Gleichschaltung is one of history’s most sinister euphemisms. The word is German and it means ‘co-ordination’. Hitler and other architects of the Third Reich used it to build a totalitarian state that purged Germany of all opposition. From 1933 onwards, das Volk, the people, were urged to march in perfect formation towards a future that would owe its very existence to a single leader, der Führer. You either co-ordinated, or you were lost.
Something similar, beneath the surface of our torpid democracy, is happening here and now. The Johnson regime, moving cautiously step by step, is denying every opportunity for individuals to raise a voice, to question something claimed to be a fact, or to point out the plainest lies.
It began with the August 2019 bid to prorogue parliament, in the interests of a quieter life in Downing Street. Thanks to the Supreme Court, our new prime minister was put back in his constitutional box, but our current regime has a long memory, and an equally long list of public enemies; hence the current moves to restrict judicial review, thus leaving care and control of the country in the laps of those who know best.
The law, of course, has also been the friend and ally of individuals seeking redress, but thanks to the steady and deliberate withdrawal of funding for legal aid, only those with the deepest pockets are any longer able to press their case. The government argues that subsidising justice is a luxury the country can no longer afford. Better that kids still have shoes on their feet than m’learned friends get yet another bung from the public purse. On the surface this act of triage sounds both responsible and – in some weird way – compassionate. Joseph Goebbels would be the first to applaud.
It took Hitler and his tribal barons a matter of months to throttle opposition in the press and on the airwaves, leaving Germany at the mercy of a vigorous and on-message media brilliantly choreographed by that same Minister for Propaganda. Here and now, Johnson has a steeper hill to climb, but once you suss the endgame, it doesn’t take long to spot his route to Gleichschaltung.
Moves within the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to approve every senior appointment within the BBC. Threats to privatise Channel Four and thus set the storm-troopers of uber-capitalism on those uppity journos at Channel Four News. Dark mutterings about The Guardian needing to watch its step. As for the rest of the print media – with the lone exception of the Daily Mirror – Johnson isn’t much bothered. The Murdoch press and the Daily Mail have long understood the public’s indifference to anything demanding a moment’s serious thought, while the Daily Telegraph – think Völkischer Beobachter, mainstay of the Nazi press – has become an arm of Johnson’s purged Whitehall.
The civil service was once a bulwark against ministerial caprice, but senior civil servants like Sir Alex Allen, the prime minister’s adviser on ministerial standards, have quickly realised the folly of trying to stand in the way of the Johnson coup. Priti Patel may well have broken the Ministerial Code of conduct, but Johnson quickly ordered his supplicant ministers ‘to form a square around the Pritster’, and that was that. This diktat was both a dare and a warning. If anyone – anyone – daresto argue the toss with No. 10, their career is toast. Sir Alex, by resigning, even spared Johnson the chore of having him sacked.
In one sense, the current bid to grab every particle of usable power is a coup by stealth. In another, it’s anything but. When a careless government neglects to read the small print on an international treaty, you might assume they’d do their diplomatic best to make amends, but Johnson and his hapless speak-my-weight cabinet colleagues have never had much use for diplomacy. Au contraire, they prefer confrontation to the hard and sweaty hours around the negotiating table, thus playing to the groundlings’ fondness for a good ruck.
The crudeness of this calculation says a great deal about the contemporary culture, openly nurtured by the current administration. Where are the votes in decency? In respect for our international neighbours? In keeping your pledged word when everyone can see that sausages are having a hard time making it to Northern Ireland? Hitler did something similar when he abruptly left the League of Nations in October 1933 after a rigged referendum, and bathed in carefully orchestrated Volk-applause thereafter. That paved the way to open re-armament, and – within a handful of years – to another world war.
As the summer weeks go by, the scale and sheer ambition of the Johnson coup slips ever more into focus. Critics dismiss him as a clown and a narcissist. They believe he lucked into Downing Street and hangs on there by his fingertips. In this, they appear to have the support of Dominic Cummings, his ex-bag man and eminence grise, who was there to see it all happening, but overlooked in Cummings’s testimony are the three ‘c’s that have so far sustained this grab-everything government and may well take us somewhere deeply troubling: cunning, calculation, and sheer chutzpah.
The woeful array of talent around the cabinet table is no accident. These hapless lackeys owe their good luck and their careers to their blustering PM and they know it. Likewise, the shire Tories who put him there are still bewitched by his magical ability to win elections and stay ahead in the opinion polls, regardless of personal scandals, billions of mis-spent public funds, and administrative incompetence at a truly breathtaking level. Covid and Downing Street threaten to beggar a once-decent country but – to the government’s great satisfaction – no-one appears to be taking much notice.
Thanks to Cummings, we know that Johnson is lazy, self-obsessed, and temperamentally incapable of sticking to any decision. He craves the applause of a grateful nation, fancies himself as a latter-day Churchill, and is ruthless with those who call him out. Hitler, for the record, rarely emerged before mid-morning, idolised Frederick the Great, and consigned his enemies – both actual and imagined – to outer darkness. Some of them survived. Most of them didn’t.
As a crime novelist, I embarked on a new series of historical WW2 thrillers in a spirit of genuine enquiry. In the rubble of five long years, I discovered the crime scene of my dreams, but little did I ever anticipate the current echoes of a Führer and a Reich: echoes that we ignore at our peril. Hitler had been Chancellor for a couple of years before it dawned on the bankers, and the industrialists, and the bien pensants that it might be harder than they thought to put the Austrian upstart back in his box. Johnson makes much of his knowledge of history and I suspect that he, too, has carefully plotted his undisguised dismantling of the checks and balances on which any healthy democracy must rely.
The darkest acts sometimes take place in the brightest sunshine. Another line from the Goebbels playbook.
This article first appeared in East Devon Watch.