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Monday, 22 July 2019

Deckchairs Rearranged

Useless May is now finally about to leave Number 10 after three years in office.  It has seemed like a lot longer.  May is undoubtedly the least successful Prime Minister in modern times: Callaghan, Major and Brown were titans of statesmanship by comparison.  Part of the explanation for her fate is her own flaws and weaknesses: she was popular until people found out what she was like.  She is a living example of how quiet, socially awkward individuals can be overpromoted because everyone assumes that they must be good at the technical stuff.  Capax imperii, nisi imperasset, as Johnson might write in one of his Telegraph columns.  But this isn't just the story of one individual who was inadequate to her role.  Theresa Mary May is the fifth Conservative prime minister in a row to lose her job over Europe, and she will probably not be the last.

There is every likelihood that the Tory Party will turn on Johnson too, sooner rather than later.  He can't go on making incompatible promises to his warring factions: he is going to need to start taking some decisions.  There is a good chance that his time in office will be a short one - but he can still do a lot of damage in the meantime.  He must be one of the few people in the United Kingdom who is even less suited to the premiership than May.  He is Donald Trump with an Oxford degree.  A charmless cultivated eccentric of the sort that this country has produced for centuries.  A man whose only fixed political principle seems to be a manchild's resentment at having to follow rules (an instinct which, not coincidentally, shines through his writings on the European Union).  A journalist who was fired for lying and whose current newspaper defended an Ipso complaint with the argument that it was obvious that his columns were not meant to be taken seriously.  His latest pronouncement - that Brexit is quite a lot like the moon landings when you think about it, so we can do it if we believe hard enough - is so desperately ludicrous that he probably more or less believes it.

Johnson's main achievement so far has been to save the Conservative Party from collapse in the face of the Faragiste threat.  And that, of course, is the main point now - Brexit as the "will of the people" has morphed into Brexit as a necessity to keep the Tory Party together.  Fewer people are still bothering to pretend that crashing out without a deal is a matter of high-minded democratic principle: the European Parliament elections revealed the true size of the vote for "no deal" as 36.8% (the combined vote shares of the Brexit Party and UKIP).  It's not a majority, or close to a majority; but Johnson and his party comrades want that 36.8% back.  Brexit is ending, as it began, in an attempt to salvage something from the nervous breakdown of British conservatism.  In the meantime, it has become a textbook case of a revolution radicalising itself.  Brexit has become hard Brexit has become "no deal" Brexit, even as the basic flaws of the project are remorselessly exposed.  Yet Brexit, axiomatically, cannot be a bad idea, so its failure must be the fault of wreckers or saboteurs.  Perhaps it was May's fault for being a Remainer.  Perhaps it was Phil Hammond.  Perhaps it was Olly Robbins, or other traitors in the civil service.  As has often been pointed out, this is the hard right's equivalent of apologetics for the failure of communism - it would all work splendidly if only it was tried in a purer form.

As an individual, Johnson makes an unlikely figurehead for a reactionary right-wing insurgency.  The man's private life would have automatically disqualified him in any Tory leadership election up to and including the 1990s - and yet he is lauded by Tory members who tell opinion pollsters that they support the death penalty more than gay marriage.  And that is before we address the DUP's willingness to prop up a man whose history with abortion is, shall we say, more than theological.  One begins to see how God-fearing American evangelicals came to vote for a man like Donald Trump.  Johnson's elevation to the premiership is a symptom of a wider tendency among Conservatives to give up conserving things and start smashing them to pieces instead.  For sworn British patriots, these people have a remarkable contempt for British institutions.  They have attacked by turns the House of Commons, the House of Lords, the judiciary, the civil service, the diplomatic service, the universities, the Electoral Commission and the Bank of England.  They have ignored their natural allies in the CBI and the City.  Some of them have called for the abolition of the monarchy, on the grounds that the Queen assented to Yvette Cooper's bill.  They are rather impressed with the idea of closing Parliament through the archaic device of prorogation.  Polls show that they would rather that the UK literally ceased to exist, through the departure of Scotland and Northern Ireland, than that it remained within the European Union.  If these people take back any more control, there won't be anything left.

Where does this end?  If the overriding importance of Brexit allows every other rule and principle to be shredded, what wouldn't it allow?  A military takeover?  Seriously - if leaving the EU takes precedence over every other aspect of our political system, and a group of obliging generals promised to deliver Brexit, why not?  If this sounds ridiculously alarmist, bear in mind that the Canadian and Serbian governments have warned their citizens about travelling to the UK due to the possibility of civil unrest.

