The New Au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism

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Pre­vi­ous Risk Watch ar­ti­cles, e.g.

(21-27 Sep 2016), have high­lighted the grow­ing threats to the fun­da­men­tal demo­cratic right to life, lib­erty and the pur­suit of hap­pi­ness. This ar­ti­cle con­sid­ers fur­ther the cur­rent phe­nom­e­non of the New Au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism that is sweep­ing the West­ern world and whether it rep­re­sents ‘real’ democ­racy or an un­ac­cept­able hege­mony.

I was and re­main a Eu­roskep­tic who none­the­less felt that, on bal­ance and ‘big pic­ture’, the UK would be bet­ter off re­main­ing in the EU. How­ever, hav­ing ac­knowl­edged the pro-Brexit ref­er­en­dum win on June 23, we now have to make the Brexit process and its out­come the best we can. I do not be­lieve in hark­ing back to what might have been, nor to ad­vo­cat­ing a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum, nor to any kind of back­slid­ing le­gal or po­lit­i­cal at­tempts to wrig­gle out of the clear re­sult of the June ref­er­en­dum. While, for ex­am­ple, over the next few years there are some likely neg­a­tive con­se­quences of the Brexit de­ci­sion emerg­ing for the UK econ­omy and other things, we have to do our best to min­imise them and man­age them. There is no point in cry­ing over spilt milk. The clock can­not be turned back. De­spite my clearly stated po­si­tion, some of the nas­tier and more child­ish pro-Brexit and proTrump zealots of my ac­quain­tance just can­not ac­cept it. If I am not 100% with them then I must surely be 100% against them, so like lit­tle play­ground bul­lies they chant ‘com­mie’, ‘cry baby’, ‘get over it’ as if some­how I am re­fus­ing to ac­cept the poll re­sults. Ut­terly pa­thetic!

Nev­er­the­less, post-ref­er­en­dum it is right and proper that both the sub­stance and pro­ce­dures of the Brexit process, which could well take sev­eral more years to com­plete, should be sub­ject to anal­y­sis, dis­cus­sion, de­bate, and, where nec­es­sary, chal­lenge, whether among the public, in the me­dia, among politi­cians, or in Par­lia­ment. That is surely demo­cratic ac­count­abil­ity at work. More­over, in a par­lia­men­tary democ­racy it is right and proper that de­ter­mi­na­tion of mat­ters of law and constitution on the Brexit process should be made not by the ex­ec­u­tive (i.e. govern­ment) but by the ju­di­ciary. The re­turn of independent de­ci­sion-mak­ing pow­ers to Bri­tish judges, which it was claimed had been pur­loined by the Euro­pean Court, was af­ter all a key plank of the pro-Brexit ref­er­en­dum cam­paign. The Brex­i­teers can­not cherry-pick when they ac­cept Bri­tish ju­di­cial de­ci­sions and when they do not.

But no. I have been told time and again by nu­mer­ous fix­ated Brex­i­teers that, once the Brexit ref­er­en­dum re­sult came in, that was the demo­cratic re­sult and no fur­ther dis­cus­sion, de­bate, anal­y­sis or chal­lenge could ever take place, in­clud­ing pol­icy and strat­egy op­tions, im­ple­men­ta­tion op­tions, cop­ing with risks and contin­gen­cies and the thou­sand-and-one prac­ti­cal­i­ties of get­ting to the fi­nal exit date and on­wards. The ev­i­dent grow­ing mud­dle and hia­tus of the Bri­tish govern­ment on its Brexit strat­egy and the po­ten­tial for a real cri­sis point up the need for demo­cratic scru­tiny. How­ever, in the Brex­i­teers’ minds as ex­pressed to me, the demo­cratic process on Brexit re­lated solely to achiev­ing the ref­er­en­dum re­sult and ab­so­lutely no fur­ther. They seem ter­ri­fied of ac­count­abil­ity. I am sure read­ers will be as amazed as me at the ab­sur­dity of such a po­si­tion, for it is tan­ta­mount to declar­ing an elected dic­ta­tor­ship: they will ac­cept democ­racy so long as it suits them to get into power or the pol­icy de­ci­sion they want, and then they sus­pend, can­cel or ma­nip­u­late democ­racy so that their wishes will pre­vail ad in­fini­tum. Hitler gained ab­so­lute power via the demo­cratic bal­lot box be­fore im­me­di­ately sus­pend­ing democ­racy in favour of his to­tal­i­tar­ian Nazi regime. Er­do­gan in Turkey and Putin in Rus­sia are also head­ing down the elected dic­ta­tor­ship road, along with other lesser regimes.

We have seen a broadly sim­i­lar au­thor­i­tar­ian tableau to pro-Brexit played out by the Trump cam­paign in the re­cent US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. The com­mon theme of Brexit and Trump sup­port­ers is that ‘the Es­tab­lish­ment’, i.e. govern­ment and the tra­di­tional po­lit­i­cal par­ties, are not lis­ten­ing to them about their con­cerns on such things as im­mi­gra­tion, na­tional con­trol, job losses from cheap im­ports or jobs mov­ing abroad. Some of these com­plaints may well be valid up to a point. How­ever, as the re­spected colum­nist and for­mer MP Matthew Par­ris wrote re­cently, many of their com­plaints do not bear much scru­tiny in fac­tual terms. It could be ar­gued that many com­plain­ers fall into the ‘snowflake’ cat­e­gory who have an ex­ag­ger­ated sense of their own self-worth and en­ti­tle­ment and de­mand pro­tec­tion from imag­ined or in­flated in­dig­ni­ties. False be­liefs and ex­ag­ger­ated fears among an elec­torate about im­mi­grants, for ex­am­ple, are easy for skilled dem­a­gogues to whip up into na­tion­al­is­tic frenzy whereby vot­ers be­come con­vinced that their only sal­va­tion is to vote for the au­thor­i­tar­ian can­di­date who will ‘pro­tect’ them. How­ever, what­ever the mer­its of their grievances, they have ab­so­lutely no right to de­mand patho­log­i­cal so­lu­tions and po­lit­i­cal lead­ers have ab­so­lutely no right to of­fer them much less de­liver them.

It is of­ten said that truth is the first ca­su­alty of war. It could equally ap­ply to pol­i­tics. It is gen­er­ally ac­cepted that politi­cians and their acolytes are likely to cherry pick ‘the truth’ and mas­sage it and fi­nesse it to their best ad­van­tage. Pre­sent­ing their best case is, per­haps, the ac­cept­able face of politi­cians. We tol­er­ate it. How­ever, what has been emerg­ing in re­cent years and very much so in the US Pres­i­den­tial Elec­tion cam­paign is the ‘post-truth’ phe­nom­e­non, an al­to­gether dif­fer­ent propo­si­tion. Post-truth refers to the de­lib­er­ate fab­ri­ca­tion and dis­sem­i­na­tion of plau­si­ble but false news sto­ries in or­der to as­sist in a black pro­pa­ganda cam­paign against a po­lit­i­cal tar­get.

The Rus­sians have been run­ning a so­phis­ti­cated post­truth op­er­a­tion against the West for some years. Now, the Trump cam­paign and its ul­tra-right wing sup­port­ers such as Bre­it­bart News have adopted it. One of the ben­e­fits for post­truth ped­dlers is that not only are many re­cip­i­ents likely to be­lieve the lies, but also the tar­gets would have to en­gage in time-con­sum­ing, costly and pos­si­bly in­ef­fec­tive ef­forts to re­pu­di­ate the lies. Of course, if elec­toral can­di­dates rely on post-truth tac­tics, it calls into ques­tion the true strength of their man­i­festo and trust­wor­thi­ness.

So far in this ar­ti­cle, I have re­ferred to the New Au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism that is sweep­ing the West­ern world, whether Trump in the US, UKIP and Bri­tain First in the UK, Le Pen in France, Wilders in Hol­land, Hofer and FPOe in Aus­tria, Or­ban and Fidesz in Hun­gary, the Ital­ian North­ern League or Golden Dawn in Greece. For New Au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism I could eas­ily have sub­sti­tuted neo-fas­cism. Traditionally, the fas­cism la­bel has been ap­plied al­most ex­clu­sively to rightwing au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism, such as the ex­am­ples cited above, but it could ap­ply equally to left-wing ex­trem­ism. For ex­am­ple, the bul­ly­ing and anti-semitism by the au­thor­i­tar­i­ans now con­trol­ling the Mo­men­tum fac­tion within the Bri­tish Labour Party has all the hall­marks of fas­cism. Be­ware the Loony Left as much as the Loony Right.

I have had the priv­i­lege of writ­ing up the wartime me­moirs of a good friend Al­bert ‘Danny’ Hunter, now sadly dead, who was an early mem­ber of the Spe­cial Boat Squadron in the Eastern Mediter­ranean, Italy and the Balkans 19421945. His rel­e­vance to this ar­ti­cle lies in three key things. First, the SBS teams were all ut­terly ded­i­cated to the de­feat of fas­cism. Sec­ond, the SBS pa­trol groups were an eclec­tic mix of na­tion­al­i­ties united by a com­mon pur­pose. In ad­di­tion to Brit mem­bers, there was the Dan­ish An­ders Lassens, Mario an ex-Ital­ian PoW, Karl an Aus­trian Jew whose fam­ily had been killed by the Nazis, an American medic and so on. Third, ut­most brav­ery and self-sac­ri­fice: whether Capt Lassens, who won a posthu­mous VC at Lake Com­mac­chio, Lt Bob Berry killed in ac­tion on Pis­copi or the many oth­ers. Re­gret­tably, the fas­cists they fought against more than 70 years ago have re-emerged as the New Au­thor­i­tar­ian in­sur­gents, just as ugly, dis­hon­ourable and poi­sonous but des­per­ate to ac­quire a cloak of re­spectabilty and nor­mal­ity. He­roes they are not!

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