Brexit’s Radical Right Agenda

Political change – even full-scale revolution – does not happen overnight. Irish independence was presaged by myriad failed rebellions. The 2014 referendum was a product of decades, slowly preparing voters for an independent Scotland as a viable alternative to the union.

A similar process has been happening in the UK, and especially England. Quietly, almost imperceptibly political norms have shifted. Until recently it would have been unthinkable that a departing foreign secretary would to attack those who have expressed concern over the peace in Northern Ireland. But that’s exactly what Boris Johnson did on Wednesday in the Commons.

The previous day David Davis told Channel 4 news viewers that the main cause of any problems in the event of no deal with the EU would be the French “causing trouble”.

In British public life, the once abnormal has become quotidian.

We have entered a world where Oxbridge educated multi-millionaire Jacob Rees Mogg can present himself as defender of the little guy against “the establishment” and not be laughed out of the room. A place where former Conservative party staffer Tim Montgomerie can claim that every UK election for the past 40 years has been won by European elites – until, of course, June 2016.

Such pronouncements are easy to dismiss as one-offs. Politicians backed into a corner playing up to jingoism and magical thinking. But there are good reason to see them part of a much wider pattern.

The parameters of what is accepted political speech are being pushed, and deliberately so. The increasingly insular and nationalistic tone of much of the debate around Brexit – ‘the EU is trying to screw us’ ‘the Irish should shut their gobs’ – is necessary to deliver a specific political project: shifting the centre ground of UK politics to the right, sharply.

This did not happen overnight. Five years ago, British Eurosceptics took pains to maintain that they wanted to be in Europe but not the European Union. The issue was not our links to Europe but the lack of democracy in Brussels.

Now, such talk is virtually treasonous.

Jacob Rees Mogg warns that the UK will become a vassal state if it remains in the customs union – even though this position was publicly espoused by the likes of Dan Hannan before the referendum. In his self-aggrandising resignation letter, Johnson says that the UK risks becoming a colony.

That word ‘colony’ is intentional and important. The entire ‘Global Britain’ narrative is founded on a sepia-tinged, imperial view of the world.

To reclaim that lost glory the world must be torn down and built anew. If that causes pain for millions so be it. The end justifies the means. The European Research Group will happily light as many fires as it deemed necessary to deliver ‘the will of the people’.

Brexit was presented to voters as a chance to go back to the past but the vista shaping up now is the very opposite. New Brexit minister Dominic Raab – a man who once branded British workers ‘among the world’s idlers’ – likes for-profit schools and abolishing many basic worker’s rights. A trade deal with the US would require lowing food standards and, many experts say, the end of much UK agriculture and manufacturing.

There is very little that is conservative in any of this.

As Christopher Lasch wrote of American Reaganism in 1986, the conservatism of Johnson, Rees Mogg et al is one that “pays lip service to ‘traditional values’, but the policies with which it is associated promise more change, more innovation, more growth, more technology, more weapons, more addictive drugs’. Anyone for a second helping of chlorinated chicken? (Don’t worry, consumers don’t *have* to buy it.)

The parallels with American conservatism are not accidental.

As Michael Kenny and Nick Pearce chart in their excellent new book, ‘Shadows of Empire: the Anglosphere in British Politics’, in the late 1990s and early 2000 influential transatlantic networks of right-wing pundits, intellectuals, journalists and politicians held conferences to discuss how the UK could be moved away from the EU and towards the US. Among those in attendance were David Davis, Thatcher and the disgraced media mogul Conrad Black (once owner of the now stridently pro-Brexit Daily Telegraph).

Britain’s conservative think tank world has learned from the US, too. There is almost no right-wing cause too out there for someone from the Institute of Economic Affairs or the Tax Payer’s Alliance to appear on TV to defend. Staff – and more importantly, policy platforms – often seamlessly cross the Atlantic.

The result of this subcutaneous shift is now coming to the surface. The Electoral Commission this week reported Vote Leave to the police for breaking electoral law. It has already done so with another Brexit group, Leave.EU.

The political response to this unprecedented situation has been almost non-existent. Some voices called for a full inquiry. Most stayed silent. Hardline Brexiters – those supposedly most committed to British institutions and their supremacy – decried the whole thing as a shame propagated by remoaners.

The Vote Leave story was covered extensively in Scotland but seemed to disappear quickly south of the border. Editors judged, probably correctly, that there is little public interest. Having been told for two years that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ a significant proportion of a jaded electorate is happy enough never to hear about the EU referendum ever again.

