Illiberal Britain

"Why have you changed your avatar?" asked a friend of mine.

Why indeed. Ever since I joined Twitter in 2010, my avatar has always been a picture of me, and my Twitter name has always been my own name. I've never wanted - or needed - to be anonymous.

So why now?

The image on my avatar is the Anarchist Cat. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about it:
The black cat, also called the "wild cat" or "sabot-cat", usually with an arched back and with claws and teeth bared, is closely associated with anarchism, especially with anarcho-syndicalism. It was designed by Ralph Chaplin, who was a prominent figure in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). As its aggressive stance suggests, the cat is meant to suggest such ideas as wildcat strike actionssabotage, and radical unionism.
A while ago, I added triple parentheses around my name in solidarity with the online Jewish community. Anti-Semitic elements on social media use triple parentheses to identify accounts they think are Jewish so that they can be targeted for hate attacks. I am not Jewish, but I have been the target of anti-Semitic abuse by people who (weirdly) decided I must be Jewish because I opposed their particular brand of racism. I know, first hand, how horrible it can be. So I added the triple parentheses to my own name in solidarity with the real Jews who suffer such hate attacks both online and in the real world.

And now I have added an image to my avatar in solidarity with another group. The people who are all too often called "traitors" for voting to Remain in the EU, and "saboteurs" for trying to overturn or water down the decision of 37% of the British population to leave the EU.

In the EU referendum last June, I voted to Remain - a traitorous act, according to some.  But after the vote, it quickly became apparent to me that only the hardest of hard Brexits would satisfy those who blame the EU, free trade and immigration for all their woes. I wrote about the need for a "nuclear Brexit" in the Financial Times last July. This was my conclusion:
It grieves me to say it, but the UK must now exit completely from the EU. Any form of mitigation simply dilutes the sovereignty for which the UK people voted. I know that cutting the ties completely is the most economically damaging approach, but in the end politics trumps economics. The UK’s democracy at home, and its standing abroad, are already seriously compromised. Attempting to evade or water down the decision of the people will only give a platform to the unpleasant face of nationalism, the hate-filled racism that is already beginning to show its face. For the sake of democracy and freedom, “nuclear Brexit” is the only remaining option.
But far from democracy and freedom being saved by the prospect of "nuclear Brexit", they seem to be under greater threat than ever. Headlines like these are markers along the path to an illiberal Britain:

I do not agree with those who are trying to overturn the decision of the British people on 23rd June, 2017. I think that flawed though the referendum was, it was sufficiently definitive for the result to stand. But I defend completely their democratic right to oppose that decision and to try to get it reversed. And I am appalled by the violent rhetoric used against them. So just as I added triple parentheses to my name in solidarity with Jews who are the target of violent anti-Semitic abuse, so now I add the Sabot Cat to my avatar in solidarity with Remainers who are the target of violent rhetoric and outright threats.

And I have changed my mind about "nuclear Brexit". A very hard Brexit is exactly what the illiberal, authoritarian elements in British society want. I think a very hard Brexit is still inevitable, simply because no government will have the guts to disappoint those who voted to end freedom of movement. But if we continue down the present path, it won't just be the end of Britain's membership of the EU - it will be the end of Britain as a tolerant, liberal society.

This YouGov poll reported in the Independent shows what Leave voters want to see restored in post-Brexit Britain:

Hanging criminals and beating children. The core beliefs of illiberal Britain.

Nor is the illiberalism of Leave voters limited to hanging and flogging. This is the election manifesto from a Scottish UKIP wannabe councillor:

She seems to want to restore the Britain of a bygone age, when women with children didn't work, discussing sex was taboo, schools offered a very limited curriculum, and there was not much in the way of retirement provision or benefits for pensioners. Oh, and Britain had the death penalty, of course. In some places criminals were even executed by guillotine.

Her views are pretty extreme: few Leave voters that I have encountered would support raising the pension age to 70, eliminating free bus passes and helping the old to die. But lots of the Leave voters I have talked to seem keen on sending young people to work in the fields instead of going to university: young "snowflakes" need to find out what "real work" is, apparently, rather than drifting around Europe pretending to study. I have also seen significant support among Leave voters for ending tax credits, slashing benefits for sick and disabled, and stopping all support of families with children. And I have encountered a lot of opposition to free nursery care, extended maternity leave and paternity leave.

I suspect much of this arises from the fact that Leave voters are in general older people who are angry that younger people have benefits that they did not have.  But there also seems to be a genuinely reactionary and intolerant undercurrent.

YouGov calls this undercurrent "authoritarian populism", and says it is characterised by three core beliefs:
  • cynicism over human rights
  •  anti-immigration
  • favouring a strong emphasis on defence as part of wider foreign policy.
In Britain these three characteristics together frame an anti-EU position.

Authoritarian populist views are more common among older voters, with the hardest views among those over 60:

Authoritarian populist views are also negatively associated with educational attainment:

So, to sum up, older and less educated people are more likely to have illiberal views than younger and more highly educated people. The trouble is, there are a lot of them, and they vote. YouGov says 48% of British voters hold authoritarian populist views to a greater or lesser extent. Liberal-left voters remain the largest single group in Britain, but they are outgunned by the combined authoritarian-populist forces.

But why must we listen to such reactionary voices? Why should we give up so much of what we have achieved, simply to appease the angry, intolerant old?

The Britain that I love is an open, tolerant, liberal society that welcomes foreigners, promotes equality and is generous towards the less fortunate. If working to preserve those values makes me a "traitor" and a "saboteur", then that is what I shall be. And when the death penalty for treason is restored, I shall walk to the guillotine with pride.

Related reading:



  1. It isn't the debate as such it's the tone. It's no more acceptable to crush saboteurs than to punch a nazi. We all have our opinions and yes I think some are more valid than others. Somehow we need to rise above this. bill40

  2. Some people want to feel threatened, to be in an "emergency". Feeling threatened generates negative feelings, which can then be (temporarily) relieved by taking certain actions, often illiberal ones, against the myriad threats. See the effect today in countries led by Duterte, Maduro, May, Trump, Ergogan (etc).

    It's mindless that in Britain and, in many parts of the U.S. and some other countries this style of politics has taken hold, largely due to indifferent and incompetent opposition to it. The British have a deserved reputation for stoicism in the face of threats, but this is not reflected in the Conservative party of today, and the Labour party might have championed it, but for some reason are taking a prolonged LSD hit and temporarily declared themselves unavailable for civic duty.

    But I'd say the so-called liberal institutions of the E.U. played this game too in southern Europe. Even if British politicians and people regained their composure they'll find their negotiating counterparts in Europe not at all averse to playing with matches just to create small fires they can then try to put out (Greece and the IMF will tell you).

  3. "I suspect much of this arises from the fact that Leave voters are in general older people who are angry that younger people have benefits that they did not have."

    While simultaneously forgetting all the benefits they enjoyed over their own lifetime.

  4. Frances, you really do your case no good by publishing one-sided data. How do I know from your bar chart, for example, what percentage of Remainers want the return of the death sentence? Is it more than 53% or a little less, or a lot less? Ditto for the other categories. The Independent (an ironically named publication if ever there was one) and the Guardian campaign staunchly for remaining in the EU, so any data published in these newspapers should be taken with a pinch of salt.
    But where I take issue with you and others is your continued portrayal of older people as unintelligent and racist fools yet the younger generation as virtuous victims. Anyone under, say 50, has no experience of what Britain was like before the UK joined the Common Market. I, being 74 do know; and it was a wonderful, tolerant and hardworking society, qualities that had nothing to do with the EU.
    Like the curate’s egg, there are good bits and bad bits about the EU, and just like any decision about whether to go for divorce or soldier on, the final decision is an amalgam of many complex considerations and judgments.
    David Hardy

    1. The Yougov research, to which I linked in the post (via the Independent), shows that the proportion of Remainers supporting return of the death sentence is around 20%. Clearly that is a much smaller proportion than among Leave voters. I'm sorry if that is not what you want to hear.

      As I am one of the "older generation" myself - being some distance the wrong side of 50, now - if I were making such a blanket criticism as you suggest, I would of course be criticising myself. In fact my criticism is more nuanced. The YouGov polls show that older and less well educated people tend to have more illiberal views. But of course that does not mean that all of them do.

      I grew up in Britain before it joined the Common Market. It had many good features, and it also had some extremely bad ones. But we are not returning to that Britain. If you think we are, then I am afraid you are deluding yourself. Whatever happens after Brexit, those days are gone for good.

  5. "an open, tolerant, liberal society that welcomes foreigners"

    would you like to put a number on how many foreigners you are prepared to welcome? There are lots of foreigners who would not only benefit from coming here but would benefit the country as well. Millions. Tens of Millions. Possibly hundreds of millions. At some point, we will have to say to someone "sorry - you can't come. We don't have the space or facilities to support you here."

    I get fed up with having to be the responsible adult spoiling everyone else's fun with foreigners, saying sorry but you've had enough now. So I'll stop. Will you join me in welcoming unlimited migration into the country?

  6. Thank you for your post Frances.

    The behaviour of the press in attacking those who don't agree with them - such as the judges that decided that the Government had to get Parliamentary approval before triggering Article 50, and as you point out, those who seek to remain in the EU - is absolutely disgraceful. It is quite shocking and frightening that such behaviour is not being roundly denounced by all who have a public voice - such as our elected politicians.

    I have been surprised by several friends of mine who have done well in professional careers or in creating high-tech businesses to the point of being multi-millionaires who argue strongly that Brexit is the best path for the UK, so there are educated thoughtful people on both sides of the debate, but I do wonder if those suggesting that those who disagree with them should be killed are aware that they are endorsing the Nazi/Stalinist/Maoist playbook?

