Set against the “Prague Spring” reforms of 1968 and the subsequent Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being asks the question that is the dilemma for many who are caught in inexorable processes of history, “is it better to shout and thereby hasten the end, or to keep silent and gain thereby a slower death?” Do you go down quickly, screaming in protest as you go? Or do you remain passive through a slow, irreversible decline.
Earlier this year, the German journalist and commentator Wolfgang Münchau, wrote in the Financial Times warning that populism will deliver countries into the hands of the radical Left. Münchau said that the rise of the populist Right-wing is self-limiting, suggesting that Right-wing agendas are filled with things working people are against, particularly immigration, but once that agenda has run its course, probably a fruitless one – just who is going to do all those jobs? – then there is nothing left to attract voters from the lower socio-economic groups. Populism, argues Münchau, will deliver countries into the hands of the radical Left because they are the ones with programmes to address poverty and alienation.
Last week’s Peterborough by-election demonstrated the capacity of the Left to triumph. It should have been an easy win for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. The outgoing Labour MP had been convicted for perverting the course of justice. The Labour majority at the general election had been a mere 600 votes. Peterborough is prime territory for Brexit campaigners.
It all went horribly wrong for Farage and his party, he himself could not face the television cameras afterwards. The Labour vote was down sharply, but the Labour majority actually increased because the Brexit candidate split the anti-Labour vote. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn hailed the victory as an endorsement of his programme, saying “This result shows that in spite of the divisions and deadlock over Brexit, when it comes to a vote on the issues that directly affect people’s lives, Labour’s case for real change has strong support across the country”.
Nigel Farage faces the Kundera dilemma. He can continue as he is, shouting loudly and hastening the election of a Corbyn-led government. It is clear from Peterborough that the Brexit Party has not sufficient support to win seats itself, but can muster enough votes to mortally damage the Conservatives. Or he can conclude, from the by-election count that he so hastily departed, that keeping quiet may bring a slower death of his aspirations. Either way, it is hard to see that Wolfgang Münchau’s warning will not be proven true and that Brexit will bring the very things that the Right-wing most dreaded.