When we say a system is broken, we mean it’s not working properly. There are two, connected, ways in which this might be the case and both are true in the modern world.
The first way is internal and technical, which is to say that the actual processes that should make the system work are functioning badly, or not at all. The system may manage, more or less, to produce outputs, but not as easily and as well as in the past. Universities, for example, still just about manage to produce graduates, but with much more waste, conflict and bureaucracy than in the past. Hospitals still, as far as they can, heal people, but they are being strangled by management and private sector involvement and drowning under massively increased demand. Perhaps the totemic example of process failure is Brexit: whatever you think about it, the UK should never, ever, have got into the situation it’s now in, and if the system had functioned properly it wouldn’t have done.
The second is teleological and outcome-based, which is to say that the system is unwilling to, or incapable of, producing the necessary outputs. Schools in a number of major countries are scarcely capable of producing school-leavers who can read and write: in France, once renowned for its education system, about 20% of 11-Year-olds are functionally illiterate. But nobody cares because they are largely from the poor and immigrant communities. Sometimes the system doesn’t even try: today’s private sector, for example, no longer even pretends to deliver jobs and investment. It’s become a mechanism for allowing a cabal of managers to loot the assets of the company, the economy and often the state as well, in the form of subsidies and tax-breaks.
OK, then: before we go on, is there any hope for the future?
It’s common enough in politics to call your enemies or people you disagree with idiots, and it’s not always an exaggeration. But the staggering level of incompetence and insouciance displayed by the UK’s current government towards the Brexit negotiations actually puts us into entirely new territory for malevolent stupidity and a complete inability to see past the political advantage that might accrue this week.
Of course, as Harold Wilson famously said, a week is a long time in politics. Of course every major political actor will be calculating how to get out of the Brexit débacle with a whole skin. Of course there will be very few figures thoughtfully contemplating the consequences of their actions in a decade’s time, ready to sacrifice their political careers for the greater good if necessary. That’s politics, and the rules don’t change very much.
But the British people have, in general, been entitled to expect a minimum level of sheer competence from their politicians, even if they don’t agree with them. You don’t aspire to be Prime Minister if you lack even the most rudimentary political skills, any more than you expect to be a champion footballer if you have two left feet. But the general level of total uselessness on display in the present government is quite unprecedented. In earlier times, it would have been safe to say that the British government machine (once the envy of the world, remember?) was capable and efficient enough to deal with Ministers who were complete idiots – and there were quite a few. No longer: the machine has been vandalized and sabotaged to the point where it simply cannot cope any more.
At the moment, ordinary people don’t see this. The realization will dawn when things start to go seriously wrong, when imports don’t come, when exports don’t go, when planes don’t fly and holidays are cancelled, because the government has frittered away time when it should have been negotiating, striking political poses and stabbing each other in the back. Then, I think, the wrath of the British people will be terrible to behold.
It’s already clear that the Tory line will be “it’s all the fault of Brussels” and it’s true as well that Brussels has played its hand badly from a PR point of view. But governments are in the end responsible, and I don’t think that’s going to work as an excuse. If I were Theresa May I’d start running well befog 2019. Now would be a good time.