There is a general rule about any form of argument that the first person to mention Hitler has lost. Political debate in the UK has increasingly come to reference the war in ways that are very ironic and misleading and need to be unpicked.
This morning I saw a picture on the newspaper of a protester complaining about an MP. They were holding a photograph of Anna Soubry wearing a Hitler moustache and a German army hat and had apparently been accusing her of being a ‘traitor’. What does this signify?
Let’s clear the ground first. There are many good reasons on both sides of the argument about Europe. It is possible to offer a logical argument for wanting to leave and understandable if people feel they have been ‘betrayed’ by a system that offered them a vote then failed to implement the result. We could argue that the failure to do so was due to the enormous complexity of the process, which few understood at the time of voting. We could blame MPs – all or some of them – for being incompetent. Some people argue that European officials – the dreaded EU bureaucracy – tried to make it harder for us to leave and that our independence is threatened by foreign powers. There is no truth to this argument – it is the nature of the problem and weakness of the MPs doing the negotiating that led to this mess – but one can understand how such an idea might take hold. We, the proud British nation, are being betrayed by MPs who will not deliver and by foreigners who try to control us. It is not true but it makes sense as a position.
What does not make sense is that a party led by Nigel Farage, who left a German wife for French mistress, should accuse British MPs of being like Hitler when his own party is using the anti-foreigner, anti-immigrant, nationalistic language of the right wing. His old UKIP party is being taken over by the language of Nazi sympathisers and his new Brexit Party is mainly dedicated to undermining democratic debate by pretending a complex problem is simple and the best way to solve it is to use cartoon versions of real life issues.
Of even more concern is the way non-combatant, civilians who have never seen active service, use the language of heroic resistance to plug their own shabby arguments. We can survive a No Deal Brexit because ‘we survived the war’. What? ‘We’ did not survive the war, sonny – ‘we’ were too young and were not in it. Those who did would remind you that thousands died, often due to stupid mistakes, and afterwards vowed never to allow it to happen again. To use their experience to fuel the rhetoric of hatred is pitiful and, of course, a ‘betrayal’ of their sacrifice. Even their name “Tommy” has been stolen by a small-time thug to lead a right wing party whose ‘principles’ and actions most serving soldiers from the war would spit on.
If Hitler’s ideas come back to haunt us they will be wrapped in the union jack, waved by shaven headed mobs who like marching in the streets, peddle abuse on social media and make threats against elected MPs. And they will be accusing those MPs of being like Hitler. Without realising the irony.
Update on 30th September 2019: Johnson, as PM, threatens to leave the EU without a deal. Many MPs feel this would be socially and economically inept so combine to prevent it with an Act of Parliament. Johnson then calls his the Surrender Act , as if we are giving in to an enemy and his opponents are somehow traitors. British MPs are accused by a British PM of ‘collaborating’ with foreign governments. This is picked up by street demonstrators, who now shout ‘traitor’ at his opponents. Then, with great irony, supporters of right wing movements call those who oppose them fascists because they resist “the will or the people”. Such twisting of language allows Johnson to pose as the champion of the people against Parliament, in effect pitching a street mob against elected MPs and calling that a fight for democracy.