Sadopopulism, Agincourt and Prawn Cocktail Crisps
“I’ve looked very carefully at No Deal. That outcome would be a failure of statecraft”. Boris Johnson, Dublin, 9th September, 2019
As we watch Boris Johnson’s No Deal land with all the precision of a SpaceX’s Starship rocket it’s time for us to understand the origins and the possibilities of this latest stage of the unfolding phenomenon of Disaster Unionism.
Liberation is at hand – but most national liberation struggles have glorious leaders to the fore. Johnson is not that leader. As David Cameron reported to his communications director Craig Oliver he had (and no doubt still has no idea what the actual consequences of leaving are):
“He actually said he thought we could leave and still have a seat on the European Council – still making decisions.”
There’s no reason for Johnson or his colleagues to know any details for this epochal shift, they have led gilded consequence-free lives “failing upwards” – Johnson himself famously sacked-promoted repeatedly until he lands in the highest office of the land. His life-story is like a parody of Meritocratic Britain. The elite that have engineered this moment will not face its consequences, indeed many of them have either moved themselves or their money offshore already.
But the Heroic Failure of Brexit may have run out of time. In fixing this deal Johnson may have failed by succeeding. Who to blame now? If, as the mythology goes, “Britain” has been held back by being a “vassal state” – now what? If, as the mythology goes, “Britain” has been held back by being swamped by immigrants – now what? If, as the mythology goes, “Brexit” has been held back by traitors and “remoaners” and vile politicians – now what that it has been delivered in all its glory?
I think we can guess.
The recalcitrant Scots, the troublesome Irish and the meddling Welsh will surely suffer the consequences of resistance to assimilation as the internal market bill makes its way and the refusal to acknowledge the wild myths of Brexit mania. The consequences of Brexit won’t be a short sharp shock but a Long Brexit with food prices rocketing, industries closing, and joblessness accelerating. But the racism that underpinned the campaign won’t disappear and the consequences for immigration for freedom of movement and and for the notion of a multicultural Britain will be dire and are already seen in Patel’s portfolio. Post-Brexit Britain will be dominated by a regime emboldened by its own “success” even if that success is pyrrhic useless and intangible – even if that success brings mayhem and misery – it will be celebrated with fanfare and jubilation as the imaginary enemy is vanquished.
Johnson’s “success’ will now mean “liberation” and the presumably the many myths that have been peddled will be resolved?
Among them Johnson claimed that the EU was standardising condom sizes, banning children under eight from blowing up balloons, stopping people buying prawn cocktail crisps, and stopping people re-cycling teabags. All of this was completely fictional nonsense but it didn’t matter. Newly-liberated ‘Brits’ can’t celebrate with (presumably) huge condoms, toddlers blowing up balloons whilst snacking on Prawn Cocktail crisps and curvy bananas because its was all just a figment of the fervid imagination of the Brexit mania.
Except not quite. It spoke to the underlying need for the reactionary forces to destroy “red tape”. The real liberation will be regulatory not national. As Fintan O’Toole writes: “It took the vast tedious odyssey of the EU and reduced it to things that people could touch and feel and more importantly consume: beer, crisps, bananas”.
“It took Europe down to microeconomic minutiae and then blew them up again into. macroeconomic tale of oppression.”
Maybe if Brexit can’t deliver on its promises it will result in a resurgence of democracy? Maybe if our crisps and condoms weren’t really under threat the idea of “taking back control” can be re-fashioned? Not so much. One of the great ironies of Brexit is that simultaneously with us being told that this is all about sovereignty there has been a systematic assault on all of the functions and institutions that might represent that very sovereignty: the parliament, the independent judiciary, the press have all been under sustained attack from the very forces that squeal about sovereignty.
It’s unlikely that this moment shall lead to a coherent expression of a democracy movement in England, instead what we have seen is the disruption of devolution and the suppression of democracy. England will reassert itself through Britain. Triumphalism will reign.
There’s no greater proponent of this than Jacob Rees-Mogg who said back in October 2017:
“We need to be reiterating the benefits of Brexit! Oh this is so important in the history of our country … It’s Waterloo! Its Crécy! It’s Agincourt! We win all these things.”
