Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

When saying ‘No’ isn’t enough: a Splinter meditation

'What I want to examine is why... progressives can’t use the same tactic as their rightwing counterparts of trashing the opposition'

Rosemary Bechler
29 September 2021, 3.04pm
Supporters of the ‘Sardine di Roma’, February 2020.
Pacific Press Media Production Corp. / Alamy. All rights reserved.

June on openDemocracy was packed with exposés of dodgy practice by Boris Johnson ‘s government, many circling around the ‘Orwellian’ FOI unit our journalists have been investigating for some years. There have also been successful probes into the misuse of non-executive director appointments who are meant to deploy their expertise to scrutinise what the government does; the unusual secrecy surrounding the setting up of a new defence research agency (ARIA); the weakening of an election fraud watchdog; and ministerial preferences for using private email over departmental emails let alone official routes of communication.

Much of the attention has gone quite understandably to the croneyism enabled by this undermining of laws from within. But there is something else that all of these malpractices, large and small, have in common. That is the sheer unwillingness of this government to subject its dominant narrative to any kind of questioning, let alone dissent. The excuse is that democracy, as David Cameron described FOI requests, “furs up the arteries of government”.

Johnson’s Government has previous form on this. We should not forget that ‘Getting Brexit done’ was the winning formula for the 2019 elections, abjuring scrutiny and parliamentary debate and leaving all the difficult decisions to be worked out and fought over afterwards. Before that, there was the fracas in which Johnson tried to prorogue Parliament rather than have an open parliamentary Brexit exchange, and his subsequent declaration of war on the Supreme Court for having the powers to prevent this.

But the overriding example is the way the Tory Party from Cameron to today has deployed the results of the binary choice Brexit referendum of June 2016: 52% in favour, 48% against. Our June exposés have coincided with the fifth anniversary of that historical turning point and some fascinating articles have emerged marking the retrospective.

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The two I warmly recommend are by Ian Dunt for the Politics platform, on ‘Brexit five years on: How Britain fell to right-wing identity politics’, June 24, 2021: and Chris Grey for his Brexit Blog, on ‘When a Country Cancelled Half its Citizens’ June 25, 2021. Both of them consider the wider impact on our political culture of the major attack on democracy they identify, which in 2018 (as Leonie Rushforth mentions in her July Splinter) I referred to as the rise of the ‘monocultural National Us’.

Back then I was reading Albert Weale’s timely anti-Brexit polemic, ‘The Will of the People – a Modern Myth (Polity), in which he showed how the argument behind the Brexit governance of May and Johnson was arrived at:

by equating the will of the people with the outcome of the referendum. It goes on to equate government policy with the referendum result. It ends up by equating government policy with the will of the people. In consequence, parliament becomes the enemy of democracy and has to be replaced with government by executive decree. And all this in the name of the will of the people!… One people; one will; one-party state.

On the fifth anniversary serious appraisal seems once again possible. There has indeed been time to ponder not only the falsity of this unitary ‘people’s will’, but the profound impact it has had, notwithstanding, on Britain’s entire political culture, a culture now in multi-layered constitutional crisis.

For Ian Dunt the turning point was the moment when May and Johnson chose to “embrace the right-wing identity politics of Farage”. They didn’t have to: “the referendum vote could have been pursued in a pragmatic way which reflected the closeness of the final result, or… could have been articulated in an inclusive manner which respected people’s multiple identities.” But instead: “Suddenly the real binary walls of identity came down… You were this or that. With us or against us. This is the creation of a homogenous group, with a shared consciousness and a general will, which is mystically interpreted by the leader…”. Dunt is deeply disturbed that the construction of this exclusionary ‘English tribe’ has become, “the core function of government.”

Chris Grey picks up the same “important but remarkably little discussed aspect of the impact Brexit has had since 2016” – “it’s not just that the nation is divided over Brexit, but that Brexit, as a project, is deliberately divisive of the nation in treating only its supporters as the ‘people’… ‘the 17.4 million’ was used as a battering ram in order to treat 16.2 million like dirt. And now that Brexit has happened, the same treatment is still being meted out through the endless culture war against those stigmatised as ‘woke’ and unpatriotic in what Maheen Behrana aptly calls 'the weaponisation of the metropolitan bogeyman'."

What I want to examine is how progressives should react to such an onslaught, and why we can’t use the same tactic of trashing the opposition. Hence my title.

Meanwhile, it has been a source of joy to me on openDemocracy this June to come across another commentator (one whose extensive academic credentials are not confined to the study of C18th and C19th villain-heroes) who is also attempting to explore what the excellent Lori G .Beaman refers to as “the social imaginary, or the way people think about the collective ‘us’ ”. Her object of analysis is Canada’s ‘National Us.’

An aggrandizing identification

The two retrospectives on Brexit’s fifth anniversary have much to contribute on the workings of the ‘monocultural National Us’ which I believe now has Britain in a neck-hold. Ian Dunt spells out the identity mechanism which underpins it: ‘You were with us or against us. This is the creation of a homogenous group, with a shared consciousness and a general will, which is mystically interpreted by the leader.’

How does this work? It is a fictional identification between the individual and a much stronger version of ourselves, often a strong leader full of derring do who encourages us to see ourselves as the Real People, enshrining the People’s Will: alternatively a premier league football team; or the nation itself. In the case of Anders Breivik, the massacre of the sons and daughters of the social democratic political class made him the saviour of his nation from an incoming tide of Norwegian multiculturalism. This is an aggrandizing mechanism. A National Us possesses superior power, force or force of number, and a sense of impunity.

The strong leader claims he is able to break any rules we might feel constrained by in order to defend Us. This is necessary because it addresses an undertow of humiliation and loss of status experienced by the individual member. The strong leader encourages Us to see ourselves as undeservedly under threat from Them, an existential foe. Not only in Brexit Britain but in countries worldwide from Italy to India, we see the recent springing up of aggrieved majoritarianism, threatened by Muslims or migrants whose numbers are often vastly exaggerated into swamps and invasions. It is important to note that as with racism, the enemy are all tarred by the same criminal or otherwise threatening brush. It is the same with the Us: individual members have no distinct qualities. A large range of often quite conflicting affiliations to a Brexit strategy for the UK was rendered monolithic by May’s very successful slogan, ‘Brexit means Brexit’. What mattered was that Brexiteers knew who they were – the monocultural National Us – and didn’t need to be told what that meant by anybody.

Crucially, the monocultural National Us feels at once superior and under threat. Every football cup final offers plenty of opportunity for both, a potentially lethal combination which ultimately leads only to violence. When it comes to football, there is the well-known spike in cases of domestic abuse after big games, regardless of whether they are won or lost, although increased by a defeat. In the case of that Jewish National Us – the Zionist state of Israel – it has led to decades of violence against the Palestinians.

So what shouldn’t a progressive opposition do?

Chris Grey expounds brilliantly on the Brexit referendum result – “ ‘the 17.4 million’ used as a battering ram… to treat 16.2 million like dirt” and the escalating impact of this ongoing identification in the “weaponisation of the metropolitan bogeyman”. His conclusion is that the emergence of an exclusionary English tribe is the “real cancel culture of recent years”. But any self-respecting Brexiter might have balked at Grey's title – When the Country Cancelled Half its Citizens – and as a result failed to move into the rich arguments beyond.

Those Remainers encouraged to call for a second 'People's Referendum' when the polls began to give them a 52% reverse advantage, could perhaps regard 'Half its citizens' as an understandable shorthand. But from the point of view of their opponents, there is all the difference in the world between ‘half’ and the 52% majority the Leavers had achieved in the original referendum result. For these, voting is an exercise in force of number combined with winner-take-all. And that 4% advantage made them the Real People, and should have ensured the total erasure of the Them voice forthwith. To them, that is what democracy means.

Herein indeed lay the tragedy of the organised UK Remainers. Despite the early warning sign of the violence that issues from enemy images which was the tragic murder of Jo Cox MP, they chose to follow exactly the same etiolated concept of democracy. Contrary to drawing on the cosmopolitan impulses for which they were frequently decried, and opening up a debate which could mobilise the vast range of Remainer views on Brexit in a way that might even have infiltrated the minds of the undecided, they sought a slim numerical advantage in a ‘People’s Vote’ that would reverse and thereby erase the first referendum result. The Remainers became one hostile block. As an openDemocracy author commented, “I have never heard anyone speak up for those who think the EU is a terrible thing but on balance, the UK should stay in for a little while longer and figure out the best course of action calmly.”

