As he stood facing the crowd of reporters one more time, his trademark unkempt blonde hair sat particularly deflated on top of his fat roundhead-everyman face. The cold blue calculating eyes, seemingly lacking their characteristic zestful lustre on this day, looked out with the fatigue of a Marcus Aurelius.
Boris Johnson began his speech - written in typical British fashion, full of a pomp and grandiosity that seems so out of place in this century. His audience were not his supporters but a gallery of press, upon whom the heavy words were lost. As he gradually got to the point, which was that he was not going to run for leadership of the Tories, the reporters livened as they detected the scent of blood in the air.
After the cacophony of the Brexit whirlwind, these last few days must have been exhausting for Boris. Perhaps deep down he never wanted to win after all, because as an intelligent man, he must have seen that now instead of being a champion of a separatist counter-culture, he would now have to put his money where his mouth is.
The Tories have toyed with the idea of brexiting for a long time, but few truly expected the referendum would actually win. It was the Tories and not Nigel Farage’s marginalised UK Independence Party that finally stomped the collective British foot into the fire ant colony of “leave”, igniting the frenzy we now see today. While the mainstream Tories advocated for staying in, perhaps they feel some measure of catharsis of responsibility for the current predicament.
Leave lied. They embellished everything like a teenage boy bragging about the size of his penis. It was an awkward position that Leave now finds themselves - the crux of their argument was that 350 million pounds goes off to Brussels. That was of course a lie, and now the British voters want to know what the phantom money will be spent on, despite the fact that it doesn’t exist. But the one driving force of the Leave campaign was not even things like money, it was identity politics.
As I look at myself, I see the simple characteristics that alienate and join me to various groups of people, sometimes with overlap and often not. My skin color, my lack of religion, my heritage - they are all labels that I or anyone else could start taking too seriously. The flashpoints of conflict of our day, Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, Yemen and others, are primarily fought for complex reasons with the intention of gain. But to find people to fight these wars it is important to create a common narrative that binds the people together to clearly define friend from foe.
People fight for something because they believe they are making the world better. But a lot of times, the world they are trying to improve only exists for whatever the homogenous group they are a member of is. Israelis and Palestinians for example fight over not just the land, they fight over the narrative of what it is. That is identity politics.
Leave played this game with the United Kingdom. Yes, voters were disenfranchised, but they also believed that the label to which they belonged needed to somehow return to prominence - a sort of “make the UK great again” concept. They voted for a completely unknown and undefinable future outcome despite no guarantees of improvement and armed only with the abstract concept of restoring some lost glory and a half dozen false talking points.
The thing that overwhelmingly stands in the way of the great Britain’s future is immigrants. They threaten to break up the homogenised group of pureblooded, bangers-and-mash-eating Britons. They bring their oriental religion with its genital mutilation and terrorism. They want to work for practically nothing, putting decent, hard-working Brits out of the job. The Brits have a right to tell these people that Assad must go because of the natural British persuasion towards morality, but when it comes to giving them shelter from a brutal and hopeless civil war their government helps supply the weapons for, that is too much to ask. It infringes on the British identity of aloof island dwellers to allow these people to live next door.
Sounds horrible when someone writes all this in a single paragraph. That some of these statements are what the ordinary conservative Brexiteer voters would consider palatable. But the politics of label identities are on the move not just in the UK. Donald Trump plays the same narrative in Britain’s former colony. Marion Le Pen heads a growing nationalist movement who is only a short generational divide from Jean-Marie, her incendiary-spewing grandfather. Geert Wilders commands enough seats in the Dutch parliament with his PVV party to play power broker within coalitions. Austria came within less than a percent of electing Norbert Hofer, and may yet elect him as the election will be re-held.
Almost all these parties and individuals prey on the anti-establishment nature of democratic fatigue of the ordinary voter, and by inciting them with rhetoric of a grandiose identity based on nationalism, these voters wake up, and with a passion. Trumpistas call themselves “the silent majority”, and that is perhaps an accurate depiction. The demagogues bombard this silent majority with perceived injustices to build their persecution complexes, filling the voters with firebrand nationalism that inspires action. They take the ignorance and inadequacies of the bureaucratic system the group lives under and magnifies it, until these voters reach a point of no return in their belief that the government has failed them.
And it’s only getting stronger. It is an international phenomenon, and it is not just about the Brexit.