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26 July 2019updated 12 Oct 2023 11:16am

What Boris Johnson and the Tory right have learned from Antonio Gramsci

By Tim Bale

I first began taking politics seriously in the mid-1980s. At that time, the Italian political prisoner and left-wing philosopher Antonio Gramsci was particularly fashionable – especially, I recall, in the pages of Marxism Today

Through the lens of Gramsci’s theories, former Marxism Today editor Martin Jacques and the late cultural theorist Stuart Hall both recognised how Margaret Thatcher’s government had succeeded in winning and then consolidating political power by redefining what counted as “common sense” – in other words, what was seen as feasible, mainstream and “normal.” Their observations were animated by what Gramsci called “hegemony” – the idea that truly transformative political (and therefore economic) power is, at least in part, rooted in cultural authority.

But if the British left has always appreciated Gramsci, it’s politicians on the right who have actually been better at learning his lessons. Britain’s new Brexiteer-ultra cabinet has proved this once again.

Gramsci famously made a distinction between a “war of position” (a slow, incremental, insidious attempt to infiltrate political institutions and achieve cultural and intellectual authority) and a “war of manoeuvre” (a swift, full-frontal assault, capable of achieving a knock-out blow especially in the wake of successful positional campaign).

In so doing, the Italian philosopher provides us with a guide to what Britain’s Brexiteers have been up to all these years, and to what’s happening now. 

For many years – a fair few of them spent in the wilderness after the 1975 referendum on European Economic Community membership produced a two-thirds majority for Remain – British  Eurosceptics built on the UK’s lack of European identity, engagement and understanding, and harnessed print-media owners’ hostility to EU regulation. Although their contribution to the nation’s “common sense” can be vastly exaggerated, Boris Johnson’s Brussels dispatches for the Daily Telegraph, filled with tales of bendy bananas, undersized condoms, and oversized bureaucracies, doubtless played a small part in the process.

Sceptics also began their long march through the institutions. Some joined the Referendum Party and then Ukip. But others stayed within (or eventually rejoined) the Conservative Party – an organisation in which it became increasingly difficult to become a parliamentary candidate if you were in any way sympathetic to the European project. As time went on, outright antipathy to Brussels became a precondition. 

All this led to David Cameron caving into calls for a referendum and, with a little help from the Eurozone and migration crises – and of course from Dominic Cummings – to the vote being won, albeit narrowly, by the Leave side against progressive Remainers. Over the preceding decades, the latter had never truly sought to counter the right’s combination of insidiously drip-fed, and occasionally in-your-face, Euroscepticsm.

Since then, the Brexiteers have been preparing to move from their war of position to one of manoeuvre – a strategic transition that began with the European Research Group-organised guerrilla attacks against Theresa May, which made parliamentary approval of a deal impossible, and (with May’s foolish help) soon made no-deal seem like a serious and reasonable option. But it was May’s consequent resignation that enabled the Brexiteers’ war of manoeuvre to really begin in earnest.

Johnson’s victory this week constitutes the first battle won. His splash-the-cash policy platform – “more bobbies on the beat”, fixing the social care crisis, and almost everything else on the agenda of the Daily Mail and Telegraph readership – is the second. And his appointment of Brexiteer ultras to the cabinet, and members of Vote Leave’s campaign machine as government advisors, is the third.

Now the war is about to see the opening up of another battle front in continental Europe, as Johnson, spurred on by parliamentary supporters, takes on Jean-Claude Juncker, Michel Barnier, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Leo Varadkar et al.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, one of Johnson’s many heroes (who probably, of course, had never heard of Gramsci, let alone read his writing): “this is not the end; it is not even the beginning of the end; it is merely the end of the beginning”. 

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