Last week, on January 27th, we marked international Holocaust Memorial Day. Together with millions of others around the world, I reflected on the history of unspeakable horrors which were committed when nations and peoples surrendered to xenophobia, nationalist prejudice, and lies. That history has a frightening relevance with regard to current world events.
Just a day earlier, on January 26th, our Prime Minister, Theresa May, spoke at a Republican Party conference in Philadelphia, together with the now inaugurated Donald Trump. She told Trump and her audience that the election marked "an era of American renewal", and that the UK and US would now be ready to "lead the world again", with the US now "greater and stronger" because of the Trump win. She told the Republicans present about her Conservative values that were instilled in her in her childhood in a vicarage in the South of England, which she said she shared with them. She was sure these shared Conservative values were the ones Republicans put "at the heart of their plan for government" during the Trump administration. After their meeting at the White House, May and Trump walked away holding hands.
But what "values" was Theresa May talking about? If anything, the values reflected in Trump's actions in his first week reflect the practices of fascist and totalitarian regimes, not of the open and democratic Britain we would like to be.
First off, Trump launched a global assault on women's rights by introducing an international gag rule to choke off funding for sexual health and reproductive rights around the world, just a day after millions of Americans marched for gender equality.
Then, in a series of increasingly surreal announcements, he announced the beginning of the building of the famous giant wall on the Mexican border, a ban on immigration or asylum claims from seven "terror-prone" Muslim countries. All references to climate change and LGBTI rights were removed from the White House website, but references to Melania Trump's jewelry line were added. Trump has prohibited civil servants and scientists from government agencies from speaking to the press, and issued an order that scientific research must go through a political vetting process before it is published. A document leaked to the New York Times apparently shows that the Trump administration is preparing to re-open "Black Sites" across the world, used during the Bush era for the illegal rendition, detention and torture of suspects. This is unconfirmed as yet, but Trump has personally told CNN that he feels torture "absolutely works". Shockingly, Trump has promised to publish a "weekly list of crimes committed by immigrants".
Trump's infamous far-right chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who is known for his white-supremacist and KKK connections, has told CNN in an interview that "the media must be humiliated, and keep its mouth shut." Speaking at the CIA Memorial earlier in the week, Trump said that "the media are among the most dishonest people on Earth", to the laughter and applause from paid staffers that he planted in the audience, and to the great dismay of CIA chiefs. In the meantime, concerns have been raised that Trump is still receiving money from foreign governments through his hotels world-wide, in breach of the US constitution, and he still refuses point-blank to disclose his taxes.
As one CNN journalist pointed out, these are all techniques and practices we see in totalitarian regimes, not in democratic societies whose values we share. Is this the direction we are heading for? Is this where Theresa May wants to take Brexit Britain? Trump's actions are the destruction of the very fabric of democratic society, and Britain should not laud it, let alone wish it on itself.
If Brexit means being isolated in an unstable world, in an embrace with Trump's quasi-fascist America, then we should want no part in it.
In Britain too these anti-democratic seeds have been sown. The Brexit campaign was based on the same kind of nationalist and xenophobic lies that Trump has promulgated, based on a warped sense of history and national illusions of grandeur, not unlike Trump's view of himself.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been out protesting this past weekend against Trump's ban on refugees and migrants from seven Muslim majority countries. Demonstrators, activists, and lawyers blocked roads to and from airports, and rushed to the courts to litigate and protest.
These people, from diverse walks of life and backgrounds, are those who will go down in history as the true defenders of democracy, and we must take inspiration and stand with them. Around the world, a mass-mobilisation is taking place, led by young people, by women and girls, by the LGBTI community, immigrants and refugees. It is now time to join that fight, wherever you are, to be on the side of hope, decency, and tolerance.
Still, as Theresa May has promised a hard Brexit, leaving the European Single Market, she shows she is willing to push our economy over a cliff in order to stop immigration, which she fabricates to be a grave threat. She promises to turn the UK into a neo-liberal la-la land, a fantasy island tax haven for the rich, with labour and social protections slashed so that we can remain "competitive". We will be dependent on the terms and conditions offered to us by Donald Trump, who has vowed to put "America First". HIs Trade Secretary has told a conference in Cyprus that Brexit was a "God-given opportunity to take business away from Britain." For her part Theresa May has refused to provide assurances that a future US-UK trade deal would not be used to privatise the NHS. We already know that the UK government has tried to do this through TTIP, a move which was resisted by the European Parliament.
The Brexit campaign promised that it would bring "control" and "sovereignty" to Britain, and yet somehow it seems that Brexit means the opposite. It means British leaders now have to pay tribute to and fawn upon an ego-maniacal US president, being forced to take whatever conditions his administration is willing to give.
This is not the Britain we want for ourselves or for our children. Once these decisions are made, they will be very difficult to reverse. Once article 50 is triggered, the Brexit will start ticking. The UK government will not be in control of the process nor the timeline of negotiation, which will be dictated by the European Union. In Brussels the process is seen as final, with no option of revocation or re-negotiations once the deal is done, and any EU Member State will have disproportionate power to block a deal it doesn't like. If no deal is reached by the end of the two year deadline, Britain will crash out of the EU automatically, unless the 27 Member States unanimously agree on an extension, which is unlikely.
A no-deal scenario is therefore a distinct possibility, one Theresa May has said she is willing to accept. In the 18 month time frame for actual negotiation, taking into account several months spent on consultation and procedure, the likelihood of being able to hold the government to account in any meaningful way seems to be minimal. If the Parliament at Westminster rejects the deal at the end, it is unlikely to lead to any re-negotiation or change from the EU's side. Once article 50 is triggered, Britain will be hurtling towards a very hard, bargain-basement, Brexit, a Britain desperate for Donald Trump's embrace.
As we marked the 2017 Holocaust Memorial Day, 72 years after the end of a horrific war, it is both ironic and astounding that the two great powers who saved the world from the clutches of fascism and nationalism do not seem able to recognise or resist these same forces taking over now. It seems that we have been unable to understand our own history, or to educate ourselves properly in what it means. The fight against Nazism should be seen as a fight for universal values and human rights, not as a fight for national glory. A country whose finest hour was fighting for those values should not aim to embrace Donald Trump and Brexit xenophobia.
Winston Churchill, one of the founding fathers of the European project, said that fighting the fascists in World War II was our "finest hour", and history will always remember the fight against the Nazis that way.
Brexit Britain is bound to be remembered very differently, as a catastrophic mistake based on lies, pettiness, and blurred vision. Before we trigger article 50 let us be warned: Brexit will put the UK on the wrong side of history.