‘BREXIT means Brexit’; except that for Theresa May it failed spectacularly to do so. It could yet elude Boris Johnson, too. At a superficial level the June 2016 referendum result reflected English nostalgia for a lost past – donkey rides on the beach and those precious blue passports – an imperial world in which British attitudes were the norm and Johnny Foreigner knew his place. The self-mocking humour of Dad’s Army had seemingly disappeared, transformed into political credo. But Brexit was always more than misguided nostalgia.
That the referendum campaign was based on a pack of lies and self-harming or unattainable aspirations is now well-established. The potential damage to economy, security and international standing as a result of Brexit is already crystal clear, although many of its supporters still glorify potential disaster and an opportunity to indulge in that curious British desire to ‘muddle through’. Even more startling has been a dogged refusal to accept that Brexit represents an existential threat to national integrity and identity in the form of the Irish border and almost certain Scottish independence.
As time has passed – now over three years – any sort of coherence once possessed by the Brexit cause has evaporated. Its supporters now have nothing to offer bar quasi-religious faith and the grievance and bitterness that bound them together in the first place. Probably more Britons now have faith in Brexit than in God, but unlike religion it has become a measure of bogus patriotism that justifies vile abuse. And what has been most unsettling, even for those of us on the political centre-left, has been the capture of the venerable Conservative and Unionist Party in what is clearly a right-wing, populist nationalist coup.
All my British maternal relatives voted Conservative unwaveringly for their entire lives and (in their eyes) for very good reasons. It was the party that stood solidly for Queen and country, lawfulness and probity, business and good governance; above all the political expression of the Church of England. Yet it is now controlled, and increasingly represented, by right-wing ideologues and fanatics who want to smash up the United Kingdom, are quoted as saying ‘f*** business’, undermine parliamentary sovereignty, act unlawfully and unconstitutionally, and most reprehensibly use divisive language likely to incite violence. This is cheered on by a very large section of the rabid daily tabloid press and a considerable chunk of the population that is happy to advertise its xenophobic, philistine and authoritarian instincts.
One might argue that this is just another convulsion in the decline of a former imperial power doggedly unwilling to find its realistic place in the world. But these are developments worth examining more closely because they represent a global rise of right-wing populism that presents clear and present danger to social and liberal democracy everywhere. We are at one of those points in the long march of history when it slows to a crawl, sinister elements seize on uncertainty, and the vulnerability of our liberties becomes starkly apparent. Comparisons are made with the 1930s and not without reason, although the times, the appearance of the threat and the probable outcome are all very different. But what has become very evident is that the Brexit referendum campaign was part of a putative British right-wing coup forming part of a wider, global neo-fascist movement.
Thus ‘Brexit means Brexit’ has lost even further credibility. It took Remainers far too long to realise that they were confronting not just withdrawal from the EU, but a full frontal assault on civil liberties. It has been all but forgotten that while the Brexit campaign made much of sovereignty, it needed a court decision (based on Gina Miller’s first case) to force May’s government to drop plans to exercise antique prerogatives and require it to submit withdrawal plans for parliamentary approval. The judges involved in the case were then smeared as traitors by populists and the gutter press. Was this twenty-first century Britain – or some banana monarchy run by authoritarians in the name of the ‘will of the people’ after a rigged plebiscite, that favourite tool of authoritarians?
In recent years parliamentary democracy has been much derided: MPs simply voted according to party orders, it was said. Not any longer in Britain: an alliance of determined opposition parties and government party rebels and deserters has taken charge of parliamentary business, inflicting serial major defeats on the most extreme government in modern British history. The most recent initiative was to go back to the courts to challenge an arbitrary and prolonged suspension of parliament that was based on yet more lies. Caught with their pants down after a unanimous judgment of the Supreme Court, the hard right has come out fighting with language taken straight from the handbook of neo-fascist politics.
Fascism is no longer dished up by portly uniformed men in heavy boots marching through the streets with brass bands accompanied by shrieking megaphones and knuckledusters. Now it is delivered relatively quietly via social media, but the vocabulary remains much the same. Moderate, rational voices are denounced and vilified as those of treachery, surrender (Boris Johnson’s new favourite word, after ‘humbug’), compromise and betrayal; deliberately inflammatory and divisive language is used to stir up the basest instincts in society, which are employed to demonise the supposed establishment. Adolf Hitler’s rise to power was founded on the narrative of ‘stab in the back’ and his propagandists learned that a lie repeated often and loudly enough soon became perceived truth in the minds of many.
