What is the most apt cultural metaphor with which we can interpret the behaviour of the political classes over Brexit? Reflecting on the parliamentary theatrics of recent weeks, perhaps it is the slapstick bungling of the Carry On films that recommends itself: Theresa May played by Barbara Windsor; Kenneth Williams as Jeremy Corbyn; Sid James as Michael Gove; Charles Hawtrey as John Bercow; Kenneth Connor as Jean-Claude Junker; Joan Sims as Yvette Cooper; Bernard Cribbins as Boris Johnson.
The funny side of the, mostly dire, Carry On genre was that even the humblest of viewers could look upon the buffoonish characters, who might notionally be in positions of power (sovereigns, soldiers, doctors and policemen), and think, 'I could do better than that'. And, indeed, to the extent that it is possible to laugh at the current situation, the rest of the population can rightly look down on our absurd cast of rulers who have made such a hash of Brexit and think precisely that.
Come the day comes when the British polity manages to get itself beyond Brexit, what will we be left with? Will we stand back in admiration at how our national democracy has come through this most turbulent of epochs? Or shall we be surveying something more risible: the preposterous remnants of a clapped out political edifice? What, then, does Carry On Westminster tell us about the contemporary governance of the United Kingdom?
Carry On Westminster
A number of commentators have argued that the dramas over the past months exemplify a mature democracy in action. Here is the Mother of Parliaments, with its endless debating and inconclusive 'indicative voting', wrestling in the finest traditions of Edmund Burke with the mechanisms of EU withdrawal. Its honourable members are deliberating in a robust, but peaceful, fashion on the key questions of Britain's political future. In their interminable congeries they are, in fact, engaging in the innumerable reconciliations that are required to reach a consensus based on the general will of the people. Britain will muddle through and emerge the other side, intact and still standing.
Illustrative of this line of thought is Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond. 'Britain is known as a bastion of democracy, and how we manage a challenging and complex issue like this is of huge interest', he stated to the international press on a visit to Washington. According to the likes of Hammond these management efforts have entailed:
- the 'championing' of the rights of the House of Commons against overweening executive authority (as opposed to the open subversion of over a century of parliamentary precedent on amendment selection by the Speaker of the House, the appointed keeper of the rules, against the advice of parliamentary clerks);
- the constitutionally appropriate defence of voters against their own 'risk-laden' fantasies (as opposed to the 'constitutional outrage' of MPs voting by a majority of one, actually cast by a convicted criminal, to thwart Brexit against election promises that the 'decision of the electorate in the Referendum must be respected'); and,
- the offering of a 'confirmatory' vote in which the British people can 'make good the harm' that the 2016 referendum has done (as opposed to the attempted political manoeuvring of the population into a Hobsonian, demeaning, and undemocratic second referendum between staying in the EU and Brexit-in-name-only).
The main point on which the country is not really divided at all is that the politicians, like the hapless characters of the Carry On films, have colossally messed it all up. Not to worry, though, said the Chancellor in finest Carry On style, because 'In a year's time, when this is behind us and people are focused on other things, all this will be forgotten'.
Britain's finest Burkes
The 'nothing to see here' Hammondite School of Nonchalant Indifference is reinforced by compelling evidence of shambolic incompetence combining with the blatant self-interest of an out-of-touch political class. In its congenital inability to execute a binding democratic instruction to leave the European Union, mandated by its own hand, and endorsed by explicit commitments in party manifestos that gained the support of 85% of the electorate, the Houses of Parliament are showing that they are simply not up to it. The amateurishness of Britain's rulers was revealed in their inability to observe even the most basic of negotiating tactics with the EU, which might have at least tried to avoid the equivalent of promising to hand over your betting money while simultaneously laying all of your cards face up on the poker table.
The Burkean ideal that parliamentary debate facilitates a thoughtful dialogue between the past and the future to secure necessary compromises based on the aggregation of popular will rests on the premise that members of parliament are 1) sufficiently learned and understanding of British political history and traditions to make good judgments, and 2) are actually broadly representative of popular opinion.
