Westminster has still not come to terms with the grudges that drove the referendum result, says Guardian correspondent 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 dates as the EU’s chief negotiator, he has sat for counting hours opposite Theresa May, bickered with David Davis and Dominic Raab and their junior ministers and faced down countless Whitehall officials. He is the outsider who knows our structure inside out. So when he popped up right at the end of the BBC’s fly on the wall Storyville documentaries on the Brexit mediations, 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 dislocation 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 time florid, so his statements leapt out. After almost three years with his eyes pressed to a microscope trained on the British nobility, 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 policy makers and pundits remember this, when they jerk awake to the reality that the country stands at a moment of calculating more profound than Suez- one in which our institutions, our economy and our system of the representatives are all being shown up as simply not up to the job. This week is plainly not one of those durations. I watched Barnier’s observes on Sunday night, as the first UK results from the European elections began to roll in, indicating 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 sash windows of central London, but set in any context they seem almost recklessly marginal.
We have just been through an election that recognize Labour wiped out in Scotland, lashed in Wales, and under siege in London, while the working party of authority trailed behind the Greens. Between them, the two main parties took less than a part of all votes. We can participate more caveats than in any policy contract- low turnout, objection election, all the rest- but it hardly modifies the bottom line. We are fast approaching the third anniversary of the Brexit referendum and Westminster has still scarcely riled to answer the grievances that drove a upshot campaigned against by the entirety of the political and financial establishment.
After decades of taking the voters largely for conceded, the policy makers and pundits can’t decide how to respond, so are caught in an society paralysis. Meanwhile, the public has worked itself up into an impotent frenzy in which our party democracy is a sitting target. The developing national humor is straight out of King Lear:” I will do such things,/ What they are, hitherto I know not: but they shall be/ The terrors 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 using the same texts in subtly different compoundings. We must be enabled” courageous and rosy“, says Boris Johnson, while Raab represents” optimistic vision “. But lo! Yonder comes Michael Gove, assuming “unity” and “vision”, shouldering aside Sajid Javid who have committed themselves to” find unity “.
On it travels, like some interminable chapter of The Apprentice, with each failing ink-toner salesman beg Suralan to pay heed to their “passion”. No one dares talk about the appalling parliamentary maths that attains even a Queen’s discussion hopeless. Nor do they admit to having no actual ideas of their own. Forty years after Margaret Thatcher participated Downing Street, her great-grandchildren are still squabbling over who can claim her thoughts. What is Raab’s great cough? To slash income taxation by 5p.
This is Thatcherism, in all its cold, potent, failed ugliness. And the problem there is that the Thatcher experiment has pretty much miscarried. Four decades after she took power, 38% of working-age households now take more from the position in benefits, health care and education than they pay back in taxes. Wealth in Britain is so center that the head of the Institute for Fiscal Studies believes” endowment is probably the most crucial factor in determining a person’s overall capital since Victorian ages “.
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 made 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 fits by dipping into Milton’s Paradise Lost.
A” sympathetic foreign booster of the British national undertaking”, 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 rippled 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 foliages a enormous vacuum to be filled by any guiding nationalist populism .” Except they too have no hypothesis, apart from buying a few more times for a busted economic framework. That is true of Nigel Farage, of Johnson, of Raab- and all the challengers for the Tory leadership.
Instead, Unger craves a revolutionary transportation of ability and fund to people and plazas 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. Simply Westminster starves such places of fund and reacts to any outbreak of political curiosity 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 regime and the economy are for, to sketch out what a different future might looks a lot like. Instead, the country is stuck in the old battles over who gets what gives and which clique in Westminster extends things. You can play 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 payment growth. We need to get serious if we are not to have more, and the accompanying lethal politics.
* Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist