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He was the future once

David Cameron and the struggle to be modern.

By the end of this year, David Cameron will have served longer as Conservative leader than his three most recent predecessors put together. If he makes it as far as a May 2015 general election, he will have held on to the job for nearly a decade.

Longevity would be an advantage for a prime minister in command of his party, running a competent administration and presiding over a benign economy. Cameron is none of those things. He also wears the shopworn look badly because his leadership was founded on the pledge to be modern.

This is no minor point of style. The Cameron project was conceived in the middle of the last decade as a re-enactment of Tony Blair’s march on power in the mid-1990s. A metropolitan cult of renewal was central to that ambition. So was complacency about the economic outlook. Tories today deride Gordon Brown’s boast about having eliminated the boom-bust cycle, yet the scale of Labour’s hubris is also a measure of Cameron’s credulity. His only economic policy was to share the proceeds of growth. Before the crash, he and George Osborne matched Brown’s spending plans. That was another country. It was “Cool Britannia”, the republic of swinging urbanity whose coronation party was New Labour’s 1997 landslide victory and whose crown Cameron was claiming when he declared of Blair, in their first parliamentary confrontation in 2005, “He was the future – once!”

The opposite of Cool Britannia is Ukip Rising. There are many reasons why support for a fringe party might soar after the financial crisis: frozen wages, shrinking services and climbing living costs. The Tories are in charge of a mess. Labour is too keenly remembered as the author of the mess to look like the obvious remedy. The Liberal Democrats, once a receptacle for protest votes, are disqualified by incumbency.

Yet Nigel Farage’s new celebrity describes more than a groundswell of economic malaise. Many of his voters suffer under straitened circumstances but many do not. Much flirting with Ukip goes on in affluent shire constituencies and in the pages of Tory-leaning newspapers. It is this component, animating the rebellious urges of Conservative MPs, that gives Farage’s insurgency an infusion of establishment respectability even when it claims to be anti-establishment. Farage’s best hope of a parliamentary breakthrough is a Tory defection in a safe seat.

Cultural revanchism is more important as a driver of Ukip’s fortunes than financial distress. The party appeals to resentment of social changes that began before New Labour but accelerated under it. Ukip pines for a country that was ethnically less diverse, in which homosexuality was a guilty secret and where women did not work in the same jobs and for the same pay as men.

Farage gives those who are struggling to adapt to changing times permission to blame someone else. He indulges the suspicion that smug, effeminate, multicultural liberals victimise straight, white folk. Their instruments of oppression are European integration, human rights law, environmentalism and “political correctness”. The ultimate symbol of bien-pensant colonisation is the ban on smoking in pubs.

When the Tories were in opposition, cultural refugees from the new liberal-left social consensus could cherish the hope that a Conservative prime minister might bring cultural restitution. Then along came Cameron’s clique of west London fops, legislating for gay marriage and referring to the party’s stalwart activists as “swivel-eyed loons”. To the disinherited fringe, Cameron’s “modernisation” felt like a continuation of the reviled Blair-Brown occupation. (The reliance on Labour MPs to pass the same-sex marriage legislation reinforces the sense of conspiracy.) No wonder Farage’s rallying cry is territorial. He urges his supporters to “take our country back”.

The Ukip leader’s act of wounded disenfranchisement infuriates pro-Cameron Tories. Farage, they point out, is the son of a stockbroker who went to public school and worked in the City. He causes the most mischief in southern Tory seats, which have escaped the worst of the recession. “We indulge these people by saying they’ve been given nothing,” a senior Conservative adviser says. “How many Ukip supporters have second homes in Marbella?”

Not so many, actually. Opinion polls show that Ukip voters are more likely to earn below the national average than Tories. They are also disproportionately white, male, over 60 and without a university education. Frustrated Tory moderates are right to the extent that backbench rebellion with a Ukip flavour – urging withdrawal from the European Union; recoiling from gay marriage – is a more popular sport among MPs with comfortable majorities. Conservatives in unsafe seats are more likely to have urban and non-white constituents who preferred Cameron when he was changing his party. They are not seduced by reactionary venom.

While Ukip can pick up votes from across the political spectrum with a menu of complaints about crime, immigration and Europe, Tories shorten their reach by chasing the same agenda. People expect different things from a protest party and a serious party of government. They might mistrust the EU, yet still be put off when Conservatives harp on about nothing else. Farage’s function is to channel disappointment with the turn that the nation has taken. Cameron’s job is to convince the country that he has set it on the right track. They are incompatible aims.

Labour has a variation of the same problem. When Ed Miliband became leader of his party, he expected to have a monopoly on opposition. He also judged that the Conservatives, under the haughty command of Cameron and his millionaire chums, would struggle to win the affections of low- and middle-income families on which the burden of austerity falls hardest. Miliband was right to identify the “squeezed middle” as the vital electoral audience but wrong to think he could have it to himself.

In recent by-elections, Ukip has proved capable of eating into potential Labour support, including in northern seats – Rotherham and South Shields – that are no-go areas for Tories. A right-wing populist movement that targets immigration and welfare is plainly a threat to Labour when those are the issues in which its record in government is deemed most toxic.

The decay of a working-class base has strengthened the hand of those around Miliband who urge a “Blue Labour” emphasis on traditional values – community, family, civic pride and patriotism. According to this view, the Blair-Brown years were spoiled by capitulation to market forces and government by remote bureaucracy. That led to fatal atrophy in the connection between the state and its citizens.

There are two problems with this school. First, it trades in evanescent language that won’t be moulded into campaign slogans. Second, it is nostalgic for a spirit of left solidarity that is unfamiliar to many voters and so contains no accessible guide to what the next Labour government might feel like.

Miliband is fond of saying that his greatest adversary is fatalism, by which he means voters despairing of the potential for politics to solve their problems and so surrendering to austerity. His “one nation” creed is meant to counter that threat with an uplifting offer of economic reconstruction. Yet Labour’s more prominent message is rejection of cuts and horror at their consequences, combined with the cagiest acknowledgement that spending restraint is inevitable. Miliband’s optimistic rhetoric is sabotaged by the tacit pessimism of indecision. It is as if the party is not articulating a vision of the future because the prospect of governing with little money is too grim to contemplate. As one shadow cabinet minister tells me: “We’re complaining about the conditions on the ship. We’re not getting across the sense that the ship needs to be going in a different direction.”

Miliband still has a more plausible claim on the future than Cameron. Labour supporters are younger and more diverse. The Tories’ inability to reach voters in northern cities and its toxicity to immigrant communities is lethal. It raises the spectre of what one Conservative strategist calls “the Mitt Romney problem” – a reference to the demographic decline in the core Republican vote that risks locking the American right out of the White House for the foreseeable future. Tories would do well to heed the blunt assessment by the South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham of his party’s prospects: “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” For Cameron, it is worse. He is splitting the angry-whiteguy vote with Ukip.

Cameron wants to tell a forward-looking story about equipping Britain to compete in the “global race”. This is at heart a liberal message of openness and international engagement. It is drowned out by the noisier tom-toms in the Tory party, sounding the retreat from the 21st century. The troops are regrouping as a dispossessed army of ageing, vanquished culture warriors.

The prevailing tone of British politics is alarmed by the present, ashamed of the recent past and obsessed with romantic retellings of an imaginary past anterior. The vacancy for a leader who projects credible optimism about what comes next is unfilled. For Cameron, this is now an almost impossible task. He is defined in the public eye as a man who tried to be modern and failed. He spent his sunniest phrases in the early years of his leadership peddling a complacent brand of optimism that was defunct before he even entered Downing Street. Any politician is lucky to be feted as the future once. Cameron cannot be the future twice.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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A nervous breakdown in the body politic

Are we too complacent in thinking that the toxic brew of paranoia and populism that brought Hitler to power will never be repeated?

The conventional wisdom holds that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, in Edmund Burke’s familiar phrase; but this is at best a half-truth. Studying the biography of a moral monster triumphantly unleashed on the political and international stage points us to another perspective, no less important. What is necessary for the triumph of evil is that the ground should have been thoroughly prepared by countless small or not-so-small acts of petty malice, unthinking prejudice and collusion. Burke’s axiom, though it represents a powerful challenge to apathy, risks crediting evil with too much of a life of its own: out there, there are evil agencies, hostile to “us”, and we (good men and women) must mobilise to resist.

No doubt; but mobilising intelligently demands being willing to ask what habits and assumptions, as well as what chances and conditions, have made possible the risk of evil triumphing. And that leads us into deep waters, to a recognition of how what we tolerate or ignore or underestimate opens the way for disaster, the ways in which we are at least half-consciously complicit. If this is not to be the silly we-are-all-guilty response that has rightly been so much mocked, nor an absolution for the direct agents of great horrors, it needs a careful and unsparing scrutiny of the processes by which cultures become corruptible, vulnerable to the agendas of damaged and obsessional individuals.

This can be uncomfortable. It raises the awkward issue of what philosophers have learned to call “moral luck” – the fact that some people with immense potential for evil don’t actualise it, because the circumstances don’t present them with the chance, and that some others who might have spent their lives in blameless normality end up supervising transports to Auschwitz. Or, to take a sharply contemporary example, that one Muslim youth from a disturbed or challenging background becomes a suicide bomber but another from exactly the same background doesn’t. It is as though there were a sort of diabolical mirror image for the biblical Parable of the Sower: some seeds grow and some don’t, depending on the ground they fall on, or what chance external stimulus touches them at critical moments.

If what interests us is simply how to assign individuals rapidly and definitively to the categories of sheep and goats, saved and damned, this is offensively frustrating. But if we recognise that evil is in important respects a shared enterprise, we may be prompted to look harder at those patterns of behaviour and interaction that – in the worst cases – give permission to those who are most capable of extreme destructiveness, and to examine our personal, political and social life in the light of this.

***

It would be possible to argue that the anti-Semitism of a lot of German culture – as of European Christian culture overall – was never (at least in the modern period) genocidal and obsessed with absolute racial purity; limited but real possibilities of integration were taken for granted, converts to Christianity were not disadvantaged merely because of their race, and so on. Yet the truth is that this cultural hinterland offered a foothold to the mania of Adolf Hitler; that it gave him just enough of the permission he needed to identify his society’s problems with this clearly definable “alien” presence. In his new book, Hitler: the Ascent, Volker Ullrich compellingly tells us once again that no one could have been under any illusion about Hitler’s general intentions towards the Jews from his very first appearance as a political figure, even if the detailed planning of genocide (lucidly traced in the late David Cesarani’s recent, encyclopaedic Final Solution) took some time to solidify. Yet so much of the German public heard Hitler’s language as the slightly exaggerated version of a familiar trope and felt able to treat it as at worst an embarrassing overstatement of a common, even a common-sense, view. One of the most disturbing things about this story is the failure of so many (inside and outside Germany) to grasp that Hitler meant what he said; and this failure in turn reinforced the delusion of those who thought they could use and then sideline Hitler.

To say that Hitler “meant what he said”, however, can be misleading. It is one of the repeated and focal themes in Ullrich’s book that Hitler was a brazen, almost compulsive liar – or, perhaps better, a compulsive and inventive actor, devising a huge range of dramatic roles for himself: frustrated artist, creative patron, philosopher-king (there is a fine chapter on the intellectual and artistic circle he assembled frequently at his Berchtesgaden residence), workers’ friend, martyr for his people (he constantly insinuated that he believed himself doomed to a tragic and premature death), military or economic messiah and a good deal else besides. His notorious outbursts of hysterical rage seem to have been skilfully orchestrated as instruments of intimidation (though this did not exactly indicate that he was otherwise predictable). Ullrich devotes a fair measure of attention to the literal staging of National Socialism, the architectural gigantism of Albert Speer which gave the Führer the sophisticated theatre he craved. In all sorts of ways, Hitler’s regime was a profoundly theatrical exercise, from the great public displays at Nuremberg and the replanning of Berlin to the various private fantasies enacted by him and his close associates (Göring above all), and from the emotional roller coaster he created for his circle to the dangerously accelerated rate of military-industrial expansion with which he concealed the void at the centre of the German economy.

Theatre both presupposes and creates a public. In the anxiety and despair of post-Versailles Germany, there was a ready audience for the high drama of Nazism, including its scapegoating of demonic enemies within and without. And in turn, the shrill pitch of Hitler’s quasi-liturgies normalised a whole set of bizarre and fantastic constructions of reality. A N Wilson’s challenging novel Winnie and Wolf, a fantasia on Hitler’s relations with Winifred Wagner, culminates in a scene at the end of the war where refugees and destitute citizens in Bayreuth raid the wardrobe of the opera house and wander the streets dressed in moth-eaten costumes; it is an unforgettable metaphor for one of the effects of Hitlerian theatre. Ullrich leaves his readers contemplating the picture of a vast collective drama centred on a personality that was not – as some biographers have suggested – something of a cipher, but that of a fantasist on a grand scale, endowed with a huge literal and metaphorical budget for staging his work.

All of this prompts questions about how it is that apparently sophisticated political systems succumb to corporate nervous breakdowns. It is anything but an academic question in a contemporary world where theatrical politics, tribal scapegoating and variegated confusions about the rule of law are increasingly in evidence. On this last point, it is still shocking to realise how rapidly post-Versailles Germany came to regard violent public conflict between heavily armed militias as almost routine, and this is an important background to the embittered negotiations later on around the relation between Hitler’s Sturmabteilung and the official organs of state coercion. Ullrich’s insightful account of a de facto civil war in Bavaria in the early 1920s makes it mercilessly plain that any pretensions to a state monopoly of coercion in Germany in this period were empty.

Yet the idea of such a state monopoly is in fact essential to anything that could be called a legitimate democracy. In effect, the polity of the Third Reich “privatised” coer­cion: again and again in Ullrich’s book, in the struggles for power before 1933, we see Nazi politicians successfully bidding for control of the mechanisms of public order in the German regions, and more or less franchising public order to their own agencies. A classical democratic political philosophy would argue that the state alone has the right to use force because the state is the guarantor of every community’s and every individual’s access to redress for injury or injustice. If state coercion becomes a tool for any one element in the social complex, it loses legitimacy. It is bound up with the rule of law, which is about something more than mere majority consent. One way of reading the rise of Hitler and National Socialism is as the steady and consistent normalising of illegitimate or partisan force, undermining any concept of an independent guarantee of lawfulness in society. It is the deliberate dissolution of the idea of a Rechtsstaat, a law-governed state order that can be recognised by citizens as organised for their common and individual good. Rule by decree, the common pattern of Nazi governmental practice, worked in harness with law enforcement by a force that was essentially a toxic hybrid, combining what was left of an independent police operation with a highly organised party militia system.

So, one of the general imperatives with which Hitler’s story might leave us is the need to keep a clear sense of what the proper work of the state involves. Arguments about the ideal “size” of the state are often spectacularly indifferent to the basic question of what the irreducible functions of state authority are – and so to the question of what cannot be franchised or delegated to non-state actors (it is extraordinary that we have in the UK apparently accepted without much debate the idea that prison security can be sold off to private interests). This is not the same as saying that privatisation in general leads to fascism; the issues around the limits to state direction of an economy are complex. However, a refusal to ask some fundamental questions about the limits of “franchising” corrodes the idea of real democratic legitimacy – the legitimacy that arises from an assurance to every citizen that, whatever their convictions or their purchasing power, the state is there to secure their access to justice. And, connected with this, there are issues about how we legislate: what are the proper processes of scrutiny for legislation, and how is populist and short-view legislation avoided? The Third Reich offers a masterclass in executive tyranny, and we need not only robust and intelligent counter-models, but a clear political theory to make sense of and defend those models.

***

Theatre has always been an aspect of the political. But there are different kinds of theatre. In ancient Athens, the annual Dionysia festival included the performance of tragedies that forced members of the audience to acknowledge the fragility of the political order and encouraged them to meditate on the divine interventions that set a boundary to vendetta and strife. Classical tragedy is, as political theatre, the exact opposite of Hitlerian drama, which repeatedly asserted the solid power of the Reich, the overcoming of weakness and division by the sheer, innate force of popular will as expressed through the Führer.

Contemporary political theatre is not – outside the more nakedly totalitarian states – a matter of Albert Speer-like spectacle and affirmation of a quasi-divine leader; but it is increasingly the product of a populist-oriented market, the parading of celebrities for popular approval, with limited possibilities for deep public discussion of policies advanced, and an assumption that politicians will be, above all, performers. It is not – to warn once again against cliché and exaggeration – that celebrity culture in politics is a short route to fascism. But a political theatre that never deals with the fragility of the context in which law and civility operate, that never admits the internal flaws and conflicts of a society, and never allows some corporate opening-up to the possibilities of reconciliation and reparation, is one that exploits, rather than resolves our anxieties. And, as such, it makes us politically weaker, more confused and fragmented.

The extraordinary mixture of farce and menace in Donald Trump’s campaign is a potent distillation of all this: a political theatre, divorced from realism, patience and human solidarity, bringing to the surface the buried poisons of a whole system and threatening its entire viability and rationality. But it is an extreme version of the way in which modern technology-and-image-driven communication intensifies the risks that beset the ideals of legitimate democracy.

And – think of Trump once again – one of the most seductively available tricks of such a theatre is the rhetoric of what could be called triumphant victimhood: we are menaced by such and such a group (Jews, mig­rants, Muslims, Freemasons, international business, Zionism, Marxism . . .), which has exerted its vast but covert influence to destroy us; but our native strength has brought us through and, given clear leadership, will soon, once and for all, guarantee our safety from these nightmare aliens.

***

This is a rhetoric that depends on ideas of collective guilt or collective malignity: plots ascribed to the agency of some dangerous minority are brandished in order to tarnish the name of entire communities. The dark legacy of much popular Christian language about collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus could be translated without much difficulty into talk about the responsibility of Jews for the violence and poverty afflicting Germans in the 1920s. (Shadows of the same myths still affect the way in which – as recent reports suggest – sinister, vague talk about Zionism and assumptions of a collective Jewish guilt for the actions of various Israeli politicians can become part of a climate that condones anti-Semitic bullying, or text messages saying “Hitler had a point”, on university campuses.)

Granted that there is no shortage of other candidates for demonic otherness in Europe and the United States (witness Trump’s language about Muslims and Mexicans), the specific and abiding lesson of Nazi anti-Semitism is the twofold recognition of the ease with which actually disadvantaged communities can be cast in the role of all-powerful subverters, and the way in which the path to violent exclusion of one kind or another can be prepared by cultures of casual bigotry and collective anxiety or self-pity, dramatised by high-temperature styles of media communication.

Marie Luise Knott’s recent short book Unlearning With Hannah Arendt (2014) revisits the controversy over Arendt’s notorious characterisation of the mindset of Nazism as “the banality of evil”, and brilliantly shows how her point is to do with the erosion in Hitlerian Germany of the capacity to think, to understand one’s agency as answerable to more than public pressure and fashion, to hold to notions of honour and dignity independent of status, convention or influence – but also, ultimately, the erosion of a sense of the ridiculous. The victory of public cliché and stereotype is, in Arendt’s terms, a protection against reality, “against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence”, as she memorably wrote in The Life of the Mind. Hitler was committed to the destruction of anything that challenged the simple self-identity and self-justification of the race and the nation; hence, as Ullrich shows in an acutely argued chapter of Hitler: a Biography, the Führer’s venom against the churches, despite their (generally) embarrassingly lukewarm resistance to the horrors of the Reich. The problem was that the churches’ rationale entailed just that accountability to more than power and political self-identity that Nazi philosophy treated as absolute. They had grounds for thinking Nazism not only evil, but absurd. Perhaps, then, one of the more unexpected questions we are left with by a study of political nightmare such as Ullrich’s excellent book is how we find the resources for identifying the absurd as well as for clarifying the grounds of law and honour.

The threats now faced by “developed” democracy are not those of the 1920s and 1930s; whatever rough beasts are on their way are unlikely to have the exact features of Hitler’s distinctive blend of criminality and melodrama. But this does not mean that we shouldn’t be looking as hard as we can at the lessons to be learned from the collapse of political legality, the collective panics and myths, the acceptance of delusional and violent public theatre that characterised Hitler’s Germany. For evil to triumph, what is necessary is for societies to stop thinking, to stop developing an eye for the absurd as well as the corrupt in language and action, public or private.

Hitler: a Biography – Volume I: Ascent by Volker Ullrich is published by the Bodley Head

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism