Wayne’s World

Whatever the economic imperatives behind imperialism, every empire invariably generates a rhetoric of superiority, which supposedly entitles and even obliges certain countries or societies to acquire territory, dominate and conquer others or impose their system of government through direct or indirect means.   Such superiority might be cultural, religious, racial, or systemic, but it often translates into a sense of ‘mission’ or ‘destiny’ which presents empire as some kind of altruistic project.

Some empires are cured of such delusions slowly and painfully.  For Spain, the process of imperial disintegration and collapse began in the seventeenth century and culminated in the Spanish-American war at the end of the nineteenth.   Other empires have experienced a more sudden and traumatic collision with reality. The thousand-year Reich and Japan’s empire of the sun underwent a process of imperial expansion that lasted roughly fifteen years, and which ended with the destruction of both Germany and Japan and the humiliation of occupation.

Partly as a result of such devastation, both countries have to some extent come to terms with their respective imperial pasts and have learned to be suspicious of the narratives of superiority that once sustained them.  Here in the UK things have turned out rather differently. Britain’s protracted ‘retreat from empire’ has never entirely cured the British ruling classes – and a significant section of the public – of the belief that the UK has some kind of special destiny that is different from other nations.

Suggest, as Danish Finance Minister Kristian Jensen did in June, that  ‘there are small nations and there are countries that have not yet realized they are small nations’ and that we might belong to both categories, and you will get the British Ambassador to Denmark Dominic Schroeder angrily denying that Great Britain is ‘ a diminished or diminishing power.’   Suggest that we might do better economically as members of the European Union than we would by leaving it, and you will hear a great deal of lofty pontificating about how we were once ‘ a great trading nation’ and could become one again.

Few of those who make such arguments will talk about how Britain became a ‘great trading nation’ in the first place.   You won’t hear many references to gunboats and the British navy, the East India Company’s wars, famines in Bengal, the collapse of the Bengal textile industry, the Opium Wars, the Irish famine, Mau Mau concentration camps, to mention but a few of the darker episodes from our imperial past.   If such things are remembered at all, they are likely to be remembered as aberrations in the acquisition of our ‘accidental empire.’

Even Orwell, the great imperial critic, once noted that the British empire was ‘ a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it.’  Well yes, compared with the Nazis and Japan’s ‘Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Scheme’ we don’t look that bad, but really such comparisons aren’t something to go around feeling superior about, and they certainly shouldn’t induce us to hanker after what we have lost.

This curious and dangerous combination of imperial nostalgia and imperial amnesia that continues to define and distort our politics.   I’ve been reminded of this combination many times in my lifetime, but never more so than during the last twelve months.   Brexit is absolutely marinated by this remembered past – together with a sour streak of English hyper-nationalism.   It isn’t that we want an empire again, it’s just that we want to be as ‘great’ as we thought we were when we had one.

That’s why we can’t stand foreigners telling us what to do, even if we voluntarily agreed to join an organisation in which we also tell them what we want to do.   It’s why we describe the EU as a ‘dictatorship’ and talk of starving ourselves to be free of it so that once again we can become the great trading nation we were always destined to be.

After all, as  a woman on Question Time recently reminded viewers,  ‘ For thousands of years, Britain has ruled in a wonderful way.  We’ve been a light to the world.’  And this week, in an incredible interview ‘Wayne from Chelmsford’ told LBC presenter James O’Brien that he still supported Brexit despite mounting evidence that it may be an economic disaster, not only because he didn’t believe it would be, but because we used to ‘own 3 thirds [sic]of the world’.

How did we get to ‘own’ these ‘3 thirds’?   Wayne probably doesn’t know, and he clearly doesn’t care.   Asked whether leaving the EU might make it difficult for Brits to go to France, he replies that ‘ I don’t want to go to France’.   He doesn’t want to go to Greece either, because ‘ I’ve heard you can’t go to certain beaches because they’ve got full of tents with migrants on them.’

There are a lot of things to be depressed about it this alarming interview: the unapologetic xenophobia; the deep hatred of migrants; the ignorance and complete indifference to facts, arguments or evidence.  But once again Wayne’s view of our imperial past expresses a nostalgia and romanticism that is at the core of Brexit.  Before you reach into the standard Brexiters’ book of clichés and accuse me of snobbery or looking down at the working classes, I should point out that this view is not restricted to ignorant bigots from Chelmsford.  On the contrary, our newspapers and our ruling classes are absolutely steeped in it, as Theresa May’s ‘global Britain’ speeches and the Eton-educated buffoon Boris Johnson consistently prove.

In short, we are witnessing a textbook example of what can happen when a country succumbs not only to its worst prejudices, but also to its most foolish and most inflated delusions.   The former will be hard enough to crack, but in the end, there may only one thing that cure the country of the latter, and that is the very painful encounter with reality that John Harris suggested in the Guardian today, in a piece which attributed Brexit to ‘ an ingrained English exceptionalism, partly traceable to geography but equally bound up with a puffed-up interpretation of our national past, which has bubbled away in our politics and culture for decades.’

As Harris observed:

‘The likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have used it for their own ideological ends; in the kind of post-industrial places long ignored by Westminster politicians it turned out to be the one bit of pride and identity many people had left. It runs deep: even if the economy takes a vertiginous plunge, it will take a lot longer than two years to shift it.’

Harris also argues that

‘The only way such delusions will fade is if they are finally tested in the real world and found wanting, whereupon this country may at last be ready to humbly engage with modernity. And in that sense, to paraphrase a faded politician, Brexit probably has to mean Brexit. That may result in a long spell of relative penury, and an atmosphere of recrimination and resentment. By the time everything is resolved a lot of us will either be very old or dead. But that may be the price we have to pay to belatedly put all our imperial baggage in the glass case where it belongs, and to edge our way back into the European family, if they will have us.’

There are a lot of ifs in this scenario, and none of it is much to celebrate or look forward to.  I hope these bleak possibilities don’t materialize, because a lot of people will suffer if they do, and national political and economic traumas do not always produce a positive – let alone a redemptive – outcome.

I still hope that the country will come to its senses, and that there can some kind of revisiting of the referendum result, either through an election or a second referendum on a final deal.  I hope that we can find our way to a better future that is not based on the selective reinvention of our imperial past.  Perhaps then we might conclude that our collective interests could be best served by remaining in the – flawed – organisation that we voluntarily chose to remain and that we are foolishly choosing to leave.  

And perhaps we might finally learn to stop looking down at the rest of the world, and come to terms with the fact that we were not as great or as special as we thought we were,  and accept that empires do not repeat themselves, and finally say good riddance to the one we had.

Why I’m voting Labour

What a difference a month can make.  When Theresa May broke her own pledge not to call an election I thought that yet another political calamity was about to unfold.  The justification for the election was that parliament was ‘blocking Brexit’ and that a new mandate was necessary to allow May to negotiate Britain’s exit from the UK more effectively.

Like so much that comes from May’s mouth and from the Tory party in general these days,  this was a bare-faced lie.  Labour had accepted the referendum result and allowed May to trigger Article 50 entirely on her own terms.   May’s real intentions were more sinister and devious: in seeking a bigger majority and appealing to the ‘will of the people’, she intended to remove the entire Brexit process from parliamentary scrutiny altogether and ensure that the electorate gave her a rubber stamp to enact a ‘plan’ that she was not and is not prepared to reveal to the public, most likely because she doesn’t actually have one.

Instead, showing a gall and an arrogance rarely seen in British politics, she asked the public to vote for her without explaining what they were actually voting for.  All this was supposedly for our own good, but like the referendum itself, it was entirely dictated by the interests of the Tory party.   May clearly calculated that the economic impact of Brexit would be kicking in by 2020, and decided that now would be a good time to destroy a divided Labour Party and ensure that her own party was able to ride out the storms that will certainly ensue over the next three years.

This is what the Tory papers clearly hoped for too when they applauded her Machiavellian brilliance. Like May, they believed that a massive Tory majority was a fait accompli.  All that was required was for May to intone ‘strong and stable’ and ‘coalition of chaos’ before hand-picked audiences and the glassy-eyed voters would stumble towards her with their hands outstretched in front of them.  A good plan – in theory – but now, astonishingly,  it has unravelled to the point when May may not get the massive majority she wants, and there is even a discussion taking place about whether she will actually lose the election.  

What explains this incredible turn of events? Firstly, there is the deeply unattractive and unappealing figure of May herself.   When she first put herself forward as a successor to Cameron last year she presented herself as a safe pair of hands, a competent non-ideological technocrat surrounded by buffoons and conniving chancers who ‘ wear her heart on the sleeve’ and ‘got the job done’.

That carefully-cultivated image has now dissolved.   Again and again throughout this campaign May has shown that the reason she doesn’t wear her heart on the sleeve is because she has no heart at all.   The best that can be said of a woman who says that ‘people use foodbanks for complex reasons’ when asked why nurses are using them, or who tells a nurse asking why she hasn’t had a pay rise in years that there is ‘no magic money tree’ is that she has something of an empathy deficit.

The worst is that she is as callous and uncaring as the Tory governments that she has been part of have shown themselves to be these last few years.  Either way it’s not a good look, especially for a politician who has placed herself at the centre of the campaign.   Like the Wizard of Oz, May would like the outside world to see what she wants them to see, but she has already shown the public more than even many Tory voters can bear, and the more she has revealed of herself, the more she has shown herself to be a callous, reactionary, dishonest, vacillating, opportunistic, cowardly, conniving control freak.

All this would be bad enough, but it has been compounded by the most arrogant, lazy, and incompetent campaign that I can remember,  which offered voters nothing but a back-of-a-fag-packet manifesto, ‘coalition of chaos’ messaging and shameful sarcasm about ‘magic money trees’ in response to every question about the manifold social failures that are unfolding before our eyes and the ongoing collapse of public services.

In contrast to this, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party have exceeded the expectations of many, including myself – and fought a superb campaign, based on a positive message and a return to genuine social-democratic principles. Corbyn, unlike May, is a natural campaigner, with a warmth, humanity and sincerity that neither May nor any of her crew can ever match.   He has shown tremendous courage and good humour, in enduring one of the most vicious onslaughts ever directed against a British politician.

Place someone like that against a woman who sends her bereaved Home Secretary into a tv debate because she hasn’t the guts to appear herself, and voters will take notice, even if May assumed they wouldn’t.   But character isn’t everything. For the first time, Labour have presented the electorate with a genuine alternative to the neoliberal austerity model which has wrought such havoc for the best part of a decade.

The result is that against all the odds, and despite the opposition of the majority of his own MPs, Corbyn has slashed the Tory lead in the polls.  Personally, I have had my reservations about the Corbyn project and the Labour party in general, and still do.  I don’t like the lack of clarity on Brexit.  I think there should be another vote on a final deal.  I also think that a Labour government will struggle to implement its program outside the single market.   I don’t agree with Labour’s position on free movement.

Despite these caveats, I will most definitely be voting Labour tomorrow.  I will do it because this zombie government cannot be allowed to have a majority that will enable it to inflict even more damage on British society than it already has.   I will be doing it because Corbyn has courageously raised the possibility of a different kind of foreign policy to the endless Groundhog Day horror of the ‘war on terror.’

I will do it because if May gets the majority she wants, it will leave the country in the hands of people like Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davies and – offstage – Nigel Farage and Aaron Banks.  The result will be the hardest of Brexits, and a national disaster that will most likely result in the UK crashing out into WTO rules.  A May majority will transform the UK into a corrupt banana republic – a deregulated tax haven flowing with Trump hotels and Saudi money and ruled by men and women without a trace of humanity or concern for anyone except a narrow wealthy clique and the Tory party itself.

If May wins then more schools will be asking parents to pay for their children’s education, as many are already doing.  It will mean the destruction of the NHS and the collapse of social services. It will mean reactionary clampdowns on civil liberties. More stigmatisation and persecution of migrants.   The rolling back of rights for EU nationals.

In short, a Tory majority will accelerate and continue the ongoing transformation of the UK into a dystopia, and I will vote for anyone and anything that can prevent this.  Can Labour prevent it?   Could a Corbyn government cope with the immense challenges of trying to implement a social democratic program and stave off the disaster of a hard Brexit?

I don’t know, but right now it seems a possibility worth voting for, and that’s something I haven’t felt about Labour for a very long time.

 

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.

 

 

 

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.