Westminster has still not come to terms with the grievances that drove the referendum ensue, says Guardian correspondent Aditya Chakrabortty
The person who is best qualified to hold up a reflect 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 eras as the EU’s chief negotiator, he has sat for counting hours opposite Theresa May, haggled with David Davis and Dominic Raab and their junior ministerial and faced down countless Whitehall officials. He is the outsider who knows our organization inside out. So when he popped up right at the end of the BBC’s fly on the wall Storyville films on the Brexit discussions, 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 outage 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 .”
Barnier doesn’t do florid, so his terms leapt out. After virtually three years with his eyes pressed to a microscope learnt on the British elite, here was one of the EU’s finest declaring that the real failure wasn’t such clauses or that loophole. It wasn’t even Brexit at all. The UK is in a crisis as big as the country itself.
There are times when some politicians and pundits remember this, when they jerk awake to the reality that the country stands at a moment of reckoning more profound than Suez- one in which our institutions, our economy and our organisation of representation are all being shown up as simply not up to the job. This week is plainly not one of those times. I watched Barnier’s mentions on Sunday night, as the first UK results from the European elections began to roll in, picturing a far-right party as the clear winner. I woke up to a righteous hailstorm of commentary about What Jeremy Must Say Now and Who Replaces Theresa. Such debates can satisfactorily steam up the waistband windows of central London, but set in any context they seem virtually recklessly marginal.
We have just been through an election that hear Labour wiped out in Scotland, lashed in Wales, and under siege in London, while the working party of government trailed behind the Greens. Between them, the two main parties took less than a part of all polls. We can participate more caveats than in any insurance contract- low-pitched turnout, declaration vote, all the rest- but it hardly conversions the bottom line. We are fast approaching the third anniversary of the Brexit referendum and Westminster has still barely vexed to answer the grudges that drove a upshot campaigned against by the entirety of the political and financial establishment.
After decades of taking the voters predominantly for conceded, the politicians and pundits can’t decide how to respond, so are caught in an upper-clas paralysis. Meanwhile, the public has worked itself up into an impotent frenzy in which our party democracy is a sitting target. The arising national humor is straight out of King Lear:” I will do such things,/ What the latter are, yet I know not: but they shall be/ The fears of the earth .”
And the time is filled with displacement activity. As I write, 10 MPs have applied to become leader of the Conservative party- all use the same terms in subtly different combinations. We must be enabled” courageous and optimistic“, says Boris Johnson, while Raab represents” optimistic vision “. But lo! Yonder comes Michael Gove, birthing “unity” and “vision”, shouldering aside Sajid Javid who promises to” find unity “.
On it runs, like some wearisome episode of The Apprentice, with each failing ink-toner salesman solicit Suralan to pay heed to their “passion”. No one dares talk about the appalling parliamentary maths that acquires even a Queen’s addres impossible. Nor do they admit to having no actual ideas of their own. Forty times after Margaret Thatcher enrolled Downing Street, her great-grandchildren are still squabbling over who can claim her suggestions. What is Raab’s great cough? To lash income tax by 5p.
This is Thatcherism, in all its cold, stiff, neglected ugliness. And the problem there is that the Thatcher experiment has pretty much flunked. Four decades after she took power, 38% of working-age households now take more from the commonwealth in benefits, health and education than they pay back in taxes. Wealth in Britain is so converged that the head of the Institute for Fiscal Studies imagines” legacy is probably the most crucial factor in determining a person’s overall resource since Victorian eras “.
Around the same time Barnier was caught on film, I met another outsider expert on the government of Britain. Roberto Unger is a philosopher at Harvard, much admired by Ed Miliband and routinely handed such plaudits as” the world’s most important contemporary scholastic “. A Brazilian, he too provided as a government minister under both Lula and Dilma Rouseff, where he was known to pass time between gathers by dipping into Milton’s Paradise Lost.
A” sympathetic foreign admirer of the British national escapade”, 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 curved away.
” European politicians whether centre-left or centre-right are so used to the politics of splitting the difference. They be impossible to facing up to fundamental problems ,” he said.” And that leaves a immense vacuum-clean to be filled by any legislating patriot populism .” Except they extremely had not yet been meanings, apart from buying a few more years for a busted financial simulate. That is true of Nigel Farage, of Johnson, of Raab- and all the hopefuls for the Tory leadership.
Instead, Unger requires a progressive transportation of dominance and fund to parties and residences far from Westminster, so they can try their own social and economic ventures that will inform and revivify national politics. The insurgent localism of Preston, in Lancashire, fits that brief, as does the Welsh government’s new focus on the foundational economy. Only Westminster starves such places of money and is responding to any outbreak of political resource with suspicion.
Yet the philosopher’s challenge is the right one. What Brexit has shown again is our inability to think anew about what the territory 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 gives and which clique in Westminster leads things. You play games those recreations for a while, as long as everyone feels they are getting richer. But post-crash Britain has already been through one lost decade of compensation rise. We need to get serious if we are not to have more, and the accompanying harmful politics.
* Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist