Boris Johnson UK Brexit Tories
(Image: AAP/Dan Himbrechts)

It’s a big week in the politics of the Anglosphere when one ancient party tears itself apart, a president sacks the foreign policy supremo who was running him, and the prime minister of a third says he’d be happy to give a urine sample. Is there some common process underlying this, other than Pythonesque absurdity? Or are these fundamentally different processes, as separate polities become more distinct, under the pressure of populism?

The obvious temptation is to identify one common theme, which is the structural weakness and collapse of the mainstream right (as part of a wider collapse of mainstream politics). In the UK, Boris Johnson’s crisis strategy appears to have been more deliberate than his detractors would claim, but less deliberate than his rapidly thinning band of champions would admit.

The best one can say about Boris is that if this was a conscious strategy, it was one of fomenting total crisis, since the UK PM’s two “clean” options — ahead of being obliged to request an extension on October 19 — are either to resign or to defy the law. Less clean, he could to try and find some loophole in the wording. Thoroughly debased, he could to try some sniveling reintroduction of a variant of May’s withdrawal bill, get it through on a mix of ex-Tory and Labour rebel votes, and go to an election hoping that potential Brexit Party defectors will be sated by actual departure.

In the US, the brief and bizarre tenure of John Bolton in the Trump administration came to an end after Trump called off a strike on Iran, invited the Taliban to talks at Camp David, and advocated readmitting Russia to the G7. Trump had a pre-election foreign policy of militarist realism — “more winning, less nation building” — and, a popular missile strike on Syria aside, a post-election strategy of making personal political links with authoritarian-right leaders, and then with the US’ ostensible “absolute” enemies.

Bolton appears to have been brought in to streamline foreign affairs, but his presence simply added another contradictory element, the full neocon “manifest destiny” line: the US extends power, not merely as forward defence, but as an agent of virtue in the world. Bolton, focused and effective, was thus able to operate Trump as an orange meat puppet for months, before The Donald was able to regain control. Bolton’s failure arose from his unwillingness to act diplomatically within the process; that unwillingness arose from a basic contempt for Trump’s mess of a foreign policy.

It seems highly likely that North Korea, Russia, etc, are playing Trump like a plastic kazoo, but it now cannot be said from the right — and the foreign-policy right Democrats of the Henry “Scoop” Jackson type are long gone, who might have said it from the “left”. If the US right commentariat were honest — if they were loyal to their country, not their politics — they would call it straight: the US has never, in its post-Monroe imperial era, been as rudderless, confused and lacking in determination on a world stage as it is now. Not even under Jimmy Carter did it give away so much projective power as it has now.

In Rip Van Australia, there’s less scope to project party political problems outwards — save from bullying island nations — so we have endless petty culture skirmishes (“war” is now overstating it). The cultural populism deployed by the Coalition to win the election is now being turned into legislation, such as the religious freedom laws and the “farmers’ rights” anti-trespass act. Such laws either multiply contradictory rights, or establish bespoke laws tailored to particular groups. With each new episode of such, the political and cultural basis of liberal-conservatism — that laws should be few, simple, universal — is further worn away.

Thus, Christian Porter’s religious freedom act will be contradicted in its content by Victoria’s proposed new widened anti-vilification act (proposed by Fiona Patten, the one-time libertarian, who has followed her largely LGBTIQ base into strong statism), which extends such protection on the bounds of disability, sexuality, etc. Federal law will override state, but the principle of Porter’s bill strengthens the general claim of Patten’s new proposal, by identifying the entire political spectrum as supportive of the open-ended manufacture of rights, watched over by a state machine of loving grace.

The culture skirmish strategy is a compensation for the weakness of a party that would allow a target figure like Liu to become a candidate in the first place; the result is that government is led by the nose by Jacqui Lambie, and her enthusiasms of the day. This has ended, remarkably quickly, in the prime minister committing the party of Robert Menzies to be randomly drug tested as part of their job. The undermining of parliamentary legitimacy, of the notion that civic virtue, as much as law, as the ground of order, is complete. It is further worn away by the unwillingness of the right commentariat to name this populist authoritarianism for what it is.

The piss test pisses away a great deal of liberalism for short-term gain. But in the long-term, against statist progressivism, the right will never win this sort of pissing contest.

OK, so can we do the full Diego Garcia here? Notwithstanding local differences, or the dire state of the mainstream left, the common pattern of the Anglosphere right is that its own core has dissolved and it has compensated by grabbing some piecemeal, quite different features of the other side: Leninist crisis tactics (UK), détente-style international relations (US), and open-ended statism in Australia. The rapid immolation of the first two fuelled by such a process suggests that it will be on the way eventually in Australia, possibly sooner rather than later. Thank God Labor is asserting bold and simple policies about the cratering economy, the years of failure, rather than following every rabbit down a hole. Now I’m taking the piss.

Peter Fray

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