The arrogance of the English

Normally I am not fond of looking back over history as a way of making sense of the present; it’s too easy and often exercised at the expense of more, lengthy enquiry. But on a recent trip to Bucharest, I was struck by the similarities between the strategies used years ago by the communist regime to gain and maintain power, and those of Boris Johnson.

Over the last few years we’ve grown desensitised to people slinging political insults at one another. These days, terms such as fascist, communist, traitor, surrender, betrayal and coup, to name a few, are casually spoken by those wishing to undermine anybody who doesn’t agree with them. Personally, I don’t believe in relying on such slurs to get my opinions across: it’s manipulative and ridiculous. Boris Johnson is of course not a communist and it is not remotely credible, and more importantly insensitive and insulting to the people of Romania, to suggest his recent actions may be compared with those of the Ceauşescu regime. Still he should be called out for using the types of strategies normally associated with authoritarianism, in his attempts to highjack Brexit and turn the existing order upside down.

Last week I visited Romania. I spent five days in the capital Bucharest. While I was there I experienced a familiar sensation. One I’ve had on trips away before. Isolated from people’s fears, anger and worries, I felt a momentary sense of calm, which allowed me to think more dispassionately. Then, we were still waiting for the Supreme Court ruling, but as I was reading Lucian Boia’s history of Romania, certain observations, particularly regarding the ways in which the communist regime had used statecraft to manipulate and control people’s minds, resonated. I was both interested and surprised for example, to read that after the Second World War, the communists had mobilised both totalitarian practices and democratic discourse in order to gain power. Later on, the regime used nationalism, as well as fear, as the cheapest means to maintain control, while vilifying the foreign ‘other’ to bare the guilt of its failures. Reading Boia’s chapters on the communist era, I began to appreciate more fully how different people’s experiences in Romania had been during the last Century, but also how fragile democracy is, and that we are all susceptible to propaganda.

Like I say Boris’s behaviour is not equivalent to that of a totalitarian dictator, but there are elements in his approach, which overlap. In particular, the ways in which he effectively utilises democratic discourse to gain popular support, while simultaneously attempting to manipulate parliamentary procedure in order to implement his will. The unlawful proroguing of parliament, and his subsequent address to the House is but one recent example, (who knows what else is to come before the 31st of October). In previous times, his actions would have led to his resignation or at least an apology. But not now. Instead, following the Supreme Court ruling the Prime Minister attempted to redirect blame by stirring up people’s anger towards his colleagues, while at the same time claiming to be delivering ‘the will of the people’ in order to legitimise his actions.

One of the most effective tools in Boris’s arsenal, it seems therefore, is his brazen ability to exploit people’s emotions. In the run up to the referendum, as part of the leave campaign, he played on people’s fears and sense of injustice. Last year, during the summer recess he touched on their prejudices. Now he is Prime Minister, he is exploiting the pride and anger of leavers, while trying to flatter those who voted remain.

Given these tendencies, it was while in Romania thinking about the ways in which people were deceived there, that once again I began to question a number of stated ‘truths’ about Brexit. I wondered despite risking being accused of betrayal or treachery, whether implementing the referendum result was necessary to protect democracy regardless of the (already disastrous) consequences? Or rather, knowing the referendum was not legally binding but advisory, and the electorate grossly misinformed during the run up to the vote, if the need to ‘get Brexit done’ was just a matter of opinion. This led me to ask next, if in actuality, the greatest threat to our democracy currently, is the ways in which Boris Johnson and his associates have been attempting to push Brexit through.

The week before travelling to Romania a friend recommended I read a newly published selection of D H Lawrence’s essays and short stories. In the departure lounge waiting to board my flight to Bucharest, I read ‘A letter from Germany’. Written in 1924, Lawrence describes how the Ruhr occupation and English nullity, served to transform the soul of the German people. This idea, that a nation’s spirit may be collectively transformed by political events stayed with me. While I was in Romania, I noticed common traits and reactions amongst those who’d lived under the communist regime. People’s reactions were complex, and yet there was a detectable sense of shame.  This led me to wonder how people in Britain, and more specifically England, might feel in twenty years time. I wondered what might happen to our proud nation and proud people when we realised we had been duped over Brexit and our fragile egos manipulated for someone else’s gain.

We are all, I believe, collectively responsible for what happens next. But perhaps it is only later that we will understand, as Lawrence wrote, that we did it to ourselves – ‘But apparently it was not to be helped’.