Westminster has still not come to terms with the grudges that drove the referendum solution, says Guardian columnist Aditya Chakrabortty
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 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 system inside out. So where reference is popped up right at the end of the BBC’s fly on the wall Storyville documentaries 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 explosion 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 paroles leapt out. After almost three years with his eyes pressed to a microscope qualified on the British nobility, here was one of the EU’s finest declaring that the real failure wasn’t this clause 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 policy makers and pundits remember this, when they jerk awake to the reality that the country stands at a moment of calculating most profound than Suez- one in which our institutions, our economy and our organisation of the representatives are all being shown up as simply not up to the job. This week is plainly not one of those hours. 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 win. 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 center London, but set in any situation they seem virtually recklessly marginal.
We have just been through an election that divine Labour wiped out in Scotland, lashed in Wales, and under besieging in London, while the party of government trailed behind the Greens. Between them, the two main parties took less than a one-quarter of all elections. We can penetrate more caveats than in any guarantee contract- low-pitched turnout, rally vote, all the rest- but it hardly alters the bottom line. We are fast approaching the third anniversary of the Brexit referendum and Westminster has still scarcely inconvenienced to answer the grudges that drove a decision campaigned against by the entirety of the political and financial establishment.
After decades of taking the voters largely for awarded, the policy makers 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 feeling in which our party democracy is a sitting target. The arising national mood is straight out of King Lear:” I will do such things,/ What they are, hitherto I know not: but they shall be/ The horrors 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 exploiting the same messages in subtly different combinations. We must be” courageous and rosy“, says Boris Johnson, while Raab represents” optimistic vision “. But lo! Yonder comes Michael Gove, tolerating “unity” and “vision”, elbowing aside Sajid Javid who have committed themselves to” find unity “.
On it starts, like some interminable escapade of The Apprentice, with each miscarrying ink-toner salesman pray Suralan to pay heed to their “passion”. No one dares talk about the appalling parliamentary maths that obliges even a Queen’s communication impossible. Nor do they admit to having no actual ideas of their own. Forty years after Margaret Thatcher enrolled Downing Street, her great-grandchildren are still squabbling over who can claim her thoughts. What is Raab’s great wheeze? To reduce income taxation by 5p.
This is Thatcherism, in all its cold, stiff, failed ugliness. And the problem there is that the Thatcher experiment has pretty much failed. Four decades after she took power, 38% of working-age households now take more from the country in benefits, health and education than they pay back in taxes. Wealth in Britain is so centralized that the head of the Institute for Fiscal Studies accepts” legacy is probably the most crucial factor for the purpose of determining a person’s overall asset since Victorian experiences “.
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, much admired by Ed Miliband and regularly held such plaudits as” the world’s more important contemporary academic “. A Brazilian, he also helped as a government minister under both Lula and Dilma Rouseff, where he was known to pass time between sees by dipping into Milton’s Paradise Lost.
A” likable foreign supporter of the British national escapade”, Unger couldn’t take his eyes off the great Brexit car crash. Although no follower of Brussels, he celebrated:” 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 motioned 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 extending patriot populism .” Except they more have no sentiments, apart from buying a few more years for a busted financial example. That is true of Nigel Farage, of Johnson, of Raab- and all the competitors for the Tory leadership.
Instead, Unger wants a radical transportation of superpower and money to beings and places far from Westminster, so they can try their own social and economic experiments that will inform and revivify national politics. The guerrilla localism of Preston, in Lancashire, matches that brief, as does the Welsh government’s brand-new focus on the foundational economy. Merely Westminster starves such places of coin and reacts to any outbreak of political imagination 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 district 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 aids and which clique in Westminster runs things. You play games those tournaments 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 raise. We need to get serious if we are not to have more, and the associate noxiou politics.
* Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist