Life & Culture

Politics: A Survivor’s Guide review: Is Britain sleepwalking into populism?

A columnist’s view of post-Brexit politics and the impact it has had on him


Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May gives her keynote address on the fourth and final day of the Conservative Party Conference 2018 at the International Convention Centre in Birmingham, central England, on October 3, 2018. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

You can learn as much about yourself as you can a country through the politics of the day. There was a time when it would never have occurred to Rafael Behr to view the rough and tumble of British democracy through the prism of his Jewishness.

In a country where the political mainstream had a healthy consensus about what constitutes dangerous discourse, wearing Jewish identity on one’s sleeve has always been optional, at least in Behr’s lifetime.

Certainly Jewishness is never a conspicuous presence in Behr’s forensic political commentary in The Guardian.

Unlike his fellow columnist in that newspaper and this, Jonathan Freedland, Behr had never worn his “foreign ancestry on his skin” — Lithuanian, then South African before his parents came to the UK — in order to avoid the complicity that went with being white in the apartheid state.

True, there were always “diligent antisemites” who pointed out Behr’s Jewishness irrespective of its irrelevance to him and his work.

But then British politics suddenly made it relevant. Behr doesn’t say that his almost fatal heart attack at the age of 45 in 2019 was caused by the serial plagues of Brexit, Covid, Ukraine and the culture wars.

But he gives some of the credit for his condition to the “permacrisis”.

The journalist’s first book is both a cool, irresistibly argued analysis of Britain’s lurch towards popularism culminating the country’s sleepwalk to Brexit, and a memoir about how the country’s politics turned being Jewish from a private, incidental thing into a frontline issue. Both sides of the political spectrum are skewered by Behr’s Reithian perspective, which gives opposing viewpoints equal consideration.

He sees that the liberal accusation that most Brexit voters were motivated by racism is crude and offensive.

But even leaders who were initially against leaving the EU embraced the sort of language that has a Jew eyeing the packed suitcase next to their front door.

Theresa May’s post-Brexit speech in which she declared that anyone who was not a citizen of Britain was a “citizen of nowhere” chimes eerily with Stalin’s “rootless cosmopolitan”, a euphemism for Jews. Didn’t she realise that? No, reports Behr. He asked her aides and they said as much.

It is difficult not to conclude that we are ruled by a generation of meat-headed (my phrase) politicians who are either unaware of how rhetoric can chime with the darkest reaches of 20th-century history (to which Behr is attached by virtue of his murdered forbears) or just don’t care (Boris Johnson).

And then of course there is the other side of the political spectrum, with which Behr was more politically aligned until Corbyn’s leadership of Labour.

Here Behr reveals with the clarity of spring water the logic with which Corbyn’s acolytes see Jews via Zionism as the enemy of socialism and therefore also of the “dear leader”.

The author’s awareness of national-identity politics was embedded early on in his career when he was a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times in the Baltic countries.

His job was to report on how Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia transitioned from communism to a market economy.

But what most interested him were the complex currents of identity in countries whose view of the Second World War is loaded by Russian occupation and not (in their view) the lesser evil of the Nazi’s invasion.

He cites the annual march through Riga honouring Latvia’s Waffen SS division. I have been on that march, as a reporter for The Independent, and yes there were young Nazis strutting their stuff. But Behr is right to say it is more complicated than that.

The Russian occupation was murderous and brutal. It doesn’t excuse celebrating the Nazi machine that caused the Russians to withdraw but it does inform the ritual with a perspective that few people outside the region’s borders can appreciate.

That appeal for nuance pervades this beautifully written, persuasive plea to bridge our political divides. It is also a warning of the dangers if we don’t.

My only counter to Behr’s account of how awful things have become is the observation that the fall and folly of prime ministers has all happened so openly you could take pride in British democracy’s transparency as much as lament its toxicity. But perhaps that is an overly optimistic view.

Politics: A Survivor’s Guide
By Raphael Behr
Atlantic £20

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