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The ship of English fools: with Johnson, Corbyn and Farage at the helm, Britain is heading for disaster

The truth is that our most prominent political figures – Johnson, Corbyn, Farage – are not politicians. They are men of no substance

Foreseeing the rise of fascism, in 1930 the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset warned in The Revolt of the Masses of a rising demand for action and “an end to discussion”. The baying for a no-deal Brexit on the Faragista right has taken on a fascistic flavour, while debate on how we became trapped in our descending spiral has closed.

The Tories and Nigel Farage will bear historical responsibility, but that is far from the whole story. Brexit, a breakdown of the national psyche, is a collective enterprise, and the sooner we talk honestly about its origins and likely results the better the chances of an eventual recovery.

In two weeks the man least suited (along with the leader of the opposition) to be prime minister will settle with his suite of cronies into N0 10. How did it come to this? The accepted narrative, replete with dubious assumptions and squeamish equivocation, is wrong on several counts.

The guardians of the Brexit cult see Margaret Thatcher as their guiding spirit, yet though she encouraged Euroscepticism she is unlikely to have been a Brexiteer. Nor was it David Cameron who was ultimately responsible for the referendum; it was Tony Blair, with the waves of mass immigration he triggered after 1997, and from Europe in 2004. When listening to his passionate and persuasive speeches today, no one, neither Remainers nor Brexiteers, reminds him of a point too delicate to mention: that if the post-1997 inflow of non-Europeans had not happened the referendum result might well have been inverted.

Brexit backers voted not so much on the EU itself, or on austerity – though both played their part – as in protest at migration overall, chiefly from beyond the EU, which was larger, harder to assimilate and more unpopular. That is why Farage and his Brexit Party continue to poll well today. In a typically casual, contradictory lie, Boris Johnson recently hailed the huge success of immigration – it has certainly succeeded in helping him into No 10 – while lamenting the lack of integration.

There is another area where discussion is mute. As a result of Brexit, non-EU immigrants are outnumbering Europeans still further (a February Office for National Statistics report showed non-EU net migration at the highest level since 2004). If Brexiteers are happy with this they should say so – as Jacob Rees-Mogg did when he said that preference on immigration should go to the Commonwealth rather than Europeans, “with whom we have no connection”. A Catholic, like Rees-Mogg, and no connection with Italy, France and Poland?

Is that what the electorate wanted? I doubt if Rees-Mogg will be explaining his views to Tommy Robinson’s boys in Wolverhampton or Stoke-on-Trent any time soon. As post-Brexit reality dawns on a poorer country faced with a growing
burden on public services, extremists – not just Farage but beyond – will find ways to exploit the backlash.

These are not thoughts decent people want to catch themselves thinking, yet they cannot be indefinitely repressed. When a pop-up political party led by a friend and admirer of Donald Trump and apologist for Putin, who appears on both Fox News and Russia Today, triumphs in the European elections, we should reserve the right to make judgements about levels of public knowledge and understanding, as well as their frustrations.

To be clear: I favour immigration, at moderate levels over time. If I were a Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Iraqi I might well seek to come to Britain; if I were a low-paid worker on a council house list in a deprived northern town, I might vote Brexit to keep them out; and if I had enjoyed an expensive education, and my partner and I had jobs in the City dependent on cheap immigrant labour, we would take care to ensure that our liberal, anti-Brexit sentiments were known to all.

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The conservative mind is not just closed – with no answers on Europe except empty rhetoric – it has ceased to function. That the Times has endorsed Boris Johnson, a man who is a proven, remorse-free liar – as well as a feckless husband and father – as national leader, in the hope he will magic a Brexit through, is a measure of the desperation that has gripped the country. Responsibility goes wider, but it is Tories who for decades have enticed the nation along the crooked path to the precipice where we stand today.

Historically, Thatcher gave things a shove – though I don’t see her as a Johnson backer. An opponent of referendums (favoured by Napoleon and the Nazis), she is unlikely to have held one. As Peter Carrington’s principal private secretary, I witnessed many an anti-Brussels outburst in private – some justified, such as her fears of an ever-expanding Brussels – but never once did she allude to the prospect of leaving the European Union.

Thatcher would also have objected to the weakening of European security at a time when the Russian shadow is in some ways more menacing than before. Brexit dogma – that the EU was a product of the Cold War, and therefore irrelevant today – was rendered fatuous by the rise of Putin. The easiest way to cut short undesired confrontations with Brexit cultists is to say: “Well, you have Trump and Putin on your side, so what could go wrong?”

For Thatcher there was something more personal: her enjoyment of being a top dog at European Council meetings. I recall the likes of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Helmut Schmidt listening respectfully to her foreign policy analyses, notably on East-West issues. From Thatcher the queen bee of EU summits to the absence of Theresa May from the first EU meeting on policy towards China in March is a giant step towards isolation – though the idea of Johnson going it alone with Beijing has its tragicomic side.

So while the incubation of the Europhobic germ under Thatcher is a fact (I recall my MP colleagues’ laughter at the very words “the French”, and Johnson reportedly calling them “turds” as foreign secretary will have had them laughing again), it was Blair who was to give the ultra-nationalists wings.

nother rarely discussed subject is the political sociology of Brexit. Again, perceptions are far from the facts. A coterie of upper caste Tories are the driving force, yet a closer look at both Conservative and Labour leading figures, their backgrounds and motives, reveals strange parallels. Resigning as chair of the government’s Social Mobility Commission, the estimable former Labour minister Alan Milburn wrote: “[The government] is understandably focused on Brexit and does not seem to have the necessary bandwidth to ensure that the rhetoric of healing social division is matched with the reality.”

There is scant evidence of mobility, on right and left. The prominence of Etonians – Cameron, Rees-Mogg, Johnson, Kwasi Kwarteng, Rory Stewart et al – contrasts with the middle-class, aspirational ethos of the Thatcher years. Cameron’s easy resort to a referendum reflected his personality: until now everything had gone smoothly in his public life, so why not again? Ignorant of the fears of ordinary folk that their country was being denatured, he clearly believed the earlier, optimistic polls.

You didn’t have to be clairvoyant to have had doubts. After touring the North and Midlands in 2006 I wrote a book called Time To Emigrate?, predicting an eventual crisis over migration. Later I advised City firms that the referendum outcome would be 51 per cent in favour.

The interaction between Rees-Mogg, Johnson and their kind in today’s party with pantomime figures such as Mark Francois – a natural for Farage’s party who would never have passed a Tory selection board in the Thatcher years – is suggestive less of democratisation than feudal regression. In such fag-like relationships the court tumblers sock it to the media on behalf of their betters, and BBC Newsnight and the rest fall for it.

Yet for all his airs and graces, and as his much-derided book on the Victorian era reminds us, Rees-Mogg is essentially an intellectual poseur, while Johnson, incapable of sustained reflection, has a mind of no fixed abode except that of self-promotion. Farage, an estate agent manqué, is another private schoolboy gone rogue. Michael Gove is a commoner, and smarter, though another clever/silly former columnist who can run you up an idea in a twinkling and defend the indefensible with an Oxbridge Union debater’s brio. Such fun – but he too lacks the bottom of common sense the Tory party is supposedly about.

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For a clearer view of the social origins of our predicament we should look at both parties, especially the forces in Labour driving the country towards a damaging Brexit, in parallel to their Tory opposites. Corbyn himself we can leave aside. His untutored mind is frozen in Marxist antiquity, and as we are seeing in the anti-Semitic crisis, updating his thinking is hard. An old-fashioned Bennite Brexiteer in a largely Remainer party, politically he is trussed like a spatchcocked chicken.

The fact that he has got away with his devious dualism for so long is due to his Wykehamist mentor, Seumas Milne, a manic Brexiteer and Stalin apologist who lamented the demise of the GDR. Alongside him are Andrew Murray – rich, privately educated and until recently a full-blown communist – and James Schneider, a fellow Wykehamist with Milne.

For the Tories the Brexit Wunderkind was Dominic Cummings, another public schoolboy variously described as an eccentric genius and (by Cameron) as a “career psychopath”. His “brilliant” slogan, “Take back control”, was a piece of cynical top-down speculation on public ignorance; most immigration was under UK control already. Like Milne, Cummings has a soft spot for totalitarian revolutionaries, such as Lenin, and it is here that the weird social symmetry on Europe between left and right comes into play.

I have worked with remarkable public school men and women, though I confess to a prejudice. Having spent much of my pre-political career in the Cold War working on communist China and Russia and seen much suffering and many broken lives, I am wary of expensively educated upper-class afficionados of figures such as Stalin, Lenin and Mao. At school Milne was a Maoist and, like his boss, never moved on: hence Corbyn’s suggestion in an interview with Andrew Marr that the Great Leap Forward, in which up to 45 million died, was an economic success. (In Cultural Revolutionary China, where I was a diplomat from 1966-69, a mere two million were killed.)

Britain’s absence of much in the way of an elite of merit spares Cummings, Milne, Rees-Mogg, Johnson et al too much competition. Milne’s aim is to create a revolutionary situation then a general election that would sweep Corbyn to power. Chem khuzhe, tem luchshe – the worse the better – was his hero’s slogan, and to hell with the collateral damage. In Lenin’s case this was a Russian Civil War (see Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Lenin in Zurich), in Milne’s an economy trashed by Tories, via a no-deal Brexit if possible.

For Cummings the Brexit revolution was to lead to a global Britain; for Milne, to a modernised version of Stalin’s socialism in one country. Today grown-up Labour politicians such as Tom Watson, Hilary Benn and Keir Starmer are getting in his way, though given Tory self-destructiveness Milne’s Leninist strategy was not so crazy.

From the playing fields of Eton to the impending shipwreck of Brexit Britain, the UK’s independent school sector has perverse reasons to be proud of its political potency. As politicians on all sides drone on about the sacred will of the people, the drivers of our Brexit suicide lorries on both sides of the House represent a privileged elite who stand to suffer least if national impoverishment follows.

Contortions over Europe can corrupt intellectual life itself. A coterie of pro-Brexit academics, lawyers etc cite the 52 per cent in their cause, though in many cases their pre-referendum pronouncements reveal scant sympathy with the motives of the Brexit-voting masses. This is intellectual mendacity on many levels: they know that practical issues – housing, the NHS, wage rates, drastic cultural change in vulnerable places – drove people to vote “out”. Yet anti-EU academics flinch from association with such rough political trade. Instead, like Johnson, they invest Brexit voters with higher motives – reclaiming sovereignty, national independence and the rest.

It’s depressing to find intellectuals playing a part in Brexit’s bullshit Britain. Presumably they are now edging into line behind Johnson, accepting his boasts that being mayor of London entitles him to run the country. More bullshit. In his first election as mayor, around 80 per cent of London voters did not vote for him, and between the London Assembly and parliament there can be no comparison.

Film of the assembly proceedings shows nondescript members elected on low turnouts putting questions to which Johnson replied in a playful or offhand manner. Anything less like a House of Commons grilling, where evasive quips are no substitute for answers, is impossible to imagine.

Nor does the London mayor have serious responsibility for money-raising; that tiresomely contentious function is dealt with automatically through a levy on council tax or national subsidy. Then there is the media. As mayor Johnson faced few pressures, and when he was doing the jollies he knew that his journalistic friends would write them up in the Evening Standard.

In No 10 his reliance on a coterie of adoring chums and touchiness about criticism will guarantee a staff of slavish-minded apparatchiks. Already we can see his spokesperson telling us with a laconic shrug that Boris is just being Boris. Which is, of course, the problem.

Mindful of their jobs, how many journalists in the right-wing press will have the courage to sigh and say, as sensible parents do, that his behaviour is neither clever nor funny?

Whatever happens, his backers will herald a brand new, statesmanlike Johnson; a political magician whose foibles should be forgiven. But at 55 few of us change, nor can evolution occur in the mind of a man with no convictions. He will be the last to see that, just as blind devotion to market forces can destroy conservative traditions, communities and institutions, so a hardline Brexit puts the Union at risk.

Already, long-standing political structures are being shattered, yet so impervious are many Tories that they are ready to face the end of the United Kingdom itself and endure serious economic damage to see Brexit through. In a similar way traditional left-wing voters are swearing allegiance to a malign far-right demagogue after years with solid Labour leaders. Anti-Brussels sentiment alone does not explain this wholesale junking of beliefs on right and left: what do are the racial and cultural insecurities in our tight little island that Farage plays on like a fiddle. Here indeed is “a revolt of the masses”.

In the average English man or woman there is a yen to stop the music and go back to where we were, a hazy historical memory of times when we enjoyed minimal global competition and splendid isolation, and could smile down on the world from our island fastness. For those who fall for it, Johnson’s appeal relies on two things: patriotic nostalgia and the illusion of effortless ascendancy. Whether rural retirees or workers under international pressures, his supporters don’t want to live in the world as it is, with its chaotic globalism, market ruthlessness, shifting populations and emergent nations. They want to be somewhere else, preferably the past.

Closed Tory minds drift backwards, and Johnson’s showmanship has an old-time, end-of-the-pier feel, with his pseudo-aristocratic persona, replete with eccentricities and Wooster impersonations, while straight-man Hunt (an alumnus of Charterhouse) tries to outdo him by promising a return to the tormenting of foxes.

To deal with all this turning back, Johnson has no strategy or social imagination. Instead there is an irrepressible light-mindedness and patrician impatience with detail, best left to the little folk. As his involuntary, self-regarding smirk suggests, he can never be a serious person, and the country he will lead will not be taken seriously either. Playing with words is different from playing with jobs, incomes, welfare or lives. As with Trump in the White House, Johnson in No 10 will be egocentricity enthroned. It will be no consolation to know that our problems are transatlantic, and that the Anglo-American mind is being barred and shuttered too.

The truth is that our most prominent political figures – Johnson, Corbyn, Farage – are not politicians. They are not just men without qualities in the Musil sense, they are men of no substance. Cynical and disillusioned voters may shrug off the prospect of such shrunken specimens taking over, yet apprehension is growing.

In what Johnson describes as “the best country in the world” (Trump would have added “ever”) the smell of fear is encroaching: parliamentarians’ fears of losing seats to Farage or being deselected for their moderation. Fear of trouble on the streets if we stay in Europe, and of economic collapse – houses included – if we crash out. Fear of social violence and ethnic confrontation. And fear of discussing things I have alluded to here. Even if Johnson stands on his head, pushes through a May-type deal with bells attached and defeats Corbyn, there can be no good Brexit. All we shall be left with is the Johnsonian smirk.

In a fortnight the ship of English fools, captained by an egomaniacal amateur, will sail, with Seumas Milne cheering incognito on the quayside. There is much talk of Johnson’s force of character, though it depends what you mean. I know him, and can confirm what canny observers have begun saying: that as he gets closer to No 10, this man, too, is afraid. Not for his country, of course, but for himself. 

George Walden is an author and a former diplomat and Conservative MP

This article appears in the 12 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The state we’re in