The insurgency of decency

The march for a people’s vote on Brexit was a heartwarming occasion with 100,000 radical moderates quietly expressing their outrage with characteristic British understatement, self-deprecation and civility. Unlike the demonstrations of my younger years, there wasn’t a Trotskyist in sight to subvert the decency of protestors to their own ends. For a brief, glorious summer afternoon, it was possible to believe that Britain could find a way through the chaos it has brought upon itself and heal its wounds. People speculated whether the movement would be sufficient to bring about a change in course. I suspect not, at least not in the time left before Brexit is effected as a matter of law.

But in any case, there can be no going back to the world before 23 June 2016. Britain is already changed by the referendum, divided against itself and with the disinvestment plans of major employers at an advanced stage. More pertinently, there are other players in this drama. The EU shows every sign of wanting to cauterise its Brexit wound so that it can turn its attention to more pressing concerns. And the wider outlook for democracy and international solidarity has never looked so precarious in my lifetime. The Brexit referendum result, it turns out, was by no means an outlier but a precursor of a nationalistic and populist impulse which has swept through Western countries. Were we to decide against glorious isolation after all, and advocate once again for the rules-based order, it’s by no means clear that the world would want to listen.

David Charter provides an insightful analysis of the breakdown of the Franco-German vision (£) that has driven the EU since its founding. Just as Britain prepares to leave, the EU itself faces extraordinary convulsions which may bring about a looser association or – less likely – the union’s disintegration:

“It’s not Britain’s imminent departure that threatens the EU, but the rise of nationalist parties, driven largely by the bloc’s failing immigration and economic policies. And at the epicentre of the EU’s degeneration sits one person: Angela Merkel… Suddenly Germany has become the symbol of everything wrong with the EU and a struggle has begun for control of the direction of the bloc. Rising young power brokers like Sebastian Kurz, the 31-year-old right-wing chancellor of Austria, have very different ideas to the ‘founding fathers’ of European integration. His country is bruised from years of uncontrolled borders that have brought voters to boiling point over illegal immigration. Nor did the brash new leaders of Italy arrive in office by accident. Italian appeals for ‘solidarity’ from their EU friends to help cope with the increasing number of asylum seekers using Italy as a gateway to the Continent fell on deaf ears for years.”

As increasing numbers of EU nations support each other in their nationalist turn, there is a contradiction in their agenda – as every nation that turns away migrants is implicitly relying on the solidarity of their neighbours to shoulder the burden. Many tenets of the EU – including a liberal view of integrating migrants while maintaining a well-funded welfare state – would be strained by such developments. As Niall Ferguson argues, policy makers have barely begun to grip this challenge (£):

“European centrists are deeply confused about immigration. Many, especially on the centre-left, want to have both open borders and welfare states. But the evidence suggests that it is hard to be Denmark with a multicultural society. The lack of social solidarity makes high levels of taxation and redistribution unsustainable… For Europe, I fear, the future is one of fission – a process potentially so explosive that it may relegate Brexit to the footnotes of future history.”

With the rise of nationalism comes an ugly authoritarianism. Two writers over the weekend noted echoes in recent development of the 1930s. In truth, this has been going on a while, but Donald Trump’s removal of migrant children from their parents has focussed attention. Jonathan Freedland reluctantly reaches for comparison with the Nazi era:

“The parents ripped from those 2,300 children on the Mexican border were not led off to be murdered. But there are grounds to believe they may never again see their sons or daughters, some of whom were sent thousands of miles away. There is no system in place to reunite them. The children were not properly registered. How can a two-year-old who speaks no English explain who she is? Eighty years from now, perhaps, old men and women will sob as they recall the mother taken from them by uniformed agents of the US government, never to be seen again.”

“But the echoes don’t end there. The wire cages. The guards telling weeping children they are forbidden from hugging each other. And then this chilling detail, reported by Texas Monthly. It turns out that US border guards don’t always tell parents they’re taking their children away. “Instead, the officers say, ‘I’m going to take your child to get bathed.’ The child goes off, and in a half-hour, 20 minutes, the parent inquires, ‘Where is my five-year-old?’ ‘Where’s my seven-year-old?’ ‘This is a long bath.’ And the officer says, ‘You won’t be seeing your child again.’” It’s not the same as telling Jews about to die they are merely taking a shower, but in the use of deception the echo is loud.”

Edward Luce sees Trump’s treatment of migrants, together with his denigrating of Western allies and stoking of a trade war with them, as clear signs of America stepping away from its leadership of liberal democracy. Here are three telling quotes he provides from US policy analysts. First, Constanze Stelzenmüller, a German scholar at the Brookings Institution:

“Make no mistake, there is a concerted attack on the constitutional liberal order and it is being spearheaded by the president of the United States.”

Next, Michael Hayden, a former director of the CIA:

“We have never seen a US president egg on the undemocratic forces among our closest allies. Trump sees that Merkel is down. And he is trying to finish her off.”

