On 1 March 2022 a Conservative MP published a piece in the Guardian.
Before we go any further, the first thing to note is that The Guardian is not the natural host for a Tory MP. The publications that are more aligned with the ethos of the Tory party are The Mail, the Express, The Telegraph or the Times. Choosing to publish in the Guardian is, in and of itself, significant. It is an effort to reach beyond the echo chamber, beyond the usual suspects, beyond the clan. To talk to the other side. Laudable, perhaps?
So – who was this Tory MP?
Steve Baker. Member of the European Research Group (ERG), indeed, he was its chair for two periods. Avowedly anti-EU, and one of the architects of Brexit. It is, however, the readership of the Guardian, a publication that has favoured a Remain position all along, that he would seek to address.
It may be tempting to entertain notions of this being some effort towards rapprochement in a divided country. A nice idea. A beguiling idea, perhaps. Let’s end the “culture wars”. Culture wars such as, for instance, Brexit.
Why write in the Guardian now?
But why make this effort of generous magnanimity just right now?
Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, which has rightly drawn all our focus and concern, the most prominent and persistent domestic story in UK politics was that known as “partygate”, wherein the Johnson government seemed mired in accusations of a cavalier disregard for the rules they themselves imposed on the country in order to combat the spread of Covid. There was a whiff of “one rule for you, another rule for us”, a whiff of exceptionalism and privilege that had first wafted in the wake of Dominic Cummings’ long quest for an eye test in the fabled lands of Durham, the only place, it appears, where one can hope to find that most rare being of legend; the optician.
This when people, to follow these rules in a time of crisis, had sacrificed visiting dying relatives one last time. There were also associated accusations of corruption and graft, of contracts granted to persons with no discernible track record or competence in matters of PPE or clinical survey, but who were very well qualified in the arcane art of donating to the Tory party.
In short, the government stank, and stench started at the top: Boris Johnson himself.
There was talk of leadership challenges, from December well into February, of letters to the 1922 committee. For weeks there was barely a news bulletin that didn’t ask whether Sir Graham Brady mightn’t have received the necessary number of letters need to trigger a vote of no confidence in Johnson’s leadership.
Defending the indefensible
Johnson himself was clearly spooked, as his panicked abuse of parliamentary privilege made clear, a gambit which then required a succession of cabinet colleagues to take turns spouting a string of more than usually vacuous platitudes as they attempted to defend the indefensible to reporters.
We, the British, were presented with the nauseating sight of various cabinet types definitely not jostling for position to take over as their leader lay maimed, with Rishi Sunak nowhere to be seen on choice days, and Liz Truss barely managing to fit in appearances on the telly between photo opportunities.
Tensions over Ukraine
All this whilst the grown-ups of Europe were otherwise engaged. As tensions mounted over Ukraine, we saw both Macron of France and Sholz of Germany take a turn braving Putin’s absurdly long table. With hindsight we can now judge these meetings to have been merely delaying tactics for Putin whilst he massed his forces ready for an invasion he was at all times absolutely intent upon.
Nevertheless, it is striking that Johnson didn’t go to see Putin (rumours that his request was denied when he suggested he might best face Putin from the safety of a very large fridge are, apparently, entirely unfounded). Instead, Truss went, took her Russian style hat for a walk, took a photographer to record her taking her hat for a walk, was never admitted into the presence of Putin himself (busy man – atrocities to orchestrate), but she was allowed to be humiliated in front of the press by one of Putin’s guys, who, in essence, declared her to the world to be an actual idiot.
In short, were we not the closest we’ve been to world war since “Frankie says Relax” T-shirts were all the rage, we would still now be watching the exceptionally scraggy rats that are our ministers, fighting in the notably smelly bag that is our cabinet, to see which could emerge to enjoy the sort of terribly useful power of patronage that enables one to buy off those who know where the bodies are buried, even when they’re such serial incompetents such as Gavin Williamson.
What has all this to do with Steve Baker?
Ukraine has pulled our attention. It is also going to put a halt on moves to oust Johnson – we are, right now, in a state of war, or, at least, very close to one. No Tory would survive an attempt to oust a prime minister just at this moment, not even Liz Truss in a very big hat. Johnson will have to do something very stupid, or something very nasty will have to emerge.
Thing is, something very nasty is emerging – the Tory party’s dependence upon Russian money. The stories of peerages for donations to the party had been bubbling away for a few months, and mention had been made of the elevation of such as Evgeny Lebedev to the Lords. The Tory party is mired in oligarch patronage. Putin is now our enemy, the enemy of the Western world, a crypto Hitler, but via his proxies he bankrolls the Tory Party.
The EU has leapt, panther-like, to seize oligarch assets. The UK government has graciously granted the oligarchs up to 18 months to sell their assets on. Most of the oligarchs are connected to Putin. Our government is so saturated with Russian influence, our country so mired in Russian money, that the US government used the world “Londongrad” in an official report.
Factor in the Russia Report, which Johnson actively sought to repress, which states (even in the redacted version we’ve been able to see) that Russian influence permeates our politics. And that report is years old.
Look to Aaron Banks and his utter failure to have Carol Cadwalladr’s connections between him and Russian oligarchs deemed to be libellous. He keeps taking her and others to court. He keeps failing to win his case. Aaron Banks, another chief architect of Brexit.
Look to the influence, worked via social media, on both our referendum on EU membership, and the election that gave the US an agent orange for president, via the machinations of Cambridge Analytica, an organisation that is intimately connected to Brexit cheerleaders on one side and Russians on the other.
Now, look back to Steve Baker, sometime chair of the ERG, architect of Brexit, attempting re-cast himself as the cuddly Brexiter who loves us all really.
There’s a whole load of Russian chickens coming his way, and they’re looking for a damn good roosting.
And so he appeals to us, the Guardian readers (as anyone who isn’t a rabid Brexiter is so often contemptuously referred, whether or not we actually take the paper) to be conciliatory, to be nice, to open our arms to our fellow Brit. His big idea is that we be “radical”, but that we also be “moderate”. That we be radical moderates.
He would have us be all things to all men. He would create a space that accommodates him (for he sees himself, absurdly, as a “radical”) that we then accommodate graciously (we be “moderate”). He would have us confound meanings so that meaning is dissolved, and then there is no meaning. Let’s all just forget about the unpleasantness which is no one’s fault really, is it? Let’s just be nice to each other, in a big kumbaya of responsibility-free and consequence-free fluffiness…?
Bringing together extremes?
This appeal to the oxymoronic is something we’ve seen before. It was very successful for a time. It had an immense influence upon world history. That earlier version attempted to unite apparently contradictory and exclusive ideas, and purported to do so for the good of all. To bring together extremes for the general good. To end another culture war, although the phrase was not then used. Just shove those extremes together and everyone is happy, right? Thing is, words do mean something, and you can’t just jam contradictions together so that they make a nice thing for everyone to enjoy.
Who would pretend you could, and why?
We’re all of us sick of the division. We’re all of us worried by the prospect of war. Things have become a little out of hand. In times such as these there often emerges a figure who responds to the wish that all the bad stuff go away and promises solutions. Some of those figures bring meaning, a hard meaning to the situation – Ghandi, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela. To these people what words mean matter, because through that meaning they may forge a new reality.
The meaning of words
But there is another type of individual that may find that the meaning of words can be… problematic. This other type of individual might find that if meanings are applied accurately, it may be that those words cast them in an unfortunate light. A strong association with Putin, for instance, is little short of traitorous at this time, as he launches a blitzkrieg across Europe. Especially in the UK, a nation whose proudest boast of the last century was that it successfully resisted the last Charlie who tried that nonsense. And if that association can be traced through all the period of schism and polarisation of the last decade, it rather casts a doubt over the most momentous change in the UK for a generation; if Brexit was cultivated by Putin via his proxies, it seems unlikely that it would have been for our benefit. It seems more likely that the destabilisation of Europe was his object. So what does that make those who Putin has funded? They may find themselves cast in the light of being the bad guy, the guilty party, the problem – traitors, even. And there is a tradition amongst such people of conflating contradictory positions to destroy meaning, and thereby confuse and obfuscate. As well as to tempt in the unwary by promising all things to all men. And that is what Steve Baker appears to be doing with “radical moderate”.
Those Russian chickens are coming home to roost. They’ll hit the cabal in charge first. Johnson will be in trouble again – but the entire cabal will be implicated. It is likely that the Tory party will look for leaders outside of the current government, mired as they are in so much sleaze, and connection to Russia.
Steve Baker is very closely connected to Russia, of course, as well as Brexit, Putin’s grand strategy to soften up Europe before launching an actual military war. But that’s exactly why Steve Baker needs to promise unity, fluffy togetherness, a country brought together, and all whilst the meaning of words is entirely dispensed with. He needs to survive, and as such naked nonsense as giving Gavin Williamson a knighthood demonstrates, there’s only one position that gives the leverage necessary to fight for survival. If the current cabal are to fall, it will still be the Tory Party that appoints the next PM, for a couple of years at least. Someone will need to step into that space. And the choice of the Tory Party will be between a candidate who doubles down on all the nonsense that is currently destroying them, or someone who offers rapprochement and conciliation.
It’s a strategy that has previously proven very successful. Not in the long term, no, but for a time, and perilously close to managing to prevail for, ooh, perhaps a thousand years. Well, that was the idea anyway. It was an Austrian who really made it fly when he took two of the biggest ideas of his time, two ideas that were generally held to be entirely contradictory, the cultures then at war, splitting nations and families, making for a world in crisis, where people worried where things might lead, and he pushed them together in a way that appealed because it promised to end all conflict. That was his pitch. That’s what got him in power. How things turned out might occlude that for you, but that was his pitch.
Those were the words “nationalist” and “socialist”.