Blinding ExceptionalismThe Insidious Attacks on British Democracy Are No Less Dangerous than Trump’s America
Hardeep Matharu explores why the attacks on the rule of law and accountability by Boris Johnson and his Government are not interpreted to be as alarming for the UK as the more overt destruction being waged by Donald Trump in America
No one thinks it could happen here. Britain is not America, India, Brazil or China. Authoritarianism and fascism are the ideologies we fought against in two World Wars. We are the mother of Parliaments, the cradle of the rule of law. Our justice system is second-to-none.
In this heroic and exceptional formulation of ourselves lies the key to why Britain’s democracy is so vulnerable – by Boris Johnson and forces beyond.
To forget one’s vulnerabilities is to stare at the shadows in the cave, convinced that whatever fallibility touches others cannot touch us. In a way, it is a vital act of survival – the distractions and delusions that get us through the day, what T.S. Eliot summed up aptly with: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” But it is also a dangerous myopia, blinding us to the darkness within and ahead.
That we think it really couldn’t happen here, is exactly why it could. It won’t look or feel the same as elsewhere, but it will be there – as the beginnings already are, hidden in plain sight.
Nothing less than fascism entered the heart of American democracy yesterday, as Donald Trump-supporting insurgents stormed the Capitol, spurred on by the President’s incitement: “You will never take our country back with weakness. You have to show strength.”
After they entered the corridors of power, halting a vote affirming Joe Biden as the country’s next President, he told them “we love you, you’re very special people”. Four had lost their lives.
On the same day, in India, Narendra Modi continued his country’s march of authoritarian Hindu nationalism. Following 150,000 deaths from COVID-19, the writing into law of the ‘Love Jihad’ conspiracy theory and attacks on the income of rural farmers leading to widespread protests, the Prime Minister pressed on with his controversy.
India’s Supreme Court has given him the go-ahead to replace the country’s Parliament building in Delhi, built during the British Raj by Edwin Lutyens, with one of his own design. In an attempt to pull down its imperial history and replace it with a nationalistic one, one architect commented: “It will remind us of Mussolini’s Rome and Speer’s Berlin.”
Speaking to my Mum last night about developments in America, she was alarmed by what was happening in the world’s two largest democracies – the US and India.
A British immigrant who grew up in post-partition India, having voted for Brexit and Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, she doesn’t agree with the Government’s handling of the Coronavirus crisis or Johnson’s leadership. But it is hard to convince her that something, structurally, is badly amiss in the British state – just as she believes it to be in India and America.
Why this is the case, I believe, is due to that most English of traits – so English that you can hardly see it: insidiousness.
Hidden From View – But In Plain Sight
The appearance of order, a polished authority, prosaic diction, a leadership bred to believe it can lead. This is the image many still have of Britain’s ruling class: an internalised belief in noblesse oblige which has arguably contributed to the deaths of more than 80,000 people during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Under this almost effortless image lies immense inequality, structural racism and class discrimination – all completely embedded in who we are, yet hard enough to pinpoint with precision.
But the ‘cover-up’ is the old imperial way and always has been. As Britain’s colonies gained their independence one by one, ‘Operation Legacy’ ensured that the blushes of the British establishment were spared with this Government-authorised destruction and concealing of thousands of documents relating to the country’s colonial exploits.
Unlike the US – a country which seems to at least know when it is at war with itself – Britain’s denial of its truth through appearances, myth and pomp acts as the ultimate defence mechanism to stop any discontent bubbling up over the surface and being seen for what it is.
Under Boris Johnson, the norms that Britain’s democracy is built on have been shockingly subverted in ways not seen before. And yet, do we see things for what they are?
In his upper-class bonhomie and language of ‘folks’, nothing seems amiss in the extreme or in advance of his consistent incompetence.
See that the Prime Minister unlawfully prorogued Parliament in an unconstitutional attempt to avoid parliamentary scrutiny of the Government’s plans for Brexit? See that the Government admitted that its changes to customs rules for Northern Ireland would “break international law in a very specific and limited way”? See the obliteration of accountability which allowed Dominic Cummings to drive to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight and Priti Patel to break the ministerial code through her bullying behaviour? See the cronyism and corruption at the heart of the awarding of Government contracts during a public health crisis? See the Vote Leave lies, scapegoating, ‘divide and rule’ and racism weaponised in the ‘culture wars’; the emotional answers served up which will fail to improve people’s lives in any material way?
That my Mum doesn’t see that Britain under Boris Johnson should be concerning, just as India under Modi or Trump’s antics in America are, isn’t so surprising. The mainstream media and the BBC seldom label his Government’s actions as the assaults on democracy and the rule of law that they are. And in his upper-class bonhomie and language of “folks”, nothing seems amiss in the extreme or in advance of his consistent incompetence.
Democracy, as a system of governance based on plurality, is inherently vulnerable. It requires nurturing and safeguarding. Combined with the modern threats of dark money, social media radicalisation, disinformation and the monetisation of hate, it is teetering precariously in the 21st Century.
Yesterday’s scenes in the US Capitol were horrifying and should never have happened. The Trump era has, however, seen American society starting to confront the darkness which created them. At every turn in Trump’s term, there has been alarm and horror voiced at his actions.
Here in Britain, we think it can and will never happen to us – even as it continues to right before our eyes.