Brexit supporters are very fond of invoking the Second World War – or rather, a particular mythology about it. In this, the UK alone saved the world from the evil Germans, and all its troops were white British people, as if the UK did not work with its many allies, and the millions of non-white British servicemen from different parts of the Empire never existed.
This is the world many feel has been stolen from them by these nasty corrupt foreigners, represented by the EU. But it is also a world in which the political mantra of the day, used by all parties in one form or another, was that now the war was over the UK should be “a land fit for heroes to live in,” reflecting a famous quote by then-Prime Minister David Lloyd George at the end of World War One.
Boris Johnson and his followers have been keen to court the votes of those who think this way, gambling that there were enough of them, in the right places, to risk alienating everyone else. On the face of it, that gamble has succeeded—at least that is how they want to story to end.
BJ gained a majority because precisely these voters flocked to him in traditional Labour areas which felt abandoned by the liberal elite represented by leftist Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Boris’s claim to fame is that he has also now taken the UK out of the EU, as he and the winning candidates in these seats all promised to do.
But there is one thing he is not doing to court this constituency, and this omission reveals Boris’ big problem. This man of publicity sound-bites, who is determined to change immigration law to address the concerns of people who feel dispossessed by foreigners, is not using the phrase “a land fit for heroes to live in”, even though he is happy to use wartime imagery elsewhere, and this phrase is still remembered as part of the UK’s “finest hour”.
Because this Eton and Oxford educated upper class time server is not interested in creating a land fit for heroes to live in. What he is trying to do is create a land fit for morons to live in – pandering to what he knows very well is irrational prejudice, because reason and decency have failed too many people.
Boris also probably knows that this tactic only works for a limited time before people get tired of shaking their fists. But as long as it gets him publicity, and will allow him to run away from his own mess as a martyr, he is happy to inflict this on his country – an act of moral treason far greater than anything Donald Trump is accused of, and far more consistent with corrupt Third World dictatorships than a mature democracy once admired throughout the world.
Not in my name
In any parliamentary election there are winners and losers. Some people are happy with the results, some not. But usually people are prepared to live with the situation they are in – there have been no radical changes to the UK’s political system for centuries, and there have been remarkably few political assassinations, attacks on party offices or any of the other things associated with dysfunctional, polarised countries.
Partly this is due to the same post war consensus that built the land fit for heroes to live in, as one of the world’s great economies undoubtedly was for most. Partisan concerns were considered less important than the wider national interest. The only question was whether serving this or that interest group, with this or that priority, was more or less in the national interest at a given time.
This situation changed with the election of Margaret Thatcher as Conservative Party leader in 1975. For the first time most voters could remember, she pursued openly divisive policies, in which certain UK residents were classified as “good” and others “bad”.
The “good” people – those who had or earned a lot of money, who thought their success (or lack of it) was due to thrift and personal responsibility and who were traditional to the exclusion of those who weren’t – were to be rewarded. The “bad” people – those who worked in subsidised industries, the unemployed, the sick, single mothers, those who lived in poor areas – were responsible for all the problems of the country, and were to be punished for it.
Obviously such policies alienated many. The term “Thatcherism” and the name “Thatcher” still arouse strong emotions, positive and negative, amongst people who weren’t even around 40 years ago.
But even then, those who protested with a vehemence not seen for generations were fighting for “their” country, “their” communities and “their” futures. They may have disagreed violently with Mrs. Thatcher, and been branded as “bad” because of it, but they were still trying to work within the system, however differently they wanted that system to look.
Mrs. Thatcher was a long time ago. But the election of Boris Johnson has brought those days back – with a vengeance.
The debate over Brexit is about a lot more than Boris Johnson. But his sudden conversion to the Brexit cause, and loud stunts to further an argument he doesn’t really accept himself, have created divisions the UK has not seen within any living memory.
Many people who don’t agree with Boris Johnson feel his positions have so little to do with them that they don’t feel any connection with the country they have been citizens of all their lives. There is now a scramble for passports – any passport which isn’t a UK one.
Part of this is to do with people wanting to retain the privileges they have as EU citizens. But a larger part is because Boris is deliberately pandering to the sort of people most others don’t want to know.
It would be wrong to classify Leave voters as generally thick, ignorant, racist or aggressive. But only Boris Johnson has made these characteristics virtues, rather than negatives to be eradicated at public level.
It is this which has won him the support of those who feel that SOMEBODY, meaning the political system, sees them in this way. These same individuals feel that the Brexit referendum put them in charge, and they could wreak their revenge on everyone they didn’t like, simply because they identified them as “other.”
You can’t run a country this way, as those which have tried it have found. Eventually, as the Soviet Union discovered, you have to find room for everyone, or narrow prejudice is seen for what it is.
But prejudice makes more noise, so is more interesting for Boris Johnson. The only people Boris wants to live in the UK are the ones the country has previously tried to educate out of existence, for the common good. Everyone else can leave – and so alienated are that majority, that they are not motivated to do anything else.
Never again, until today
Ever since the Nazis were overthrown they have been a convenient stick to beat everyone with. If you don’t agree with how a person or institution is behaving, you accuse them of acting like the Nazis.
The UK has never known a time when the conduct of its government bears a stronger resemblance to that of Nazi Germany. The same unfounded prejudices which were exploited by the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum are being played on to an extent which will make them an unavoidable fundamental of public policy.
Leaving the EU is not going to resolve the problems people are blaming on EU membership. But having started down this road, the Johnson government will have no choice but to follow it, if it wants to retain the supporters it has gained, which it will need to do after alienating everyone else.
The EU was blamed for “uncontrolled immigration”, and the fact that poorer immigrants whose first language wasn’t English were living in British social housing, allegedly at the expense of needy locals. But if those same people do have jobs and funds, as they are obliged to have to move freely under EU law, this arouses even greater hostility.
The objection to foreigners is based on the idea that if they are foreign, they must automatically be bad people who are trying to undermine the UK. When the economic damage of Brexit fails to provide more jobs and social housing for UK natives, the only concept to pin anti-immigrant policies on will be how bad foreigners are, not the material benefits these policies will bring.
Similarly, the EU was depicted as imposing foreign laws on the UK. The implication of this was that the views of UK electors were being ignored by foreigners with contrary agendas, and British people had no say in what the EU did.
A UK elector elects one MP, for their own single member constituency. That MP may reflect their views and interests, or they may be from another party. As one of 650 MPs, that person will have minimal influence on the content of UK laws, passed by the British parliament, even if they are in government or serve on the select committees which debate the laws the voter is interested in.
The UK was one of only 28 EU members, and had a larger proportion of seats in the European parliament than most of the other members. These MEPs are elected proportionally, so UK voters had a much greater chance of influencing the EU than the UK parliament by electing an accountable person who could have represented their interests. In the other EU institutions the UK was one of 28 members, so even if you didn’t like any of your MEPs, you had someone from the UK government representing your national interest, at least as they saw it.
UK voters were more directly responsible for creating EU laws than they are for creating UK laws. Now they have “taken back control”, and they will progressively discover that their “democratic rights”, under the first past the post electoral system and a government which is openly hostile to those who don’t agree with the accepted line, and such rights are largely a delusion. When that happens, they will only be kept onside, if at all, by lauding the fact that these shifty foreigners have been removed from British decision-making, by the same crowd as before.
All this is not nationalism but pure Nazism. In order to keep it going when people grow disillusioned, as everyone does under any government after a while, the hatred has to be spread to everyone who disagrees with the system.
Most of those who fled Nazi Germany didn’t go back when the Nazis had gone. Those who had made the mistake were left with a lasting national guilt, simply because they were German. Johnson’s pandering to racism will rebound spectacularly when there is no one left to correct him, because they are trying their hardest not to have the same racial baggage as his supporters.
Ain’t no mountain loud enough
On January 31st the United Kingdom finally left the European Union. There now follows a year of negotiations which will define what that actually means, and years more of dealing with the problems that will create.
Unlike the former Soviet republics, the United Kingdom is not in a position where everything provided through the EU will disappear overnight. But as it has already discovered, there are nuances to that relationship which were imperfectly understood, remain problematic to resolve, and will create problems for the public which they did not foresee when they narrowly voted the way they did.
But Boris Johnson, this man of the media, is not interested in resolving these problems. His agenda remains, as ever, doing what will get him the most attention, as he did by suddenly going over to the Brexit side because it was more “gung ho” and “kick ass” then the boring technical arguments being used to keep the UK as it was.
Johnson’s only policy idea is spending lots of money, which he also claims the country hasn’t got, because that makes him look better. His only political idea is to pander to the people who shout the loudest and most aggressively, and cause as many problems as he can along the way, because that gets publicity, which is all about him.
All this makes developing a positive future for the UK after Brexit a difficult task. Inevitably, it will involve addressing detailed questions which fall out of the news after a while, because those details are too complex and boring. As Johnson demonstrated daily when Mayor of London, if there is no noise to be made, he kicks any commitment into the long grass.
Brexit will never “get done” because Boris and his supporters won’t find it interesting any more. Simply hating foreigners, and everyone who disagrees with doing this, will remain interesting to them, but not forever.
No UK Prime Minister since his beloved Second World War has ever set out to create a country where everything once considered a virtue is superseded by everything once considered a vice. But this is Boris’ wilful policy, and having started he won’t be able to stop. So like post-war Germany, the UK is headed for eventually accepting a “Reconstruction,” imposed exclusively by foreigners, to re-join the rest of the world. Is that what his voters really want?
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.