Recently there was an article in the Telegraph about secret talks between some Tory donors and Nigel Farage with a view to a pact to avoid Tory Brexiteer and Brexit Party candidates standing against each other.
My twitter feed had a string of comments from people alarmed at this. The sharpest I saw was from @bulshdetector on 16 June 2019:
This is the Von Papen blueprint, replayed on a British podium: Conservatives acting as Kingmaker for Farage, in the (mistaken) conviction that they can control him. That's how Hitler became Chancellor in 1933 without a majority. Guys, time to board the dinghies of
— Ky Fegte #FBPE (@bulshdetector) June 16, 2019
This is a different time and the parallels between now and then shouldn’t be drawn too closely, but the anxiety is real and should be engaged with.
Christina Wieland’s majesterial book The fascist state of mind and the manufacturing of masculinity gives a perceptive account of how people’s real anxieties left them prey to strong-sounding leaders in Germany and Italy in the 1930s. Earlier this year, the Hansard Society’s 2019 Audit of Political Engagement showed 54% of Britons in favour of a “strong leader who would break the rules”. It’s tempting to read the show of machismo in the Tory leadership contest as a competition to take up that role — in eliminating Rory Stewart they removed the voice calling this out.
I can understand people feeling worried. The Liberal Democrat position on liberty is as far removed from the “strong leader” as our position on Europe is from that of the strident Brexiteer. One answer is to link opposition to Brexit and the support of liberty as civil liberties are values championed by the EU. The danger is that this gets lost behind the stridency of those demanding Brexit as “the will of the people” [sic], and the way many Brexit supporters paint the EU as authoritarian because they see in it, their own authoritarian tendencies.
It can sound as if authoritarianism is everywhere. In the European elections I encountered real anxiety on the doorstep. The number of citizens of other EU nations who arrived at polling stations and found they couldn’t vote contributes to the unease. It’s not being helped by the craziness of the Tory leadership contest: I recently saw a tweet from someone saying that he usually sees Tory leadership elections from the perspective of a curious observer, but this time it’s with the “panic of an abductee”.
Reminding people that there is an alternative in a more Liberal way of being helps to ease some of the immediate anxiety. It’s about providing an alternative that’s not about people losing faith in politics or acquiescing because there doesn’t seem to be a choice.
“#EuropeanLiberalValues” doesn’t quite pack the punch of “#BollocksToBrexit”. But, faced with an apparent competition to get as far from those European Liberal values as possible, this feels like exactly the moment to remind people that:
“The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”