And a significant proportion of the electorate is all that is needed. As Fintan O’Toole pointed out in his excoriating piece on fascism and Trump recently, all any authoritarian vision needs is 40 per cent support to thrive. The Conservatives have been polling around two-fifths for most of the last year.

That’s not to say Britain is sliding into fascism. Hyperbole illuminates nothing. But the readiness with when political leaders offer simple solutions for complex problems cannot be ignored.

This week Boris Johnson said that Brexit would be a success if Theresa May believed ‘passionately in Britain’. When it fails, who will be to blame? Those who did not believe passionately enough. And there will be a ready solution to hand: cuts to public services, curtailing state provision, a bonfire of regulation, and the creation of more scapegoats.

Comments (16)

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  1. bringiton says:

    I am sure that a significant number of Scots are happy to have an extreme right wing government because that is what they voted for in 2014,wasn’t it?
    The delusion that we are somehow protected from England’s affinity with Tory administrations by having devolution has been completely blown out of the water.
    Devolution is what Westminster says it is and that is what Scots voted for.
    We will just have to suck it up I am afraid,for now.

  2. Abulhaq says:

    I sometimes wonder if it might not take ‘an authoritarian hand’ or a least a determinedly strong hand to wrest Scotland out of the neo-Unionist psychological prison.
    England’s Brexit has made things significantly less amenable to the processes of conventional democratic party politics.
    Scots may have to face the stark choice of continuing to be England’s ‘thing’ or breaking out of the unhealthy relationship, whatever the cost.

    1. Graeme Purves says:

      Time to pull the plug on this ludicrous troll, surely, Bella?

  3. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    The attitudes which Mr Geogeghan describes have appeared in different guises and in different contexts for more than 400 years. (I am currently on holiday in Ireland, visiting both parts, and daily and routinely one is made aware of the history of perfidious Albion).

    Although, as Brexit looms, some of the nastier, visceral ideas have become increasingly overt, I reckon that the current ‘rightist’/neoliberal phase began around 1978, under Messrs Callaghan and Healey, following one of the infamous ‘runs on the pound’ instigated by international finance. It was pursued vigorously by the Government’s of Mrs Thatcher and Mr Major and continued, somewhat more covertly (mendaciously?) under Messrs Blair and Brown, then resumed vigorously by Messrs Cameron, Osborne and Clegg and, rather chaotically by Mrs May and Mr Hammond.

    However, the United Kingdom does not operate in a vacuum and acts to a significant degree at the behest of the United States. Although the UK has been a member of the developing EU since 1973, it has always been to a fair degree a pretty semi detached member, with really only Mr Heath and Mr Blair (and the cipher Mr Clegg) being true ‘Europhiles’. Mr Heath was, probably, the only PM in that period (Mr Wilson during the 1960s had kept the UK out of Vietnam) who was not in thrall to Washington. Following the ending of the Johnson presidency, Washington has pursued increasingly right wing neo liberal policies, with a significant stepchange under Mr Reagan and Mr GH Bush. But, the presidency is only part of the story because of the US constitution and the separation of powers. In the House, in the Senate, in state capitols and in city and town administrations Republicans have made significant power gains and, because of the US constitution they can utilise these powers. These local Republicans are much more effective change makers than the Republicans in Washington. They are the hegemonic change which prepared the ground for Mr Trump. (I am not defeatistly pessimistic, because, as the Sanders campaign showed, there is another humane America).

    The LEAVE campaign drew heavily on the strategies which gave Republicans so much power, and, with its control over significant sections of the media, it was able to present a campaign which struck chords, partly because of the disillusionment with new Labour, but mainly because of the impact of ‘austerity’ and the divisive nature of it. LEAVE, has to be seen as the culmination of the campaign begun in the 1970s, with the relentless drip drip of anti EU stories and the creation of hate groups – ,Indians and Pakistanis, Irish Republicans, trade unionists, communists, welfare scrounges, Muslims, east Europeans, jihadists, fundamentalists, multiculturalism, etc. etc. They could always rely on the media to create new monsters, or recycle old tropes.

    Mr Geogeghan and his colleagues have done well to investigate these groups and via sites like Wings and Open Democracy to publicise their findings because the mainstream media will not do that.

    The Brexiteers and the nasty groups around them are not the majority nor do they represent a majority view. However, part of their strategy is to assert again and again that they do.

    I am pleased that younger people are more sceptical about the lies than those of my septuagenarian contemporaries. They are reasons to be optimistic, but it will be a stair fecht.

    1. mince'n'tatties says:

      ‘I am currently on holiday in Ireland, visiting both parts, and daily and routinely one is made aware of the history of perfidious Albion.’
      Oh really, then let’s get down to brass tacks.
      If you’ve visited Waterford you may have noticed signs of one of it’s biggest employers: Bausch & Lomb. An interesting example of Eire’s shameless behaviour, perfidious even.
      Not so long ago that company was the second biggest employer in West Lothian [after SKY]…well paid jobs, zero industrial unrest, top reputation for quality…in the community for donkeys years.Then of course Eire’s finest realised the beauty of free capital movement within the EU and like a hooker flashing her goods, waggled her finger.
      The fact is within the EU 28, it’s a bazaar for the multinationals in both jobs and as using it as a financial an entity to avoid taxation at source of revenue. Just shuffle it all off to accomodating Dublin, or Drunckers Luxembourg.
      Eire is supplicant to Apple, Yahoo, Google and Microsoft. A proud nation sold out, for what?

      Oh, but seriously Alisdair…do enjoy your holiday. Governments rarely reflect the people.

      1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

        M’n’T, thanks for the good wishes. I hope you have a good break, too!

        I had, in fact, been planning to visit Waterford, and would have found out about Bausch and Lomb. I did a fair amount of Cycling around Dublin and noticed a substantial number of the international tax dodging companies you mentioned. I also noticed the huge property developments at the mouth of the Liffey near the Grand Canal.

        I have no illusions about the conduct of ‘elites’ no matter what country they live in.

  4. William Ross says:

    A typical whine from Peter. I wonder what he makes of Varadhar threatening to ban British planes from Irish airspace and the Irish government’s observation that the EU has assured them that the EU will not require a hard border even in a no deal scenario.

    Brexit was not sold to voters as a means to go back to the past but rather a means to advance into the future, as an independent sovereign state. Michael Collins would appreciate the sentiment.

    1. Gregor Main says:

      Varadhar did not threaten british planes, his statement was taken totally out of context by right wing uk papers. Smith, the nut case brexiteer and former tory leader did however threaten trans Atlantic European planes.

      If you don’t recognise that on brexit the English voted to return to a past that never really existed, you haven”t been watching and need to catch up.

      Your beloved uk is heading down the pan of history, the means in which it is doing so, other than providing European politicians mild amusement, is going unnoticed by most. If the likes of you and those you admire and follow don’t shut up and go away, you”ll find out what it’s like for a country to be kicked out like a dog in the night.

  5. William Ross says:

    Graeme

    Instead of trying to close down debate with cheap insults, you might want to address the substantive points I made.

    Drown out the voice of 4 in ten Scots voters, including 400,000 nationalists. Brilliant.

    William

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      It is strange why the views of those 38% of Scottish voters seems to be of such overwhelming importance, yet the views of the 62% who voted REMAIN. are not – “you were voting as part of the UK and you LOST” – and when the views of the 48.1% of UK voters are dismissed by ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – I.e you LOST, too, so just suck it up!”.

      There is a lot of having your cake and eating it amongst the LEAVERS.

  6. w.b.robertson says:

    would love to be the fly on the wall when the Dublin govt, as a member state, is having private talks with Monsieur Barnier. no doubt they would be pleading a special case for their border (and temporarily backing Theresa).

  7. Kenny Smith says:

    Typical, Britain leaves on a bullshit campaign then blames everyone else. Peter is bang on these are not the hapless dafties we are being lead to believe. It’s been an ongoing project and there are some sinister forces at work. The comments above actually make me shiver as I listen to these Muppets trying to convince themselves we are on course to the empire 2.0 and the glory it promises, I’m sorry but lies in 2014, worse lies 2016, the chaos that’s followed and they are honestly expecting me to shut my brain down and get in line. Brexit might not be the bounce we were hoping for ( yet anyway ) but mark my words it has put a line between Scotland and England, how London reacts will seal the fate of the UK. The EU is far from perfect but we are held in a far more restrictive and domineering union but that’s just a tin hat nationalist talking. All I would ask is if all the chaos was going on down there now and we were independent and London came along and asked us to give that up and join a British union who honestly thinks we would?

    1. Gregor Main says:

      “It’s been an ongoing project and there are some sinister forces at work.”

      I still have not heard or worked out who is behind it and why. I know it’s not Mogg, Johnson, Gove or Davis, etc they are merely tools being used by others. It”s recognised Trump detests the EU, but who is push8ng his buttons and why?

      Even at this point, two years post the vote, we still don’t know what they want, how they intend to get there and what it means for the people.

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