Irish Times view on political chaos in London: Britain drifts towards the rocks
Seldom has the public interest been so thorougly decoupled from the actions of the ruling class
Theresa May repeated the slogan “strong and stable” with such robotic regularity in her own election campaign two years later that it became a running joke. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images
In the decades since decolonisation, as it adjusted to its new-found status as a middle-sized European island-state, Britain found pride in an achievement that the upheaval of the 20th century had sharply underlined: the quality and stability of its institutions. Just as the United States had the democratic experiment and France its universal values, Britain’s self-image was inseparable from the idea of institutional constancy.
Its monarchy endured and its parliament ruled supreme. Its National Health Service became a model for others. And oiling all of those cogs was its civil service, with its vast networks and long memory and its openness to the world. When David Cameron warned in 2015 that the choice was between “strong and stable government” under him or chaos under Ed Miliband, he was not only denigrating Labour but reminding voters what they liked about their governments.
Theresa May repeated “strong and stable” with such robotic regularity two years later that it became a running joke. The joke is much darker now. With just 132 days to go before Brexit, British politics is in meltdown. Having conned the public into voting for the greatest act of national self-harm in any developed state in the postwar era, the Conservative government is on the brink of collapse because a band of delusional English nationalists believe the withdrawal agreement negotiated by May entails too close a commercial relationship with the country’s biggest trading bloc.
To defeat it, they appear to be willing to push the country over the cliff of a catastrophic no-deal exit. Parliament stands discredited. Ministers have been shown to be out of their depth. Where once there was stability, now there is chaos. The rest of Europe looks on in horror, unable to avert its gaze from the grotesque spectacle.
Seldom has the public interest been so thorougly decoupled from the actions of the ruling class. The Conservatives cling with morbid tenacity to a policy that will make their voters poorer and curtail the opportunities of their country’s young people. Instead of opposing that betrayal, the Labour Party stands frozen, paralysed by its own divisions. Nowhere is the tragedy more starkly illustrated than in Northern Ireland, for whom EU/UK negotiators have fashioned a deal that provides the best of all worlds. A majority of people there voted Remain. Its farmers and business leaders believe the withdrawal agreement should be embraced. Yet the Democratic Unionist Party stands obstinately against, seeing some phytosanitary checks as an insult to their Britishness too intolerable to contemplate.
The case for a second referendum is becoming inarguable. But for that to happen, both the British government and opposition need some real leaders to take a stand. In the meantime, the great ship of state drifts on towards the rocks.