Monday 14 January 2019

The Far Right and Thwarting Brexit

I thought the morning had a darker aspect about it than usual, and lo it turned out Theresa May was in town. No walkabout down Stoke's pearly avenues, it was Wades Ceramics that was the entirety of her itinerary. And her purpose was to push her Brexit deal in what has variously been dubbed the capital of Brexit, and she laboured her point. Either her vote passes tomorrow evening, or we face a no deal Brexit or no Brexit at all. Well, if the UK's membership of the European Union was a technical matter I'd be a-okay with that. But it isn't. Brexit cannot be wished away, and the clock cannot be dialled back to 23rd June, 2016. Still, the idea that Brexit might not happen or, to be more precise, the consequences of it not happening is interesting, because it has the potential of becoming a very serious political crisis.

It suits Theresa May and her lackeys, like the doomed incompetent Chris Grayling, to talk up no Brexit in blood curdling terms because, well, scaremongering is the Tory thing to do. And they don't have any politics left beyond trite soundbites to defend their position anyway. Still, one shouldn't too readily dismiss some of the concerns they raise simply because they raised them. To be sure, casting aside a democratic decision is a serious, if not foolhardy business, even if the argument for doing so is couched in the sophism of more democracy, in the form of another referendum.

Let's set Grayling's observation that thwarting Brexit could prove a spur for the far right in more credible terms. The foundation of our febrile politics is a malaise, and this used to get the establishment hand wringing a decade ago. Long-time readers will remember the moral panic every time the BNP got themselves a councillor, and the applause a succession of New Labour politicians would bask in from sundry editorials as they stated "unthinkable" thoughts about refugees, and talked up the tough treatment of immigrants. Yet no matter how far right leading politicians were prepared to go, they only sanctified and legitimated the BNP's xenophobic bile. A bit of liberal do-gooding here and there about how nasty the BNP were was more than drowned out by the racist sentiments articulated by the press and mainstream Labour. What we now call and is openly described as a 'hostile environment' was the fertile soil that nourished the BNP and, to a similar extent, UKIP, and this culminated in the BNP returning two Members of the European Parliament in 2009.

Success ultimately did for the BNP, they couldn't keep it together. And political fortunes turned against them shortly after Nick Griffin's infamous Question Time appearance. The Tories were looking dead certs to win the 2010 general election, and as Labour collapsed into Brownite decline and recrimination the populist sheen rubbed off the BNP. In Stoke, once described as the jewel in the BNP's crown by Griffin, at the 2010 local elections half of their councillors were lost and come 2011 they were wiped from the council chamber completely. Entirely welcome, but the same deep alienation from official politics didn't go anywhere. With the BNP a busted flush across the country, the anti-politics slack was picked up by UKIP, especially after 2013. Nigel Farage himself spoke about how the party was doing politics a favour by picking up former BNP voters and effectively domesticating them. Yes, but it was enough to put the frighteners on the Tories. In 2014 UKIP won the largest plurality of votes in the European elections and sent to Brussels the largest contingent of MEPs, and in 2015 they polled well over four million votes. At every step of the way, like his predecessors in government, Dave did not take on the xenophobic right: he cleaved to them. And we all live with the consequences of this now.

The problem is there is a mass base for reactionary politics as cultivated by previous generations of politicians and nurtured by a press at the peak of its influence. Cowards and liars have rode it to prominence, and others have tried compromising with it - seldom has it been challenged. The question then for anyone interested in progressive politics is to directly confront and win over its more amenable fringes, while demobilising and politically dispersing the rest. Well over a decade of appeasement has caused the present damage, given us Brexit, caused a surge in hate crime, and seen regular but small mobilisations of the far right. By accepting Brexit but marrying it to a popular programme of the new class politics, Labour was largely able to see off the reactionary bloc in its heartland seats in 2017 while a lot of that vote transferred to the Tories as custodians of Brexit. If then the Tories are seen to be responsible for thwarting it, that poses a big problem for their voter coalition - and an opportunity for the far right.

Unfortunately, many of the people who poured scorn on Grayling's warning at the weekend are the sorts who've spent the last two-and-a-half years telling everyone who'll listen that Leave voters were thick and racist, that the referendum should be rerun/pulled because it was "advisory", and they were manipulated by Russians. In other words, exactly the sorts of people least capable of understanding how reactionary politics can have mass appeal, and therefore the most clueless when it comes to taking it on. It might only be social media knockabout, but remainy/centrist rhetoric aligns with everything the far right have previously said about the liberal establishment, and could prove a boon to mobilising reactionary support in the context of a second referendum or Brexit's cancellation.

There are a couple of other things worth thinking about. Building reactionary support might not trouble the electoral calculus of the main parties. It's hard to see how even UKIP can make a comeback without its best known figures attached to the project. But the price would be paid in even more hate crime, more far right mobilisations, more Tommy Robinson, and other awful political pathologies. Other forms of political violence can't be ruled out either. We saw how Brexit's toxic rhetoric culminated in a fascist murdering Jo Cox, and it could quite easily happen again. Now, none of this is about giving an imaginary far right a veto on how we go about politics now, as some of the self-same clueless centrists put it over the weekend, but it is about recognising that political actions have political consequences. If you are seen to trample on a democratic decision you don't like, don't act all surprised if you end up stirring anti-democratic political forces. If you strike an elitist pose, don't be shocked if right-wing populism finds itself a big audience again. Because in Stoke-on-Trent and many other places like it, the BNP and UKIP may have been and gone but the slab of reaction is there, latent, abiding, and ready to mobilise if it is antagonised and enabled.


Speedy said...

Labour is currently six points behind the worst Tory government in living memory. Isn't this partly because it is appeasing the far right in the form of hardcore Brexiters?

The trouble with Labour is its schizophrenia - its mouth says Brexit but the rest of its body says Europe.

There is no easy solution, but Labour should be brave and represent what is best for its people and supported by its membership - stopping Brexit (not another referendum) - and stand for election on this platform. It should call a no-confidence vote on this basis. And should stand on this basis - if it loses then at least everyone knows where it stands (and it would lose anyway) and if it wins it has the clear legitimacy of a vote.

People refute the idea that Corbyn and Milne are wishing for a disastrous Brexit that will magically transform the British people into self-sacrificing comrades, but it is hard to see how their continued support for a referendum result massively distorted by tabloid lies and Russian money reflects anything other than their own covert desire for some kind of post-Brexit socialist paradise.

Either that, or they are appeasing the far right against the clear interests of the people. Which one is it?

Phil said...

The same YouGov poll is also out of line with all the other polling companies, including Survation who not only give Labour a three-point lead, but also note remain/leave have barely changed and did get the general election right. They haven't changed their methodology whereas YouGov have ...

GW said...

So leftists should be hamstrung by fears of the racist right?

That's exactly the argument that Sarah Wagenknecht makes in Germany.

It's no more valid in Britain than it is in Germany.

Viva la Antifa and hoch die internationale Solidarit├Ąt!

Boffy said...

"Still, one shouldn't too readily dismiss some of the concerns they raise simply because they raised them. To be sure, casting aside a democratic decision is a serious, if not foolhardy business, even if the argument for doing so is couched in the sophism of more democracy, in the form of another referendum."

Its not sophism at all. I don't seek another referendum. I'd prefer a General Election in which Labour stood clearly on a promise to just scrap Brexit, but that is what happens all the time where a "democratic" decision taken at one point is overturned shortly after. The views of the 2015 electorate, were overturned, for example, by the 2017 electorate, when May called a General Election just 2 years after the Tories had been elected.

Its a strange view of democracy that it is something fixed in aspic, determined by one off votes by electorates who as soon as they have voted themselves cease to exist. That is particularly the case here, where 2 million young voters, of whom 80% will vote Remain, have joined the electorate, and 2 milion old people who voted 80% leave, have died. That alone would reverse the decision.

Why do supporters of Brexit want to deny all of these young people who will have to live with the dire consequences of Brexit for the longest time a right to decide on their future? That to me seems the biggest denial of democracy there could be, the most certain way of creating resentment over future years, and of destroying any hope of Labour of winning the support of those young people to the extent they are seen as denying them that democratic right, and destroying their future.

The proponents of Brexit keep saying all these old folk who pushed through the Tory Brexit are not bigots, but even every Vox Pop destroys that argument. As with the Channel 4 interview of the old bloke in Hanley yesterday, who told us "I hate the French. I've never liked them"

Those within Labour and the fake left that continue to act as apologists for this reactionary Brexit policy are aligning themselves ever more closely with those kinds of bigoted, reactionary ideas and dynamic.

Unknown said...

There is a contradiction in this piece. On one hand, don't give in to the far-right. On the other hand, do let them have their Brexit.

For my money, most people feel shut out of politics most of the time and don't commit hate crime because of it. So (and I could be wrong) the danger seems to be overstated.

I am a Remainer, but the idea that there is no problem with Labour campaigning for remain is wishful thinking. Even now there are many, many Brexit supporting Labour voters who are angry at them for seeming to block Brexit. And, as we know, the majority of Labour MPs have Leave voting constituents.

