The Terror Election

From a strategic point of view terrorism has a dismal predictability.  Whatever its context or motivation its central objectives are usually the same: a) to provoke a militarily more powerful opponent into an overreaction that will strain its opponent’s resources and draw it into a debilitating confrontation from which the terrorist hopes to gain in the long run b) to re-engineer society so that there are no spaces for moderation or neutrality – only two sides locked into all-out war c) to undermine the political authority of the state by demonstrating that it cannot protect its own people.

Around these central aims other factors may also come into play: simple vengeance for a real or imagined grievance; the desire to demonstrate the power and reach of the terrorist organisation or cause; rage at the real or imagined indifference of the targeted society towards acts of violence and repression for which its government may be responsible.

These components have been replayed again and again in different ways in one terrorist emergency after another, so on one level the horrors that are now unfolding globally are not entirely unprecedented.   What is new is the sustained and calculated barbarity of the attacks that are now unfolding.  In country after country we are witnessing what are essentially crimes against humanity carried out by a variety of ‘jihadist’ groups who have clearly abandoned even paying lip service to rules and customs of war established over thousands of years.

These groups are not constrained by any moral or ethical limits.  Children, women, the elderly, teenage girls at a concert, pregnant women, gays, lesbians, nightclubbers, booksellers, shoppers in markets  – no targets are off-limits.

They call themselves soldiers and walk around in military fatigues but they are more like einsatzgruppen –  petty exterminators drifting out of a druggy haze into the fervor of overnight ‘conversions’ that only seem to have one aim: to give them permission to perpetrate more horrors that disgrace the name of humanity.  They call themselves Muslims, but the only thing that seems to interest them about Islam is its usefulness as a license for violence and killing.

Historically there is nothing uniquely Islamic about such barbarity.  A cursory look back at the conquistadores; the French Wars of Religion; the Thirty Years War; World War II or more recently the wars of the former Yugoslavia should quickly dispel such illusions.   Anders Breivik; the killing of Jo Cox; last month’s murders in Portland – let no one imagine that violence of this kind is due to the special proclivity of any particular race, faith or culture towards cruelty.

But in recent years there has been – and we should not dodge this issue – a proliferation of reactionary, tyrannical and misogynistic groups acting in the name of Islam that are trying to implement the historic strategies of revolutionary terrorism at a global level with exceptional ferocity.  Their essential philosophy was once defined in an epigram in the so-called ‘al-Qaeda training manual’ used by the Afghan mujahideen as they prepared to wage war on the secular tyrannies of the Middle East,  which declared:

‘The confrontation that Islam calls for with these godless and apostate regimes does not know Socratic dialogues, Platonic ideals, nor Aristotelean diplomacy.  But it knows the dialogue of bullets, the ideals of assassination, bombing and destruction, and the diplomacy of the cannon and machine-gun.’

This is morally-speaking, the language of cavemen coupled with the exaltation of violence that you might once have found in Italian futurism or fascism. In the last two weeks British society has been subjected to two utterly horrendous attacks by groups and individuals that subscribe to this philosophy.

There are many reasons why this has happened: the corruption, violence and tyranny of post-colonial regimes in the Middle East (sometimes with Western support and sometimes not); the wars in which successive British governments have recklessly involved themselves for more than fifteen years; the dirty games that elements of the British state have played with some of the same jihadists who are now carrying out attacks here; problems of identity, integration and alienation amongst second and third generation Muslim immigrants that have led some young Muslims to seek some kind of meaning and purpose in wars that have clearly brutalised them and annihilated any capacity for mercy, decency or empathy they may once have had.

Whatever the individual motivations of their perpetrators, the atrocities and crimes that they have carried out have a clear strategic purpose.   They are a form of social engineering, designed to be as disgusting and cruel as possible, in the hope of paving the way for a future of endless violence and heroic war.

The individuals and groups that carry out such attacks want no spectators or bystanders, particularly amongst Muslims.  They want all Muslims to join in the great confrontation that ‘Islam’ calls for – their version of it anyway – and they are prepared to bring down hell on entire communities in order to ensure this result.  Contrary to the endless rhetoric that they simply hate us because of our ‘values’ or are continuing some ancestral war against the ‘West’, they are also prepared to kill Muslims, and have in fact done so in huge numbers.

