We can use ‘political jiujitsu’ to bring Johnson down

by Hugo Dixon | 26.09.2019

The late Gene Sharp coined the term “political jiujitsu” – the idea being that the aggressive actions of an enemy can be turned against them and cause their downfall. The guru of nonviolent action applied his theory mainly to struggles across the world to turn dictatorships into democracies. But political jiujitsu is also relevant in the current British context, when we need to defend our democracy against Boris Johnson’s increasingly extreme tactics.

The more the Prime Minister descends into the heart of darkness, the more his actions may boomerang against him. There are already signs of this happening. 

His inflammatory rhetoric in the House of Commons yesterday – describing a female MP’s concern for safety in the face of death threats as “humbug” – is losing him the support of the middle ground. Johnson, again and again, described a law requiring him to ask the EU for extra time so we don’t crash out on October 31 as the “surrender act” – a term that has connotations of betrayal and treachery.

A host of current and former moderate Conservatives – including Nicky Morgan, Amber Rudd, Nicholas Soames, Stephen Crabb and Tobias Ellwood – were outraged. So was Brendan Cox, the widower of murdered MP Jo Cox, and Julian King, Britain’s European Commissioner, who noted that extreme language fuels violence.

This is not the first time Johnson’s tactics have backfired. His unlawful suspension of Parliament emboldened MPs to pass the law that he now describes as a surrender act. His expulsion of 21 MPs for approving that law triggered the resignation of his own brother from the Cabinet.

And that’s not all. The Prime Minister is dropping heavy hints that he will wriggle out of the new law or perhaps even break it. He has also undermined the judiciary by saying the Supreme Court was wrong to pronounce on his suspension of Parliament. The Tories used to be the party of law and order. By questioning the bedrock of our society, Johnson risks losing decent middle ground supporters.

Deeper circles of political hell

The Prime Minister seems to be following the adage: “When you’re going through hell, keep going.” He has such an unappetising range of options that he may think he has no alternative but to double down in the hope that he can somehow break out of the manacles that are shackling him. 

But Dante’s Inferno is perhaps the more appropriate analogy. It envisages nine circles of hell. Johnson is descending deeper and deeper into the political underworld with each extreme action.

Of course, his cheerleaders will love the fact that he is trying to set up an election between the people and the establishment – whether that’s Parliament or the Supreme Court – as if he himself is not a member of the elite. But will this work with the moderate middle? 

Nearly a quarter of Conservative voters think he should resign, according to a poll in today’s Daily Mail. And 62% of the population think he should say sorry to the Queen for asking her to suspend Parliament. It wouldn’t be surprising if there was a further backlash after yesterday’s inflammatory remarks, especially from women voters, who already have a lower opinion of Johnson than men.

Courage, discipline and wisdom

But it’s not enough just to wait for Johnson to collapse. Under the theory of political jiujitsu, those fighting liberation struggles also need courage, discipline and wisdom.

MPs are receiving death threats. Judges are being attacked by the tabloid press. Far-right thugs are trying to disrupt nonviolent protests. Without courage, people will be cowed. We must not give in to bullies.

But we ourselves must also not lash out. Otherwise, we too will lose the support of the moderate middle. It will be too easy for decent folk to take the attitude a “plague on both your houses”. So many liberation struggles have failed because they have lacked the ability to maintain nonviolent discipline.

In the current context, this means we must always seek to maintain the high ground however hard that may be. We should not fight fire with fire. We should fight fire with water.

This is not weakness. It is intelligence. We are never going to be able to out-Trump Johnson. And we shouldn’t even try. That way lies the total pollution of our democracy. Instead, we need to fight asymmetric warfare, in which we pit integrity against dishonesty and reasonableness against extremism.

Courage and discipline are not enough. We also need strategic wisdom. Otherwise, we may still be outmanoeuvred by Johnson and his ruthless gang. The opposition must not, for example, fall into the trap of calling an election on his terms. It would be more sensible first to have a referendum and, only after the Brexit issue has been decided, to have an election to determine who runs the country.

If we can follow these political virtues – courage, discipline and wisdom – we will have an excellent chance of turning the tables against the Prime Minister. We will also be better able to bring our country back together.

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Edited by James Earley

Categories: Brexit, UK Politics

3 Responses to “We can use ‘political jiujitsu’ to bring Johnson down”

  • Boris does not want to link with Farage’s Brexit party, but he would like their votes. By adopting the kind of language that succeeded so well for Farage he hopes to acquire them. Let’s hope this clown also loses the votes of respectable Tories . By adopting the language of the gutter press he has made it very clear that he has absolutely no scruples and presents a serious challenge to our democracy.

  • Mrs Michelle Obama made a very important point once: “…when our opponents lower themselves, we raise ourselves up”

    Or words to that effect…

  • The nicknaming of the Benn Act as ‘the surrender act’ has interesting precedents in NI political culture. The slogan ‘no surrender’ or ‘not an inch’ was emblematic in the discourse of James Craig in the 1910’s against a united Ireland. Remarkably Ian Paisley jnr made an inflammatory plea to the UK Parliament on Feb 7 2018 calling for a ‘no surrender’ attitude to Brexit talks with the EU. Boris Johnson with his talk of ‘surrender’ and ‘betrayal’ plugs into the DUP policy narrative which has had a toxic effect on Irish politics since the 1920s and now promises to be re-engineered on the mainland. A partial redeeming feature of Craig was that he believed in brotherhood on the island of Ireland, with his motto ‘charity provokes charity’ . Boris falls hugely short on this quality, driven by iconoclastic zeal and Machiavellian cunning in pursuing a self-destructive Brexit.