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Tue 21 January 2020
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On the eve of the most important election in a generation, Otto English asks: will divided Britain survive the coming trauma?


In many ways, there is some symmetry to it. This low and dishonest decade in British politics has been rounded off by the lowest and most dishonest general election campaign in living memory.

The very party that led us into this chaos looks set to win power again on the promise of leading us from it. For, if the polls are to be believed, while millions of politically homeless voters are pinning their hopes on a hung Parliament, millions more might well deliver a slim Tory majority.

How has it come to this? 

By any measure, the Conservative election campaign has been a disgrace. Under Boris Johnson, the once great Tory party has shed its reputation for pragmatism, centrist capitalism and reliability and recast itself as Nigel Farage-era UKIP. This has been plagiarism of the most naked kind. The meaningless Australian points-based system? Tick. A load of emotive nonsense about the UK’s tiny fishing industry? Tick. A promise to do away with foreign aid? Tick. Some vicious, carefully aimed barbs at foreigners resident in Britain? Tick. 

Farage’s parties have always latched onto simplistic catchphrases such as “leave means leave” or “let’s go WTO”. Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done” is straight out of the same songbook.

The Prime Minister and his team know that leaving the EU on 31 January is no more getting Brexit done than a freshly laid egg is a roast chicken dinner with all the trimmings. The transition period will likely last until December 2022 and, beyond that, there will be decades of negotiations and trade deals to get us back to where we are already. But, what the Conservatives have calculated – correctly – is that most people don’t understand that. So, like street corner spivs hawking fake designer watches, they play the con, realising that by the time they are found out, it will be too late for anyone to come back and complain.

Such deficiencies of integrity would put a North Korean dictator to shame, but not Johnson and friends. And their indiscriminate dishonesty doesn’t end there.  

Even as they cast smears on Jeremy Corbyn’s hard left leanings, the Conservatives have aped the tactics of Stalin era propagandists and their picture editors in the department of disinformation.

Throughout this General Election campaign, fiction has been forged into truth. An incredible 88% of the party’s Facebook ads in the first four days of December were shown to be untrue. The party manipulated a video of a Keir Starmer interview on Good Morning Britain to make it look as if he didn’t have any answers to Piers Morgan’s Brexit questions – when, in fact, he had answered them all. Michael Gove turned up with a fake TV camera crew to disrupt the Channel 4 climate debate, claiming that the Tories had been no platformed – when, in fact, Johnson had been too scared (or lazy) to turn up. And then, having been found out, the Conservatives resorted to veiled threats of taking away Channel 4’s broadcasting licence once back in power.

In all of this, Johnson – a journalist himself – has played the press he so well understands. He has run away from interviews with all but the most sympathetic broadcasters, knowing that most people will forget about it in a day or two – and somehow he has been allowed to get away with it. 

When actually held to account, as Johnson was by ITV’s Joe Pike during an exchange in which he refused to look at a photo of sick toddler Jack Williment-Barr on the reporter’s phone, the Prime Minister behaved like a petulant child, pocketing the journalist’s mobile and then pretending he hadn’t. The online disinformation campaign that followed also demonstrated the willingness of professional journalists to disseminate the spin rather than challenge the narrative. A viral social media post claiming that the photo of the ill boy had been faked was picked up and propagated by journalists and influencers even though it was provably false. 

In a related incident, a claim that an advisor to Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock had been assaulted outside the hospital which had treated the boy was similarly given traction by BBC journalists and others – despite it evidently being wrong. 

This failure at each turn to hold the Tories to account and, at times, to play their game has been singularly depressing. Sections of the media have veered, depressingly, into downright connivance.  

Of course, we can’t apportion all the blame to the Tories, the BBC and tabloid newspapers, much as this is tempting. Matters would have been considerably different if the opposition parties had presented a real and robust challenge to Johnson, but none of them have risen sufficiently to that task. Corbyn has failed to come alive and deliver the killer blow and has dithered rather than led. Jo Swinson for the Liberal Democrats has been lacklustre. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, alone may have been impressive but her constituency doesn’t extend beyond the borders of Scotland.

However you spin it, Britain has been failed. Failed by a Government that has led the nation to the very edge of catastrophe to placate the mad fantasies of regressive libertarians and the ego of a self-entitled Prime Minister. Failed by a lacklustre and complicit mainstream media that has preferred to hop a ride on the Boris Johnson carousel rather than hold him to account. Failed by a jaded, dithering Opposition that has not seized the moment or risen to the challenge of the greatest political calamity in modern times. Failed by the Remain leaders of other parties, who should have put differences aside and worked together, but who preferred instead to feather their own nests and vacillate. 

Britain needs new leaders, new political visionaries and ideas and a more robust media willing to hold politicians properly to account. That collective failure has led us to this moment. For the conceivable future, the nation is seemingly condemned, like a Buster Gonadian Sisyphus, to cart the gigantic bollocks of Brexit up and down the hill of our shrinking repute. 

The big question now has to be: will the nation survive the coming trauma?

Get out there and vote.    


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