Stab-in-the-back: the nasty old myth that Brexiters are exploiting to explain away the disaster | Nick Cohen

The mediocrity of Lord “Frosty” Frost isn’t ordinary. There is an epic quality to his failings. The parochialism of his nationalism and irresponsibility of his conspiracy theories have allowed one paunchy man to embody the entire collapse of modern conservatism into know-nothing paranoia.

No serious person outside the ruling elite doubts that Frost and Boris Johnson’s hard Brexit heightened the misery of millions. They have raised inflation, cut the national wealth and diverted the energy of Britain’s rulers away from the economic crisis into needless disputes with our neighbours.

Extremist movements face their greatest danger when their supporters realise all hope is gone. Failure brings the risk that the faithful will think again and walk away. Conservatives might now move from nationalism to patriotism, and contemplate the compromises the UK must make to repair the damage they have caused.

Without visible benefits from Brexit, betrayal narratives are all the leaders of the Brexit right have to hold the movement together. They must persuade their followers, and perhaps themselves, that they have not wasted their lives on a futile cause. The internal struggle to keep the faithful in line is why it can feel as if you are eavesdropping on private conversations when you listen to Conservative debates. The right is talking to itself rather than to the country: dousing its supporters’ doubts by feeding their fears. Conservatism hasn’t diminished Britain because Brexit was a mistake, it tells them. Your leaders did not take you for fools. You were betrayed – we were all betrayed! – by saboteurs who turned victory into defeat.

The UK is witnessing a modern version of the Dolchstoßlegende (stab-in-the-back myth) that the beaten German generals of 1918 used to shift blame for defeat in the First World War away from the military and on to socialists, pacifists and Jews in Berlin. Yet, whatever lies they told, Erich Ludendorff and the rest of the high command accepted that Germany had lost the war. Brexiters do not accept their defeat. They imply rather than acknowledge failure by shifting responsibility to others. And no one shifts as reliably as Lord Frost. He is as regular as a bowel movement.

Don’t blame us, blame the civil servants, he courageously declared last week. The emasculating consequences of subcontracting decision-making to the EU meant British officials could not draw up “genuine proposals for liberalisation and change” now we were out. You cannot expect elected politicians (or unelected in Frost’s case) to know what to do with Brexit, he implied. The servants were responsible for the ignorance of their masters.

The public sector as an enemy within is a recurring Brexit theme. Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Brexit Studies showed it was a front organisation for the Tory right by beginning its latest report with an airbrushing of the historical record. Niall Ferguson, a historian himself, apparently, said the referendum had taught him that the public was ready “to pay a significant amount” to divorce from the EU. He forgot, I suspect because he had to forget to stay in with the right, that the Leave campaign of 2016 dismissed warnings of significant costs to the public as “project fear” and that the Conservative government of 2022 is so scared of revealing the true price that it won’t publish an economic assessment of the damage.

The report concludes with a theme that is now so hackneyed it is orthodoxy. The refusal of the civil service to give Brexit its “wholehearted support” explains why Brexit Britain has failed to turn the UK into what it calls “a leading voice for civilisation”.

Go deeper into the myths of the cornered right and the all-powerful civil servant isn’t the only monster you meet. Asked why Brexit is still bedevilled by arguments over Ireland, Frost blamed the “madness” of the hung parliament of 2017-19 in passing a “surrender act” (his words) that blocked a no-deal Brexit and forced him to compromise. He must think everyone on the right has forgotten that he and Johnson agreed to the border in the Irish Sea in 2020 when they had a huge parliamentary majority and could do as they pleased.

The Trumpian special pleading and Orwellian denial of reality go unremarked because too many people, including too many on the left, fear the loneliness of breaking with the tribe and the vituperation that will follow. For some, the fear can be measured in pounds and pence. You cannot publicly describe the harm Brexit has inflicted and expect to keep your job in the Conservative party, Tory press or rightwing thinktank. Most, however, succumb to the softer but more pervasive social pressure to stick with your friends.

The career of Frosty the Strawman makes my point for me. By 2016 he had left the diplomatic service behind after a characteristically unimpressive career in the Foreign Office, to work for the Scotch Whisky Association. He opposed leaving the EU, as David Cameron, Liz Truss and most of the Tory mainstream did, and warned audiences with surprising prescience that Brexit would cost each citizen about £1,500 a year.

When the Tory mainstream charged right, Frost charged with them, scrambling over the bodies of his comrades to get out in front. As he rose without trace, his Brexit boosterism earned him commissions from the Telegraph, a seat in Johnson’s cabinet and a peerage in less than four years.

The conspiracy theorist’s choice of targets tells you how they see the future as well as the past. In the 1920s, the German far right’s stab-in-the-back attack on democrats, socialists and Jews established the hit list for the Nazis. In 2012, when Vladimir Putin began accusing Russian NGOs of “serving foreign national interests”, you could smell the paranoia that would lead to today’s wars.

The refusal of British Conservatives to accept responsibility predicts a future in which they go all out to destroy the independent institutions that failed to make Tory dreams come true. Lord Frost has already resigned from Johnson’s cabinet so he can urge Conservatives to go further and faster to the right. He may be an unscrupulous mediocrity, but that does not stop him clearly seeing the Conservative party’s final terminus.

Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist


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