Brexit party standing aside for the Tories coinciding with a Chinese investment decision — both are parts of a much bigger picture

Early in November 2019, the news that a Chinese company was buying what’s left of British steel injected some reality into the seriousness of Brexit party’s decision not to stand candidates against the Tories.

Jingye Group: buying British Steel

Sometimes the coincidence of what happens to appear in the same news broadcast is startling. 11 November 2019 saw the news that Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party was not going to stand candidates against the Tories, and that the Chinese Jingye Group was to buy British Steel.

In the past many people voted Conservative because they saw it as the party of stability, and have had a rude awakening recently as it has abandoned that position for a strongly pro-Brexit and economically reckless position. It was looking as if the Conservatives’ chances would be reduced by Brexit party candidates siphoning off the pro-Brexit voters. Standing those down removed that threat and, by focussing on Labour seats, put pressure on Labour to support Brexit.

This was not good news. Recent polling has consistently been showing support for remaining in the EU ahead of support for leaving. The tendency of older voters to favour leaving the EU and younger ones to remaining in means support for Leave is likely to reduce. News of Farage’s decision seemed already to hand power to the Tories, dressing up an election result fought on many things as a mandate for a hard Brexit. It lumps together those who would vote Tory because they want Brexit, those who vote Tory because that’s what they usually do, and those afraid of a Corbyn government.

Authoritarianism

The Brexit party being sufficiently authoritarian to make half of its candidates stand down on their leader’s whim, which also bends a popular vote into support for something extreme, has horrible echoes of the 1930s. But it doesn’t have to be like this. The radical alternative is the Liberal Democrats, offering programme that’s about remaining in the EU, building communities and connection, and celebrates civil liberties. That was a connection to make in the election campaign. Now that Boris Johnson has a large majority it is still a case to make, though it feels more like a resistance to a government lurching in an unpalatable direction.

The Chinese angle

The China news put this in a different context. In an earlier round of difficulty for British Steel, major investment came from India in the form of Tata steel. China and India are the world’s largest countries, and, as their people come out of poverty, are emerging as major economic power. On BBC Radio 4’s The World at One (11 November 2019), Linda Liu suggested that China currently owns around 10% of British business. That has happened very quietly, but it matters. I could understand people feeling anxious about it, yet it is barely mentioned.

In psychoanalytic terms, the question is whether this really is un-noticed, or is something which people can’t quite find a way to put their finger on, leaving an inarticulable sense that something is awry.

People often talk as if Brexit were recovering the UK’s place in the world. The reality is that the world has changed enormously. Full membership of the EU offers some protection and stability. Outside the EU, the UK is profoundly vulnerable. China thinks differently from the way the West behaved in building its empires, so westerners miss the threat because it doesn’t look like the sort of threat we are used to. The sense of “something awry” is too ill-defined to be talked about.

People rightly mocked Boris Johnson’s claims to have an “oven-ready” Brexit deal, especially with his claim that the UK should “whack (the Withdrawal Agreement Bill) in the microwave… gas mark four” as if he doesn’t know the difference between (outdated) gas marks on ovens and settings on microwaves. But if the anxiety can’t quite be articulated then there’s no way to tell whether a particular solution will work but confidence-defying-reality hits the spot with chilling accuracy.

A national crisis

The UK is in an extraordinary moment of crisis. While global power inexorably moves away from the West, we’ve had a referendum to hide divisions in the Tory party (with no thought of the consequences), leading to a string of ever-more bizarre Brexit proposals (with no thought of the consequences), consolidating power in an increasingly right-wing government that had to be stopped by the courts from shutting down parliament. That’s been followed by a General Election which was lost by Labour rather than won by the Tories, giving a mandate-that’s-not-a-mandate. Boris Johnson once claimed he’d make a “Titanic success” of Brexit. Right now it feels as if people are fighting over the deck chairs…

The Russian piece

Concerns over Russian interference in the referendum, the election of Donald Trump and in the UK electoral system should be taken seriously. This makes the decision to delay publication of the report into potential Russian interference in the referendum particularly serious. A wise Prime Minister would want that out in the public in time for proper discussion and action to prevent future interference before a General Election (or a referendum).

Economically, Russia is overshadowed by the EU, and will be ever-more overshadowed by China and India. In the short term, destabilising the EU buys Russia some influence relative to the EU, and resists pressure in what they see as their “near abroad” to head in a more European direction.

It feels as if one layer of the “fight over the deckchairs on the Titanic” is the UK being susceptible to Russian interference, because it gives some an advantage in that fight.

2019 General Election

What I heard on the doorsteps is an alienation from politics, and a profound frustration. This doesn’t augur well and puts a giant question mark over the Tory mandate. If, as now seems inevitable, we are lurching into Brexit, the Tories won’t have the legitimacy or the trust either to guide the country through the turmoil or to reverse the decision. But their seeming-mandate is theirs to lose as people suffer from the cultural and economic harm of Brexit. What happens to the anger of those who believed that Brexit would restore the UK to economic power and global influence when they realise that neither of these are possible?

This article was originally written on 11 November, but its publication was delayed until after the General Election, allowing for some revision on 13 December 2019.

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