2007 - 2021

Brexit Britain, the Golden Tortoise

I had begun to think of Brexit Britain as a sort of Weimar Republic, collapsing under its own decadence and decay. But maybe it’s more like the La Belle Époque – the period in France at the end of the 19th Century characterised by extravagance and excess. It was said to be “an age of neurotic, even hysterical national anxiety, filled with political instability, crises and scandals”.

The novelist Julian Barnes in his novel The Man in the Red Coat tells the story of Count Robert de Montesquiou, a notorious poet and dandy of the era. He is said to have gilded a live tortoise with gold and encrusted its shell with diamonds, sapphires and amethysts. The splendid creature was the Counts ultimate party-trick, but it died from the experiment like an earlier version of Jill Masterson in James Bond’s Goldfinger. Brexit Britain is like Montesquiou’s tortoise, a freakish exercise with no apparent purpose, staggering along giving mesmerised entertainment.

Instead of gold we are covered in Union Jacks, but the beasts certain demise is the same.

A new poll published on Friday shows that a majority of UK voters don’t believe Union will exist in current form in 10 years and you might be one of them if you’d watched Boris Johnson’s performance in Scotland this week.

He followed a now well-worn formula of Conservative leaders visiting their northern territories: he flew in – lied his face off – and flew out again. His central message was this: there is no democratic outlet for your expression. There will be no referendum on Scottish independence even if you renew your mandate by returning MPs and MSPs in overwhelming numbers.

He was effectively flying north to close down democracy.

It’s a strategy of sorts, but a risky one.

The signs that the malignant presence of Conservatism may well be removed from Scotland, and possibly of its place in government in England and Wales too are everywhere, from the powerful Tory Story website that tells in hand-written form the experience of people under Tory rule, to the #torieslie hashtag that trended throughout the week in peaks daily – as the Conservatives election campaign staggered from sexual scandal to eugenics outburst. The sheer contempt for which many Tory MPs and candidates have for ordinary people is being dragged into plain view.

Earlier in the week the legacy media couldn’t quite cope with Labour’s message that they would tax large corporations and that a society with billionaires was a sign of extreme inequality, and not something to aspire to.

On Thursday Emma Barnett Show on BBC Radio 5 spluttered in complete incomprehension at somebody being AGAINST billionaires. She was interviewing Labour MP for Brighton Kemptown Lloyd Russell-Moyle. Russell-Moyle made the case that the existence in twenty-first-century Britain of grinding poverty, deprivation, and hopelessness alongside the unfathomable wealth of billionaires is morally unacceptable. In an exchange that quickly went viral, the host was visibly angered and incredulous at Russell-Moyle’s critique. “Why on earth shouldn’t people be able to be billionaires?” she remonstrated.

The Daily Express frothed: Emma Barnett stunned as Labour MP spouts ‘communist nonsense’ on banning UK billionaires.”

It was a sign not just of a broken media but a society that have been trained to venerate wealth and ignore and put up with disfiguring poverty. They are not treated as if they have any connection. Our actual worldview has been re-wired on this issue, our moral compass distorted.

As Luke Hildyard has written:

“A billion pounds is an almost incomprehensible amount of money. One of the most successful tricks that the rich and powerful have pulled on the rest of us is not merely capturing a disproportionately large share of global wealth, but hoarding amounts so vast that it is practically impossible to grasp the scale of it, and thus to criticise. If you had been given £1,000 a day, every day since Jesus died, and stuffed it under a mattress, you would still not be a billionaire. There are around 15 or so countries whose entire wealth does not equate to that of an individual UK billionaire.”

As the writer Arwa Mahdawi put it: “The fact that we are even having this debate is a depressing indication of the extent to which extreme inequality has been normalised.“

This kind of normalisation hasn’t come about suddenly. It’s ideology in action.

As Hugh McDonnell wrote in the Jacobin:

“Emma Barnett’s disgust, though, was not really rooted in technical questions of economic policy. This is an issue not of distribution but of recognition. Russell-Moyle was found wanting in deference and respect for the elite. Most often when people express such irreverence they are accused of resentment. Indeed, this was a dominant trope in the debate that the exchange sparked elsewhere in the media.”

