Brexit is blinding Britain to both its history and its present
Demagogic movements from around the world are reflected in UK debate over EU exit
British prime minister Boris Johnson said he would rather be ‘dead in a ditch’ than delay Brexit. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images
The new Brexit commemorative 50 pence piece due to flood Britain’s tills in barely a month will be etched with pledges of “peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations”. It seems fair to say these are not themes that have loomed large during the rancorous run-up to London’s scheduled Halloween divorce from its 27 fellow European Union member states.
The minted wish-list is part of a deluge of suspect sentiment and outright fantasy that has left Brexit Britain listing, as last week’s disturbing scenes in Westminster showed. To some outsiders, especially those from places once abused by British power under a cloak of benevolence, this national self-harm by self-delusion might seem historically poetic. It has also offered extremists and opportunists the chance to shove the UK down paths only a minority of its people want to go down.
The drumbeat for Brexit at any cost feels personal to me not just because I am British, but because the dubious narratives I see driving it reflect authoritarian and demagogic movements that I have reported on around the world which have prospered during a modern age of political myth.
When the British parliament shut its doors in September by royally-approved government decree, my mind went back to events I’d witnessed more than five years previously in Bangkok. Then, Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha won the backing of the country’s revered monarch of almost 70 years for a coup he ostensibly launched to keep order, oversee reforms and return power to the public.
The evident differences between Thailand’s putsch-happy politics and the institutional battles of Brexit Britain should not obscure the similarities of thought process and presentation: in particular, the idea that democratic norms are dispensable for the supposed good of the people. The Johnson government suffered a setback from last week’s UK supreme court judgment ruling that its suspension of the legislature was unlawful, but its reaction suggests it is likely to press on with its campaign to widen and harden executive authority.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines also offers some surprising lessons for Britain in the grip of Brexit. Again, the comparison might look strange at first glance. The blood-soaked drugs war launched by the man known as “the Punisher” is far removed from the antics of governments in London, even one led by the Incredible Hulk.
But Duterte is exemplary of the self-proclaimed “anti-establishment” politician who – like many of Britain’s leading Brexiters – is in fact a lifelong insider. For decades, his family has dominated the politics of his home place of Davao, the largest urban centre outside the capital Manila. He used the template of his violent mayoralty of Davao to conjure an image of a country in existential crisis – in this case over narcotics – that justified any means necessary in response and cast him in the role of national saviour. While Boris Johnson proclaims that he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than delay Brexit, Duterte promised to dump the corpses of drug dealers to feed the fishes of Manila Bay. Lead Brexiteers’ talk of “betrayal” and “surrender” further stokes the image of their project as beyond political norms and restraints.
Brexit’s rhetorical inflation and the authoritarian style it underpins are effective because they play to deeper neuralgias in British – and particularly English – life. One is a boast of enduring national greatness that masks both discomfort at lost dominance and denial about the country’s history and place in the world.
I worry that the myths of Brexit have blinded too many Britons to who we are
If Britain were more honest with itself, there would be greater revulsion at the grotesquery of the Brexiter appropriation of the language of freedom struggle to describe the process of leaving an international organisation the country joined voluntarily and has always been free to quit. Talk of liberation, vassalage and unshackling only looks serious in a state still largely blind to a history of slavery and colonisation that shows what those words truly mean. A 2014 YouGov poll found that 59 per cent of Britons said the British empire was more something to be proud of than ashamed of, against just 19 per cent who disagreed.
Another fabulistic aspect of the debate over Brexit and its consequences is a complacency that stability and order are somehow the default state of society. The calls for a Dunkirk spirit to pull together for the greater good in the face of possible shortages are insults to people who have been forced to show such resilience by necessity rather than choice. The vision is also fanciful: in countries in crisis and conflict that I’ve reported from, people often talk with horror about how far and how fast the givens of everyday life – including the social ties that seem to bind us – can fall apart. The breeziness with which hardline Brexiters speak about the potential negative impacts of no-deal seems to me only possible for people who have never known true turmoil.
The clash of this fantastical outlook with the genuine fears of other Britons for the future has set against each other people who otherwise should have much in common. A tragedy of Brexit is that polls suggest a majority of Britons value social solidarity as expressed through enterprises such as universal healthcare, good free education and attractive shared public spaces. The hard-rightists who would destroy these goods – and their leftist mirror images who preach revolutionary upheaval from positions of personal comfort – have always been minorities. Yet the rule of the plebiscite has had the paradoxical – if predictable – effect of empowering these once-marginalised radicals.
I worry that the myths of Brexit have blinded too many Britons both to who we are and to the fragility and value of what we have, for all our society’s gross inequalities and injustices. Instead, we have the shaky promises of an official coin, which is headlined on the Royal Mint website but offers only a click through to an empty link. Late in this 12th hour of Brexit, as the government’s push for Brexit no matter what grows ever more aggressive, I desperately hope my country can take the chance to write a better story for itself – whether it leaves the EU or not.
Michael Peel is the European diplomatic correspondent of the Financial Times and author of The Fabulists: the World’s New Rulers, Their Myths and the Struggle Against Them