During an anti-Trump march in London in June an angry young woman confronted an elderly-looking Brexit supporter, repeatedly calling him “Nazi scum!”. She then laughed hysterically as the man was pelted with milkshakes. The video of Soibhan Prigent went viral and became one of the abiding images of 2019.
It was a sad case, not least because of the heartfelt apology Ms Prigent, a management consultant, made later on the Canary website. Far from trying to justify her behaviour as a blow against fascism she was clearly desperately sorry and ashamed of herself.
Perhaps she spoke a little for all of us after this annus horribilis. I mean, what was it all about? All that anger, all those arguments. 2019 was like an anxiety dream, full of absurdities and non-sequiturs and events that seemed terribly important at the time, but in retrospect meant very little.
Those Meaningful Votes that were anything but. The Benn Act, the Prorogation row, the Surrender Act, Nobile Officium, The Ditch. Lady Hale with her spider broach. All that intellectual effort (and money) devoted to speculation about the implications of a No Deal Brexit. Britain spent the year in a state of almost biblical purgatory – stuck in limbo, tormented by demons, fearful of the void.
And at the centre of it all, the cartoon figure of Boris Johnson. A cross between a politician and a meme, he began the year on the back benches, seemingly irrelevant; a failed foreign secretary, ridiculed for his Churchillian ambition. He ended it victorious with a landslide election victory based on the simple formula of “Get Brexit Done”.
That’s all it took in the end. Three little words to close an argument that began three years ago. If we’d known, perhaps we could have avoided the unpleasantness. Of course, there are troublesome trade talks ahead. Die hards will continue fighting. But the war is over.
I have to confess to a sense of relief. This despite being a dedicated pro-European, who would willingly have revoked Article 50. At least now we have a hard fact: Britain will be leaving the EU next month. We can stop shouting.
The year of madness began with the remain-voting Tory rebel, Anna Soubry, and others, being barracked by angry Brexiteers outside Westminster. They too called her a “traitor” and a “Nazi”. In 2019, everyone was a Nazi for fifteen minutes.
There was even talk of having a separate entrance for women entering the Palace of Westminster. The crowds of angry flag-waving demonstrators had grown so vast that the police seemed barely able to keep control. Broadcasters became the objects of vilification and contempt for trying to do their jobs on College Green.
Commentators in the Guardian and New Statesman said “populist fascism is coming to Britain. Left-wingers condemned “Brexiteers” as racists. They then started expressing their respect for democracy by throwing milk-shakes at politicians like Nigel Farage. Twitter called it “lactose against intolerance”. “Milk-shaking” was celebrated by the Guardian columnist Zoe Williams as “ludic, ironic” – a witty expression of street politics. The courts didn’t find it so funny.
But amid the madness we learned a lesson in leadership in 2019. It is conventional wisdom in academia that Great Men do not make history. That it is all to do with anonymous social forces. But last year we saw that, sometimes, disgraceful men can make a huge difference.
Theresa May was a decent and intelligent women doing her best, but she simply lacked the ability to master events. The prisoner of her divided party, in hock to the DUP, out-manoevred by Brussels lawyers, Mrs May couldn’t untie the Gordian Knot of Brexit. Repeatedly uttering vacuous statements like “Brexit means Brexit”, she became known as the Maybot.
She fought valiantly for her incomprehensible Brexit deal. This sought to keep Britain in regulatory alignment with the EU single market and the Customs Union, under an Irish backstop which potentially made this arrangement permanent. It didn’t please Brexiteers because it wasn’t Brexit. It didn’t please anyone else.
Something broadly similar might have won through had Labour been a capable of constructive engagement. But Jeremy Corbyn simply calibrated Labour’s response to be just the wrong side of anything the PM proposed. He rejected the Irish backstop, but also opposed a border in the Irish sea. Labour wanted regulatory alignment with the single currency, but not May’s version of it.
Parliament couldn’t come to any consensus either in the various indicative votes last spring. The tragedy for pro-Europeans is that the vast majority of MPs always favoured a soft Brexit. Perhaps if Labour had adopted the Norway/EEA arrangement proposed by Nick Boles and Steven Kinnock then Britain might have remained in the single market. But Jeremy Corbyn apparently believed free movement would be unacceptable to his trades union backers.
It was parliamentary deadlock. Theresa May couldn’t get her deal ratifies; parliament couldn’t come up with an alternative. Only a general election could resolve the crisis, but Mr Corbyn repeatedly failed to move a no confidence motion, until the SNP broke the spell.
It required a gambler, a rule-breaker, a political operator with a huge ego and a ruthless streak to cut through the Brexit mess. Enter just such a man.
Boris Johnson was the most improbable leader for these moralistic #metoo times. A known liar, at least in his journalist days, a dedicated philanderer, an Eton-educate bounder, he offended against every bien pensant media trope. But Boris seems to enjoy some kind of immunity.
In an age when cabinet ministers have had to resign over putting their hand on a woman’s knee 15 years ago (Michael Fallon), Johnson just seems to get away with anything. Nothing sticks. Not even suggestions of domestic violence after that row in his girlfriend’s flat. In July, he won the Tory leadership by a mile over safe and solid Jeremy Hunt.
Social media was incandescent. Labour portrayed the new Prime Minister as a far-right, racist misogynist who went on to attempt a “coup”. No party leader since Thatcher has been so vilified and yet been so unfazed by it. As were most of the voting public, when it came to the general election.
The main reasons for Johnson’s victory the December election were weariness over Brexit and the hopelessness of the Labour leadership. Corbyn’s give-away manifesto was a disaster too. But given the clamour in the press about Johnson’s personal life and his alleged racism, I think there might have been another factor at work.
In the election, plain-speaking Northerners stuck two fingers up to the media’s current obsession with correcting and controlling how people speak. And to the widespread claim by Remain intellectuals that Britain is turning fascist.
People weren’t stupid enough to believe Labour’s promise to effectively hand every family £6,700. Nor were they prepared to swallow Labour’s attack on Johnson as an Islamophobic homophobe. They could see perfectly well that his government includes more ethnic minorities than all previous UK cabinets.
Johnson has campaigned for an amnesty for illegal immigants. He was prominent supporter of same sex marriage. When he was London mayor he led Pride marches wearing a pink stetson. There are now more openly gay Tory MPs than Labour ones. This is not the behaviour of a fascist.
The PM’s offences have invariably arisen from politically-incorrect jokes – in particular his description of burqa-wearing women as looking like “letter boxes”. Yet most people now know that this was in an column defending the right of women to wear this article of clothing, which was being banned in some European countries.
John McDonnell’s talk of Johnson’s being “the most extreme right wing cabinet we’ve ever seen” is unjustified, and mendacious. What has actually happened is that the Conservative Party has moved significantly to the left. Johnson is trying to occupy the space vacated by Tony Blair’s New Labour. Hence his adoption of Blair-speak phrases like “the People’s Government” and “servants not masters”.
Johnson has abandoned the language of austerity and started promising substantial infrastructure spending. He’s reined back attacks on benefit claimants and immigrants. The newly-re-elected PM devoted his victory speech last week to praising the NHS and promising the biggest cash injection in its history. He is a one nation Tory.
Labour say this is all window dressing, and that the Thatcherites are still in charge in the back room. Perhaps they are. But Johnson now depends for his majority on a raft of traditional Labour seats – like Tony Blair’s Sedgefield. There is every reason to believe he’ll try to deliver for these “left behind” voters, and let the left portray them as bigots.
Old party loyalties have been dissolved in the crucible of Brexit. The Tories are now more popular among English working class voters than Labour. However, they are still Tories and Boris Johnson’s appeals stops abruptly at the border. Here the hostility to his brand of “One Nation Conservatism” is undimmed, not least because Scottish voters think that nation is England.
A second electoral Tsunami swept Scotland as the SNP recovered most of the seats it lost in 2017. Labour was reduced to one solitary MP, the indefatigable Ian Murray in Edinburgh South. In some ways this result was more significant than the original 2015 Tsunami. This was not so much a spill-over of excitement from the referendum as a conscious act of defiance against Tory Brexit.
Scotland spent 2019 in a Caledonian version of the Brexit purgatory, with one important difference. The constitutional status of the Scottish parliament has been signficantly altered by the Withdrawal Act. This is not just because responsibilities over the environment, agriculture etc. have been repatriated to Westminster. It is now accepted that the UK can alter the powers of Holyrood without its consent.
Not that anyone seems to care. Perhaps now Brexit madness is passing, we will start picking up the pieces. The situation in Scotland is clearly unsustainable. But constitutional matters could scarcely get a look in when everyone was busy crying “Nazi”.
A version of this article appeared in the Herald on Sunday