From an Irish viewpoint, the prospect of Liz Truss becoming Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is deeply worrying. This is the woman who as Foreign Secretary has outdone Boris Johnson in her aggressive rejection of the Northern Ireland protocol, saying she is prepared to tear up large parts of that agreement with the EU even at the risk of precipitating a trade war in the middle of an actual war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis it has caused. She is the author of the legislation that will drive a coach and horses through that protocol. In the words of the Observer‘s chief political commentator, Andrew Rawnsley: “In belligerence towards Europe, Ms Truss, the former Remainer, now outJohnsons Johnson.”
She is a right-wing libertarian who like Johnson is contemptuous of rules and conventions and calls herself “the disruptor-in-chief.” Fellow-disruptor Dominic Cummings, who has known her for a long time, remarks: “She’s about as close to properly crackers as anybody I have met in parliament.” He predicts that she would be an “even worse” prime minister than his former boss. “On the basis that it takes one to know one, that assessment is extremely alarming,” says Rawnsley.
When it comes to her signature economic pledge to magic up £30 billion of instant tax cuts by putting the cost on borrowing, she is very far from her heroine and model Margaret Thatcher. “The Iron Lady didn’t believe in unfunded and inflation-fuelling giveaways. She would be horrified by the notion of piling on more national debt when the government is already making record interest payments on its borrowing. Trussism isn’t Thatcherism. What she’s peddling is cakeism. In that sense too, she is the true heir of the outgoing prime minister”, writes Rawnsley.1
She certainly looks like the continuity candidate of the Boris Johnson faithful, with Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries her noisiest cheerleaders. “She is the adoptive child of the ERG (European Research Group) and all the other batshit groups on the right of the party,” says one Tory MP who would describe himself as a man of the right.
For the past 12 years of Tory rule, each new Prime Minister has represented a move to the right: from David Cameron, through Theresa May to Boris Johnson. Everyone knows that the 180,000 Conservative Party members who will choose the next holder of that office are well to the right of British public opinion as a whole, particularly on the EU and immigration. Barring some huge gaffe on her part, they are going to choose Liz Truss over the slick, high-tech representative of international finance, Rishi Sunak.
How far to the right can Britain go? The other imponderable is the growth of English nationalism, with its toxic mixture of anti-Europeanism and nostalgia for a past of triumphant imperialism. In the 2011 census for England and Wales, 67.1% of people chose “English as a sole identity”, not combined with other identities. This group was three times greater than those who considered their sole identity was “British.”
Does this growth of English nationalism make Britain racist? The writer and broadcaster Afua Hirsch has written: “Britishness, as an identity, is in crisis. It is still linked in the imaginations of people of all races to the concept of whiteness. A 2017 poll found that more than half of the British population felt the presence of people from ethnic minorities threatened their culture. Not surprisingly, there is widespread distrust in the language of integration.”2 Against this, one has to say that Boris Johnson in Downing Street, for all his faults, was no racist, filling his cabinet with people from Asian and African backgrounds (including hard right politicians like Priti Patel and Kemi Badenoch). And the outside possibility that Rishi Sunak will become the next Tory leader and Prime Minister would put to bed most allegations that Britain is a racist country.
In his book How Britain Ends, in which he warns sternly against the rise of English nationalism, the distinguished former BBC broadcaster Gavin Esler (who grew up in Northern Ireland) quotes historian Peter Hennessy’s “Good Chaps theory of government”, which posits that Britain’s unwritten constitution has functioned successfully over the centuries because “it requires a sense of restraint all round to make it work.”
“But as Hennessy himself wondered…what happens if we run out of Good Chaps, and a few Bad Chaps, men and women who do not show restraint, take over? Or, less dramatically, what happens if the British people have lost so much trust in the political system that they have begun wondering if its vagueness and uncertainty is really able to protect them from abuse by those in power? Trust in the British system of government is at an all-time low.”
In a recent report Hennessy (and co-author Andrew Blick) have wondered about the risk of Britain’s unwritten and thus uncertain constitutional system falling “under the spell of a populist leader, someone who did not take seriously the unwritten checks and balances and sense of restraint inherent in the Good Chaps system. Might we be entering Trumpland – a Trumpland without a clear constitution to limit the powers of a leader who pretended that he or she wanted to Make Britain Great Again?”3
Might this person be Liz Truss, as it was with the mendacious, ferociously ambitious and equally self-obsessed Boris Johnson? And how far would she go to please her constituency on the hard right of the Tory party and beyond?
