The Overton Window

One of the few things I’m enjoying about Brexit is that we keep learning new words/phrases as they appear in everyday use on the news (as if we’ve all been bandying them about since we were small!). This week’s one is “prorogue” – “to discontinue a session of parliament without dissolving it”.  Dominic Raab’s great plan is that if you “prorogue” parliament until 31st October, then parliament can’t block Brexit occurring on that date.  Clever, huh?  He’s not just a pretty face.

But my favourite thing that I’ve learned about since June 2016 is the Overton Window. This is a term for “the range of ideas tolerated in public discussions”.  Things you can talk about without placing yourself apart from the range of discussion that society is willing to tolerate.  So, if I said “all prisoners should be sterilised”, then I’d be placing myself outside the Overton Window on that topic.  Society would never consider that a legitimate point for debate. (Note – it is very difficult to come up with a good example of something outside the OW, as by definition even the act of just mentioning something should make most people go “wow, I can’t believe he’s said that”!).

Where it gets interesting is where the Window moves, and things that would previously have been discounted as unacceptable/ridiculous suddenly become tolerated/normalised.

The nature of a “no deal Brexit” is one example – previously any sensible person would say that a no deal Brexit would be self-inflicted economic and political disaster, and that it shouldn’t be seriously considered. But now the window has moved, and some of those in favour of Brexit are now demanding a no deal Brexit, that it was what Leave voters all voted for, and with anything less “not being Brexit”.  It may well even end up being an option on a second referendum which is just mad – parliament asking people “do you want to vote for: the economy to be smaller; a significant percentage of the population to become unemployed; less money for education and social care; our international security to be weaker; and for us to ultimately have to sign up to the Withdrawal Agreement anyway, and still pay £39bn to the EU, when we go crawling back to them asking for a trade deal?”

However, this whole proroguing thing is just an incredible example of the Overton Window moving.  It really shouldn’t need said that any politician who would even consider shutting parliament down in order to avoid parliament making a decision, really isn’t fit to be in parliament (let alone leader of a party, never mind Prime Minister).  You don’t need to be a “taking back control” fetishist to see that as beyond ironic.  And yet here we are, where suggesting it as an actual possibility is seen as part of a spectrum of legitimate choices that the Tory party MPs and members could vote for when choosing a new leader and Prime Minister.

There are a bunch of swear words which, whilst not new, are getting a lot more use in a Brexit world.  My favourites being clusterf*ck and sh*tstorm.  But none of them seem to do justice to the state we’re in. I guess that is how you feel when the Overton Window moves, but your own views don’t.  

It’s like we need to invent new swear words, ones that would previously have been outside the obscenity Overton Window.  That, or we somehow manage to move the Window back to the point where all the options within it at least seem sane.