Despite the anathema that our government pronounces on such groups, Western governments including our own have sometimes used them for their own ends, for example in Afghanistan and Libya, and sometimes they have been used by them. No government will ever admit to this of course, and so tragically, the public is rarely aware of the ‘blowback’ that can sometimes occur as a result of such linkages.

Instead governments prefer to use ill-defined and nebulous notions of ‘extremism’ and ‘radicalisation’ that end up targeting people who may not have done anything wrong or have any intention of carrying a violent act, and which too easily cast suspicion across entire communities.  Or else they invent new legal categories that justify ‘extraordinary rendition’ and indefinite detention that merely bring new recruits driven by bitterness, rancour and revenge.

So we are facing an incredibly dangerous, and in fact critical threat to our ‘way of life’, in terms of its potential longterm political and social consequences.  Not only are these groups a real threat to the ‘soft targets’ who they are using to pursue their objectives, but they have a very real possibility of getting precisely the outcome they are seeking.

However last night’s unholy trio drifted into the moral wasteland in which they found themselves, their actions were ultimately strategic:  they were designed to reach into the fascist underbelly of British society, and promote division, rage and hatred.  These attacks may have been planned long before an election was decided, but it is difficult to believe that two high-profile atrocities were carried out during an election campaign by mere coincidence.

These men know what kind of government they’re dealing with.   They know that UK society is coursing with fear and hatred towards immigrants in general and Muslims in particular.   They want more of it, because hatred and repression to them is the ‘true face’ of the British state and of British society that they want to reveal to their would-be constituency.

And there is no shortage of  hatred about.   Before the blood had even dried last night, social media fora were gushing with hate towards Muslims, Islam, ‘Liberals’,  migrants, Jeremy Corbyn,  Sadiq Khan, ‘political correctness’ or whatever else was supposed to have been responsible for the attacks at London Bridge.  The murderers are dead now, as they no doubt intended to be, but were they alive they would surely have been satisfied to hear the talk of deportations, internment and above all – war, because if there is any one point in which the terrorists and the far-right coincide, it’s in the belief that ‘war’ is some kind of solution or morally-bracing antidote to the flaccid mundanity of peace.

All of which means that we are required once again, to show real resilience in the face of this latest savage provocation.  We should resist talk of internment – a measure which has always acted like pouring oil onto a fire in any previous terrorist emergency – and would certainly have the same effect if it was implemented for this one.  We should not cancel the election.

We should concentrate instead on patient carefully-targeted counterterrorism and law enforcement – a difficult challenge to be sure.  We should expect more attacks, and do what we can to stop them, while knowing that some of them will get through.   We should not allow ourselves to be railroaded or panicked into emergency measures that contradict our best ideals.  We should, as Jeremy Corbyn courageously suggested, look at what there is in our foreign policy that has created the context in which these monstrosities continue to replicate themselves and seek legitimacy, however spurious.

We should mourn together and find ways of working together, with men and women of all faiths and of no faith at all, to face down and marginalise these threats.

Contrary to what some – you know who – have said, that is not weakness, cowardice, surrender or moral decadence, it is simply the only way to avoid giving last night’s murderers what they want, and prevent these dark times from becoming even more catastrophic.

And as bad as things look right now, we should believe that we can get through.  And we should never allow ourselves to descend into the sewer that those who carried out last night’s attacks would like us to sink into.

 

When the Brexit Bubble Bursts

Individual folly is very different from political folly.   When an individual acts in an openly self-destructive manner, or engages in behaviour contrary to his or her own interests or to those of the people around them, they are likely to get criticism or advice from their friends or family, or from other people who might hold up a mirror in front of them and o show them the error of their ways.   Such interventions might be able to bring our troubled individual to his or her senses, and  convince them of the harm they are doing to themselves and to others.

But when whole communities or societies are behaving in a foolish, destructive or self-destructive manner, it’s very difficult to change or reverse the trajectory they’ve embarked upon.   Consider Theresa May’s ‘Brexit dinner.’  If the leaked revelations in the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Sonntagszeitung were a correct rendition of what actually happened that evening – and few people seem to be denying that they were – it is clear that

a) The Prime Minister who is asking the British public for a mandate to reinforce her position in the Brexit negotiations does not actually understand what these negotiations actually entail, in which case she is dangerously ignorant or ill-informed

b) That both her timetable and her objectives are unrealistic and not accepted by the European Commission – in which case she is committed to a course that has very little possibility of a positive outcome

c) that May’s negotiating partners are genuinely shocked, worried and even horrified at the UK’s ‘delusional’ approach to Brexit.

Given the scope and the importance of the forthcoming negotiations, you would think that a country that was seriously interested in bringing them to the best possible conclusion from the point of view of its own material interests alone would take these criticisms very seriously indeed, and that it ought to take a long hard look at Theresa May and her team before voting for them.   But that is not the kind of country that we have become.

Instead these revelations have provoked the usual frothing outrage in the Tory press, in below-the-line comments and on social media at the perfidious Europeans and cognac-loving foreigners who have been ‘arrogant’ enough to criticize us and attempt to ‘interfere with our election’.

No one should be surprised by these puerile and infantile insults.  To pay any serious attention or give any credence to the criticisms of Juncker and Merkel would entail acknowledging the enormous risks and limitations in the Brexit project,  raising doubts and a capacity for self-analysis that are entirely absent from the collective mindset that produced the project in the first place.   As a result any doubts and criticisms can only be attributed to ill-intentioned foreigners engaged in a ‘New Project Fear’, as the Telegraph called it, supported by what one moronic commentator in the Independent called ‘EU Quislings.’

This is how collective folly works.  Where individuals have to deal with social criticism and censure, communities and societies engage in collective groupthink, sealed off from any thoughts or ideas that might contradict the basic assumptions that hold the group together,  so that its members combine to reinforce the worst instincts of the group.   Charles Mackay once recognized these tendencies in his classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.   In a chapter on the ‘South Sea Bubble’ of 1720, Mackay described the various joint stock companies that sprung up that year in addition to the South Sea Company, which induced thousands of people to invest their money in scams and fraudulent companies that had little or no possibility of success.

Some of the ‘Bubble Companies’ that were subsequently abolished by Parliament were superficially plausible:  One company proposed to pave the streets of London; another raised capital to invest in Cornish tin mines, and another ‘for sinking pits and lead ore in Derbyshire’.  But there were also companies that sold shares for enterprises such as ‘trading in hair’, ‘improving of gardens’, ‘furnishing funerals to any part of Great Britain’ and even – an enterprise that seems particularly appropriate to our own predicament –  ‘for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage; but nobody to know what it is.’

In his consideration of why so many people were attracted to these schemes, Mackay commented on the ‘unwholesome fermentation’ of the British public, and  asked rhetorically whether it was ‘ a dull or uninstructive picture to see a whole people shaking suddenly off the trammels of reason, and running wild after a golden vision, refusing obstinately to believe that it is not real, till, like a deluded hind running after an ignis fatuus, they are plunged into a quagmire? But in this false spirit has history too often been written.’

It has indeed, and now it is being written again, as the UK lurches blind into a negotiation process that its leaders do not understand, in pursuit of illusions that have very little possibility of realisation.   In her study of self-inflicted historical wounds The March of Folly, the historian Barbara Tuchman, attributed ‘the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests’ to a failure of leadership, and argued that’ Intelligent government would require that the persons entrusted with high office should formulate and execute policy according to their best judgment, the best knowledge available and a judicious estimate of the lesser evil.’

No one can plausibly argue that what Theresa May and her government are doing any of these things.   For that they can and should be blamed right now – just as they undoubtedly will be blamed when historians pore through the wreckage of the trainwreck that is British politics for clues as to how it happened.  But the political tragedy that is unfolding before our eyes is not merely due to the machinations of the Tory party or the raw ambition of little men and women who have put their own careers and interests above any notion of the common good.

If the British public refuses to acknowledge any truth in the EU’s criticisms, and accepts May’s presentation of herself as a ‘bloody difficult woman’ valiantly standing up to the same corrupt foreigners who we fought in so many wars, then it will reinforce the worst tendencies of her government, which will in turn reinforce the worst instincts of the public.  If it gives May a mandate, without even asking what the mandate is for, it will be no different to the investors who once bought stocks in ‘an undertaking of great advantage; but nobody to know what it is.’

History is not kind to societies that behave like this.   In its account of the collapse of the South Sea Bubble, the Parliamentary History at the time once observed:

‘And thus were seen, in the space of eight months, the rise, progress, and fall of that mighty fabric, which, being wound up by mysterious springs to a wonderful height, had fixed the eyes and expectations of all Europe, but whose foundation, being fraud, illusion, credulity, and infatuation, fell to the ground as soon as the artful management of its directors was discovered.’

A similarly precipitous fall awaits us over a much longer period, unless we can find a way to come to our senses and recognize that what the UK is currently seeking through leaving the EU is very unlikely ever to happen, and was never likely to happen, and that the country is about to commit an immense act of self-harm that will be very difficult to escape from. One very simple way to do this would be to deny May the mandate that she wants, and that she and her team are blatantly ill-equipped to receive.

Because otherwise we will put our collective fate in her hands, and in the hands of Boris Johnson and Liam Fox, and the very least that can be said about this is that it is not a sensible decision.   Otherwise we shall have to wait for the Brexit bubble to burst.  And when that happens, and its consequences become clear, it is very unlikely to lead to reflection and analysis of what went wrong,  or whether the expectations behind it were ever realistic in the first place.

On the contrary, it’s far more likely that the mood of the public will turn even more bitter and rancorous than it already is, whipped on by the same irresponsible politicians and newspapers that are currently vilifying Juncker, and that failure will be blamed on ‘EU Quislings’, foreigners, immigrants and ‘Remoaners’ who ‘stabbed us in the back.’

History ought to tell us where sentiments like that can lead, but for the time being it seems, too many politicians seem unable or unwilling to learn from history or halt the headlong rush towards a very painful collision between our collective illusions and reality.

But we can.  We can look at May and her party, and we can just say no, before it’s too late.

 

 

 

Mayday! Mayday!

There are some politicians who look better from a distance, and Theresa May is definitely one of them.  May and her advisors are clearly aware of this, and they have done their best to shield her anything approaching close scrutiny. They have refused to let her participate in political debates. In an absurd attempt to present May as a politician in touch with ‘ordinary people’,  her team have arranged a series of increasingly bizarre stage-managed encounters with party loyalists in factories and other public places from which the public has either been removed or forced to remain silent about what it heard.

Not that there has been much to hear, except for incantations and soundbites.  But even if these theatrical flourishes have a tinny North Korean-style echo to them, Tory Central Office clearly prefers that hollow sound to anything approaching intimacy or proximity – and with good reason.  Asked on Radio Derby whether she agreed with the arch-buffoon’s characterisation of Jeremy Corbyn as a ‘mugwump’ she replied ‘What I recognise is that what we need in this country is strong and stable leadership.’

That wasn’t an answer, but it is pretty much the only answer May has to any question these days.   Well not quite.  On the Andrew Marr show on Sunday she was asked what she thought of the fact that many British nurses use foodbanks.   May’s immortal answer was: ‘People use foodbanks for complex reasons’.  These words really ought to be trailed in blazing letters across the sky or put on the side of a bus and driven from one end of the nation to the other, because they capture not only the essence of Toryism, but the essence of May herself.

Remember all those months ago, when May demurely announced her leadership bid, oozing sincerity and humility as she told the world that she wasn’t one of those politicians who ‘wear their heart on the sleeve’ but someone who just ‘got on with the job in front of them’?  How appealing those words sounded then – to some at least.   Remember last year’s Tory Party conference when she railed against ‘international elites’ and promised to stand up for ‘ordinary working-class people’?   Her observations on foodbanks make it clear – if there was any doubt – that the reason she doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve is because she has no heart at all, and that she doesn’t have the remotest idea who ordinary working class people actually are or what is actually happening to them.

In that sense she is not much different from her predecessor, or from the cynical clowns who she managed to fend off to get the Big Job.   But May’s aura of can-do competence last year had an immediate post-Brexit appeal to an anxious British public that was feeling nervous about what it had just voted for, and desperate for any politician who seemed to know where the country was going and how they were going to get there. May seemed confident and superficially competent enough to suggest that she might be that person – especially given the competition.

In addition, her meaningless tautological insistence that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ appealed to those who don’t care where we’re going as long as we get out of the EU.  So all good, except that it wasn’t.  May’s image of competence was already looking tarnished long before she called the election.  No sooner had she become PM than she appointed a succession of chancers, idiots and ideologues to her cabinet who were patently unworthy of their positions.   She then went on to make speech after speech alienating her European negotiating partners and pandering to the popcorn-munching gallery of Farageland.

True, she was good at throwing puerile Mean Girls insults at Jeremy Corbyn in PMQ. But the more she appears in any other format that is not controlled or scripted, the more it becomes painfully clear that she is yet another rabbit peering into the oncoming headlights of history, who is as out-of-depth as her colleagues and equally unwilling to listen to anyone who tells her things that she doesn’t want to hear.

If there was any doubt about this, the leaked reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAZ) on the Downing Street ‘Brexit dinner‘ ought to lay them to rest.  OK, I know this is a German newspaper, and nowadays we know that Germany is only using the EU to get what it didn’t get during World War II and all Germans are closet Nazis and therefore can’t be trusted.  But apart from that, there is no reason to dispute the genuine shock and incredulity of Juncker and his colleagues on realising how little May understands about what is at stake over the next few months and years and how little leverage she actually has.

Given the kind of country that we have become, and the kind of newspapers that have done so much to bring us to the cliff-edge that we are now looking over, no one will be surprised that some have tried to spin this debacle as yet another example of the sheer iniquity of these damned foreigners.  Whether it’s Tony Parsons ranting on about the war and calling Jean-Claude Juncker a ‘puffed-up political pygmy’ or the Daily Mail venting about the ‘bully boys of the EU’, we have become accustomed to an extremely low-level debate – usually sloshing somewhere around the gutter – about all things European for a long time now.

Others will recognize that it is not a good look to have European politicians suggesting that the Prime Minister of the UK is ‘delusional’ and ‘living in another galaxy’, and that such accusations do no bode well.   They may wonder why May’s timetable seems so blatantly at odds with that of her negotiating partners, and why it is that she seems incapable of understanding the things they are telling her, and why she refuses to listen to people who tell her anything different.

Given these terrifying limitations, you can see why she has chosen to campaign as a robot programmed by Lynton Crosby that simply utters the words ‘strong and stable…strong and stable’ over and over again, like a soothing mantra for a country on the verge of a nervous breakdown to mutter to itself before slipping into another night’s fitful sleep.

If you or I were Theresa May we would do the same. But fortunately we aren’t.  We are in possession of our faculties, and we can still vote against her.   It may not be possible to vote her out of office, but her majority can certainly be reduced.  If it was, that would be a kind of victory.   And we need to try, because this hologram-robot is asking for a mandate to strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations, even when she clearly does not know what she is doing.

Giving into such a request would be like putting your hands on a steering wheel, driven by a would-be suicidal maniac screeching at high speed towards a brick wall.  Normally, sensible passengers don’t accept requests like that, but these are not normal times, and there will be those who will blame the looming disasters on the EU and the ‘saboteurs’ or ‘EU quislings, rather than the madwoman at the wheel.

May is clearly attempting to make us complicit in her madness, and it isn’t too late to come to our senses and vote for anything and anyone that is not Theresa May and not Tory.

Alternatively, we can just accept her invitation to grasp the wheel.  We can stare into her glassy eyes and mutter over and over again ‘strong and stable…strong and stable’ in the hope that it will all just work out somehow, despite the mounting evidence that it really won’t.

 

What Kind of Country?

Every society, no matter how sophisticated or ‘modern’ it thinks it has become,  contains within itself the ability to go forward and backwards.  All societies contain the potential for tolerance and intolerance; for generosity, openness, and empathy and also for mean-spirited callousness, arrogance,selfishness and cruelty.  Every society includes people and communities that are open to the outside world and those that are fearful, resentful and bitter about their proximity to people who look and sound different to themselves,  and who regard the presence of immigrants and foreigners as usurpers and intruders in ‘their’ country.

There is no doubt which forces are now dominant in British society – and English society in particular.  This has been obvious for some time, long before last year’s referendum. It was evident not only in the sour national ‘debate’ about immigration and the ‘concerns’ which so many politicians have fallen over themselves to acknowledge.  What were these concerns?  That the UK was ‘full’ and was being ‘flooded’.   That immigrants were taking ‘our’ jobs and also taking ‘our’ benefits, which meant that if they came here to work they were thieves and if they didn’t then they were parasites.

For years we have told ourselves that immigrants were stealing ‘our’ houses, even when most of them were paying rent to private landlords.  We imagined that devious foreigners all over the world were coolly scanning a list of the countries with the best health service before coming here to have their babies and and steal ‘our’ beds, because they wanted to take advantage of our generosity.   We knew this must be true because that is what foreigners are like.  We understood that the reason we couldn’t get an appointment with our GP was not because there weren’t enough GPs but because there were too many immigrants.

We knew – we just knew it – that the foreigners who came here contributed nothing, nothing at all to ‘our’ society.  Our newspapers told us day after day that they were only here to take from us.  We heard that ‘mass immigration’ was an ‘invasion’ secretly unleashed by the Labour Party and the European Union in order to ‘rub our noses in diversity’.    Even when we heard that ‘our’ national health service was crucially dependent on foreigners, we still wanted them to go home, because we wanted English nurses and doctors to treat us when we were sick or even when we were dying, even though there weren’t enough of ‘our’ nurses and doctors available.

All that was bad enough, but we also heard that immigrants were coming here who didn’t share ‘our’ values.  Like the aliens in Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, they wanted to steal our identities and turn us into hollowed-out and watered-down husks of our ancient selves.  We wondered what had happened to Christmas lights and Easter eggs, to ring-around-the-roses, hopscotch and Hovis bread, to village fetes and classic cars, and what on earth had we been thinking of when we allowed Muslim grooming gangs to turn our cities into no go zones which no cops ever dared enter and every councillor was engaged in a cover-up.

We saw women in burkhas and niqabs and we felt contempt for them because we knew that they wanted to impose ‘Sharia law’ upon us.  At the same time we wanted to save these women, because, like Paul Nuttall, we feared that they weren’t ‘economically active’ and because we believed in tolerance and equality.

We heard Poles speaking their language in public in ‘our’ streets and on the underground, and like Nigel Farage we resented this, because it was obvious that foreigners who spoke to each other in their own language were deliberately refusing to integrate with us,  and because the sound of their foreign accents or the sight of a Polish delicatessen made us feel like strangers in our own land.

So we elected governments that told foreigners they must speak English, even as they were cutting ESOL provision that might have helped them to do this.   We liked that authoritarian and dictatorial tone because it was our voice, not the voice of the metropolitan, latte-drinking elites who had inflicted this disaster upon us and transformed our country in some PC-speaking multicultural nation-of-people-from-nowhere.

We heard that our classrooms were overcrowded, not because our education system was underfunded, or because teachers were dropping out of the profession in droves, but because there were too many immigrant children in our schools who were holding our children back and forcing our sons and daughters to learn their languages and sing their songs and bake silly foreign cakes.

Even when there were no immigrants living anywhere near us we didn’t want them any closer because we knew what they were like.   We knew that most refugees were not ‘genuine’ refugee, but ‘economic migrants’ who were so desperate to get ‘our’ benefits that were willing to get into leaky boats and die in the process, because we knew that foreigners who come from poor countries think like this.

Even when there was no doubt whatsoever that these refugees were ‘genuine’ – and that some of them were in fact children – we didn’t want to help them, because we suspected that they were too old to be ‘genuine’ children, and it didn’t seem right to us that we should have to help poor people from around the world when we needed to look after our ‘own people.’

Of course we weren’t really looking after ‘our own people’ either.  When the numbers of homeless people rose, we put spikes in doorways or fined them for begging.  When we heard that ‘our own people’ were being made to work even though they were sick and dying, we voted back in the government that made this happen.   We had no problem with the bedroom tax, with ‘socially cleansing’ poor people out of London because we knew that poor people were not really ‘our own people’ who shouldn’t live in a city that was meant for rich people.

We supported punitive benefit sanctions, because we always assumed that we would never find ourselves living on benefits, and because we suspected that poor people – even ‘our’ poor people were not that different from immigrants in that respect.

So let’s not pretend that we really cared anymore about the people from ‘somewhere’, as David Goodhart put it, than we do about the people who come from ‘anywhere’. But let no one say that we are ‘racist’.    When Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU we feared and resented them too, not because of their skin colour, but because we knew that both countries were largely filled with thieves, poor people and criminals who were about to flood  ‘our’ country.

We knew that, because ideas like this have coursing freely and largely uncontested through English society for so many years now that they have begun to seem like common sense.   This isn’t entirely new.   There is a brilliant passage from JB Priestley’s English Journey, in which he talks of the German Jewish merchants who settled in his native Bradford before World War I.  Returning to Bradford in 1933, Priestley noted that ‘there is hardly a trace now in the city of that German-Jewish invasion’ and that many of these merchants had left the city or gone out of business:

I like the city better as it was before, and most of my fellow-Bradfordians agree with me. It seems smaller and duller now.  I am not suggesting that these German-Jews are better men than we are.  The point is that they were different, and brought more to the city than bank drafts and lists of customers.  They acted as a leaven, just as a colony of typical West Riding folk would act as a leaven in Munich or Moscow.  These exchanges are good for everybody.

Priestley also noted a transformation that had taken place since the war that made these exchanges unlikely:

Just lately, when we offered hospitality to some distinguished German-Jews who had been exiled by the Nazis, the leader-writers in the cheap Press began yelping again about Keeping the Foreigner Out.  Apart from the miserable meanness of the attitude itself – for the great England, the England admired throughout the world, is the England that keeps open house, the refuge of Mazzini, Marx, Lenin – history shows us that the countries that have opened their doors have gained, just as the countries that have driven out large numbers of their citizens, for racial, religious, or political reasons, have always paid dearly for their intolerance.

Today, the same ‘cheap Press’ disseminates the same message and the same ‘miserable meanness.’  There were certainly caveats and contradictions in Priestley’s evocation of ‘the great England’, but the country that we are now creating could not be much further removed from Priestley’s vision.

Priestley also observed that:

It is one of the innumerable disadvantages of this present age of idiotic nationalism, political and economic, this age of passports and visas and quotas, when every country is as difficult to enter or leave as was the Czar’s Russia or the Sultan’s Turkey before the war, that it is no longer possible for this leavening process to continue.  Bradford is really more provincial now than it was twenty years ago.  But so, I suspect, is the whole world.  It must be when there is less and less tolerance in it, less free speech, less liberalism.  Behind all the new movements of this age, nationalistic, fascistic, communistic, has been more than a suspicion of the mental attitude of a gang of small town louts ready to throw a brick at the nearest stranger.

Ten months after the referendum, that ‘mental attitude’ is the dominant attitude in English politics in regard to the European Union and to immigrants and immigration, and a new and equally rancid expression of ‘idiotic nationalism’ is driving our steep moral descent into a country defined by the ‘cheap Press’ and the equally cheap politicians who have failed to oppose it.

This possibility should be at the centre of the debate about Brexit, and should not be marginalised by a conversation about the customs union or the single market.   As Priestley warned,  societies that behave like this will pay a high price for it, in ways that cannot always be measured in straightforward economic terms.

That is one reason, amongst many others, why the millions of people who don’t want to see the UK become a xenophobic backwater should make their voices heard as the Tory power-grab unfolds over the next six weeks, and elect politicians who can stand up for a different first person plural that includes migrants and foreigners instead of excluding them and blaming them for things they don’t do and for problems that they did not cause.