Thursday, April 27, 2017

Brexit, Democracy and "Doublethink": Britain's authoritarian future?

The author posted an article earlier this month calling Brexit a "triumph of the losers". The segments of society which voted to leave the EU were mainly the over-50's, but the largest "swing" vote probably came from lower-skilled workers who traditionally vote Labour.

It's worth remembering that there was a time, about twenty-five years ago, when "Europe" was a subject for cranks. It was still considered an issue for "cranks" fifteen years ago. These same "cranks" were the ones behind a leadership challenge to then-Conservative PM John Major over the issue of Europe (John Redwood! Remember him?), and those "cranks" had succeeded in labelling the Tories as a party "obsessed with Europe" as recently as the 2005 General Election. Well, it looks now as though the "cranks" have won.

A "coup" by other means?

It's also worth remembering that the EU referendum was a purely strategic decision by a former Prime Minister. Political leaders don't have referendums if they think they will lose: this is the unwritten rule about referendums, and why, until David Cameron grew a liking for them, they were considered in Britain to be an instrument of the dictator. The EEC referendum in in 1970's was designed to affirm Britain's membership of the EEC after the event, and thus went the way it was intended.
It tells us a lot about David Cameron's personality that he approved of three referendums in the UK in little more than five years (the AV vote, the Scottish referendum and the EU referendum): he clearly liked the idea of popular affirmation from the electorate. Maybe he just needed to feel loved?

Joking aside, the issue of "Europe", and its perception as the number one cause of Britain's ills, came about through a number of coinciding factors.
For a start, there's even a potential danger in "over-intellectualising" a vote that for the average voter was decided on often trivial and spurious grounds. Most voters, most people, do not think deeply about political issues simply because they have more essential things to think about, such as where the money to pay the electric bill will come from, and so on. Their information about "Europe", such as it is, comes from the tabloids and the Daily Mail, and the occasional segment on the early evening news. That, and their own observation of seeing Polish shops in every neighbourhood and seeing more foreign children at their kid's school.
There's plenty of anecdotal evidence that many people voted "Leave" because of such silly issues as "straight bananas", along with a general feeling that it was a vote for a change and against "the powers that be". When the level of political decision-making is so low, it's hardly difficult to sway a vote with the right strategy and media support. Donald Trump's election last year was further proof of that.

It might be tiresome to re-tread worn ground, but the rise of the Nazis (a bunch of "cranks" if ever there were one) really is "the manual" for how extremist, one-issue parties can gain legitimate power by deceit and subterfuge.
These kinds of groups can only gain prominence through a very specific set of circumstances. In the UK those circumstances led to the rise of UKIP from a fringe political party twenty years ago to the largest UK party in the European parliament in 2014. These same circumstances also led to David Cameron to over-confidently call for an EU referendum, which he then lost through fatally misjudging the mood of the electorate.
With a large segment of the Conservative Party being essentially "UKIP supporters in all but name", it was then politically-inevitable that Cameron's successor, Theresa May, was bound to follow the will of these one-time "cranks". Either Cameron's successor would have been be a "Leaver", or they would be a "Remainer" hostage. As it happened, May read the way the tectonic plates were moving before the referendum vote itself, and prevaricated on her position during the campaign. Thus she was positioned as the "safe" middling option in the leadership election.
It seems clear that, deep down, Theresa May is ambivalent towards the "cranks" as well. But the political reality is that she is bound to them, at least for the foreseeable future. One reason she wants a large majority in Westminster is to reduce their hold over the Parliamentary Party, giving her more freedom in the exit talks.
But the logic of this also cannot be taken for granted. For example, do you assume that people in the forthcoming election are voting Conservative because they want a "hard" Brexit or a "soft" Brexit? If the former, then it gives much more political power to the "cranks"; if the latter, how does that make it greatly different from the Labour position? It's hard to see how that position can be easily clarified either way in the coming weeks, without either becoming a hostage to the "cranks"on one hand, or being accused of subverting the "will of the people" by the "Daily Mail". Besides, there seems plenty of evidence to suggest a large swing for former UKIP (and Labour) supporters switching to the Conservatives. Given what the government has been saying since the referendum, and how May's strategy has been to steal UKIP's supporters, it would be impossible to see this as nothing less than support for the "cranks".

Either way, Theresa May is not offering the "strong and stable" government she is parroting. Instead, she seems to have undergone a Damascene conversion to the ranks of the "cranks". A small group of extremists have effectively taken control of the government through subterfuge and deceit, with the backing of influential media supporters.

"Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers"?

As said before, the surge in support for the Conservatives seems like nothing less than popular backing for Theresa May's strategy on Brexit. So on the face of it, calling Brexit a "coup" would seem ridiculous.
But the public mood is a strange thing. After such a divisive event as the referendum, it is understandable that human nature, like a pendulum, would want to go from one extreme to the other: after experencing great division to want to experience a compensatory unity. This may well be what May has sensed since the referendum, and is another reason for her desire to take advantage of this moment of unique "popular unity" with a resounding mandate. This also explains why there is a mood to now "get on with it" now that the vote has happened, and that those who are standing in the way of are seen as "saboteurs" by the Brexit-supporting segments of the media.

There is something almost unreal in this mood, as though a large segment of the population have been turned into Brexit-supporting Zombies - or more sinister, been cloned into Brexit-supporting imposters like a version of "Invasion Of The Body-snatchers". As a Remain-supporting observer of this, it is quite unsettling.
Human psychology, and group psychology, is what we're witnessing. It has been seen after many traumatic events. At a different level, the raft of quasi-authoritarian legislation in the US and UK post 9/11 was partly possible due to the traumatised national moods. This is something that Naomi Klein discussed in her book ,"The Shock Doctrine": when governments take advantage of a traumatic "event" (either opportunistically or by design) to instigate a radical program. In such a situation, group psychology means that the national population feel emotionally drawn together despite their previous differences. In such a situation, the government enjoys unusually-high levels of good will from the electorate, which governments are all too keen to cash in on. By calling an election three years early (one which she repeatedly said she wouldn't call) Theresa May is doing that right now.

This "Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers" effect won't last forever, which is why Theresa May is striking while the iron is still hot, before the Brexit talks bog down, before the economy slackens off. By the time of the next election, Brexit will have been a fait accompli, a past historical event.
May is hoping that the mood of "national unity" will continue through to the conclusion of Brexit, and when the economy worsens those who blame it on Brexit will be called "unpatriotic" and "living in the past", unwilling to work towards a positive, if arduous, future, outside of the EU. This is how "Groupthink" can overtake the national psyche, and how, with a supportive media, a cabal of one-time "cranks" can control the future.

The same has already been witnessed in the authoritarian psychology of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, where opponents are labelled "traitors" and "Gulenists", where self-inflicted economic wounds are blamed on Europe, Goldman Sachs and the "interest rate lobby". Change the names, and you could say much the same about the vicar's daughter, Theresa May.

Towards an "Orwellian" future?

The mood of national "Groupthink" makes it hard to see where an effective opposition fits into this. From an Orwellian point of view, an authoritarian government needs an opposition to be ineffective but also, conversely, seen as all-threatening. We can see this "Doublethink" in how the opposition in Westminster was portrayed in May's address to call for an early election: we can also see this in other countries (which Britain would do well not to want to copy), such as Russia and Turkey. We can expect to hear more if this kind of thing over the rest of the election campaign, where Labour and Corbyn are derided as a joke, but also warned as danger.

May has been described in the past, when she was at the Home Office, of not really having a real personality, and simply being known as being "intimidating" to other ministers, charmless and lacking charisma, and keen to blame others for her failings: what once would have been called "greyness" translates these days into May appearing as reassuringly "normal" and "one of us"; "intimidating" now translates as "strong"; "charmless and lacking charisma" now translates as "serious", and so on.
In reality she is a mediocre politician with a mediocre intellect, with no sense of humour and a tendency towards authoritarianism to cover her weaknesses and control others. But in this age of collective "Groupthink", her mediocrity is what many voters seem to find appealing and reassuring. In serious times, it seems people like a serious politician. And who needs an opposition when they're so useless, anyway? If that's the "will of the people", then who can argue with that?

What we might call the "Brexit cabal" (formerly the "cranks") have an agenda to take Britain out of the EU (tick!) and turn the UK into a low-tax, low-regulation utopia for the rich. With the referendum in the bag, they're already half-way there.
The "cranks" of twenty-five years ago were also the keenest Thatcherites, and many of those still control the largest media banners. Thatcher and her supporters initially supported joining the EEC in the '70s because it was then seen purely as a free trade bloc; once it morphed into a regulatory agency as well, it became as much an "enemy of the state" as the trades unions were. In this sense, leaving the EU was another "coup" for the old Thatcherites (or neo-Conservatives), and an ultimate re-affirmation of the Neo-liberal agenda of Ayn Rand.
With the media firmly on their side (at least those that matter), and the opposition now a plaything for the government, who can stand in their way?

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