There is something familiar about Brexit ideology, and what’s alarming is that the ‘something familiar’ consists of philosophies and slogans that were debunked decades, even centuries ago… On closer inspection, it looks as if five of the most prominent Brexiters have become ‘modern’ Victorians.
Daniel Hannan, who metaphorically speaking has wet dreams about the nineteenth century Corn Laws, has never knowingly been right about anything, yet today he sits in robes of ermine. How did that happen?
Hannan, who will turn 50 this year, began campaigning for what he calls ‘independence’ when he was 19. His role in Brexit was to be its ideas man, its pamphleteer and its chief propagandist. He is also responsible for recruiting Matthew Elliott in 2012 to head up the campaign that would eventually become VoteLeave.
He managed to get himself elected as a Conservative MEP for South-East England in 1999, and after 21 years he walked away with a gold-plated EU pension. Whatever happens as a result of Brexit won’t hurt him, but it is hurting a lot of people he said it wouldn’t.
“Absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the single market.” (14 May, 2015, Channel 4 News)
Tell that to the 45 British economic sectors currently suffering severe disruption due to the UK leaving the single market.
“That idea that car manufacturers might disinvest after we leave the EU? It’s a – what’s the word? – oh yes. Lie.” (17 September, 2015, Twitter)
Honda is closing in Swindon and its land has already been sold to a developer, while most other car manufacturers have scaled down. Only Nissan has given a firm short-to medium term commitment to continue manufacturing in the UK.
“Of all the scare stories propagated by EU supporters, the idea that the UK and Ireland would impose borders after 94 years is the silliest.” (18 November, 2015, Twitter)
Johnson solved the problem by fixing an international border inside the UK, between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in the Irish Sea, but is currently pretending he did no such thing, and that it is the EU being mean to us. This is a long-running saga that still has legs, and in which ‘alternative arrangements’ play a recurring guest-star role.
“It’s irresponsible to scare EU nationals in the UK by hinting that their status might change after Brexit.” (3 March, 2016, Twitter)
Hannan and others, like Gisela Stuart, betrayed EU nationals. They did nothing to prevent them from being used as a bargaining chip in the negotiations with the EU, and stood by as they were treated badly and had some of their rights stripped from them. (At least they can still rely on Freedom of Movement to move to a more welcoming EU or EFTA state, unlike us Brits.)
“I think five years from now, Britain will be flourishing as never before and people will look back and wonder why we didn’t do this long before.” (13 July, 2016, DW News, Germany)
We still have six months to go until the 5-year anniversary of this quote, but the probability that we’ll be flourishing is almost zero, and not just because we’ve spent a year battling a pandemic. Brexit has put up barriers to trade, and for some businesses they are insurmountable. By the government’s own analysis, the new trade deals will not yield returns sufficient to compensate for lost European business. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, Brexit was never a trade optimisation strategy.
Hannan’s Victorianism shines through in his attitude to ‘free trade’, a concept he prostrates himself before. It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? FREE trade. Who doesn’t like a freebie? Sadly, it does not live up to its name. Apart from tariffs and quota, there is often very little that is free about it.
It is almost as if Daniel Hannan has not heard of the Great Famine of the 1840s and does not understand free trade’s role in it. In the name of free trade, Charles Edward Trevelyan, then the Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, insisted Irish corn should be sold to the highest bidder and exported, rather than used to feed the domestic population, who were starving due to the failure of the potato crop. He also closed depots handing out food relief to the poor. One million Irish people died.
Priti Patel was prepared to cause more deaths from hunger in the name of Brexit free trade when she suggested starving the Irish into submission during the Brexit negotiations. Ironically, Northern Ireland would not now be suffering the shortages it is experiencing if Theresa May’s backstop, which Patel was trying to destroy, had been part of the final deal. Johnson removed it in favour of the Irish Sea Border that is causing so much grief.
Patel once called Remainers “a stain on our democracy”. Once again, that’s an example of a Brexiter projecting their true nature onto others. That disastrous appearance on BBC Question Time in 2011, where she came out in support of capital punishment, and was resoundingly trounced by Ian Hislop, should have been enough to preclude her from ever being a Cabinet Minister. Brexit changed everything. Even so, getting fired as a Cabinet Minister for behaving like a fifth-columnist in Israel should have marked her card as being unfit to serve in the Cabinet ever again. Not only did that not happen, but she is still there even after being found guilty of bullying.
In true bellicose Victorian fashion, Patel has gone on to:
- threaten refugees in dinghies with gunboats at dawn
- incarcerate refugees in unsuitable conditions after being warned of covid risk, with around half of the inmates now infected, and
- make inflammatory comments about lawyers which have incited at least one man to attempt to kill members of the legal profession.
