Brexit: Unfading Echoes of Mockery and Derision

I have been a devotee of W.H. Auden since my teens, and am now very grateful to have been forced at school to memorise his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts”—the one that begins, “About suffering they were never wrong, the old masters”. But I always had trouble with the lines in his more famous “September 1, 1939” that read:

Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives …

I found it hard to believe that political currents truly affect the interior or personal lives of reasonable people who are not unduly preoccupied with politics. Now I know better. Here in the UK, the profound divisions that have been provoked or exposed by the Brexit upheaval and the subsequent breakdown of the traditional party system, really can affect mood, sleep and even love and romance. No one seems quite themselves these days, and not for the better.

Part of the problem is that there is no light at the end of the tunnel. It is hard to see how we will ever get over the anger, suspicion, intolerance and resentment that permeate our politics, or to imagine some great change of heart that will allow a return of the general gentleness and reasonableness that characterised Britain even in the worst days of the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s.

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Even if the Tories manage to elect a sufficiently competent and electorally attractive successor to Theresa May to see off Jeremy Corbyn; even if the next government somehow makes a success of Brexit negotiations with an EU commission with no incentive to be less than punitive; even if the next government were to somehow reverse the Brexit decision in a way that somehow satisfied Eurosceptic concerns about sovereignty, democratic legitimacy, national unity and immigration, how will we get over the things that have been said that cannot be unsaid?

The working-class people outside London who supplied the bulk of the Brexit vote now know all too well what their “betters” think of them. These 17 million people are unlikely to forget being condemned and mocked as knuckle-dragging racists, imperial nostalgists and illiterate halfwits. As for the millions who voted the other way, they have been encouraged to see themselves as morally and intellectually superior to those on the side that won. Even the branding of a proposed second referendum as a “People’s Vote” suggests that the winners of the first are not fully human.

There is an electric febrility in the London air that can quickly ignite into aggression; people driving cars, riding bicycles or pushing carts in the supermarket seem to be on a hair-trigger lookout for the misbehaviour of others. Among politically inclined folk there is an increasing tendency here, just as in the United States, for individuals to believe that their unquestionably noble ends justify the use of violent or otherwise unpleasant means against people who hold differing opinions. Today as I write, President Donald Trump is in London for a state visit. The demonstrations against him have so far not been large but they have included scenes of startling ugliness. Yesterday afternoon, elderly Trump supporters were physically abused and knocked to the ground by protesters screaming “Nazi scum!” while officers of London’s once-admired Metropolitan Police looked the other way.

Most pundits on the television and in the newspapers are amused by the grotesque Trump blimps flown by demonstrators, and are overtly sympathetic to the opposition politicians like London mayor Sadiq Khan who condemned Trump’s visit and are ostentatiously refusing to attend any of the ceremonies to which they have been invited. They do not distinguish between Trump’s high office and the odious man himself, even though the President of the United States is here in Europe to join other heads of state at the D-Day commemorations.

Nothing like the same attitude was on display when in 2015 China’s premier Xi Jinping made his state visit. That leader, who has overseen a return to Maoist political repression in his country, was given a 103-gun salute, rather than the mere forty-two accorded to Donald Trump. In preparation for his visit the Metropolitan Police crisply detained Tibetan activists and one of the surviving Tiananmen Square leaders who is now an exile in London. Not only was there no hint of a boycott by the UK’s soi-disant progressives (or anyone else) but Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn actually donned white tie and tails for Xi’s state dinner.

Of course the Queen has hosted a considerable number of state visits by tyrants, bona fide mass murderers, large-scale kleptocrats and demonstrably bigoted oppressors. Among the more vicious have been Bashar Assad, Robert Mugabe, Vladimir Putin, Pakistan’s Ayub Khan, Indonesia’s Suharto and Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu. Nigeria’s General Guwon was accorded the honour less than three years after crushing Biafran secession at the cost of at least a million lives. It goes almost without saying that none of these brutes, thieves and killers provoked the kind of self-righteous opprobrium that has marked the Trump visit. Whether the difference in response reflects an insular ignorance of the crimes committed by these leaders, the low expectations that the British have of most foreigners, or the anti-Americanism that periodically inflames the British middle classes, is not clear.

One of the peculiar things about this strange, unhappy moment in Britain’s history is that almost all the ugly speech and behaviour, and almost all the spiteful intolerance that increasingly infects our political and cultural life comes from members of the (admittedly now very large) metropolitan middle classes. The aggression at demonstrations, the suppression of dissenting views in higher education, the new anti-Semitism, the “no-platforming” of once-admired feminists who have questioned the radical transgender agenda, the expressions of loathing for the elderly, the wish that “we” could restrict the franchise to people under a certain age or who are deemed to be properly educated, these are all largely or entirely a bourgeois phenomenon.

The metropolitan middle class, or a big part of it, is apparently very angry. Much of this seems to be outrage at the Brexit vote, seen by some as not merely ignorant, self-harming and motivated by xenophobia, but also shockingly insubordinate—and deserving of punishment. As the Remainers’ tribunes have often pointed out, people without university degrees tended to vote Brexit, while properly informed and thoughtful people like the head of the Bank of England, the masters of Oxbridge colleges, most MPs, and the CEOs of the Confederation of British Industry were all very much on the other side. It is clear therefore who should fear the revenge of the political class, although at the risk of sounding like the Marxist I once was, I find it hard to imagine what further harm the British establishment could inflict on a working class already broken by its supposedly benign housing, welfare, immigration, drug and education policies over the last five decades.

Unfortunately, young middle-class protesters tend to be better organised and are certainly better connected than members of working-class movements, and therefore get away with things that less privileged groups would not. In April, “Extinction Rebellion”, a kind of millenarian global warming cult on the fringe of the environmental movement, had a four-day sit-in in Oxford Street—the busiest retail thoroughfare in the country—blocking all traffic and inflicting a great deal of economic harm. The police not only allowed them to camp out on Oxford Street, but were photographed dancing with young neo-hippies. If the less well-heeled, less attractive supporters of Tommy Robinson, a former member of the neo-fascist British National Party, had blocked Oxford Street for even an afternoon, there is no question that baton-wielding officers would have removed then in the usual way. Extinction Rebellion now says that later in the summer it will use drones to shut down air traffic at Heathrow and other airports and therefore raise awareness of the imminent danger of human extinction. It will be interesting to see how indulgent the authorities are then willing to be.

The Trump state visit coincides not only with the D-Day commemorations but also with the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. You might imagine that the Tiananmen anniversary and the articles and programs it has inspired would have had an effect on the British ministers and businesspeople who have been fighting to allow Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant, to supply the key hardware for the UK’s coming “5G” telephone network.

The United States, Australia and New Zealand have all banned Huawei from supplying the equipment for their 5G networks (as has India) for fear that it may be used by the Chinese government for espionage and cyber warfare. Canada seems likely to follow suit, which would mean that four of the five members of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing network are in agreement on the matter.

Theirs is not an unreasonable fear. After all, Huawei was founded by a former officer in the People’s Liberation Army, is said to have close ties with the Chinese military and intelligence agencies, and is bound by Chinese law to comply with any requests from state security. That state security may well wish to exploit this relationship is suggested by the story of the gleaming headquarters built for the African Union in Addis Ababa in 2012. Five years after its completion it was discovered that the building was infested with bugs, and that its Chinese-made computer servers apparently included a “back door” that enabled Bejiing to listen in to all the organisation’s communications.

You can understand why British government officials, always anxious to promote British business in China, might hope that America’s concerns about Huawei are overblown or compromised by President Trump’s “trade war” efforts to force China to moderate its protectionism and state-sponsored intellectual property theft. But you would expect them to take note of Australia’s stance. After all, given China’s enormous investments and political clout in the country, it seems unlikely that Canberra would have excluded Huawei if Australia’s intelligence organisations had not been convinced of the danger it presents.

However, the dying May government has decided to ignore such evidence, much to the relief of Huawei’s lobbyists. It is a remarkable decision, one that not only carries the risk of a dangerously vulnerable UK communications system, but imperils what is arguably the country’s most important strategic alliance. It so shocked the Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson that he went public with his dissent and lost his job.

It does seem extraordinary that otherwise responsible and thoughtful officials would risk the expulsion of the UK from the Five Eyes Alliance merely for the sake of a lower-priced 5G network—especially as for the all the excited techno-babble about 5G, it is essentially a mechanism for providing faster download speeds on mobile phones, and thereby enabling teenagers to play more elaborate video games.

So why is the May government, and in particular the Chancellor Philip Hammond, fighting so hard for Huawei’s investment in the UK? The most benign explanation may be that like so many middle-aged people who did not grow up with the internet, Hammond and his civil servants are moved by a gullible, technologically-ignorant fetish for expensive digital projects. Before the current foolishness concerning Huawei and 5G there were the great British IT boondoggles of the last decade, in which billions of pounds were spent on new national computer systems for the National Health Service and the police, both of which were abandoned amidst confusion as to what the systems were actually for.

It probably does not help that Chancellor Hammond is almost as intellectually limited as his Oxford friend Theresa May. Although a political operator with sufficient cunning to command the Treasury’s efforts to undermine the government’s Brexit negotiating position with the European Commission, Hammond’s inability to look beyond the short term is no secret. He also has a strange blind spot, to put it kindly, about matters of British national security. As a cut-obsessed Defence Secretary from 2011 to 2014, and then as Chancellor, Hammond wrought devastating damage on the UK’s military capabilities. Even if he understood the technical arguments as to why it might be risky to have a PLA-linked Chinese company supply the hardware for the UK’s communications networks, it is not clear that he would care; for him economics is everything.

That merely makes Hammond a limited fellow who arguably should never have been entrusted with such high office. He is probably not as cynical or selfish as the executives at Vodafone and other troubled British telecom companies who are willing to put their bottom lines before the national interest. Even they are arguably not as morally compromised as some of the distinguished figures that the Chinese company has adroitly hired to lobby British government officials.

The most prominent of these may be Lord Browne of Madingley, chairman of the board of directors of Huawei UK. A brilliantly successful former chief executive of BP, Lord Browne was a clever choice by the Chinese company. His establishment connections are first-rate, and he has been a favourite interviewee of the BBC since coming out of the closet in 2007. So far he seems untroubled by the potential difficulties of being Huawei’s man in London.

No doubt Lord Browne genuinely believes that Huawei’s 5G equipment presents no danger to the realm, and that he himself is no less patriotic than any other non-executive board member of a foreign company. After all, senior British government officials and security officials have stated that any potential security risks to the 5G network can be managed. On the other hand, the former BP CEO is too intelligent, experienced and well-informed not to be aware that his Chinese paymasters’ triumph may well mean the break-up of one of his country’s most vital strategic alliances.

If Browne, Hammond, May and the British telecom CEOs are together able to overcome the opposition of Britain’s closest allies and secure the 5G deal for Huawei, it will look to many like yet another example of Britain’s new establishment putting their personal and class interests before that of the nation. It is likely to feed the suspicion of the political class that so many people already feel and make a return to the trust, deference and comity of the past even more unlikely. It is hard to see how even the fastest and cheapest broadband could be worth such a result, given how divided and troubled this kingdom already is.

Jonathan Foreman is a journalist based in London.


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