A Very British Populist

The “born to rule” Prime Minister wants power all to himself

There are moments in history that feel, in hindsight, like the point when everything changes.

It feels right now like the United Kingdom is in the middle of one of those moments. Whatever emerges post-Brexit — be that on October 31st, January 31st, or somehow emerging from this debacle still a member of the EU — the Kingdom will be forever changed.

It may not even be united, for one thing. But also, it may be in thrall to a new kind of politics.

Populism is on the rise. In counties as disparate as Italy, Hungary, Poland and Brazil populists hold — or have recently held — power. That’s before we even mention the authoritarians in Russia and Turkey, and the wannabe one in the White House. And every election in France, Germany and the Netherlands is dominated by talk of potential gains for right-wing populist parties.

In the UK, we’ve always had a somewhat smug attitude when it comes to this. Sure, the Brexit vote may have been…misguided, but our ever-sensible parliament would sort that out. We would never elect someone like Trump, we thought. Our version, Nigel Farage — a wealthy former banker who portrays himself as a “man of the people” and disguises his racism and xenophobia behind the veil of “telling it like it is” — has never even won a local election, never mind become prime minister.

But it isn’t that simple. Farage may be shouting from the sidelines with his latest political vanity project the Brexit Party, but there’s still a populist in Downing Street — even if Boris Johnson has not yet contested an election.

Yes, the man the grammatically incoherent Trump called “Britain Trump” is providing to be a particularly British style populist.

Johnson — or Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, to give him his full name — was born into wealth and privilege, educated at Eton and Oxford, a man who got his first job in journalism thanks to his father’s connections. He made his name as a journalist writing anti-EU screeds that were quite often made up. But now, he is claiming that he is a man of the people — even saying that he speaks for the people against an elitist, out of touch parliament.

The bottom line is that Johnson and his fellow hard Brexiteers want to use the cover of Brexit to recast the country as a low tax, low regulation nation, with plans to slash standards on the environment, animal welfare and worker’s rights. But they are doing so while claiming to speak for the people who will suffer the most from their policies.

He has recently prorogued — suspended — the sitting of parliament, avoiding among other things, his responsibility to answer questions from MPs and various committees. Instead, Johnson took to Facebook Live for an event he called “People’s Prime Minister’s Questions”. The video, barely 15 minutes long, shows him answering pre-selected questions with no follow up. Johnson believes this to be democratic. A better word is propaganda.

The bottom line is that Johnson and his fellow hard Brexiteers want to use the cover of Brexit to recast the country as a low tax, low regulation nation, with plans to slash standards on the environment, animal welfare and worker’s rights. But they are doing so while claiming to speak for the people who will suffer the most from their policies.

As a country, we should be better than this. The government’s own Operation Yellowhammer documents, that detail the impact of a no deal Brexit, clearly state there will be shortages of fresh food, medicines and fuel, matched to a rise in the cost of living. There will be a rise in public disorder. It’s clearly stated that the poor will be the hardest hit. This was not what was promised by the Vote Leave campaign (many of whom now run the country). They promised “sunlit meadows beyond” that “we hold all the cards” that a good deal with the EU would be “the easiest in history”. We should not be standing for this.

Yet plenty of people are, and plenty will. You only have to look in the comments section of any article about this to find leavers bleating about “democracy” and “sovereignty” and the old classic “Project Fear”. Lately, those on the anti-Brexit side are being decried in worrying terms: “traitors”, “saboteurs”, “collaborators”. Johnson’s government is fanning these flames by referring to the passage of a law forcing Johnson to ask for an extension to EU membership should he be unable to strike a deal as “the surrender bill”.

The upshot of all this? The far-right see an opportunity on the horizon, as do some disaster socialists on the left. Both know a country on its knees is ripe for a power grab by extremists. Johnson — his whole life spent grasping for the opportunity to lead — sees a chance too. Democracy is messy and full of compromise. By casting himself as a populist hero of the people, he hopes to do away with it.

A letter from Eton infamously claimed that Johnson felt he “should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else”. He has lived his life as if the rules don’t apply to him. Now, he’s governing that way too.

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David is an author and freelance writer. He has two short story collections available, and his non-fiction work has appeared on The Mighty, WhatCulture and Just Football, among others.

Navigating parenting with a disability and trying to write a novel. Email: davefox990@hotmail.com

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