How bad can it get?
Reflections on the state we’re in
Neal Ascherson, Mary Beard, Jonathan Coe, Tom Crewe, William Davies, Sionaidh Douglas-Scott, Lorna Finlayson, Daniel Finn, Katrina Forrester, Jeremy Harding, Daisy Hildyard, Colin Kidd, James Meek, Ferdinand Mount, Jan-Werner Müller, Jonathan Parry, David Runciman
‘On 17 June poor France fell. That day, as we trudged past Greenwich … a tug skipper yelled gaily across the water: “Now we know where we are! No more bloody allies!”’ The writer A.P. Herbert recorded that. And it was briefly a widespread feeling in England in the summer of 1940. Belgium gone, Holland, now France … horror and pity, but also a sort of relief. And if the UK really does barge out of the European Union this Halloween, many English people will feel the same. Alone! Nonsense, of course. Britain wasn’t really alone (the Dominions, the resources of empire, the Polish armed forces, soon the Free French), just as ‘unchained Britannia’ after Brexit will remain strapped down by alliances, treaties, new foreign trade rules. But the tug skipper spoke for England: the nation which still thinks it’s more than just a nation, which has been paranoid about ‘foreigners telling us what to do’ since Henry VIII told the pope where he could stick it.
When all this rubbish started, I thought: ‘Three years trying to get out of the EU, and the next three trying to get back in.’ Now I’m not so sure. Make it more like five years of tedious, hypocritical fiddling, as British governments try to reconnect severed veins and sinews while pretending that they are doing no such thing. What will they call a reconstituted customs union – a Zone of Provisional Tariff Suspension? And that’s supposing the English public won’t once again throw any agreement out of the window with Saturday night’s beer cans.
But the political damage done so far by Brexit is excellent. It has knocked the plaster off the whole monarchical structure, so that the cracks and gaps are glaring. Nobody knows what the law of state is. Who is in charge: a sovereign Parliament, the citizens through the popular vote, or the cabinet arrogating to itself the royal prerogative? Nobody knows. As a result, we have a House of Commons whose members are largely ex-Remainers committed to a policy they know is wrong for their country. No wonder they are paralysed.
Westminster wasn’t designed to work when no party has a majority and the main parties are split. Small cabals of obsessive MPs block all solutions. So we have leading Tories – not only Johnson – apparently prepared to suspend a sovereign Parliament in order to force through a Brexit meant to restore the sovereignty of Parliament. That’s not Catch-22; it’s Catch-1852. Remember Louis-Napoléon’s futile suppression of the National Assembly, in order to rule by decree and plebiscite in the name of ‘the people’? Stand back for Boris Bonaparte.
When this stuff happened nearly four hundred years ago, English Parliamentarians went home and ground their swords to an edge. Not this time. The courage and integrity of most MPs flare up only briefly before they fizzle. My autumn forecast is rapid deadlock, an uproar of scatological cartooning, another Tory rebellion and finally the nastiest, dirtiest general election for a hundred years.
I’m not sure we know how to have a public conversation about politics at the moment. Those vivid fantasies that we will soon be able to reclaim the sunny uplands and send the doubters and doomsters packing are not only a sure indication of the duplicity of those on one side of our so-called ‘debates’. They are also a sign of the collapse of political rhetoric. I am not trying to underplay the practical, political and economic disasters that may face us, from what on earth will happen on the Irish border to where the Welsh farmers will sell their sheep. But we do need to attend also to the cheap, fruitless, repetitive and wordy stand-off we have descended to.
On the one hand, there are those whose political optimism seems to consist in little more than a desire to return to some misleading and nostalgic version of British greatness. (I am still waiting for someone to tell me when exactly ‘we’ ever had control, if ‘we’ means the vast majority of ordinary citizens.) On the other hand, there are those whose first reaction to Boris Johnson’s premiership is to carp at his past misdemeanours (another, slightly perverse, form of nostalgia, I can’t help thinking), or to join the klaxon of doom-mongering dressed up as ‘realism’, heard from so many voices on the Remain side.
I am as guilty as anyone here, and have done my fair bit of Cassandra-like muttering about the motorways around Dover being turned into lorry parks. And I admire those in all parts of what I still hope will remain the United Kingdom who have at least tried to speak from a different and more constructive script.
But my hope for the next few years is simple. I suspect that not much can be done about the Billy Bunter language of some sections of the Tory Party, but those on the broad left (me included) could do better. We could make it much clearer that the recognition of complexity and difficulty is not an admission of defeat; it is treating a complex problem with the respect it deserves. We could also be a bit more enthusiastic about the future success of Britain and what that might look like – not caught in a time warp, but an ordinary, responsible and fairer country. When I publicly suggested a few months ago that we really were a quite ordinary country (and none the worse for that), I was deluged with abuse and accusations that I lacked patriotism. It’s about time that we got rid of any illusion that ostriches are good patriots.
Back in 2013 I wrote an essay for the LRB about Boris Johnson which was headlined ‘Sinking Giggling into the Sea’. It argued that Johnson was surfing to power on a wave of English disinclination to think seriously about things when given the option of laughing about them instead. My analysis turned out to be reasonably accurate, but in retrospect I don’t think it went far enough, being centred largely on Johnson’s public persona rather than his qualities as a writer. (These should really have been the focus, since the piece was pegged to a collection of his writings entitled The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson, but – full disclosure – I omitted to read the work under review.)
