UK politics has become a very British farce
Theresa May adrift without UK economic policy as Brexit negotiations begin
“Theresa May’s ‘strong and stable’ will now join the long list of ironic British euphemisms.” Photograph: Simon Dawson/EPA
As it would often remind the rest of the world, Britain has for a very long time been what James Joyce once remarked that Ireland was not: a “logical and serious” country. Britain’s political system and leaders in particular were something to be admired: they were rational, reliable and reasonable. Britain was the stereotypical home of the stiff upper lip and, above all, responsible government, with Westminster “the mother of all parliaments”. Other countries might veer into populist rabble-rousing or ideological excess, but Britain would always remain pragmatic and mature.
Not any more. Politics in the UK has become a very British farce, with a revolving cast of characters trying to outdo each other in fits of rash irresponsibility: Theresa May’s “strong and stable” will now join the long list of ironic British euphemisms. Political leaders have washed their hands of any need to be sensible, placing the country on a rollercoaster that seems increasingly out of control.
Unwilling to stand up to years of tabloid and populist myths about immigration and “Brussels”, leaders in both major parties became either passive or active collaborators in Brexit, allowing the fringe concern of what an ally of David Cameron once reportedly called “swivel-eyed loons” to become a mainstream idea. A distant politics and reckless austerity left millions feeling ignored and left behind by a globalisation in which they should have shared, and a combination of opportunists and fantasists took full advantage.
Now, after calling a snap election specifically to gain a mandate to negotiate Brexit, May’s government has been left reliant on the support of a regional party for which 97 per cent of the UK could never vote. The queen’s speech to lay out the government’s agenda has been delayed, either due to the need for DUP approval or a lack of goatskin vellum on which to print the speech (it’s hard to say which is more embarrassing).
With Brexit talks having begun this week, the government appears to have no negotiating strategy beyond – in the immortal words of foreign secretary Boris Johnson – having its cake and eating it. British imperial officials used to speak of their “subject peoples” not being “ready” for self-government; it now feels tempting to say the same of the UK.
This descent into volatility has shocked Europeans: the British are normally “stoic, resilient, and pragmatic”, noted a recent column in Italy’s Corriere della Sera titled almost pityingly (and in English) “Good luck, my friends”. “The pragmatic Brits of the past are no more,” lamented Germany’s Die Welt, while at the weekend Zurich’s Tages-Anzeiger called Britain “Europe’s laughing stock”.
Officials in Brussels have become increasingly alarmed that their British counterparts do not understand basic but crucial elements of the Brexit process. Indeed, the current cabinet is simply not up to the job: the defining issue of the election was May’s arrogance and incompetence, Liam Fox and David Davis seem ignorant of the realities of international trade, while the less said about Johnson the better. Britain is fielding a team far off test-match standard.
This would be bad enough were the country not facing a myriad of other challenges. Inflation is steadily rising and real wages are again falling; the current period of stagnant productivity is the longest since the 18th century; and all the while a fiscal crisis in the funding of healthcare and social care draws nearer.
After years of a “long-term economic plan” focused on austerity – much of which was unnecessarily damaging to the economy – the Conservatives have now abruptly changed tack. Low investment and deep cuts to benefits for the young, poor and disabled were one thing, but they are apparently not willing to face down the anger of well-off pensioners or the DUP: the age of austerity is over, May told Tory MPs after her electoral humbling. Yet there is no clarity as to what will come next. One of the world’s largest economies currently has no economic policy.
The recent election, however, hardly felt like a debate for the country’s future. The Conservatives offered a manifesto without numbers or Brexit plans, while the Labour party – impressive during the campaign but inept for the past two years – wanted to talk about anything but Brexit. They too cynically agree with May that free movement must end and the UK should leave the single market.
Yet there is no clear public consensus on what trade-offs the final Brexit deal should involve, and it is unclear how the necessary compromises would make it through a hung parliament or another election. It is possible that there is no majority for leaving the single market, nor one for staying in it.
Politicians promising everyone the best of all possible worlds has left open the very real risk of a “no deal” Brexit, leaving Britain adrift in international economic waters. British politics has become not just parochial but myopic, its horizons ending at the Channel and the short-term squabbling over the deckchairs while the icebergs get closer.
In many European countries such a moment of national crisis would inspire a broad coalition to build the consensus necessary for a way forward. Yet British democracy actively discourages such co-operation. Designed to produce durable majority governments, the first-past-the-post system instead has produced hung parliaments in 2010 and 2017, while 2015’s slender Conservative majority lasted just two years.
Partisan positioning has taken precedence over policymaking as the two major parties fight over the carcass of Ukip’s vote. The government’s shotgun marriage with the DUP now recklessly endangers Northern Ireland’s peace and devolution, while the Scottish government demands a second independence referendum and London seeks special arrangements with the EU. “Taking back control” so far looks like pulling the country apart.
Contrary to the insecure paranoia of Brexit, the fact that so many immigrants have come to Britain in the past decade shows the many strengths that its economy and society possesses: the UK is modern and multicultural, vibrant and varied, and, above all, open. Just a few years ago the country seemed on a very positive trajectory, and there was no reason it should not continue to thrive throughout this century. But all of that is now endangered.
As the former chancellor George Osborne said some years ago, “Britain has no divine right to be one of the richest countries in the world.” There are no easy answers to Britain’s predicaments, and it will take courage to engage in public debate with realism rather than pandering, to seek consensus not partisan advantage. But serious times require serious people. It’s time for British politicians to take responsibility, before it’s too late.
Dr Christopher Kissane is a historian at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker