MITCH BENN: Perils of the politics of the self-righteous

PUBLISHED: 17:00 15 March 2019

Jeremy Hunt conceded on the Andrew Marr Show that Brexit is essential to protect the Tories' credibility. Picture: BBC

Jeremy Hunt conceded on the Andrew Marr Show that Brexit is essential to protect the Tories' credibility. Picture: BBC

Archant

Life as a Brexit true believer would be so much easier, writes MITCH BENN, but self-righteousness helps no-one in the long run.

Something remarkable – indeed perhaps unprecedented – happened on last weekend’s Andrew Marr Show. A Brexiter told the truth about Brexit.

Jeremy Hunt – for ’twas he – reflected on how easy it would be to derail Brexit at this stage of what, for the want of a more accurate term, we’ll call ‘proceedings’. While this was one of the most encouraging things I’ve heard a government minister say for quite some time, as he went on it became clear that he meant it as a warning; not to the increasingly anti-Brexit population but to his fellow parliamentarians, specifically those of his fellow Tories whose resolve may be weakening. “People will say ‘there was a party that promised to deliver Brexit, we put them into No.10 and they failed.’ And the consequences for us as a party will be devastating.”

Finally, one of them comes out with it. It’s not about our prosperity as a nation; nobody’s even pretending we’re going to benefit materially from Brexit any more. Even its staunchest proponents now cheerfully admit it’ll do untold damage to our society and economy, while insisting that this unnecessary hardship will ‘do us good’, as if possessed by the unquiet spirits of brutal PE teachers long since departed.

Nor is it about protecting our standing in the international community; we’re a laughing stock because of Brexit.

No, really; the satirists, cartoonists and late-night talk show hosts of the world are currently dining out lavishly at our expense, as a moment’s Googling will tell you. The only way to restore any credibility as a nation would be to pull the plug on this whole sordid enterprise.

It’s not about the nation at all; as Hunt finally admitted, it’s all about – it’s only ever been about – protecting the Conservative Party.

The referendum was called in the first place to save the 2015 general election for the Conservatives; panicking at Tory defections to UKIP, David Cameron tried to outflank the Farageistes by essentially surrendering and offering the nation 
the very thing that UKIP existed to advocate, perhaps hoping to end up in coalition once more with the Lib Dems, whom he could always blame for abandoning the plan as soon as the election was over.

Lumbered with an unexpected overall majority, he was forced to go ahead with it and the rest is not so much history as farce. Stay in the shed, Dave, for the love of God, stay in the shed.

Ever since then, everything the government has done has been entirely focused on preserving the dignity, credibility and electability of the Conservative Party. The national interest hasn’t got a look-in.

The problem is that, as I’ve discussed before, I’m not sure the Conservative Party knows the difference. Since they openly describe themselves as ‘the natural party of government’, it follows that they consider all non-Conservative governments to be unnatural. Therefore, in the Tory mindset, anything which helps install or preserve a Conservative administration is *by definition* in the national interest, even if the nation itself suffers mightily as a consequence.

Meanwhile, if the foundational error of the right wing is the belief that it has a monopoly on patriotism, the foundational error of the left is the belief that it has a monopoly on morality; that to be left wing is to be a good person, that indeed to be left wing is the only way to be a good person, and that as such anyone who opposes their aims or questions their methods is not merely mistaken but bad.

If the Tories’ descent into outright political vandalism has been fuelled by their unshakeable belief that they and they alone are qualified to govern, Labour’s concomitant spiral into thuggish intolerant tribalism stems at least partly from their equally unshakeable – and equally unearned – conviction that they are, in all regards and under all circumstances, the good guys.

It’s not the case that unfaltering belief in your own moral rectitude inevitably leads to committing hideous acts of injustice, but it is an essential first step. As even a casual student of history knows, every atrocity in history was carried out by people who believed themselves to be the good guys. The more utterly convinced of your own righteousness you are, the more likely you are to be horribly wrong.

I’m an empiricist and sceptic at heart, with regard to politics as all things. It can be a lonely business; sometimes I wish I could just sign up to an over-arching philosophy, become a true believer. It looks easier and it’s a great way to make friends. But I’m not wired up that way and at the end of the day I’ve just seen too damn much.

It’d be nice to think that, whatever happens in the immediate future, both the left and right wings might re-examine the false certainties which have propelled them toward the Brexit cliff-edge.

But who am I kidding? As is always the way with true believers, when their beliefs lead them to disaster, they won’t conclude that their beliefs were in fact nonsense. They’ll conclude instead that they just weren’t believing hard enough.

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