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If Brexit Fails, So Does Britain

(Hannah Mckay/Reuters)

Charles Moore today ends his weekly Telegraph column, which has become required reading for both supporters and opponents of Brexit, with a gloomy forecast that the only way of saving Brexit from its betrayal by a Tory prime minister and government is her replacement by a new leader who then reforms the Tory party along lines that would allow local Tory associations to deselect Remain MPs and replace them with Leavers. His final paragraph reads:

It does not sound very likely, does it? The only reason to think that it might happen is the prospect of the alternative, which is annihilation.

Does “annihilation” sound a trifle over-dramatic? Well, I suspect Moore intends that it should have a shock effect on his readers — a metaphorical shaking of the shoulders to make them realize what’s at stake. What is at stake is not the physical annihilation of the Brits but the absorption of their self-governing democracy into an undemocratic European empire called the European Union. And that prospect justifies the gloomiest of forecasts.

Admittedly, Brexit (or rather, the deceitful betrayal of Brexit by a Remainer government) is a many-sided catastrophe. My NR colleagues, notably Madeleine Kearns (to whose plangent op-eds set to music I would happily listen if she would sing them as beautifully as she sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the NRI Ideas Summit last week), have discussed almost all of them with a cousinly sympathy and regret. I hope myself to return next week with a full symphonic treatment of the tragedy. But here let me focus on two aspects of the Brexit story that won’t be transformed or rendered irrelevant by events in the next few days and that illustrate a larger political evolution in Europe and beyond.

The first is that because a large minority of Tory MPs have consistently opposed May’s No Brexit Deal, she this week opened talks with Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn in the hope of winning enough Labour support to get it through on the fourth attempt. As I write, the usual leaks suggest that these talks have broken down. But that is far from certain. It looks a little like a feint to soothe Tory activists so that they won’t give visiting MPs too brutal a time over the weekend. And later statements leave open the possibility that talks will resume on Monday.

Even so, most commentary has treated this initiative as a political blunder by May because it elevates Corbyn and makes it far harder for the Tories to denounce him as the man with a knife between his teeth, a Marxist fanatic and terrorist sympathizer who threatens the modest livelihoods of Middle Britain with his schemes to imitate Venezuela. That’s a significant case of unilateral rhetorical disarmament by the Tories, and it’s all the more remarkable because, unlike most such extreme political rhetoric, these accusations are perfectly valid. This opening to the Left on and against Brexit, therefore, shows the extraordinary lengths to which the Tory Remainers are prepared to go to keep Britain either in the EU or controlled by it.

There may be a greater significance in this initiative, moreover. Look at what is happening throughout Europe, where the dominance of establishment parties of Left and Right committed to ever-closer Euro-integration is threatened by the rise of “nationalist” or “populist” parties. The most shining example is in the European Parliament itself, where the center-left socialists and the center-right Christian Democrats have formed a de facto coalition to ensure that all the power remains in their joint hands. It’s common knowledge that if the European elections in May go well for the “extremes” (i.e., all other parties), this duopoly will entrench its dominance by admitting the Liberal bloc (which shares its enthusiasm for centralizing power in Brussels) into its charmed circle.

And this new kind of oligopolistic politics is not confined to EU institutions. Several national parliaments in Europe are now dominated by “grand coalitions” formed not to handle a national emergency but as a semi-permanent tactic to resist election results that have returned new outsider parties with Euro-sceptic tendencies. The most extreme case is that of Sweden, where the mainstream parties have forged an agreement that has kept the failing Social Democrats in office in order to keep the Swedish Democrats permanently out (despite their 25 per cent in the popular vote)/ But it’s the same in Germany, Holland, France (electorally), Spain, and elsewhere. My John Howard lecture in Australia two years ago was mainly about the beginnings of this development. And I returned to the consequences of it recently in the Australian magazine Quadrant here:

It creates a de facto Centre Party, composed of the mainstream parties of Left and Right. These parties still compete electorally under their original names, but they co-operate on almost all major issues in government afterwards. This permanent coalition enjoys the support of the main cultural, media and business elites. It expects to be in power forever — though it is starting to have doubts.

Its second feature is that it is a politics of inevitability. It believes in “More Europe” — the rock on which it is founded — and it dismisses policies that conflict with this strategic aim. But this “inevitabilism” infects its understanding of other major issues too — everything from mass migration to the euro.

Third, it practises an electoral strategy of exclusion. And why not? If all clever and responsible people support the coalition, it is unthinkable that the rag-bag of populists, nationalists, fanatics and “extremists” on the other side should ever come to power.

And if that ever happens accidentally, they must be restrained by rules and institutions operated by liberal technocrats. Such tactics, however, exclude not only parties but also the millions of voters who support them. It reduces the value of democracy and protects the failing policies of the centrist technocracy.

It’s easy to see this kind of politics emerging in Britain through May’s evisceration of Brexit. The mystery is why. The answer can’t be that this new political structure has produced either political or economic success. The EU has had a relatively low rate of growth for about 30 years compared to the U.S., Asia, and the non-EU countries in Europe. Its greatest achievements are not establishing peace in Europe — that was done by the U.S. and NATO — but establishing the euro without the fiscal institutions to make it workable, to introduce the abolition of internal EU borders without firming up the external borders to make Schengen workable, and to spend 40 percent of the EU budget on an agricultural policy that intentionally keeps food prices high. All of these disasters, incidentally, were the result of policies entirely under the remit of the “centrist technocracy.” Not one was the product of dangerous populist politics.

What then explains the determination of May, the Remainer Tories, Blairite and moderate MPs, the media, most of Britain’s great cultural institutions, and all in all “the establishment” to halt and reverse Brexit at all costs and by any political means, however constitutionally dubious? What can account for cabinet ministers and ambitious junior ministers blithely kicking over the despatch box on which both the constitution and their own ambitions rest?

That was the question I tried to answer recently in the Washington Examiner here. The answer I gave was that hard-line Remainers had switched consciously to a European political identity over a British one. They saw themselves as the vanguard of a new European patriotism that has yet to spread deeply into any one country, Britain least of all, but which has taken root in their political and bureaucratic classes. There might be many reasons for this transfer of allegiance, some trivial, some deeply thought out, but the end result is that many Remainers, especially those in high political positions, devote to Europe the emotions that most people reserve for their native land. Orwell described this kind of political emotion as “transferred nationalism,” to which he thought intellectuals were especially susceptible. In his essay “Notes on Nationalism,” he delivered this significant warning against it:

But for an intellectual, transference has an important function which I have already mentioned shortly in connection with Chesterton. It makes it possible for him to be much more nationalistic — more vulgar, more silly, more malignant, more dishonest — than he could ever be on behalf of his native country, or any unit of which he had real knowledge.

But the Remainers in the British debate have an extremely frustrating handicap. They cannot say what they feel and believe openly. Though both Leavers and Remainers are actuated by their devotion to preserving either British or European sovereignty, only the Leavers can state that loyalty openly. Remainers can scarcely proclaim themselves hostile to British independence; their earlier advocacy of “pooled sovereignty” was easily shown to be a verbal self-contradiction; they have given up on proclaiming the positive value of EU membership because the current state of Europe makes that laughable; and the hostility and contempt towards Britain expressed by some European leaders has not helped their cause at all.

So they have to take refuge in running down Britain as weak, powerless, second-rate, etc., etc., etc.; in mocking Leavers as old, ignorant, uneducated, xenophobic, racist, etc., etc., etc.; in deceptive advertising of May’s deal as “the Brexit you voted for”; and in increasingly desperate attempts to change the parliamentary and constitutional rules to force through a Potemkin Brexit that fails to deceive anyone and enrages almost everyone.

That’s where we stand at the end of another “historic” week in British politics. If Charles Moore is gloomily correct, we are looking at the likely triumph of a kind of politics that uses deceitful methods to bring about the incorporation of the United Kingdom under the sovereignty of an emerging imperial power.

I wish I could think of a name for that.

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