How crisis at home and wars abroad broke the United Kingdom.


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On returning to the United Kingdom from Germany at twelve in 2004, I found it extremely difficult to reintegrate into British society. I struggled with English humour and behaviours and was bullied for having an American accent and using American slang. Some students thought I was  German and in private school, sensitivity,  emotional expression and kindness,  were deduced as a weaknesses which both certain students and certain teachers exploited.  The binge-drinking and  ‘lad’ culture at university, I struggled to understand. Germany was a life-changing experience and since moving back I have always felt like an outsider of sorts, both because of living abroad and because of my experiences in the English school system and at the University of Nottingham. The jokes about winning both the First and Second World Wars as a substitute for winning less World Cups than Germany never struck a chord because these conflicts and the legacy of fascism have traumatised German society, including Stuttgart where I lived with my family, just as much as the rest of the world. 

What has my life story got to do with Brexit, the British public’s historic decision to leave the European Union? Not much really, but I recognise the worst aspects of being English in the conduct of the Brexiteers, reflections of how students and teachers treated an ‘outsider’ when he came from Germany over a decade ago. As Patrick Cockburn wrote in The Independent, ‘Many pro-Brexit supporters do not seem to have advanced far beyond a benign picture of the national character. But these days their tone is defensive and self-assertive. Immigrants are to be schooled in British values – whatever those may be – the very thing George Shaw saw as a symptom of unhealthy nationalism.’  What made me different was punished and mocked and if I didn’t integrate and learn to play by the rules of ‘English’ society and the private school system, I would be an outcast. I wasn’t a immigrant, I wasn’t German, I wasn’t American, but I was treated as if I was a foreigner.

This has not turned me into an anti-English stalwart, but I understand the limitations and toxic attitudes which emanate from English exceptionalism and how it can affect some people, not all, who come from abroad. Brexit has made me question friends and friendships, the agenda of many media outlets and it has even reignited questions I have about my identity (as an internationalist, half-English and half-Scottish) and how these different national and international elements fit into a now fractured British society. Above all, the Brexit saga has shaken my faith in the political establishment, not just the Conservatives, but the Liberal Democrats and Labour. 

 In Yugoslavia, before its descent into various wars and sparking one of the worst international crises of the 20th century, there were five referendums for independence between 1991 and 1992. The Yugoslav Wars in south-eastern Europe are perhaps one of the most extreme examples of what can happen when disagreements over referendums go wrong. Contrary to John Major’s claim that “ancient ethnic hatreds” were the cause of the Yugoslav Wars, economic collapse, populism, mafia power and ultra-nationalism in Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina driven by hapless policy-making, mismanagement and political divisions at the top were the predominant factor which drove Yugoslavia to ruin. In the United Kingdom, a toxic brand of British exceptionalism is leading to its unravelling and the symptoms of ultra-nationalism are being nourished by racism and xenophobia. Of-course,  the United Kingdom is not Yugoslavia, and both have very different histories. The UK economy is much stronger and larger than the economy of Yugoslavia was in the 1990s and never faced a transition from communism to capitalism in the traumatic circumstances which engulfed the Balkans. However, Fedja Buric, an Assistant Professor of History at Bellarmine University, writing on History Matters, a blog run by the University of Sheffield writes that the United Kingdom social divisions have come to the fore as a result of the referendum. 

“The Brexit referendum, like any other, was supposed to let the people speak. The trouble is, that they did not speak in unison and now the raison d’être of this multinational state has disappeared. In the early 1990s, Yugoslavs also went to their referendums to determine their willingness to stay in another federation.  For the UK, membership of the EU distracted the internal destructive forces — of English nationalism for example — redirecting their ire towards Brussels. For Yugoslavia, the Cold War and the consequent special relationship the country had with both blocs tamed internal nationalisms — at least for a while — by buttressing a sense of national pride at such a small country occupying such a large world stage. Then, the Berlin Wall fell down and so too did Yugoslavia: the Yugoslavs lost their special place, internal nationalisms roared back and democratic populism took the centre stage. ‘Britishness’ was never really an official policy of the UK, just as ‘Yugoslavness’ was never really an official policy of post-World War II Yugoslavia. Instead, the elites must have hoped that out of years, decades, and centuries of interethnic interactions, the English, Welsh, Scots and Northern Irish would come to see themselves as Brits, just as the Serbians, Croats, Muslims, Slovenes, Macedonians and Montenegrins would come to see themselves as Yugoslavs.  The UK has a lot in common with Yugoslavia. Like Yugoslavia, the UK is a complicated multinational state born out of a contentious historical project that often overlapped with the imperial project of the country that would form the core of the multinational federation. For Yugoslavia, this was Serbia, and for the UK, this was England. Like the English in Scotland and Ireland, the Serbs in Croatia, Kosovo and Bosnia were sometimes perceived as brute conquerors.”  

In a London School of Economics blog post, Stefan Collignon, Professor of Political Economy at Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa and Senior Research Fellow at the European Institute of LSE wrote that Britain has effectively returned to the politics of the time before it was a united kingdom. The overlap between the maps of England during the “first civil war” in 1643 showing royal strongholds and those of the support for Brexit in 2016 is remarkable.’ While there is a strong economy, problems lie beneath. Austerity has been strongly condemned including by a United Nations investigator, Philip Alston who conducted research into the matter in 2018. The November results were damning: ‘Quoting figures from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, he said that more than 1.5 million people were destitute at some point in 2017, meaning they lived on less than £70 a week or went without essentials such as housing, food, clothing or heating. A fifth of the population, amounting to 14 million people, are living in poverty, Prof Alston said.’

With domestic politics in chaos, little attention has been paid to disastrous wars abroad. Multiple wars and conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa have polarised the UK. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s adventurism in Iraq tars his legacy. However, under Prime Minister David Cameron and Theresa May, interventions, direct or through proxies, have occurred in Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria under the Conservative Party. Unlike Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina (belated and no less controversial though the military responses were), these military operations in the Middle East have had extremely mixed results. Airstrikes in the case of Syria and Iraq were ineffective and brought terrible destruction to Raqqa and Mosul while in Yemen, support for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States has pushed the country into famine. 

Britain’s bombing campaign in Libya succeeded in removing Qaddafi, but little was done to stop the country collapsing after the war to remove the old regime was completed. Small wars in four countries, not including Afghanistan, have been failures. Foreign policy, not just Brexit and domestic politics, should determine whether a party should remain in power and under the policies of the Conservatives, the Middle East and North Africa has been pushed into further turmoil. 

These small wars have done nothing to enhance security and democracy at home and abroad as attacks in Manchester and London have demonstrated and, have had the opposite effect nurturing populism, toxic nationalism and xenophobia within the UK. Nigel Farage called Angela Merkel’s decision to allow Syrian refugees into Germany as "one of the biggest political failures of modern times". Ignoring the fact that Syria is in the midst of the worst war of the 21st century, Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster unveiled during the Brexit campaign was the tip of the iceberg in demonstrations of bigotry and hatred which have seeped into British politics because of the Middle Eastern conflicts and the 9/11 Wars. 

Inaction on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has stoked both anti-semitism and Islamophobia at home. The wars raging from North Africa to the Middle East to Central Asia have been frequently compared to the Thirty Years’ War, a conflict England was involved in. 50,000 - 60,000 British soldiers fought in the Thirty Years’ War, a war subsidised by Charles I in support of Scandinavian monarch Christian IV. These soldiers, ‘who fought for the ‘Protestant cause’ within the armies of countries such as  the Dutch Republic, Denmark and Sweden’ Furthermore as Mark Adams analyses, ‘the breakdown of Stuart government in the late 1630s and 1640s illustrates the considerable influence this body of men had on their homeland. Equally, as conventional historians have argued, the Thirty Years’ War also contributed to ‘the demise of English  military power throughout the period and (demonstrated) the failure of the Stuart monarchs to engage within continental warfare.’ Militarily and politically, the involvement in the terrible multi-generational conflict in Europe changed Britain forever, and by 1642 the British Civil War had begun and political turmoil and war consumed the British Isles for decades. 

45,000 British soldiers were involved in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and according to BBC News roughly 10,000 soldiers were deployed in Afghanistan in 2009 during the height of the Fourth Afghan War. All three military operations in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq (excluding support by proxy for Saudi Arabia’s destruction of Yemen) came under extensive criticism from military analysts and media outlets in how they were conducted and opposition to the wars, particularly in Iraq, have been very strong. The “Global War on Terror” and conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Gaza and Afghanistan have undeniably shaped or informed much of the fierce debates consuming and dividing Britain today. The United States had also been deeply polarised by conflicts abroad, particularly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the collapse of the Balkans in the 1990s and intervention in Libya. Its unflinching support for Israel (including its wars in the region and the occupation of Palestinian territories), the Gulf States and precarious authoritarian juntas in Turkey and Egypt have drawn sharp criticism from politicians, academics, journalists and human rights lawyers. 

The United States and in-turn the United Kingdom are more inclined to favour the Israelis and the Sunni states (as England supported the Protestant cause in the 1630s and 1640s) in the war reshaping the region, a contradiction in the latter case because extreme Sunni, Salafi and Wahabbi militants, frequently utilised as proxies in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan have launched countless terrorist attacks on Western states and allies across the world including in the Middle East. Of-course, reducing the Middle East’s turmoil, much like the Thirty Years’ War to an issue of religion is an oversimplification to those who live in the region. Libya, Iraq and Syria are predominantly Sunni states which had or continue to have poor relations with the Western powers. Secular politics, contemporary global political and economic currents and propaganda shapes these multilayered conflicts. Reducing cause to the Shia-Sunni schism and jihadism, factors important in themselves, excludes other primary and secondary causes at play in North Africa and the Middle East.

The currents of foreign and domestic politics are enabling far-right politicians, social media activists and writers to flourish. Extremists operate in plain sight and the likes of Tommy Robinson from the English Defence League, Katie Hopkins,  Paul Golding and Jayda Fransen from Britain First have spouted their messages of racism and xenophobia across the Internet unabated. Facebook and Twitter have removed Britain First from their respective channels, but they remain on places like YouTube and, inevitably, will find other places to promote their messages of division. This has become a growing problem, exacerbated by the Global War on Terror declared in 2001, the Great Recession of 2008, and the Brexit Referendum saga (2016 - current) for which the latter has acted as a catalyst for the rise of the far-right. 

The former head of the Metropolitan police’s counter-terrorism unit, Sir Mark Rowley, has said the United Kingdom continues to underestimate the dangerous blind-spot of far-right extremism and white supremacists. "If we sleepwalk into it, then there is a real danger we give them more scope to get stronger. Because otherwise what we're doing is letting these extremist groups infiltrate mainstream politics and generate credibility, which then lets them present themselves as representatives of 'white Britain' or 'Muslim Britain', which they certainly aren't." According to The Guardian in September, 2018, ‘white people made up the largest proportion of arrested terrorism suspects for the first time in 13 years.The Telegraph, commenting on Rowley’s statement, wrote that ‘white supremacist groups are repackaging their intolerance and attaching them to mainstream political debate.’ This was most acutely seen in the Brexit referendum when a politician and MP, Jo Cox was murdered by a neo-Nazi in 2016 during the referendum period and the Finsbury mosque attack in 2017. In February 2018, three months before his exit in May, Rowley said that the counter-terrorism units operating in the UK had stamped out four far-right plots which were organised at individual and group levels. Adam Thomas, Claudia Patatas and Daniel Bogunovic, members of the far-right group National Action were jailed for celebrating the murder of Jo Cox in November, 2018. On 10th December 2018, The Independent reported the following at the ‘Brexit Betrayal’ march:

Alongside Union Jacks, flags for Generation Identity – a pan-European white nationalist group – Britain First and For Britain were everywhere. The British National Party tweeted from the event. Several signs and banners openly advocated violence….“If parliament does not take Britain out of the European Union, it will be the biggest constitutional crisis since the English Civil War,” declared Mr Batten, before noting how that conflict only ended when “the king lost his head”…(The rally) was an apparent attempt to unite the whole of the extreme right behind Ukip under leader Gerard Batten and Robinson, his newly appointed adviser. He declared that he had spent his well-documented time in prison thinking – he was locked up for contempt of court in May – and come to the conclusion he could best influence politics by being in a political party. A new populist movement needed to be created in Britain, he said.“We need a party, we need a political voice, we need to electrify the working class communities of this country,” he declared. “For too long we’ve got excited about elections in Europe, in Sweden, Austria, Italy… Well, it’s our turn and it’s our time and this country is ready.”

