Death and the referendum

As tragedy strikes Britain's referendum, it's too late for Berlusconist Boris Johnson to retrospectively distance himself from Farage's hateful campaign. Chapter 12 of 'Blimey, it could be Brexit!'

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
19 June 2016


Jo Cox, ITV, fair use

With the murder of the young Labour MP Jo Cox outside her constituency surgery, a pall has fallen across the referendum campaign. She voiced support for refugees. Her assassin cried “Britain first” before he knifed her and blasted off a shortened firearm. A shudder of revulsion went across the country that the UK could become like America. The murder threatened something valuable about British political life. Just as they shout at each other in the close proximity of the House of Commons, we too want to be able to see our politicians face to face and tell them what we think, without security screens coming between us to depersonalise politics even more.

The nature of the referendum campaign itself seemed responsible for releasing the furies. Activity froze, rallies and events were cancelled in a genuine act of revulsion. The arguments had become hoarse, repetitive and alarmist. In the face of an English defiance of its aim to Remain the government threatened the most dire consequences, the prime minister even declared it would “put a bomb” under the economy – repulsive rhetoric in an age of terrorism. Unable to win their economic argument, free-market Leave settled on migration as the way to communicate a call for ‘democracy’ they had twisted into a psychological rather than political demand to “take control”.


Above is a montage of recent Daily Express front pages. Bomb alert! Invasion! Take control! The campaign seems to have fuelled an unmarried male fascist, with a history of mental illness. He found himself represented by everything that he was not: a female married socialist MP who was “a force of nature, a five-foot bundle of Yorkshire grit and determination absolutely committed to helping other people”. The gender issue is important here, as Adam Ramsay says in his post on fascist terrorism. When the man charged with her murder appeared before Westminster magistrates court, he said, “My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.

The prime minister and the Labour opposition leader, both Remain supporters, travelled together to Cox’s constituency in Yorkshire to lay wreaths. They also recalled parliament to express its abhorrence, consternation and resolve. This shut down campaigning for three of the final six days before Thursday’s vote and halted the momentum the Brexit side was gaining. Cameron and Corbyn acted to re-establish and reaffirm the authority of their status as the ones we rely upon and trust, as they laid their wreaths and delivered a few portentous clichés. A parliament that was prevented from debating the crucial, renegotiated relationship between the EU and the UK that defined the referendum's start, will now reconvene in an atmosphere of togetherness that silences dissent. Does the country then go to the polls with subservience restored, or stay at home in enough numbers to assure Remain a majority? Is this how Britain will mourn and atone for the murder of Jo Cox?

Almost certainly it is. For, in addition, those who want a cosmopolitan Britain became increasingly enraged by the racist drum beat behind Brexit. Alex Massie, the Scotland editor of the London Spectator (which supports Leave) pinned the blame and delivered a rebuke that went viral, "When you present politics as a matter of life and death, as a question of national survival, don't be surprised if someone takes you at your word". In a fair world this would have been directed at the prime minister and his bomb not just the Brexiteers. It wasn’t. The yellow press had been too one-sided and now they suffered their own, fully-warranted broadside. In a rap from the capital, James O’Brien of London’s LBC radio delivered a monologue to that pointed towards the nature of media support for Leave:

Is it even vaguely possible that a man living in Britain today could be pushed to the brink of murder by political debate and the political situation? I don't care where you come from, I don't care who you vote for. Can you conceive of circumstances in which somebody living in Britain today could be pushed to a point where they contemplate this sort of conduct. I'm afraid to tell you that I can.

If I was to be reading my newspaper every single morning and be told that my very existence was under siege from people I've never met and never seen but keep getting told are coming here in their hoards. If I was to open my newspaper or turn on my radio or TV to hear that everybody who is coming here is a rapist and they've got their eyes on our women and we've got no chance whatsoever of protecting ourselves. And unless we do this or do that, or treat them like this or treat them like that, then we're all doomed, we're all going to hell in a handcart.

"If I was being told it's time to reclaim our country every time I got out of bed in the morning, I'd begin to believe it, I think, if I didn't have the knowledge and the insights and the education to know that it is not true. We want our country back from whom? We want our country back from when?

Helped by a large push from the IMF and further dire warnings of the costs from the Chancellor, it will be astonishing if most of the ten per cent of undecided voters the Democratic Audit have identified do not now swing to Remain, whose supporters will be more motivated to go to the polls. Those who favour Leave will pause. The dreams of Brexit and in particular those of Boris Johnson, who otherwise would have been prime minister within a week, are vaporising.

