A strange disease has taken hold of British politics

By BAGEHOT | MANCHESTER

BRITAIN is suffering from a very un-British affliction at the moment: millenarianism. A country that has always prided itself on its support for common sense and gradual change is being hijacked by people who believe that the end is nigh and the kingdom of God is upon us.

I was reminded of the Labour Party’s millenarian streak when, on arriving in Manchester for the Conservative Party conference, I got into a debate with a bearded gentleman selling Socialist Worker, a leftie newspaper. The bearded gentleman informed me that “the Russian Revolution was the greatest event in the history of the world”. I asked him if he had ever been to Russia. He said that he hadn’t—an odd admission in an age of cheap travel for somebody who thought that it was the greatest thing ever. Yet he was singularly unimpressed by my claim that, having been there several times, including in the 1980s, the country didn’t look like the product of the greatest event ever. He told me in no uncertain terms that I was incapable of seeing what was really going on because I was a lackey of the capitalist class. The conversation went downhill from there.

This gentleman might be an extreme example of the breed but last week’s Labour conference in Brighton was full of people with a similarly millenarian mind-set. Jeremy Corbyn and his acolytes kept repeating that Britain was essentially a land of milk and honey—the fifth richest country in the world no less—and the only reason people didn’t have enough of the good things in life was that “the rich” were consuming more than their fair share. All you needed to do was to tax the rich a bit more and share the wealth more fairly and Britain’s worst problems (homelessness, poverty, NHS queues) would disappear in a puff of smoke.

Many Corbynistas linked redistributionism to a strange socialist Promethianism. The “World Transformed”—a parallel conference linked to Momentum, Labour’s grassroots organisation—was dedicated to the proposition that ordinary people are fonts of creativity. Society stifles their talent with its oppressive structures and tedious demands. Give people a “creative space” and a latte, however, and they will start weaving quilts, writing poems, composing rap songs and otherwise adding to the store of human civilisation. Many World Transformers believe that the greatest work of art of all is social change: they want people to devote their lives to a perpetual process of political agitation, not just because they want to change the world but because they think that activism is in itself liberating. The movement and the millennium are one.

The Tory party is naturally better protected from the spirit of millenarianism than Labour: Toryism is surely a philosophy based on the notion of the imperfectability of man, the necessity of messy compromises and the danger of fanaticism. But the spirit of millenarianism is so strong in Britain at the moment that it is corrupting even Toryism.

The millenarian spirit was on full display at the Conservative Party conference. For the most part Conference events were lightly attended. An (admittedly early) breakfast event featuring Damian Green, the deputy prime minister, was three-quarters empty. A set-piece speech by Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, would have been part empty if it weren’t for the army of PR people and corporate clones. Many speakers at fringe events found themselves singing to a tiny band of fellow-obsessives.

But throw the betrayal of Brexit into the mix and the events were full beyond bursting point. An event by the Eurosceptic Bruges Group attracted 800 people. A discussion of “the threat to Brexit” had to turn away hundreds of angry Brexiteers (the organisers invented the excuse that people wouldn’t be admitted without a ticket despite the fact that no tickets had been issued). A third discussion on “how to leave the EU” was equally over-subscribed.

The biggest star of the show was Jacob Rees-Mogg, a young fogey who wears double-breasted suits and a pocket watch and who had been written off, until recently, as a harmless eccentric. Mr Rees-Mogg, a protégé of Sir Bill Cash, the grand old man of Euroscepticism, delivers fluent discourses on the evils of the EU and the importance of recovering Britain’s sovereignty. The audience goes absolutely wild—partly because of the clarity of his views and partly, I suspect, because he represents a visible link with an older world before Britain was corrupted by the manifold evils of modernity.

Another star of the right is Daniel Hannan, a Member of European Parliament and founder of the Institute of Free Trade, which Boris Johnson launched in the Foreign Office on September 27th. Mr Hannan is as fluent as Mr Rees-Mogg and more wide-ranging: he argues that free trade is the world’s greatest engine of prosperity. Forget about politicians and bureaucrats: they are for the most part the people who spend the surplus generated by free exchange. What drives society forward are the myriad private transactions that take place, as it were, “in the cloud”.

Mr Hannan’s eloquent support for free trade is welcome in a world that is in danger of surrendering to protectionism. Mr Rees-Mogg makes some telling points about the European Union’s democratic deficit. But hanging over everything they say—like Mr Hannan’s “cloud”—is the spirit of millenarianism. And that spirit becomes ever stronger as exposition turns to discussion. The audience applauds every line about not settling bills with the EU. (“We don’t owe the EU a penny,” said one speaker. “They owe us $10 billion.”) It applauds every use of the word “eurocrat”. It goes wild whenever you talk about “uncontrolled immigration”.

The Brexiteers share Mr Corbyn’s enthusiasm for dividing the world into good and evil: in this case into good Britons and evil European bureaucrats. And it shares Mr Corbyn’s indifference to the practical difficulties of turning blueprints into reality. Brexiteers continue to argue that leaving an economic bloc of which Britain has been part for more than 40 years will be easy. Any difficulties will be the result of knaves who wish us ill or fools who can’t turn a key. Brexiteers refuse to consider the idea that there is a strong free-trade argument for staying in the EU: it is a single market of 500m people with hundreds of trade deals with non-EU countries. And they ignore the fact that striking free-trade deals is an arduous technical process that requires years of hard negotiation and armies of skilled negotiators.

The Brexiteers at the conference were completely blind to the dangers of their millenarian dreams. They didn’t seem to worry about the fact that, only a few days ago, America had announced a trade action against Bombardier, a Canadian aircraft manufacturer, threatening more than 1,000 jobs in Northern Ireland. Instead, they went on talking blithely about striking free-trade deals with our so-called natural ally. They didn’t worry about Britain crashing out of the EU with no trade deal. Some people almost seemed to welcome the idea—as if Britain would be purified by crisis and would emerge stronger.

The problem with millenarianism is not just that it is nonsense. It’s not just that it always leads to disappointment. It’s that it leads to accusations of betrayal. Britain is not only condemned to trying to construct Utopias that cannot be built. It is condemned to looking for scapegoats who can explain why the millenarian dream turned out to be a squalid nightmare.

More from Bagehot at the conferences

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