Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

When saying ‘No’ isn’t enough

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

Rosemary Bechler
19 July 2021, 5.39pm
Boris Johnson holds England flag outside 10 Downing Street ahead of Euro 2020 final match against Italy, July 2021..
Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Wire/Alamy.

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.

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.’

This Splinter was first published in the 1 July edition.

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