It feels strange to write these words, but in a few weeks’ time Britain could well have a new government led by a lifelong Trotskyist who plans to take Britain out of the Atlantic alliance, to align the country with Russia, Iran and Venezuela against the Western democracies, and who has spent his four-decade political career celebrating terrorists, anti-Semites and ruthless tyrants.
If that should happen, perhaps thanks to an alliance with the Scottish National Party (whose own heritage includes leaders who admired Hitler’s national socialism), then Britain may be at the beginning of a transformation so profound that it makes the question of EU membership seem like a quaint diversion from real politics.
You might think that the realistic possibility of a Jeremy Corbyn premiership, with its attendant threats to freedom, prosperity, security and comity, would have prompted the British political and media class to take a collective breath, and to focus on the fact that this is no ordinary election. For the most part this has not been the case. Even the front-page editorials of Britain’s Jewish newspapers about Corbyn’s long association with anti-Semites of various stripe seem to have had little impact on any of the political parties.
This partly reflects the traditional British inability to take extremism seriously, a cultural handicap that over the last century has led on many occasions to British governments and officials being taken by surprise by militants both abroad and at home. (Who would have thought that the excitable chaps jabbering about revolution or holy war really meant what they were saying?) But it is also yet another product of our Brexit turmoil.
For the run-up to the general election has confirmed the extraordinary ability of what was jokily called Brexit Derangement Syndrome to foster true fanaticisms that go beyond reason, beyond self-interest, beyond the furthest bounds of common sense.
There are Brexiteer fanatics who have made it clear they would rather risk a Corbyn government—in other words, to risk the Constitution, the Atlantic alliance and the country’s economic liberty—than support what they believe is the inadequate Brexit planned by Boris Johnson’s Conservative government. There are prominent Remainers—though that term seems inadequate—whose Philbyesque commitment to the European project is so profound and unexamined that it trumps any of the dangers that a Corbyn government might present to the country whose future they claim to care about. A British exit from NATO—the organisation that genuinely prevented a major war in Europe over the last seven decades—does not unduly concern them. Nor do Corbyn’s apologetics for Russia’s war in Ukraine or the FSB’s political murders in the UK, still less his relationships with the provisional IRA and Hamas. Given that the Labour leader’s economic plans, with their nationalisations, punitive taxes and currency controls, would certainly wreak far greater and more lasting economic damage than even the hardest Brexit ever could, their position demonstrates once again that for the people who care the most about Britain’s membership of the EU, the issue has never been about economics or prosperity or indeed anything material.
Nevertheless, it somehow feels easier to forgive the irresponsibility of those who suffer from Brexit Derangement Syndrome than the complacent foolishness of the Conservative Party’s leaders. Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and the other top Tories all understand what is at stake in the election. They nevertheless make gaffe after foolish gaffe, with Johnson and Rees-Mogg reverting to the fogeyish personae that may have served them well in their youth but seem self-indulgent during what may turn out to be a national emergency. There seem to be no older figures left in their party who can make it clear this is not a time for japes and wheezes, for off-colour jokes that are bound to seep from party meetings onto social media, for ill-considered or poorly-articulated remarks that can be exploited by an internet army of “woke” moral police.
These moral police seem to go from strength to strength, not because their numbers are growing but because the old-fashioned media and British politicians are ever more obsessed with the verdicts and reactions of the small number of people who spend large amounts of time on Twitter. For both, the Twitter mobs have come to stand for “the public”, or to seem more important than readers, listeners and even the electorate. In fear of online mobs, whose violence is verbal, and whose coming together is only ever virtual, CEOs, PR departments, trade union leaders and university administrators take ever more absurd pre-emptive positions. Sometimes the results are so comic that you cannot be sure that the news stories about them are not satirical spoofs. The cream of last month’s crop was probably the announcement by the dependably silly Oxford University Student Union that it would ban applause at its events, lest clapping trigger anxiety among disabled students. Instead, attendees are expected to make the “jazz hands” gesture that is the sign-language expression for applause. This is supposed to make OUSU’s events “more accessible and more inclusive”—though it is hard to imagine how much less inclusive those events will now be for blind students.
Meanwhile the wider world has all but disappeared. Events in Asia or the Middle East still get a brief mention in the news bulletins, but no one pays them much attention. It is as if after all the division and disappointment of the last three years, we now lack the collective mental energy to consider them. Many Brexiteers are too fixated on what they see as the establishment campaign to overturn the result of the 2016 referendum. Many Remainers find it hard to think of the world beyond Europe as being interesting or important, and in any case have grown allergic to the idea of Britain having an independent or assertive foreign policy.
This morning, the lead stories on the news were the shooting of a democracy protester in Hong Kong and the unexplained death in Istanbul of James Le Mesurier, the British founder of the Syrian “White Helmets” humanitarian group. Sad to say, even if Westminster were not convulsed by Brexit and the coming election, the struggle in Hong Kong would get surprisingly little attention: it is simply too awkward and confusing for a political establishment and indeed a whole society that is “conflicted” about Britain’s past and present role in the wider world.
The confusion is not simply because many British business and political figures sold their integrity to China some time ago, nor because the cause of the democratic rebels in Hong Kong seems so hopeless (and increasingly undermined by violent agents provocateurs working for the regime). It is also because the crisis in Hong Kong implicitly undermines various simplistic, self-flagellating narratives about the old British Empire—and also various comforting narratives about China’s new empire.
It was telling that when Hong Kong democracy protesters took to waving the Union Jack at some of their rallies, and some even called for reunion with Britain, it stunned and baffled the London commentariat. Not just the silly Corbynesque ultras who think of that flag as a symbol of racism and oppression, nor the academics who like to pretend the British Empire was a force for evil on the scale of the Third Reich, but also establishment figures who have long depicted the so-called “return” of Hong Kong to Beijing’s control without the consent of its residents as a wholly admirable achievement.
Now, with Beijing apparently on the verge of military intervention—or at least a draconian shut-down of the kind carried out this year in Kashmir by India’s armed forces—British policy-makers may be forced for the first time since the 1990s to think seriously about Britain’s moral duty to the people of Hong Kong, and how far Britain is willing to go in the defence of their interests and liberties.
How Britain reacts if Beijing should choose to abrogate unilaterally the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 and bring to an end the “one country, two systems” guarantee of autonomy and civil rights, could be more determinative of Britain’s future and self-perception even than Brexit. Of course, if Jeremy Corbyn is prime minister by then, whether it was thanks to the foolishness of Johnson, Rees-Mogg and Farage, or the Euro-fanaticism of the Liberal Democrats, or the cynicism of the Scottish National Party, the people of the former crown colony of Hong Kong won’t be looking to London for support or as a place of refuge; they may be competing with Britons for asylum in America and Australia.
Jonathan Foreman is a journalist based in London. His previous London Letter was in the July-August issue