NICK COHEN on how the Tory leadership race has revealed a profound and disturbing change on the British right
Democracy is a vulnerable system of government because it depends on conventions that, taken individually, seem too trivial to worry about. A mandate ignored, a check lost, a balance overturned… Each time you raise an alarm, your critics accuse you of panicking. Only when you look at the cumulative effect do you see a country careering towards breakdown.
In Britain’s case, the apparently democratic slogan of ‘taking back control’ has become cover for a zealous minority to take control. I accept that the rage on the right is so wild it can be hard to see a coherent plan behind it.
Boris Johnson is an opportunist and coward both in his journalism and his politics. He tells readers and voters what they want to hear the better to advance his career.
It can be easy to despise him but hard to fear him. As for Nigel Farage, Iain Duncan Smith, Dominic Raab and Arron Banks, their words make so little sense, the casual observer – brought up to think that Britain always finds ways to muddle through – can be forgiven for assuming that reality will soon knock them into shape.
Yet instead of being reshaped by reality, the right is reshaping the realities of British life. It has taken the Brexit vote of 2016 as licence to attack parliamentary sovereignty, and the independence of the judiciary, civil service and diplomatic corps.
To ‘deliver’ Brexit, its proponents must suppress reasonable doubt. And if Brexit fails, as it must, the fate of all who performed their duty by speaking plainly is to be become the guilty men who stabbed Britain in the back.
Conform to the party line or be blamed for its failures.
In truth, the choice is no choice at all. In all probability, they will be forced to conform and then required to take the blame. Like the communists, who could never accept that the fault lay in their ideology, the Brexit right knows only how to escape responsibility.
Truth is under siege as the inescapable facts of Britain’s position in the world are dismissed as if they are the inventions of malicious Remainers. Meanwhile the patriotism the right shouts so loudly about is being replaced with a displaced American nationalism that demands loyalty to Trump’s White House.
Brexit has become a suitcase in which to stuff the baggage of the modern right. Causes which appear to have nothing to do with it – support for Trump, hatred of immigrants, opposition to political correctness – are being legitimised and carried along by the referendum victory.
Left-wing readers should not wallow in righteous indignation. The far-left clique they put in charge of the Labour Party will behave as disgracefully if it gets the chance.
We walked into the mire as much by accident as design. For years, received wisdom has held that giving more power to political activists was a worthy enterprise. No one bothered to explain why, and now we are learning the reason for their silence. A new prime minister is being picked by the 0.25% of the population who are members of the Conservative Party. Never before has the process for choosing a national leader had less democratic legitimacy.
Party leaders were once chosen by MPs, who were accountable to their constituents. Labour members might have foisted their choice as prime minister on the country when Tony Blair resigned in 2007 and Conservative members might have done the same when David Cameron resigned in 2016, but MPs denied them a contest.
You could say the link between an MP and his or her constituents is tenuous, and I’d agree, but at least it is there, and at least it provided a small concession to the notion that the leader of the country needed a kind of democratic authority.
Party democracy has now become the enemy of representative democracy. The views of the privileged members stand above the views of the electorate. The future of Britain at a moment of intense crisis rests with a group of men and women who are not just old, white and wealthy – as every hostile commentator has pointed out – but also vain, as activists tend to be. It is their prejudices that must be pandered to; their idiocies and fantasies that must be indulged.
With less than four months until the deadline for crashing out of the EU, the nation has been excluded from the debate about its future. Only the tiny range of options acceptable to Tory eccentrics and fanatics are discussed.
Brexit could mean staying in the customs union or the single market, Theresa May’s hard Brexit, or any combination of the above. Alternatively, we could revoke Article 50 or hold a People’s Vote. But just as the Brexit referendum has, as today’s cliché puts it, sucked the oxygen from the room and stopped us talking about the real problems we face, so the Conservative leadership election has sucked the oxygen from the Brexit debate. It is as if the past three years did not happen.
Once again, herds of unicorns are stampeding over the shires. The people who said the German car manufacturers would force the EU to allow us to keep the benefits of being in the EU, now insist that the EU will tear up the Withdrawal Agreement if Johnson – or ‘Boris’, as they call him in a revealing infantile manner – shouts loudly enough at its negotiators.
The people who insisted we could set ourselves apart from every developed economy on the planet and subsist on World Trade Organisation terms now double down and say that crashing out without a deal won’t hurt one minute, and that in any case we suffered worse in the Blitz the next.
Neither Johnson nor Hunt dare point out the contradiction in simultaneously believing in a pain-free Brexit and a not-quite-as-bad-as-a-world-war Brexit, assuming they even want to.
They must please selfish and deluded people who will not tolerate their candidates talking back. Hunt’s campaign is proof of the right’s intellectual emptiness. It’s not just that he, like Johnson, shows the right no longer has a fiscal policy, as it throws promises of billions at favoured constituencies – defence, wealthy pensioners, farmers and the like.
It is not even that the failure of neo-liberalism has left the Conservatives without an economic policy. Johnson’s rival was meant to pour a cold shower over his fatuous promises and give Conservative members a lesson in the realities of Britain’s position and the real options open to us.
He has done nothing of the sort, of course, because he knows realism is a genre Tories cannot abide.
Hunt has learned that when the right goes mad, you must go mad with it, or face expulsion. The only Brexit options now being contemplated are a fantasy deal there is no evidence the EU will countenance, or leaving with no deal on October 31 (Johnson) or leaving with no deal sometime in November (Hunt).
British democracy, the national debate at a time when debate has never been more urgent, has shrunk to arguments over this tiny patch of land. More people need to say the Tories have no electoral mandate for threatening the country’s future. No deal was not on the ballot paper in June 2016. Indeed, as the official Leave campaign explicitly promised, “we will negotiate the terms of a new deal before we start any legal process to leave,” one can say with certainty that whatever else the Brexit vote meant it didn’t mean that.
It is in this context of pandering to the Tory ultras that we should see the attacks on civil servants, for giving honest advice about Brexit, on diplomats, for giving their honest opinion of the Trump administration, and on parliament for threatening to exercise its sovereignty and stop no-deal.
Of course one can say that the assaults come from Nigel Farage and his courtiers and propagandists rather than the supposed Conservative mainstream. But notice how little pushback there has been against the Putinesque elements on the right. Johnson has still not disassociated himself from Dominic Raab’s cavalier (in all sense of the word) threat to close parliament. As for Farage, everyone knows that the Brexit Party threatens to destroy the Tory party. Yet, in a sign of how deep the rot has penetrated, Johnson and Hunt are not mounting polemical attacks on Farage. On the contrary, he is almost entirely absent from their campaigns. They cannot afford to offend him because they know that the next Tory leader will have to cut a deal with him: either through an electoral pact or by so initiating his policies that the need for the Brexit Party will vanish.
The tactical considerations conceal an uglier and, when you stop to think about the implications, far more alarming truth. There is no real distinction anymore between the respectable right and the radical right. Liberal conservatives are everywhere in retreat. Some have capitulated and backed Johnson, others face deselection.
Right-wing Tories do not see Farage as an enemy but as a fellow traveller. He wants what they want. Where he goes they go too. And if he wants to follow Trump, Putin and Orban in creating a public sphere where loyalty to the party line matters more than democratic standards or basic rectitude then so will they.
In every crisis Britain has faced in my lifetime, there is always been a way out. It may not have been a way out I or millions of others approved of, but it was still there. I am not panicking when I say I genuinely cannot see how a Britain, simultaneously cursed with an illiberal government and opposition, escapes this time.