He continues:

“Ideology can be understood as the naturalization of social arrangements and hierarchies of power — and the charge of envy and resentment acts to facilitate that process. To cry envy and resentment is to do more than say that the concentration of vast wealth is right and proper. It is a form of ideological de-contestation. In effect, it is to decree not only that you must defer, but that you must defer unquestioningly, to existing divisions of wealth and power, no matter how iniquitous and exploitative they appear to be. To fall afoul of this imperative is not simply to be wrong but to be pathologically inadequate.”

There are some signs that people are sick of this, and that this election may not be the breezy coronation that Boris and his cabinet (and most of their media) assumed. Rees-Mogg’s contemptuous comments abut Grenfell were genuinely shocking and their botched apology made things worse. The Tories are inoculated against ordinary people but an election forces them into interactions they cant cope with or understand.

Every political campaign and career has its signpost moment. Think Neil Kinnock stumbling in the shingle on Brighton beach in a botched media stunt,  or the tanned Jim Callaghan, returning from a conference in Guadelope in the middle of the Winter of Discontent earning him the sobriquet “Sunny Jim” (The Sun misreported his comments as “Crisis? What Crisis?” condemning him to appear detached and uncaring). He never recovered.

One such moment may turn out to be the unfortunate Kirstene Hair MP who appeared on BBC Question Time from Glasgow.

The programme seemed different from the normally carefully curated broadcasts. The audience was visibly hostile and the guests were articulate. Somebody had misplaced the plants and stooges.

As she uttered the words: “I believe Boris Johnson does absolutely care about Scotland … he was up in Moray…” the audience fell about in hysterical laughter. She looked stricken, aghast. The MP for Angus famously admitted that she didn’t vote at all in the Brexit referendum because it was just all too confusing. Now Hair may not have been blessed with the brains but she represents wonderfully the intake from Ruth Davidson’s much celebrated 2017 victories.

But along with the departed Alun Cairns and Ross Thomson the former MP for Aberdeen South, the whole impression of the Conservatives campaign is one riddled not just with incompetence and misrule but with a moral void.  The whole edifice seems to be cracking, almost a decade of Tory rule crumbling before our eyes like the golden tortoise staggering under the weight of its own absurdity.



Comments (26)

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  1. Alan says:

    “The whole edifice seems to be cracking, almost a decade of Tory rule crumbling before our eyes”

    I hope you are right it but it remains the case that the vote is split in England, the LibDems and Labour are pathetic in opposition, and the polls suggest that FPTP will enable the Tories to win a significant seat majority. The only good thing that may come out of this horror show is the continued and unsustainable divergence between Scotland and England. Five more years of the Tories under Johnson will break the union.

  2. Jo says:

    It won’t matter what is thrown at Johnson or any other Conservative. They have on their side a formidable defender. The bad news is it ain’t Truth! It’s the media.

    On Thursday, the Guardian published, on its live politics blog, an “appeal” from the Jewish Chronicle to all UK citizens. It was the usual anti-Corbyn declaration.

    Replies below the line which disagreed, all civil, were deleted by the Guardian. I lost count of the number that disappeared.

    At the same time, Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland had posted on Twitter about a snippet of gossip he’d got. It concerned anti-Semitic conduct by a Labour candidate. He passed on details of this man’s identity and offence. It turned out to be untrue! He hastily came back to tell the world that it was a different guy with the same name as the Labour guy so, “I’ve deleted my earlier tweet.”. Big of him, eh? This was the Guardian. Whatever happened to journalists checking the detail?

    Again, critics of Freedland’s irresponsible behaviour had their posts deleted by Guardian moderators. So much for free speech!

    A day later we had a full article from Freedland explaining to “you” why “we” don’t feel safe from Corbyn’s anti-Semitism. Another attempt to use smear and tribal, sectarian and vicious tactics to interfere in an election. And the Guardian gave him a whole page to do it.

    Ironically, it was the Guardian which published the following piece proving what is going on with the anti-Semitism smear and just how high it goes.


    All I’m sure of is that it will get filthier yet and that the most despicable, corrupt, toxic presence in this election is the UK print and broadcasting media, even those so-called “lefties” at the Guardian!

  3. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    On Good Morning Scotland, there has been a recent innovation in the interviewing technique. The Tory/unionist/climate change denier/other reactionary is allowed, unchallenged to make some assertion and the Gillian Marles, or colleague turns to the SG spokesperson/Green Party member/advocate for a charity/ etc and asked, “ He’s right, isn’t he?” Immediately, as the interviewee begins to answer, he/she is interrupted with a more insistently stated, “HE’S RIGHT, ISN’T HE?” after a short while, there is another interruption asserting that the statement is undeniably correct.

    The technique is used on Channel 4 vox pops, where they go to a Leave supporting Labour constituency and speak to people who are chosen because their mode of speech and dress conform to a media stereotype similar to the Waynetta Slob character actress Kathy Bates portrayed, and say, “Isn’t this election just about GETTING BREXIT DONE?”. When the interviewee, assents, he/she is then asked “And who is most likely to deliver it?” And replies, “Bor-ees “. This is followed with, “We all used to be strong Labour arahnd here, but we’re all going to vote Tory.”

    1. Jo says:

      Exactly so, Alasdair.

  4. Dougie Blackwood says:

    The story and the comments I have seen are all based on one truth. The media and it’s celebrity culture control the narrative; the rich are invulnerable to criticism and the poor are stupid.

    Unfortunately all too many rely on the Mail, the Express and all tv channels for news. They are fed fake news and propaganda everywhere they look. It is probably right that Boris will get home with a working majority.

    We are now in the world of big brother that tells us what to thing and reproves any dissent.

    1. Jo says:


      The Mail and the Express certainly follow a particular narrative but other publications, like the Guardian, once perceived as fairer and a bit more balanced, now operate in a very sinister manner.

      Many of its opinion pieces are presented as fact with comments too often closed so that no one gets to talk back. Either that or its “moderators” delete perfectly civil posts simply for challenging what’s going on.

      In the case of the statement it posted in full from the Jewish Chronicle, the Guardian readership could not respond because moderators were removing posts as fast as they were appearing. The posts weren’t anti-Semitic but they were removed.

      In my view this actually fuels anti-Semitism. It’s sinister and very dangerous. If one group is seen to have absolute control of the media while those who want to see balance are silenced or are afraid to speak at all for fear of being labelled anti-Semitic we are living in very perilous times indeed.

      1. Daniel Raphael says:

        The “Guardian” (of whom? of what?) has become what some call, in Old Left parlance, “the left wing of imperialism.” They have, by now, such a long, unbroken string of lies, distortions, betrayals, and simple confusion, that they challenge anyone with coherent thinking to identify with them. I never go to them as a source, and only pass along their articles via retweet when the piece itself seems legitimate. As an institution, they are for the dustbin.

    2. john learmonth says:

      The ‘poor’ are too stupid. Ok lets take away their vote.
      As for big brother you obviously are not taken in so why should anybody else?
      You might disagree with what others think but please don’t be so arrogant as to presume you know better

      1. Dougie Blackwood says:

        Clearly you mistook my comment about the poor being considered stupid. They are treated as stupid by many of our leaders of opinion and as you go round and speak to people some are slow but many understand what is going on.

        We, outside the metropolitan elite, are all treated as stupid. Unfortunately if people are not reading other strands of opinion, such as Bella, the constant drip of propaganda has the desired effect.

        1. florian albert says:

          ‘If people are not reading other strands of opinion… the constant drip of propaganda has the desired effect.’

          I think this is simply wrong. It assumes that people are unable to think for themselves and reach their own conclusions. Countries which have tried to exert total control over information have failed.
          One of the most interesting things about propaganda is how ineffective most of it is. In Scotland in the 1950s, the dominant voices in the press were the Scottish Daily Express and the Sunday Mail. Both pursued an eccentric right wing agenda. At the same time, Scotland took a significant move towards the creation of the SLAB hegemony which lasted till 2007.

          Both Brexit and Scottish Independence are policies which have thrived despite the best efforts of the ‘Metropolitan elite.’

