What will be the sustained consequences of the Brexit campaign’s assault on the social and cultural fabric of the UK?
It was one thing to offer a referendum, a move which went against the basic rule of conservatism — that social being is manifested by multiple mediating institutions, not by a spurious ‘will of the people’ — but it is something more to test those institutions up to the point of destruction.
Johnson and co have done that in past months. Now they are testing the basic fabric of civility itself in a bid to further ramp up conflict.
That moment came in the Commons last week when Johnson said that the best way to honour murdered MP Jo Cox — a Remainer — was by delivering Brexit. Uproar, actual fury, followed. True, Johnson was responding to some rather distasteful invoking of Cox’s memory by Labour MPs for cheap political gain. But it is obvious to anyone that to claim someone for a cause they were murdered for opposing is to traduce their memory — attack the most basic principles of respect and regard on which society runs.
This is more than simply anti-conservative. It is what Nazi political philosopher Carl Schmitt described (approvingly) as invoking the enemy — to dissolve social life into social war. Schmitt took the idea from Bolshevik tactics and applied it to the right. But on the right it assumes that at the root of social life there is a unified volk — a “pre-political” entity of origin, culture and/or race — whose unity will remain undisturbed.
To think of the contemporary UK in that way is to live off an illusion. The Brexit Tories imagine that they can return to a Burkean-Oakeshottian-Toad-of-Toad-Hall sort of conservatism, in which they appeal to patriotism and slow improvement — or teeth-gritting austerity — to maintain a majority. Maybe they can pull it off.
But in summoning up such basic bone-deep hate, they have not only maximised the chance that further violence will follow, they have opened up a space of radical demand that nothing calling itself “conservatism” can satisfy.
Who knows what the longer term result will be. In the short term? Jeremy Corbyn was finished three months ago, and now may be prime minister in a fortnight.