The Myth of “Weimar Britain”: Why Soubryism, not Fascism, is the Future
11 April 2019
Amid talk of a “Brexit betrayal”, Revokers are again whipping up fears of “far-right” reaction. But it is their own authoritarianism, not fascism, that is the greater threat in Britain today.
As Brexit staggers from extension to extension, pro-EU liberals and Revokers across the media, academy and political sphere are laying the ground for their ultimate victory by pre-emptively launching a campaign to quash talk of “Brexit Betrayal”. Betraying their own bad faith in having undermined national democracy, they see in this supposedly growing narrative of “betrayal” the presence of dark and demagogic forces that hark back to Weimar and Versailles. Janan Ganesh of the Financial Times argued that Leavers are not prepared “for life as defenders of a flawed but liveable reality”.
Yet both Leave and Remain voters are entitled to feel aggrieved at the outcome of Brexit and the failure of their political representatives to enact popular will as instantiated now in not one but two national votes – not only the 2016 referendum but also the 2017 general election, in which 85 percent of representatives returned to parliament stood on a platform of enacting the outcome of the earlier referendum. Despite legitimate grounds for democratic frustration, all the media elite and intelligentsia hear are the echoes of Weimar Germany, and the myth of the “stab-in-the-back” that laid the ground for Nazi rule – the claim that Germany’s humiliation under the Treaty of Versailles was the result of the work of traitors at home rather than a genuine external defeat.
Strictly speaking it would be inaccurate to blame the Revoke and Remain middle classes for “Brexit Betrayal”. To betray something, you have to at least pretend to respect it, and they have made barely even a pretence of abiding by the result of the referendum. It always was inconceivable to them that they may have to abide by the verdict of a majority in a collective decision-making process. They have earned their claim not to have betrayed Brexit through the furious campaign with which they have openly sought to denounce democracy and self-government by calling into question the capacities of ordinary voters. In any case, who needs traitors when the Leave campaign itself was led by the likes of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg? Betraying a nation requires grand confidence and a sense of historic mission – all of which is in short supply across the Tory Party. Nonetheless, Conservative Brexiteers will feel more comfortable with the narrative of betrayal and national humiliation – it will always be easier than actually delivering the democratic and economic transformation the country needs.
Fears of Brexit Betrayal are more akin to a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which the sentiment of “betrayal” confirms what Revokers always thought to begin with: that the bulk of the citizenry are xenophobes, nationalists and racists lusting for authoritarian rule and always hunting for scapegoats.
Yet comparisons to Weimar Germany are tenuous at best. Brexit is not the product of a shattering military defeat, nor the outcome of an exhausting, bloody world war, which was in itself an attempt to deflect domestic class conflict. The EU was built on the defeat of the organised labour movement rather than being an attempt to contain it. Despite the frequency of wars that Britain and other leading EU states have fought over the last thirty years, their global imperial role is inexorably declining and their societies are passively militarised at best: as there is no conscription, there are no socially significant groups of returning, radicalised veterans to form paramilitary political parties or aggrieved voting blocs.
In reality, the most striking similarities between Brexit Britain and Weimar Germany are the ones that are most overlooked. One of the core components of inter-war fascism in Italy and Germany was the turn of the middle classes against democracy – and this has been far more evident in Brexit Britain than has resurgent racial nationalism. While the polls show that Britain is more pro-immigrant than ever in the aftermath of Brexit, and consistently more liberal than most other EU states, the middle classes have been hankering for plebiscitary rule, with their shrill demands for a second referendum and their millions-strong petition demanding that parliament simply revoke Article 50. All the while, leading Revokers have sought to promote their deranged conspiracy theories that Britain has been subverted by sinister foreigners manipulating social media.
Yet, despite the fact that Britain’s middle classes and elites share with their Weimar-era forebears the unhinged fear of foreign subversion as well as disgust and frustration with democratic mass politics, they are hankering for a return to technocratic liberalism legitimated by plebiscite, rather than authoritarian nationalism led by a plebiscitary charismatic authoritarian. Ultimately, fascism will not emerge in either Brexit Britain or Remainiac Britain because the social and collective solidarities of class, nation and party politics that are necessary for it to function simply do not exist: they have been vapourised by decades of neoliberalism, and atomised consumer identities are all that remain in their place.
That British society in 2019 is simply not configured for fascism does not dispel the spectre of fascism however, which is always said to be lurking in the ether of social media and in “discourse”. Although the spectre never materialises, it is repeatedly invoked – as it has to be, in order to legitimate actual contemporary authoritarianism. Although we shall fortunately not endure fascism, the cost of failing to deliver Brexit will inevitably be greater authoritarianism: a victory for the middle classes in the form of a customs union, half-way house, even an outright return to the EU, will only ever be a fragile success. Political and social elites will be sorely conscious of being perched atop an embittered and disenfranchised population, and only coercion will be left to them, given that they will no longer have recourse to democracy as a way of resolving collective decisions at the national level. After all, who is to say that another vote might not simply be annulled, after the 2016 vote has been so thoroughly delegitimised?
The likely form that post-Brexit authoritarianism will take will be Soubryism rather than fascism – which is to say, we will see the radicalisation and extension of existing practices of authoritarianism in contemporary Britain. It was Anna Soubry MP who was so outraged by voters daring to disagree with her to her face in front of parliament, that she responded by having members of the public arrested for calling her a “Nazi”. This will set the model: talk of “betrayal”, radical and forceful language, public expressions of frustration and disgust will all be quashed as proto-fascist. After having delegitimised democracy for nearly three years, Revokers are now shamelessly claiming to be troubled by a Hansard Society report showing popular preference for a strong leader who could outflank parliament. The Tory government, which has persistently extended Internet surveillance and policing, now has the legislative instruments at its disposal to police even expressions of anger, let alone public unrest. Very little is needed to trigger this reaction, as was evident in the response to the mosque massacre in New Zealand, which saw police chiefs and Guardian columnists alike rush to claim that the British public sphere was rife with fascist discourse that required curbing. Parliamentarians, already consumed with self-pity and exhaustion after being forced to run the country for a full two and a half years without explicit instructions from Brussels, will grow more fearful and pathetic in their horror of the public and will become more Soubryite in their efforts to insulate themselves from popular anger and public discontent. The authoritarian instincts of our political elite, who have spent decades policing consumer behaviour, chiselling away at civil liberty and eroding media and Internet freedom, will increase in inverse proportion to the draining away of their democratic legitimacy.
 Janan Ganesh, “Leavers are preparing their Brexit Betrayal narrative”, Financial Times, 14 May 2018.
 Peter Walker, “UK poised to embrace authoritarianism, warns Hansard Society”, The Guardian, 8 April 2019.
About the Author
Philip Cunliffe is Senior Lecturer in International Conflict at the University of Kent.
This work represents the views of the author only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.