Professor Chris Grey’s latest Brexit analysis on how Jacobinism and McCarthyism framed last week’s developments including prorogation, rule of law, Yellowhammer, Bercow... and some other thoughts, such as the implications of having a serial liar for PM.
First published in September 2019.
At various times over the last three years I, like some other commentators on Brexit, have used the terms ‘Jacobin’ and ‘McCarthyite’ to describe some pronounced tendencies of one extreme but highly influential strand of Brexiter thinking and conduct.
Those tendencies have now become not just influential but dominant, creating a situation where the Government, which is over 40 seats short of majority, is in open warfare with both parliament and the judiciary. In the process, the role of the Queen has, for the first time in her long reign, arguably been politicised. It is a time of great danger and uncertainty with profound implications for Brexit but which go well beyond that to encompass potentially the entire way that Britain is governed, as Anthony Barnett argued in Open Democracy this week.
Historians might well question the adequacy of the Jacobin and McCarthyite labels, but they serve to reference two different but intimately linked features of the Brexit Ultras. Jacobinism denotes a willingness and even an enthusiasm to destroy anything and everything in the fanatical pursuit of the ‘revolutionary’ goal of Brexit in its supposedly purest form. McCarthyism denotes a paranoid and ruthless quest to identify and denounce all who might be suspected of opposing that goal.
The takeover of government by such a mentality is given a particular inflection by having as its leader someone who, whilst possibly not personally of that disposition, is so totally lacking in commitment to morality or truth. Not only that, but Johnson augments the Ultras’ fanaticism with his own evident sense of privileged entitlement, as if normal rules should not apply to him. Dominic Cummings adds to this dangerous mix with his much-vaunted ‘disruptor’ status and its adolescent contempt for established institutions, including those of governance.
But there is a deeper reality here, which is that Brexit makes liars of everyone who tries to enact it, even if they are not by nature as mendacious as Johnson or as destructive as Cummings. For it derives ultimately from the lies within the Vote Leave campaign itself which, at heart, promised that Brexit could be done without negative consequences. This led May into such tortured positions on, for example, maintaining ‘frictionless trade’ whilst leaving the institutions that make that possible 🔒. It is still present in Johnson and the Brexiters’ underlying position that there can be an open border in Ireland whilst leaving the institutions that make that possible.
Explaining another extraordinary week
This frame of reference explains most of the latest extraordinary developments in the Brexit crisis. The Jacobinism explains the prorogation, or suspension, of parliament itself – which is the proximate cause of most of these recent developments – and which has been ruled illegal by the Scottish Court of Session. It explains why the government, according to that ruling, was prepared to mislead the Queen 🔒. It explains Johnson’s continuing refusal to confirm that he will obey the law passed by parliament requiring an extension to Article 50 to be sought if no-deal has been reached. And it explains the government’s refusal to comply with parliament’s demand to release material about how the prorogation was decided upon, and only very partially to the demand to release the no-deal (Operation Yellowhammer) documents. Nothing must be allowed to stand in the way of the revolution.
That word, revolution, is not simply my rhetorical flourish. It has been used to describe these developments by Dominic Grieve, the sober former Attorney-General who has emerged as one of the most effective defenders of parliament and the rule of law. A somewhat unlikely ‘counter-revolutionary’, he has brought both remarkable courage and forensic, lawyerly precision to bear on the crisis. He has also, in the formulation of the request for information on prorogation, correctly identified the pivotal role now being played by special advisors including, but not limited to, Cummings.
Grieve is not the only one showing strength and, alarming as current events are, it is a matter of some comfort that, in extremis, British political and legal institutions are exhibiting a measure of robustness at such a bizarre time.
Rule of law
As one index of how bizarre these times are, parliament actually had to hold a debate confirming that the rule of law applied, this with reference to Johnson’s stance on accepting the law on extension (in the end it was passed without a vote). But, as David Allen Green, one of the leading legal commentators on Brexit, has argued trenchantly this week 🔒, the rule of law is damaged even by the suggestion that Johnson would flout it, whether or not he means it.
