Katherine Viner, editor of the Guardian, tells us that when she woke up yesterday morning, she felt that Britain was ‘a different place’. It was the same for many of us. The country had suddenly flipped over to a condition that many sensed had long been coming, but with Boris Johnson’s overwhelming victory had finally become a reality. There seemed no way back. All our modest hopes – for a return, no more, to the state of social decency that had been ours, roughly speaking, before Thatcher came on to the scene – had been smashed. The future looked grim; cut off from our best friends in Europe, and ridiculed mercilessly internationally; apart from by the USA and Russia, who adjudged that Brexit was in their own interests, and may have helped plot to achieve it, but were no real friends of ours. Freed at last from ‘Brussels bureaucracy’, we were now soft-bellied and vulnerable, open to be exploited by US capitalist imperialism. On all the ‘Brits in Europe’ and ‘Europeans in Britain’ Facebook sites I subscribe to, Britons were bitterly complaining of losing their European citizenship, and Europeans of being made to feel unwelcome for the first time in their British homes with their British families. The sense of pain expressed there is distressing to read. Brexit is incontrovertibly the most disastrous foreign policy decision Britain has ever made, even taking Suez and the Iraq War into consideration. No wonder we’re depressed. I couldn’t even look at a newspaper or watch a TV news programme for 24 hours after the event. If I do it now, I have to have a strong drink to hand.
Actually, it’s not primarily ‘Brexit’ itself that has got me down. We’ve still to learn how exactly that will turn out. Johnson’s winning slogan, ‘Get Brexit Done’, was one of his (or Dominic Cummings’s) many blatant lies. Negotiating trade arrangements to replace those we are losing will take months, if not years. It is difficult to believe that the result will be as ‘hard’ a Brexit as Johnson seemed to threaten originally, in view of the crippling harm it must do to the British economy, and – as some commentators have pointed out, trying to cheer us up, I imagine – the freedom his huge majority gives him to ignore the swivel-headed Europhobic ideologues who made so much trouble both for him and for Theresa May while the latter had only a few votes to play with. We might even be able to wheedle ourselves back into the Common Trading Area, which was of course Corbyn’s compromise. I’d go along with that.
There are two things that worry me far more. The first is the effect of the process on our public life: the toxicity of the debate, the insults, the murder and rape threats, the anger, the xenophobia, the irreconcilable divisions… in sum, the sheer nastiness that has been either created, or perhaps revealed, in our national character; fired by the unprecedented degree of sheer lying and cheating that was resorted to by (mainly) the Brexit side, and especially by Johnson himself; and the distrust in politics and politicians generally – ‘they’re all the same’ – that this seems to have given rise to.
Since the election this has been diverted into a rather unsalubrious blame game on the Left, targeting Corbyn in particular. As a probably naïve and old-fashioned admirer of Corbyn, I’ve been distressed at the criticism he’s getting now from members of his own party, after he’s bravely – even heroically, in my view – withstood three years of the most savage attacks from the Right-wing press, with a rare dignity. This filial tribute by his sons, though obviously not impartial, expresses my view: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/dec/14/jeremy-corbyns-sons-condemn-despicable-attack-on-him-after-defeat. It’s unfair in the extreme, I think, to lay all the responsibility on his shoulders. The worst that can be said of him is that he is too ‘good’ for modern politics; from which I would infer the lesson that it’s our politics that must be changed – the press, for example: do British people realise how badly it compares with almost any other country’s, or with Britain’s own in the past? – and not the man. This must be possible. Other European countries – Sweden, for example – don’t have this problem. Until then it will take a long time, and a lot of effort, to restore trust and civility to our public life. It’s in this sense that Britain is now ‘a different place’ to me too.
My second worry is for what Johnson is going to do with his great majority in the future. He’ll have to pump money into the NHS – this will be a welcome effect of the Labour campaign – and into the police. But that won’t rule out further privatisation and Americanisation of the former; or the rest of the neoliberal agenda he and his and his wealthiest supporters are wedded to. And then there’s that ominous paragraph tucked into the end of the Tory election manifesto, promising a ‘reform’ of Britain’s parliamentary and judicial constitution (https://bernardjporter.com/2019/12/02/back-to-the-stuarts/), in order to further empower the Executive branch, which at the moment, of course, is him. That way, I believe, could lie Fascism, albeit of a misleadingly cuddly, Borissy, kind.