If we examine point 1 first of all, it is interesting to note that in the lead up to the last election in 2017 the British political establishment did evince a certain appreciation of the public mood. One Conservative grandee, Oliver Letwin, an author of the party manifesto, no less, averred: 'We are leaving the single market. We are leaving the customs union. We are going to have control over our own migration'. His Labour counterpart, Yvette Cooper, meanwhile, a former minister, declared, 'it was a referendum that was fought in good faith and nobody said at any time "you know what, I am not going to respect the result afterwards"'.
The sincerity of such noble sentiments was undermined when both politicians became leading architects of the Commons revolt against the government, which culminated in the recent round of indicative votes on Parliament's preferred form of Brexit. The episode did not indicate much ability of parliament to make good judgments—more precisely it showed an inability to make judgements at all, since the politicians agreed on nothing but their fear and rejection of a No Deal scenario. Polls do not show that the public shares this fear to nearly the same extent; indeed, on the current trajectory the Brexit Party campaigning on No Deal is likely to top the EU elections, should Britain be forced into them by the dilatoriness of Westminster.
That there are people of integrity in parliament there is no doubt. Whether there are enough of them is another question entirely. To indicate the lack of proficiency and judgment in government, the following question might be posed: what level of ineptitude does it take to negotiate a withdrawal agreement to which your own coalition partners in the Democratic Unionist Party cannot sign up? Anyone with a cursory understanding of Northern Ireland's recent past would have known what the sensibilities of the DUP would have been over the issue of the so-called Irish backstop.
That those in power should possess such basic knowledge is now, apparently, too much to expect. It is not just Brexit, of course. That expected and actual competencies in British politics are misaligned has been evident across a range of issues for years. For example, in September 2018 Northern Ireland Secretary, Karen Bradley, admitted to The House magazine that she had not known that 'people who are nationalists don't vote for unionist parties and vice-versa'. One wonders what the long-suffering citizens of Northern Ireland do to deserve such consistent governmental nescience.
Towards unrepresentative democracy
Basic competence and judgment aside, though, it is the question as to whether the political classes function effectively as the repository of the popular will – point 2 – that has been most exposed by the Brexit imbroglio. It is the scale of indecision and mendacious obfuscation that gives pause for thought as to whether all the parliamentary antics are really the magnificent democratic spectacle that some observers believe. The fact that the majority of politicians in the major parties, and their epigone in the media, academia, the arts and the Civil Service, remain overwhelmingly, for, well, 'Remain', and are prepared to quash a popular mandate demonstrates the extent to which the institutions of the state are representative not of 'the people', but of something else.
What that 'something else' actually is has been a question that a number of serious scholars have pondered since the 1990s. Danilo Zolo in Democracy and Complexity (1992) and John Gray in False Dawn (1998), for example, perceived that the practice of politics in the post-Cold War era was beginning to reflect not the maturation of the liberal democratic endeavour but rather its opposite. The reaction of the political classes to Brexit in the wake of the 2016 Leave victory in the referendum can, in this respect, be seen as the symptom, and certainly one culmination, of a broad set of trends that are observable both in the UK and elsewhere.
What is it, therefore, that we are witnessing? For an answer to the question, let us begin by turning towards the politics of some non-western societies.
Case studies in authoritarian democracy
In the mid-1990s the political theorists, Daniel Bell, David Brown, Kanishka Jayasuriya, and David Martin Jones coined the term 'illiberal democracy'. These scholars sought to identify the distinctive political practices in the Asia-Pacific that had, amongst other things, delivered decades of sustained economic growth. In their book, Towards Illiberal Democracy in Pacific Asia (1995), they detected a number of commonalities in the systems of governance across the states of the Pacific littoral.
The governing mechanisms of these states were, they discerned, often based around formal constitutional structures: they possessed parliaments and assemblies and held regular elections. Yet, these societies were not free in the liberal sense. Liberties that other democracies enjoyed were restricted. Press and media were state-licenced. The judiciary was deferential to government. Strict limits on the rights to free expression and association were imposed. Avenues for dissent and oppositional politics were highly constrained.
For nearly three decades the more successful practitioners of illiberal democracy, such as Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea—but also to some extent other countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia—pursued a political-economic model that delivered rising prosperity, industrial and technological development, double-digit GDP growth, increased living standards and high educational performance. In effect, illiberal democracies reflected a social compact. Authoritarian guidance by technocratic elites was accepted in exchange for political stability and economic goods.
