FOR many years there has been major excavation and traffic disruption at the junction of Oxford Street, Tottenham Court Road and Charing Cross Road in London. The reason is the massive tunnel being drilled through the city for Crossrail, which will link Reading and Shenfield. A Transport for London hoarding carries the message: ‘we invest all our profit in improving services for you’. Translation into a South African context would read: ‘we steal all the profit in the interests of the ANC elite and their corrupt, money laundering business cronies to further advance the gangster state’.
All around me on a recent visit to Britain on family business there were encouraging signs of a well-functioning country. And yet in what I regard as my British hometown in the West Country there were disturbing signs. Walking along its main street on my left were two armed police officers; to my right a young female street person absorbed in a book, wrapped in a sleeping bag and surrounded by her distinctly grubby belongings. Both would have been unthinkable in my fifties childhood. Both are symptomatic of deep structural problems.
Looking around I unsuccessfully sought evidence of outrage that if the confidence trick called Brexit is not halted, Britain is headed for economic and, in all likelihood, political disaster. Those who believe otherwise inhabit some mystical historic place that has no connection with the contemporary world, let alone the future. For the moment, and it may not last long, the centre holds. It is not insignificant that the generation that fought World War Two has all but gone while its political influence disappeared years ago. Ironically, there are endless television documentaries while the real lessons of that conflict are largely forgotten. The social contract and the broad national consensus it bred were buried by Margaret Thatcher and her crusaders. The country now appears to be run by uneducated and ignorant juveniles encouraging a state of national mental atrophy and, in Martin Kettle’s words, ‘civic failure’.
What future can there be for a nation divorced from common sense and logic, lacking an understanding of the inexorable trends of the modern world, incapable of interpreting history wisely, glorying in betrayal of the post-war European political compact while dwelling on fantasies of the past? The immediate explanation for this impulse to national suicide is that monument to British (or more specifically, English) failure – the Tory Party. Dominated ideologically by rabid right-wingers, alt-right fellow travellers and a number of sheer clowns, it is a morass of contradictions. It claims to be a unionist party but is hell-bent on policy that will destroy the United Kingdom and demolish British identity. It supposedly supports free trade, but wants to exit the world’s biggest free trade zone. And it trumpets parliamentary sovereignty only to embrace plebiscite politics and treat parliament as the government’s rubber stamp in the name of a mythical national will. ‘Taking back control’ has the hallmarks of a right-wing coup.
When a rational answer cannot be found, it is reasonable to seek the irrational. The Brexit campaign, in all likelihood illegally funded and manipulated by sinister data mining outfits linked to foreign (probably Russian) interests, was based on a well-known menu of lies. The socio-economic woes of Britain, real and imagined, have little to do with the European Union. Their origins lie in the banking meltdown of 2007–2008 and consequent austerity policies. Foreigners are not stealing jobs or exploiting the social security system to any significant degree. Facts do not support a case for Brexit, so an explanation can be sought in emotion.
Superiority and insularity have long been associated with the English. Much of the time this takes on benign and often comical forms, but it has the makings of xenophobia and a tendency to a reactionary glorification of the past. The anti-EU movement is in part rejection of the modern world and a yearning for perceived loss as trivial as blue British passports. There is a sense that millions of Brexit supporters think they are in an episode of Dad’s Ary muttering encouraging words about ‘muddling through and making do’. Some fanatics even argue they are prepared to accept a lower standard of living in pursuit of a past world that cannot and will not be resurrected. These reactionary yearnings hold considerable danger. It has long been argued that a deeply entrenched British respect for the rule of law and individual liberty (Jeremy Paxman claims it goes back to Saxon times) has protected the nation from extremes of right and left that are regarded as a joke and held in contempt. That may be true historically, but there are signs of change.
Over recent years there has been a sense that Britain has become a less caring and more coarse society. There is evidence of this everywhere, none more so than in the attitude of civil servants and government agencies. At present, a grandmother who arrived in Britain at the age of ten in the 1960s and has never left (among other places she worked at the House of Commons) is threatened with deportation to Jamaica. Since she migrated prior to the 1973 Immigration Act the government is behaving illegally, but this is symptomatic of a deliberately bureaucratic and antagonistic climate.
Not only have the lessons of history been rejected, but also a future meaningful international role. Britain is a European nation, its imperial connections long since displaced by other alliances. The concept of a buccaneering Britain linking up with the English-speaking world is a concept that disappeared as long ago as the 1960s. The modern world requires the co-operation of neighbours to tackle global problems.
And then there is contempt, cheered on by the gutter press, a description that now seems to fit most British newspaper titles, for what is loosely called the Establishment. Establishment used to have a definite meaning but now it appears to embrace any individual or institution that values fact, logic and reason: the person in the street knows best although her and his level of knowledge is one notch above sheer ignorance. Here, after all, is the will of the people that reigns supreme.
The consequences of short-term, insular thinking will be dire. If Brexit was a protest vote against globalisation (and it is probable that the thinking of most leave voters does not lend itself to such sophistication) it will come back to bite. Many Brexiters are not only unrepetentant leavers but have shown the finger to their own futures. Apparently the price of xenophobia – a decline in the standard of living and public services – is well worth it. This rush of blood to the head may pay off for a while, but it will not last. Then culprits will be sought, no doubt led by the very same phobic and toxic brand of journalism and politics that encouraged Brexit.
And the political consequences point to an extremism that Britain has avoided in the past. The democratic Left may pick up support, but current trends suggest a lurch to the Right led by economic libertarians and crypto-fascists from all sectors of society. The circumstances – economic hardship, disarticulated grievance, emotional appeals to a glorious past and a general culture of resentment that suspects treason and betrayal everywhere – are tailor made for the emergence of militant populism. Brexit could indeed turn out to be the point at which modern Britain changed, for the worse, forever. And its catalyst was a squabble in the Conservative Party.