Boris Johnston’s descent into gutter politics

Published by the i paper (18th September, 2017)

You may have forgotten Andrea Leadsom. She was the woman who nearly became prime minister until she claimed motherhood gave her more of a stake in the nation than her childless rival. The politician whose small band of supporters carried out possibly the most embarrassing march on parliament in history. And who is, remarkably, still clinging on in the cabinet as leader of the House of Commons.

I mention her since three months ago Leadsom became the first senior Brexiteer to start flinging around accusations that the media was being unpatriotic by failing to fall in line and proclaim the brilliance of leaving the European Union. Never mind that the job of journalists is to harry and probe those in power. ‘It would be helpful if broadcasters were willing to be a bit patriotic,’ she replied when questioned about the negotiations by Emily Matlis on BBC Newsnight.

This was faintly sinister: an attempt to close down debate by intimidating the state broadcaster and lay sole claim to the flag. It could be largely ignored, however, since Leadsom is a diminished figure. But in recent weeks this malevolent idea – that one side in a political debate alone is patriotic – has cropped up repeatedly. There are claims that people pointing out flaws in Brexit want their country to fail, constant pressure on prominent journalists, even charges that reporting difficult news is disloyal to national interests.

Samuel Johnson famously said patriotism was the last refuge of a scoundrel. Yet these days it also reflects the desperation of Brexiteers as their simplistic populism is exposed by the mind-bendingly complex reality of negotiating exit from the EU. Nowhere was this more evident than in Boris Johnson’s mendacious 4,000-word Brexit manifesto published on Saturday, clearly designed to challenge the weak prime minister and reclaim leadership of the nationalist right.

The article was filled with holes and falsehoods, but Johnson was never renowned for accuracy in journalism. Yet this politician who once posed as an open-minded mayor of London also accused young Brexit critics of ‘genuinely split allegiances’, effectively questioning their patriotism as he attacked any shared sense of identity with Europeans. This was crude descent into gutter politics. It was also hypocritical, since the foreign secretary only recently renounced his own American citizenship, as well as politically stupid when his party seeks to attract young voters.

We will see more of this divisive, nasty politics. Once we were globally renowned for our mature democracy. Now the tone of debate has become harsh on both left and right, fanned by the echo chambers on social media, as Britain imports the identity politics that has scarred the United States for decades. Struggles of class and capitalism are being replaced by shrill arguments over values, the Union Jack just one more weapon in a battle fired up by Brexit. Even Last Night of the Proms was ensnared in this culture clash over which flags could be waved.

Analysis of the referendum by the independent National Centre for Social Research concluded that the Brexit vote centred on identity and values, with issues of national character and immigration resonating more strongly then economic stability and traditional political dividing lines. ‘It is a strong sign that the so-called culture wars of the US have arrived in Great Britain in earnest,’ concluded the report.

This has major implications, especially amid a resurgence of nationalism. Look at the presidential election that led to the disaster of Donald Trump in the White House. One study found that a question over whether it is more important for a child to be considerate or well-mannered was a better indicator of voting intention than income. Now Trump is in power, he shamelessly uses issues such as immigration and transgender troops to split the nation and shore up his base.

Meanwhile in the UK, both major parties agonise over which groups to appeal to in this emerging electoral landscape after Brexit ripped open historic divisions in their ranks. The Tories are floundering over whether to go after traditional middle-class voters or working-class folk worried about globalisation and their economic security. Labour is going through contortions over Brexit that reflect the same core issue. The electorate is riven by age and education. So both parties focus on identity and values as they seek to bind together their teetering coalitions.

This was the foreseable danger of holding that foolish ballot. Both sides are at fault for inflaming the fissures, although victorious Brexiteers shout loudest since they believe they have morality and the flag on their side. They twist the definition of democracy, just as they abuse the concept of patriotism, as if it is somehow wrong for people to keep fighting for a cause regardless of forlorn circumstances. Mind you, one group of people who do deserve to be challenged much more are those careerist MPs who believe Brexit to be damaging but back it all the same.

By sneering at young and cosmopolitan voters, Boris follows the lead of the prime minister who last year told her party conference “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very world ‘citizenship’ means.”  This crass statement showed she was not fit to be in Downing Street. But when Boris and his fellow Brexiteers talked of taking back control, is this divided country slipping into conflict over values really the nation they envisaged?

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