Far from trying to persuade the broad range of people who might have been persuaded by a deeper debate, for example, about soft and hard options on Brexit – a choice skilfully withheld from Parliament by the Tory leadership throughout the Brexit years – they treated all Brexiters with the same revulsion, declaring them all ignorant losers, too stupid to realise that they were destroying the advantages and prosperity of the Real People – the Remainers! The single exception to this – a tour made by Caroline Lucas to ‘listen to Leavers’ – was rapidly engulfed by the resulting rush to tug-of-war in which two aggrieved majoritarianisms locked horns over a prostrate and fragmenting UK.

So what should progressives have done?

July 2016: Tribute Board for Jo Cox MP in Parliament Square, London, UK, memorial for people’s messages remembering the murdered MP. | PjrNews / Alamy. All rights reserved.

What should progressives do?

The far right and conservatives who support them nowadays are interested in the appearance form of political change necessary to keep the status quo essentially as it is: with themselves among the first beneficiaries. The required style of leadership includes adopting a fundamentally anti-democratic posture against consultation, negotiation or debate and in favour of ’getting things done’ – easily achieved when there is a total split between what you say and what you do, since fundamentally, you have no intention of doing anything.

You have many powerful institutions on your side to help you to defend power as it operates now. None is more important than the media, especially what is left of mass media. You tell the people whose support you require what they wish to hear. This is what fake news is, that is when it isn’t involved in undermining the reputations and crushing the careers of Them.

As progressives, we have a completely different set of tasks ahead of us because we are committed to real systemic change on behalf of and in the interest of ‘the many’. Instead of the fantasy identification with the ‘strong man’ offered to humiliated individuals of a rightwing persuasion, the left need to persuade real people – a hugely diverse spectrum of people – that they can come together themselves and act effectively in their common interest. We have been hearing moving accounts of how our forebears, the Greenham Common women discovered organisational effectivity for themselves in last week-end’s joyous 40 years’ commemoration. They never pretend that ‘the journey’ was easy!

An early challenge for progressives is to know who we are. This is easy for the far right, such is their need to belong that it is immediately fulfilled by the fantasy monolith of the monocultural National Us. Once in place, it is just a matter of ‘winning’ against the existential foe, since ‘winner-takes-all’. So the only thing they do need to know is “Who We Are”. Compare the emergence of the Sardine movement. In the early months of 2020, people packed Italy’s squares in protest against Salvini’s lightning-speed construction of the Real Italian People whose interests he alone could defend against migrants, Roma and other existential enemies. They were united only in their opposition to Salvini’s definition of the Real People – after all weren’t they real too? So they shrugged, called themselves ‘The Sardines’ and got on with packing the squares.

Once the initial protest was over, however, it became apparent how difficult it was to convert a horizontal movement into an organisation that can move beyond just saying No, building on the different constituencies and capturing the various institutions that must be won over for progress in our complex political systems. For that what is needed is a two-prong exercise in extensive persuasion that happens to be the exact opposite in all respects to the structuring of the monocultural National Us. And that is no accident.

Just think of the fantastic work done by Theresa May’s oft-reiterated slogan, “Brexit means Brexit.” In one fell swoop it united their people into a monolithic phalanx without any need for debate and with any future debate ruled out of the question. The fact that no-one has known what Brexit means from 2016 to this day – as I write, the UK negotiates the unnegotiable re the borders and peace treaties of Northern Ireland – is immaterial. “Brexit means Brexit” told us “We know who we are and who our enemy is”.

Even better, in response, a thoroughly needled enemy closed ranks and refused to allow a single intelligent criticism of the EU – on its response to the financial crash, its treatment of Greece, its merciless ‘migrant problem’ or rising fascism in Hungary and other EU countries to which the EU has turned a blind eye – to cross its lips, immediately rendering itself unconvincing to any intelligent doubters, let alone skeptics whom they should have set out to persuade. Both sides played the same game – but only one benefited from saying No.

All the Brexiters who UKIPised the Conservative Party and then took over the helm of the British state had to do, was to polarise the country in the first place and make sure it stayed polarised. A binary referendum out of the blue was a good beginning, and the UK became considerably more polarised and fragmented once the Liberal Democrats (misleadingly named) proposed revoking the Article 50 that paved the way for it, thereby erasing it from history. Leavers of course responded by telling opinion pollsters that they would happily part with Scotland and Northern Ireland to boot, if they could just secure a No Deal that saw England turn its back on the EU and walk away.

Two-pronged approach

What should progressives have done to avoid this dead-end? Any institution containing large numbers of passionately committed and articulate leavers and remainers such as the Labour Party in opposition at the time could have modelled itself on the excellent Brexit citizens assembly organised by academic experts in deliberative democracy in Manchester at the end of 2017. They debated six key issues regarding what kind of relationship between Britain and Europe (in all its variety), people in the UK really did want (in all their diversity). Sortition was used to select people from both tribes reflecting the demographic make-up of the UK. The results were impressive, but the process – the reconciliatory sense of citizenship resulting from considered judgment – was a political game-changer. (It is noticeable that in 2019, the threat of the Archbishop of Canterbury conducting a similar Brexit citizens assembly caused panic among leading Leavers in the Tory Government.)

Before I am accused of reducing politics to talking shops (a professional liability at openDemocracy) let me quickly add that this alchemy of deliberative democracy is not enough on its own. Enter the second prong.

Real change comes about thanks to the action of real activists, so what we also need is an empowering, horizontal movement engaged in open-ended, democratic, pluralist growth. This is a democratising movement that skills people in crossing the barriers and boundaries erected by the proliferating enemy images of the right wing; skills in non-violent communication, in empowering organisation, deep democracy and mutual pleasure. These qualities are particularly important when it comes to persuading far right supporters to part with their aggrandizing fantasies. Only a real experience of empowerment and community can oust these. Black Lives Matter leaders must be hugely encouraged by the waves of heartfelt support they have received from white supporters world-wide, not only for their own sake, but because this gives them a better chance to reach the millions of white supremacists in our midst. Which progressive, American or otherwise, can turn his or her back on the 73 million Trump supporters who still believe the election for president was stolen from them, and just say, ‘No!’ ? Luckily, Anthony Barnett reports on the interesting progressive left coalition that helped Biden win. Will this grow into such a movement for real change?

My favourite example remains the 15M movement (the indignados) and the role the PAH (anti-evictions platform) in particular played in the rise to fame of the great feminist municipalist and Mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau. A decade later Carlos Delclos, a social movement expert living in Barcelona at the time summed up its vital features in my interview with him:

The PAH are in many ways the best migrant rights organisation in Spain, because they organise around a common need – housing – and say, “ I don’t care if you have got documents. If they try and evict you, I’m going to show up at your house to block it, if you will show up at mine when they try to evict us!...

That’s really the key to the success of the indignados and the situation in Spain right now, this ability to take hopelessness and make it about that vision! It’s not the vision of society that they propose ‘out there’, but the one that they put into practise which made the difference.

The key to the indignados was how they organised in the midst of the hopelessness dominant in Spain prior to their emergence, pushing developments in a virtuous, subversive, emancipatory direction, as opposed to this game of, “How can we play with xenophobia without being xenophobic? ” which was going on in the rest of Europe. They said, “We have to be the protagonists of our own change. We have to break down borders in our own practise.

In conclusion, leftwing iconoclasm can be a wonderful thing. At its very best, however, it is equivalent to the consciousness-raising phase of feminism in which women realise that they share a legitimate interest and that it is theirs to fight for. Which is why, when I come across progressives or leftists saying No to speakers, books ancient or modern or art-works, or even toppling statues into the nearest river, I ask myself one question: What are you going to do next? Because it is the follow-up that really makes a difference, since this is where persuasion begins.

If no one has a clue or indeed much of an intention of working out who to persuade next, then I’m afraid I might suspect you of confusing progressive action with the winner-take-all competitive sport of neoliberal identity politics, whose forces bid against each other for jobs, department funding or the social recognition measured in Facebook likes and competing adoring tribes. This doesn’t lead to progressive change. It plays straight into the hands of the right and far right.

This piece is based on original contributions to the July, August and September issues of Splinters.

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