Unlike many Irish people, I am not instinctively anti-British. On the contrary, I cherish the values of fairness, equality and social democracy I learned growing up in post-war Britain. Only recently I was contemplating a letter to the Irish Times objecting to their left-wing, feminist columnist Una Mullally’s comment that anti-trans rhetoric in Britain showed the “descent of their nation into a fascistic farce” (her second such reference in a few weeks).4
But a recent conversation with a friend who is a high level international civil servant, a man of wise and considered judgement, in which he wondered about indications that the UK might be in danger of moving in a fascist direction, gave me pause for thought. Fascism is defined by the Concise Oxford Dictionary as “a system of extreme right-wing or authoritarian views”. This man, the polar opposite of a wild-eyed radical, referenced as examples of moves towards right-wing authoritarianism Boris Johnson’s contempt for parliament during the implementation of Brexit; the ERG’s preference for Britain as ‘Singapore upon Thames’ with little if any protection for the rights of workers; and Home Secretary Priti Patel’s cruel and unworkable plan to deport people seeking asylum in Britain to Rwanda (which neither Truss nor Sunak have dissociated themselves from).
That took me back to a powerful article by Fintan O’Toole in 2018. He was writing about what he called Donald Trump’s “test marketing” of his policy of separating Latin American migrant children from their parents and locking them in cage-like compounds. “Fascism doesn’t arise suddenly in an existing democracy. It is not easy to get people to give up their ideas of freedom and civility. You have to do trial runs that, if they are done well, serve two purposes. They get people used to something they may initially recoil from; and they allow you to refine and calibrate.”
One further step is “the generation of tribal identities, the division of society into mutually exclusive polarities” (which we know plenty about in Northern Ireland!). And fascism of course needs propaganda machines so effective it creates for its followers “a universe of ‘alternative facts’ impervious to unwanted realities” (which Trump was a master at creating and testing).
The next and trickiest step, said O’Toole, is “to undermine moral boundaries, inure people to the acceptance of acts of extreme cruelty. Like hounds, people have to be blooded. They have to be given the taste for savagery. Fascism does this by building up the sense of threat from a despised out-group. This allows the members of that group to be dehumanised. Once that has been achieved, you can up the ante, working through the stages from breaking windows to extermination.”5 Let’s see how people feel about crying brown babies in cages or hapless Syrian or Afghan asylum seekers being sent to Rwanda. How will it go down with Rupert Murdoch and the readers of his newspapers? With Fox News? With the Sun and the Daily Mail?
Nearly 60% of Republicans were in favour of Trump’s brutal treatment of illegal immigrant families on the Mexican border. The great majority of Conservative Party members support Priti Patel’s brutal policy to force asylum seekers to go to Rwanda. These attitudes are not only common in Britain, they are all over Europe: with Marine Le Pen in France; Matteo Salvini in Italy; Viktor Orban in Hungary; Voz in Spain; Alternative fur Deutschland in Germany. The EU’s record of sending back African asylum seekers trying to cross the Mediterranean to barbaric prison camps in Libya is a shameful one.
I may be over-alarmist about this. Nightmare images emerge from Irish and Jewish folk memories. I will leave the last word with the British poet Michael Rosen: “I sometimes fear that/people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress/worn by grotesques and monsters/as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis./Fascism arrives as your friend./It will restore your honour/make you feel proud/protect your house/give you a job,/clean up the neighbourhood,/remind you of how great you once were,/clear out the venal and corrupt,/remove anything you feel is unlike you…/It doesn’t walk in saying,/’Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution.”
1‘Liz Truss reminds me of a Tory leader, but it’s not Margaret Thatcher’, Observer, 24 July 2022
2 How Britain Ends: English Nationalism and the Rebirth of Four Nations, Gavin Esler, p.87
3 How Britain Ends, p.269-273
4 ‘Manufactured moral panic on trans rights is nonsense’, Irish Times, 20 June 2020
5 ‘The trial runs for fascism are now under way’, Irish Times, 26 June 2018