A few days ago in Knowsley on Merseyside, a far right protest outside a hotel accommodating asylum seekers ended in violence with a police van being set on fire. It is claimed that hundreds of far right protesters broke through police cordons and surrounded and intimidated people who had gone along to support the asylum seekers.
Stoking hatred against asylum seekers
It is easy – and at a basic level correct – to blame this on the mounting rhetoric of a government that appears to be quite deliberately stoking hatred against desperate people crossing the channel to reach Britain. Politicians like the home secretary – who could quite easily end the crossings by allowing processing of asylum claims in France – prefer instead to promote the absurd fiction that these desperate people, usually the victims of traffickers, are somehow an invasion or a threat to our borders.
Backbench Conservative MPs take to social media to publish the locations where asylum seekers are located, while denying that what they call ‘providing public information’ is in any sense incitement. Suella Braverman’s post-riot statement – with its implication that the asylum seekers had brought the hatred on themselves – plumbed new depths for a home secretary who already has a track-record of inflammatory rhetoric.
The fact that the large majority of those who arrive here actually win through the tortuous legal processes necessary to achieve asylum stands as testimony to the absurdity of the claims routinely made by politicians and newspapers of the Right.
Ideology of Brexitism
But there’s a much bigger story here. I have little doubt that the scenes in Knowsley were Brexit at work – a manifestation of what the ideology of Brexitism and its insistence on ‘taking back control’ have empowered. In the face of the transactional disaster of Brexit – the fact that even its loudest promoters are beginning to understand that it is an economic disaster – this is all that it has left; the populist racist fantasies that always underpinned – without in any way being the whole story – the ideology of ‘taking back control’.
As evidence of Brexit’s economic failure mounts, its ideological aspects come to the fore. For the true believers, Brexit is subjective; a state of mind, a view of the world, something that is felt. And ‘taking back control’ is about giving the illusion of agency to people who have never had a stake in the political system; the people that do not do politics, but who politics is done to.
And in that subjectivity lies both Brexit’s strength and its weakness. It was its strength when Vote Leave campaigners wanted to harness the myriad discontents and exclusions in contemporary British society and give them form as the desire to ‘take back control’. Its weakness because, as soon as you try to deliver it, or to ‘make it work’ it disappears.
Taking back control
‘Taking back control’ is – obviously – about agency. And, in the case of the narratives of the authoritarian populism that Brexit represents, it is about the will of the people unfettered by complexity, or ambiguity, or the sense that there is more than one side to a question, or that democratic politics is always about trade-offs and compromise and working to build consensus. It is about the triumph of raw feeling, untrammelled by the need to think or empathise, given political voice.
In particular, once you persuade people that ‘human rights’ is something that oppresses and constrains them, rather than liberating and empowering them, you are empowering mob violence. And that is what happened that night in Knowsley.
Brexit was always one part of a much wider culture war; a project of hard-right populism. And it’s one in which the main Westminster opposition party, Labour, has run up the white flag. Its slogan of ‘make Brexit work’ is an acceptance of the politics as well as the economics of Brexit. If nothing else, it’s a tacit acceptance that it’s just fine with the political project that Brexit enshrined – even if the news of secret talks between government and opposition about Brexit suggests that politicians across the divide are beginning to understand the scale of Brexit’s transactional failures.
Appeasing the populism of Brexit Britain
Moreover, Labour’s language and iconography – the posing in front of the Union Flag, its use of the rhetoric of ‘hard working families’ and the language of flag, work and family – increasingly echo, in an uncomfortably precise way, the iconography of mid-20th century movements of the European hard right. Its leadership appears to have taken a clear decision to appease, not to oppose, the nationalist authoritarian populism that lies at the heart of the politics of Brexitism. Its attempt to appropriate that infamous slogan ‘take back control’ demonstrates as much.
One of the things that Labour has to learn – indeed, that all Westminster politicians complicit in Brexit have to learn – is that if you choose to hold a match over an open petrol can, you don’t get to blame someone else for the fire.
I see no awareness from the generality of Westminster politicians that the United Kingdom is living in exceptionally dangerous political times; that the ‘sovereignty’ that Brexit celebrates is little more than the right for a majority in parliament to pass authoritarian legislation without let or hinderance, with no grounds for hope that an incoming Labour government will understand the need for fundamental constitutional change if anything like liberal democracy is going to survive in these islands.
The horrible events in Knowsley are what Brexit Britain is now. A society in which a failing Westminster is united around an illiberal consensus, which, in the name of ‘honouring’ a flawed referendum, seems wholly comfortable with giving a free pass to the ideology on display at Knowsley.
One does not need to read very much history to know where that kind of intellectual and moral appeasement can lead.