Merriam-Webster defines fascism as “a political philosophy, movement, or regime (…) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.” I think that it is important to define the true meaning of fascism because it is far too often used to attack political opponents. By using the word too lightly and frequently it both undermines your argument, but more importantly it demeans the word.
Throughout the Brexit debate both sides of the division have been labelled as fascists by the other. This is unhelpful for our political discourse because the connotations that derive from the term lead to further polarisation and hostility. However, I believe that there is a certain element in British society that is, while not truly fascist, express views that could mutate into fascism under certain social, economic and political conditions. The events of the previous two weeks have led me to think differently about where British politics may be heading if we don’t try to intervene.
The Brexit that was promised in 2016 is undeliverable and is no longer an option that is accepted by even the most vocal Brexiteer. The sunlit uplands that Boris Johnson promised in 2016 have now turned into a promise that we will still have clean drinking water, that planes will (probably) continue to fly, and that we will still have access to all of the ingredients that are crucial in producing our much beloved Mars bars (which incidentally turns out to be untrue). While it was clear to many at the time that the utopian vision of Brexit was a fantasy, this vision proved itself to be alluring to the majority. For this they cannot be blamed. Many feel neglected (rightly so in my opinion) by consecutive governments. The country is almost unrecognisable for many, they feel that they are attacked for having the opinions that they do and globalisation has left them behind. The vision of Britain after Brexit was one in which Britain was reborn. A global Britain. A Britain that harkened back to a past that many remember fondly. But this is where our problems began.
This vision gave many hope, they believed that they were voting for a future that would provide them with a sense of security and a renewed pride in their country, but this hope has gradually solidified into a faith. The more that the Brexit project has been forced to face reality the more important it has become to believe in Brexit. Because it is a project that provides many with hope, like all faith based positions, it has become almost impossible for many to accept the flaws in their dogma. Rather than accept that Brexit has been defeated by its own hubris, a conspiracy has emerged where it is the ‘Remainer Establishment’ who have blocked Brexit at every turn. This quite clearly isn’t the case but that is of no consequence to the most steadfast Brexiteers. This faith in Brexit has led some of the most fanatical No Deal Brexiteers to join Nigel Farage in his demand to see Britains public institutions purged of those who don’t believe in Brexit.
Our civil servants are famously non-partisan. It is a necessity if they are to carry out their duty which is to help the government, regardless of its politics, to carry out its policies. This call for a purge is the next stage in what has been an on-going process which arguably started when Brexiteers called judges who ruled in favour of parliament’s right to trigger Article 50 “enemies of the people”. While I cannot stress enough that Brexiteers aren’t fascists, the language used by some certainly has fascistic undertones. The entire Brexit debate has very much been an argument between two groups within our society and their different perceptions of Britain’s future. However while the outlook of most Remainers is more global, focusing on how Britain fits into the modern international political order, the Brexiteer outlook seems to be more nationalistic, focusing on Britain and her past and what this means for Britain’s future.
This form of nationalism becomes dangerous when those who share its vision use language that creates clear divisions within society. To brand your political opponents as traitors and “enemies of the people” is to create a clear and violent division. We all know what happens to traitors and many prominent Remainers have certainly discovered what certain Brexiteers would consider as suitable retribution for their ‘treason’. The worldview that this creates is one in which only those who voted with the majority can be considered as one of “the people”, therefore citizenship is predicated on ideological affiliation. This ideology therefore not only exalts the nation but it defines who can truly be considered a part of that nation. Though Brexiteers have been warned about the impact that No Deal Brexit will have on individuals in our society – job loss, potential poverty, risk of increased homelessness – the majority have expressed that they believe it is worth it if Britain can regain the sovereignty that they hold so dear. Therefore their vision of the country matters more than those whose lives will be affected by the pursuit of Brexit. This vision of Brexit then leads into a point that we have already come across: the suppression of political opposition. To purge institutions of the ideologically impure is a policy that has only ever been carried out by totalitarian regimes, the desire to purge the civil service of Remainers is a parallel to the Nazi purge of Germany’s institutions. This aim isn’t merely an offhand comment by a controversial politician. In my own discussions with Brexiteers I have seen a number who support this purge in order to, ironically, defend our democracy. It should be a concern for everyone that these individuals fail to see the implications of this outcome.
In a survey conducted by the Hansard Society it was discovered that 54% of voters wanted a strong leader who is willing to break the rules and carry out reforms, while 72% believe that the current system of government needs quite a lot or a great deal of improvement. When combined with continuing attacks on political opponents and the civil service these figures should be a cause of concern for all in Britain who care about our liberal democracy. I don’t believe that all Brexit supporters are potential fascists. Both sides of the referendum divide contain diverse opinions, beliefs and values. However fascist governments have never had to have a majority of support in order to take hold. With reports indicating that No Deal will lead to a recession and the toll that it will take on Britain’s economy, the societal strains that are already present will continue to pull at the countries social fabric. Many Brexiteers claim that they don’t care about short-term hardships if it means that they get what they want, but that is an opinion from a position of relative security, with this threat still only in the near distance. It is unlikely that this will continue to be the mind-set of most once the implications of No Deal begin to be felt. We have already seen the scapegoating of Remainers for the failure to achieve a utopian Brexit, there is every reason to believe that this will escalate if current predictions come true.
Britain can prevent a descent into more extreme politics by holding politicians such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage to account. Politicians of their ilk have always enabled fascism because their prime concern is political power and prestige, Britain’s political parties also need to set minor differences aside and form a coalition, a parliament divided is weak and will fall, Weimar Germany is the prime example. More also needs to be done to unify the country, many Brexiteers will be horrified by the language used by some and as long as their concerns aren’t ignored and they don’t feel isolated it may be possible to form a consensus around protecting Britain’s political institutions from undemocratic reform. The country needs to accept that while Brexit has divided us as a country we share certain principles that unite us, principally our belief in liberal democracy. As long as the majority is committed to its protection the malignant tumour of fascism will not grow on our body politic.
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