He deserves it. I don’t say this with glee or hold him in the scorn and derision that many do. On the contrary, the exaggerated personal animosity directed towards ‘Boris’ is mostly an emanation of the bad faith of his opponents who fear his challenge. A self-declared liberal cosmopolitan, he brings conviviality into politics. From an immigrant family he favours immigration. Unlike those who intone that complaints about its scale are “a legitimate concern” and then offer nothing, he says it must be controlled in order to be protected. Unlike the Labour party especially, Johnson has consistently objected to the EU’s non-democratic and oligarchic methods. It is beside the point if he does so now for reasons of ambition, a politician without ambition would be truly dangerous. It is because those who Remain do not have a reply to Johnson’s actual arguments that they fall back on abuse.

He had a bold strategy towards the EU in which he really desires to stay. His desire is to roll back the remit of the European Court in Luxembourg while retaining membership of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. His approach is the opposite in both respects of the government’s ridiculous prospective, set out by Home Secretary Teresa May and ruthlessly dissected by the barrister Marina Wheeler QC (who is married to Johnson). Given that both Germany and the United States are utterly opposed to UK withdrawal and that the EU as a whole needs to discard its commitment to “ever closer union”, Johnson believes a Brexit vote would shock them into agreeing to the terms Cameron set out as his objectives in his 2013 Bloomberg speech. These were squared with Johnson and his wife at Chequers beforehand. The prime minister set out five principles that had to be met in order for him to support the UK staying in the EU, among them:

"My third principle is that power must be able to flow back to Member States, not just away from them. This was promised by European Leaders… But the promise has never really been fulfilled. We need to implement this principle properly.

Let’s not talk about that! The five principles have gone the way of the Good Society. I want to put in this reminder of them here because the campaign is taking place at different levels simultaneously and one of them is the democratic case, especially given Cameron’s failure to reform it in the way he set out. It is singled out by Charles Moore writing calmly in the Telegraph, and by a compelling Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in an anguished conclusion that is magisterially unflinching about the likely economic costs. Or, on the left, by Olly Huitson who notes that “When asked about European opposition to TTIP, EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom replied, ‘I do not take my mandate from the European people’”. Huitson concludes:

The EU is not simply undemocratic, it is actively contemptuous of democracy. Better to fight our own battles here, under our own imperfect democracy, than rely solely on the benevolence, wisdom and competence of men we can never elect, and we can never remove.

The call to leave the EU for reasons of democracy and self-government has not swayed voters, however, for whom the Westminster system is as remote as Brussels. If the leading politicians who condemn the EU’s lack of democracy had created more of it in the UK, or even expressed a desire for it, their call to “bring it back” so as to “govern ourselves” would have had more credibility. Instead the leaders of Leave went for “taking control”, especially of “our borders” as the message that brought people to support them. Tragically, for many, democracy is too far off to feel tangible. The decision to support “Out” expresses the wish not to be powerless. It is a way of saying things cannot go on like this – things being what people earn, or rather don’t as glittering towers arise that give them the finger from the City of London.

With England’s cruel, prurient media there is no way to stop this then bleeding into the racism and neo-fascist populism of the Farage wing of UKIP. The morning of Cox’s assassination, Nigel Farage posed before a poster of Syrian refugees crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border with its slogan screaming, BREAKING POINT. There was hardly a touch of neo to its fascism. Steve Bell’s cartoon said it all.

hating point.png

Steve Bell, The Guardian, 16/06/2016

Presented with an image of the advert Boris Johnson tried to distance himself saying:

That’s not my politics and that’s not my campaign. My view about this is that the loss of control over immigration is one aspect of a much wider problem, which is to do with the lack of democratic control generally. I think if you take back control, you do a great deal to neutralise anti-immigrant feeling generally.

I’m passionately pro-immigration, pro-immigrants, and have seen how my city, London, benefited from it massively and personally how my own family has benefited from it.

“It was too late. You have to disassociate yourself from the vileness in advance – especially when it is clearly on the way”

It was too late. You have to disassociate yourself from vileness in advance – especially when it is clearly on the way. Not wishing to divide the Leave campaign, Farage’s despicable attitudes were tolerated. A permissiveness of hatred and loathing in others went ahead of the Brexiteers, for all the civilisation of its upper class advocates and genuine lack of bigotry among many crushed economically. If Leave wins, many who live here will feel fear.

In September 2003 Johnson joined up with the Spectator’s Italian correspondent Nick Farrell to visit and write about Silvio Berlusconi, then prime minister of Italy, in his Sardinian villa and its acres of gardens. They were not, they decided, going to bother him with small details of corruption charges or how he gained his $12 billion fortune. Instead, as he had just been denounced by Sweden’s foreign minister Anna Lindh for removing Italy from the tradition of West European values, they were going to decide whether Berlusconi was “on the whole a force for good in Italy, Europe and the world.”

