Westminster has still not be dealing with the grievances that drove the referendum make, 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 dates 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 method inside out. So when he popped up right following the completion 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 elderly 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 words 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 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 anticipating more profound than Suez- one in which our institutions, our economy and our arrangement of representation are all being shown up as simply not up to the job. This week is plainly not one of those experiences. I watched Barnier’s mentions 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 nearly recklessly marginal.
We have just been through an election that investigate Labour wiped out in Scotland, clobbered 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 elections. We can participate more caveats than in any guarantee contract- low-grade turnout, objection election, 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 barely riled to answer the grudges that drove a solution campaigned against by the entirety of the political and economic establishment.
After decades of taking the voters mainly for awarded, the policy makers and pundits can’t decide how to respond, so are caught in an nobility paralysis. Meanwhile, the public has worked itself up into an impotent feeling 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 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 applying the same terms in subtly different compoundings. We must be” courageous and rosy“, says Boris Johnson, while Raab represents” optimistic vision “. But lo! Yonder comes Michael Gove, making “unity” and “vision”, shouldering digression Sajid Javid who promises to” find unity “.
On it travels, like some wearisome escapade of The Apprentice, with each miscarrying ink-toner salesman implore Suralan to pay heed to their “passion”. No one dares talk about the appalling parliamentary maths that shapes even a Queen’s speech hopeless. Nor do they admit to having no actual ideas of their own. Forty times after Margaret Thatcher recruited Downing Street, her great-grandchildren are still squabbling over who can claim her feelings. What is Raab’s great cough? To lash 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 government in benefits, health and education than they be paying in taxes. Wealth in Britain is so center that the head of the Institute for Fiscal Studies speculates” endowment is probably the most crucial factor in determining a person’s overall abundance since Victorian ages “.
Around the same time Barnier was caught on film, I met another outsider expert on the position of Britain. Roberto Unger is a philosopher at Harvard, much admired by Ed Miliband and regularly established such plaudits as” the world’s most important contemporary scholastic “. A Brazilian, he too helped as a government minister under both Lula and Dilma Rouseff, where he was known to pass time between sessions by dipping into Milton’s Paradise Lost.
A” likable foreign adherent of the British national adventure”, Unger couldn’t take his eyes off the great Brexit car crash. Although no devotee of Brussels, he detected:” 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 brandished 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 to be filled by any legislating patriot populism .” Except they too have no ideas, apart from buying a few more times 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 movement of superpower and money to people and situates far from Westminster, so they can try their own social and economic experimentations that will inform and revivify national politics. The insurgent localism of Preston, in Lancashire, equips that brief, as does the Welsh government’s new focus on the foundational economy. Exclusively Westminster starves such places of coin and reacts 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 regime 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 passes things. You play games those activities 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 proliferation. We need to get serious if we are not to have more, and the accompanying poisonou politics.
* Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist