Booker prize winner Howard Jacobson on how Britain faces mob rule
PUBLISHED: 13:38 28 July 2016 | UPDATED: 18:04 28 July 2016
Copyright Archant Norfolk 2016
We live in perilous times, Brexit or no Brexit.
The peace we thought would follow the fall of the Berlin Wall hangs by a thread. The demagoguery we imagined we’d seen the last of half a century ago clears its throat on the streets of Western Europe. Terror strikes where it will, while terror apologists tell us to blame ourselves. And instead of that grand democratic conversation the Internet once promised, a deaf malignancy prevails. Could Brexit really have made things any worse?
Those of us for whom anything but remaining in the EU felt and still feels like peevishness, have taken a perverse, self-wounding satisfaction in stories of the racism Brexit has loosened. Attacks on Polish shops, firebombings, daubings, threats, abuse of anyone who looks remotely foreign – what else was to be expected? And the fact that the abusers are unable to distinguish between the continental origins of those they abuse, imagining that leaving the EU as good as guarantees they’ll never have to see a black or Asian face again, shows how little they grasped what they were voting for. No, our grim forebodings were not exaggerated. Project Fear be damned! There was even more to be terrified by than we warned.
But hold your horses. Isn’t our vindication premature? Even those of us who were sure the spirit of Brexit would make us a less generous society, didn’t expect to wake up in a Bosch hell the very morning after the vote. The rise and fall of empires takes a little longer. I don’t accuse anyone of lying or massaging statistics; I simply wonder whether it’s we who have been too quick to embrace Armageddon. It isn’t to excuse racist violence to wonder just how many of these attacks are momentary explosions of irrational rage occasioned by the temperature of the debate, or opportunistic acts of thuggery of the sort to which certain people are always prone – as at football matches, say, or Corbyn rallies – before some other mischief solicits their attention.
Hatred’s hatred, but we can be over exuberant in our interpretation of its significance. In 1947, anti-Jewish riots broke out in Manchester following the killing of British soldiers in Palestine. They must have seemed at the time a terrible reminder of the very barbarism that had only recently been defeated across the channel.
But the riots were over almost as soon as they’d begun. Anger had been expressed, consciences had been relieved, and that was that. Britain had not become a dangerous place for Jews.
Which is not to say it never will be a dangerous place for Jews or anybody else. History teaches that the friendliest of neighbours can become the deadliest of foes. The language of amity is forever fragile. All words possess magic properties, and those that would define race or nation are the likeliest to conjure suspicion. Hence the wizardry there is in demagoguery and the susceptibility to primitive amazement of those who gather round to listen. As much as any innate proneness to violence, it is this susceptibility we have to fear. We all have a stain of racism in us; in the main we recognise and manage it. As with envy or sexual jealousy, it is only when we become its slave that we are dangerous to others. Racism is a blunt and heartless term, too, for the bewildered alienation people can feel when the demographics of their neighbourhoods change, or when the language they hear on their streets is not one they recognise. But what the referendum disclosed was something far more disreputable and dangerous than any twitching of net curtains in Tyneside: a vicarious racism practised by cynical rabble-rousers who, though not necessarily bigots themselves, took pleasure in tickling out bigotry in others.
Thus Boris Johnson, now the face our nation presents to the world, dismissing President Obama’s comments on the referendum as an expression of ancestral Kenyan bile, or issuing dire warnings that the Turks were coming. A descendant of Turks himself – as he frequently reminded us – he presumably had nothing to fear from the Ottoman hordes when they arrived on our shores. It was for us alone – for our jobs and our security – that he had stepped out of the shadows to speak. The Brexiteer as altruist.
The others the same: no matter how urbane in private or internationalist by inclination, they didn’t scruple to exploit, or stand by as others in their camp exploited, whatever hostility to non-nationals boiled in the faces or lay dormant in the hearts of the British people. ‘Let’s take back control’ was the incendiary phrase to which not a one of them demurred. Control of our money, economy, taxes, they meant. Of course they did. They posed in front of posters saying so. But they all knew the real message with which those words would reverberate: that a once-proud nation was under the heel of an occupier, that what had once been ours was ours no more, that the cause of that obscure sense of deprivation that so many in the country felt – no matter that the Brexiteers themselves were not deprived in the slightest – was Johnny Foreigner. Farage said it, the others permitted it to be said. Any wonder, then, if for a few literal-minded souls the taking back began the day we voted to be gone.
With luck they will remain few and the vacuity of their ambition will strike them soon, but in a more general way the national vocabulary has been coarsened, a gloating patriotic pugnacity that belongs to another age has resurfaced, low feelings have been sanctioned by a referendum and made respectable by men and women of education, influence and now power. It isn’t the sight of blood we find exciting, the spellbound can now assert, it’s the thought of seizing back ‘Sovereignty’.
Sovereignty! – how many of our citizens, one wonders, knew that sovereignty was what they’d lost before the Brexiteers showed them how to find it.
A more rounded argument about sovereignty and the social contract, demonstrating how in every sphere of life we yield our freedoms in exchange for benefits and protections of another sort, would not have carried the day. A referendum is a clumsy instrument that invites a naive response to a sophisticated question from a populace it will always be in someone’s interest to keep in the dark. Like/don’t like. Yes/no. Thumb up/thumb down. If there was one unequivocal winner of the Referendum it was the Internet. The language of Facebook and Twitter carried all before it.
However cynically they were misled, the people must bear responsibility for what happened. They were given a choice and they chose unwisely. The will of the people is the falsest of idols. We bow down to it with hollow hearts. In every Dr Jekyll there is a Mr Hyde, and in every populace there’s a mob. We should be concerned lest, having exercised their will to shattering effect last month, they get a taste for it. William Cobbett, writing in 1803, described Napoleon as having been ‘wrought to a pitch of frenzy by his sudden elevation to unbounded and irresistible power.’ Whether the referendum will prove to have elevated the people to unbounded power we must wait and see. But the times are propitious for them. Only look at their part in keeping Jeremy Corbyn’s otherwise moribund leadership afloat. It is plainly Corbyn’s aim to lead the people without the mediation of Parliament or party – just him, his advisors, and the mob. A fantasy which flatters the mob’s self-importance as much as it does Corbyn’s. And then there are the inroads which immoderate expressions of uninformed opinion are making into the national debate, thanks to the opportunities to misrepresent and vilify we have at our fingertips. Could it be that what we are witnessing is something akin to a perfect storm? The ambition to irresistible power meeting the means to achieve it. Every man his own demagogue. Put your ear to the crevices and you can hear the nation’s mind closing. How long before the frenzy?
And now Theresa May, who is a vicar’s daughter and who, for that reason, I perhaps mistakenly imagine to have been humanised by reading Charlotte Bronte and Mrs Gaskell all her life, promises that Brexit will be Brexit. Politically, of course, she can say and do no less, though rewarding the scurrilous must leave a nasty taste. Since no one knows what Brexit is or will be, however, there may be ironic comfort in her promise. Brexit will be Brexit. This phrase could become proverbial in time, for not having a clue as to why or how. In the midst of falsely-confident assertions, no sooner made than denied, a little quavering light of uncertainty and remorse.
Brexit will be Brexit – fools will be fools. Brexit will be Brexit – and pigs might fly.