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30 March 2017

Ben Okri: Brexit is Iago’s paradise

Politicians have become Iago figures, using passion and rhetoric to drown out the Othellos. Justice and civil rights are being rubbed out along the way.

By Ben Okri

One has lost all faith in the older generation to speak powerfully for what is going wrong in the mood of the times. Their liberalism has proved half-hearted and increasingly limp. Sweeping across the nation, and possibly across the Western world, is an erosion of notions of justice. In country after country it has become standard for politicians to speak out against the immigrant, the Muslim, the foreigner. In Britain, the multicultural dialogue is all but dead.

During the dimly conducted Brexit debates the national stage was taken over by Iago figures, reconfigured as politicians. Brexit is Iago’s dream. At last he had a legitimised stage on which to speak with force. Iago has all the passion, all the force of rhetoric, in Shakespeare’s Othello. All the other decent people speak in muted tones, so that the voice that rings out loudest is the one against our common humanity.

It seems to me that the whole discourse on Brexit was conducted in code. “Immigrant” was code for all perceived foreigners. “Getting our country back” was code for turning back the clock. “The revolt of Middle England” was code for nostalgia about empire. Politicians consciously speak a double language, a coded language, for those who want all the fruits of empire but none of the moral consequences, those who want Britain to be white again like it appeared to be in their dim childhood.

Maybe this is why few politicians spoke with force against the loud and powerful Iago voices that seized the stage and altered the nation’s destiny for ever. Maybe it was because these politicians felt themselves secretly in agreement. Maybe it was because, quietly, through language, a powerlessness had been spread through the land, disabling the voices of those who were being demonised so that they could not speak, for fear that they would somehow make the discussion worse. It was quite a sight to see so many Othellos during the Brexit debate publicly agreeing with the Iagos.

Brexit is somehow seen as the revenge of the neglected. But who was the revenge directed at? It is always the other. It is always the African in Surbiton who was punched on the nose in a pub on the day after Brexit. It is always the black woman who is shouted at by a group of youths saying: “Time you went back to your own country.”

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We are living in Iago’s paradise. Fake news and alternative facts are not the invention of Trump et al; Shakespeare, in Othello, gave us the original fake news and alternative facts. Villainy is never so villainous as when it appears as common sense, and is spoken in the popular tones of boisterous pub entertainers.

Censorship does not only operate in tyrannies. There are various forms of democratic censorship, too. When good people cannot speak because the discourse has somehow disabled them, when writers are silent, when justice wavers, when a tide has turned so that decency no longer has a legitimate voice, then something has gone wrong in the mood of a country.

But, thinking about it deeply, one comes to different conclusions. Looking at the history of Britain and Europe, multiculturalism, women’s rights, diversity, notions of racial fairness are actually quite recent. They are part of the international victories spread on the wings of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. These ideas are not deep in the spirit of Europe or Britain. This is perhaps why an antibody for ideas of diversity is being successfully spread. It is perhaps why politicians across Europe feel that they are articulating the feelings of the masses. The idea of true equality was never a mass movement. It was and remains an idea; an idea that the educated would like to believe in, but whose conduct – in their offices, their politics, their theatres – doesn’t bear out.

Five decades of talking about it has made people think that they have achieved it. In truth, tokenism has been raised to an art form, perfected in subtlety. But no one is fooled. If the air is foul in the room, then we all fouled it, by not speaking our deepest truth. There are no windows to open that can take away this smell. In any case we are all getting used to it.

What the left needs now is a new story that it can tell with passion and clarity and good sense and charisma. It ought to be a story that articulates a new vision of hope and inclusiveness, a story that shows the confidence and rich benefits of a diverse and creative Britain. A story that shows Britain is at its greatest when it faces the world with bigness of spirit.

This is not a time to retreat into fear and abolishing our health service and shutting down libraries and strangling culture. This is the time to dream bolder than ever before, to be tough against terrorism, but to undermine ideas of terrorism by the bright light of civilisation that we represent.

The left needs a new story to enchant the age and open up the future.

Ben Okri is the Booker Prize-winning author of “The Famished Road”

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This article appears in the 29 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition