“…what happened when sections of the German elites and masses of ordinary people chose to abdicate their individual critical faculties in favour of a politics based on faith, hope, hatred and sentimental collective self regard for their own race and nation”. “The Third Reich” by Michael Burleigh
At the risk of being accused of falling victim to Godwin’s Law let me suggest that if you replace the word “German” with “British” in the above quote, which is actually the very first sentence in Burleigh’s book, you have an accurate description of the cause of Brexit. And Brexit was the primary cause of where we are today.
Let’s look at the “elites” first. In politics senior politicians were mostly pro Remain but a significant body of the Conservative elite campaigned for “Leave”. Ex ministers like Michael Howard and Nigel Lawson. Ambitious active Tories like Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Priti Patel and Rishi Sunak. Long-standing Eurosceptics like John Redwood and Daniel Hannan and the rest.
In the media the ownership elites of major circulation newspapers almost all favoured “Leave” and their newspapers did their bidding. A study by Reuters has shown a very strong pro Leave bias in the press with only The Guardian , the Daily Mirror and the Financial Times being pro Remain.
In the business world again the vast majority of businessmen were pro Remain but those who differed – James Dyson, Tim “Wetherspoons” Martin and others got a disproportionate amount of media coverage.
In the world of celebrity , sport and The Arts the anti Remain statements by the likes of John Cleese, Ian Botham and Roger Daltry got more publicity than an open letter published in The Guardian and signed by more than 250 of Britain’s best-known actors, artists, musicians and writers which warned that if Britain were to leave the European Union it would become “an outsider shouting from the wings”.
The German parallel is relevant. Not all Britain’s opinion formers and elites supported Leave any more than all of Germany’s elite supported the Nazis. But enough did to make a difference. In the 1920s the Germans mainly voted in traditional ways and the moderate Weimar Republic which resulted was not a threat. In 1928 the Nazi Party received less than 3% of the vote and won only 12 seats in the Reichstag. It was only after the 1929 Wall Street crash that the “abdication of critical faculties” by “ordinary people” kicked off the slide to Hitler’s eventual accession to power in 1933.
Europe was a low interest subject until David Cameron started to feel pressured by the rise of Nigel Farage and UKIP . This happened at a time when he was in coalition with the LibDems – something despised by the overwhelmingly Eurosceptic Tory Right. There was a pressure cooker reaching the boil.
Dave’s solution to his troubles was twofold.. First buy off the Tory Right with an offer of a Referendum which he did in early 2013. Then destroy the LibDems – which the Wizard of Aus, Lynton Crosby, delivered for him in 2015. In between Europe shifted from being low interest to being a cause célèbre as Nigel Farage and UKIP topped the 2014 European Election poll with nearly 27%. This was seismic.
The 2014 Euro election did not show that there was a majority in the country for hard right conservatism nor withdrawal from Europe. But it did show that there was a large hard core to be tapped. The German parallel holds good. Hitler won over 100 seats and 18% of the vote in September 1930. This did not give him power, but it was the springboard for power just two years later.
The “Leave” Referendum win in 2016 was unquestionably a build by the forces of the Right on the Euroelections of 2014. Government policy and that of all the opposition Parties in Pariament was for “Remain”. But a nationalist call for “Freedom” and a blame culture aimed at the “Establishment” was seductive for many. And “Freedom”, that is “Freiheit” in German, had been used successfully by the Right before:
The Nationalism of “Leave” was to be the precursor of the equally flag-waving nationalism that has characterised Boris Johnson’s post Brexit regime. This government pitches a cult of personality-driven national fervour against the traditional political positions of the Social democratic Left and liberal Left and is wiping the floor with them. Sound familiar ? Having flirted with matching extreme with extreme with Jeremy Corbyn Labour now has a social democrat leader in the Wilson/ Blair mould. But for now the Hard Right of Johnson is prevailing. Where will it take us. The risks are clear. We should have learned from the Germans. Is it too late?