FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Boris Johnson is the Luckiest Politician Alive

Photograph Source: Matt Brown – CC BY 2.0

I suspected from the moment the general election was called that the result would be a large Conservative majority, a calamitous defeat for Labour, and a decisive victory for Brexit. To prevent myself getting too depressed by this grim prospect, I picked out and read two books on crises that were far more dire: one on the Wars of the Roses in 15th century England and the other on Verdun in 1916, perhaps the most horrific battle in the First World War.

My idea was that by concentrating on these savage conflicts I would have some relief from thinking about Brexit and its consequences. It would also help me view the turmoil over leaving the EU in less apocalyptic terms than is usually the case. Is it, for instance, likely that we are facing the break-up of the UK as nationalist parties – Conservatives, SNP, Sinn Fein, DUP – establish their dominance over different communities? For all the debate over Brexit, it is still unclear how far Britain ruled by a hard-right government will diverge from EU norms and follow the US model.

Reading these two books – Alistair Horne’s The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 and Thomas Penn’s The Brothers York: An English Tragedy – was also a useful distraction from another irritating thought. This was that Boris Johnson might be the luckiest politician alive. It never made sense that Jo Swinson should have precipitated a general election, in which the Liberal Democrats would be squeezed, and would give up the advantages of being a small party in a hung parliament. Jeremy Corbyn should have been able to see that the one thing Labour had to avoid, as Tony Blair had warned, was a Brexit election in which its ambivalent policy on leaving the EU was bound to sink it and close the door to remaining in the EU.

Commentators before and after the election queued up to deny Boris Johnson’s claim that he would get Brexit done and denounce it as a fraud because he still has to negotiate the terms of departure. But, more realistically, the Rubicon has been passed and Brexit of some sort is bound to happen soon.

Johnson could adopt a more conciliatory mode, but I doubt it. Much the same was said about President Donald Trump when he was elected. Populist nationalist politicians, of whom Johnson is one, tend to repeat the same political gambits that got them into power in the first place.

Now that Brexit in its current version has been approved by the electorate, it is easy to forget what a weird project it continues to be. Much of what its proponents say is fantasy or simply unrealisable. There is only so much Britain can do to diversify its economy away from the EU, since 45 per cent of British exports go to there compared to 15 per cent to the US, while exports to Ireland easily exceed those to China. Britain’s negotiators will once again bump into economic and political realities that are the same as under Theresa May.

Brexit is bound to leave the UK weaker and poorer as a state than it would otherwise be – and part of this damage has already been done. But for Leavers, Brexit was always more of a political than an economic project. However often Remainers proved to their own satisfaction that leaving the EU was economic idiocy, it never made much impression on the level of support for Brexit.

Earlier this year, I visited different parts of the UK to discover why so many people appeared to be voting against their own best interests. Why, for instance, did people in the de-industrialised Welsh Valleys want to leave the EU when Brussels had heavily funded projects in the area. The answer in Wales, and in the rest of de-industrialised Britain, was that EU funding was never enough to reverse their decline, though it was not clear that anything could have done so.

The EU became the great scapegoat. Graham Simmonds, an independent councillor in the Valleys, told me that everybody from the government in London to the Welsh Assembly might have failed Wales, but “it was the EU against which people decided to push back.” They were impervious to arguments about the damage Brexit would do to the national GDP because they never saw it as their GDP.

This alienation was there at the time of the referendum in 2016, but it solidified farther between over the next three years, which helps explain Labour’s rout in its former working class strongholds on Thursday. Alex Snowden, a radical activist in Newcastle, told me that people’s core sense of identity had become more wrapped up in their position for or against the EU since 2019. He said that Brexit “isn’t just about views on the EU anymore, but a wider sense of alienation and dislocation.” A canvasser in the Canterbury constituency made the same point to me this week, saying that she had just talked to some Leave voters and “it is as if supporting Brexit is part of their identity. They don’t want to discuss it.” For many, Brexit and English national identity have united and submerged traditional loyalty to the Labour Party. This will be difficult to reverse.

The triumph of nationalism was always a likely outcome of the election. The three parties that had most to celebrate after the poll, primarily appeal to a single national community: Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, the SNP in Scotland and the Conservatives in England and – exceptionally  – to some small degree in Wales.

Scotland is not Catalonia, but the repeated successes of SNP and Sinn Fein are bound to loosen the bonds holding the UK together. There will come a moment when people in the British rust-belt notice that voting Conservative has done them little good. Fresh crises are in the offing. I suspect it will not be long before I will once again be seeking solace in reading up on Verdun or the Wars of the Roses and thinking that at least things are not as bad as that.

More articles by:

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

Weekend Edition
August 07, 2020
Friday - Sunday
John Davis
The COVID Interregnum
Louis Yako
20 Postcard Notes From Iraq: With Love in the Age of COVID-19
Patrick Cockburn
War and Pandemic Journalism: the Truth Can Disappear Fast
Eve Ottenberg
Fixing the COVID Numbers
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Every Which Way to Lose
Paul Street
Trump is Not Conceding: This is Happening Here
Robert Hunziker
The World on Fire
Rob Urie
Neoliberal Centrists and the American Left
John Laforge
USAF Vet Could Face ‘20 Days for 20 Bombs’ for Protest Against US H-Bombs Stationed in Germany
Andrew Levine
Clyburn’s Complaint
Kavaljit Singh
Revisiting the Idea of Pigou Wealth Tax in the Time of Covid-19
Paul Ryder
Here Come the 1968 Mistakes Again
T.J. Coles
Fighting Over Kashmir Could Blow Up the Planet
David Macaray
Haven’t We All Known Guys Who Were Exactly like Donald Trump?
Conn Hallinan
What’s Driving the Simmering Conflict Between India and China
Joseph Natoli
American Failures: August, 2020
Ramzy Baroud
Apartheid or One State: Has Jordan Broken a Political Taboo?
Bruce Hobson
The US Left Needs Humility to Understand Mexican Politics
David Rosen
Easy Targets: Trump’s Attacks on Transgendered People
Ben Debney
The Neoliberal Virus
Evelyn Leopold
Is Netanyahu Serious About Annexing Jordan Valley?
Nicky Reid
When the Chickens Came Home to Roost In Portlandistan
Irma A. Velásquez Nimatuj
The Power of the White Man and His Symbols is Being De-Mystified
Kathy Kelly
Reversal: Boeing’s Flow of Blood
Brian Kelly
Ireland and Slavery: Framing Irish Complicity in the Slave Trade
Ariela Ruiz Caro
South American Nations Adopt Different COVID-19 Stategies, With Different Results
Ron Jacobs
Exorcism at Boston’s Old West Church, All Hallows Eve 1971
J.P. Linstroth
Bolsonaro’s Continuous Follies
Thomas Klikauer – Nadine Campbell
Right-Wing Populism and the End of Democracy
Dean Baker
Trump’s Real Record on Unemployment in Two Graphs
Michael Welton
Listening, Conflict and Citizenship
Nick Pemberton
Donald Trump Is The Only One Who Should Be Going To School This Fall
John Feffer
America’s Multiple Infections
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Thinking Outside the Social Media Echo Chamber
Andrea Mazzarino
The Military is Sick
John Kendall Hawkins
How the Middle Half Lives
Graham Peebles
The Plight of Refugees and Migrant Workers under Covid
Robert P. Alvarez
The Next Coronavirus Bill Must Protect the 2020 Election
Greg Macdougall
Ottawa Bluesfest at Zib: Development at Sacred Site Poses Questions of Responsibility
CounterPunch News Service
Tensions Escalate as Logging Work Commences Near Active Treesits in a Redwood Rainforest
Louis Proyect
The Low Magic of Charles Bukowski
Gloria Oladipo
Rural America Deserves a Real COVID-19 Response
Binoy Kampmark
Crossing the Creepy Line: Google, Deception and the ACCC
Marc Norton
Giants and Warriors Give Their Workers the Boot
David Yearsley
Celebration of Change
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail