In the Court of the Brexit King
- March 21, 2021
If there’s one important lesson about politics that tends too often to go unlearned, it’s this: You don’t need to be a genius or a titan to take power and use that power for malign purposes. In Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi – a surreal parody of Macbeth – the foulmouthed, halfwitted childlike slob Pere Ubu massacres the King of Poland and his family and reduces Poland to servitude under his tyrannical and arbitrary rule. The murdered Polish king’s son Bougrelas laments the destruction of his family and his kingdom by ‘vulgar Pere Ubu, an adventurer from who knows where? A vile scoundrel, a shameful vagabond!’
The twentieth century provided many examples of societies undone by politicians with far greater influence than their personalities or intellect might suggest, and our own era of rightwing populism has already brought forth a succession of malignant clowns to power in one country after another.
Here in our own disunited kingdom, we have seen a country that once prided itself on the caution, professionalism and sang froid of its ruling classes reduced to a gaggling chaotic madhouse by the most grotesque procession of charlatans that any era in British politics has ever produced.
All this was made possible by Brexit, and Brexit has given these men – for they are mostly men – the power that they are now exercising over all of us. At the top, seated in his gilded – and recently re-adorned – palace at 10 Downing Street, is our own clown-king with his consort Carrie Antoinette. Day after day we see him at one photo-op after another, wearing one new costume after another, thumbs up and hair all carefully-tousled, snickering, posturing and pouring out a stream of Christmas cracker puns and bumbling upper class affectations like a cross between Bane, Benny Hill and Bertie Wooster.
It’s all a bit of a larf really. Or it would be, if it wasn’t for the 120,000-odd dead, the queues of people lining up for foodbanks, the corruption, the cronyism, the abdication of responsibility, the evasion of accountability, the misgovernance and the ungovernance, the ongoing economic calamity of Brexit, the pathetic, dimwitted and reckless tinkering with the Northern Ireland Protocol, the baleful gloating at the EU’s botched vaccine rollout and the utterly dispiriting lies, evasions, diversions and distractions that ceaselessly flow from the mouths of Herr Bunter and his pals.
None of this seems to bother the government and his supporters, who often seem as indifferent to the nation’s dizzying descent as Pere Ubu was when asked about the state of the Polish economy and replied ‘The finances are going fairly well. A considerable number of dogs in woollen stockings pour into the streets, and the dognappers are doing fine. On all sides one sees only burning houses, and people bending under the weight of our finances.’
There comes a point, and perhaps we’ve reached it now, when all this becomes so drearily familiar that it starts to lose its ability to shock, when you’re tempted to shrug your shoulders and think ‘oh well what else can you expect from the Plague Island Banana Republic?’ But we really shouldn’t allow this to happen, and not only because this government has proven itself again and again to be dangerously useless, but because uselessness is not the whole story here.
It’s now nearly three months since Brexit was ‘done’, and the lineaments of the post-Brexit state are beginning to emerge. It is not an appealing picture. In the last week the Johnson government has rammed through one of the most draconian policing bills in British history. It has sketched out what a post-Brexit foreign policy would look like, and announced its intention to increase the British nuclear stockpile by forty percent. You don’t need to be a foreign policy expert to work out what the impact of this increase is likely to be on nuclear proliferation, but there is no indication that the government has even thought about this, or gives a damn.
Now, the Sun reports that the government will be announcing changes to the Modern Slavery Act this week in order to ‘prevent ‘child rapists, terrorists and serious criminals as well as failed asylum seekers…from exploiting modern slavery safeguards to stay in Britain.’
According to the Sun‘s political editor Harry Cole – a greasy political lickspittle who really does embody the absolute worst the British press has to offer – this proposed legislation is aimed at ‘lefty lawyers’ and ‘dinghy-chasing’ lawyers who supposedly mount ‘spurious’ attempts to ‘pull illegal immigrants off deportation planes.’
How does Cole know these attempts are ‘spurious’ or without merit? Don’t ask, because he doesn’t know and he doesn’t care. For spivs like him, it’s enough for a Tory Home Secretary to assert that ‘criminals and terrorists ‘ are ‘diverting resources away from genuine victims of trafficking, persecution and serious harm’ to believe it.
Now, according to Cole ‘ judges will have the power to slap massive costs on have-a-go lawyers who use template papers and every excuse they can think of to try to stop deportations without merit.’ Never mind, as the Secret Barrister has pointed out, that judges already have these powers. Never mind that ‘illegal immigrants’ may well be refugees and asylum seekers with very good reasons for not being deported; all of them are now reduced to the generic category of ‘child rapists, terrorists, and serious criminals.’
As everybody knows, we Brits don’t like that kind of foreigner, and for the constituency that Patel is catering too, there is no other kind.
These policies have been rolled out against a new ‘battle’ in our neverending post-Brexit culture war, in which BBC journalists have been censured for making a joke about the Union Jack, and Huw Edwards – not exactly the Ed Murrow of the UK media – was told to take down a tweet of the Welsh flag. Meanwhile the government is proposing to tear up the Northern Ireland Protocol – which the Brexit neanderthal Mark Francois has called ‘Danegeld’ – regardless of whether it will be breaking international law – again.
So there you have it. Police powers to make a Belorussian president blush. Bellicose ‘global’ posturing backed up by Trident missiles to enable ‘Global Britain to punch above its weight – regardless of whether it instigates a retaliatory arms race. An appeal to British racism and xenophobia that (almost) makes Theresa May look liberal by comparison. Aggressive unionism – expressed through flagwaving culture wars and a vicious attempt to unseat one of the few respected politicians in the country
This is our post-Brexit UK, and if it looks just a teeny bit authoritarian and fascistic, we shouldn’t be entirely surprised. Because leaving the EU was never an end in itself. Brexit was and is a radical rightwing nationalist ‘revolution’ that has no choice but to continue in the same reactionary trajectory.
To stop or change course would mean recognising the scale of the folly and disaster that the Brexiters have inflicted upon us. They will never do this.
That means we are stuck in this trajectory as long as this government is in power. It means an intensified ‘war on woke’ to whip up hostility to popular movements for racial justice, gender rights and the rights of minorities, and climate change protests. It means an orgy of flagwaving, capdoffing monarchism, and ‘if you don’t like this country, leave’ patriotism.
And while these barkers’ sideshows unfold, the government will continue to grind away at the essential constructs that make representative democracy possible – even in its imperfect form – and continue the construction of a strong (Tory) state that will become ever more difficult to shift.
Some may still insist that a liberal like Johnson would never do any of these things. But he is doing them, and a politician for whom morality and integrity have always been alien concepts was never going to oppose the populist surge that brought him to power. Johnson was always more rightwing than he pretended to be when he was mayor, which was one reason why he so easily became the poster boy of the Tory extremist wing.
Too many people didn’t see that, or didn’t care. And now millions of us are trapped in the new country that he and his cabal are attempting to build, and if we can’t recognise the seriousness of the threat that it poses and find a way to build a broad movement of opposition that reaches out beyond the usual comfort zones, our Teletubby Ubu Roi will take us all down to a very dark place indeed, in which it will be very difficult to turn the lights back on.