The combination of an economic collapse sparked by no-deal Brexit, the strain of austerity, the worsening conditions for those already in poverty and acts of terrorism conducted by ISIS and Al-Qaida cells could act as recruiting mechanisms for these far-right parties to gain political support, even those who seek to use violence and terror to express their ideological convictions. The political elite, the current establishment, will be scapegoated, and the flagging of centre politics will empower these groups to provoke further hate rhetoric, racism and violence under the rubric of the Brexit referendum. 

This is a perfect storm for the rise of those on the fringes of society, extremists to enter the fray. Fransen were sentenced to only 36 weeks imprisonment and Golding for 18 weeks in March, 2018,  jailed for anti-Muslim hate crimes and several counts of religiously-aggravated harassment: they will return to UK politics and they remain supported by businessmen like Jim Dowson, who created and now financially supports Britain First, and 'journalists’ like Katie Hopkins who called for a ‘final solution’ for Muslims. Robinson matched this vile statement in 2017: “I have said time and time again, if we don’t get this issue sorted, then the British public will. Take Northern Ireland as a prime example, militias will be set up. The UK government will have a problem. Inaction will only facilitate the creation of a disgruntled angry population who will end up cleaning out this Islamic problem.” ‘Cleaning out’ is a code word for ethnic cleansing (something Muslims have been subject to in Myanmar, the Central African Republic, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina) and the ‘final solution’ is a code word for genocide (something Heinrich Himmler spearheaded in the Holocaust). The reference to Northern Ireland is a reference to The Troubles in the 1970s and 1980s and tit-for-tat violence and sectarian killings which plagued the country, an issue, including The Good Friday Agreement that  war journalist Patrick Cockburn comments is threatening to unravel with Brexit. 

The video clips of Golding, Fransen and men dressed in uniforms harassing Muslims at their doors and shops, and talking about ‘Christian areas’ and ‘Muslim areas’ becomes less ridiculous. Rather it is more unnerving because they are mimicking the actions of the different ethnic and sectarian groups who slaughtered their own neighbours in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s (this decade). The difference is they are not killing people at their door. Facebook Pages such as The Knights Templar Order (KTI), bankrolled by Dowson, peddle in globalist conspiracy theories, hate liberals, are promoting the narrative of a long war between Christianity and Islam, and have ties to far-right groups across the Western world. As the BBC report focused on Dowson goes on, the former Yugoslavia, comes up (again).

“The lowest price for KTI membership is £65, which means that if Mr Dowson's claims about the size of the group are correct they will have gathered hundreds of thousands of pounds in fees. To see where some of the money could be going we travelled to Kosovo, where, 20 years ago, more than 10,000 people were killed in a conflict between Serb forces and ethnic Albanians (who predominantly have a Muslim population). KTI has boasted of sending military equipment to Kosovo including ballistics vests and communications equipment, and posting pictures of some of the gear which it says is to combat what it calls "Islamist oppression".We have also been told that Mr Dowson is now using his expertise in harnessing the power of social media to help far-right activists based in Serbia. One of those is a medical student called Filip Milinic who runs a nationalist group called Generation Identity, which is part of the flourishing far-right scene in Belgrade. Mr Milinic's Facebook page says he works for the Serbian Radical Party, whose leader was convicted of war crimes last month. "We are against the mass immigration, illegal immigration... basically, we do not want to be replaced, to be bred out of existence in our own homelands," he explains. "That's our number one goal." Mr Milinic says Mr Dowson has given his group social media training, gaining it thousands of Facebook followers.

