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Johnson, Fox, May: The Brexit Bullies

07/10/2016 15:48 | Updated 10 October 2016
STEFAN ROUSSEAU via Getty Images

In the school playground, the workplace - and even in the high offices of international politics - the emergence of bullying is an ever present possibility. In all scenarios, a bully emerges and, aided by followers - often just people who cling on tight in order to secure their own protection from the tormentor's attention - the bully and the group collectively set to work in spreading fear and uncertainty into all around them. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of the attentions of a bully knows full well that the fear and the uncertainty are the worst part: it is the dread of what will happen next in a world in which you are denied control.

However, in all of these situations, there is often someone (or some state) that eventually stands up to the tyrant and declaims: 'NO, enough is enough', and attempts to stop the overbearing power from doing any more damage. In politics, great individual and national battles of the past show us how effective these resistances are, even if they come at great cost to those involved: Martin Luther King and his help in transforming the racial inequality of a nation, Gandhi and his challenge to the biggest show in town in the 20th century to name the two most obvious (although there are countless others).

It is tempting to see the broad contours of the Brexit narrative that emerged from Conservative Party Conference this week to be following a similar pattern. On first reading, all of the language, the rhetoric emanating from Birmingham, had the whiff of a similar battle to oppose the attentions of an all too powerful bully. Boris Johnson told us that Brexit vote was a vote 'for economic freedom and political freedom'; Liam Fox talked of 'the brave and historic decision of the British people'; David Davis described how the UK was on its way 'out of the European Union and into a brighter and better future'; and worst of all, Theresa May - our Prime Minister, the highest most respected office in the land - described the referendum result as 'a revolution', and told us how a 'Great Repeal Act' (the Great harking back to the progressive reforms of the early 19th century), would ' get rid of the European Communities Act', ensuring that the 'authority of EU law in this country [is] ended forever'. Stirring stuff indeed; and seemingly, on the face of it, an exercise in heroic resistance.

But there is one major element missing in this story: where/what/who is the bully itself? Who is it the Tory party is standing up to, the bully who provokes such a fierce strain of resistance? The answer, bafflingly, is: there isn't one. There is no tyrant here. The beast that the Tories see is the European Union, that much we know, but in reality, the EU is no threat to the UK or UK values; quite the opposite. It is in fact a place in which the UK, and all other member states, can go to best secure their national interests. Even the most cursory glance at the structures of the European Union show that it is a set of institutions absolutely dominated by national interests, national interests that realise that the best place for them to achieve their ends is in a collective, European conglomeration. Though reforms are surely needed of a set of institutions that are based on trying to administer all of these competing national interests - it would be utopian in the extreme to think these institutions could ever be perfect - they are not and never have been a conspiracy to take sovereignty away from the UK or any other state. As Nick Clegg - one of the few politicians in the UK to have first-hand experience of political life inside the EU - rightly describes in his excellent new book, the EU is 'essentially a non-stop clearing house for negotiations between governments'. That's all. And Brexit or not, those negotiations will have to continue.

As such, in the absence of an overbearing threat to national sovereignty that the Brexiteers see in the EU, we face the bizarre prospect the Conservative Party has bullied itself into a position of convulsed anxiety over an issue that does not really exist. Motivated by fear of an imagined threat, the party has been at war with itself over the issue for decades. And herein lies the rub with all of this: as is the case with all bullies, this internal conflict eventually turns outwards, and after going to war on themselves, the fearful go to war with everyone around them. Revisit the comments from the Tory Conference this week: it is now the Conservative Party - and, given they hold the levers of power, some of the highest offices in the land - who are bullying not only the rest of the EU, but anyone, it seems, who doesn't agree with them. From Johnson's dismissive ' lingering gloomadon-poppers', to Fox's veiled threat to EU workers in the UK, to May's dismissal of the democratically elected SNP as 'divisive nationalists' - all are denied a control, or even just a foothold, in an uncertain future.

All of this can of course be seen as the age old process of a party or group in politics trying to dominate the agenda, especially after having just elected a new leader. Nonetheless, it is in extremis this time around, as the stakes for all are so high. The resultant descent of the Brexit narrative to this level of hectoring and bullying is cause for serious concern. If we also factor in that, for many different reasons (and some the same), the Labour party is experiencing a similar descent on the other side of the political spectrum, then we have a fundamental crisis at the heart of our political discourse. Whether we are left, or right, or centre, those of us interested in a peaceful future for ourselves, our families, and yes, even those we disagree with, should start to stand up against this kind of politics, before it is too late.

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