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By Jason Michael
THERE IS A REASON why in liberal democratic states elected leaders typically do not hold a military rank and certainly do not wear military uniform. Take, for example, the now iconic pictures of the Allied troika at the 1945 Yalta Conference. Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Josef Stalin – the then leaders of the three states which would decide the fate of the post-war world. Only Stalin is dressed in military uniform, like a great conquering general. Both Roosevelt and Churchill were entitled to get dolled up for the Augusto Pinochet fashion parade. Churchill had been an officer in the British Army before going into politics and Roosevelt was Commander-in-Chief of the mighty United States’ land, sea, and air forces. Of the three it is only Stalin who feels the need to impress on those who see him that his power and authority derives from his personal strength and the backing of the Red Army. Yet, unlike Uncle Joe, Churchill and Roosevelt have no such need. They do not rule – at least in theory – by force, but by democratic consent.
Sure, Roosevelt and Churchill were tyrants in their own rights, but power – like all human activity – is a game of impressions. It is a performance. Our western democratic values, the values we so often only pretend to have, of the rule of law, freedom, and democracy are defended and advanced not by brute strength and fear, but by the inclusion of all our citizens in a system in which – again, in theory – power belongs to the people and is lent to our political representatives by our democratic elections. Democratic leaders do not need to rely on gratuitous displays of power. Their power, and perhaps the greatest power in human civilisation, comes from the fact that they are the choice of the people and the people will fight to protect this immense freedom and privilege.
It is this basic truth of democracy which explains why we in Scotland mocked Ruth Davidson, the former leader of the Scottish Unionist Party, when she posed for pictures in fatigues with other soldiers after she was made an honorary Colonel of her former regiment, the 32 Signal Regiment. Naturally, given the context of Scottish politics after 2014, this promotion was a source of great amusement to independentistas, but there was scarce a unionist in the country who wasn’t deeply embarrassed by it. It’s not the done thing. It strikes us as somehow undemocratic – as a threat to the power and sovereignty of the people. Scotland is a deeply liberal society. We take our democratic norms and civilian civil institutions seriously. This was a bad move on Davidson’s part.
The same goes for that thundering moron Donald Trump. It was shocking when he blasted an opponent for being captured by the enemy during the Vietnam War – as democrats, we respect the service of those who fight to protect democracy. It was unsettling when he decided to hold a Soviet May Day style military parade last 4 July. Such uniformed shows of force, as they have been since Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, are detested by democracies. Open societies feel intuitively that a leader who acts in this way is a threat to their freedom, because leaders who behave like this invariably are a threat. Similar to our fear of spiders and snakes, our discomfort around strong-man leaders in uniform comes from our past bad experiences. Millions of lives were lost during the European struggle against militaristic fascism. We know what it looks like, we know how they strut about and swagger, and – as democrats – we don’t like it.
Demagogues appeal to right-wing authoritarians, the aul’ fellas in the pub who are tough on crime – except their own – and all for a tougher army and policing – except then they’re using their truncheons on them. There is no shortage of these characters in the United Kingdom. In my own experience they are attracted to the macho uniformed professions, and no doubt it was just this type my mother meant when she called the security guard in the Burns Mall ‘Little Hitler.’ This was a guy who wore a tan police-style uniform with red piping and a red American cop hat – which explains why the kids from Kilmarnock Academy knew him as ‘Captain Scarlet.’ He loved that silly uniform. It made him someone, and by God did he like to let people know.
We don’t see those outfits in security anymore. As employers have sought to increase their profits by paying their employees less, they have discovered what many of these wannabe Führers want – tougher, sexier paramilitary uniforms with utility belts for their Ribena and hand sanitiser bottles. But I digress. The point is that this tough image, this impression of power and authority appeals to many people. It sends a message to the wider public – people conditioned to obey the authority in uniform – that the wearer is in control and not to be meddled with.
Earlier today, on a visit to the north of England, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was invited to give a speech about policing and the recruitment of an extra 20,000 officers. The understanding of Chief Constable John Robins was that Johnson would only use this platform to talk about these points, but this is not what happened. Standing in front of a wall of uniformed police officers – one of whom fainted during the long-winded ramble, the Prime Minister ‘hijacked’ the occasion to set out his case for a hard no-deal Brexit; saying he would rather be ‘dead in a ditch’ than have another delay on leaving the European Union ‘with or without a deal.’ This was an unmistakable show of force, and no doubt the Prime Minister’s intention from the start.
There is nothing inconsistent about this, of course. The London government, under Johnson and his predecessor Theresa May, has made no secret that its Brexit will be a bitter pill forced down the throats of people with jackboots and khaki. Operation Yellowhammer – the code-name given to the government’s emergency Brexit contingency plans – spells out in lurid detail what refusal to comply will mean. It means the garrisoning of English, Scottish, and Welsh cities with a starting deployment of 1,300 soldiers and extra armed police in Ireland. It means that state contingency legislation will be put into force to allow for the use of maximum force against people who take to the streets in protest against the inevitable shortage of food and essential, life-saving medicines. The Brexit this government has set in motion is a shock and awe initiative which will see the rapid unfolding of a ‘soft totalitarianism’ across Britain and the north of Ireland.
With this terrifying reality just over 50 days away, Boris Johnson was hoping to send a message to the public – that he is the real Captain Scarlet, the Little Hitler with the tough-looking boys and girls in blue standing behind him. Rather than presenting himself – as he is always so keen to do – as Churchill born anew, he has dropped the mask and opted for the harder image of Joe Stalin. He is doing this because he knows that more than half the country won’t be lending him their votes and even less will after Hallowe’en when they see what his Brexit – if it come about – really means. By going for the strong-man image he is at once appealing to the right-wing authoritarian hard right and making a direct threat to everyone else.
This is not what should happen in a free and democratic society. Our leaders have power only because we consent to be governed. They press the flesh of police officers and soldiers at photo-ops, they do not use them as witting or unwitting props in a campaign of intimidation. Democratic leaders do not politicise the police and the army and otherwise make their members instruments in a partisan conflict in which it is likely some level of force will be used. This is an upsetting development and one we must now all watch closely. The cost of our freedom – what little freedom we have left – is eternal vigilance. As Britain and the United States have shown by their foreign interventions in the past, democracies are fragile. Our failure to watch Johnson and others like him and to keep them in check will be the undoing of our democracy and the beginning of a dark period in our history.
Boris Johnson’s speech after Commons defeat