Writing of the British intellectuals who fell for Stalin, George Orwell came up with a sentence that applies as well to today’s conservatives as to the socialists of the 1930s. “So much of leftwing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.” I was repeating it almost hourly as I watched the frivolous, dishonest, over-privileged and over-grown adolescents who presumed to govern us skip away from the consequences of their folly.
At a moment when Britain is more fragile and angry than I have seen it, when parliament has been silenced by the referendum, and the opposition has collapsed, they have manured the soil in which extremism flourishes.
Before I go on, I accept that you cannot get a hearing on immigration, race and the backlashes they inspire until you acknowledge hard truths. It is not the case that everyone who voted to leave was racist, or even primarily concerned about immigration. It is arguable that the origins of our crisis lie in the last Labour government’s decision to open Britain up to hundreds of thousands it never expected to arrive.
If you want me to agree that the nags of the multicultural left have alienated millions by telling them what they can and cannot say, I am happy to do so. I have been saying it for years. I have also noted the danger of telling white voters not be sexist, racist and homophobic, and expecting that they wouldn’t notice the double-standard when “liberals” condemned those who fought the same prejudices in minority cultures as Islamophobes.
The stories you need to read, in one handy email
Caveats made and faults acknowledged, let us concentrate on the wreckage before us. Vote Leave, the respectable campaign of those “progressive” Conservatives Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Iain Duncan Smith, Andrea Leadsom and Chris Grayling, promised not to incite racial tension. Last October, it barely mentioned immigration in its propaganda. In May, its officers tried to ban Nigel Farage from the airwaves, so wary were they of contamination.
For all that, Farage proved to be the Mephistopheles of the Tory leavers. He offered them victory in return for what paltry souls they possessed. Going hard on immigration was the only way to win, he said. After a glance at the polls, “progressive” Tories agreed. On 3 June, a triumphant Farage could boast that their conversion was the “turning point”; the moment when Ukip’s wining stance on immigration became “mainstream”. It is still not true to say that race and immigration were all that mattered to everyone who voted leave. But they were all that mattered to Vote Leave. Mainstream Tories accepted that creating and exploiting fear would take them to victory. They played with fire and you can hear the flames crackling.
Conservative commentators speak about the violence we are experiencing with the glibness of a guilty conscience. The five-fold increase in complaints to the police about racial abuse and attacks since the referendum is not as bad as it seems, they say. If you look at the actual numbers rather than the headline-grabbing percentages, you see a mere increase from 63 incidents a week to 331. It is regrettable that the readers of their newspapers and supporters of their Brexit campaign firebomb halal butchers and scrawl “Polish vermin” on cultural centres. They deplore it. Of course they do. But let us keep a sense of proportion. Let us not get carried away. This is hardly a race war, and we are not demagogues.
Even if every one of our Tory Fausts receives the damnation they deserve, we are stuck with a pact we never signed
If they were sincere, they would have spoken with care throughout the campaign. But how could they? If they had insisted that Poles living here were welcome, they would have alienated the “demographic” Farage correctly identified would take them to victory. If they had said that immigration would continue as it is now when we left the EU, Johnson and many Tory politicians would have been expressing their honestly held view. But they would have exposed the lie at the heart of the Leave campaign as they spoke their minds. It pretended we could slash immigration and boost the economy together, and that was a “having it all” fantasy.
The lie is boomeranging back. After making the most expensive leadership challenge in British history on behalf of a cause he did not believe in, Johnson’s coup has failed. Gove looks as if the best he can hope for is a minor role in someone else’s administration. But even if every one of our Tory Fausts receives the damnation they deserve, we are stuck with a pact we never signed.
Business, the City, workers with jobs to lose and expats living abroad will insist that we retain our current access to the single market and free movement. The government may be able to get the immigration figures down a little by asking the EU to accept that only workers with job offers can come to Britain.
Yet the big truth would remain that we have gone through the greatest constitutional crisis since the war to end up pretty much where we were before. Immigration would not fall significantly. The most striking difference would be that we would lose the ability to influence most of the EU laws and regulations our businesses have to follow.
Alternatively we could really leave. Inflation would rise as the pound sunk, jobs would go, and public services and businesses would suffer as immigrant labour abandoned us.
Whatever choice Brexit forces on us, Ukip and forces to its right will prosper. They will be able to say to supporters old and new that they were lied to and betrayed. Either immigrants would still be coming or their grievance-filled followers would be getting poorer.
I cannot imagine better conditions for resentment to rise. A referendum that was meant to let “the people take control” and “restore trust” will have achieved the opposite. You do not need an over-active imagination to picture
the threats to the safety of anyone who looks or is foreign that may follow.
Last week’s violence could just be the start. Naturally, not everyone will suffer. No one is going to vandalise the Hurlingham club or firebomb Fortnum & Mason. Johnson, Farage, Gove, Leadsom, Duncan Smith and Grayling will have played with fire safe in the knowledge that, whoever else burned, it would not be them.