If there was any lingering doubt that British politics has passed into a strange and dystopian new era, then a glance at Downing Street’s news management over the last few weeks should be enough to sound alarm bells, even among the most complacent. Day after day, the news has been dominated by headlines and debates on subjects ranging from the notorious Irish Sea bridge to a planned assault on the BBC, each topic apparently thrown out from Dominic Cummings’s No 10 lair like a chunk of red meat into the media piranha pool, and designed as the political equivalent of clickbait – vivid, simple in concept, infuriating to opponents, and guaranteed to distract public attention for days on end.
So apart from the bridge, and the BBC, there has been the ‘reshuffle that went wrong’, with the engineered resignation of the Chancellor, Sajid Javid. There was the high-profile row about an attempt by Downing Street aides to divide the press lobby, only admitting the chosen ones to a key briefing by officials. And there was yesterday’s announcement of a set of immigration rules that in practical terms seem barely workable, but that fulfil the purpose of dog-whistling vigorously to the anti-immigration right, while infuriating liberal opinion across the UK.
The most striking example of news designed to trigger and outrage came, though, with last week’s appointment to Dominic Cummings’s Downing Street team of a youthful far-right provocateur called Andrew Sabisky, famous for his embrace of eugenicist views once thought to have been discredited and buried for good, given the role they played in the ideology of Nazism.
Sabisky is on the record as believing that black people are less intelligent than white people, and that young working-class women should be forced to accept mandatory long-term contraception, to prevent the creation of an underclass; and although he resigned from his new role almost immediately, the Prime Minister’s office pointedly failed to sack him, or to condemn his views.
What we are seeing, in other words, is not government by policy, or the attempt to implement policy, but government as a mixture of online trolling and junk journalism, of the kind practised by the Prime Minister during his notorious posting as Brussels correspondent of the Daily Telegraph; and so far, from the point of view of the Prime Minister and his senior aide, this new age of “troll government” is working like a dream. They troll the Scots by treating their government and parliament with contempt, and gleefully exploiting the powerless status we unwittingly inflicted on ourselves by voting, in 2014, to remain in a Union that has since changed radically for the worse. They troll the media by withdrawing access privileges, and putting the wind up an ever more nervous BBC. They troll the justice system with threats of greater government control, and legislation that might put the actions of government beyond the law. They troll the entire nation with Cabinet appointments apparently designed to flaunt the fact that in Boris Johnson’s new ‘global Britain’, hard work, brains, and expertise are liabilities, compared with wealth, inherited privilege, and a useful measure of dim-witted compliance.
And in return, they are rewarded in three ways. In the first place, they enjoy the chance to gloat over the sight of the British liberal establishment in a lather of well-justified rage and distress. Secondly, they succeed in distracting the UK mainstream media for days on end from less comfortable topics, including the government’s continuing failure to publish the Commons Security Committee’s report on Russian interference in British elections, the flatlining of an economy whose national debt has doubled since the Tories came to power a decade ago, and the huge human cost of a decade of austerity unnecessarily inflicted on our struggling public services.
And finally, of course, with every once-ludicrous right-wing idea trailed like a decoy duck across the night sky of British politics, those on the far right, and the politicians they back, continue to achieve their long-term goal of pushing our politics back into realms that would once have been unthinkable. That pre-enlightenment beliefs like Andrew Sabisky’s now have some influence on those close to the British government seems almost incredible; yet we only need to look around us – at the Prime Minister’s obvious contempt for an electorate to whom he lies continuously without challenge, at the wealth and privilege of so many members of the current UK Cabinet, and at the fundamental cruelty and inhumanity of recent Conservative policy towards vulnerable or impoverished groups – to realise how far we have rolled back from the real gains in social equality and mobility made between the 1930s and the 1980s. To those in power in Britain today, democracy apparently means little more than an exercise in top-down manipulation of voters who can be misled and lied to with complete impunity, in ways which often barely existed 15 years ago.
And to those who are currently raging against the Labour opposition for allowing us to reach this pass, and lamenting its current abysmal leadership election, I would suggest that they pause, before rushing to judgment. For the truth is that in the last half-decade, the political right in Britain and the US has passed through a looking-glass, into a place of deliberate, authoritarian disinformation, and manipulation of electoral processes, into which the left, if it honestly believes in human equality and dignity, simply cannot follow.
To defeat this kind of right-wing politics, its opponents – both in the US and in Britain – will have to find a completely new path, that uses new platforms and new technology for good rather than ill; and that is proving such a tall order that the old parties may not be able to fulfil it.
Politically speaking, we’re not in Kansas any more, as a glance around the current scene confirms; but we’re not over the rainbow either. And until we find new ways of navigating the whirlwind that has lifted us away from old norms and old certainties, we may have little to sustain us but a glimpse of the red shoes on our feet, and the hope of a happier ending.