British politics is falling apart – the Tories are to blame, but Labour is also a shambles
The wreckers in the Conservative Party are willing to destroy everything in their path in pursuit of a Brexit with an uncertain outcome
I get the sense Boris and Co believe the world sees them as boldly striking out on their own, showing those old British qualities of independence, bravery and brio. Actually they look like a crowd of incompetents who can’t make up their minds about anything
The disintegration of British politics continues apace. We are still in the phase where the pillars of their political system – a mighty executive, party discipline, respected institutions, a ruthless sense of the national interest and a shared sense of national identity – are crumbling. They will all probably have to crumble further before British politics puts itself back together.
There are times now watching the parade of chancers, weaklings and half-wits puff themselves up and talk themselves out, seeing its parliament populated by factions rather than identifiable parties, when the UK resembles some Ruritanian semi-democracy. Surely the bushy-moustachioed strongman who refers to himself in the third person can’t be far off.
It is the deep unseriousness with which this historically serious issue is being treated by many of the protagonists that illuminates most the irresponsibility of it all. Half the time MPs – and front bench spokespeople and ministers – have demonstrably no idea what they are talking about.
Nobody knows what the single market is, said Dominic Cummings, architect of the Leave campaign. Three years later much of the British political class still seems to have no idea.
Irish officials say quietly that the level of ignorance about the facts of the EU’s institutional arrangements in London astonishes them.
The denial of facts and realities at this stage is astounding. My 12-year-old daughter discusses Brexit in class, and is assembling a project on it. She has a firmer grasp of the issue than most of the people I see talking about it on the BBC. (Though she has, admittedly, had to endure very many tedious conversations with her father on the subject, as you can imagine).
Brexit has torn up the conventions moulded by hundreds of years of serious politics in London. The wreckers in the Conservative Party are willing to destroy everything in their path – British institutions, diplomacy, their country’s international reputation, the compact between generations – in pursuit of an ideological project with an uncertain outcome. It is the very antithesis of conservatism.
One of life’s greatest insights is to see ourselves as others see us. I get the sense that Boris and Co believe the world sees them as boldly striking out on their own, showing those old British qualities of independence, bravery and brio. Actually they look like a crowd of incompetents who can’t make up their minds about anything.
The Tories are most culpable, but Labour is a shambles too. If there is an opposite of leadership, Jeremy Corbyn is displaying it. His latest wheeze – refusing to talk to Theresa May until she rules out a no-deal Brexit – ignores the fact that she needs help to achieve that. Corbyn could give it, but he won’t because he prefers perceived political advantage.
He came to power promising to listen to the membership. On the biggest political challenge for a generation, he ignores his members. High office tests politicians, often to destruction. With Corbyn it didn’t have to test very hard.
Outside the Palace of Westminster, the Mother of Parliaments, the ancient guardian of English liberties, mobs were harassing MPs on their way into Westminster. The online hate drips poison into media and political debate. The country is ever more bitterly divided.
It is not just that the UK’s national leadership is paralysed; it has no leadership. Poor old Prince Philip (97) crashed his car the other night. He probably turned on the news.
The Irish-British relationship being what it is, there is a fair bit of schadenfreude around here. But we shouldn’t be too smug about it all. Ireland and the UK have an awful lot of common interests and a lot of shared projects – the peace process being the most obvious. That was the first thing to go, put on the shelf where it’s going mouldy.
So here are two things that we should consider: first, how can we ensure nothing like this ever happens to us? And, second, how can we help the UK?
On the first point, to adapt Thomas Jefferson, eternal vigilance is the price of democracy. We need to pay attention to the state of our politics and public debate. The Government has been tardy and unenthusiastic in regulating the new reality of online campaigning. But we can’t outsource the policing of our political debate to the internet giants; what if the debate concerns them?
An electoral commission with real teeth is an urgent priority, but the proposal continues to meander around the foothills of the legislative system.
A healthy democracy requires a healthy media. This week the Independent group announced it was laying off more journalists. Irish media continues to fight against commercial and legal headwinds unmatched in Europe.
Our political and media debate needs to hear all points of view (as Peadar Toibin exhorted in an Irish Times podcast). Despite the objections of some 12-year-olds, we need to promote knowledge and awareness of politics and our political system in schools and through public information campaigns.
We need to treat the work of politics with seriousness and respect (while always retaining the right to poke fun at our leaders). We need to debate and discuss our national interest – something both Paschal Donohoe and Micheál Martin did in impressive speeches this week.
How can we help the British? This is a tricky proposition, right enough. Perhaps the Taoiseach might show more restraint in blaming the British for everything. We all know it’s their fault; he doesn’t have to keep saying it.
If the British move their red lines – and they are currently preparing for transit, it seems – then Ireland and the EU will have to respond. Ireland should be a persuader for EU concessions that do not damage our national interest. Britain is in chaos now. It needs help, and it needs friends.
There is nobody better placed than Ireland.