The person who is best qualified to hold up a mirror to British politics today is neither a minister nor an academic. He is not even British. No: He is, of course, Michel Barnier, the French-born servant of Brussels. In his 1,036 days as the European Union’s (EU) chief negotiator, he has sat for numbing hours opposite Theresa May, haggled with David Davis and Dominic Raab and their junior ministers and faced down countless Whitehall officials. He is the outsider who knows the British system inside out. So when he popped up right at the end of the BBC’s fly-on-the-wall Storyville documentaries on the Brexit negotiations, I leaned in to listen.
Filmed in March, as it became clear that Britain would not be leaving Europe any time soon, Barnier is shown briefing senior European parliamentarians. This latest breakdown is “more than weariness”, he tells them. “There is a very serious crisis in the UK which ... isn’t linked to the text of Brexit and even less to the Irish backstop. It’s a much deeper crisis. An existential crisis.”
There is a very serious crisis in the UK which ... isn’t linked to the text of Brexit and even less to the Irish backstop. It’s a much deeper crisis. An existential crisis.
As the first United Kingdom results from the European elections began to roll in, showing a far-right party as the clear winner, we saw Labour wiped out in Scotland, trounced in Wales, and under siege in London, while the party of government trailed behind the Greens. Between them, the two main parties took less than a quarter of all votes.
We are fast approaching the third anniversary of the Brexit referendum and Westminster has still barely bothered to respond to the grievances that drove a result campaigned against by the entirety of the political and economic establishment.
After decades of taking the voters largely for granted, the politicians and pundits can’t decide how to respond, so are caught in an elite paralysis. Meanwhile, the public has worked itself up into an impotent fury in which our party democracy is a sitting target. The resulting national mood is straight out of King Lear: “I will do such things, / What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be / The terrors of the earth.”
And the time is filled with displacement activity. As I write, 10 members of parliament have applied to become leader of the Conservative party — all using the same words in subtly different combinations. We must be “courageous and optimistic”, says Boris Johnson, while Raab represents “optimistic vision”. But lo! Yonder comes Michael Gove, bearing “unity” and “vision”, elbowing aside Sajid Javid who promises to “find unity”.
Forty years after Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street, her great-grandchildren are still squabbling over who can claim her ideas. What is Raab’s great wheeze? To slash income tax by 5 pence.
This is Thatcherism, in all its cold, stiff, failed ugliness. And the problem there is that the Thatcher experiment has pretty much failed. Around the same time Barnier was caught on film, I met another outsider expert on the state of Britain. Roberto Unger is a philosopher at Harvard and routinely known as “the world’s most important contemporary intellectual”. A “sympathetic foreign admirer of the British national adventure”, Unger couldn’t take his eyes off the great Brexit car crash. Although no fan of Brussels, he observed: “If you leave the EU, you do so to become something else. But you don’t appear to know what you want to become.” Empire 2.0 and all that flag-waving guff he rightly waved away.
“European politicians whether centre-left or centre-right are so used to the politics of splitting the difference. They are incapable of facing up to fundamental problems,” he said. “And that leaves a vast vacuum to be filled by any passing nationalist populism.” Except they too have no ideas, apart from buying a few more years for a busted economic model. That is true of Nigel Farage, of Johnson, of Raab — and all the contenders for the Tory leadership.
What Brexit has shown again is Britain’s inability to think anew about what the state and the economy are for, to sketch out what a different future might look like. Instead, the country is stuck in the old battles over who gets what subsidies and which clique in Westminster runs things. You can play those games for a while, as long as everyone feels they are getting richer. But post-crash Britain has already been through one lost decade of wage growth. We need to get serious if we are not to have more, and the accompanying toxic politics.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Aditya Chakrabortty is a political columnist and economics commentator.