I put my head over the parapet. It nearly got shot off. But at least it meant I saw them coming
I didn’t do enough.
I voted, I marched, I attended campaign meetings, I donated to pro-Remain and anti-fascist causes, I spent months researching the facts, and months more turning them into blog posts, some of which went something approaching viral. I called out thousands of lies on the internet.
I wrote to my MP. I exposed trolls. I spread awareness of the techniques being used; I was one of the first to spot the Russia connection, one of the first to draw attention to the plight of EU citizens, helped get the #RemainerNow phenomenon started, and helped close down hundreds of bogus, malicious and disinformative social media accounts.
But I didn’t do enough.
I do have a few excuses. My mum’s been recovering from cancer, my dad died, and for the last three years I’ve been in and out of hospitals and GPs’ surgeries trying to manage arthritis and a debilitating neuromuscular disease called myasthenia gravis, which makes it difficult for me to stand for more than half an hour at a time.
I still didn’t do enough.
I could have donated more. I could have written to MPs other than my own. While doorstepping and street canvassing would have been a stretch with my condition, I could have squeezed in the odd street stall (they make these things called chairs now, Andy). I could have given up my job and shouted “Stop Brexit!” all day outside the Houses of Parliament.
Before I go any further, a point of information. Those who know me will attest that I am as far from being a raging commie as Donald Trump is from a spelling bee champ. Sure, I’ve done a lot of work for the Guardian (a publication that strives for neutrality these days, by the way), and I did vote for Labour once, in 2015. But I am no fan of Jeremy Corbyn, I firmly believe Seumas Milne is as much of a threat to British values and society as Dominic Cummings, and I’m all too aware that the wackier fringes of the left can be as bad as the far right in terms of their commitment to ideology over pragmatism, their questionable allegiances, and their relationship with the truth. Hell, I was rooting for John Major in 1997.
But prior to 2016, I just wasn’t very politically minded. It didn’t seem to matter much who got in, because while they said their standpoints were miles apart, they all, in their own ways, wanted the best for the country.
That is no longer the case. Because in 2016, something fundamentally changed. But what? What am I so worried about?
I’m worried about the return of authoritarian rule. I’m worried about the deepening divisions in society. I’m worried about the wildfire spread of disinformation and the catastrophic collapse in public standards and public discourse. I’m worried about the growth in anti-intellectualism (“People have had enough of experts”) and the seismic shift in politics away from pragmatism towards naked ideology. I’m worried about the normalisation of racism and xenophobia. I’m worried about the kindergartenisation of the news and media bias and foreign influence and corporate influence and fake thinktanks and the proliferation of the language of war. And I’m worried that the firehose of falsehood has been deployed so effectively that it has reduced the average level of political engagement in this country to “I don’t know what to think any more; I’ll just vote the way I always have.”
Some will say, “Oh, come on, Andy! Stop exaggerating! It’s all in your head!” Yeah. I was a bit concerned that I was overreacting in the early days, too.
But 10 of my friends leaving the country in fear wasn’t in my head. The photo of the pub at the end of my street, sent to me in a Twitter direct message, wasn’t in my head. I certainly wasn’t imagining the Nazi thug snatching my placard from me and snapping it in two at the March For Europe in October. A man driving his van into a crowd of Muslims near Finsbury Park mosque was pretty fucking real, as was the man who kicked a woman in a burqa so hard in the stomach that her unborn baby died.
Those who bandy around words like “fascist” and “Nazi” willy-nilly are often accused of hysteria. And that’s fair, in a way, because what we are not seeing now is not an exact mirror of the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 30s. But the number of parallels should put the fear of God into you.
First, the techniques: propaganda. Control of the media. Evasion of scrutiny. Demonisation of minorities, particularly foreigners. Stochastic terror.
Third, the characteristics. The new ERG/UKIP incarnation of the Conservative party, like Mussolini’s Partito Nazionale Fascista and Hitler’s Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, is:
- authoritarian, intolerant of all forms of criticism, dissent and compromise.
- nationalistic, foaming with talk of former glories and empire and war.
- extremely rightwing, possibly the most rightwing government the UK has seen since parliament displaced the monarchy; believing in the smallest possible state and the bare minimum of regulation.
- rabidly ideological in nature. This time, it’s not Francis Galton whose doctrine they blindly follow (though many of its members have expressed similar beliefs, most notably Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s No 10 chief of staff); instead, their chosen gods are Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek — whose ideas led directly to the 2008 crash, 10 years of austerity, and unprecedented inequality in the UK.
- comprehensively corrupt, now backed almost exclusively by big business and Russian oligarchs. Most of the last cabinet served on the boards of or were consultants for private health companies, hedge funds and energy firms; and from Priti Patel’s illegal Israel mission to cash for honours to David Morris’s £10,000 donation from Aquind Ltd, their disregard for truth and the law is plain for all to see.
If that’s too much to retain, just hold on to this: people thought Hitler was a harmless clown at first too.
But despite my grave fears, I’m giving up. After four years of being a relatively small-potatoes social justice warrior, I’m handing in my badge and my mouse.
For four years, I’ve put my social life and my romantic life on hold, I’ve put my various writing projects on hold, and the constant stress of fielding abuse and fear for the future has held back any hope I had of recovery from the myasthenia.
What’s more, in the course of my slacktivism, I’ve been physically attacked for demonstrating peacefully. I’ve had death threats for pointing out that someone was not being entirely truthful. I’ve had my personal information posted publicly. I’ve been threatened with legal action for having the temerity to question someone’s accuracy because that someone happened to be a woman.
I’ve had one Twitter account (under my own name) suspended after being targeted by an organised smear campaign, and on Saturday night, a second one (@LennieMerrick1, the Anti-Brexit Alien) went the same way. (For self-avowed champions of free speech, these fascists seem awfully keen to silence alternative opinions.) And I am done.
The fact is, I don’t have many years left on this planet, so I’m unlikely see the worst of what’s to come, and I don’t have any kids whose futures I need to worry about either. And I’m sick and I’m tired and I’m done. From tomorrow, I’m going to concentrate on making my remaining time as comfortable as possible, travelling, catching up on old friends and old movies, and hoping the stormtroopers don’t bust down the door before I finally lose the ability to get a hard-on. I’d pretty much said everything I wanted to say anyway. Shame most of it was greeted with a wall of indifference.
According to reports from survivors of plane crashes, when trouble first strikes, some people scream, some call loved ones, some start frantically checking the safety card. But a sizeable group exhibit a counterintuitive behaviour: they sit there, blank-faced, doing nothing. They refuse to believe that an emergency is happening, or that if it is, someone else will come to the rescue.
This is a phenomenon called the normality bias. Basically, because we’re all accustomed to banal, emergency-free lives, most of us assume, when things get scary, that things will somehow work out OK without any action on our part.
With Brexit, the rise of the far right and the spread of targeted propaganda, many people are making the same mistake. They think they can sit tight, because even if the government can’t be relied on, one of the non-governmental institutions — Parliament, the House of Lords, the judiciary, the opposition, the media, the police, the intelligence agencies — will step in and save the day. The checks and balances that have kept us safe for centuries will do so again.
But this time, you can’t rely on anyone else to save the plane. The pilot’s dead, the copilot’s been poisoned, and half the passengers are insisting that it’s just turbulence even as the third engine bursts into flames.
Sure, the social networks have made a too-little-too-late gesture by cracking down on hate speech and disinformation on their platforms. But Johnson and Cummings have bypassed and outmanoeuvred Parliament. The House of Lords has been enfeebled. The judiciary has been systematically undermined by a smear campaign sustained over years. Ditto the opposition, who have in any case proven themselves spectacularly ineffectual. The media — first the tabloids, then the rightwing broadsheets and, since Cameron stacked the board with friendly Tories, the BBC — have been nobbled. The police, who have suppressed or abandoned most of their investigations into Brexit, also seem to have been compromised, or at least put under huge political pressure. And Lord knows what MI5 and MI6 have been up to — apart from dallying with Ivanka Trump.
Many people say that if you put your head over the parapet, it’ll get shot off. But equally, if you don’t put your head over the parapet, you’ll never see them coming. And speaking as someone who has spent four years on the front (?) lines, I can categorically assure you that things are far from normal and that nothing is going to be fine, because the cavalry are not coming.
It was down to us. And now it’s down to you.
The other main factor in people’s failure to respond to the ongoing emergency, of course, is that it’s not your job to sort this shit out. It’s unpaid. It’s stressful. It might even be dangerous. You just want to get on with your life as normal. And I totally get that. All I will say is this: if Boris Johnson gets his majority tomorrow, your life will not continue as normal.
I hope to God that, in 10 or 15 years’ time, when I am gone and you are reading whatever Boris Johnson deems to be the news; when the last vestiges of the NHS are being sold off and the BBC has been fully privatised; when the government has complete powers of censorship over the internet; when half of your brown and black friends have been attacked in the street and all your European friends have gone home; when the UK is bristling for war with its former allies — I hope that you’re not shifting uncomfortably in your seat and wondering: “Did I do enough?”
If you are feeling a sudden pang of guilt for burying your head in the sand, don’t fret. There’s still one all-important thing you can do. You can vote against Boris Johnson’s corrupt, deceitful, racist, hatemongering party tomorrow, and keep a slender finger on the values that once made the United Kingdom great.