If medieval history is not your strong point it’s worth remembering that the Battle of Crécy (1346) and Agincourt (1415) were English victories but Scottish defeats.
In 2015 the Daily Express celebrated Agincourt’s 600th anniversary (Agincourt: The battle that made our nation): “It was raining, and the English soldiers huddled around dismal camp fires in the dark. Across the narrow valley of Agincourt, they could hear the French taunting them.”
What we now see unspooling amid the chaos will be two things: untrammeled hyper-capitalism and a forced One State One People One Queen Anglo-British nationalism.
Talking to BBC’s Newsnight, Ben Hahib, CEO and fund manager, chairman of “Brexitwatch” and of “Unlocked UK” and former MEP for London said: “The collective will of the British people will get behind No Deal.” What evidence do you have for that? “They will absolutely get behind it”.
“The collective will of the British people will get behind No Deal.”
What evidence do you have for that?
— Adam Schwarz (@AdamJSchwarz) December 10, 2020
Kirsty Wark searching for evidence for Hahib’s assertions was as futile as fact-checking Johnson’s Telegraph columns from Brussels. Of course this mythical unity, this mythical kingdom and this mythical people will come up against the cold reality of democracy as Irish unification, a movement for Welsh independence and the now inevitable Scottish independence are all resurgent.
The bind for Brexiteers and British nationalists is that the more they exert their triumph the more they feed the nascent movements in Wales, all-Ireland and Scotland. The pro-Brexit left might not like the fact that the phenomenon is driving support for Scottish independence (they are the wrong type of Yes voters) but that is the reality of where we are, like it or not.
England’s Sadopopulism* is an exercise in grievance culture gone horribly wrong and it has destroyed the myths on which the 2014 independence campaign was fought by the Union. Britain as a progressive force; Britain as a multicultural entity (to be contrasted against Scotland’s “narrow separatism”); Britain as a source of stability; Britain as a source of international pride; each of these concepts now look ridiculous in the aftermath of this weekend.
In it’s place we have the Bad Boys of Brexit and the Proud Boys of Oregon and a different set of arguments and claims. They don’t align perfectly but the new right of the US and Brexitland have enough in common: glorifying the entrepreneur; closing the border; libertarianism; attacking welfare; hyper-nationalism; and unconstrained xenophobia. While some of this will play well in the Shires it’s unlikely to play well in the parts of England that will suffer the economic consequences of No Deal, nor in the other nations of the fast disintegrating ‘UK’.
What to do?
Few in the Unionist camp are fully aware of what’s ahead, blinded by triumph and jingoism.
But, in a rearguard action we’re told that Keir Starmer is about to launch a ‘constitutional convention’ to be led by the former PM Gordon Brown. The new “UK-wide Constitutional Convention designed to reform and extend devolution and fend off Scottish independence” was enthusiastically heralded by the media in Scotland though largely over-shadowed by the late stages of the Brussels drama.
It seems almost comically late and last-ditch. It’s framed in such negative terms and both Gordon Brown and Labour are in no place to deliver the federalism for which there is so little interest. Brown is a relic of a bye-gone era, a former politician from a time when the forces that created Britain hadn’t been overwhelmed. England is a different place and Britain no longer exists to be rescued by the great and the good in a throwback convention.
It seems unlikely that the forces that propelled England into Brexit will decline and cease in victory, whatever the economic and social consequences. The pathway forward and out from this lunacy is clear to all.
What some of the Unionist camp might reflect on is that absolutely none of this was inevitable.
Research polling conducted by Ipsos MORI found that before 2016, when the referendum took place, Europe was considered significant for generally a single-digit percentage of respondents. It stated that before 2016, only 1% of people in Britain cared about the EU and concluded that: “According to Google Trends analysis there was more interest in Strictly Come Dancing.”
Britain has never been so engulfed with tragedy and farce, and that’s how it will end.
* Sadopopulism is a term coined by Timothy Snyder in his book “The Road to Unfreedom,”