It is here that Johnson’s character adds a twist to the general situation – he may not mean that he would not obey the law but no one has any idea whether or not he speaks the truth. That, just by itself, is hugely damaging.
It is certainly the case that he is being disingenuous in continuing to insist that the prorogation is necessary and normal in order to commence his new legislative programme. For, apart from having no majority and no mandate for this programme, it clearly does not need a prorogation of that length to do so – a key point in the judgment of the Scottish court (i.e. that the motivation was to “stymie” parliament).
More generally, the repeated theme of the big parliamentary debates last week was the total lack of trust MPs have in both Johnson, personally, and the government he leads. That is not surprising, and it is not just the normal stuff of politics: it is the inevitable consequence of having a government which regards anything, including truth itself, as subservient to Brexit. Nor is that simply down to Johnson. Much of what we see now was prefigured in May’s conduct, especially her muleish but unsuccessful attempt to prevent parliament voting on Article 50 (in the first Miller case).
It was this case which provoked the infamous, McCarthyite, headline ‘enemies of the people’ which May never, to my knowledge, disowned and which probably set the stage for the cowed (and, frankly, cowardly) way that MPs mostly caved in when the actual vote happened. The same logic is in play in the initial reaction of ‘sources at Number 10’ to the Scottish court’s ruling, dismissing it as “politically biased”, and, subsequently, in Business minister Kwasi Kwarteng’s fork-tongued assertion that whilst he does not believe it “many people are saying that judges are biased” about Brexit.
Something similar can be seen in the mutterings that the Yellowhammer document reflects the anti-Brexit prejudices of civil servants and derives from work done under ‘Theresa the Remainer’, so can be discounted as ‘just more Project Fear’. That in itself contains a damaging notion, that there is ‘Brexiter truth’ and ‘Remainer truth’.
Actually, the rather sparse summary document contains little that most informed people did not already know, either from direct knowledge or earlier leaks. And, whilst some of it will undoubtedly be mitigated, that these effects will to some degree happen under no-deal is inevitable (a handy explainer from the Institute for Government outlines the main mitigations and gaps).
Much of the responsibility will fall on businesses, but there is a limit to what they can do, especially given the still very vague advice from government, to prevent disruption. In any case, no amount of advice and information can overcome all of the fundamental problems, or even entirely predict what these will be, given the uniqueness of the situation.
Moreover, the continued discussion of no-deal as if it is just about coping with short-term disruptions, rather than long-term consequences, means that the public at large are still being woefully misled about its meaning. That, too, reflects the Jacobin determination to push for no-deal without the hindrance of, in this case, a fully-informed public.
Finally, both Jacobinism and McCarthyism can also be seen in relation to John Bercow, who announced his resignation last week. Bercow is another who has played a pivotal and impressive role in the crisis. This is not, as Brexiters claim, because he has shown ‘Remainer bias’ (plenty of his decisions have been helpful to the Brexit side). It is that he has championed the rights of parliament against the Executive, and did so long before Brexit came on the horizon.
That is automatically deemed anti-Brexit because Brexiters assume that parliamentary power is hostile to them. That is actually a bizarre judgment since, in fact, the Article 50 vote and the Meaningful Votes, both of which they condemned before they occurred, helped their cause. Their difference with Bercow is that he favours parliamentary power in principle, regardless of who it favours, whereas they do so only opportunistically, according to whether it serves their cause or not.
Thus – as with the attacks on numerous civil servants, on Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, or on Dr David Nicholl, who warned of the health effects of no-deal Brexit – the space for independence or even integrity is closed down by a pincer movement of Jacobin ‘nothing must stand in the way of Brexit’ and McCarthyite ‘anything that might is motivated by traitorous remainers flouting the will of the people’. It is, at best, dangerous populism and, at worst, fascistic.
This can only be a matter of conjecture. Every scenario has a long chain of ‘ifs and buts’ associated with it which probably isn’t very useful. As has been true for some time now, no one knows and the number of possible outcomes is, if anything, increasing. The immediate focus of attention is on whether the Supreme Court concurs with the Scottish court ruling this week. If it does, Johnson will come under considerable pressure to resign, which he might or might not be able to resist. In any event, parliament would presumably resume sitting, the issue being what moves it then makes, which clearly will be very different according to whether or not Johnson has to resign.
If Johnson survives, and however the Supreme Court rules, it is, just about, conceivable that the government will do a deal of some sort with the EU before October 19 (there are somewhat differing views amongst leading, well-informed commentators). There are noises about reverting to the NI-only backstop that May originally rejected. Johnson continues to rule this out, but here once again the issue of his honesty makes it hard to evaluate such statements. Possibly, as some reports suggest, his idea is to combine some elements of this along with some element of the much-touted but never-demonstrated ‘alternative arrangements’.
If so, that’s unlikely to be acceptable to the EU, though a somewhat fudged version of the full NI-backstop could well be – assuming it could be put together in time, which seems very tight indeed since no detailed, written proposals have even been tabled yet and, to be clear, no formal negotiations are occurring. In any case, that would fall foul of the DUP and the ‘Spartans’ amongst the Brexit Ultras, and unlikely to get through parliament (without a lot of Labour MPs supporting it). Alternatively, Johnson could fight an election on such a platform (if he had struck a deal with the EU, parliament would presumably vote for an election), but would see his vote cannibalised by the implacably no-deal Brexit Party.
In such an election, Labour seem set to run on a strange platform of re-negotiating and then having another referendum. If they won, it would lead to a difficult decision as to whether Labour would campaign for that hypothetical deal or for remain, or have no unified position (rather in the manner of the 1975 referendum). It’s fair to say it would also pose problems for many Brexiters since it would, presumably, mean a softer Brexit on offer than May’s deal or not getting Brexit at all.
Whether these or other scenarios come to pass it is very difficult, now, to see much chance of Brexit happening on 31 October, whatever Johnson says. Even a deal with the EU by 19 October would probably not leave enough time for the necessary domestic legislation. It’s also unlikely to happen before either an election or an election plus a referendum (or, conceivably, a referendum plus an election). It’s impossible to predict the outcome of any such votes, only that the process would be horrible.
Brexiters own this mess
So the long Brexit agony is set to continue, and it’s important to put the responsibility for this where it belongs, not least because that points to one place where a solution might come from. The standard Brexiter line is to say that the root cause of all that has happened is not Brexit but the refusal of the ‘Remainer elite’ to accept the result of the Referendum and, indeed, to seek to thwart the ‘will of the people’ and ignore the 17.4 million. In short, the problem is a lack of “losers’ consent”.
These are paper-thin arguments, if that, no matter how angrily and self-righteously declaimed by red-faced Brexiter MPs and their loyal army of keyboard camp followers. From the beginning, the issue has been that Brexiters could not agree on what it was they were asking the losers to consent to. From the beginning they have acted as if a small majority was a landslide victory, waving the ‘big number’ of 17.4 but forgetting the almost equally large number of Remain voters or treating them as not being of ‘the people’.
In the process, they have gradually pushed the meaning of Brexit from something that might have achieved a measure of consent (soft Brexit) to something they explicitly denied would happen (no-deal Brexit – see slide 11 of link). And when they had hard Brexit in their grasp, with May’s deal, the hardliners amongst them refused to vote for it in parliament.
At least since Article 50 was triggered, Brexiters have owned what happened, up to and including the present ungodly mess which is squarely down not to Leave voters – few of whom can have expected what has in fact transpired – but to the Jacobin and McCarthyite wing of the Brexit movement. But for all its power, it is only one wing. It is astounding that not a single high-profile Brexiter has been willing to say that it is not remotely justified to sacrifice so much in economic, political and cultural terms on the altar of so narrow a vote.
It’s clear that it would need to come from leading Leavers to have any traction – from Remainers it would just be more of the same discord. Can there really be none of them, after all that has happened, who now think they made a mistake? None who are horrified by what has been unleashed? There would be no shame in such a recantation, rather it would be an act of great and courageous leadership to call for an end to the utter madness of what is being done to our country in the name of that one, narrow vote. Indeed, increasingly it looks like the only honest and rational response.🔷
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