Looking at those writings now, I would say it was beyond dispute that Johnson has turned out to be the most influential satirist of his generation. People who complain that there’s no right-wing satire in this country should forget about what goes out on Radio 4 at 6.30 p.m. and remember that Johnson’s reports from Brussels for the Daily Telegraph in the 1990s were satires by any definition of the term. Their trademark was comically to distort reality in order to promote the author’s point of view. And they set the tone and perspective for the British debate on Europe over the next two decades. In fact you would probably have to go back to Swift’s Drapier’s Letters to find satirical journalism that had such a powerful and direct effect on the course of history. And the consequences of Johnson’s glib, lazily flippant pieces have been far more momentous than any that could be claimed for Swift.
At the end of my essay in 2013 I wrote that Johnson was driven by a ‘doggedly neoliberal and pro-City agenda’, which now seems rather naive given how obvious it has become that his only agenda is in fact to pursue power at all costs for his own personal gratification. At the same time, the fact that he has appointed to his cabinet so many of the authors of Britannia Unchained – that paean to deregulation and turbo-Thatcherism – suggests that, if Johnson does have an ideology, it is even further to the right than many of us feared. Clinging on to power now depends on his delivering Brexit by 31 October, ‘do or die’ (the latter being much more likely), which means that all we can say about the next few months is that they will be characterised by intense political turmoil, the like of which few British people have ever had to endure.
Might it work? Hard to escape the dread thought, watching Boris Johnson swaggering about, the golden boy, prime minister at last. Might the combination of optimism, chauvinism, globalism, Thatcherism, pragmatism, statism, collectivism, libertarianism, libertinism, broadband-fixationism, alliterationism, saywhatevercomesintoyourheadism strike enough people, in enough parts of the country (or rather, in enough electorally useful parts of the country), as rather appealing? It touches a lot of bases, tickles pleasantly, even naughtily, quite a few toes. But is it, give or take a few authentically Johnsonian (i.e. superficial) flourishes, really very different from Theresa May’s pitch when she became prime minister in 2016? She too put herself forward as a proponent of something resembling ‘blue-collar’ conservatism, interested in rectifying social injustices, redressing regional inequalities and boosting infrastructure investment. She too wanted to splash some cash after years of restraint. Cameron and Osborne were native speakers of the serpentine language of austerity, but for her it was only ever a grudgingly acquired second tongue (Johnson looks set never to learn even the basic vocabulary). She vowed to deliver Brexit; but she too wanted to be ‘more than just a Brexit prime minister’.
As Britain warmed to that rosy new dawn, some hay was made of the fact that May and her top adviser, Nick Timothy, shared a political hero: Joseph Chamberlain. Chamberlain started out on the left of the Liberal Party in the 1870s and was in league with the Tories by the mid-1880s, never having had a middle phase. He was the first to try to weld together a concern for the working classes and a belief in an activist state with a totemic policy promising a revolution in Britain’s global economic position. The totemic policy was tariff reform: Chamberlain’s big idea, launched in 1903, was that Britain should abandon its total commitment to free trade and institute a system of imperial protection. Britain and its (white) colonies would be organised into a mutually reinforcing and enriching economic bloc, finally capable of standing up to their international competitors (which had long since put up their own tariffs while ruthlessly exploiting Britain’s openness and good nature). Chamberlain guaranteed that as a result British industry would be rebuilt, unemployment reduced, and new forms of social welfare funded: old age pensions were first on the list. The future was bright; the opportunity was there to be seized.
Unfortunately, tariff reform split the Tory Party, was responsible for at least four election defeats, and didn’t go away as an issue until 1932, when a version of it was finally implemented by Chamberlain’s son, Neville, to meagre effect. I don’t need to spell out the contemporary resonances. Then again I don’t think the fate of tariff reform offers any guide to the future. However, identifying Johnson as operating in the Chamberlainite tradition – outward, inward, left, right, shake it all about – seems reasonable enough, at least for the time being. And so the hopeful question presents itself: is Chamberlainite conservatism as appealing as at first glance it appears? For one answer, look at what happened to May. I’ve got off to sleep the last few nights by mulling over such questions. For example: might it not always look better on paper, when all those seemingly (and perhaps actually) incompatible concerns and propositions are linked together with a thick dash of Tory-blue? Might it not be the case that such a big tent lets in too many cold draughts, flaps about a bit, is too open to attack? That, eventually, in adverse conditions, the top might blow off? I don’t have any answers. All I know is that Joe Chamberlain was clever, tough, cool, precise, disciplined, diligent, experienced, energetic, charismatic. And a fat lot of good it did him.
Since the referendum a distinctive and separate political faction has coalesced, accounting for at least a quarter of the electorate, possibly as much as a third. It is predominantly English and its members are older than average, dwelling in those vast swathes of Leave country outside the major cities and university towns. This faction is outraged that Brexit has not been delivered, and it has turned out in large numbers to vote for the Brexit Party in the European elections in May. It also dominates the Conservative Party membership. This group is currently on a collision course with the British constitution, because it is giving up on parliamentary democracy. As social movements go, it has some enviable assets: a very clear demand to rally around (no deal), a strong sense of indignation, and a well-known spokesman (Nigel Farage). These resources, together with a background hum of Islamophobia, have succeeded in uniting Thatcherite retirees in the South-East with furious Tommy Robinson activists. For all the talk of Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘Marxism’ and ‘terrorist sympathies’, as well as Labour’s real problems with antisemitism, Labour and Momentum look positively liberal by comparison.
This faction put Johnson where he is today and it’s not going away. The question is how he intends to deal with it. For a nihilist such as Johnson, there is every reason to seek its support and call a general election. That, of course, would commit him to ‘no deal’. Leaving aside the chaos that would ensue, the question is: what would this faction – and its spokesman – demand next? And that’s where things could get very ugly.
Britain is witnessing a phenomenon already seen in the United States, where it has been called ‘asymmetric polarisation’. Aided by new media platforms such as Breitbart, a large chunk of the radical right has snapped off from the rest of the political spectrum and renounced all compromise or negotiation. Trump is the result, and the Republican Party has largely fallen into line behind the radicals.
The stage in Britain is similarly set. The pages of the Spectator and the Telegraph have been filling up with denunciations of the civil service and Parliament for some time. Tory moderates such as Amber Rudd and Matt Hancock have shown themselves to be willing to say things they don’t believe in exchange for power. This is the energy and propaganda that propelled Johnson to office. It’s not clear how he could defuse the situation, even if he wanted to.
We learned soon after his victory that the new prime minister has convened a ‘war cabinet’ to prepare for Brexit. Yet the only war is the one Britain has declared on itself. Let us be clear what a no deal Brexit is likely to involve: food shortages; immobile freight traffic at Dover; medicine shortages that could lead to deaths; and the invocation of the Civil Contingencies Act to declare a state of emergency.
Under a no deal Brexit we would immediately lose our ‘frictionless’ trade with the EU. The EU will insist that any future trade deal still settles its three priorities: the Irish backstop, the UK’s budgetary liabilities and the legal rights of expatriated EU citizens. But if we leave without a deal, there is the additional hurdle that any future deal will be based on Article 218 TFEU, not Article 50, meaning that every EU member state must agree to it. And would Britain really get that ‘very substantial’ US trade deal that Trump claims he is working on? There is the small problem that Congress must approve any such deal, and that is unlikely if it is seen to damage Ireland.
Every facet of the British constitution is affected by Brexit. Brexit was supposed to enable Britain to reclaim sovereignty. But parliamentary sovereignty has seemed an annoyance to this government, which has often tried to sideline Parliament, with for example the attempt to trigger Article 50 without its consent; the resistance to revealing the government’s impact statements; the attempts to prevent a ‘meaningful vote’ by Parliament on Brexit. And now there is talk of proroguing Parliament, suspending it so it cannot oppose a no deal Brexit. MPs are already taking action in the Scottish courts to obtain a declaration that Johnson may not advise the queen to suspend Parliament to stop it voting against ‘no deal’. The Brexit campaign was fought against a supposedly undemocratic EU, and yet we face the prospect of a prime minister suspending Parliament to force through a no deal Brexit that was certainly not on the referendum ballot.
Nobody voted for a no deal Brexit, but Scotland and Northern Ireland didn’t vote for Brexit at all. Scotland and Wales have been excluded from Brexit negotiations in Brussels and largely ignored by the UK government. The only party in Northern Ireland given consideration is the DUP, which has supported the minority Conservative government, while devolution in Northern Ireland has been suspended altogether. There is virtually no support for a no deal Brexit in Scotland, which relies particularly heavily on EU immigration. The Scottish government’s argument for a differentiated Brexit was rejected by the UK government, which excluded devolved governments from the negotiations.
The EU Withdrawal Act 2018, the major UK legislation for post-Brexit domestic law, was enacted without the Scottish Parliament’s consent, in breach of the Sewel Convention. Although Sewel is not legally enforceable, the adoption of the Act without Scottish consent illustrates that mechanisms based on self-restraint and mutual trust break down, with serious implications for the stability of the UK.
What’s more, the UK government challenged the Scottish Parliament’s own 2018 EU Continuity Bill (which would have enabled some differentiation for Brexit in Scotland) in the Supreme Court, and pending the hearing adopted the EU Withdrawal Act, which, by claiming complete sovereignty over the matter, effectively killed off the Scottish Bill. It is hard not to conclude that the UK government may challenge any devolved legislation it dislikes, suspending its application while the matter is sub judice, while adopting its own ‘protected legislation’, which automatically trumps devolved legislation. Does this not thoroughly undermine the devolution settlement?
In these circumstances, Boris Johnson’s recent visit to Edinburgh cut little ice. Indeed, his appointment very likely prompts a surge for Scottish independence. All along the UK government’s approach has indicated a unitary, centrist concept of government sovereignty, an antipathy to sharing power, whether with the EU or devolved nations. If this continues we should not be surprised if Northern Ireland seeks reunification and Scotland a further independence referendum.
It has finally happened: Boris Johnson is prime minister. There have been some surprises in politics over the past few years, but this isn’t one of them. As far back as the 1990s, when Johnson’s wit and superficial charm earned him his place as everyone’s favourite Tory, it was foreseeable that he could one day inhabit Number 10. Johnson himself has had his sights on the job since at least his Oxford days: the close and enduring entanglement of class, education and politics in this country made it a realistic ambition. Having positioned himself in the right place at the right time, all he had to do was win the votes of a small group of posh, white, male racists, just like Johnson himself.
Brexit, the crisis that was his opportunity, has placed a further monumental obstacle in the path of those who hoped finally to break with the mode of politics that helped produce the crisis in the first place. This politics – which Johnson, as much as anybody, represents – has impoverished and privatised British life, entrenched inequality and insecurity, and attempted to steal the far right’s thunder by displacing resentment onto immigrants and foreigners. The effect of Brexit has been, and will be for the foreseeable future, to intensify these features while derailing efforts at resistance.
As long as Brexit dominates the agenda, Labour will struggle to make headway. For some, the problem is the party’s failure to take a clear Remain position. Many see Labour’s approach as a fudge. So it is – but so is social democracy. One man’s fudge is another’s expedient compromise, and it is sensible to be alert to the scope for ideological manoeuvring in determining which counts as which: after all, hardline Brexiteers have now succeeded in casting anything but ‘no deal’ as an impure Brexit, satisfactory to nobody. Defenders of Labour’s stance, meanwhile, argue that it is the only way both to hold the parliamentary party together and to avoid electoral catastrophe. They may well be right. Those who take the view that a benign Labour Brexit is a chimera may be right too.
What most people want now is for the Brexit issue to be resolved one way or the other, so that we can stop hearing about it. That, however, is the one thing we can be virtually certain will not happen. If Britain leaves the EU, the calls to rejoin will be persistent and deafening. If we end up remaining, the ghost of Brexit will never be exorcised, and the ‘stabbed in the back’ narrative already being rehearsed by Brexiteers will continue to disrupt and divert. Remaining may even turn out, in the long run, to be the worst of all outcomes for Remainers. Whatever happens, the likelihood is that we will still be hearing about Brexit in twenty or thirty years’ time. Nationalism is by nature monomaniacal, insatiable, with a tendency to crowd out all else. The only partial defence consists in changing the subject: to talk about austerity, about inequality, about capitalism. Labour was able to do this during the last general election campaign. It remains to be seen if the party can do it again.
From an Irish nationalist perspective, there are two main varieties of Conservative politician: the ones who neither know nor care about Ireland, and the ones who know and care too much. Boris Johnson is likely to offer a synthesis of the two. On the one hand, we have the dilettante who can’t be bothered to master his brief if it would require any effort. The potential for a man like that to wreak havoc in Northern Irish politics should not be underestimated. On the other hand, we have the right-wing ideologue, with close links to a coterie of Tory journalists who campaigned against the Good Friday Agreement, including his cabinet colleague Michael Gove.
Northern Irish politics are more turbulent than at any time since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party came close to an agreement for the restoration of power-sharing at the start of 2018, but the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, backed off after an outcry from her party’s supporters. There is little incentive for Sinn Féin to make any further concessions. It believes that Brexit has put the Union itself in jeopardy, giving it the best chance it has had in a generation to achieve its main political goal of Irish unification. It is not a good time for Unionist politicians to be digging in their heels over secondary issues like legislation on the Irish language. But the DUP’s role as kingmaker in London has encouraged its most uncompromising tendencies. A Johnson premiership, reliant on Unionist votes for its wafer-thin majority, is bound to be crudely partisan in its policy concerning the region. Before meeting party leaders in Belfast, the new prime minister had a private dinner with his DUP allies. Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald bluntly told Johnson that no one believes his professions of impartiality; Naomi Long of the biconfessional Alliance Party was slightly more tactful, but her message was the same.
In the South, the Fine Gael taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has no more reason than Sinn Féin to make Johnson’s life easier. His only concern will be whether the big EU players continue to support the Irish position if no deal Brexit looks imminent. There’s no domestic pressure on Varadkar to soften his line on the Irish border. Supporters of Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin who normally detest his party will enthusiastically support his stand against Johnson. Having chosen the archetypal ‘Brit’ to manage the Brexit crisis, a man who could bring out the inner Provo in any Irish liberal, the Conservative Party has sacrificed any chance of a helping hand from Dublin.
British politics has been preoccupied with deadlines and thresholds: which date will be the real cliff edge, which vote will change everything, how many votes will be enough for the government to fall, or to trigger an election. We could be forgiven for failing to notice that we’re continuing to stumble into the same deregulated neoliberal Britain we’ve been heading for all along. How we’ll get there is still unclear. What’s more certain is that the Tories will rule with a fragile and unstable government (maybe for months, maybe for years). What will it take for them to hold on to power? Johnson has been accused of ‘peddling’ optimism – about making Britain great again, or just about his capacity to get on with things. But he has also primed us for betrayal. Campaigns always involve the making of promises and the prospect of their being broken, but betrayal isn’t often baked in at the start in the way it has been here, where any delay to a no deal Brexit has been framed as a failure that won’t be forgiven. With ‘no deal’ essentially government policy, the Tories seem set as the party of English nationalism and imperial nostalgia, willing even to give up the Union. Given the likelihood of continued delays – the deliverance of leaving may be forever deferred – what were they doing courting the party membership in this way?
Brexit has become a seemingly permanent state of emergency. Johnson’s ‘war cabinet’ will be getting ready for an election, but also for the reshaping of Britain that will continue long after 31 October. The outcome may yet be another extension, though the bluster of optimism makes real the possibility that we’ll leave by mistake or as a result of brinkmanship from which it will prove impossible to retreat. The pledges of the leadership campaign told us little, except that the Tories remain willing to shadow Labour: give the North broadband (not quite its own treasury), address the social care crisis (but only through bipartisan gestures), shake that magic money tree. Johnson’s commitments are libertarian, but he will happily pour money into keeping the Tory coalition together and use anti-austerity rhetoric while shrinking the state. Everything he has said (which isn’t much) is easily manoeuvred, and contingent both on the absolution Brexit provides and the calculation that any anti-austerity positioning will be forgotten once it has served its primary purpose of diffusing the promise of Corbynism. As the Tories see clearly, Corbynism remains the only chance we have of stopping the rightward drift (all who say they can no longer vote for Labour should admit this). While the pressure from the centre has made a change of leadership in Labour more likely, Corbynism without Corbyn still seems unfeasible. There seems no end to the deadlines and thresholds or, without a change of the party in power, to British decline.
Tory leaders, we know, are undone by Europe. May, Cameron, Major – weakened by defeat in the first Commons vote on Maastricht – and Thatcher, taken down by Geoffrey Howe in 1990 for undermining Britain’s negotiators in Brussels. By then her Euroscepticism had surged. But for ten years she had been keen to stay inside the tent, pissing in, if necessary. This is hard to remember now that a crew of no-nation Tories – her misbegotten progeny of chancers and offshore patriots – have severed the party from its European past.
Thatcher’s 1988 speech in Bruges is widely understood as the beginning of the end for Britain’s membership. Her contempt for the ‘social model’ championed by Jacques Delors, who headed the European Commission, seemed even stronger at the time than her aversion to a European super-state. A fortnight before Thatcher went to Bruges, Delors had addressed the TUC in Bournemouth. But she and her speechwriter, Charles Powell, were careful not to use the term ‘socialism’ when she spoke in Bruges. Three weeks later, in her speech to the Conservative Party Conference, she let rip and identified the real enemy: a Europe ‘governed by socialist methods of centralised control and regulation’. Her hope was still that Britain would lead by example in a vibrant, ultra-liberal trading zone. A passionate anti-federalist, she was nonetheless an advocate of the single market, the EU’s great leap forward into free movement for goods, capital, labour and (still awaiting completion) services.
Today the union that Thatcher did so much to shape is light on social justice, tough on treasury borrowing, fixated by opening up markets to competition. If it weren’t for the electorate’s concerns over immigration, the Tory Brexiteers would look as though they were stuck in a time warp. After all, the EU long ago addressed Thatcher’s objections to the social model, and a super-state is not on the cards. The UK, meanwhile, is already a less attractive destination for EU citizens. Britain’s new ‘global’ prime minister has talked of an amnesty for undocumented migrants – he has done this before – and an end to net migration targets, much to the approval of the Adam Smith Institute. But he can say anything, every which way, between now and Halloween. His ghoulish cabinet was picked to scare Brussels and grab concessions at the last minute. But crucially it’s a back-to-the-future dream team, looking far beyond Brexit to the mission announced post-referendum by Nigel Lawson from his home in France: to ‘finish the job that Margaret Thatcher started’.
Farmers, who were divided by the Brexit vote, are reliant on the EU for regulation, migrant labour and handouts. Financial support payments are currently distributed using a system which has become notorious for its bad management (delays and website glitches), and for the fact that it streams money to farmers using a calculation based primarily on the quantity of land farmed (so the biggest farmers and landowners receive the highest payments), not on how usefully the land is worked. Defra’s post-referendum vision for British farming is as a diversified public service: farmers will receive payments for stewarding the environment, and for providing health and wellbeing resources such as school trips or social prescriptions. The idea is to protect livelihoods and food security by keeping farming going, but to improve public health and the environment by transforming the way it works.
As yet, little has been done to make this plan real. The National Farmers’ Union sees ‘no deal’, with unregulated imports and costly, slow, or non-existent exports, as the greatest threat. Johnson has been told that ‘no deal’ could bring about the collapse of a whole way of life. WTO tariffs of up to 40 per cent would be destructive for sheep farming: there could be mass lamb culls, and possibly civil unrest. His response was to tell farmers: ‘The more you prepare, the less likely it is that there will be difficulties.’ It sounds like a warning. Yet it isn’t clear that a deal made under Johnson would be any more promising. Unlike the outgoing Defra ministers Michael Gove and Robert Goodwill, Johnson is not seen as an ally to farmers, who fear being squeezed slowly out of the market by the free trade deals he talks up. When negotiating new trade deals with global agricultural producers, notably the US, unrestricted access to the lucrative British food market is one of the more valuable assets available to Brexiteers. EU tariffs and regulations have provided buffers for British produce from the global free market for forty years. While Johnson has promised to ‘look after’ agriculture, very little policy has been committed to protect British farmers, food, or environmental standards. Why?
