For many years, the most angry and bitter invective in our political discourse hailed from the far Left and Right. But now it is the supposedly rational and pragmatic centrists who are becoming unhinged and increasingly uncivilised.
Like the stopped clock which still tells the correct time twice a day, once in awhile Owen Jones has a passing moment of clarity and perception and utters a statement with which a normal person can actually agree.
Today is one of those days. Noting that he is taking increasing amounts of flak not from hard Brexiteers but from hardcore ideological Remainers, Owen Jones noted on Twitter that “centrism – online at least – is at risk of becoming an angry, bitter, intolerant cult. Does that concern its proponents at all?”
Jones follows up by noting that “a certain type of Hard Remainer online have become angry, bitter, intolerant, and determined to root out the impure on their own side”:
Slow hand clap.
Jones isn’t wrong, and while one might legitimately question whether he is the best person to be accusing others of being angry and bitter, he makes a fair point – there is a very real and growing rage building among the pro-EU centre-left, a rage which is spilling over and causing people to say all manner of outlandish things.
In the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum there was a sort of stunned silence from the Remain camp. Many arch-Remainers were also the same establishment centre-left figures who found themselves banished to the margins of the Labour Party by the Jeremy Corbyn ascendancy back in 2015. To be cast from power and influence within their own party and then to feel Britain’s EU membership – which has become emblematic of their perception of themselves and the country as enlightened, progressive internationalists – slip through their fingers only a year later was more than many centrists could bear. At first.
But it did not take long for shock to turn into anger and defiant resolve. Harnessing huge amounts of denial (“the referendum was only advisory”, “the Leave campaign had a monopoly on lies and so the result should be invalidated”) many centre-leftists, realising that their entire worldview was not only under attack but on the verge of defeat, stirred themselves into action.
We saw this with the court case brought by Gina Miller, in which the Supreme Court ultimately ruled that Parliament must have a say on the final Brexit deal negotiate by the government. We saw it too in the flourishing of groups and social media accounts dedicated not to making the best of Brexit now that the country had voted for it, but rather trying to overrule that vote and remain in the EU at all costs.
I noted this phenomenon myself a few weeks ago, admitting that we Brexiteers had underestimated the ability of the pro-EU, centrist establishment to launch a reactionary hissy fit several orders of magnitude bigger than the anti-establishment backlashes which led to Brexit in Britain and President Trump in America:
Perhaps we should have seen it coming. Effectively overruling the establishment’s carefully laid out plan for our lives was always going to generate a huge backlash, from powerful and well-connected people with the ability to make traditional grassroots anti-establishment backlashes look like a cake sale at the Women’s Institute.
Perhaps we forgot this fact because we Brexiteers and defenders of nation state democracy were so used to being part of a backlash ourselves – the backlash against the establishment – that we didn’t give enough credence to the fact that globalists, disinterested “citizens of the world” and other assorted types are equally as invested in their worldview as we are in ours, and in a far stronger position to defend it from attack.
And now that they have experienced repudiation at the ballot box, the establishment’s ability to turn howls of outrage into a full-on filibuster of democratically-made decisions is stronger than many of us planned for.
We are definitely witnessing an ossifying or hardening of positions among many Remainers. Before the EU referendum last year, some of these people could occasionally be found admitting that the European Union was not perfect and urgently needed reform, and even that membership had some downsides (even if outweighed by the positives).
You won’t find arch-Remainers talking like this in the press or on social media any more. Now that the prospect of Brexit looms, the EU is perfect and irreproachable, and Brexiteers aren’t just misguided but actively evil for casting Britain into the abyss. (Well, to be fair, many hardcore Remainers always asserted that Brexiteers were evil racists, but they now do so with increased frequency and venom).
The Guardian recently published a piece by Will Hutton, who declared that Brexit is “our generation’s Dunkirk”, as though tactical retreat in the midst of an existential world war is in any way comparable to the peaceful, diplomatically negotiated departure from a supranational political union.
In a spittle-flecked fury, Hutton wails:
Last week, Labour peer Lord Adonis compared leaving the EU as a mistake analogous to appeasement. He is right. Brexiters Davis, Fox and Johnson are from the same anti-modern, delusional world view that produced the strategic foreign policy mistakes of the 1930s and the emasculation of the mixed-economy, state-led approach that underpinned the economic success of 1931-50.
Then, at least, we had underlying strengths, representing the opposite of their philosophy, upon which to fall back on. Brexit is our generation’s Dunkirk, but with no flotilla of small boats and no underlying economic strength to come to the rescue. It’s just defeat.
Now this blog has no time for Liam Fox or Boris Johnson, but even if Theresa May’s government drops the ball completely on Brexit the economic ramifications (bad though they may be) will still fall several degrees short of colossal military failure and impending invasion. To compare Brexit to Dunkirk or to Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement is wild hyperbole of the first order.
But this is what you now have to look and sound like to be accepted into the Remainer / centrist tribe – at least on social media, where nuance and restraint have never been in great supply. Just as the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics doles out “victimhood points” and social status depending on the number of ways that a person can describe themselves as oppressed, the Cult of the EU demands ever more flamboyant declarations of love for the European, furious denunciations of those who disagree and pledges of extreme measures to be taken to stop Brexit at all costs. Because being pro-EU is bound up so tightly in the centrist psyche, Brexit is making many establishment centrists behave like any other identity group that feels under attack, blindly lashing out and playing the role of the victim.
And so in many ways it was inevitable that arch-Remainers would be suspicious of the likes of Owen Jones, and seek to publicly denounce him. Back in 2015, when the EU was turning the screws on Greece and effectively subverting Greek democracy, Jones came close to openly advocating for Brexit. Of course, like many others (most notably Ian Dunt, who had virtually nothing good to say about the European Union until he realised that the EU referendum could boost his profile if only he switched sides) Jones eventually returned to the fold, taking the wishful thinking Varoufakis position that we should remain in the EU in order to reform it.
But like all extremist movements, the hardcore ideological Remainers have long memories and no statute of limitations when it comes to heresy. Owen Jones once expressed doubts about Our Beloved EU, Fount of All Good Things. And he compounded this thoughtcrime by accepting the reality of Brexit rather than raging against it, even penning a lengthy account entitled “Why I’m a remainer who accepts the EU referendum result”. Therefore he must be punished and cast out. As Jones notes, “the Hard Remainers want to overturn the EU referendum and regard the likes of me as traitors and impure for wanting a soft Brexit instead.”
The centrists of old – back when they were free and easy, on the ascendancy, certain that their basic worldview was coming to fruition and would perpetuate itself forever – had a reasonable degree of tolerance for differing opinions. That’s why the likes of Ken Clarke could fit (ideologically at least) under the same political umbrella as someone like Tony Blair, Yvette Cooper or Chuka Umunna. A few honest differences on a few political points were expected and allowed, since everybody was pulling in the same basic direction. But no longer. Cast out of power, hardcore centrists increasingly use a person’s attitude toward Brexit as an acid test to determine whether they are Good or Bad.
Where will this end? Well, certain excitable centrist MPs and their media cheerleaders seem to be itching to set up a new political party, first with the sole objective of stopping Brexit and remaining in the European Union, and once that deed is accomplished to turn into some kind of new centrist party, a shelter from Theresa May’s authoritarianism and Jeremy Corbyn’s unabashed socialism.
I wrote an entire blog post yesterday about why this idea is idiotic and will never come to fruition. But what would such a party look like, if the normal constraints of British electoral politics were magically removed and a new “centrist” party formed?
By definition it would be full of extremists – the kind of people whose fanatical devotion to the European Union is such that it overrides their previous party loyalties and makes them willing to jump into bed with other people who might have quite different ideas about the optimal size and function of the state, spending priorities, social issues or a million and one other policies.
Such a party would be full of EU-worshipping zealots who would pay any price and bear any burden to thwart Brexit – ironic, since many of them complain about so-called Brexit extremism. But more than that, it would be full of deluded souls who think that if only Brexit can be stopped, everything would just go back to how it was before David Cameron called the referendum; that the anti-establishment backlash which helped to deliver Brexit would simply melt away as people shrugged their shoulders and accepted being overruled by their social betters.
This is delusional. The reason that Blairite and Cameronite centrism lies discarded in the gutter right now is because its most ardent practitioners were content with a system which rewarded people like themselves while leaving millions of others in dead-end jobs or left on the welfare trash heap with little realistic prospect for self-betterment – and because they were openly, snarlingly contemptuous of anybody who dared point this out or raise an objection. Centrism is discredited because it inspired successive British governments to effectively outsource whole swathes of governance and policymaking to the European Union, with MPs and ministers enjoying the trappings of power despite having vested many of their responsibilities in a supranational government even less accountable or responsive to the popular will than Westminster.
A new political party (or government) full of centrist extremists, bitter and vengeful at having been temporarily dethroned, would immediately seek to roll Britain back to 2015 (or 2010, depending on whether they are centre-left or centre-right extremists). But the British people have moved on. A majority want to get on with Brexit even if they voted to Remain in the referendum. They want to move forward, not backward.
But despite being totally impractical and doomed to failure, expect to hear more talk of a new, dedicated anti-Brexit party. Expect to hear more overwrought headlines and tweets comparing Brexit to such and such atrocity or genocide. The rage continues to grow among the dispossessed centrists, and they have a vastly bigger platform to air their grievances than those on the ideological Left or Right.
You see, these people have never lost before. They are accustomed to winning, and do not know how to behave in the face of defeat. Since 1997, whichever party was in power, Labour or Conservative, the centrists’ worldview inched ever closer to fruition. And if that consensus failed to deliver for millions of Britons – those at the sharp end of globalisation or those who simply care a lot about democracy and constitutional matters – then so be it. They got theirs, and that’s all that mattered.
Thank goodness that this cosy centrist consensus has finally been broken, and that these arrogant, selfish and overrated people will have to take their failed and discredited ideology to battle in the political arena along with the rest of us, rather than continuing to win by default.
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