Pat Leahy: What is happening to ‘great’ Britain?

The implosion of the British political elite has pretty hairy consequences for Ireland

People familiar with the Brexit negotiations in Brussels tell me that political instability in London and Franco-German impatience with it are a growing negative dynamic at the talks

For years we thought that Britain’s ruling class was the source of its pre-eminence. Its elite schools and universities prepared a cadre of future politicians and mandarins with the skills, networks and knowledge necessary to advance themselves and their country in the world.

The civil service was the Rolls-Royce of government machines – powerful, patient, strategic and focused.

The media was partisan and muscular at home but a world leader in spreading British soft power around the globe even as the empire faded into history. As a young teacher in Nigeria in the 1960s, my father remembers waiting for the airmail edition of the Daily Telegraph, a few days late, to relate to him the affairs of the wide world beyond.

The British parliamentary system guaranteed strong government, and while the Tories were usually in power, Labour’s habitual intercessions kept the Tories honest, up to a point. No Tory government dared to undo the post-war settlement of the welfare state and the NHS. Tony Blair updated traditional Labour leftism for a modern market-led world.


Their economy was a powerhouse. The City of London was the world’s financial marketplace.

Though their politics was sometimes bitter and their public debate raucous, the British ruling class, incorporating the political elites of all parties, shared a strong sense of themselves and of British priorities home and abroad. To some watching that was insufferable British arrogance. To them it was just the natural order of things. Britain was great, and that was it.

Falling apart

Looking across the Irish Sea it’s very hard to recognise any of this now. The British ruling class is eating itself; the political leadership of the country is falling apart.

Its elite universities are terrified of a brain drain even as foreign academics receive summonses from the Home Office about their immigration status. A few mistakes, say Home Office officials. Yet one person to whom I have spoken, and who deals with the immigration authorities on a regular basis, says rubbish. They are systematically making it harder and harder for people to enter the country.

The Daily Mail, owned by a tax exile and edited by a man paid £2 million a year and whose shooting estate in Scotland receives hundreds of thousands of pounds in EU subsidies, howls about elite conspiracies against the people. The Mail foams at the mouth that people who disagree with Brexit are "saboteurs" who must be "crushed". I'm not making this up.

When an independent judiciary (one of Britain’s gifts to the world) upholds the rights of parliament (parliament!) to decide the fate of the country, they are called “enemies of the people”.

When the chancellor of the exchequer advises that the British economy would be best served by a gradual transition – a statement of the bleedin’ obvious if there ever was one – he is dubbed a “traitor”.

The Tory Party has become a tragi-comedy of naked ambition and utter incompetence, its leader without authority, her potential successors a dismal procession of charlatans, chancers and has-beens.

The Labour Party’s solution? Fudge questions about Brexit and return to the economic policies of the 1970s.

Trade deals

The uselessness at getting anything decided or done has leaked into the once mighty civil service. When Liam Fox – supposed to be preparing for trade agreements with the rest of the world – went to Washington during the summer, he had nobody with any experience of actually negotiating trade deals; the Americans had more than 50 of them. One observer likened the British approach to turning up to play Wimbledon with a ping-pong bat.

Honestly, what is happening to “great” Britain?

There are many people in Ireland who might smirk a bit at the implosion of the British political elite. But the consequences of all this for Ireland are pretty hairy.

People familiar with the course of the negotiations in Brussels tell me that political instability in London and Franco-German impatience with it are a growing negative dynamic at the talks.

May’s weakness discourages real negotiation with her, and that in turn makes her weaker. And a hardball approach from the EU only stiffens the resolve of the hard Brexiteers.

Irish officials say that moving the talks to phase two – which will deal with the trade relationship and, therefore, govern any customs border in Ireland – is still doable by December, but they’re not banking on it anymore.

And if the British – who have been pressing for trade talks for months – are rebuffed again, the calls on May to take a harder line with Brussels will become irresistible. That’s if she’s even still prime minister by then.

If the UK continues blundering its way out of the EU the Irish Government is going to have to step up its preparations. The Taoiseach’s approach that the Border is Britain’s problem only works if Britain is willing or capable of addressing it. Frankly, that’s beginning to look doubtful.

Special economic zone

One idea for the North that has been floated in recent months – including by Fianna Fáil – is the creation of a special economic zone (SEZ). It means that special tax and regulatory arrangements can be put in place for a region to take account of the special circumstances there.

Ireland actually invented the idea of a SEZ – the first one was at Shannon Airport. There are now over 4,500 worldwide. It’s a proposal that deserves some consideration and some work.

I am told the idea would be acceptable in London, and the proposal has the merit that it would not affect the constitutional status of the North, so should not offend the DUP.

The North urgently needs its own government. And Dublin needs to prepare to step up. Given the chaos in London, we will probably have to sort this out ourselves.