Brendan O’Neill

Brexit voters do feel betrayed. So why can’t Boris say so?

Brexit voters do feel betrayed. So why can't Boris say so?
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Rarely has there been such a flagrant display of hypocrisy and cant as there was in the House of Commons last night. Opposition MPs stood up one after the other to denounce Boris Johnson for his use of apparently toxic and dangerous words like ‘surrender’ and ‘sabotage’. Such language is polluting the public sphere and making life hell for politicians, they claimed.

Their ostentatious offence-taking would be a tad more convincing if they had ever said anything about the bile heaped on Brexit voters these past three years.

Where were these people when it became positively vogue to refer to lower middle-class Brexit blokes as ‘gammon’? Where were they when Brexit voters were being branded xenophobes, fascists, the facilitators of the most hateful period in Western Europe since the 1930s?

Where were they when Lord Adonis compared seeking a clean Brexit to appeasing the Nazis, or when David Lammy said the ERG are as bad as Nazis? When asked to retract that comment, Lammy said that, if anything, his comment had not been ‘strong enough’. So the ERG are worse than Nazis? That was the mad implication. Boris has never, not once, said anything as toxic as that about his fellow human beings.

Yes, that’s where these overnight smelling-salts offence-takers over Boris’s bad language were when incredibly toxic comments were being made about anyone who thinks we should leave the EU — they were making some of the comments.

If you think Boris Johnson’s perfectly reasonable use of the phrase ‘surrender bill’ to describe the Benn Bill was an act of far-right provocation that will lead to violence and death, then you must have been really shocked when Brexiteers were being branded useless lumps of meat (gammon). And when the Guardian recently asked, in its review of Ian McEwan’s novel The Cockroach, if Brexit was dreamt up by ‘a cabal of nefarious, lie-spewing insects’.

You weren’t shocked by any of that? Oh well, I guess hypocrisy is thy name.

Perhaps the worst aspect of the cynical, concocted fury over the PM’s words was the deployment of the horrific murder of Jo Cox as part of the argument. I’ve seen some cynical things in politics in my time, but this felt like a new low. It was an attempt to brand Boris a fellow traveller of the deranged far-right lunatic who murdered Cox. That accusation in itself is more toxic than anything Boris said.

This is an explicit effort to criminalise political opinion. To paint those who think that sections of the establishment are sabotaging Brexit as far-right ideologues. To depict anyone who says we should not surrender to the EU as the unwitting stirrer of fascistic violence on the streets.

There is a low, borderline Stalinist aim in all this: to push certain ideas and beliefs beyond the pale; to brand one’s opponents not simply wrongheaded or ill-informed, but positively evil and dangerous. The suggestion that uttering the words ‘surrender’ or ‘betrayal’ or ‘sabotage’ will unleash violence of the kind that was visited so horrifically upon Jo Cox is a straight-up attempt to stifle opinion and criminalise certain beliefs.

I knew parliament was out of touch; I didn’t know it was this out of touch. Across the country there are people who feel betrayed by MPs who promised to enact the referendum result but are now refusing to do so. Imagine their fury, or their simple bewilderment, when they now hear those same MPs saying it is fascistic to accuse them of betrayal. They must hold this parliament in contempt. I know I increasingly do. I just hope ‘contempt’ hasn’t been added to their list of words that only fascists utter.