The Friendly Face of Fascism

Daniel Trilling in The Guardian, 18 February 2020: ‘It has become received wisdom among Westminster pundits that the new winning formula in politics is to “move left on economics and right on culture.”’ Sounds like National Socialism doesn’t it? But then we think ‘Oh well, it can’t happen here.’ Maybe because we think we’re not like other nations, not impressed by uniforms, demagogues and strutting dictators. After all, in an era of Mussolini, Hitler and Franco, didn’t we produce alternative thought-leaders like Orwell? This form of self-congratulatory nonsense fails to ask the right question: instead of finding reasons why it can’t happen here, we should be thinking about what it would take for it to happen here. What would the right circumstances be? What kind of leadership would be necessary?

Well, as it happens, Daniel Trilling appears to have come close to finding an answer. In an earlier piece he refers to the Tory party ‘resorting to pantomime authoritarianism’. That’s the key phrase right there, ‘pantomime authoritarianism’. Because if can happen here it won’t be a result of rousing speeches and torchlight parades (the stuff that appeals to a tiny minority of Third Reich recidivists, nostalgia Nazis who enjoy dressing up), it will come in humorous disguise with a friendly face, an aura of bumbling harmlessness. And that is exactly what Boris Johnson offers, a distraction from the real picture: one broken into small pieces like a jigsaw puzzle of creeping authoritarian control.

  • Start with page 19 of the 2019 Conservative manifesto: “We will give the police new powers to arrest and seize the property and vehicles of trespassers who set up unauthorised encampments, in order to protect our communities. We will make intentional trespass a criminal offence, and we will also give councils greater powers within the planning system.” Every dodgy regime needs its folk-devils, and real outsiders like Gypsies and Travellers are a good place to start. The signal having been sent, the process of victimisation doesn’t always have to wait until legislation has been passed.
  • Since 2010 a steady diet of xenophobic government activity has been provided, from the embarrassing racism of the Windrush scandal to the tragi-comic absurdities of making life impossible for overseas academics. Apart from their more sinister aspects, these misadventures demonstrate a peculiarly British capacity for shooting oneself in the foot: foreign academics are a mainstay of Britain’s important education industry, and the Windrush generation has been a paragon of hard-working respectability. Nevertheless scapegoating of immigrants and forcible deportation continue, though Priti Patel’s determination to be seen to be tough has backfired and she now faces the embarrassing consequences of attempting to bully senior civil servants.
  • Suppressing opposition is an important part of establishing authoritarian control. To fascists, even independence is seen as opposition, so the judiciary is a prime target for ‘reform’. The target has already been softened up by the Daily Mail’s ‘Enemies of the People’ diatribe, so the 2019 Manifesto’s promise to “set up a constitution, democracy and rights commission” and to “update the Human Rights Act” looks like an attempt to put government beyond legal scrutiny.
  • Fascism has always had a tendency to draw on mysticism, however ill-defined, as a means of legitimising its ideas. At first glance this would seem to be decidedly un-British, but this isn’t the case. The mystical component in Britain’s friendly face of fascism is a nebulous volkgeist, the ‘will of the people’. Its antithesis is supposed reside in institutions that espouse progressive thinking and oppose Brexit. Universities and the BBC are the usual suspects here. Subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) pressures are brought on these institutions to become compliant arms of government, with funding the key arm-twister. The BBC has already seen warnings that it needs to be more compliant: no longer making it a criminal offence to evade paying the licence fee, and talk of abolishing the licence fee altogether are prime examples. Universities, in addition to the funding threat, face a more oblique challenge. Right wing think tank the Policy Exchange recently published a paper titled Universities at the Crossroads claiming that universities had somehow lost ‘the trust of the nation’. Really? Or have they simply failed to align themselves with the volkgeist?
  • Another recurring characteristic of fascism is its preoccupation with matters of race, racial purity, miscegenation and eugenics. No matter what the scientific evidence, these ideas cannot be expelled from the authoritarian imagination. No Surprise, then, that one government special adviser held such views and was forced to resign. How many more hold similar views remains a matter for conjecture.
  • Fascist regimes require various forms of blind obedience. The closer people are to the seat of power, the greater the requirement. This tweet from the Telegraph’s Gordon Rayner on 13/02/20 tells the story: “This reshuffle shows that dissent will not be tolerated by No10. Leadsom, Smith, Cox, had all stood up to Boris during Cabinet meetings, all now gone.” Add to this the case of Sajid Javid , and the pattern is clear enough. And it’s not just the actions that are important, more indicative can be the way they are carried out.
  • Any opposition at all is suspect, even schoolkids who want to save the planet.
  • Authoritarian regimes need to control the message and avoid scrutiny, and the Johnson/Cummings axis has attempted to evade any media confrontations where the questions might be too awkward. Andrew Neil got the cold shoulder in the run-up to the election, and ministers have been banned from appearing on Newsnight or Radio 4’s Today programme. The latter dictate, of course, having to be relaxed in connection with Coronavirus as soon as it appeared that a no-show would be even more damaging than being held publicly accountable by informed journalistic curiosity. Perhaps we are now reaching the point where this silence/damage calculation has to be made before any media appearance can be authorised.

Any of these things taken on their own might be regarded as a mere foible, a symptom of incompetence or of harmless eccentricity. Taken together they appear in a much more sinister light, a consistent programme of authoritarian control, often driven by pure spite. This is a very British form of fascism. Undeclared, covert, proceeding with a slightly chaotic caution, masked by a series of pantomime turns (a pantomime where, of course, princesses have to be the right colour…) and fronted by an indolently friendly court jester persona. This is a home-grown shambolic fascism, standing in stark contrast to older, humourless, imported forms. Where Oswald Moseley was a laughing stock, Boris Johnson has learned how to turn the laughter to his own account.

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