Britain is in a revolutionary crisis. Its economy, constitution, place in the international order and sense of who it is and what it can become will be battlefields at the next election. The high stakes alone will ensure that a red mist descends. To heighten the rage, the wilful failure of the Conservative government to prevent the corruptions of the electoral process brought by the age of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin will sharpen every grievance.
Put yourself in the place of Britain’s competing factions and you get a fair idea of how angry and desperate all sides will become. The leaders of the Brexit movement must know they are on borrowed time. They may condemn liberals who have the bad taste to point out that Leave voters are dying and Remain-supporting teenagers are joining the electoral roll as each year passes. But the intelligent among them understand that demography is destiny and they have to get out of the EU while they can.
In any case, “Brexit” has never “meant Brexit” since 2016. In the words of one Telegraph columnist, it is a reaction against everything conservatives loathe: forcing “progressive liberalism down people’s throats”, “making patriotism a dirty word”, “branding decent folk racist” and, well, I’m sure you know the rest of the dirge. To see Boris Johnson out of office and Brexit lost would feel like a kind of death. The last, best chance of conservative England to reject the modern world would be gone.
Remainer opinion has also radicalised at revolutionary speed. The far-left leadership of the Labour party, who of all people ought to understand revolutions, look like old and tired men. They have refused to move with or even understand the runaway anger that the reaction against Brexit has generated. Remainers, too, feel that everything they love about their country is threatened by disgraceful people. They too know defeat will bring desolation.
Brexit may feel endless. But the incendiary tensions in Britain don’t end with Brexit. Labour’s quasi-socialist programme has inspired so much fear among the wealthy that the Tories will be the beneficiaries of what one sympathiser described to me as “a wall of money” for their election campaign. Many British Jews believe a Labour victory would produce the most antisemitic government western Europe has seen since 1945. Large numbers are talking of leaving the country. In turn, Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters must suspect that the next election is the radical left’s last chance. If they lose, it will be the end of them and traditional Labour values and politicians will reassert themselves.
In Scotland, separatists see the election as a step towards a second independence referendum. In Northern Ireland, Johnson first awoke the danger of republican violence by threatening to put a border on the island of Ireland, and then the danger of Protestant violence by putting a border in the Irish Sea. An abysmal achievement even by his low standards.
A poll finding last week that a majority of the population thought a level of violence against MPs was a “price worth paying” may have been flawed. Nevertheless, it captures a truth about a country moving from culture war towards something grimmer. The next election will be a mire. All sides will feel the urge to win at any costs. All sides will condemn the crimes of their enemies while refusing to acknowledge the crimes of their friends. Indeed, they already do.
The British state is wholly unprepared for what is to come – probably intentionally. The left outmanoeuvred the right online in 2017. But Conservatives now have the money and the expertise to benefit most from the new opportunities for targeted propaganda. It is a matter of record that ministers ignored the Commons committee investigating foreign and domestic interference in elections when it demanded emergency legislation to protect British democracy. It failed to adequately fund the Electoral Commission or give it the powers it says it needs. Full Fact, a charity that defends the integrity of public life, wrote to every MP and peer last month warning that “any election held today would be open to abuse”. Needless to say, Johnson wants to push ahead, without installing safeguards.
Peter Pomerantsev, an authority on populism and propaganda, talks of Britain as if it were turning into a failing African state but without the sunshine. Nothing has changed since 2016. No controls on bots or on outside interest groups running campaigns. And, crucially, no transparency. In the new world, where online propaganda can be computer-generated and individually tailored, outsiders will not even be able to track and rebut distortions.
Last month, I interviewed members of the committee on standards in public life, who believe political intimidation is now “a threat to the very nature of representative democracy”. They too wanted controls of online content, in particular on incitements to violence. They too got nowhere. Since parliament passed the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act in 1883, Britain has had a decent record of protecting the legitimacy of elections. And of ensuring that voters could see that the electoral process was honest. The Conservatives have abandoned that honourable history. In effect, they have decided to pass significant control of the democratic process to Google, Facebook and YouTube and other social media corporations. The electoral landscape the Tories want is a playground for Dominic Cummings and his kind and that is not a landscape anyone should want to live in.
The threats of violence against candidates and the unregulated explosion in misinformation are bad enough. But the greatest casualty of the failure of this generation of politicians to meet the requirements of a new age will be trust. Whatever the result of the next election is, it will not believed by significant minorities. Whoever loses will find enough evidence of fraud to feed their rage. If you think the next election will be hellish, just wait for the one after that.