Week two of the Edinburgh Fringe; and I find myself in the packed Main Hall at Summerhall, picking up a plastic cup of warm Maltese beer from the on-stage bar before the start of the latest show by the jokily-named Sh!t Theatre of London and Leeds. In fact, Sh!t Theatre are two witty and serious young women, whose well-researched work often touches on hard-edged political themes; and this time, they are describing what they learned last year on visits to Valletta, Malta’s capital, during its time as European City of Culture.
The show is called Sh!t Theatre Drinks Rum With Expats; and their researches took them into issues surrounding the Mediterranean migrant crisis, allegations of corruption against the Maltese government, the unresolved death in a 2017 car-bombing of dissident journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, and the fact that at the time of her death, Daphne was investigating the sale of Maltese passports to rich people who want full EU citizenship. The minimum price Malta puts on these passports – a bargain one by EU standards – is €650,000 each; a sum which almost made me weep, when I realised that I had one of those passports in my bag, and that after 31 October, if our current Prime Minister has his way, it will be an EU passport no more.
Sometimes, in other words, we need to glimpse our situation from a very different perspective, in order fully to understand the state we are in; and to recognise that Britain’s proposed departure from the EU, in just ten weeks’ time, will entail a mass removal of valuable rights from more than 60 million people, for which it is difficult to find a direct historical comparison. The nature of the rights we will lose has been widely discussed during the whole Brexit debate, of course; the automatic right to live, travel, work, study and marry across 28 EU countries will be gone, replaced by bureaucratic intervention and intrusion on a scale the previous generation never had to consider. We also, less visibly, lose rights of appeal to European institutions against misdemeanours experienced in the UK, including, for example, abuses of vital employment and environmental rights.
All of which is bad enough, and a cause of despair to many who voted to Remain. What is even more concerning, though, is that Brexit seems to be happening in a political climate which has led a substantial slice of the British population to conclude that human and civil rights are a load of Remoaner rubbish, and that they would cheerfully bin them all, in order to achieve “freedom” from the painted devil of the EU. And in this mood, carefully cultivated by Britain’s right-wing press, it seems increasingly likely that after Brexit, ordinary non-wealthy British citizens may find themselves losing not only their rights as EU citizens, but also many of the traditional rights of British citizens, hard won over the last two centuries.
By a most bitter irony, today – 16 August – marks the precise 200th anniversary of the Battle of Peterloo, the notorious moment in 1819 when a panicky Manchester establishment sent in mounted militias armed with sabres to break up a crowd of tens of thousands of peaceful working-class protesters who had marched in festive mood to St Peter’s Fields, in the city centre. The protestors wanted universal suffrage, annual parliaments, and voting by ballot; but by the end of the day, 18 of them – including women and children – were dead, and hundreds had suffered severe sabre wounds. They lost their battle, and were rewarded with draconian legislation against trade unions and other forms of activism; yet within half a century, they had won the war, as public attitudes shifted towards a political system based on representative democracy, and the idea of fundamental human equality and rights.
Now, though, as part of the no-deal rush to the far right, the anti-civil-rights rhetoric of some sections of the British media, and their political favourites, is reaching a level that seriously threatens those great 19th-century reforms. The Government is now not only preparing to use the Civil Contingencies Act (designed for use in the event of a major external or terrorist attack) to impose curfews and draconian public order measures in the event of unrest following the self-inflicted nonsense of a no-deal Brexit; they are also actively ramping up talk of proroguing or otherwise sidelining parliament, in order to make sure it cannot “frustrate the will of the people” by preventing or further delaying Brexit.
In the last few days, in a further effort to write Britain’s 16 million Remain voters out of history, there has also been a spate of vile language characterising “Remainism” as a middle-class cult. And on Wednesday, in an unforgivable response during a Facebook session, the Prime Minister accused anti-hard-Brexit MPs of “a terrible kind of collaboration” with the EU for speaking out against no deal; a phrase from the 1940s which, used in this connection, emphasises just how much Johnson and his fellow right-wing charlatans really care about freedom of speech, or parliamentary democracy, or any other aspect of the unwritten British constitution they claim to love and revere.
And so it is that today – as young people in Hong Kong put their lives on the line for the rights we have taken for granted for a century and more – the British people are being encouraged into dismissing some of those rights as unimportant, and putting themselves back in the hands of a wealthy elite that cares for us exactly as much as the wealthy of Manchester cared about the lives of the protesters in St Peter’s Fields, 200 years ago. Boris Johnson, we are told, is preparing for a “People versus Parliament” general election. And unless a clear and united majority in Britain now recognise in quick time that that choice is a bogus one, and that we are being sold the snake-oil of populist authoritarianism through the ages, this generation will be betraying not only ourselves and our children; but those who came before, and gave their lives for an ideal of civic freedom and parliamentary democracy that it seems we can take for granted no more.