The answer could lie not only with farming, but also with perceptions of farming. The wider context is climate change, and farming is one of the major culprits. Only half of the British population visits the countryside during a typical year; government policies on everything from broadband to local buses have isolated the young urban population from its declining rural counterpart. Farming is not a pressing electoral issue, and anti-agriculture narratives make farms vulnerable to being sold off. It seems likely that much of the land will be bought up by large-scale agribusinesses. What happens to agriculture, therefore, matters beyond rural livelihoods. Domestically, responsible farming is the only way to safeguard food security and public health. Globally, it is still the only plausible response to climate change and rising hunger.
The departing prime minister complains about the reign of a new ‘absolutism’ in politics, whose exponents disdain compromise, pragmatism and adjustment, the very characteristics for which the Conservative Party was once renowned. The Tories were traditionally a caste as much as an ideological bloc, a party of notables whose inherited sense of entitlement was expressed for the most part in sombre dutifulness and an unideological approach to the mechanics of governance. Truth be told, there wasn’t much difference throughout the 20th century between the studied neutrality of the upper-middle-class elite which ran the civil service and Conservative grandees such as Eden, Butler, Macmillan, Heath, Carrington and Whitelaw. Of course, there were always disagreeable noises off. Macmillan could hardly bear to attend the annual party conference with its ranks of petit bourgeois hangers and floggers. The party has contained – in both senses of the word – a variety of loutish elements: diehard opponents of Irish Home Rule, Suez Group imperialists, Monday Clubbing friends of white Rhodesia. But the extremists have never been so close as they are now to grabbing the steering wheel.
Thatcherism did pander in part – but only in part – to the ethos of Powellism, Thatcher herself having an uneasy relationship with Enoch Powell, by then an Ulster Unionist. Several of the core elements of Thatcherite political economy were a harsh but plausible response to Britain’s economic difficulties during the 1970s. Prices and incomes policies had failed, as had the Labour government’s social contract with the trade unions, and monetarism seemed for a while to be the only way to squeeze inflation out of the economy. However negative our verdict on the inhumanity of Thatcherism, its direction of travel continued the trajectory of the Callaghan government and it had, by contrast with the implausible micawberism of Boris Johnson and his rival Jeremy Hunt, a basis in rationality; what Geoffrey Howe, its guardian and protector, referred to as the Policy. The mystery today is why ostensible Thatcherites have repudiated her legacy. Thatcher’s recognition that one cannot ultimately buck the market has given way not only to a disdain for the verdict of the currency markets on Brexit but also to a reckless and embarrassingly impolite disregard for the UK’s largest market across the Channel. William Hague’s reform of the leadership process, which awarded the final decision to the membership; the shrivelling of a mass party into an ideological rump; the decline of deference, especially to experts, propelled by Murdoch and the internet; and most recently Faragiste entryism: together, these have ended the party elite’s insulation from the untutored prejudices of the rank and file. Conservatism has always combined respect for historical institutions and traditions with a scepticism about utopian projects, off-the-peg solutions and their unintended consequences. Ironically, Euroscepticism and the scepticism of Conservative Remainers about Brexit both derive from the same Tory font, but the former has itself been diverted into utopianism, an irrational flat-earthism that the men in grey suits no longer know how to constrain.
Britain has taken a different route from the United States to cultural civil war, but we got there in the end. When the Republican Party and its media shapers smeared the phrase ‘identity politics’ with poison and turned it on their political opponents, they knew of what they spoke. The classic Republican definition of ‘identity politics’ – privileging one’s membership of a minority group over one’s responsibilities to the nation as a whole – is an exact definition of the Republicans’ own position now, under Trump. The patriarchal, white supremacist, American nationalist minority whose identity Trump channels is (from the point of view of American liberals) embarrassingly large – about a fifth of the entire population, and not far short of half of those who vote – but a minority nonetheless.
Britain veered away from sub-majoritarian identity politics after Thatcher, but returned to it in full force with the Brexit referendum. The accusation levelled by the right at women or immigrants or sexual minorities is that they use identity politics to seek special treatment, but identity politics as actually practised by the Republicans and now by the Farage-Johnson movement in Britain is the old demand for conformity, or subordination, to the cultural norms of the dominant minority. The concept of immigrant assimilation – that the native society should not be substantially changed by immigration, that immigrants should aim to be absorbed by it – foreshadowed the relentless call for unification that followed the Brexit vote. The meaning once implicit in national ‘unification’ – that everyone has to change so as to accommodate each other – has shifted to something more like absorption: not ‘We must unite with each other’ but ‘You must unite to us.’
As Britain struggles with the meaning of such concepts as assimilation and unification, so do its political parties. Many polls show that parties opposing a no deal Brexit are likely to attract more votes, combined, than the ‘no deal’ parties of Johnson’s Conservatives, Farage’s Brexit Party and the remnants of Ukip. And yet it seems very likely the no-dealers will find ways to collaborate in time for the looming general election. In some ways, Johnson and Farage might find it easier to campaign after ‘no deal’; diverting blame towards Europe for the post-Brexit disasters and humiliations caused by their own actions is something they’d be pretty good at.
The parties opposed to ‘no deal’ – call them the progressives – are more divided. As things stand, it’s touch and go whether they would even win a parliamentary vote of no confidence against Johnson, let alone avoid giving the Faragists a majority in an election by taking votes off one another. It may be that the best chance of crushing Faragism at the next election – surely a more important task for the progressives now than whether or not Britain leaves Europe – is simply for Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the non-English nationalists and the Greens to campaign as rivals and hope for the best. Jeremy Corbyn might win; more likely, he would have to work in a coalition with others. Or the divided progressives might lose, despite a larger combined vote share, despite the sense that the country is reaching a point of no return.
The practical, rational and emotional obstacles to co-operation between rival opposition parties are vast. Tactical voting doesn’t have a good track record; electoral pacts risk sapping party morale. Small parties risk being swallowed by big ones. Everyone’s ideological purity is tainted. Already confused anti-Faragist voters may become even more confused and bitter. The most obvious leg-up for the progressives would be an alliance between Labour and the Greens, whose vote share is big enough to damage Corbyn’s chances of victory but not big enough to translate into many new seats. But no wonder the Greens fear being smothered when the likes of the Guardian columnist Owen Jones propose a simple absorption of their party into Labour.
Beyond the mechanics of building an anti-Faragist electoral alliance, near impossible and absolutely necessary, there is something fundamental to consider in the difference between the two sides. The Faragist movement works for now because its central idea, quite openly, is that the white nationalist English minority doesn’t have to co-operate with anyone, in Europe, or in the United Kingdom, or in the world, and it acts accordingly. The progressive movement is struggling because its central idea is the opposite – co-operation – but as an electoral force, it demonstrates a failure to co-operate. Whether the progressive is Jeremy Corbyn, with his passion for international causes and consequent need to co-operate with overseas movements whose interests are bound to clash with those of the British working class, or Siân Berry and Jonathan Bartley of the Greens, whose determination to remain in the EU would involve co-operating with the increasingly vocal climate emergency sceptics of eastern Europe, the ideal of co-operation and its dreaded vehicle, compromise, is intrinsic to their politics, but at home, they repress it. How can you call time on the era of purely national politics when you cannot find common ground with the anti-nationalists in your own nation?
Yes, this is a right-wing coup. It is duplicitous or self-deceiving to pretend that British politics is still proceeding more or less as normal. We are told that it is ‘hysterical’ to argue that Boris Johnson’s regime is in any way comparable to the nationalist dictatorships of yesterday or today. If this is a temptation, I shall happily succumb to it as a patriotic duty. By every standard of measurement, the Conservative Party has been transformed into Britain’s own BJP. ‘Optimism with a hint of menace’ was how the Sunday Times approvingly described Johnson’s first days in power – pretty much the way you might describe the first hundred days of Narendra Modi, or Donald Trump, or Benito Mussolini. Yes, he has come to power by strictly constitutional means. So did they all. It is how they govern when they get there that counts.
First, there was the brutality of the cabinet cull. Macmillan’s Night of the Long Knives pales by comparison, as do Margaret Thatcher’s most far-reaching reshuffles. Both Supermac and Thatcher took care to include up and coming ministers from all wings of the party. Johnson has included only yes-people, or placemen who have vowed omertà in advance. His rhetoric has already assumed a strongman strut. He tears up prepared speeches in favour of sunlit-uplands rants peppered with sentimental appeals to ‘the will of the people’. Implicit in this waffle is a barely concealed contempt for the judiciary and for Parliament. In his two spells in the Commons, Johnson has never bothered to shine, or indeed even to turn up much. His most significant promotion was that of Dominic Raab as foreign secretary, the only man to have issued a veiled threat to prorogue Parliament to get his gang’s way.
We are already beginning to take for granted Johnson’s abusive tone towards international institutions and foreign leaders, except those like Donald Trump who talk the same mixture of bluster and treacle. At home, we are promised more mega-bridges and bonanza buses, the sorts of project with which dictators always like to dazzle the plebs. Here, the author of Boris Island Airport and the garden bridge is at least staying true to form.
What still puzzles some people is that so many old-fashioned Tories should have fallen for such a seedy, treacherous chancer. In fact, I think Johnson has succeeded because of his amorality, not despite it. The transgressive sayer of the unsayable breaks through the carapace of conventional politics with a mixture of humour and vituperation, slang and high-flown rhodomontade. Clowning is part of the act for the leader who wants to reach beyond good and evil in the fashion Nietzsche recommended. A cartoon Superman? Yes, but they all are. See Charlie Chaplin, passim.
How long will he last – five weeks, five years? I have no idea. All I can say is what I see. And it is not a pretty sight. Our new skipper has consistently admitted that he would love to be prime minister ‘if the ball came loose from the back of the scrum’. But that isn’t what happened. He collapsed the scrum, deliberately and repeatedly, and we are all now sprawling in the mud.
European leaders are not rejoicing at the prospect of encountering Boris Johnson again on the diplomatic stage. In theory, being underestimated could turn out to be Johnson’s decisive advantage, as so often during a political life in which bumbling has been a brand and a form of false advertising. But the notion that the new prime minister could pull off a surprise victory over the earnest Eurocrats he made it his business to ridicule in his days as a journalist wrongly presumes that there is room for manoeuvre. There is little reason to believe that such room exists. What does exist: plenty of indications that Europeans – not just politicians, but business too – just want the whole thing over with. The open contempt with which the British political class is now viewed in Brussels has made it easier to say goodbye. Johnson used to make the Eurocrats into Monty Python characters. Now the joke is on him.