Johnson’s article must have been written just before an assassin stabbed Lindh to death on 11 September in the run-up to a referendum on whether Sweden should join the Euro. She supported it doing so. Her killing did not alter the vote and the country rejected Europe's currency. Although Johnson’s book of essays, Have I got Views for You, in which his article appears, was published in 2006, he does not have the courtesy to acknowledge her fate. He concludes about Berlusconi:

Suddenly, after decades in which Italian politics was in thrall to a procession all gloomy, portentous, jargon-laden patitocrats, there appeared this influorescence of American gung-hoery. Yes, he may have been involved in questionable business practices; he may even yet be found out and pay the price. For the time being, though, it seems reasonable to let him get on with his program. He may fail. But then, of course – and this is the point that someone should write in block capitals, fold up and stuff in the mouth of Anna Lindh, Swedish foreign minister – he can be rejected by the Italian people.

She may not like it but he was democratically elected and can be removed by the very people Anna Lindh insults. If we are obliged to compare Silvio Berlusconi with Anna Lindh, and other bossy, high-taxing European politicians, I agree with Farell: as the narrator says of Jay Gatsby, a man Berlusconi to some extent resembles, he is ‘better than the whole damn lot of them’.

A revealing encounter - and a warning to us today. The permissiveness of wrongdoing in Johnson’s indulgent portrait of the Italian demagogue suggests a pattern that now extends to Farage. Lindh was not a Eurocrat, she was also an elected politician. Johnson’s clichés suddenly seem tired. The crudity of parading Italian voters’ capacity to “reject” Berlusconi as legitimating his abuse of power has become a trope of Gove and Johnson's referendum campaign. It is a demagogic definition of accountability and democracy itself. Here, Johnson makes no mention of the fact that Berlusconi owned most of Italian television and bent its coverage to ensure elections were hardly fair.

in his eulogy to Italy’s arch manipulator and populist, you can see the politics of Johnson’s bid for the leadership of Britain. He wants to become Prime Minister of its politico-media-entertainment complex in order to enjoy getting away with what he can get away with. And he will deploy the fact that voters can at some point ‘kick the bugger out’ to justify everything in the meanwhile.

As this was about to be published, Johnson called for an amnesty for illegal immigrants from the platform of a Vote Leave rally. I witnessed his being first pressed on this issue at a glorious London Citizens rally in Westminster Central Hall in his first mayoral campaign in 2008. Illegal immigrants are hideously exploited as they have to work without papers. Of course they should be amnestied. Johnson agreed to add his support. But there was little noticeable campaigning from him, despite his having the megaphone of Mayoral office and a weekly column in the Daily Telegraph for eight years. Positioning without force. In this case it is an attempt to separate himself from Farage without criticising him directly for fear of 'splitting' the Leave campaign.

Michael Gove deployed a similar exercise. Asked about the Farage poster, he told Andrew Marr that when he saw it he “shuddered”. He then added that he believed in free speech, ie he did not attack Farage's right to display it. But after the shudder? Gove could have exercised his own right to robust free speech by issuing an immediate, comprehensive reprimand.

The issue here is so important it demands exactitude. The more that Leave is associated with bigotry and racism the less successful it will be. This is a sign of Britain’s relatively successful move towards becoming a multicultural country. And is why Cameron, Osborne and Remain are pressing the Farage button. At the same time they are vulnerable in this area because of the complete failure of the Remain campaign to address issues of democracy. It means they are unable to withstand patriotic calls to run our own affairs. However, their Tory colleagues who lead the call for repatriating our democratic sovereignty, who I dubbed the Maggyites in an early chapter, have failed to deliver an inspiring democratic programme, for obvious reasons. They have fallen back on on prejudice while being unable to talk about human rights. Hence their inability to take the initiative and draw a clear line between their campaign for Leave and that of Farage. Not to speak of their own official Vote Leave inflamatory posters about Turkey. We have to conclude, therefore, that there is no such line separating them. It may be unfair to define Johnson’s resurrection of Berlusconism, and Gove’s hyper-capitalism - as it is aptly described by Pat Kane - as racist. But a soft variant of fascism is contained within it. Not of course the militant, regimented variety. Rather a good laugh at the expense of the dark-skinned other. Behind all their denials, we are right to fear that if there is a majority for Brexit it will permit people with a different accent, or whose cheeks are not a blotchy off-white, to be asked, “Why are you still here?”.

This is intolerable. Vote Remain.

All the chapters so far, from 22 March to 13 June, of Anthony Barnett's 'Blimey, it could be Brexit!' are now available in a single PDF form here convenient for download into a tablet or reader, introduced by Jamie Mackay

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