Notes From the Margins…

Brexit: The Stab-in-the-Back

  • January 24, 2019
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It’s now becoming increasingly clear, even to its most ardent defenders, that Brexit is not going swimmingly.  Having inflicted the most comprehensive parliamentary defeat ever inflicted on a British prime minister, parliament is in a state of fevered chaos, with MPs frantically trying to prevent the country from sliding towards no deal, yet unable to agree on what the alternative should be.

Day after day brings more evidence that the economy is flaking away.  Yesterday Sony announced that it was moving to Holland, and 250 other companies are now planning to follow suit.    In a less-than-resounding declaration of faith in post-Brexit Britain, arch-Brexiter James Dyson announced that he was moving his head office to Singapore.

Last month P&O ferries announced that their ships would now be flying under a Cypriot flag to preserve their current EU tonnage tax financing arrangements.  This week the chief executive of the Food and Drinks Industry warned of ‘ really bad economic consequences for everyone in this country on a scale not seen since the war’ in the event of no deal.

Brexit zealots continue to dismiss all these warnings as ‘Project Fear’ and agitate to bring no deal closer with ever more authoritarian demands.  Yesterday Peter Bone called for Remainers to be removed from the cabinet.

The contemptible reactionary Rees-Mogg – a politician who increasingly resembles a Tim Burton creation and a pro-Nazi aristocrat from Kazuo Ishigiro’s Remains of the Day – called for parliament to be suspended altogether.

Meanwhile many Brexiters ache for no deal with a sadomasochistic fervour that is as inexplicable as it is unseemly.  And it isn’t only the politicians.  Every week vox pop interviewees say ‘ let’s just get on with it’ or actually cheer the prospect of no deal, as a Question Time audience did a week ago.

Despite all this, many Brexiters recognise that things are not going well and some are clearly worried that it might not go at all.  And these fears have been accompanied by a narrative, that we are likely to see a lot more of in the future.

One of the most significant contributing factors to the rise of Nazism was the idea that Germany didn’t actually lose World War 1 militarily, but was betrayed by a cabal of politicians and Jewish financiers.  According to this ‘dolchosslegende’ (stab-in-the-back legend), the machinations of these politicians resulted in the humiliation of the Versailles Treaty, which Hitler set out to overturn.

This pseudo-explanation for the German defeat was a lie, but it gained its emotional force from the greatest slaughter in history and the very real losses and sufferings of the German population.

All this seems  a long war from the Brexit ‘war’ with the European Union.  Here there has been no fighting, no losses or sacrifices,  only the inevitable crash that inevitably occurs when a political fantasy tries to break the laws of historical gravity.

That fantasy has not hit the ground yet, but its architects are already preparing their excuses and explanations. Already a Brexit dolchosslegende is beginning to emerge, in which the Brexit dream has been tarnished and undermined and deprived of its rightful victory – not by its own inconsistencies and inflated expectations – but by ‘Remainers’, ‘traitors’ and ‘saboteurs’ working behind the scenes.

The essential components this narrative were already in place as early as November 2016, when British papers condemned High Court judges as ‘saboteurs’ as ‘enemies of the people’ for ruling that Brexit could not be triggered without a Westminster vote.

It has continued to gain traction ever since.  In an article for Breitbart on the ‘looming Brexit betryal’ last december, James Delingpole claimed that the Tory no confidence vote was deliberately sabotaged because May’s Chief-of-Staff Gavin Barwell supposedly released some of the 48 letters intended to provoke a leadership challenge in order to ‘force the issue’.

Delingpole offered no evidence to support this theory.  Instead he suggested that Barwell ‘ in cahoots with fellow Remainer David Lidington’ was conspiring with  Labour MPs to bring about a second referendum.

This is the Brexit stab-in-the-back legend in a nutshell: that the ‘will of the people’ is being actively thwarted by the machinations of a corrupt elite working in tandem with the European enemy.  Last week a ‘senior MP’ claimed that a ‘hardcore group of Remainers’ in May’s cabinet were conspiring to ‘stop Brexit.’

The usefulness of such narratives is that they offer a pseudo-explanation for every eventuality, from May’s rejected ‘vassallage’ deal to the ‘success’ of a no deal exit, or the unlikely prospect of an extension of Article 50 and a second vote.

So if we do crash out and those who wanted to ‘just get on with it’ discover that the warnings of the last few months were not Project Fear after all, don’t expect to hear too many mea culpas.  Instead the architects of this catastrophe will blame the EU for ‘punishing’ and ‘humiliating’ us.

They will also blame the ‘Remoaners’ who failed to ‘get behind the country’; the MPs who ignored the will of the people.

They will blame the ‘elite’, the ‘chattering classes’, Gina Miller, and anyone else who tried to prevent or limit what will surely go down in history as the most gratuitously foolish act of self-harm that any country has ever inflicted on itself.

They will blame them if they get their ‘victory’ and they will blame them if they don’t get it.  And one thing you can count on: they will never blame themselves or examine their own failings.

Because if they were able to do that, we wouldn’t have got into this mess in the first place.





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  1. Nigel Baldwin

    24th Jan 2019 - 1:05 pm

    Somewhere in my (highly disorganised) DVD collection I’ve a 3 disc US documentary about that country’s abortive attempt to ban intoxicating liquor. Besides running, in parts, at the rate of a laugh a minute, it tells the story of how, by time and chance, a highly vociferous minority (led by the likes of Carrie Nation and Wayne Wheeler) was able, by persuasion and by blackmail to concoct a false majority in favour of prohibition. Its lesson for us, as we’re being dragooned by the likes of Bone and Rees-Mogg, is that whole populations can be goaded, sheep-like, into support for the daftest of ideas. But when the cold stark light of reality dawns, the whole structure of lies will just shrivel away. The obvious can’t remain unthinkable for ever.

    • Matt

      24th Jan 2019 - 8:28 pm

      That Carrie Nation/Wayne Wheeler analogy is terrific. But prohibition was a specific policy. Brexit involves the reconfiguration of an entire society, and once the damage is done, it can’t easily be undone.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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