the Northern Ireland Protocol as interpreted by the EU.
With a certain relish, he observed that Johnson’s government had signed it voluntarily, and could therefore not dispute its terms.
This is indeed rich, coming after the EU’s serial displays of bad faith including the invocation of Article 16 – actions which, as Martin Howe QC has written, give the Government full legal right to denounce the entire protocol.
That went unmentioned. And, of course, the protocol was renegotiated when the PM had his hands tied behind his back by a Remainer Parliament which was out of control.
What the silent watchers gleaned from Lord Mandelson’s sinuous contribution was that The Unreconciled would work against the UK and with the European Commission to exploit the traps built into the protocol.
This highlights the implication that they are willing to break the Union to undermine us and cut us down to size – in short, to work for the interests of the increasingly fractured EU which might have been the future … once. And if we stay out and continue on our global pivot, then breaking the Union would be our punishment. The mailed fist in the glove.
The silent watchers were grateful for these revelations. Sadly, Lord Frost was not there to witness them. He had to leave early – hence this note. It was a virtuoso performance, but from the Rejoiners’ point of view, perhaps not entirely prudent.
On the battlefield it is not wise to advertise your position to your enemies. Therefore Mr Gove would do well to dial back on the inclusive rhetoric and nice words about nobility, and the Government should certainly not concede an inch in maintaining the integrity of the United Kingdom.
Ms Rudd and Lord Mandelson made it perfectly clear that la lutte continue. We have been warned.