A Time for Courage

One of the most alarming statements British politicians have made in recent days can be summarised as follows: if we don’t do Brexit and quickly, massive unrest will be the result.  To put it another way, this argument states that if we don’t give in to the demands of extremists, they will create havoc.  There is some evidence to support this point of view: recently, “pro-Brexit” sabotage devices were left on train tracks in Cambridgeshire and Nottinghamshire.

I recall the 2005 film “V for Vendetta”; when I first saw it, I found its premise somewhat far-fetched.   The idea that Britain, which had so long resisted the siren calls of extremists, would suddenly elect an upstart fascist party (called “Norsefire”) and surrender its liberties seemed pretty ridiculous.  On the other hand, as the eponymous character V reminded the public, they were confronted with a “myriad of problems”, including war and disease. 

An old saying reminds us that the difference between fiction and history is that fiction has to be believable.  Britain has ceded a great deal of power to the far right of the Conservative Party not because of any cataclysm but because of one gigantic policy mistake, namely, to run the 2016 referendum without any safeguards (e.g., a 60% threshold or a second confirmatory referendum).  Not everyone who voted Leave is a racist or extremist, however, extremists believe that Leave’s victory indicates that the country agrees with them.  Hence, they tend to mask their demands behind phrases such as “Will of the people”.

No one who has any serious expertise in economics, diplomacy or politics believes leaving the European Union will be good for Britain.  Already investment is freezing, and billions of pounds have been shifted abroad. The fragile fabric of the United Kingdom may be torn asunder: advocates of Brexit forget that Scotland, Northern Ireland, London and Gibraltar all voted solidly to remain. Britain is an international laughing stock: the New York Times ran an article suggesting Britain has lost its collective mind and there is little disagreement.  Our parliamentary debates are punctuated by cartoon characters such as Mark Francois who invoked Christ to blaspheme a measure intended to inject some sanity into the Brexit process.   The Conservatives continue to run scared of extremists, saying that we must do as they command, lest they bring more havoc.

But if we enact Brexit out of fear rather than logic, what happens afterwards?  The tell-tale sign of an extremist is their inability to be satisfied by meeting their demands.  The reason for this is straightforward: an extremist tilts towards windmills.  When utopia is not achieved, the simplest thing to do is to try and find another target, another obstacle in the way of perfection being achieved.  Today, it’s the European Union.  If we execute Brexit and things don’t get better, tomorrow’s target could be the immigrants who are already here.  They have already be singled out for abuse. After them, who knows who may be next?

There are disturbing precedents.  Comparisons to Hitler are frequently overblown.  I am not suggesting we are about to fall into the grip of fascism; however, it is worth noting how the Nazis got into power.  The Nazis did not win the German parliamentary election in November 1932, the last before they took power in January 1933: on the contrary, there was a 4 percent drop in their vote share.  The Communists achieved the biggest gains, based on a 2.54% swing.  In the aftermath, more traditional conservatives led by Franz von Papen decided to give in to Hitler and make him Chancellor, mainly in order to prevent the Communists from gaining power.  They also believed that they could not access mass support without working with the Nazis.

This was a grave error: the centre of politics shifted to a new extreme.  In the short run, German democracy and civil rights were uprooted; eventually, millions were murdered.  The Nazis did not build utopia: rather, they gave humanity a new and terrible knowledge of what horrors it was capable of committing.

I repeat: Britain is not in this space.  History rarely repeats in the same way; it is the patterns of history that are worth noting. Extremists put forward a proposition, more conventional politicians lose the will to stand and fight.   In the pursuit of a quiet life, the politicians think if they give in, at some point the extremists will get bored and disappear.  But political anger is not always sated by achieving one reform or another.  When the demand cannot be met, such as getting society to throw its gears into reverse to back into a golden age that never was, the anger will remain.  We already see signs of this in the illogical proposition that “No deal is no problem” and its advocates not being deterred by facts.   No matter what happens, there will be a hard core that will stay enraged.   Sometimes, it is the role of democratic politicians on all sides to say “no”, and to call out the demagogues for precisely what they are: peddlers of illusion and disappointment.  In an era still haunted by the murder of Jo Cox and death threats being spewed on the internet every day, courage seems to be shorter supply than usual, though there are exceptions such as Jess Phillips. However, if we don’t want to go down the well-worn path to a dreadful conclusion, we need to find many more avatars of courage.

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