It is the lot of those who first see something coming to be dismissed as cranks. Those who say something is ‘the thin end of the wedge’ or any number of similar metaphors are often accused of overreacting or having a sense of paranoia. By the time they’re proved right, it’s often too late. Sometimes tragically.
Of course they might be overreacting. They might be fantasists, neurotics or drama queens. If they are, then the chances are that’s all for the good and their mania will pass. But you don’t normally know at the time. And that’s what makes this period in British political history so scary.
As the son of a refugee from Nazi Germany, I have never been comfortable with people invoking parallels with Hitler’s regime, if only because it is so often way over the top for the circumstances. But I’ve begun to see parallels with German society in the months after Hitler’s takeover in January 1933. And when Boris Johnson announced last Tuesday that he was asking Queen Elizabeth to suspend (‘prorogue’) Parliament for five weeks from mid-September to mid-October, I had such a feeling of dread in my stomach that I wondered if I was finally empathising with what many Britons must have felt when Neville Chamberlain announced in September 1939 that Britain was at war.
Then the counter reaction set in. How could I be so melodramatic? There are plenty of checks and balances even in the arcane and archaic British democratic system, as well as wise counsels to ensure that we don’t go down the road to an effective coup. But still the doubts lingered. And then on Saturday, I read Patrick Cockburn’s article in the Independent, in which he drew parallels not with Nazi Germany but with Erdogan’s Turkey. That actually makes more sense, as Erdogan has been pursuing his coup step-by-step: first by getting the media on side so public opposition is limited, and subsequently by gradually ignoring laws, to the point where no-one is sure who is answerable to whom.
Then on Sunday, Michael Gove gave his now infamous interview to Andrew Marr in which he refused to guarantee that Johnson’s government would respect a law passed by Parliament. If ever a warning was trumpeted that talk of a coup is not exaggerated, this was it. No-one can now say they weren’t warned.
Of course I still might be overreacting. I have written here about how my grandfather spent 12 days in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and how several great-aunts and great-uncles died in other concentration camps. Last month my father’s cousin died, a woman whose father was executed amid torture in January 1943 in a camp on what is now Polish soil. So it’s possible some family trauma is making me react disproportionately to what’s currently happening in British politics, and that wise counsels will yet keep us on the straight and narrow and prevent a descent into thuggish government.
But I know I’m not the only one to be fearful. In another Independent column, the admirable MP Jess Phillips talks about how ‘trite’ it sounds to talk about ‘living in dangerous times’. But she adds: ‘False divides are opening up everywhere. People who have been left with nothing by years of cuts feel they have nothing to lose and need someone to blame. These are the seeds from which fascism grows.’
I don’t know how we’re going to get out of this mess. At one level I have to trust senior politicians to stand up for our democracy, to sho
w some backbone even if that means making their own career path much more complicated. At another I have a responsibility as a citizen too. But the first step has to be to recognise that this is no longer just a political squabble, but could be a concerted attempt to hijack our democratic processes for an agenda that has no mandate.
In other words, a coup. Yes, the word is justified, and the potential threat of it is no exaggeration.