Dangerous currents

As the dust starts to settle on the whole Lineker affair, it’s perhaps worth taking stock for a moment. Was this a storm in a very British teacup, or something more fundamental?

At the heart of this is something called Godwin’s Law – ‘an Internet adage asserting that as an online discussion grows longer (regardless of topic or scope), the probability of a comparison to Nazis or Adolf Hitler approaches’. I think it’s generally agreed that it applies beyond the virtual world; and the term is now sufficiently well-established to have found a place in the Oxford English Dictionary

Even those with just a passing acquaintance with social media will recognise how often this can occur. It works both ways, of course, with those on the political right resorting to quasi-Godwinian references to Marxism. Either way, rushing to these comparisons can devalue the language we need to deploy only when facing down the gravest threats to democracy. If we call everyone on the right a fascist, and everyone on the left a communist, we may not notice when the real extremists come calling. 

Here, now, in the UK, the current Conservative administration isn’t fascist. They’re sometimes like a normal party of government; sometimes authoritarian; and often populist. They’re effectively the UK Independence/Brexit Party in government – Faragist, not fascist. As former Tory Chancellor Philip Hammond said, ‘I’m afraid the Conservative Party has been taken over by unelected advisors, entryists and usurpers who are trying to turn it from a broad church into an extreme right-wing faction. Sadly, it is not the party I joined.’

This Conservative Party uses the language you might expect from such a right-wing faction. Home Secretary Suella Braverman, then, talks of 100 million people who could possibly enter the UK without the new legislation – a grotesquely exaggerated figure designed to fire the emotions, not to support rational debate or policy-making, and as false as the Leave campaign’s 2016 claims about Turkish migration. She speaks of an ‘invasion’ of asylum seekers – language previously the domain of only a fringe. (And for those claiming there really is an ‘invasion’ based on the volume of boat traffic, it’s worth pointing out that the UK ranks 16th among the ‘EU27 + the UK’ on asylum applications per head of population.) 

Gary Lineker’s tweet didn’t accuse the Tories of being Nazis, but it did suggest that the language they were using was ‘not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the ’30s’. By ‘Germany’, we have to assume he means the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei – the NSDAP, more commonly known as the Nazis. Their programme for government (specifically Article 8) stated that:

‘Every non-German immigrant is to be prevented. We propose that all non-Germans who immigrated into Germany since 2 August 1914 should be forced to leave the country immediately.’ (My translation*).

And here’s Rishi Sunak’s 7 March 2023 statement on the new asylum policy:

‘People must know that if they come here illegally it will result in their detention and swift removal.’

‘And once you are removed, you will be banned…from ever re-entering our country.’

Oh, my goodness. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it can certainly rhyme. Add back in Braverman’s incendiary language and it’s not hard to see a link to incendiary action by far right mobs. It plays on fears, as per the populist playbook. 

Populism is undesirable in its own right, because it offers simple solutions to complex problems, nurtures cronyism and governs poorly. But it is also the gateway drug to authoritarianism, as that in turn is the gateway drug to dictatorship, in turn the gateway drug to totalitarianism. And the world is peppered with examples of countries at different stages on the slippery slope, including Law and Justice’s Poland, Erdogan’s Turkey, Orbán’s Hungary, Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China. If we’d wanted a Godwin-proof Lineker tweet, then maybe he should have said ‘not dissimilar to the language used by Viktor Orbán’. But very few would have known what that meant.   

On the policy itself, by the way, there clearly is a problem with boats crossing the Channel, not least because people are dying, criminal gangs are flourishing and some in local communities are unsettled by the prospect of newcomers (even when none are coming their way). The effectiveness of Australia’s comparable policy (indeed, probably the model for the UK’s) is disputed, and carried significant reputational damage. The new UK legislation states an intent, but addresses none of the practicalities. That’s poor policy-making at the best of times. 

The government doesn’t know, for example, where those arriving on small boats are going to go. Not to Rwanda, it seems; and not to detention facilities that have yet to be built. They can’t really believe that any of this makes sense. 

All of which gives rise to the suspicion that this policy is more culture war than practical solution. The point is the language, not the policy. It picks a fight with the dreaded tofu-eating, wokerati, lefty lawyer, coalition of chaos blob, the ‘enemy within’ who people need to hate so that this recent incarnation of the Conservative Party stands any chance of winning the next General Election. 

At times like these, when emotive language drags us all further down the slippery slope, we need prominent members of society to stand up for what is decent and humane. Gary Lineker, then, has done us all a service not only by highlighting BBC top management’s hamfisted attempts to stifle freedom of speech, but also by taking a stand on the new asylum policy. He also represents a country that has changed for the better: more socially liberal than ever before, and more inclined to accept, rather than reject, the other. 

Thanks, then, Gary. Back of the net. 

* ‘Jede weitere Einwanderung Nicht-Deutscher ist zu verhindern. Wir fordern, daß all Nicht-Deutschen, die seit 2. August 1914 in Deutschland eingewandert sind, sofort zum Verlassen des Reiches gezwungen werden.’ Reinhard Kühnl, Der deutsche Faschismus in Quellen und Dokumenten, Pahl-Rugenstein Verlag 1975.

4 thoughts on “Dangerous currents

  1. Thank you! It’s important for all of us to try and use language sanely and thoughtfully. This a miracle for making the inward explicit and share-able should not be used thoughtlessly or unwisely. And perhaps this would also encourage us to think better , , ,


  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this Roger. They prompted me to go back to what Lineker actually tweeted in relation to the government’s illegal immigration policy, instead of some of the issues raised it’s aftermath. There are two possible arguments against the comparison he made with the language used by Germany in the 30s: firstly, allowing it to stand is to put yourself on the slippery slope to actually calling the Government a bunch of Nazis; secondly, and following from the first, the comparison doesn’t stack up against the evidence. The trouble is, most of the criticism of what Lineker wrote is in the form of assertion, rather than evidence: ‘we are compassionate’, ‘these are the People’s priorities’, ‘this is just woke name-calling’ and even in one newspaper ‘the Nazis were actually left-wing’ (which is both wrong and irrelevant). The major challenge for those making these assertions is the stated aims of the government’s immigration policy don’t appear to be it’s actual aims. As you say, it doesn’t stack up against evidence which should be used to judge policy: whether it will meet it’s stated aims, and whether it is legal and ethical. Instead, most of the evidence indicates it is a performative appeal to the fears of a particular segment of the electorate, which the government hopes will shape the terms of wider debate going into the next General Election. To that extent, I agree with you – the language used is comparable with that used by other populist authoritarians, whether in today’s world, or indeed by 1930s Germany.


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