The Christian symbolism, ridiculous Crusader costumes, British extremists utilisation and manipulation of history, particularly The Crusades, and the Templar flags waved by the far-right become less ludicrous, but enablers for terrorism and militancy. As The New Yorker wrote in 2011, days after Norwegian Andres Breivik killed seventy-six people, his inspiration and ties to the English Defence League became apparent. Lauren Collins writes:

“Breivik’s self-image as a knight defending his country against imminent Muslim takeover is eerily similar to that of the English Defence League, a group I wrote about earlier this summer. And the E.D.L. was, it appears, one of Breivik’s influences. He wrote that he was Facebook friends with six hundred E.D.L. members, that he had met with “tens” of the group’s leaders, and that he had helped the group, when it was getting started, in 2009, to refine its ideology.   Anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate— said that the British police do not consider the E.D.L. a far-right extremist group, a classification that would subject the group to increased governmental monitoring.) So what was the connection between Brevik and the E.D.L.? For Breivik, the E.D.L., which has, at times, been violent, had not been violent enough. “The EDL, although having noble intentions are in fact dangerously naïve. EDL and KT principles can never be reconciled as we are miles apart ideologically AND organisationally,” Breivik wrote, on page 1438 of “2083.” But street protesting, Breivik wrote, was one of eight fronts that should “work like an organism” to defeat multiculturalism, and “it is highly advisable to structure any street protest organisation after the English Defence League (EDL) model as it is the only way to avoid paralysing scrutiny and persecution.” (Breivik, presumably, was referring to the fact—explained in today’s Daily Mirror by Nick Lowles, of the anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate—that the British police do not consider the E.D.L. a far-right extremist group, a classification that would subject the group to increased governmental monitoring.) No, the E.D.L., which bills itself as “a human rights organisation that exists to protect the inalienable rights of all people to protest against radical Islam’s encroachment into the lives of non-Muslims,” does not condone the murders of civil servants and summer campers. But the E.D.L. and groups like it do contribute to the creation of worlds, online and actual, in which people like Breivik find reinforcement. They foster a community in which openness and tolerance are called treachery and threats to the nation’s well being. They gather kindling, but shrug when there’s a fire.”  

Robinson’s ascension to political adviser to UKIP’s leader, Batten, becomes a more serious matter in this context, even if he rejected Breivik’s actions; his inflammatory tone against Muslims alone is cause for alarm even if he denounces and distances himself from acts of terrorism. He enables them. A mere two weeks after Robinson talked about ‘cleaning out’ Muslims from the United Kingdom, the Finsbury Mosque attack occurred and the ties between KPI, Britain First Advocates and radical Serbs (Bosnian Serbs and Serbians conducted a widespread campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide against Bosniak Muslims in the 1990s) should cause alarm. In April 2018, the leader of the Serb Radical Party, Vojislav Seselj was sentenced to a decade in prison for war crimes he committed during the Yugoslav Wars by the International Criminal Court for sparking atrocities against ethnic Croats. Milinic, part of the same party, claimed to have received social media support and training from Dowson. 

The problem is that the challenges of Brexit and the far-right politics are being twisted and manipulated for short-term political gains. Rees-Mogg (‘the polite extremist’ who is pro-Trump, anti-abortion, homophobic, and opposes welfare benefits), Nigel Farage (a liar), Boris Johnson (a racist) and a host of Conservative, hard-line Brexiteers and UKIP politicians have helped unlock these forces and they are not thinking about the consequences, because they are purely focused on  gaining political power whatever the cost to the country and ordinary people. Rees-Mogg and Johnson are cut from the same cloth. Their sense of ‘Englishness’ is precisely the reason Europeans chuckle at our current predicament, because it is a fantasy, opposed to the reality, political and economic, facing Britain. The Conservatives and the political civil war cannot close this Pandora’s Box, nor can the scrambling social media giants, and it is changing the course of the country’s history by reopening old divisions and conflict while creating new ones (some more dangerous than the old). Brexit, as with Donald Trump, was a product of populism, pandering to national mythologies and scapegoating migrants, religion and refugees. The ones harmed the most, economically and politically, are the ones who support these myths and narratives. In the build-up to the Yugoslav Wars, Milosevic utilised the Soviet Union’s collapse and the death of Tito to seize power: 

After the death of the longtime Yugoslav party boss Marshal Tito in 1980, the country entered terminal decline. Yugoslavia was deeply in hock to foreign banks, its ailing economy having grown dependent on infusions of Western cash to keep running, and by the mid-1980s Tito’s Ponzi scheme was collapsing. As a result, unemployment spiked and average Yugoslavs, who had grown accustomed to near-Western levels of consumer comfort, saw it all evaporate before their eyes. Fury followed…Serbian nationalism, taboo for decades under Communism, emerged from under the ice in the mid-1980s with dangerous passion…many average Serbs were angry by the mid-1980s, watching their economic security disappear as they faced demographic decline. Slobodan Milošević, a rising party boss, jumped on the nationalist bandwagon. He had never shown the slightest interest in nationalism, personally or politically, and seemed devoid of ethnic ressentiment himself, yet he realized that the issue was his ticket to power.  

The ones hurt the most were the Serbian civilians after a near decade of war and economic collapse enforced from abroad crippled the country and the costs of Milosevic’s reign became apparent as did the affair with Serbian mythology and twisting historical facts. Boris Johnson claimed that the May government was creating the worst crisis since the end of British Empire in the Middle East in 1956.  However, Johnson has fuelled the very myth that Britain is still an imperial power by pandering to myths of British exceptionalism with his bigoted comments about Africans and Asians. When Britain ruled the oceans, yes, it was an empire but as with Carthage, Venice and Athens once they lost this key pillar of power they were either destroyed or receded greatly on the geopolitical scene. China, the United States and Russia broke the back of British and French imperialism and colonialism during the Cold War, and in doing so assumed the mantle of superpower status. True, the U.S has damaged its reputation abroad with dirty wars in Central America and the Middle East, and a highly damaging Global War on Terror, and has launched neo-colonial wars in countries such as Iraq and Vietnam. However, while U.S power is receding in an increasingly multi-polar world, it remains a potent and powerful global actor and a military and economic powerhouse, even if its economic fruits are dramatically lopsided and it procrastinates heavily on the world’s major challenge today: climate change. 

The hard-line Brexiteers indulge the narrative of English exceptionalism and empire and as Owen Jones, a columnist for The Guardian, quotes this fanaticism is 'fuelled and legitimised by the political and media elite.’ An example of this came only days ago when Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain said, “Well, I don’t know. The thing about Nigel Farage is at at least he has always been consistent. For 25 years he has wanted us out of the European Union. Why don’t we put someone like him in charge of Brexit, who actually believes in the damn thing. It’s pathetic.” From the turmoil of Brexit to miscalculations in foreign policy such involvement in the Middle Eastern conflicts and the Balkan Wars, the costs of the economic and foreign failures of the 2000s are harming the country, not least because our main political leaders are lacking the ability (and guts) to come to terms with them. The combination of current political and media elites fanning the divisions between hardline leftists and the far-right over the Brexit debate, unhelpfully encouraged by President Donald Trump’s retweet of Britain First, and exploiting these cruel political divides for political gain are exacerbating the problems. At the same time, ‘there is all too little appreciation of where Britain could be heading’ as a result of this crisis.

 The United Kingdom will not become another Yugoslavia, catastrophising can create a problem from nothing, but the country needs to start paying attention to the threat of white supremacism and extremism from the far-right not least the violence it carries with it. Not only must we pay attention, we must treat them with what they deserve, the utmost seriousness not just mockery and understand their challenges with an empathetic eye and emotional intelligence. Racism, xenophobia and hatred will only hasten the decline of the United Kingdom and sleep-walking into the hands of extremists, militants and conspiracy theorists would be a disaster for our country. It starts by confronting the media elites and members of the political elite who currently, by ignorance or wilful deceit, empower the narratives of deluded exceptionalism, hatred and division. 

The political and media elites and moguls, are exacerbating divisions between ‘Leavers’, ‘Remainers’, two camps oversimplified in themselves. To ignore the ‘Leavers’ camp is to ignore the crux of the problem, as it is to smear all ‘Leavers’ as racists and bigots. ‘Remainers’ who do so ignore the economic, social and political currents which have affected those across the United Kingdom and indeed neglects the historical changes over the previous century which has seen Britain and its former colonies transition from empire in the 20th century to a medium status power in the 21st century. The impact on certain areas of the country, as a result of these historic changes, cannot be underestimated. The failure of the current political, economic and media elites is apparent, and this stems from centre politics, not the far-right or far-left. They are symptoms of the failure of so-called liberalism. At the other end of the political divide, ‘Leavers’ have - often wrongly - peddled narratives of British, indeed English, exceptionalism, something which has nurtured extreme forms of nationalism and allowed unacceptable forms of political expression - racism, xenophobia, anti-antisemitism and Islamophobia - to seep into the Brexit debate. The sagas surrounding Antisemitism in the Labour Party and Islamophobia in the Conservative Party are among the other blights on contemporary UK politics. Civility is receding from mainstream UK politics and the tumble is ugly. 

The left-wing is not impervious to extremism. Movements such Antifa (short for anti-fascist or Anti-Fascist action) and various anarchist organisations have filled the political void left by the centre. The death of Jo Cox, assassinated by a neo-Nazi during the Brexit referendum, and the terrorist attack on Finsbury Mosque by a far-right white supremacist were the starkest examples yet of rising violence from extremists within these groups. However, inexcusable also are the threats to Jacob Rees-Mogg and the vandalism of his home by left-wing activists calling him “posh-scum” as well as those who scuffled with him at Bristol University. As Vice News wrote in June, 2017, ‘online, hard leftists, eco-terrorists, and animal rights activists increasingly discuss politics in dire terms, and rationalise violence as a necessity.’ On social media, there are as many left-wing activists peddling conspiracy theories as right-wing activists who spout narratives of ‘globalists’ and ‘Islamists’ hijacking the halls of powers and subverting them to create an inverted totalitarian police state. The methods of the far-left, violent at times, can mirror the methods of the far-right. Right-wingers are fearful of what Nick Cohen for The Spectator describes as ‘an alliance between the white far left and the Islamist right…a dirty secret in plain sight. What applies to the far right applies to the far left.’ Then there is the Million Mask March which occurs every year and Anonymous. Flares, fireworks and slogans of Anarchy are regular features at protests, as Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta. 50 protesters were arrested in 2015 and three officers injured after clashes with the police, while other members of the network have launched cyberattacks and tackled and challenged, rightly or wrongly depending on political leanings, terrorists and right-wing movements across the world such as ISIS and the Ku Klux Klan. However, according to The Guardian, ‘a self-declared leader of the hacking collective Anonymous UK twice raped a woman at the Occupy London camp outside St Paul's cathedral in central in London’ in 2013. Fear-mongering is a regular feature, as is opposition to war, Donald Trump and conflict in the Middle East. 

There are multiple reasons, for example, to dislike Rees-Mogg. He is pro-abortion, anti-human rights, homophobic, pro-Trump, hostile to humanitarian aid, a staunch elitist and to quote The Guardian, he is ‘a successful player in the modern, borderless financial industries, and a nationalist politician with an instantly recognisable retro image.’ The far-left, particularly anti-fascist movements targeting the alt-right and neo-fascists, online and in the streets are failing to reform the political systems responsible for creating grievances, unanswered, in the right-wing represented by Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson, Theresa May and right-wing Conservatives. Rees-Mogg is a member of the same ‘global elite’ that so many are disenchanted with within the UK and beyond, left, right and centre in the political spectrum. The difference is, Rees-Mogg and his father revel in what Naomi Klein, author of Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. The Climate, describes as disaster capitalism which ‘operates by delivering massive shocks to the system and then using the ensuing period of anarchy, fear and confusion to reassemble the pieces of what it has broken into a new configuration.’ As Howard Hotson writes “This is what was done in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and it is ultimately what is at stake in Brexit. The right wing of the Tory party has succeeded in throwing the UK’s affairs into complete confusion.” Jacob Rees-Mogg is a slovenly opportunist like Donald Trump, not a nationalist, forcing a hard-Brexit too feed an ‘appetite for easy, short-term profits offered by purely speculative investment (which have turned the stock, currency and real estate markets into crisis-creation machines)’. The economic losers of Brexit, whether they chose to ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’ won’t matter so long as Rees-Mogg lines his pockets with money and rides the wave of populism and the anti-globalisation tide gripping the planet. As invading and breaking Iraq, (and disaster capitalism), filled the coffers of neo-conservatives such as Dick Cheney and Erik Prince, so too Brexit will enrich a narrow group of individuals with a mind for profit in chaotic times.  

It is easier to blame refugees and migrants, then a nebulous, and quite revolutionary, economic system which requires nourishment from military, ecological and financial disasters and setbacks across the world, a daunting task which needs global solutions, much like climate change or the ever enduring question of whether the ‘Global War on Drugs’ and ‘Global War on Terror’ are winnable (they’re not, they serve political and economic agendas which are ever changing). The division of Brexit has catalysed the rise of the far-right and the far-left, of which there are extremists on both sides of the spectrum, a product of the failure of neo-liberal and neo-conservative politics at the centre in the 2000s. The controversial involvement in war, direct or proxy, in conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, Yemen, the Palestinian Territories, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the so-called ‘War on Terror’ has deeply polarised the UK and other parts of the world. The sequence of the Great Recession, foreign policy failures in the Middle East and Brexit combined with the long-term decline of the British empire, something which started long before the First World War. Brexit is simply the sermon at a funeral, long after the coffin of the empire was nailed shut and buried by superpowers such as the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War (a conflict which, along with the First and Second World War, ended French and British colonialism). ‘Let’s Take Back Control’, ‘Brexit Means Brexit’, ‘For the Many, Not the Few’, ‘Exit Brexit’, ‘EU Turn’ and ‘Leave Means Leave’ are slogans, similar to ‘Make America Great Again’. They, like hashtags and clicktivism, are absent substance and cannot be substitutes for policymaking and while social media is a force for good, it is also a force for misinformation and oversimplification of historic events. 

The rise of authoritarianism, disaster capitalism and populism are symptoms of a defective political and economic machine prevalent since the 2000s. As Niko Price comments in Associated Press, across the West, “people outside the centres of power are rejecting political elites they feel take them for granted, and backing new movements that eschew the rules and that often play to their basest thoughts. To be clear, this isn’t a weakening of democracy. In a way, it’s the opposite…The emerging models, though, summon a more fundamental, sometimes brasher form of democracy in which votes and other political expressions have a more direct effect, or in which they empower an individual who can bypass those institutions.” The Arab Revolutions were also a rejection of decades of corruption and injustice, and the Middle East as a result has changed, a combination of old and new. Brexit has changed the UK for good, even if a second referendum were to occur and we rejoined the EU tomorrow. Speaking on a podcast with The Intercept, Nikhil Pal Singh said, quite poignantly: 

“What we live at the end of is undeniably a world in distress and to some extent in ruin. Trillions spent on a futile, forever-war since 2001. A national debt fuelled by tax cuts whose interest payments will soon exceed the already bloated military budget. An ecology whose fragility increases even as it these facts are denied. What we live at the end of is undeniably a world in distress and to some extent in ruin…There’s a tremendous amount of salvage work to be done, and I used the word salvage because I think that we have to recognise that we live in a ruined world. Nor do I believe that there is any techno-optimist quick fix, that something’s going to come along and magically save us. But we are at the end of an arc. We are at the end of an arc. It is easy to fall prey to pessimism and despair, but it is not where I want to leave you. We have a system that generates enormous wealth and technological advance without commensurate improvements in our ethical and spiritual faculties. We are ready to begin a new historical arc and the forces arrayed against us should not be overestimated. Bring on “the excess of democracy.” The future demands it.”

As with the United States, these times and Brexit will serve not only as a lesson in the ills of populism, corruption and greed but as a period when British politics reinvented itself for the better and evolved. The activities of the left and the right need to be kept in check, but not suppressed as there are important voices from both sides, radical, which need to be in injected into stagnant national politics.