Her attempt to strip Britons of the ancient right and freedom to peacefully protest is the latest in her authoritarian impulse. We must resist and defeat it if we are to prevent her from doing far, far worse, and fulfilling her dream of reintroducing the death penalty.
A streak of cruelty also runs through Dominic Raab. He is more famous for sweating profusely under pressure, not knowing that Dover is important to our trade and for failing to read the thirty-five-page Good Friday Agreement, despite it being literally his job to know every last detail of the text. However, just because he is dim, we should not underestimate his malignance.
Raab’s Victorian attitudes come to the fore whenever he is discussing the poor. He caused a furore on the Victoria Derbyshire show in 2017 when he said, “The typical user of a foodbank is not someone that’s languishing in poverty, it’s someone who has a cash-flow problem episodically.”
Nobody who had read the book he co-wrote with Priti Patel, Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng and Chris Skidmore, “Britannia Unchained”, would be at all surprised by that attitude. The authors claimed “British workers are amongst the worst idlers in the world.” It is unsure how they measured that, if they ever did.
Foolishly, Raab laid his dark Victorian soul bare in a private Facebook forum. The group advocated the end of all social housing and the return of workhouses. He was minister for housing at the time. Hypocrisy is such a fine Victorian value.
Mercurial carpet-bagger Michael Gove is not only brainier than Raab, he is also even more hypocritical. He is particularly Victorian in his attitude to drugs. For the first 31 years of Victoria’s reign, drugs were sold over the counter to any adult who wanted them and could pay for them. You could purchase laudanum, cocaine and arsenic from any chemist without prescription. Such heady days.
Michael Gove, a journalist by profession, had a cocaine habit before he entered politics. I say ‘had’, I am giving him the benefit of the doubt, even though (during his campaign to be Speaker) Sir Lindsay Hoyle revealed there is a serious problem with drugs and alcohol in parliament. What makes Gove even more Victorian than being an actual drug-user is that he went on to become the Justice Secretary and preside over the Criminal Justice System where lives are ruined by being sent to jail for doing the exactly as Gove did, because they are the wrong class, the wrong colour, or both. It is breath-taking hypocrisy.
Perhaps he was high when he was telling us all those lies about being better off after Brexit, or that Brits in the EU could rely on the Vienna Convention to lock in any EU rights they had exercised, or that the UK Union would be stronger thanks to Brexit. It is thought that Gove was the one to push the illegal prorogation of parliament and the clauses empowering the government to break the law in the shameful Internal Market Bill. Heaven help us if this amoral viper were ever to become prime minister, as he and his wife Sarah Vine dream of him doing.
Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is every bit as amoral as Gove, but the difference between the pair is that Johnson is not wedded to his ideology, whereas Gove is (comparatively) a Brexit extremist. If tomorrow, doing a u-U-turn and joining EFTA would result in a meteoric rise in his political stock, Johnson would do it. Johnson only cares about Johnson. Still, he has infused his government with a strong dose of “one rule for us, another for you plebs”, to the point of prioritising the selfish impulses of a libertarian SpAd above the safety of millions of British citizens.
What is striking about Johnson is that he has none of the moral qualities of a good leader, yet here he is, as our prime minister. If a woman were to behave like he did, with children by three fathers, lurching from one partner to another and blotting her copybook with corruption scandals, there is no way she would be elected as an MP, let alone as PM. That’s a hypothetical, of course, but a real-life example of Victorian double standards is playing out right now, as the Jennifer Arcuri scandal is kept off the BBC and out of most newspapers or heavily muted. No sex please, we’re British. Let’s have a picture of policemen forming a cordon around a Victorian statue that is under no threat whatsoever instead.
Johnson is like an arch Victorian villain. Superficially he has a veneer of respectability – Eton, Oxford, a sprinkling of Latin, but in reality he is a schemer and a cad who is plotting to lock his heiress wife up in an asylum so that he can steal her fortune and waste all her assets. For ‘heiress wife’, read the United Kingdom and her Treasury. Will Carrie Symonds be his next woman in white? She should read the book of that title first. Johnson makes the evil Sir Percival Glyde look tame.
How much longer will the British people put up with Victorian attitudes, Victorian behaviour and Victorian villainy? It was suffocating the first time around, and is even more so now that we’ve had a taste of the high degree personal freedom we enjoyed in the twenty years or so before Brexit. Can we really take three more years of this?
[You may be wondering why Jacob-Rees Mogg is absent from this compilation. He once said nothing exciting had happened in this country since 1688, so he has been left in the seventeenth century, where he belongs.]