Incendiary Politics: How to Stop Fanning the Flames
There has been widespread condemnation of Johnson’s behaviour in Parliament yesterday. After the unanimous and historic Supreme Court ruling it would be expected that a prime minister who was found to have unlawfully prorogued parliament and misinformed the Queen, would have some element of contrition. But we are dealing with a Prime Minister, the like of which we have not seen before.
To understand Johnson’s behaviour, the best precedent is from across the Atlantic and it is safe to assume he (along with his adviser Dominic Cummings) has learnt from Donald Trump: that stoking anger and outrage is a killer strategic device.
Remember Trump’s presidential campaign really took off in 2016 when he mocked a Muslim US Army veteran’s family. It was no coincidence that Johnson’s first action after resigning as foreign secretary was to mock Muslim women as “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”.
When this considered, it’s no surprise that Johnson should outrage parliament with his defence of inflammatory language of ‘surrender’ and capitulation’. He mocked the memory of murdered Labour MP Jo Cox to such an extent that even his sister, Rachel, was beside herself with anger and condemnation.
Incendiary remarks, inflammatory language, heat rather than light – this all fires up Johnson’s pro-Brexit base. It polarises the opposition and tips them over the cliff from a rational to an emotional response. As with all ‘culture war’ tactics it polarises the nation into different camps while obscuring the real political interests of a tiny elite who benefit.
By moving the focus away from rational and evidential arguments about the rule of the law or the future of the economy, Johnson is following the same strategy as Steve Bannon. He foments a tribal war that pits the people against parliament, the northern working class against the chattering classes in the South, focusing us all on class, racial and nationalist prejudices.
Do not follow Bannon and Trump into the furnace of extremism. However outraged and provoked we feel, we must not rise to the bait of Johnson and Cummings.
The best way to frustrate their plans is to keep reinforcing the rule of law and rational debate and find ways to improve the underlying causes of the Leave vote. We have to keep on the better side of the argument in behaviour and action. Only then can we emasculate this pernicious game plan and stop the inextricable slide to populism.