Thus, degrees of participatory politics combined with authoritarian supervision were manifestations of illiberal democracy. The term was popularised further in the early twenty first century, and extended beyond the Asia-Pacific, by pundits like Fareed Zakaria, whose book The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, appeared in 2003. What distinguished illiberal democracies, particularly in their Asia-Pacific incarnation, was that although the ruling parties in the region were to varying degrees autocratic, corrupt and nepotistic, they were united around common goals that often enjoyed a wide measure of consensus.
These goals incorporated the promotion of internal cohesion and the mobilisation of the population towards economic development. Above all, these ruling arrangements were committed to upholding and reinforcing the concept of the nation state. For example, following independence in 1947 Indonesia even formally styled itself a 'Guided Democracy'. Its commitment to illiberal political governance was enshrined further after 1967 in a ruling ideology known as Pancasila (Five Principles), which encompassed a commitment to democracy based on national unity, a belief in one God, and social development for all Indonesians.
What we have seen over the past twenty years is the gradual spread of illiberal, corporatist, globalist, forms of governance into the West. Western models of liberal democracy were once based on a different kind of social compact than that which characterised the states of the Asia-Pacific. Since the end of World War II, political consensus was fashioned around sustainable systems of health and welfare provision, which itself were framed by a shared public morality, common identity and mutual obligations, such as wealth re-distribution via progressive taxation. Under the European welfarist model the state combined a commitment to economic and political freedom whilst functioning as the container and protector of the rights of a definable national community.
The rise of the transnational aristocracy
Western notions of social democracy began to be fractured, however, by market reforms from the 1980s onwards that led to the globalisation of finance, labour and industry. Nation states moved away from 'civic associations' based on mutual obligations and progressively transformed themselves into 'enterprise associations'. The emergence of the 'competition state' began to challenge established conceptions of cradle-to-grave welfarism. Large swathes of the economy were laid waste as traditional manufacturing re-located to countries with cheaper labour. Wages and living standards for many ordinary citizens were driven down by large-scale immigration, while workplace reforms curtailed pensions and other benefits.
Unlike the Asian model, however, reigning over the new economic order in the West has been a secular, transnational, aristocracy committed not to any communitarian goals embodied in a nation state, but to its own preservation and enrichment. Most notably this is exemplified in the rise of disembedded capital markets, which has the seen the massive concentration of wealth, built mainly on debt financing, in cosmopolitan centres like London. The consequent growth of a transnational financial, technocratic and intellectual elite in these cityscapes is increasingly differentiated from the majority who have to endure low paid work, zero hours contracts, squeezed living standards, and out-of-sight housing prices.
Out of this broad social and economic milieu, arises the new ruling caste: predominantly city dwelling, middle class, deeply conformist, often privately schooled and university educated, and generally suspicious of the opinions and social mores of those they consider their inferiors amongst the rest of the population. It is unsurprising, perhaps, that this self-invoked elite is uncertain, and sometimes hostile, towards ideas of representative democracy. The last thing they wish to epitomise are the views of those that they disdain, even if they rely on their votes to get them elected. Instead of representation of popular opinion, the world of the elite, techno-aristocracy prefers to regard the electorate as consumers of political spin and media manipulation.
These socio-political trends have been, to emphasise, a long time in the making. For nearly three decades writers from different ends of the political spectrum have drawn attention to the rise of these anti-liberal, anti-democratic forces and the increasingly imbalanced outcomes they were creating. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, for instance, highlighted the clientelist relations between governments and a corporatist media in Manufacturing Consent (1988). In Coming Apart (2012), Charles Murray meticulously documented the growing wealth disparities and social segregation among the American population. Murray noted, for instance, how prosperity was shifting disproportionately towards a tiny upper percentile, while the vast majority of workers had not experienced any real wage increase since the mid-1980s.
These developments have hastened in recent years, especially though not exclusively in the Eurozone. Young people are increasingly unable to enter the productive workforce, and older when they do enter if, indeed, they are ever able, and with greater debt burden from the outset, with consequent effects on age of marriage, home ownership, parenting and so on. A 2015 Taxpayer's Alliance report on the real scale of the national debt found that total government debt amounted to £8.6 trillion in 2014-15, equivalent to around five times Britain's GDP. In more prosaic terms this equates to about £320,000 for a family of four. More than half of these liabilities arise from unfunded pensions.
In effect, a whole series of formerly 'national' enterprises are running on steam produced by an entrepreneurial fire long ago extinguished by the triumph of cronyistic bureaucratism. Some have already run out—British Home Stores, for instance, was sold for £1 to escape £500 million in pension liabilities; by 2016 British Airways had funnelled over £3 billion into its pension scheme since 2003, still only covering under half of its employees, and yet had a deficit of £3 billion, as against a market capitalisation of £3 billion—in other words, it is a pension scheme with airplanes.
In order to try to normalise the pensions crisis, and not because underlying economies are healthy, central banks will have to raise interest rates, which have been flatlined for years since the 2008 financial crisis. There is a German word—verschlimmbessern—that means 'to-kill-a-patient with-a-cure', which is handy because it will be needed to describe the next iteration of the financial crisis. This will likely start in European banks—Deutsche Bank, Germany's largest, is already insolvent—but will spread generally as the toxic cocktail of lack of faith in governments combines with large rises in interest rates.
As an aside, particularly problematic for Germany is that its economy and politics are the most deeply invested of all European states in the status quo. It is a net consumer of security through NATO, a net recipient of wealth through the Eurozone, and able to wield global political influence via European Union tools that it could not deploy unilaterally. When the 'European Project' falls apart, Britain and France may have some vestigial sense of national interest on which to fall back, whereas the German elite truly faces an abyss of broken illusions.
The rise of illiberal rule… only without the benefits
The cumulative effect of the long term working out of these developments has, amongst other things, been a hollowing out of political institutions and a diminution of active political participation, seen most graphically in the decline of mass based political parties. The Irish political theorist Peter Mair called this state of affairs 'ruling the void'. The void is increasingly filled by the bureaucratisation of processes that expand the surveillance powers of the state and the proliferation of rights and laws, which invariably corrode democratic accountability.
In Britain, the arrival of Blairite 'third wayism' after 1997 and its emphasis on 'In the Thick of It' media manipulation, 'eye-catching initiatives', outright dissembling (think WMD in Iraq), free speech controls, and cosiness with big-business, marked the decline of principled politics and its descent into deception, clientilism and bureaucratic obscurantism. The effect has been to produce a set of ruling structures that are estranged from notions of representative democracy, which tolerate, and even welcome, growing socio-economic inequity, state intrusion into the private sphere, and censoriousness in public debate.
The Conservative Party in Britain is undoubtedly now also fully embroiled in corporate machine politics. It was once a mass-based party with as many as three million members at its high point in the 1950s, as was the Labour Party. Now its membership barely squeaks over a hundred thousand. Organisationally the party is run primarily out of its central headquarters and is heavily at odds with its largely Brexit-supporting members.
When the Remain supporting MP Dominic Grieve lost a vote of confidence from his local party association, the ex-Chancellor George Osborne, an incipient media-magnate-cum-pundit, now editor of the London Evening Standard, and an ardent Remainer, advised on Twitter that 'Conservative central headquarters ought to suspend the local party'. The idea of elites replacing a recalcitrant electorate with a more compliant one used to be a political inside joke. Jokes that may once have had a place in the frolics of a Carry On movie now seem to comprise our political reality, only with the fun bits taken out.
In other words, what we have seen emerging in many western nations over the course of thirty years is a movement along the same trajectory towards illiberal democracy in terms of the reduction in freedoms, but without any of the material or social benefits associated with the Asian model of development. In fact, the western form of illiberal democracy has had all the opposite effects. Instead of promoting any kind of national vision and fashioning a socio-economic consensus based on shared civic values, the political elites in the West—imbricated in their own variants of corruption, nepotism and crony capitalism—have presided over a record of de-industrialisation, rising income inequality, wage depression, a declining middle-class tax base, multicultural confusion and falling levels of education and literacy attainment, to name but a few of the baleful consequences.
The political and economic elites, by their actions have demonstrated that they have no loyalty to the nation state and its wider polity. They do, though, have a loyalty to the advancement of their own interests at the expense of the rest of the population, as evidenced—to take but one instance—by the revelations of the widespread abuse of parliamentary expenses in 2009, information about which the House of Commons attempted to prevent being released into the public domain (this example, incidentally, is trivial in comparison to the way in which the elites bailed themselves out of the 2008 financial crisis, which they had caused).
In such ways, their efforts have contributed to the unravelling of the social contract between the rulers and the ruled, and in so doing have contrived to undermine national cohesion. Reluctant to be subject to the consent of the governed, large sections of the political elites choose therefore to disembed themselves from the nation state, just like the global capital markets so many of them worship. They give their primary allegiance not to the nation state but to a different kind of state arrangement, one that is post-national and supranational, and has its capital in Brussels. This is illiberal democracy western style. Brexit is its fledgling antidote. And that is why what is happening in British politics right now is the most momentous issue in global affairs today.
Towards an illiberal end of history?
So far, we have revealed the character of the new political classes and described the conditions for their emergence. But how, and with what consequences, did they and their brand of ersatz democracy originate in the first place, and where might we be heading? An assessment of this question inevitably touches on many complex factors, but for a foreshortened answer we can perhaps draw insights by re-tracing some recent historical footsteps back to the end of the Cold War. Once again, the emphasis here is to shift the focus away from our current obsessions with Brexit and attempt to understand how we got here.
Most of us know how the story of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War goes. Victorious Atlanticists flushed by the unexpected demise of the Soviet Union developed the 'end of history' thesis that posited the permanent global triumph of a liberal democratic order. Over the next two decades this self-regarding thesis was systematically discredited in a series of foreign policy interventions culminating in the ill-fated adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
Well before liberal interventionism reached its apotheosis after the events of 9/11, however, the hubris inherent in the end of history thesis caught the acerbic eye of Thomas Sowell in his 1995 book, The Vision of the Anointed. In this work he observed that self-congratulatory systems of thought drove foreign policy not out of any perceived imperative to safeguard American lives but principally with a view on 'how to showcase the superior wisdom and virtue of the anointed, such as promoting disinterested knight-errantry around the world, a vision that has turned cold-war doves into post-cold war hawks from Bosnia to Haiti'.
Looking more closely at how the end of history played out within the former Soviet Union itself offers perhaps an even more salutary perspective about how we have ended up in our present predicament. As it turned out, far from a triumphal march towards liberal democracy, the transition away from communist rule proved a more depressing experience for the Soviet republics and many of the satellite regimes of the Warsaw Pact. The semi-optimism of Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika merely heralded a movement from the era of Red oligarchism of notional communist rule to colourless oligarchism of a corrupt elite.
By the mid-1990s, the descent was complete with the decline of Russian politics into the drunken degradation of Yeltsinism—a sot in command of a whole nation suffering a collective almighty hangover of ideology. To visit Russia at the time was to witness a society in the throes of the Second Coming as imagined by Yeats:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre.
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
It was perhaps not lack of conviction of the best, or the intensity of the worst per se; it was rather more that all the good seemed to be in despair, everyone and everything was for sale to survive, while all the bad were thriving like buccaneers filling their boots with loot. At any rate, the failure of the liberal end of history to make an appearance in Russia paved the way for the era of sober, but authoritarian, Putinism and the advent of what western scholars termed 'managed democracy'.
In many ways, the great interwar propagandists Walter Lippmann and Edward Bernays saw it all coming much earlier, and at least in the case of the latter rather gloried in it. In his 1928 work, Propaganda, Bernays declared:
Ours must be a leadership democracy administered by the intelligent minority who know how to regiment and guide the masses. Is this government by propaganda? Call it, if you prefer, government by education. But education, in the academic sense of the word, is not sufficient. It must be enlightened expert propaganda through the creation of circumstances, through the high-spotting of significant events, and the dramatization of important issues.
But there can be hardly any doubt now that this is the norm of politics today—at the front, in the centre, and thanks to Brexit now openly espoused by the establishment.