  7. The response of Remain politicians and parties since the referendum has been unexpectedly dreadful. Frances I think your comment in the FT at the top is absolutely spot on, and I assumed that others would see what you saw and would resume the challenge of developing policies best for the UK, but that hasn't happened. Instead it has been like watching acquaintances and relatives having a complete mental collapse in public, running round screaming and panicking.

    The problem is that many in the Labour and Lib Dem Parties, in academia, and in the metropolitan media, have become so deeply religiously wedded to the EU and invested so heavily as the EU as the only way forward that were there to be a decent outcome for the UK they would be finished as serious politicians or commentators, hence they are now actively trying to get a bad outcome for the UK. There is a blatant power grab by a group of people to overturn democracy and punish the majority for having the temerity to disagree with them at the ballot box. There is an assumption of superiority by this group which is quite underserved, and their constant portrayal of Leavers as bovine dim-witted dupes has not gone un-noticed by Leavers who are quietly steeling themselves to resist this attempted coup by the "intelligensia".

    Nutter UKIP members and the more wacky end of the hang-em and flog-em brigade we have lived with and quite happily dealt with for years. It requires sensible middle ground politicians to engage and represent. The danger now is that middle ground is looking increasingly deserted by any left-leaning individuals or groups.

  8. things may have been said in jest about voting remain ,
    but obviously more robust language would have been used in response to the attempted gina miller coup , or power grab .

    leavers were rightly concerned about undemocratic appeals to the unelected , but possibly " liberal and tolerant " judiciary .

    if the elite try to dodge the referendum decision of the people , of course there will be an angry reaction .
    would this rection be in defence of democracy , or in favour of nationalism , racism , as you say .

    its easy to throw around words like tolerant and liberal .
    but people have lost jobs for not being p c .
    and how many are currently in jail for [ political ? ] hate crime ?
    recently , i have been told i must plead guilty to a 36 mph offence [ 30 limit ]
    or i will be liable to pay £ 1000 victim surchange [ no victims ] and £ 85 prosecution costs .
    on top of a presently unknown fine .
    there is also talk of a speed awareness course .
    liberal ?

    then comes the no news bit .

    more than 50 % of a sample want to see hanging return .
    well this was regular news in the 1980 s when the opinions of ordinary people mattered .
    since the elite took over in the 1990 s , the return of capital punishment stopped being discussed .
    the opinions of ordinary people didnt change .
    they were just from this point ignored .
    as were their opinions on immigration .

    tolerant liberals have always sought to ignore what ordinary people think ,
    in order to create their utopia .

    talking about eliminating free bus passes takes the biscuit .
    havent you advocated this yourself before ?

    no doubt labour funded a lot of p c stuff while the tax revenue from the credit bubble rolled in .
    but , er , the credit bubble burst .
    tax revenue plumetted . or no .

    the p c spending continues . hows that ?
    maybe old people get less library services .
    maybe they turn up at a civic amenity site , to find it shut on monday and tuesday ,
    and long queues on the other days as a result .
    caught short in town ?
    well a public convenience costs £ 4000 a year to clean .
    so find a pub .

    maybe old people have heard stories about university graduates who end up flipping burgers at mcdonalds .
    excess supply .

    pretty sure the term authoritarian populism was used in an essay published in a left wing magazine in 1979 .
    it was looking at the reaction to the failure of labour in the 1970 s .

    low politics to associate this with educational attainment ,
    especially given dumbed down education today ,
    and the fact that huge numbers today end up at a " university " .

    for a couple of months , young people have been walking around with a huge chip on their shoulder .
    it seems someone has sold them a story that older people have completely fucked up their lives .
    the odd remoaner blogger cant possibly have that power .
    so i can only assume it must have been the bbc , or other p c media .

    my favourite holiday destination has a large number of " university " buildings .
    when young people walk on the pavement in this area , they seem to be looking for someone older ,
    so they can hate them for a bit .
    i guess i will have to avoid these bits of town from now on .
    i pity the non p c who study in these cesspits .

    still the remoaners will be chuffed that they have radicalised a % of young people .

    but the non remoaners wont forget this tactic or strategy .
    the left will have a stigma attached to them for years to come .

    to an extent the tolerant liberals have revealed exactly what they have become .
    and what they believe in .

    a good thing , if you believe in an informed democracy .

  9. Stuart hall >>> .

    The term authoritarian populism is used here . If you are interested in the history of the period , you need to de bunk this . More moderate left wing commentator s have told the same story . As you are old enough , you would have lived through the 1970 s . So maybe you remember all this . Personally my first political memory is of the miners strike .
    As for authoritarian populism , maybe history repeats itself .
    The left wing messes up , so people turn to the right .
    There cannot be a liberal response to the failure of the liberal elite . That makes no sense .

    1. Looks like the link failed . If interested google Stuart hall great . I think article was printed in Marxism today before mrs thatcher won in 1979


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