Bear in mind too the militarism and barely suppressed rage that is currently to be seen on the nationalist right.  There is Mark Francois, who specialises in telling anyone who will listen that he was in the Army (as a reservist, he usually omits to mention).  There is self-styled "Brexit hardman Steve Baker".  There is Dominic Raab, who complained about us being "humiliated as a country".  Even Daniel Hannan, who likes to present himself as the most painfully reasonable guy in the room, has been seen whiffling about "national honour".  In April, Bill Cash got the House of Commons mixed up with his psychiatrist's couch as the appropriate venue for revealing his anxieties about castration and submission:
The reality is that submitting ourselves under this Bill to the decision-making processes and the cosh of the European Council is not only completely humiliating to this country, but has put us in an impossible situation under the withdrawal agreement. 
....The Council of Ministers will be making laws for probably up to four years, when this ​House, as I said the other day, will be politically castrated in relation to the European treaties, which will have entire competence over us and all laws.... 
....[T]he idea of our subjecting ourselves to the European Council as well as to the European Parliament is about as humiliating as anybody could imagine. I suppose we are not supposed to say this but it happens to be true: we saved Europe twice in the last 100 years, yet we are now, as a result of this withdrawal agreement and these provisions, subjugating ourselves to the decisions taken by 27 other member states by majority vote. 
Of course, everyone else has been bringing up World War II as well.  Johnson himself compared our European partners to Hitler and the SS; Mark Francois told us that his dad had been at D Day; and Daniel Kawczynski mused that an "ungrateful EU" appeared to have forgotten that Britain had "helped to liberate half of Europe".  Not all Brexiteers are so embarrassingly candid in parading the personal and emotional inadequacies that drive their zealotry; but enough are.  The one constant is an astonishing refusal to accept the most obvious feature of the negotiations with the EU, and indeed any negotiations about anything: that the stronger party will get better terms than the weaker one.

There is a cheap point to be made here about Brexit and toxic masculinity - maybe men are too emotional to be allowed to hold political power.  But the Lady Macbeths of Brexit have been no better.  Priti Patel suggested that threatening Ireland's food supply would serve us as a useful bargaining chip.  Suella Braverman preached to the Bruges Group about "cultural Marxism", a conspiracy theory with antisemitic overtones, earning herself a rebuke from the Jewish Board of Deputies.  The sinister weirdo known as Ann Widdecombe emerged to compare the EU to slavery.  Kate Hoey denounced the Good Friday Agreement and suggested that the Irish border problem could be solved by Ireland helpfully leaving the EU together with us.

And while all this is happening, the world looks on.  Few people still talk unironically about "Global Britain" - or "Empire 2.0", to give the policy its mocking nickname.  When Boris Johnson wrote that the problem with Africa was that it is no longer ruled by white Europeans; when he recited Kipling in a Burmese Buddhist temple ("Come you back, you English soldier!"); when the ERG called for a new Falklands defence force; when May's government insisted on clinging on to Diego Garcia, unsupported by almost anyone except the likes of Trump's America and Orban's Hungary; when Jake Berry proposed building a new royal yacht... one can understand how everyone in Britain who can muster an Irish grandmother has been scrambling to fill in a passport application.  The national brand has been dynamited as surely as Ratners or the News of the World.

And then there is the wider fallout of Brexit - the horrendous polarisation that it has caused within British society.  Brexit is, after all, not so much about EU membership as it is about identity, tribe and loyalty (and, whisper it, race).  The tape of Johnson's row with Carrie Symonds was a watershed moment in this regard.  There was enough in there to raise disturbing questions, but not enough to prove that Johnson had behaved abusively.  Yet reactions to the tape broke down almost perfectly along predetermined lines.  Very few people said that the evidence was inconclusive and we should suspend judgement until we knew more.  Johnson's opponents jumped on the idea that he had asssaulted Symonds, while his supporters were far too eager to dismiss the episode as an ordinary domestic argument.  (Oddly enough, this eagerness didn't make sense as conventional political partisanship - Symonds is a Tory, and any damage to Johnson would have helped Jeremy Hunt, another Tory.)  The same thing happened with Mark Field: although we had the video in that case and could see clearly how difficult his behaviour was to defend.  In any event, this automatic knee-jerk separation of people into opposing camps is disturbing.  It has been said it is a sign that we are slipping into an American-style culture war.  This claim is a little naive about the depths of past divisions in British society - Margaret Thatcher's decade in office wasn't exactly a time of peace and harmony - but it is true enough to be troubling.

The EU, by contrast, has had a good Brexit.  No-one else is looking at Britain and saying "you know what, that went really well - let's try it".  The lasting legacy of our nationalist right is to have achieved the very thing that British foreign policy has tried for centuries to prevent: the existence of a bloc of European states united in opposition to the UK.  Well done, chaps.  Good show.