31 August 2019

The history of Brexit


“This is Britain’s Reichstag Fire Decree moment”.

That was one man’s reaction to the news that has dominated this week, the prorogation of Parliament.

You might expect such hyperbole from the wilder reaches of social media, where Godwin’s Law – the inevitability of someone raising Hitler in an online debate – is alive and well.  To hear it from Richard J Evans, one of the world’s foremost historians of Nazi Germany, was altogether more concerning. Not to be outdone, another of our most celebrated historians, Simon Schama, referred to Boris Johnson as ‘Duce’, a nod to Mussolini’s title of choice.

That such erudite figures should resort to calling the Prime Minister a fascist is indicative of just how debased the Brexit debate has become. It’s also a reminder that intellect is no insurance against passion, with all its logic-bending properties.

Of course, this kind of glib historical comparison has its mirror on the Leave side too, with a certain type of Brexiteer incapable of discussing negotiations without invoking Dunkirk, the Blitz or D-Day.

Along with overblown comparisons has been a tendency for Johnson’s opponents to use language that is wholly unsuited to the situation at hand. This week’s protests had people earnestly shouting about a “coup” or calling the PM a “dictator”. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, gravely warned that Tuesday may go down as the day “any semblance of parliamentary democracy dies”.

You would forgive someone who had lived under a genuine dictatorship for finding this all slightly incredible. As Alan Lockey wrote on these pages yesterday, “only a democracy unblemished by the historical scars of occupation or revolution” could conceive of what the Prime Minister has done as a ‘coup’. (Again, this intemperance is not limited to one side – I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told by Brexiteers that the UK is “enslaved” by the EU – or the “EUSSR” if they are feeling florid.)

But while his opponents talk about Parliament being “shut down”, the practical effect of this week’s gambit is not to destroy, but to reduce his opponents’ room for manoeuvre by shortening the sitting days before October 31.

Clearly, Mr Johnson’s gambit is not simply about bringing forwarded a new legislative agenda, but is a tactic to squeeze the parliamentary timetable. But the common contention that this is being done to ram through No Deal Brexit seems to me to be too simplistic.

Rather, a big part of the plan may have been to elicit precisely the kind of frenzied reaction we have seen this week. After all, what better way to show Brexit Party waverers that Mr Johnson is the real deal. In doing so he has knowingly opened himself up to a possible confidence vote, or some kind of legislation to prevent No Deal, but it seems very unlikely that both eventualities have not been meticulously planned for.

There are many ways you could characterise all this. An aggressive gamble? Yes. A political risk? Certainly. A crisis to rank with the last days of the Weimar Republic? Pull the other one.

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John Ashmore is Acting Editor of CapX