Little remains of the Malta that Nazi bombs were so close to sending back to the stone age that its residents moved into caves to escape the onslaught. The brands you see wherever the wealthy consume fill Valletta’s shops. Yachts the size of double-decker buses squat in the harbour below the capital’s ramparts. Across the bay in Kalkara, entrepreneurs are building SmartCity, a home for tech businesses and hotels, on what was once parched scrubland.
Malta is finding new ways to get rich. It’s tried online gambling and offshore banking. Now it has moved into the people-smuggling business. Not the type of people smuggling that ends with refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, or provokes the new right to denounce metropolitan liberals as “people from nowhere”, who want to flood the west with migrants. Rather Malta encourages the migration of the offshore right; of the patriots who love their country but are happy to ditch somewhere for nowhere because they love their money more.
Malta sells EU citizenship for €650,000 up front to the government and a further €350,000 in property. Naturally, this makes it a popular destination for high-end criminals. Citizenship for sale “foments corruption and imports organised crime and money laundering into the union”, the European parliament warned. As did the Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia before she was murdered in 2017. No one knows why she was assassinated, not least the Maltese police whose job it is to know. It remains a matter of record that, among the many instances of corruption she was investigating, was the allegation local politicians were taking kickbacks for passports.
Criminal migrants flooding into Europe? Surely this is everything the modern right fights against. Meanwhile, the publicity-shy billionaire Christopher Chandler, who applied for Maltese citizenship through official channels before the Brexit process began, seems, on the face of it, to lead something of a double life. On the one hand, Chandler founded the pro-Brexit thinktank, the Legatum Institute (Legatum says Chandler has no role within it and Chandler refutes he is a Brexiter). Legatum provided a home for Iain Duncan Smith’s former aide Philippa Stroud, Tim Montgomerie, Matthew Elliott and other anti-EU Tories. On the other, Chandler joined the offshore right by obtaining EU citizenship from the Maltese government. We have learned that the Belize-based Tory Michael Ashcroft, a true citizen of nowhere, had access to evidence of Russian involvement with the Leave campaign. He cheerily acknowledges the Brexit he supported has brought uncertainty, and recommends that businesses looking “for a base in the EU in future” should consider Malta and its “advantageous tax system”. In the 1980s, the hotel tycoon Leona Helmsley earned immortality when she encapsulated the philosophy of the coming generation of oligarchs with the cry: “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”
Brexit is for the little people too. They must suffer the falls in income and the lost jobs, while the men who led them can follow Jacob Rees-Mogg by setting up an investment fund in Ireland or imitate Arron Banks and run their businesses from,Gibraltar. The men who lead the Trump backlash are no different. They claim the right to govern at home while keeping their money offshore – as we would see Trump does, if he ever released his tax returns.
Like workers’ revolutions led by the children of the bourgeoisie, the counter-revolution from above is riven with contradictions. The leaders of the offshore right oppose immigration but migrate to the tax havens. Theresa May has been unfairly criticised for condemning “citizens of nowhere”. If you go back to her original speech you read that she was talking of men and women who treat “tax laws as an optional extra”. Yet she could not face the contradiction that these are some of the very nowhere men who are driving Brexit forward.
I could discuss how the Brexit right wants to rip up workers’ rights and environmental protections, or how, despite their boasts that they are speaking for the “left-behind”, neither the Trump nor Brexit movements has found room at the top for an authentic working-class politician. But I’m sure you’ve spotted that.
Less noticed is the frivolity of rich men and women in politics. Any true patriot would look at a paralysed government, and fear for the future of their fellow citizens. The rich, and I include the high-born and equally anti-European Marxists at the top of Labour, can treat a country as a playground because they do not know the fear of losing their livelihoods. However the game ends they won’t lose.
It’s not as simple as saying that the dogmatists who dominate left and right do not understand Airbus engineers and car workers because they are not forced to work in a factory every morning. Their fault is an absence of imaginative sympathy as much as a lack of experience. They cannot put themselves in the place of others or feel any kinship with people who are suffering now and will suffer more.
The frivolity of Brexit was there from the beginning. Unlike Scottish nationalists before the independence referendum or the Irish government before the abortion referendum, the Leave campaign offered no explanation to the voters of what victory would entail. If it were to present concrete proposals, it risked providing “an undefendable target” and “open[ing] an unwinnable debate”, its leaders explained. Our national crisis – which can best be defined as a failure to agree on what Brexit even means – goes back to the unforgivable dilettantism of a campaign that believed that, if it levelled with public, it would lose the game.
The nationalism of the leaders of the Brexit movement is sincere but not serious. How can it be serious, when they know that if the game goes awry they can buy a business address in Dublin and skip away?
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist