Politicians whose only response to desperate times is to resort to fantastical mythologising, scapegoating of imaginary enemies and suppression of protest should be seen as truly dangerous, argues Tom Scott.
In June, the eminent historian of Nazism, Timothy Snyder, was interviewed by Ukraine’s Euromaidan Press. Professor Snyder, who has also written extensively about the threat to democracy from Trump and other far-right populists in the West, was in no doubt: Putin’s regime in Russia is now unmistakably fascist.
He referred to the characteristics of fascism set out in his 2018 book The Road to Unfreedom: the cult of the leader, the dominance of a single party, ritualised elections, the fantasy of a ‘Golden Age’ and the cult of the dead, total control of the media to hammer home state propaganda, and the politics of “us and them” (“them”, in Russia’s case, being the evil West and Russians who subscribe to such ‘Western’ notions as human rights).
But there was another key characteristic of fascism that Snyder wished to stress:
“Fascism is about the priority of will over reason. Fascism is a project of political imagination. And therefore it’s difficult to define fascism in a precise way because it itself involves a rejection of both factual and logical reality.”
It’s easy to see how Putin’s genocidal regime meets all of Snyder’s criteria. Harder, perhaps, to see the signs of incipient fascism in developments in our own country, but they are there if one cares to look – and the Conservative Party leadership contest has served to highlight them.
The ritualised process by which a tiny, self-selecting group is choosing our next prime minister is taking place in an atmosphere of febrile unreality. Millions of people are facing imminent destitution as a result of unpayable energy bills and the climate emergency is continuing to accelerate, with very visible impacts. But you would hardly guess this from the content of the leadership debates.
Despite the heatwaves and increasingly serious drought, the climate crisis has hardly featured at all, and the ‘solutions’ offered to the cost-of-living crisis by Sunak and Truss indicate that they are supremely uninterested in factual reality.
Both are pretending that the explosion in extreme poverty can be addressed by applying one or other aspect of Thatcherite ideology (the Thatcher years represent a Golden Age in Tory mythology, second only to the British Empire). In Sunak’s case the answer lies in restricting the money supply and government borrowing, while Truss favours tax cuts and deregulation of business to “unleash growth”. Neither comes close to addressing the question of how households will survive the coming winter.
Aside from fantasy economics, Truss and Sunak are competing mainly on ‘culture war’ issues, vying with each other to conjure up imaginary enemies of ‘British values’ against which they can pose as champions. Truss – who is backed by powerful hard-right factions within the Tory Party and who never loses the opportunity to be pictured next to a large Union flag – has been making the running on this, emphasising how she not only supports Priti Patel’s cruel and illegal Rwanda scheme, but would extend the programme and “make sure in British law that we can’t be overruled by the ECHR” (European Court of Human Rights).
Not to be outbid in the performative cruelty stakes, Sunak has declared that he would do “whatever it takes” to implement and expand an approach to refugees and migrants that until recently was confined to dankest corners of the extreme right.
Truss has also indicated her eagerness to bring in even more draconian measures to outlaw peaceful protest. When a hustings in Eastbourne was interrupted by Green New Deal protesters last week, she declared that she would
“legislate immediately to make sure that we stand up to Extinction Rebellion…and will never, ever, ever allow our democracy to be disrupted by militant activists”.
For his part, Sunak has alleged that “left-wing agitators” are taking “a bulldozer to our history, our traditions and our fundamental values” by “pulling down statues of historic figures, replacing the school curriculum with anti-British propaganda or rewriting the English language so we can’t even use words like ‘man’, ‘woman’ or ‘mother’”.
In this, Sunak was echoing Putin, who has been resurrecting statues of Stalin and in a speech last year railed against people in the West who, he alleged, believe in
“elimination of entire pages from their own history, ‘reverse discrimination’ against the majority in the interests of a minority, and the demand to give up the traditional notions of mother, father, family and even gender”.
All this is red meat to Conservative Party members, many of whom are former members of Leave.EU and UKIP – once described by David Cameron, not inaccurately, as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” – and who were encouraged by Leave.EU to join the Tories in large numbers to support a leadership bid by Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg after Theresa May resigned in 2018.
There is not much doubt now that Truss will emerge as the winner of this contest, for two reasons. Firstly, because many Tories, much like die-hard Trump fans, saw no problem with Boris Johnson’s criminality and continual lying, and blame Sunak for bringing him down. And secondly because, with this particular electorate, a brown face is a very real disadvantage.
Twitter-user ‘Constantin Machiavelli’ has spent some time looking at the output of Tory Twitter accounts, reporting:
“The talk is of reinstatement of Johnson, emergency measures to fix the economy, save Brexit, dark reports of parliamentary irregularities by the opposition, talk of suspension of elections and various political rights, and changes in Westminster to ensure Johnson stays in power… The tone is very similar to that of Trumpists. The level of hatred, assumption of victim status, and incoherence are disturbing.”
How is it possible that the Conservative Party has lurched so far towards the right in the past few years? The key that has unlocked this Pandora’s Box of fascistic sentiment is Brexit.
Of course, those who voted for Brexit were not, in the main, inclined towards fascism (Farage and Arron Banks are another matter). But Brexit was sold to them on the basis of exactly the sort of simple, easy-to-grasp myths that fascists are so good at weaponising: scapegoating an imaginary foreign enemy, an appeal to return to the ‘good old days’, constant references to Britain’s military prowess in World War Two (a mirror image of Putin’s endless invocation of Soviet victories).
And now that Brexit has so obviously failed to deliver what was promised, those who promoted it are using two other classic fascist ploys: the myth of betrayal (by ‘Remainers’ and a ‘fifth column’ in the Civil Service) and the notion that any mismatch between myth and reality is down to a failure to believe hard enough.
Sunak’s one advantage in the Tory leadership stakes has been that he was on the winning side of the Brexit referendum (even if he played very little part in the actual campaign). Truss, as a former Remainer, has successfully countered this by stressing repeatedly that she is now the truest of true believers in the recklessly stupid move that in 2016 she warned (correctly) would do grave and lasting harm to the UK, and that she would not think twice about tearing up the Northern Ireland Protocol.
In response, Sunak has been reduced to making a ludicrous video in which he shreds “all of the remaining EU laws on our statute book” while a choir belts out Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.
This whole leadership contest is an object lesson in what Timothy Snyder calls “the priority of will over reason”. It would be hilarious except for the fact that millions of people are facing a winter in which they will not be able to afford the bare necessities of life.
And history teaches us that politicians whose only response to desperate times is to resort to fantastical mythologising, scapegoating of imaginary enemies and suppression of protest should be seen as truly dangerous.