The party Boris Johnson will lead will not just be hopelessly divided, it will have no real mandate, in a country that is itself torn down the middle, writes Fergus Finlay
So, decency didn’t win in the end. Lies did. Lies about immigration, lies about the national health service, lies about how the economy would boom in the aftermath of Brexit. It’s the liars, not the meek, who have inherited the earth.
Now Boris Johnson is going to challenge for the leadership of the party he has just torn in half. And (although no prediction is safe anymore) he’ll probably win. The party he will lead will not just be hopelessly divided, it will have no real mandate, in a country that is itself torn down the middle.
And over the next year or so, assuming he meant what he said (a big assumption), here are some of the things he’ll have to do.
He’ll have to try to ensure that the millions of Britons who are about to lose their EU passports are issued with new ones, presumably with Her Majesty on the cover. He’ll have to ensure that those passports are enough to keep the people of his country safe when they’re travelling or living abroad.
He’ll have to work out how to keep Scotland in the Union, assuming he wants to. He’ll have to have a plan to ensure that people of colour, or refugees fleeing from oppression, are kept well away from British borders. He’ll have to find billions (the billions he has promised to save on EU membership) to pump into the health service.
Then there’s the economy, the currency, the threat to overseas investment, whether Britain will or won’t be able to avail of trade relations with the EU and all the conditions attached, agriculture wars, fishing wars, the little question of a land border on this island, Britain’s relations with the US and the rest of the world. A few little things like that.
All that has to be done against the background of a British politics in complete turmoil.
At one level, it might be tough to heap all the blame on Johnson. History will have to debate the question of who was the greatest opportunist – Cameron or Johnson? David Cameron committed to this referendum in order to win the last election in the UK. He was afraid of opinion polls that showed UKIP on the rise, and decided simply to steal their clothes.
Of course he thought it was a safe bet. It probably never dawned on him that he would have to pay out — the only thing in his mind when he was deciding the strategy was political party advantage.
But what he did was to unleash political forces that appealed to the worst insecurities and fears of the British people, and those forces destroyed him in the end.
Just as the Irish government should have resigned en masse when they deceived us about the arrival of the troika in 2010, Cameron’s government should have resigned last week. Instead, he tried to appear noble by falling on his sword, and effectively handed over the government of his country to a man who has succeeded in dividing the country down the middle.
I don’t remember a time when British politics was in a mess like this. Both of the major parties will now, in all probability, be led by people who cannot command the support of their own, and who are both perceived, rightly or wrongly, to have a major problem with giving and earning loyalty and respect.
In some ways the more troubling question in all of this is what it says about leadership, and the connection between leaders and people.
I read a quote somewhere over the weekend that pointed to the supreme irony of people who had presided over years of austerity, imposed in the interests of “the economy”, arguing that Britain had to stay in Europe for the sake of “the economy”. Think of the markets, they said, think of the banks. Vote for all the things we’ve come to hate most, the things we blame for all our troubles.
And I watched Paul Murphy and Richard Boyd Barret gloating at the result on the RTÉ news. Another victory, they thought, for the anti-austerity movement. Some victory, that delivered Britain into the hands of Johnson and Farage.
There is terrible failure in all of this. It must be clear to the entire political system that the alienation from established representative politics is getting deeper and more corrosive every day.
Alienation like this gives rise to dangerous movements, which have always tended to have the same modus operandi. Find a target — Muslims, Jews, immigrants — and blame them for everything that’s going wrong. Build a popular base of support on the back of that target, couple it with a spurious appeal to “taking back what we had before”. To hell with the consequences.
It’s what Trump is doing in the States, so far with remarkable effect. It doesn’t seem to matter how many lies he tells, how often he’s corrected.
He is hell bent on tapping into the anger of working class Americans with a view to winning the presidency on a false premise. And the lies might even work for him, as they did in Britain.
At the root of all this alienation is the forgotten subject. For 25 years, no politician who regards himself as sane has been willing to mention it.
The entire political discourse of a quarter of a century has ignored it. Social democracy has forgotten it, free market politics and economics have rejoiced in its absence from the debate.
The subject is inequality. Inequality is the thing that keeps children hungry, that promotes queues for health care and social services, that makes old people frightened about the future, that abandons people who are homeless, that makes it impossible to demand a proportionate contribution from those who have.
But inequality is also the thing that promotes enormous wealth, that turns people into consumers, that concentrates more and more influence into the hands of the few.
Those who favour inequality never talk about it — they talk about opportunity and risk-taking. Those who are afraid to champion equality talk about fairness. Both sides avoid talking about people. Instead they pick their labels carefully — favouring some, forbidding others. You’ll often hear them saying things like “Let’s be fairer to the homeless or the disabled.”
You’ll never hear them saying “Let’s seek a decent contribution from the rich and the greedy”.
As inequality rises, false prophets offer to channel anger. Neither Trump nor Johnson have the slightest interest in ever confronting inequality — because you can only do it by accepting that the rich and the greedy need to lose some of their accumulated wealth. But they will pretend, and they will do whatever it takes to stoke up bitterness. And when they win, and break their false promises, the bitterness will grow.
There is only one answer to all this. We have to begin rebuilding a politics of equality.
Those who believe in equality —in Britain, America, Europe, Ireland — have to start to come together with a new determination.
New voices have to take on the dangerous, myth-peddling, hate- fomenting voices of the hard right and the hard left.
Otherwise, we’re handing the future to them.
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