By Martin Vogel
It’s a cliché of politics to say that we get the leaders we deserve. If that’s true, it begs the question: what have we done to deserve the myopic and divisive leadership that has taken us to the precipice of chaos? A clutch of articles looking at Britain from the outside provide some answers. The Economist considers how Britain’s European allies are looking on with bemusement at its collective nervous breakdown. For them, it’s not just that they are losing a close partner but also grieving the loss of an idea of what Britain represents. No longer sensible and reliable but a country revealed to be as chaotic and headstrong as any other:
“The biggest worry is not that the world’s view of Britain is changing. It is that this darker view of Britain is more realistic than the previous one. The Brexit vote could almost have been designed to reveal long-festering problems with the country: an elite educational system that puts too much emphasis on confidence and bluff and not enough on expertise; a political system that selects its leaders from a self-involved Oxbridge clique; a London-focused society that habitually ignores the worries of the vast mass of British people; and a Conservative Party that promotes so many pompous mediocrities. The reason Brexit is doing so much damage is not just that it is a mistake. It is a reckoning.”
The Irish commentator, Fintan O’Toole, on the other hand thinks there was something real enough about the UK’s reputation for political stability. For him it’s precisely the historic robustness of our institutions that has caused us to be so heedless of them:
“Only a country that does not really know what the collapse of political authority looks like would play this game. To witness the wilful recklessness of seeking to plunge Britain into a Tory leadership contest at this moment of national crisis is to watch people playing with fire because they have never really been burnt. Modern Britain has had its troubles but politically speaking it has been remarkably stable. A two-party system has survived. Political violence is rare. Even the nationalist movements in Scotland and Wales are civic, rational and democratic. But what we see from the outside in the past three years is a country pushing its luck. There seems to be an assumption that the political system can discredit itself as much as it likes with no long-term consequences for the very idea of political order. All we outsiders, scarred as we are by very different memories, can say is: good luck with that.”
Ryan Heath, an Australian journalist who has served as an advisor to the British government and the EU, is excoriating about the way Britain has approached the negotiations over Brexit. He accuses the UK of “an almost willful lack of understanding”. More worrying still, is his conclusion about what this says about the people of Britain and their failure – over decades of EU membership – to come to terms with the UK’s post-imperial status as a middling power:
“What about the millions of people who consumed those fibs and the spineless politicians who avoided the hassle of correcting them? We blame Greeks for blowing up their economy and hold accountable big-spending governments for saddling future generations with excessive debts. Britons don’t deserve a free pass: It’s time they reckoned with what they sowed through 45 years of shallow EU debate.”
Janan Ganesh, a British commentator writing from America, sees something fundamentally unserious about contemporary Britain – reflected, most conspicuously, in its privileging of a sardonic perspective that it passes off as humour:
“What we savour as our national talent can seem, from afar, to be the partial cause of our problems. Britain is living with the consequences of its refusal – its militant refusal – to take anything seriously. Public figures who would have been laughed out of other countries are, in Britain, laughed with, or at least accommodated as ‘characters’. (A few are indeed complete and utter characters.) No rich nation suffers more fools more gladly. Immune to the conventional despot, we are susceptible to the insidious jester, smuggling bad ideas under cover of levity.”
So there you have it: long-festering structural inequality, complacency born of political stability, a penchant for self-deceiving narratives and a preference for raw irony over stolid engagement with our challenges. The roots of our political and constitutional inertia are deep.
In the 1950s, 60s and ‘70s, politics attracted people who were among the best of their generation: shaped by the experience of war, committed to learn its lessons and dedicated to public service. People such as Edward Heath, Anthony Crosland and Roy Jenkins. They may not have got everything right but they were fundamentally serious people.
The best minds no longer go into politics. They’re drawn into careers in finance and technology where the rewards are high and the ethos of public service is slight. The country that produced Churchill and Attlee now colludes in the presumptions of pranksters, charlatans and ideologues who purport to fill their shoes. We don’t so much get the leaders we deserve as the leaders we create.