The Conservative party has a problem. And it isn’t the problem that first comes to mind. Islamophobia, lack of leadership or a ‘nasty party’ reputation do not pose the same existential threat as that which is rotting this institution from the inside out. The Tories’ problem is buried so deeply that it remains unnamed. Which means it remains not only unaddressed but even undenied. Despite this, it remains hidden in plain sight, openly feasting on the fetid carapace of an ideology that I have never liked, but at least always respected. Or at least used to. The root of the problem is a small faction of fundamentalist, highly radicalised zealots who are murdering the party in a blasphemous manipulation of its core values. These are of course the Reactionaries of the ERG/Hard Brexit faction.
The failure of the Tory party to identify early on that these people are not ‘Conservatives’ may well yet lead Britain blindly off a cliff. We may fall to the sunlit uplands of a new Bolder Brighter Britain, or we may cripple many generations with the sins of the father (though I am sure Sextus will be fine) but no-one knows. And the problem is, that is neither conservative not Conservative. Reactionaryism is nothing new. The Luddites – machine-breaking artisans of the British Industrial Revolution, who would smash factory equipment and leave notes signed ‘Ned Ludd’ sought to arrest the progress of mine and mill and reverse the irreversible. The term now is used for a certain type of technophobic fuddy-duddy, but the reality of history anything but quaint. Often the Army was deployed to stop their actions.
Reactionaryism is fundamentally different to Conservatism. Conservatism is ‘the ideology of imperfection’; it seeks to preserve the best of the past while accepting that, history, like shit, happens. Change will occur and it is the job of the conservative, through respect and understanding of the past to shape and temper that incrementally to preserve continuity and the best of what has gone before, in the context of a humble acceptance of its inevitability. As Mark Lila, one of the best thinkers on this subject puts it,
“the conservative is (also) reconciled to the fact that history never stands still and that we are only passing through. Conservatism seeks to instil the humble thought that history moves us forward, not the other way around”
By contrast, the reactionary is the Cher of politics; If only she can turn back time, things will be great again. The frothing, rabid, fundamentalists of Brexit draw their legitimacy from our shared past which allows them to masquerade as Conservatives, whilst tearing apart shared institutions and values, and driving a cleft through the middle of their party and our country. The modern Britain that has developed since World War Two, (with apologies to Billy Joel) the Britain of NHS, Windrush. Vindaloo, butternut squash. TUC, BBC, David Bowie, Maggie T may not to be everyone’s tastes, but it was ours and is now also part of our tradition. They draw instead on older myths of (English) sovereignty and a Britain that never was, to legitimise the complete destruction of the current state of things. Rhetoric about ‘taking back control’ and sovereignty are a smokescreen for their desperation to erase the visible signs in our society of progress.This is a revolutionary ideology of the right, not Conservatism. Whilst claiming to be the guardians of tradition, they rip at the very seams of British society. At least Farage never hid that when he declared the referendum our ‘Independence Day’.
Reactionarism is an idea that is becoming increasingly widespread. From Trump, to Orban to Golden Dawn, there are politicians and parties of the ‘right’ who are borrowing from the playbook of the radical left to fling us backwards into a mythical past, destroying hard-won, incremental progressive victories. One of the great strengths of Conservative ideologies is that, in spite, or perhaps because of their suspicion of change, those that do stick become canonical. A Conservative would be unlikely to abolish the NHS, but a Reactionary would happily tear it down, claiming they were taking us back to a better time of medical independence and giving a ‘Free and True Englishmen’ the hard-won right to die in their own piss. You could argue there is a strain of the same ‘back-to-the-future’ iconoclasm in the Islamic State, the first experiment in reactionary Statehood.
Now I do not suggest that we are likely to see Jacob Rees-Mogg performing a Facebook live beheading – though I have a feeling he would bring back the death penalty – but if I was a true Conservative I would be worried. The once-great party is being hijacked, and it is to the detriment of the whole body politic, not just the right, and the current atmosphere is so febrile that no-one dares call it out. But if any Tories out there read this, and they care at all about their country – the Britain we all live in now, not some fictionalised, whitewashed past – then they must. This has gone on too long and it is a danger for all of us.
(As ever here, un-proofed, unedited, and as is….)
The Daily Mash headline said it all. UK now officially assigned ‘clown country’ status.
The Mash has a habit of being spot on when it comes to the British cultural zeitgeist. For those not wholly familiar, it’s the Onion with more self-loathing (and all the better for it). Other than permanent joke status, Brexit has revealed a few interesting truths and brought some others into sharp focus. I didn’t want to write about it immediately. I have also been reluctant to take on the subject after a rather long hiatus from blogging (thanks damn promotion and extra responsibilities and adult shit). It’s a topic that everyone is currently doing to death (like a snuff film starring ‘Horizontal Breton Stripes’) whilst all the while doing greater justice to it than I will.
So yes, anyway, fear of globalization, the rise of nationalism in a world that is becoming post-national, sharp divides between interconnected cities and alienated hinterlands, the unintended consequences of ‘political correctness gone mad’ and the need for the right to offend and therefore discuss openly – else the publicly enforced taboos of ‘liberal fascism’ drive up pressure that then needs to finds a Haider, Trump or Farrage shaped valve.
So… in no real order and with little to really stitch this together, some thoughts…
We live in an echo chamber
Almost everyone I personally know expressed ‘surprise’. Investment banks were briefing their clients the night before that there was no chance that Britain would leave. Let me spell this out; if you were surprised, then it goes a long way to explaining why it happened. The ever-decreasing levels of social mobility make our peer groups ever less diverse. Universities, where many of those who were ‘surprised’ met their partners are increasingly stratified and less mixed. We spend most of our time with ‘people like us’.
Our information sources, digitally and socially plough and ever-narrower funnel thanks to an ever-fractalised media landscape that allows us to pick from more and more niche voices. I gave up reading the Guardian and follow UKIP-ers on Twitter to try and combat this very danger. Increasing choice means that we increasingly choose ‘people like us’ and voices that we agree with. Which means the grievances of so many, their fears, hopes, aspirations and ambitions are ignored by those who have never met someone like them and who are in positions of political, economic or cultural power.
This is bigger than how many Etonions are in the cabinet; its how many London-raised-lefty liberal are in our professional classes. From Westminster and Whitehall to the figurative ‘Fleet Street’ and ad agencies of Soho. The problem is as much in the middle as it is at the very top.
I’ll repeat the point in clearer terms – if you are angry with those who disagreed with you in this vote- you are an undemocratic, unfeeling, narrow-sighted fool, lacking in empathy and have undoubtedly helped cause this problem.
Am I surprised? No. Disappointed? Terribly
Debate is in the gutter
People, particularly those who align on the ‘lazy left’/’liberal fascist’ end of the spectrum – and I count myself as a rehabilitated past offender – are not willing to engage. Discussion has in the past been about testing and exploring ideas, using the didactic to torture test ideas; there is good Orwell quote in one of his essays about totalitarian ideas never taking root in Britain because of a natural skepticism towards dogmatic beliefs and principles. This is no longer the case. Rather than discuss, people draw lines in the sand. Those who don’t agree with you are idiots. Empathy and exchange has been sucked out of public politics and I have no idea how we get that back. No longer do people disagree with what you say, but defend to the death your right to say it, nor the obligation to constructively debate it.
In all honesty, I find that the left is guiltier of this, with smug assumptive assertions that usually start with “Of course we all know…”
I have had more personally rewarding and intellectually illuminating conversations with those who’s view lie far to the right of my own wooly, social-democratic thinking. Drawing battle lines doesn’t help people to progress or to get to solutions.
Truth is now multiple, not singular
Following on from the death constructive debate – the idea that two (or more) sides engaging with a subject matter, will through that dialectic move towards greater knowledge and human wisdom. Instead there has been a collapse in the hierarchy of information. Which has given us Citizen Journalism and SBTV. Which is awesome. But it has also led to the frightening but correct assertion by Micheal Gove that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Fragmented media landscape, collapsing barriers to ‘broadcasting’ (including in its widest sense, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and other digital soapboxes) and decreasing trust in established sources leads to a vertical suspicion that undermines facts and the idea of a singular truth.
This is post-enlightenment skepticism on steroids, where once the questioning was meant to bring us to a higher truth, but instead now is an ends in itself. Doubt is cast over everything and people believe nothing. Everything is equally (in)valid, negating debate and leaving us with the mudslinging, as above, and meaning that a new definition of a ‘fact’ is ‘something you say to support what you want to believe or hear’. This was put to great effect by the Brexit campaign itself. But they were right, once people stop believing in ‘expertise’ they rapidly get sick of experts, as we are all one now.
(I blame the internet – after all this is me pretending I am an expert whilst I type)
A victory for voting and a defeat for democracy?
An X in a box, particularly for a referendum is not where democracy starts and ends. But hopefully this can provide new impetus to rehabilitate some of the other key bits. Civil Society is as important as casting a vote, and we need to get broader engagement as well as a high caliber of debate. The potential split of the Labour party could be a huge boost for this, as would a move towards PR. However those I have spoken to who from mainstream Labour and the Corbyn side are behaving like toddlers. The talk is possessive – lots of ‘our party’ ‘the people’. It sounds dangerously like the language of totalitarianism on both sides. Its not going to help get over the long-term decline in respect for politicians. Lets not forget if they were really greedy and self-interested, there are easier, less high profile and high-pressure ways to get ones snout in much bigger troughs. Likewise the press needs to raise its game. For all the issues with phone hacking and ethics, the UK press is one of the most vibrant in the world and is a key element of an active functioning democracy. With gutter debate, multiple truth and journalists in their own echo chamber we need Fleet Street to up its game and provide clear voices to provoke constructive debate and honest reporting that can begin to rehabilitate the quaint old notion of a ‘fact’. Never let a good story get in the way of a truth?
Currently resident in Singapore, I have to constantly defend the idea of democracy because we got the ‘wrong answer’. Fundamentally, I don’t believe that there is a ‘wrong answer’ in a popular vote, but I do believe that the rest of our public sphere needs rehabilitation
Remainers will leave
Whether geo-politically in the case of Scotland, rhetorically and culturally in the case of London, or literally in the case of many of those individuals who voted for their own transnational world view; those who see themselves as a citizen of the world as well as a subject of Britain will be making their own Brexits. The last category, the individuals who cause the spike in emigration searches, is in many respects the most worrying. It is those who are most mobile, most globally marketable and potentially most valuable to a Splendid Isolation global trading Britain who will be first out the door.
Conversely the influx that has made Britain so vibrant and has fuelled growth will stop. Whether the laws change or not, the rhetoric, no matter how many times Sadiq might say otherwise is that we are closed, and that is a dangerous position for a country who’s most important export in the 21st century is ideas