“Trump’s visit saw him declare Britain to be in chaos (it is), that the current Brexit wasn’t what people voted for (it isn’t, and never would be), and that Boris Johnson would make a great prime minister.”
British politics is in a state of degradation not seen for decades, with both main political parties divided among themselves, engaging in solipsistic infighting while the country burns. Brexit, always a challenge, is being bungled, while other areas of policy suffer from lack of attention. Whatever happens, Britain will suffer financially and politically from Brexit. Meanwhile, America is not a guaranteed ally. President Trump visited Britain from July 12th to 13th. As usual, the president surfed in on a wave of controversy, describing Britain at the NATO summit (itself a tumultuous affair) as a country in turmoil and the Brexit deal agreed the week before as not what people voted for. The chaos Trump brought to the realm of international diplomacy and politics is reflected in the Brexit negotiations, as well as the wider discourse over Trump’s visit and the on-going fall-out of the Brexit referendum.
First, Brexit. The vote to leave the EU on June 23, 2016, has brought little clarity for the general public and even less for those who represent them in parliament. Most MPs voted to remain in the EU, and this was true for the Conservatives, who have seen their party split by Europe for over 25 years. As Daniel Hannan, arch-Brexiteer said in an interview with Peter Robinson of Uncommon Knowledge, it is like Britain has been stuck in the day after the vote, unable to move on, unable to agree what the vote meant, unable to agree in some quarters whether it was even legitimate. Many prominent Leavers have promised trade, financial, immigration and sovereignty utopia outside the EU, which is obviously unachievable to the extent they argue it to be and is based on self-aggrandizing intellectual dishonesty.
Some Remainers meanwhile have engaged in “Project-Fear” doom-mongering that varies wildly in believability, while adopting an attitude dripping with condescension towards the Leave voters, treating them all as the thick, overweight, undereducated and racist lumpenproletariat who should really leave everything to the technocrats to run because they know best. Leavers didn’t know what they’re voting for, after all. As the narrative goes, they are just ‘low information voters,’ who still think Britain has an empire. Sometimes, the way some in the Remain commentariat have spoken to or about Leave voters reminds me of those who used to talk to me like I was mentally deficient because I have a physical disability.
The Tories have been arguing among themselves like schoolchildren for two years, with Brexiteers stabbing each other in the back at every opportunity when they’re presented with the possibility of a promotion. Meanwhile, the situation in the Labour Party is hardly less muddled; Jeremy Corbyn has always been anti-EU, viewing it as a barrier to the opportunity to turn Britain in an island of socialism. He divides the Labour Party between centre-left liberals and further-left socialists. The anti-Semitism scandal also continues on, and it intersects with other sources of division. The irony is that the party that is most in favor of Brexit (Conservative) has a leader (Theresa May) who is pro-EU, while the party that is anti-Brexit (Labour) has an anti-EU leader (Jeremy Corbyn). This level of confusion on principle and policy is replicated in the negotiating process, which has been far from easy, and has pleased no-one and upset everyone, no matter what side of the referendum they were on.
There is no point in dwelling on all the ins-and-outs of the process so far here, as it is all extremely tedious, dragged out by infighting, indecision, and ineptitude. The most recent development of any real interest is the so-called Chequers agreement, which was pushed through on Friday, July, 6, after a marathon session at the prime minister’s country residence. This agreement resulted in a white paper and caused, predictably, pandemonium. It went too far for Remainers who worry about the UK’s ability to trade seamlessly with the EU, our biggest market for goods and services, while Leavers saw it as tying Britain to the EU with no power or say in anything, making Britain a vassal state.
Brexit Secretary David Davis resigned following the Chequers meeting, followed by Foreign Minister Boris Johnson. More resignations from the Brexit camp have since followed. Then, the Brexiteer European Research Group (ERG) proposed four amendments to the customs proposals, which sent Remain Tories and everyone else into a tailspin. The white paper passed a vote by three votes, but May’s Chequers plan is basically dead. A customs union amendment put forward by Remain supporting MPs has been defeated by six votes. This chaos over the last ten days was augmented and accentuated by Trump’s visit.
Trump’s visit saw him declare Britain to be in chaos (it is), that the current Brexit wasn’t what people voted for (it isn’t, and never would be), and that Boris Johnson would make a great prime minister. By doing all this, Trump undermined one of his key allies on the geo-political world stage, and made it seem like Britain’s political class didn’t care what the opinion of the people is even when voted on, and therefore untrustworthy, incompetent or both. Furthermore, as Ben Shapiro argues, by playing on the divisions within the Conservatives, Trump helped increase the likelihood of the government collapsing from the inside. This would result in a general election, which given the recent surge in the polls for Labour might mean that Jeremy Corbyn would be the next prime minister, which would harm America’s ability to work with the UK as a security partner.
On the other hand, while Trump’s tactics are as disruptive as usual, the reaction to his visit was equally a sign of our degraded discourse. To welcome Trump to Britain, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of London and other cities in protest. Trump contradicts everything that the left believes; he’s not pro-immigration, he’s anti-globalization, he’s anti-social justice, careless of climate change, contemptuous of intersectional politics. His very existence seems designed to rile up those of a progressive bent.
While there are many things to dislike or abhor in Trump, this just shows the moral confusion and lack of appreciation of tyranny in Britain: Xi Jinping’s visit did not receive mass protest, despite China’s appalling human rights record. Meanwhile, on the BBC, one protestor said that, with hindsight, George W. Bush now looks like a better option than Trump. As I’ve said before, the nostalgia for Bush, given what happened under his government is ridiculous. Along with this, as Tom Slater argues in Spiked, Barak Obama is still held up as a secular saint, one who would salve the pain of our crooked hearts, who would bring light to our vale of tears, who would heal the world. Instead, he engaged in more foreign interventions, in Libya especially, ultimately contributing to the migrant crisis that provided a boost to the narrative of the populist-nationalists and the Far-Right. He also engaged in massive deportations of illegal immigrants, and also kept huge numbers in detention, including children in cages. He and Hilary Clinton voted for the border fence in 2006, which was actually built, while the “big, beautiful wall” hasn’t even been started.
Protest is fine, and there were doubtless many there for legitimate and noble aims. But none of the protests had specific aims, and they seemed, for many, to simply be an exercise in moral self-glorification: displaying one’s virtue by standing up to the big mean orange president who says nasty things that hurt our feelings. From the actions of the protestors, the position seems to be: At least when Obama did nasty things like deport illegals or keep them in cages or drone kill-list targets he was smooth, suave and cool about it, voicing the right platitudes that soothed our consciences. The message these protests send out is that doing nasty things is fine as long as you don’t upset our liberal sensibilities; the actions taken may be horrible, but if the words used to mask them sound nice then all is well. The protests displayed the bourgeois nature of those attending; manners matter more than material outcome. These mass cathartic therapy sessions, designed to assuage the demons of the participants’ souls in an act of performative outrage, put past protest movements like those for women’s suffrage and civil rights to shame. In some ways, the Trump baby balloon is a metaphor for the maturity and the moral stature of the protest itself.
The final incident that epitomized the abyssal state of our discourse was an encounter between Ash Sarkar and Piers Morgan on ITV’s Good Morning Britain. Sarkar is an editor of Novara Media, a far-left political website. When questioned on why she protested Trump but not Obama, she said she supported neither, and when questioned why by Morgan, she came out with the response “I’m literally a communist, you idiot.” As Douglas Murray says, this became a moment that clarified the depths our public debate has sunk to. It caused the usual bits of the political Internet to melt down in glee at the ‘owning’ of Morgan. Sarkar was then interviewed by Teen Vogue, who now supposedly view Communism and its ideologues as worth emulating. According to Sarkar, being a communist means, among other things, “being a fierce critic of the prison industrial complex.” Sarkar either doesn’t know of the Gulag Archipelago in 20th century communist Russia or China today, which itself denotes a level of historical ignorance that borders on sin. Or she does know, and either doesn’t care, doesn’t believe that the camps existed, or believes they existed but knows that knowledge of the existence of such camps, along with the millions of deaths from genocide and starvation might make turn the ideas she’s selling turn into snake oil in the eyes of the public.
This is what we have come to in Britain: a Brexit shambles radioactive in its toxic effect on parliamentary conduct and discourse, protest as therapy, and communism being pushed on national television. The Trump baby balloon is a fitting metaphor for the state of our political and philosophical dialogue.
Henry George is a freelance writer living in the UK. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.