The ageing WB Yeats complained in Sailing to Byzantium that his soul, stuck in his increasingly decrepit body, was “fastened to a dying animal”. With the absurd accession of Liz Truss to 10 Downing Street, it increasingly feels like Ireland too is tethered to a moribund creature.
In a healthy or happy democracy, Truss doesn’t get to be prime minister, even in her own fantasies. She is Theresa May without the seriousness and Boris Johnson without the charisma — a combination of ingredients scraped by a mad chef from the bottom of a very deep barrel.
With her, the Tory Party has chosen, not to wake up to the increasingly grim realities of contemporary Britain, but to double down on the game of “let’s pretend”.
With Johnson, it was “let’s pretend it’s 1940 and he’s Winston Churchill”. With Truss, it’s “let’s pretend it’s 1980 and she’s Margaret Thatcher”. With both, it is let’s pretend that Britain’s problems were caused by the EU and that the British bulldog has now been let off the leash, ready to romp through the sunlit uplands of a new golden age.
You only have to pretend this hard when you’re avoiding something big. What’s being evaded here is decline.
In thinking about Britain’s slow decline, the usual point of comparison is with, say, the rise of China. But a much better comparator is much closer to home — the little country just across the Irish Sea.
Ireland, God knows, has very serious problems, most of them rooted in its peculiar combination of hyperdevelopment and underdevelopment. But it’s doing better than Britain is.
Twenty five years ago, Ireland was poorer, more corrupt and more in thrall to reactionary nationalism than Britain was. Now, on all three counts, the reality is reversed.
The true measure of decline or advance for a country is the standard of living of ordinary people. For centuries, Irish people emigrated to Britain because the standard of living was better there.
It’s not any more. There’s been a dramatic decline in the growth of median household incomes in the UK this century.
The Tories came back into power in 2010. Over the course of this unbroken period of rule, typical household incomes in Britain have risen more slowly than those in only two other western European countries: Greece and Cyprus.
Thus, while Truss, and the cult to which she now adheres with the zeal of a convert, tell a story in which Britain has been held back by the EU, the truth is that almost every other EU country did much better than Britain — Ireland included.
Typical incomes rose by 34 per cent in France and 27 per cent in Germany between 2007 and 2018. In Britain they fell by two per cent.
And, from our point of view, the remarkable fact is that typical incomes of ordinary people in Ireland are now six per cent higher than they are in Britain. It’s hard to overstate the historic nature of this reversal.
It’s not just economics, though. At the start of this century, if you were told there would be a pandemic that required governments to spend vast amounts of money on procurement, you would have said that the Brits will probably spend the money honestly while the Irish would see much of it diverted into shady deals and the enrichment of cronies.
Yet the evidence is that this actually worked the other around. Ireland is not an isle of saints, but it looks, objectively, much less politically corrupt than Britain now is.
Finally, Ireland is now less mad than Britain. It is less prone to the head-staggers of reactionary nationalism. Who could imagine an Irish government doing something so pointlessly cruel as flying asylum seekers off to Rwanda?
For an old-fashioned English patriot with an old-fashioned English habit of looking down on Ireland as a strange and backward place, these comparisons ought to alarming. Whatever about falling behind the Germans, being surpassed by the benighted Irish ought to be rather shaming.
But acknowledging that would require a reckoning with the legacy of a Tory party that is maniacally pressing Control+Alt+Delete by changing its leaders with the seasons. Its one remaining trick seems to be that of making each new one so bad that the previous disaster is cast, retrospectively, in a more sympathetic light.
Truss will certainly achieve this. She will make Johnson seem a political genius, May a mistress of empathy, David Cameron a beacon of sincerity.
These are morbid symptoms. Truss is the embodied death wish of a faction that has lost the will to live as a real party of government.
She is the My Lovely Horse of Father Ted, the Springtime for Hitler of The Producers — designed for failure. The Tory press will sing My Lovely Liz and Springtime for Truss with unironic gusto, but the illusion will be as transparent as it will be short-lived.
We in Ireland, tied whether we like it or not to the fate of our neighbouring polity, must hope that this death-rattle does not go on too much longer. Perhaps Truss’s accession is a last rite, a ghost dance for a desperate tribe. Perhaps, after her, there will be a deluge of reckonings with reality.