The fact that the European Union has shown unity and determination since 2016 has come as a surprise to many observers. The aim has clearly been pour encourager les autres. Nigel Farage predicted after the referendum that the UK would not be the last country to leave the EU. Instead, even far-right populists have abandoned the rhetoric of Frexit, Huxit etc and the EU has high levels of support in member states, probably in part because Brexit has been such a mess.
It isn’t all rosy news for Brussels. The hope that an EU without the UK would become more cohesive and finally solve some of its long-standing structural problems has turned out to be false. Macron is still waiting for a real response from Berlin to his rather modest reform proposals of September 2017. Budapest and Warsaw remain busy dismantling democracy and the rule of law; the idea that only a Eurosceptic UK, afraid of Brussels acquiring more powers, kept the EU from taking decisive action against them has been disproved. Angela Merkel, who appeared for a while to be determined to use her last term in office to make the EU more coherent, has largely lost her power. In a time of major geopolitical friction, Europe doesn’t really exist on the international stage. The EU is eager to be done with Brexit and get on with its real business, but it’s doubtful whether the new Union of 27 can get that business done.
Does Boris Johnson’s emergence as Conservative leader suggest that the party members who voted for him are deluded? Clearly some of them feel that the failure to deliver Brexit is caused by a lack of True Belief, which only the leadership of a True Believer can remedy. This romanticism and thirst for the heroic is a more long-standing theme in Conservative grassroots politics than is often realised. But more calculating party members, and MPs, support him for two different reasons. One is that no one else could prevent Nigel Farage from massively eroding the Conservative vote at any general election held while Brexit remains undelivered. The other is the hope that if a True Believer takes responsibility for the crisis his difficulties will show other True Believers that Brexit is not easy, and that they must choose between punishing pain and tawdry compromise.
For this reason Johnson’s election creates a new situation, not just an opportunity for handwringing. Beyond grandiloquent gestures, what power does he have in a hung parliament? It won’t support his policy of withdrawal by 31 October, unless there’s a rallying round a tarted-up version of May’s deal. He may hope that his election will mandate all Conservative MPs to support ‘no deal’ if necessary, but there are enough irreconcilables near the end of their careers to defeat that calculation. Will he then call a general election? If he fights it on ‘no deal’, he might neutralise the threat of Farage, but he would lose lots of votes to the Lib Dems. He may instead gamble that he can win the first significant Conservative majority for three decades using the hazy rhetoric of optimism and renewal. Even if he manages that, reality will puncture the rhetoric long before the Brexit process is finished.
Much depends on the state of the opposition, but an election would be Labour’s to lose. Commentators claim that the Conservative Party has become obsessed with Brexit at the cost of its traditional beliefs – fiscal discipline, social stability, the Union. Twelve months of bracing majority Corbynite government would surely show that to be false. However 12 months of majority Corbynite government is less likely than some alternative coalition. The minority parties would then have the leverage to insist on a second referendum. If they played their cards right, they might even create a head of steam for proportional representation as well. Unlike in the past, many MPs in the two main parties will now see benefits to it. It would moderate extreme behaviour by their leaders, and by the members who choose them. It would mitigate the damage that a bad split would do under the current system to either main party’s chance of power. It would force any Brexiteers who become MPs to face the music rather than the wall. It would force more co-operation between the four nations of the kingdom; it might stimulate regional devolution and address the democratic deficit that drove so much of the Leave vote. It is only 160 years or so since it first seemed the next big thing in British politics, the solution to the onrushing threat of rudderless populism. Major constitutional change is coming – but the form it takes is still very much up for grabs.
After the 2017 general election Britain looked like a 40:40:20 nation. The two main parties had more than four-fifths of the vote between them, fairly evenly divided, and the prize would go to whoever could peel off a few more of the rest, which included Lib Dems, Greens, nationalists, Ukippers and others. Just two years on, at least for the moment, Britain has become a 20:20:20:20:20 nation. Support for the two main parties has more or less halved after they each conspicuously failed to do what many of their 2017 supporters wanted – either failed to deliver Brexit or failed to stop it. Two other parties – the Brexit Party and the Lib Dems – currently offer a home for anyone who thinks that either delivering Brexit or stopping it is the only thing that matters. So now the game has changed. The prize will go to whoever can turn their 20 back into anything resembling the vote share of two years ago. It doesn’t have to be 40 – 35, maybe even 30, will do, so long as they get it more quickly than the other side can manage.
That explains the Tory Party’s gamble on Boris Johnson. For many he looks like the only person who can reunite the pro-Brexit vote. If you add up Conservative, Brexit Party and Ukip support in recent elections you invariably get more than the anti-Brexit vote combined. Pull that lot together and you win. But it’s not quite so simple. The Tories also need to worry about the fact that a significant portion of their vote has a habit of defecting to the Lib Dems when the party appears to abandon probity for ideologically driven incompetence. If Johnson’s premiership is a mess, Brexit or no Brexit, many squeamish Tory supporters will signal their revulsion by voting for what they see as the only palatable alternative, which happens to be a party that favours Britain’s remaining part of the EU. One thing we learned in 2017 is that Brexit isn’t the only thing that matters at a general election. There are still plenty of Tory voters who dislike domestic incompetence more than they dislike distant Brussels.