Westminster has still not come to terms with the grievances that drove the referendum outcome, 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 daytimes as the EU’s chief negotiator, he has sat for numbing 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 arrangement 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 arbitrations, 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 time florid, so his terms leapt out. After almost three years with his eye pressed to a microscope improved on the British elite, 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 politicians and pundits remember this, when they jerk awake to the reality that the country stands at a moment of reckoning most profound than Suez- one in which our institutions, our economy and our structure of representation are all being shown up as simply not up to the job. This week is plainly not one of those periods. I watched Barnier’s remarks on Sunday night, as the first UK results from the European elections began to roll in, showing 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 central London, but set in any situation they seem nearly recklessly marginal.
We have just been through an election that construe Labour wiped out in Scotland, lashed 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 part of all votes. We can enter more caveats than in any policy contract- low turnout, assert vote, all the rest- but it hardly changes the bottom line. 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 cause campaigned against by the entirety of the political and economic establishment.
After decades of taking the voters predominantly 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 frenzy in which our party democracy is a sitting target. The developing national mood 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 using the same messages in subtly different compoundings. We must be” courageous and rosy“, says Boris Johnson, while Raab represents” optimistic vision “. But lo! Yonder comes Michael Gove, permitting “unity” and “vision”, elbowing aside Sajid Javid who promises to” find unity “.
On it starts, like some wearisome occurrence of The Apprentice, with each neglecting ink-toner salesman implore Suralan to pay heed to their “passion”. No one dares talk about the appalling parliamentary maths that establishes even a Queen’s discussion impossible. Nor do they admit to having no actual ideas of their own. Forty years after Margaret Thatcher recruited Downing Street, her great-grandchildren are still squabbling over who can claim her suggestions. What is Raab’s great wheeze? To lash income imposition by 5p.
This is Thatcherism, in all its cold, stiff, miscarried ugliness. And the problem there is that the Thatcher experiment has pretty much neglected. Four decades after she took power, 38% of working-age households now take more from the nation in benefits, health care and education than they pay back in taxes. Wealth in Britain is so centralized that the head of the Institute for Fiscal Studies feels” endowment is probably the most crucial factor in determining a person’s overall property since Victorian occasions “.
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 imparted such plaudits as” the world’s most important contemporary intellectual “. A Brazilian, he also helped as a government minister under both Lula and Dilma Rouseff, where he was known to pass time between meets by dipping into Milton’s Paradise Lost.
A” sympathetic foreign adherent of the British national adventure”, Unger couldn’t take his eyes off the great Brexit car crash. Although no follower of Brussels, he saw:” 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 leaves a enormous vacuum-clean to be filled by any elapsing patriot populism .” Except they more had not yet been hypothesis, apart from buying a few more years for a busted financial framework. That is true of Nigel Farage, of Johnson, of Raab- and all the contenders for the Tory leadership.
Instead, Unger wants a revolutionary transpose of supremacy and coin to beings and homes far from Westminster, so they can try their own social and economic ventures that will inform and revivify national politics. The guerrilla localism of Preston, in Lancashire, fits 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 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 commonwealth 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 operates things. You can play those competitions 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 associated toxic politics.
* Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist