Ever since the rise of the modern nation state, demagogues have used a standard playbook:
- The nation is under threat from outsiders, and from treacherous insiders with cosmopolitan loyalties such as Jews.
- Compounding the danger, selfish elites ignore the will of the people.
- Only the would-be leader understands what the people need and only he will stand up for them.
- All other structures of power that get in the way of the would-be saviour must be swept aside.
Perhaps Napoleon was the first exemplar, but we have seen this time and again. In Italy, it gave us Mussolini. Germany went from the pathetic “Beer Hall putsch” to the Holocaust in less than 20 years. In Yugoslavia it took about five years from the first republic seceding to the Srebrenica genocide.
Today, we see the same playbook being followed in countries such as Hungary and Turkey. Sadly, even the great democracy of the United States is not immune from this virus, but I am relatively confident that the structures of the US Constitution will prevail over the demagogue currently in the White House.
The authors of the Federalist Papers thought long and hard about the balance between popular voting and those who govern. Consequently the US Constitution enshrined many mechanisms to ensure that the people could elect and remove those who govern them, but in a manner that kept the passions of the mob at a distance from the legislators.
Conversely, the UK has historically been immune. This is not an accident but a feature of many aspects of our society. In the nineteenth century, the role of the landed gentry in our politics was a stabiliser. The purchase of military commissions ensured that the armed forces were led by people with a stake in our society rather than those who might benefit from overthrowing it. We designed a strong, independent, non-political civil service. The way that our political parties have operated historically insulated them from capture by demagogues. Unlike the USA, the UK has no designed constitution, but by good fortune has historically achieved the same goals, not least because the franchise was extended in stages from the top downwards.
Today however, we are in a sad place. Our representative democracy requires that there be at least two credible parties of government, so that the electorate has a meaningful choice. Unfortunately, the Labour Party modified its internal rules in a manner that enabled it to be captured from the grass roots by the extreme left. Today, it is bedevilled by antisemitism, with MPs being accused of receiving funding from “Jewish money” and Jewish members of the Labour Party being accused of being loyal to Israel rather than to the UK.
Worse still, this disease has started to infect our own party. When a newspaper that aspires to respectability carries a headline condemning the judges of our Supreme Court as “Enemies of the People” and a large portion of our party sympathises with the newspaper, rather than criticising it, something has gone seriously wrong.
Last week, we saw Boris Johnson, not just an MP but someone who aspires to lead our party, denigrating Muslim women for their religious choices in rude and abusive language. Worse still, other MPs defend him on the free speech grounds, completely ignoring the distinction between the threshold of what is criminal, and the threshold of what is acceptable speech from a senior politician. I discussed the distinction in my recent Conservative Home article “When does criticising Islam morph into inciting hatred of Muslims?”
It gets even worse. When our Party Chairman, having received what I understand to be many formal complaints that Johnson has breached the Conservative Party’s Code of Conduct, acts upon the rules by referring the matter for investigation, he is immediately accused of bad faith and engaging in internal Conservative Party manoeuvring.
A few days ago, a senior Anglican cleric shared his concerns with me. The situation had reminded him of the Ten Stages of Genocide as classified by Gregory H. Stanton. He was genuinely concerned that the UK might in the early stages, and he reminded me about how rapidly things have previously deteriorated in other countries.
The most important thing we can do to fix this is to insist on rules of proper behaviour. The language expected of politicians within the Commons may appear restrictive, but those rules exist for a reason. They should be followed by MPs outside the chamber, as well as inside. No MP should ever describe any British citizens in the language used by Johnson.
Furthermore, discipline needs to be applied from the top. The Labour Party’s problem is particularly hard to resolve because it is the good judgement of their leader which is in question. Johnson’s disciplinary situation should not be prejudged, but the one thing that no Conservative should do is attempt to deigitimise the process by using the lens of Brexit to impugn the motives of our Party Chairman or our Leader.