As Britain debates its future relationship with Europe, history seems to be replaying itself, in a troubling way. Read the history of Europe in the 1930s and there is a deep sense that there is an inexorable process. It is like watching a play when you know there is a tragic ending coming, but there is nothing that can be done to change things because that is what the script dictates. There is a desire to call back over the decades, “No! Stop! Don’t go that way!”
Politics was about appearance, not substance. George Orwell’s 1935 novel A Clergyman’s Daughter captures the essence of a philosophy-free politics, as his character encounters a by-election campaign.
. . . between the lanes of people, the Blifil- Gordon car was moving at a foot-pace, with Mr Blifil-Gordon smiling richly, first to one side, then to the other. In front of the car marched a detachment of the Buffaloes, headed by an earnest-looking little man playing the trombone, and carrying among them another banner inscribed:
Who’ll save Britain from the Reds?
Who’ll put the Beer back into your Pot?
Blifil-Gordon for ever!
. . . The Blifil-Gordon car, having rounded the pump, was now wending its way back, still accompanied by its troupe of middle-aged Bacchantes. Mr Warburton, his attention caught, paused to scrutinize it.
‘What is the meaning of these disgusting antics?’ he asked.
‘Oh, they’re–what is it they call it?–electioneering. Trying to get us to vote for them, I suppose.’
‘Trying to get us to vote for them! Good God!’ murmured Mr Warburton, as he eyed the triumphal cortege. He raised the large, silver-headed cane that he always carried, and pointed, rather expressively, first at one figure in the procession and then at another. ‘Look at it! Just look at it! Look at those fawning hags, and that half-witted oaf grinning at us like a monkey that sees a bag of nuts. Did you ever see such a disgusting spectacle?’
Mr Warburton, with his silver-headed cane, was a man of independent means, able to pass through the turbulent times almost unaffected by what is happening around him; few people have such a luxury. Even Orwell, writing in 1935 and aware that the times were unsettled, could not have imagined the cataclysmic events that would end the decade.
The campaign for Britain to leave the European Union has all the substance of a Blifil-Gordon election campaign. Having lost the economic argument, it resorts to slogans against an enemy it has constructed. The “Reds” of the 1930s posed no more threat to the well-being of the country than the “immigrants” of the Twenty-First Century, but that does not mean they could not be demonised so as to rally support.
The process seems inexorable, the triumph of bluster. Only the Mr Warburtons of our time can remain aloof.