The rhetoric, conveniently and for maximum impact, is personalised and then collectivised as the ‘establishment’. But on close inspection the actual target simply turns out to be those qualities and institutions that underlie civilised society: the rule of law, intellect, rationality, expert advice, proven science, the liberal press, the civil service; and ultimately anyone going about their job according to standards and conscience who does not conform to populist demands. The right-wing message is always simple, direct, brutal and unambiguous: do this, that and the other (‘just get it done’) and heaven on earth will be delivered. There is no room for the ambiguity, subtlety and complexity of the human condition: these are simply obstacles to be demolished, complications devised by traitorous intellectuals, rather than challenges to be accommodated. This has been amply illustrated by the Brexit process.
Ironically, contemporary fascism has been aided and abetted by trendy left academia and its post-modern vacuity: anything goes because truth and all other human values are purely relative and can be bent to any agenda. It is a startling and alarming fact that Donald Trump is now the world’s leading post-modernist. And fascists have always had the solace of victimology, which both consoles them and revs up their supporters: their inadequacies and failures are always a consequence of betrayal and conspiracy by an enemy, often within. A legal case goes against you: then abolish the court! The will of the people must be obeyed! But exactly what and who represents the people and exactly what is its will? Social media might be the channel, but the echoes of marching boots are clearly audible.
In Britain those who have pulled this fascist trick most successfully have always been pillars of the real establishment: Boris Johnson and his reclining sidekick Jacob Rees Mogg are just the latest manifestations. But this is not just some political drama playing out far away. Victimology is a constant of the South African political system, used to excuse the inertia that stems from acute and systemic corruption. It took Jacob Zuma just a few minutes before the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture to concoct a narrative of spies and betrayal that included – unbelievably – a former head of the South African Defence Force. Strains of neo-fascism run strongly through our political system.
Indeed, we have our own genuine fascist movement, progeny of the ANC, in the Economic Freedom Fighters. They have a uniform and headgear, confusingly red in colour, and assume military sounding titles. Their default position is loud and threatening, and commitment to democratic values is paper thin. To the tactics of classic fascism they add racist rhetoric that produces a narrative of particular toxicity. The EFFs have made no secret of a penchant for physical violence even in the House of Assembly (a confrontation between them and the British House of Commons Speaker would be truly epic) or a desire to rip up the Constitution. They demonise any obstacle in their way and institutions are simply in place to serve their needs and whims. True to form their leaders are spectacular consumers of luxury goods.
The problem with challenging populist nationalism is, as Jonathan Freedland has recently pointed out, that it thrives on confrontation. A successful parliamentary vote or court case restraining the populist cause adds fuel to the fire of contrived anger, creates more demons and victims, and ratchets up the campaign. This is both clever and convenient, but the alternative of passivity cannot be entertained. In Robert Harris’s Munich, a novel set in 1938, the German civil servant Paul Hartmann explains to an old British friend: ‘This is what I have learned these past six years … the power of unreason.’ Eighty years later we are living in another such age.
It is stating the obvious to conclude that social and liberal democracy, the basis of the freedoms that ensure broad-based human progress, is fragile and requires constant vigilant defence. But less well appreciated is the fact that the greatest weakness of its defenders at present is economic policy. Capitalism has moved much faster to the right than political culture, an inexorable trend since those dismal years of Thatcher and Reagan. The post-war social contract is now ancient history and rapacious capitalism is the accepted norm. Quite simply it wishes to maximise profit and managerial rewards by boosting sales and minimising costs, especially employment. People are becoming irrelevant; except as consumers. It is this crisis of capitalism that has created aggrieved electorates, including many who voted for Brexit. What those voters have not grasped is that their problem is not multiculturalism and internationalism, but their false allies intent on further weakening of worker rights through deregulation. One day that realisation will dawn, but it will probably be far too late. And the consequences could be shattering.