Put aside, even if just for a moment, the future of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. He is a sad man whose soul has been corroded by ambition, a shallow politician of stunning selfishness who lacks even slightest trace of principle. We have seen this clearly from his indecision over Brexit through to his casual racism and that panicked cabinet resignation in fear he was losing ground in his leadership race.
Given his addiction to headlines, the former foreign secretary must be in ecstasy seeing how his flick-of-the-wrist newspaper column from last week is still causing waves.
The key issue, as identified in a gloriously-savage tweet by former Tory party pollster Lord Cooper, is that Johnson’s weak character leaves him in such desperate need of applause he will advocate anything. So with barely a backward glance he moves from being liberal mayor of proudly multi-cultural London to darling of the new nationalists as he picks on Muslim women.
And here lies the big danger of Britain getting dragged into debate on the burka, an issue of trifling irrelevance amid serious issues confronting our country, not least the Brexit car crash driven by Johnson. For this feeds into the West’s identity crisis at a time when forces of decency are under sustained attack.
To access power, populists often need support from the mainstream
See how rapidly Steve Bannon, former chief strategist to the worst president in my lifetime, popped up to pour praise on his pal. “I consider Boris Johnson someone who understands the physics in the ebb and flow of events,” he told The Sunday Times. Note also how in the same disturbingly soft-soap interview Bannon also hailed the disgusting Tommy Robinson, calling him a “force of nature” and admitting his team was in daily touch with this far-right activist. Never forget Bannon told France’s far-right that attacks for racism and xenophobia should be worn “like a medal”.
Join the dots. For Bannon exposes strands that link mainstream politics with dark forces that were, until recently, far beyond bounds of acceptability. Johnson’s tactic was straight out of the populist textbook: say something outrageous to send a signal to voters on race or religion, then whip up furious debate over people’s liberty to discuss issues in public.
I am writing this in Washington where white supremacist organisers of last year’s lethal “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville are preparing an anniversary march. Once again, they pose as civil libertarians and custodians of free speech. Just like Johnson.
The blame game
Charlottesville was a defining moment for the Trump presidency. He sparked furore when he blamed “both sides” for disruption that led to an innocent woman’s death, drawing no moral distinction between white supremacists and people protesting against racists.
The organisers carefully chose a soft but explosive issue: the place of Confederate statues in a society still scarred by legacy of slavery. Later I spoke to far-right leaders, including Nazis, and all told me how much they admired their president. Trump “promoted policies we’ve wanted for years”, said one Ku Klux Klan wizard.
Now Bannon seeks to turbo-charge the hard-right in Europe with his new foundation. He flits around his acolytes, admirers and allies, increasingly finding them in the corridors of power in places such as Budapest, Rome and Vienna.
Even in Sweden, that nirvana of social democracy, a far-right party with neo-Nazi roots has surged in polls ahead of next month’s election by exploiting anxieties over integration and migration. One-fifth of voters back the party, despite a key figure openly saying Jewish people are not true Swedes.
‘Trump before Trump’
The template was set by Viktor Orban, who has been in control of Hungary for eight years and even Bannon calls “Trump before Trump.” He uses refugees and religion to attack his foes, claiming they undermine the nation’s cultural identity, while restricting liberties and fostering divisions.
Unlike British nationalists he does not seek departure from Brussels but domination, starting with next year’s elections to the European parliament. He is open about his aim: to replace the liberal elite in Europe with Christian democracy. And he readily admits his creed is “by definition, not liberal – it is, if you like, illiberal.”
We are engaged in an existential fight for the future of our country, our continent and our values
This alliance of populists has declared war on European values of decency, human rights and tolerance. They admire autocrats who despise our way of life – even if they attack our political systems like Vladimir Putin – and loathe critical journalists, experts and evidence.
They flirt with dangerous conspiracy theories and inflame toxic online forces. They desire border fences, conformity and division in a fortress society, not liberal fripperies such as rights, refugees and diversity in open society. And they are determined majorities should not be stopped from imposing their will on minorities, whether on ethical issues such as protecting families fleeing carnage or social issues such as non-traditional lifestyles.
But to access power, populists often need support from the mainstream. Just as Nigel Farage needed Boris Johnson, even Trump needed endorsement from a traditional party and a sprinkling of establishment Republican figures.
Meanwhile we see all too clearly mainstream parties – not least our own Conservatives – adopt policies from the fringe rather than focus remorselessly on tackling issues that drive despairing voters into arms of nationalists such as economic dislocation, democratic deficit, social exclusion and creaking public services.
Instead of crumbling in face of these forces the imperative is to defend our principles, speak out against the populists, stand firm for decency, challenge the conspiracy theorists and strengthen our democracy. We are engaged in an existential fight for the future of our country, our continent and our values. And that is the real significance of a shameless self-publicist’s silly row over burkas.
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