Of course, if the elite establishment had a record of excellence in the fields of social and economic attainment (as in some Asia-Pacific countries), along with an impressive ability to predict events in strategic affairs, then our capacity to criticise might be circumscribed. As it is, the record of mismanagement, leadership by spreadsheet, and endless folly extending from costly foreign wars to economic crisis is appalling. The list of abject failure constitutes the kind of thing that would get one drummed out of a business run for the benefit of shareholders in an instant, or promoted in the case of one run by management for the benefit of managers.
The creation of circumstances
If we return to Putin's Russia, we can see that the hallmark of 'managed democracy' is a kind of 'smart power' that is repressive but indirectly so and based on the interests of big-business plutocrats. Whereas in the old days dissidents in communist Russia were shot immediately, or tortured then shot, or imprisoned then shot, or imprisoned indefinitely with or without being tortured, under Putin's dispensation they were more typically economically marginalised, socially brow beaten, and only rarely murdered: a set of lessons that could have been lifted directly from the playbook of Pacific Asian illiberal democracy.
Arising out of the same kinds of globalised forces at work in the international system Britain, in its own way, is moving towards a managed democracy via the Bernaysian technique of 'expert'-led propaganda and the creation of circumstances. In a managed democracy ballot boxes are not crudely stuffed but votes of 50% + 1 on this or that matter of the day are sufficient mandate for implementing wide-ranging actions, so long as the mandate comports to the desired direction of the oligarchical order. If it does not, then 50% + 1 is a sign of a divided electorate, which necessitates the exercise of extreme executive caution, or perhaps even 'brave' leadership that determines that the majority is actually a minority (because, for example, more old people who were the majority have, not-very-regrettably died), or vice-versa, according to the whim of the metropolitan elite.
BBC Radio 4 comedy listeners used to know that when someone asked, 'can you smell sulphur?', they were invoking the cognomen of the Blairite Labour politician Peter Mandelson—the 'Prince of Darkness' a noteworthy Master of Political Spin. It was a punchline, in other words, and it got laughs because the 'engineering of consent', as Bernays put it, has long been a resonant descriptor of politics.
These words written by Bernays in 1928 still inform the professional worldview of the political class:
No serious sociologist any longer believes that the voice of the people expresses a divine or especially wise and lofty idea. The voice of the people expresses the mind of the people, and that mind is made up for it by the group of leaders in whom it believes and by those persons who understand the manipulation of public opinion.
It is what makes it seem sensible, politically plausible, and otherwise within the bounds of acceptable behaviour, for politicians to believe that an unfavourable electoral decision merits re-visiting in the form of, say, another 'people's vote' or a 'confirmatory referendum', or whatever other sleight of hand the ruling caste wishes to institute to reverse awkward political stances with which they disagree.
The trouble for the politicians, though, and by extension everyone else is that like most of the BBC's lame comedies these days, the joke is wearing off. Too many people smell the sulphur, too many see the sleight of hand, too obvious is the political ratchet, too many voters perceive that while their voice may not be divine it does not deserve the lofty contempt of the political class that asked for it in the first place.
Equally importantly, in the age of the Internet no one in government truly knows how to manipulate public opinion… yet. Information technology, the sheer volume, and creativity of social media has wrong-footed them all; though undoubtedly there are plenty who wish to sell governments a solution—eager buyers make for legions of enthusiastic sellers, like the drug trade where demand drives supply. Those in power sometimes possess flashes of awareness and correctly perceive that there has been a precipitate drop in popular trust in politics, amongst other establishment pillars; less willing are they to acknowledge that the blame for it lies properly heaped at their own feet.
It is not the fault of the demos when it ceases to believe in or trust those who rule over us. Neither is it necessarily a sign that it is disinformed or misinformed. Suspicion of politicians is a feature of a healthy democracy, not a flaw—a thing that used to be more widely understood.
The Putinist norm
Nowadays, though, a Putinite-lite managed democracy has a distinctive appeal for the political class. One of its attractions is that it does not require that dissenting views are silenced outright. Instead, recalling our Chomsky, who in turn channelled Bernays and Lippmann, a news-entertainment complex frames dissidence carefully. It is portrayed relentlessly as ignorant and prejudiced, whether maliciously or not, and otherwise irredeemably beyond the pale in accordance with the shifting dictates of political correctness. Cultural power is weaponised to the achievement of political aims: the composition of news panels is deliberately skewed; the political complexion of studio audiences is engineered to serve the oligarchic narrative. In other words, it all bears an intriguing similarity to the manner in which the state sponsored media in Russia regularly disports itself.
