The history of British engagement with Europe has oscillated between tragedy and farce for the whole of my adult life: tragedy that Britain was not involved from the beginning, building a better and more sensible Europe than the one we have; farce in the domestic political “debate” on Europe, if debate is not too kind a word. But now we seem to have entered a new register entirely: that of the victim.
It’s unusual for politicians not to take credit for their successes, but that’s what’s happening here. The Brexiters, having got what they want, are now mortified by the complexity and devastation that are the likely results, and are starting, slowly but surely, to transition to a rhetoric which presents Britain as a victim of European manipulation, rather than the author of the problem itself. Don’t ask me how this can be justified logically, because it can’t, but it does have a certain twisted logic of its own if you are familiar with victim cultures.
In victim cultures, your country has suffered, helplessly, from the evil machinations of others. These might be other countries, multinational corporations, the world financial system, or even small groups capable of letting off explosions. Pretty much every country in the world today considers itself wronged, humiliated, a victim of something or other, whether it’s because of today’s events, or because of a past hundreds of years ago. the competition, within and between states, is to be the biggest victim, because being a victim means never having to say you’re sorry. If you are familiar with Africa and the Middle east you will have seen this culture in its purest form.
That’s what’s going on now; The struggle is not to succeed with Brexit or to stop it; the struggle is to take ownership of the victim status that will be claimed as a result of the inevitable chaos. Who would ever have thought a political system could undergo a moral and ideological collapse as quickly as this?
The author is a bit more tolerant of Europe than I am, but here’s a well-written and very clear account of why Brexit is so depressing and so complicated, with nearly all of which I agree.
I don’t know how I would have voted in the UK Referendum on Europe if I had a vote there, but I suspect it might have been reluctantly to Remain on the basis that whilst reform of Europe was not at all likely, it wasn’t totally impossible, either. If the Remain campaign had actually recognised that there were significant flaws in the present system, and promised to try to do something about them, I suspect the result might even have been different.
But instead the chose the politics of fear, the default setting for every political campaign in recent memory. Ironically, it was the Leavers who actually projected some positive vision, even if it was flawed and dishonest. Of course, there’s nothing new about the use of fear as a political weapon – just think of all those elections in the 1960s and 1970s where the return of a mildly left-wing government was going to bring an invasion by the Red Army the next day. But what’s new is the reliance on effectively nothing but fear as a political argument. This goes even beyond the “if you think we’re bad look at the opposition” tactics used by vaguely leftish political parties since the 1990s; In the case of Brexit, as in the current US elections, one side offers absolutely no reason to vote their way at all, other than fear and hatred of the opposition.
This can’t work, and there are already signs that it’s backfiring. Not only have the economic disasters prophesied after a Leave vote not materialized, but the latest economic indicators suggest that they probably won’t. This summary, albeit by a confirmed Brexiter, makes a pretty overwhelming case.
But for a western political class for which has nothing to offer but fear itself as a policy this is, to put it mildly, a problem. I very much doubt that they are capable of understanding, let alone dealing with it.
You may remember the great Euro panic of 2012 (and 2011 for that matter), where in June of that year headlines were screaming “One week to save the Euro!” And after that? Well, nothing very much at all. And the Euro was still there, last time I looked, albeit a bit the worse for wear.
So what happened, How was the crisis solved? It wasn’t actually, it’s just that by July the Eurocracy, the punditocracy and their associated hangers-on had all left their offices and were reading the latest Harry Potter novel on the beach. There was no-one to say there was a crisis, so there was no crisis.
The point, of course, has a wider application. It’s like the old tree-falling-in-a-forest question. If there’s no-one around to say it’s a crisis, then in fact there really is no crisis, since political crises, and these days economic crises as well, are essentially subjective rather than objective.
Which brings us naturally to Brexit. Anyone who transfers sterling to Euros will tell you that the current situation is uncomfortable, although that has nothing to do with what economists call “fundamentals.” It’s about how people who buy and sell currencies for a living think they can make money: in this case, by betting that the Pound will fall, which means of course that it does. But otherwise, and in spite of the apocalyptic predictions, nothing much has actually happened, and Brexit is sliding down the scale of media interest already. Crisis? Don’t call us, we’ll call you. Now where did I put that book……?
It would take a heart of stone not to laugh at the news that the British government may not be able to exit Europe any time soon, or even at all, because it no longer has enough qualified people to do the negotiating. Thus does history get its revenge upon Margaret Thatcher and, wherever the vicious old bitch may currently be residing, I hope she’s sorry.
When I joined in the 1970s, the British public service employed enough people to do decent job, and was, indeed, admired around the world for the job it did. Not the least of the reasons for that was that there was a rational system of allocating staff and other resources according to need. All that changed in the 1980s, when cash started to rule, and the only thing that mattered was reaching financial targets even if you couldn’t actually do the job. And so began the incessant, endless pogrom against the public sector, as fewer and fewer people struggled with more and more work in a environment which seemed increasingly hostile to having a public sector at all.
And now, gosh, look. The Government needs the public sector, only to find it’s not there any more. In my day the Foreign Office was probably the best diplomatic service in the world, and capably led the negotiations with Europe over forty years. But the good people have mostly left, and those who are still there, and those who have joined recently, are not as good.
Maybe Whitehall will have the last laugh, after all.