          1. Dougie Blackwood says:

            If you only read the Mail or Express and watch tv news you will be immersed in the views of these organs. Maybe you think their output is fair and balanced. I believe them to be organs of the metropolitan elite that presents a biased view that essentially denegrates those at the bottom of the heap and supports the interests of the more affluent people. I’m sorry if you hold a contrary view. Perhaps you might explain where you believe otherwise rather than carp from the sidelines.

          2. Jo says:


            What’s happening right now, when it comes to propaganda, isn’t along “drip-drip” lines. It’s at saturation levels.

  5. Darby O'Gill says:

    With revelations, gaffes, accusations, etc. coming out on a daily basis I don’t think anyone can be sure about the result of this election. It may well be the most unique in British political history. Even the (original) Monster Raving Looney Party must be in with a chance.

  6. Derek Henry says:

    “He was effectively flying north to close down democracy.”

    Yup, just like the SNP who wouldn’t honour the brexit referendum result.

    If you are willing to call a spade a spade.

    Sometimes, remainers should sit back and listen to themselves. At the very least she’d a tear for the Greeks and the yellow jackets.

    1. john learmonth says:

      Remainers are great beleivers in democracy but only if you agree with them. Otherwise your thick white trash indoctrinated by the ‘media’ and ‘big brother’ which they (been superior to us chavs) are impervious to.

      1. Kenny Smith says:

        Hi John democracy? Cambridge Analytica, dark money, lies on a big red bus mean anything to you? Away and fling shite at yersel!!!

    2. Kenny Smith says:

      Scotland voted to remain in the EU twice and its leaving. Tories ride roughshod over devolution referendum, deny a democratic mandate for another indy ref. Now please jog on and use the bib to wipe your foam

    3. Andrea says:

      England was more in favour of leaving the EU than remaining. Fair enough.
      Scotland was more in favour of remaining.
      The SNP is supporting the people it represents.

      I continue to wonder about the dogmatic attitude of leavers.
      So innocent of consequences…
      So unwilling and incapable of resolving the issues that annoy them.

  7. Derek Henry says:

    All that is happening is right in the end of your faces but you just can’t see it yet.

    Is this playing out in real time.


    1. James Mills says:

      ?????????????????…..translate , please !

  8. James Mills says:

    Billionaires good and should not be criticised ….. this reminds me of the Reagan/Thatcher years attitudes from the people at the top .

    ”Trickle down economics ” was all the rage . We were supposed to be happy to cut taxes for the rich and reduce restrictions of how the rich got richer as , in the end , the crumbs would fall from the rich man’s table to feed the deserving poor .
    If you disagreed , then you were probably a Commie !

  9. Craig P says:

    >>Instead of gold we are covered in Union Jacks, but the beasts certain demise is the same.

    Love the analogy Mike!

  10. Ian S says:

    “… the whole impression of the Conservatives campaign is one riddled not just with incompetence and misrule but with a moral void. The whole edifice seems to be cracking, almost a decade of Tory rule crumbling before our eyes like the golden tortoise staggering under the weight of its own absurdity.”

    I’m not sure about this. It seems to me is the cockroach Tory party crawling out from under a nuclear mess of its own making. Like roaches in a nuclear war they will survive and thrive and, like others have noted, with the full backing of an almost entirely corrupt system and media will go on to win this election, and probably quite a few to follow. I hope I’m wrong.

    Without root and branch overhaul of the electoral system towards something approaching a consensual system I don’t see how the country gets out of this mess. I don’t see Scotland ‘being allowed’ (BBC’s words, we won’t be ‘allowed’ another referendum apparently) to leave the union, just as I don’t see England being ‘allowed’ to vote for reform. It seems that greed is good still has some mileage left in it yet. What happens when collapse happens again is anybody’s guess, but I imagine it might not happen in an orderly fashion. Brexit is being driven by forces actively hostile to the interests of the majority. There’s something rotten happening and who knows what it would take to turn things around.

  11. Douglas Scott says:

    One of your best and most eloquent articles on this subject.
    If the public are yet to understand the Tory party lack of compassion for ordinary people this essay is just what they need
    Superb Mike

  12. florian albert says:

    Dougie Blackwood

    In my comment yesterday, I suggested that the media had less influence on voters than you – and others posting on Bella Caledonia – believe.
    I do not consider that such an opinion can reasonably be described as carping on the sidelines.

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