The striking thing in modern British politics is how obviously the levers of control are operated. Just like the workings of Putinism, there is little subtlety to them. For example, in October 2018 when the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, compared the European Union's hostility to the national sovereignty of its members to that of the Soviet Union he was sharply rebuked. Ex-civil service bigwigs lined up to decry a perfectly valid simile. Prime Minister Theresa May predictably joined in the criticism. Deviation from the authoritarian orthodoxy is impermissible.
On the other hand, as we have seen, no amount of hypocrisy is unforgivable—the same people who as recently as a year ago declared the referendum to be a once-in-a-lifetime, clear-in-or-out question, which voters would decide, and politicians would implement with no-going back, are now claiming the complete opposite with a straight-face. The situation has temporarily suspended the salience of Left vs. Right wing politics, in the process producing all sorts of strange bedfellows and alliances of convenience.
Supposed right-wing Brexit supporters with long memories of the obscure might even find themselves agreeing with the spirit of veteran left-wing radicals like the Guardian's George Monbiot as seen in this 1995 review of Ted Simon's The River Stops Here (1994):
The greatest battle any environmental campaigner faces is the battle with him or herself. At every turn we are taught to fit in, to respect authority, to refrain from rocking the boat. Confronting the state forces us to acknowledge that the maxims that we were brought up to follow are false: cheats do prosper, virtue does not triumph of itself, and the truth will out only with the most arduous winkling.
Not that the author of those lines approves of it, but replacing the one word 'environmental' with 'Brexit' makes the paragraph sound like one from Nigel Farage's stump speech.
Perhaps it is a glimpse of recognition of their former selves that fuels the Orwellian hysteria of some radical Remainers. 'By any means necessary' was supposed to be how they were going to take down the system; but now that they run the system, 'by any means necessary' is how they will maintain it. For example, The Independent—a former newspaper— carried an op-ed that called, in all seriousness, for the banning of UKIP and the just-launched Brexit Party from the public sphere. The author, noting with approval how Spanish electoral authorities had dealt with the rise of the anti-immigration Vox party by forbidding its participation in scheduled television debates, encouraged Britain to do likewise:
UKIP and the Brexit party are registered political parties. Nigel Farage has his own show on LBC and writes for the Daily Telegraph. Gerard Batten is interviewed regularly on primetime political shows. Those media establishments who pay them are doing so, knowing full well that they are giving a platform to people who have between them incited violence against MPs, made light of comments about rape towards female MPs and whipped up hate against the Islamic community.
Spain knows full well the horrific consequences of fascism under Franco. They have done the right thing by preventing a dangerous far right party from getting a seat at election debates. It's time we followed their lead.
The direction of travel is obvious and may be summed up as 'if you can't beat it ban it'. For point of reference, at the time of writing polls suggest that the two Brexit-supporting parties are together enjoying the support of 35% of likely voters—a result if that if repeated in the election would wipe out the main parties, in particular the Conservatives. And the journey always seems to start with some variation on 'yes, free speech, but…'
The worm turns, it turns, and turns
Yeats invoked the image of a falcon spiralling but a better allegory for our time is probably the mythical Ouroboros—a serpent eating its own tail, expressing the philosophical idea that a thing can cycle infinitely between one form and its opposite. It can obviously be applied to politics; hence the classic epigram that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
For instance, Edward Peese's History of the Fabian Society (1916) begins with a quote from the conservative-leaning Spectator magazine, a self-congratulatory paeon on the national state of affairs as seen from the heart of the political establishment in the last quarter of the nineteenth century:
Britain as a whole never was more tranquil and happy. No class is at war with society or government: there is no disaffection anywhere, the Treasury is fairly full, and the accumulations of capital are vast.
The Fabians reckoned this to be delusional complacency, a reflection of the profound ignorance of the views of the bulk of the population on the part of the ruling class. The Fabians were 'gradual radicals' committed to 'pragmatically fundamental' societal change. No other country of the time would or could have produced such an oxymoronic combination of political impulses and tactics, imagining paradigmatic change without the violence that attended it in seemingly every other place; that Britain did, and that the Fabians exist today as the world's most venerable socialist organisation (indeed, it is now the de facto research agency of the Labour Party) rather than as some regrettable British version of bolshevism, is down to the tolerance of its political culture, and above all its regard for free speech.
Could the same tolerance be said to characterise our political culture today? The signs are bad. These days, when pressed on the apparent tension between freedom of expression and religious freedom in such things as the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act, ministers have been keen to stress the qualified (as opposed to absolute) nature of the former in Britain. States are permitted within international law to exercise a significant 'margin of appreciation' in how they judge the line between what can and cannot be said.
The current government maintains that it 'strikes the right balance between protecting citizens and protecting their right to free expression'. Against this view one might counterpoise such occurrences as the successful prosecution in the Scottish courts in March 2018 of a comedian under the 2003 Communications Act, for the crime of teaching his girlfriend's pug dog to perform a Nazi salute in a YouTube video. In that case it was judged that the context and intent of the 'offence' (i.e., a joke) was irrelevant. Less funny, but equally surreal, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport published a White Paper proposing a new category of speech offence, communications which are 'harmful' but not illegal, that it will seek to censor and punish.
Why on Earth would anyone today—of any political leaning on the democratic spectrum—agree to empower governing attitudes with the wherewithal to enforce its 'margin of appreciation' on what is 'harmful' speech? In Tolkien's Lord of the Rings the measure of the character of the greatest heroes is not their ability to wield the Ring of Power but their ability to resist it entirely. No one deserves that power because no one can be trusted permanently to use it for the good and good only. Again, this used to be widely understood.
Our old political culture allowed for political oxymoronisms like 'gradual radicalism' and 'evolutionary revolution' that, for better or worse, did create change by-words-not-deeds because it dared to prejudice liberty over security. Our weak new political culture prejudices security over liberty and as a result simply generates what are ultimately society-wrecking moronisms:
The new regulatory framework this White Paper describes will set clear standards to help companies ensure safety of users while protecting freedom of expression, especially in the context of harmful content or activity that may not cross the criminal threshold but can be particularly damaging to children or other vulnerable users.
Britain today is, by such means, now a managed democracy. Worse than that, it is a Carry On democracy. It is a parody of itself. A farce. A mockery-democracy. It has the appearance of being free. It possesses the time-honoured appurtenances of a consent-based polity, but these are degraded and debased, and so apparently malleable as to constitute a political system that cannot create or envision change. The same is arguably true of many other states in the West where rulers are little more than embarrassing caricatures of latter day Bourbon emperors (think Macron) or stultifying Brezhnevites (think Merkel) who are culturally and economically alienated from the ruled. The parody is now the reality, only without the jokes.
Conclusion: mockery democracy in the UK
The philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel professed that the 'owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk'. By this he meant that true philosophical knowing, and wisdom, only comes upon us once the current epoch is about to pass away. Have we in the West, we might ask, reached such a point?
A moment of clarity, it is said, comes upon the dying man as he sees his life pass before his eyes where all past mistakes are recognised, and the myriad rationalisations of lifelong follies and failings finally cease. Brexit, it seems, has occasioned such a moment, shining a ray of light onto the diseased body politic, and the fatal decline of the British political classes into the travesty of a mockery democracy. Will we be granted a reprieve on mortality, and gain a chance to overcome the pain, return to some semblance of equity and moral principle in public life, and re-build trust in our political institutions? Or are we destined for a systemic collapse, a creeping towards the precipice, followed by a pell-mell plunge over it, down to whatever awaits?
By virtue of their crystal-ball character the answers to such questions are unknowable. But they are worth posing for they enable us to contemplate our existing condition. In that sense, as we observe the black comedy inherent in the histrionics of our so-called parliamentary representatives, it is interesting to muse that perhaps the only thing of any note that this generation of Carry On politicians has left us with… is irony.
David Betz is Professor War in the Modern World, King's College London. MLR Smith is Professor of Strategic Theory, King's College London. They are authors of 'The British Road to Dirty War', published by Bruges Group in January 2019: https://www.brugesgroup.com/blog/the-british-road-to-dirty-war-analysis-by-david-betz-mlr-smith-1