And, finally, Robert Kagan, a conservative commentator:

“People forget that the post-second world war order has been an aberration. It relied on America to keep it together. Under Trump, we are returning to a world of multipolar competition. That is a very different and more dangerous world to the one we grew up in.”

Both Jonathan Freedland and Edward Luce highlight Trump’s use of inflammatory language – for example, talking of immigrants “infesting” America. Anne Applebaum notes that this kind of discourse is of a piece with the new breed of populist leaders in Europe and is straight out of the playbook of the dictatorships of the last century. She argues that, while they may not have the same aims in mind as their mass-murdering forebears, they are shifting the parameters of not just politics but human decency:

“These tactics will produce casualties. The border police who took children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border were mentally prepared to do so thanks to the language of dehumanization. About a third of Americans – most of whom would intervene if they saw a toddler being ripped away from her mother at the house next door – were prepared to accept it as well. They will also produce imitators and amplifiers, such as the Oregon woman who called for immigrants to be shot at the border, or the Fox News pundit who said there was no need to worry about those children because, after all, they aren’t American.

“In the longer term, there will be another kind of price to pay: Eventually it will be impossible to discuss real immigration issues, or to talk about real immigrants, if a large part of the public has come to believe in quasi-authoritarian fictions. You can’t speak about work visas or asylum laws if you think you are being confronted by a horde of rapists. You can’t find a European solution to a real refugee crisis, involving real people displaced by war, if the public only understands them as the inhabitants of nonexistent ‘no-go zones’. Veil reality in myth , and it becomes easier to manipulate – but impossible to understand or address.”

Of course, Britain has not been immune to the discourses of violence and intolerance that have swept through Western democracies. It is evident in the antisemitism in the Labour Party and other areas of contention on the left. But, as Chris Grey observes in a masterly distillation of the Brexit process two years on from the referendum, it is also a prominent part of the narrative of the more febrile Brexiteers:

“These great patriots have been more than happy to ramp up the internal divisions they have created. More sinister than their adolescent sneering at ‘remoaners’ is their McCarthyite rhetoric of ‘saboteurs’ and ‘traitors’ subverting ‘the will of the people’, matched at street level by the upsurge of violence against EU – and indeed non-EU – immigrants, and rape and death threats against their opponents. Their ambition to pauperize and isolate our country is not sufficient: they also want to grind us into cultural dust.”

Rhetorical violence soon paves the way for actual violence, as does the denial of the complexity behind the challenges we face as a society. Democracy is founded on the respectful deliberation of difference. The abhorrent can become normalised when difficult challenges are made to seem more easily resolvable than they in fact are. The Brexiteers refuse to engage with the real trade-offs thrown up by the course we have chosen. Instead, as Chris Grey observes, they insist on the authority of the referendum as the only justification for the harm they are wreaking:

“The more damaging and impossible the plan, the more viciously they wave the tattered banner of ‘the will of the people’, virtually the only argument they now make for a policy that the majority of people no longer support. Meanwhile, many who know full well that what is unfolding is a disaster effectively shrug their shoulders and say that nothing can be done and that, no matter how foolish it is, it must be done.“

Authoritarians are impervious to appeals to decency. Over and above effective policy making and implementation, they have an interest in what Nick Cohen has called vice signalling. Trump climbed down over splitting up migrant families. But by then the policy had already done its work of communicating to his base just how serious he is about addressing their concerns by whatever means it takes. Brexiteers demonise their opponents with rhetoric that should be beyond the pale in a democracy. They aim to intimidate them into silence so that Britain gets over the legal line of Brexit, no matter how ill-conceived the route.

The debate about Brexit sometimes appears to occur in a Petri dish in which developments since the referendum are factored out of the equation. Brexiteers and anti-Brexiteers alike seem to underestimate the extent to which the world has changed around us. For Brexiteers, the fantasy of Britain as a buccaneering trading nation dissolves in the face of the rapidly evolving re-emergence of protectionism and trade war. For anti-Brexiteers, the ideal of a values-driven EU collaboratively addressing its problems seems to be slipping away as nationalists in government around Europe thumb their noses at its rules.

Saturday’s march clearly had an agenda to prevent Brexit. But who knows if that’s a likely prospect. For me, more is at stake than this. As the march went through Trafalgar Square, the demonstrators applauded the Muslims who had gathered there to celebrate Eid as a counter-demonstration on the other side of Westminster proclaimed its hostility to both gatherings. Beyond demonstrating its displeasure with Brexit, Saturday’s march was an assertion of a liberal, tolerant Britain that has not yet been ground into dust. Embracing members of all parties, comfortable with cosmopolitanism and multiple affiliations, insistent on civility and good humour – it represented the stuff that makes democracy possible and is under threat wherever we look. At some point, Britain will have to address the alienation and disaffection that fuelled the Brexit impulse. But, for now, the insurgency of decency will do.

Things must be bad pic courtesy Kasia. Thanks!

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