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‘Would we let our coins be made in New York?” Jacob Rees-Mogg was asking himself this question as though it were a rhetorical one — as though the obvious answer were “no”.
The answer is plainly “yes”. The Royal Mint makes coins for many foreign countries. De La Rue, which manufactures in Mr Rees-Mogg’s Somerset constituency, makes notes for countries all around the world, and used to make notes for the eurozone. The last thing they or the Royal Mint want is for the Rees-Moggs of Botswana or Qatar to start asking the equivalent question.
Surprising, then, that Rees-Mogg took that stance? Surprising that this fairweather cheerleader for free trade would castigate the award of a contract to manufacture Britain’s new “blue” passports to by far the best bidder, a Franco-Dutch company, Gemalto? No. Utterly unsurprising. And the reason has nothing to do with economic theory or business practice.
I know the reason. Once a Tory MP myself, I know what kind of a Tory Mr Rees-Mogg is, and what kind of opinion in Britain and within his party it serves him to court. Priti Patel does too. She has piled in with some nonsense about “national security”. Even the once-fastidious veteran Eurosceptic, Sir William Cash, joined the bandwagon. These people know which side their electoral bread is buttered on. One popular newspaper, quick to take up Rees-Mogg’s cause, informed its readers (with photographs) that the stepfather of the half-brother of the father of one of the directors of Gemalto had links to Hitler.
Mr Rees-Mogg would never slur people like that. But he knows — oh boy, does he know — where his support is coming from.
Behind the populist politician lies the shadow. The shadow is that part of our country and, yes, that part of ourselves, that responds to this kind of jingoism. Look at those posters from the Vote Leave campaign, velvety smooth with news (technically true) that “Turkey is joining the EU”.
And behind them, the shadow: Leave.EU, with their cruel picture of a queue of non-white immigrants and the message “BREAKING POINT”. Don’t kid yourself there’s a “respectable” movement for Brexit, and a “disreputable” one. No, there is the politician spotlit in the foreground and, behind, the shadow. And it’s all about the shadow.
Look at Boris Johnson, our foreign secretary, strutting around with his rhetoric about “global Britain”, then cutting the funding of our embassies across Africa and Asia. The shadow enjoys Mr Johnson’s burbling about global Britain, but the shadow is not interested in ambassadors and attach├ęs and the boring business of diplomacy.
So I could waste your time discussing the logic, or its lack, behind the stance of those Brexiteers now caterwauling about De La Rue’s having been outbid; or I could waste your time reminding you that a protectionist president, Donald Trump, has found favour principally among Brexiteers who call themselves free-market. But why bother? Because once you understand the shadow, there’s no need to scrutinise the chap at the podium. As Enoch Powell once disgracefully put it in front of an audience of cheering Tory rightwingers when I asked him if he ever felt embarrassed by the racism of some of his supporters: “In politics you take support from wherever it comes.”
I thought of Mr Powell’s chilling reply at an event in London this week. The word “idiot” tends to create a little shockwave at a public meeting. And so it did as I answered questions in a discussion at the Rose and Crown pub in Southwark. The liberal Conservative research institute, Bright Blue, had organised a debate on “Brexit and the Arts” and I was on the panel alongside representatives of a group who call themselves “Artists for Brexit”. The Leave storm-troops had turned up, the room was packed, and it made for a lively debate.
Philistinism, I argued, is an enemy of art. There’s a reason why that bus Boris Johnson so admires promised £350 million a week for the NHS rather than for, say, the Royal Opera House, or our arts councils, or universities. The shadow is not interested in arts councils and universities. It never was, but the shadow believes it is gaining the upper hand in our politics.
So I called the Artists for Brexit “useful idiots”. The expression was supposedly coined by Lenin to describe (particularly) liberals who helped the revolution without being themselves communists, or even properly aware of the ultimate communist goals. But the term as I used it has wider application than just to a group of nice and sincere artists with some idealistic thoughts about sovereignty but no idea of how little time the populist attitudes they root for will have for them and their values.
Something of an “I know what I like and no stuck-up expert is going to tell me otherwise” spirit is abroad in our country today, something brutish, something authoritarian, something mean. This is the shadow. It is not a set of policies, though it waves policies about. It is a set of attitudes.
Attitudes are key. We too often make the mistake of analysing politics in terms of policies, when we should look first at attitudes: to life, to liberty, to mankind, to country, to other countries, to knowledge itself. Noticing these is desperately important for an understanding of why those who seek our votes strike the poses they do.
In domestic affairs the shadow is showing itself as nativism: a nativism of which the Rees-Moggs of our politics are lip-smackingly aware. In foreign affairs it shows itself as jingoism: a jingoism in which it is all right for a defence secretary to tell Russia to go away and shut up. In economics it shows itself as an ideologically incoherent mish-mash of hatred for bankers, distrust of profit and irritable dislike of regulation. I expect this populist ascendancy to have consequences as it advances, right across our national life.
The shadow has its servants in the Conservative Party, and I know them well of old. Some of them — Mr Rees-Mogg, Mr Johnson, for instance — know very well what they are doing. Others (I could name some younger, newer MPs still idealistic about economic liberalism and “global Britain”) are useful idiots: blissfully unaware of how the mood of the Brexit project is set to change from one of outreach to the world to one of angry defensiveness when dreams don’t come true.
After the dream, the shadow. A Britain is coming when Artists for Brexit, Free-Traders for Brexit, Environmentalists for Brexit, Globalists for Brexit will be shoved aside like nuisances. They will have served their purpose. Useful idiots.