By David Osland
All Boris Johnson had to do was pen a hack biography of Winston Churchill a few years back, and the clutch of ecstatic reviews from rightwing commentators was instantaneous. Some even drew the John the Baptist parallels the author obviously intended them to draw.
At other times, our prime minister presents as Benjamin Disraeli back from the Victorian dead, explicitly hijacking the rhetoric of one nation Conservatism on the steps of 10 Downing Street after his last election triumph.
That’s when he’s not a reborn Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his own head, comically branding a run of the mill economic stimulus package as somehow a ‘New Deal’. Never envisaged as more than a spectacularly naff soundbite, the initiative evaporated within 24 hours without Britain finding out where he was planning to build the Hoover Dam.
But it’s a big jump from the man’s own self-aggrandising hogwash to depicting him as an incipient Mussolini. And that, at least for some, was the takeaway from John McDonnell’s interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica last week.
The headline accuses McDonnell of describing Johnson as a proto-fascist. The former shadow chancellor didn’t say that. Or at least, not quite.
In the clear context of a discussion of the current worldwide wave of rightist populism, the suggestion was rather that Britain’s current government displays what he was careful to call ‘elements of proto-fascism.’ That’s a loose formulation, but more than spurious invective.
Worldwide right populism is a broad phenomenon, clearly embodying proto-fascist aspects within itself. Sometimes the fascism is none too proto, come to that. You only need to check out the clips of sieg-heiling Trump supporters to realise that forces more malign than mere conservatism are being emboldened.
In Britain, the contention that rightwing Tory governments constitute some form of creeping fascism is hardly novel. Discussion of Thatcherism in such terms was commonplace when I first got involved in politics in the early 1980s. One shattered trade union movement later, it turned out to be a false alarm.
A certain ugly English nationalism and flat-out racism have always been a characteristic constituent of the Tory mix, but never has that strand been in dominance. Outside of such rare historical conjunctures as the late 1930s, the early 1970s, and today, it has rarely wielded meaningful influence.
In Johnson’s case, evidence evinced by McDonnell includes the prorogation of parliament and the proudly-proclaimed happiness to break international law. Moves of that ilk overstep the rulebook of liberal democracy, underlining Tom Paine’s observation that Britain’s unwritten constitution isn’t worth the paper it isn’t written on.
If a Labour administration were to emulate such infractions, they would certainly be deemed dictatorial. They might even serve as pretext for the invocation of the crown’s reserve power to dismiss an elected government.
It’s not that Mr Johnson and many of his accomplices want for detestable gut instincts. But it is important not to overestimate the degree of ideological coherence on show.
Johnson lacks overwhelming compulsion to drive through an evil masterplan, precisely on account of the absence of an evil masterplan. What is worrying is not so much the drift towards authoritarianism as the drift towards drifting, conjoined with a pronounced inability to distinguish arse from elbow.
Far from coming across as a strongman, the media is currently filled with speculation that he might not survive at Number Ten for very much longer.
In short, if this government cannot organise mass coronavirus testing, it will scarcely be capable of making the trains run on time.
Ultimately, McDonnell’s argument needs to be more sharply honed. That’s not least because he himself notes in the La Repubblica interview, just paragraphs later, that many of Johnson’s policies and even much of his language are nicked from Corbyn-era Labour.
The point is that Britain’s prime minister is whoever he happens to feel like being on any given day, his policies a perpetual hapless scramble from circumstance-driven expedient to badly spatchcocked half-measure, in one long series of Daily Mail-pleasing political contrivances.
We cannot know what he is planning from one week to the next, not least because he doesn’t know himself.
Yes, Labour does need to get on attack footing, with a stridency that doesn’t come naturally to the New Leadership. The time to organise against this Tory government is now. But that said, the time to organise against any Tory government is always now.
But in the end, the terminology fails us. What we have to face is not quite proto-fascism, not quite even proto-fascism in a specific and limited way. I’m not sure what it is or where it’s going; I just don’t like it.
Image: Boris Johnson, Source: https://securityconference.org/en/medialibrary/asset/boris-johnson-1851-17-02-2017/, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Germany