Over-weaning egoism and the bitter politics of fear

Today the Guardian ran a front-page article (16.05.2016) on Natalie Bennett’s announcement that she is standing down as leader of the British Green Party. Two of her observations are extraordinarily revealing with regard to our current situation as what should properly be called a “pseudo-democracy”, at least until we get proportional representation. The notion – implicit in the first of these observations – that to be a successful party leader somebody must be a “spin-trained, lifelong politician” speaks volumes about the current parlous state of pseudo-democracy in the UK. Politics, it implies, is now first and foremost about colluding with the media – and so with the interests of those upon whose advertising revenue it largely depends – to work on the electorate by “spinning” whatever simple-minded concept that most advances one’s personal ambition – “America’s greatness”, say, or “British sovereignty”. A politics based on fear, ignorance and lying that leads to the second of Natalie Bennett’s telling observations: “It’s both my strength and my weakness that I answer the question”.

All of which leads me to wonder, one among a great many other thoughts, whether that strange hydra-headed entity – Damian Hurst/Charles Saatchi – may come to be seen as the last significant manifestation of “the artist” as the ultimate personification of the culture of possessive individualism? That once largely symbolic role has now clearly been taken up in earnest by the likes of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump – men whose over-weaning arrogance and self-absorption allows them to revel in the most blatant and extreme forms of popularist demagogy and lying as a basis for indulging in a pathological desire for self-aggrandizement.

As Natalie Bennett also implies, this is why the Green Party is: “having to work against the grain, they’re having to fight all the way, without support from the law, the framework, the funding that should be supporting them”. One of the more hopeful signs emerging from the British referendum debate about Europe is that the Greens and the Labour Party have so much in common on many of the key issue – the EU’s role in protecting and enhancing social justice, individual’s rights, the environment, peace, and so on. Given the deeply conservative framing of British politics – whether viewed from a Tory or Labour perspective – I think the referendum will be a “make or brake” moment. If we leave, our pseudo-democracy will become even more benighted, a situation that will benefit nobody but politicians like Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, and Michael Gove whose “Little England” rhetoric echoes that of Enoch Powell. Powell was the quintessential right-wing popularist British politician before the age of stand-up comedy offered politicians a new role model. A classical scholar, linguist, poet, first Conservative then Ulster Unionist Party MP, Powell was the unlikely mouthpiece for a white – often working-class – xenophobia and racism that allowed people to believe that the ultimate treat to their well-being was ordinary people like themselves from a different ethnic or racial background, rather than the toxic marriage of possessive individualism (formally justified by imperialism) and a rampant capitalist economics.

Powell is infamous for his “rivers of blood” speech of 1968. His starting point for this racist tirade was, so he claimed, a constituent’s belief that: “In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” Wishing to add the status of prophet to that of politician, Powell went on to say of the Race Relations Bill:

“Here is the means of showing that the immigrant communities can organise to consolidate their members, to agitate and campaign against their fellow citizens, and to overawe and dominate the rest with the legal weapons which the ignorant and the ill-informed have provided. As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”

This is essentially the same rhetoric being used by those who would take the UK out of Europe. We now know – as many at the time already believed – that Powell was utterly wrong; that his speech was nothing more than a reflection of racial fear magnified in a distorting mirror that used a classical education to justify the resentful egoism of a failed imperialism.

By voting to leave the EU in the name of “British sovereignty”, this is the mentality that the British electorate would be tacitly – or not so tacitly – embracing. I can only hope more people realise this and vote to keep us in the conversation that is Europe. Not simply for our own good, but for the good of that community, however fractious, as a whole.