Brexit’s silent screams may herald rise of far-right – Bill Jamieson

Have your say

Amid fears a growing sense of disillusionment about Brexit could fuel the rise of the populist Right, Bill Jamieson has been taking refuge in live performances of Tosca, Madame Butterfly and Die Walkure screened at his local cinema – even though the musicians cannot hear his applause.

Let me share a recent experience at my local cinema which I found both delightful and unsettling.

The anxieties of the 1890s, depicted in Edvard Munch's The Scream, have returned, but no one's listening (Picture: William West/AFP/Getty)

The anxieties of the 1890s, depicted in Edvard Munch's The Scream, have returned, but no one's listening (Picture: William West/AFP/Getty)

I have been enjoying the live broadcast performances from the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House. Recent treats have included broadcasts of la Traviata, Tosca, Madame Butterfly and Wagner’s Die Walkure.

The broadcasts are stunning, the sound system excellent, the convenience a delight – and the evenings cheap as chips – £12 for a front row seat compared to the near £100 I was having to pay for the front stalls at Covent Garden (I’ll pass on the eye-watering charge there for a drink and sandwich at the intervals).

At the end of the cinema performances, I feel compelled to clap. But no-one else applauds. I was taken to task for doing so. “Why on earth applaud? No-one can hear you!”

And true, I am in a cinema hundreds of miles from the opera house. The performers can’t hear me, nor the conductor, the orchestra, the director, nor the cast as it takes a bow.

What’s the point in applause or audience reaction of any sort? After the live cinema showing, whether we’ve been uplifted by the performance or want to boo the production off the stage, we’re left to shuffle out in silence.

This has become unsettling because it is now eerily familiar. With every day we are watching the Brexit drama broadcast live on TV – the constant interminable dissonance, its twists and turns, its schemes and plots and the Greek chorus of imminent revolts. The Prime Minister’s robotic persistence with a Brexit “deal”, under assault from its first emergence at Chequers, has now united Remainers and Leavers in opposition. We can barely stand its constant repetition, a performance that grinds on amid a cacophony of dissent.

It has brought on a national depression. Our reaction to this production swings from frustration through rage to pity. But who’s listening? Indeed, “she just doesn’t listen” was the heading of one of the “not yet 48” letters of no-confidence in Theresa May sent by a rebel Tory MP to Sir Graham Brady last week.

That’s the thing about Brexit: no-one can hear you scream.

READ MORE: Prime Minister rejects plea to work with Nicola Sturgeon on alternative Brexit plan

This is building a growing sense of disengagement, disillusion and cynicism – the three malevolent ingredients of the rise of the populist Right across Europe. Might our turn not be far off if a no-deal exit is prevented and May’s compromise deal gets through – or we end up with a fiery second referendum? A realignment on the Right looks more likely in the aftermath than a new centre Left grouping.

Implausible? Open the letters page of the Conservative-supporting Daily Telegraph and the anger is palpable. Denunciations of the Brexit ‘deal’ and the Prime Minister have been mounting for well over a year. The tone has gone from barbed criticism to near apoplexy. So heartfelt has the rage become from all parts of its readership across the UK it may not be long before the paper’s health correspondent has to offer a course in anger management or a mass prescription of Diazepam.

What many struggle to comprehend is how, given the deep and widespread criticism of the Prime Minister’s Brexit ‘deal’, she seems to hear nothing. She is determined to persist. Already there is a growing suspicion of a ‘Brexit conspiracy’: a powerful and well-coordinated campaign by the CBI, the Bank of England, senior civil servants and the Treasury to secure a Brexit settlement that is EU membership in all but name: one that keeps the UK in a Customs Union, under the effective jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice for the foreseeable future – and with no unilateral power of exit.

Meanwhile, re-negotiation is being ruled out as an option. The rhetoric of “no deal is better than a bad deal” has been reversed: the alternative of “no deal” (“cliff edge” or “crashing out” in Remainer parlance) is now cast as the outer circle of Dante’s Inferno: disruption of food supplies, shortages of medicines, chaos at the ports, ruinous delays for just-in-time manufacturers and an economic slump. That the EU already trades with 24 countries under WTO rules and without “cliff edge” or “crashing out” is barely acknowledged. These sirens are set to grow louder.

READ MORE: Brexit: People’s Vote is the only way to avoid no-deal – Jim Gallagher

Little wonder many feel trapped and with no-one hearing. Seven out of ten Tory members are said to oppose the Prime Minister’s “deal” yet there is a robotic deafness – and, in its wake, a growing sense of betrayal. If this deeply flawed “deal” does get through the Commons, or if it doesn’t, and a no-deal Brexit is also blocked, the Conservative Right will find itself searching for an outlet for its frustration and anger.

With such a bleak range of outcomes before it, the mood in Tory heartlands is likely to darken into something broader. It will not be confined to the finer points of the 580 pages of the Brexit ‘deal’, but morph into a broader narrative of betrayal. Its ingredients are altogether incendiary: a burning anger at betrayal and loss: anger at the loss of a past, anger at the loss of a future, and uniting both of these, anger at what is now unfolding.

Given the frustration among many of the 17 million of those who voted Remain, a lurch towards nationalistic populism comes to look ever more possible, fuelled by charges of a “stab in the back”.

Implausible? Look again. Populist parties have more than tripled their support in Europe in the last 20 years, according to a Guardian report this week drawing on analysis by more than 30 political scientists. This upsurge has secured enough votes to put their leaders into government posts in 11 countries and challenge the established political order across the continent. Here at least, we could find ourselves “aligned with the EU”.

Time to escape, surely, and check in at your local cinema for a live relay performance. Coming up soon: Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. Barely a pause for breath – until the silence instead of applause at the end reminds us: no-one is listening, no-one can hear.