Tuesday, 9 May 2017



On a thread on David Hirsh’s page I suggested that the issue with Brexit wasn’t so much Brexit itself as what the issue channelled. It was, I thought, a kind of fury directed not specifically at the EU and certainly not at the market that is one of its props, but at those who supported it. Those who had come to be labelled the ‘metropolitan liberal elite’.

This notorious group included Michael Gove’s famous ‘experts’ from whom, he thought, we had heard ‘quite enough’. His words pointed not just to a few economic and political forecasters but at all those who considered their opinions to be informed. They could easily be depicted as a bunch of superior privileged people with no feeling for those less fortunate and all too happy to impose their interpretation of the world on the poor. The fact that Gove and Johnson were both elite Oxbridge products was secondary. It wasn’t the education that mattered, it was their opposition to what their supporters called liberalism, the creed of those who, they felt, considered themselves morally and intellectually superior. By liberalism I don’t mean economic neo-liberalism of which both Gove and Johnson are firm supporters, but the complex package we think of as social liberalism or a belief in 'progressive ideas'.

I have experienced that fury a couple of times on Facebook and it is not hard to find it. My hunch is that the intensity of the fury – and I associate the fury far more with Leavers than Remainers whose anger is of a different kind – was and is still directed at those who supported or propagated or enforced the package. It was, I think, an essentially atavistic fury, a hankering for a lost something that could not be defined only evoked or symbolised. That sense of pride in empire. That curved or straight banana.

I use the term atavism in preference to xenophobia or racism because the atavistic instinct is not necessarily channelled through race or fear of foreigners. The atavism I mean asks certain crucial questions. Who are we? What does that mean in terms of loyalties, behaviour and expectation? Under whose thumb must we survive?

These are not unnatural questions and we all ask them, Brits or otherwise. They are vital practical questions that play on the nerves.

Atavism lies at the core of all right wing feeling from simple conservatism (with a small c) to the extremes of Fascism and Nazism. The family, the settled orders and hierarchies, the sacred practices and rituals, the status of the tribe - whatever an individual's position within it - are its natural home, to be guarded with ever fiercer jealousy as they come under pressure.

It is that insecure atavistic core of feeling that the right-wing press have been playing to for a very long time, with ever greater intensity. Those accusations of treason, treachery, and betrayal refer precisely to that.

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