This week’s column in The Herald
Like many populists and revolutionaries, at whatever end of the political spectrum, there tends to be very little consideration for what happens the day after they get what they want. It is always the “how to” or the “what happens next” that remain elusive.
What was it that Shakespeare wrote in A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
“The dove pursues the griffin. The mild hind makes speed to catch the tiger – bootless speed.
“When cowardice pursues and valour flies.”
Beware that moment when you catch the tiger you have been chasing. In politics it’s easy, though. When things go awry, it is always the fault of counter-revolutionaries, elites, the “others” in insider-outsider politics or anonymous swamp-things.
Britain’s process of leaving the European Union has been disastrous – even before Brexit comes into full effect next March. Over the past two weeks Britain’s ruling Conservative Party, the leadership of which initiated the Brexit vote, has been imploding.
Britain’s former foreign minister, Boris Johnson, who promised that leaving the EU would resolve the country’s problems, resigned two weeks ago and complained that his country would end up a colony. It’s funny, he was part of the drive that manipulated people’s emotions to get the “leave” vote. Then it actually happened (he caught the tiger) and he walked away because someone, actually, had to work on the what-happens-next and the how-to.
The “dream [to leave] is dying”.
David Davis, the cabinet’s chief Brexit negotiator and his deputy, Steve Baker, had also quit over the preceding weekend. By the end of that week the headlines read, “Party on the edge of a breakdown”.
Within another week the penny dropped. The populists, those who were at the head of the “leave” campaign, got what they wanted (they caught the tiger) but now seem ill-prepared for the what-happens-next and the how-to.
The hard work that comes after the day of the revolution, or the day when you have removed all others, or you shut out foreigners simply because they are foreigners.
This is what happens when you “demand” things, and you want to restore society to a perfect time of purity, untainted by foreigners or “others”, and you manipulate the emotions, insecurities and expectations of the disaffected.
In Italy it is the Roma, in Germany and Hungary it is dark-skinned immigrants, in the US it is Mexicans and anyone else whom President Donald Trump dislikes. In Britain it is those continentals. This is what happens when what you demand is influenced by “retropia”, nostalgia for the utopias of earlier passions.
“After 45 years of integration, a sudden rupture would affect almost every part of British life, with companies already stockpiling food and medicine, and the government looking at whether it needs to use the military to keep the country going,” the Financial Times reported.
Last Thursday, the chief executive of the British civil service, John Manzoni, warned members of parliament of “horrendous consequences”. In the meantime, customs officials are considering shutting down an almost 15km stretch of road to serve as a holding area for as many as 1,400 cargo vehicles, as up to 10,000 lorries suddenly require customs checks to enter the EU. The British government is preparing for chaos.
Across the Atlantic, the other populist, Trump wants to make America great, protect his country from foreigners, and especially foreign dependency (on trade), and instituted several protection measures.
Like most of the current wave of identitarians, nativists, purists – from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, to Hungary, Germany, Italy, Brexit and Trumpism – they have no plan beyond the revolution, the purges or for that moment when they actually catch a tiger they have been chasing. There is a great danger in all of this.
I try never to say this out aloud, but it is stupidity – the unwillingness to learn from history (and replacing science with rhetoric and incantation; elevating opinion over facts, and imagining Rumi’s romantic mysticism can change the world) that will be the end of humanity. Okay, the humanity part is probably a bit unfair.
Anyone who has read the history of the inter-war period will know that the politics of revenge ethno-nationalism – especially fascism and nazism – and protectionism were what caused European resumption of war in 1939.
Changing minds and effecting meaningful structural change cannot be had through retropia, nor can it be had through the rhetoric of revolution if you cannot address what happens after the revolution. The Brexiteers wanted to leave Europe, they called a referendum, they got the populist choice. It seems they don’t quite know what to do next. It all seems so terribly familiar.
From Trump to Hungary’s Vikor Orban, way too many politicians have been defanged and lionised because of the promise of a return to greatness. None of them, it seems, are prepared for the consequences, intended or otherwise, of their demands.