A second referendum with several different options, including staying in the EU, and a single transferable vote so that people don't have to vote tactically, is the only logical way out of this mess.

It is not sophism to suggest people should be allowed to make a more specific and meaningful choice, and / or change their minds.

Boffy said...

"Because in Stoke-on-Trent and many other places like it, the BNP and UKIP may have been and gone but the slab of reaction is there, latent, abiding, and ready to mobilise if it is antagonised and enabled."

It has always been there. The way to deal with it is to confront it not to appease by being afraid of democracy. What you propose is an affront to democracy seen by all those, especially that 2 million young people denied a vote on the most important thing in their lives for the foreseeable future, who will have far more right to be angry about that denial than any number of ageing biogots.

Why are you afraid of this collapse of the centre? It is a good thing. But, your position reminds me a bit of Marx's criticism of Proudhon's understanding of the dialectic. In other words, you want a collapse of the centre so long as it involves only a pulling away of the left pole, but without any corresponding pulling away of the right pole. The expansion of the right is a necessary corollary of the growth of the Left, as the political battlefield gets clarified.

Your opposition to a further vote is really an application of the same approach of the liberal/conservative-social-democratic politicians over the years, which is that when you are not confident, or are afraid of engaging in a serious political struggle against entrenched reactionary ideas, particularly where those ideas have the support of some elements of the working-class, you instead seek a bureaucratic solution, by denying a vote, which requires such an all out political struggle!

Politics is war by other means to reverse the old dictum. The forces of our opponents have been more clearly defined. The last thing we should do is to muddy the waters, by appeasing the bigots. Know your enemy, and prepared to fight. This is now like a civil war, fought out on the ground of modernism versus reaction, bigotry versus rationalism.

Choose your side, and know which side you are on. This will be a battle that is decisive for at least a generation.

andrew adams said...

Of course there will be consequences if Brexit is stopped, there will also be consequences if it goes ahead. But if your main concern (which is reasonable in my view) is the possible rise of the far right then going ahead with something which is essentially a project of the far right doesn't seem to me to be a sensible way to go.

Dialectician1 said...

That 'slab of reaction is there, latent, abiding, and ready to mobilise if it is antagonised and enabled' is best illustrated by the recent YouGov poll that showed 59% thought that the British Empire was unequivocally 'a good thing'. ...........

DFTM said...

The polls have consistently put Labour and the Tories neck and neck, except when an election nears they claim the Tories will easily win and they end up neck and neck when the election results come in! This is remarkable given that the entire media is railing against Corbyn every minute of every day and that we have had 40 years of neo liberal ideology shoved down our throats on a daily basis.

What the elections of the last few years has proven is that a party standing on a social democratic platform can win power in the UK. Patience is a virtue and we should remember that the difference between a Theresa may government and an Yvette Cooper government is so small as to be virtually indistinguishable. If we had a Blairite led labour party way ahead in the polls all this would actually confirm is that those who vote Tory now would move over to a Blairite Labour party, reinforcing the argument that there is no difference between Blairites and Tories!

Those who claim that Corbyn should be ahead in the polls and cannot win elections are simply those who don’t believe in Social Democracy. Those who call for the return of Blairites are simply Tories.

Of course we all know speedy is a fraud.

Anonymous said...

Anybody who cites YouGov polls - BUT IGNORES ALL THE OTHERS - is not to be trusted. For the record Speedy, no survey from anybody other than YouGov has put the Tories ahead for over two months.

If you didn't know that before, you do now. Hopefully you will adjust your outlook accordingly :)

DFTM said...

The EU vote is not the most important thing the young will vote on in their lives or in their foreseeable future.

The Tories or the liberal centre (which Boffy wants to work with to defeat Corbyn) can quite happily turn them all into debt slaves within the comforting bosom of the EU. And the Tories or the liberal centre can provide them with a life of precarious work and rented accommodation within the bosom of the EU. The Tories and the liberal centre can also provide them with a future of homelessness, substance abuse and mental illness all within the comforting bosom of the EU. The Tories and the liberal centre can merrily lead us all into ecological disaster within the comfort of the EU and they can most certainly pauperise the working classes within the bosom of the EU. The Tories or the Liberal centre can continue to wage war all around the world within the comforting bosom of the EU.

And incidentally the young people know this.

The reason democracy is not under threat if we simply stayed in the EU is because democracy amounts to something more than putting a cross on a piece of paper as any Marxist worthy of the name should understand.

Incidentally one day Boffy wants us to tail the liberal centre and the next day he is hoping for its collapse. Is this guy schizophrenic or does he believe the dialectic involves holding 2 contradictory points of view at the same time?