Sic transit Britannia
July 26, 2019
Published on ‘The Jerusalem Post’ Website on July 25th, 2019:
Boris Johnson’s arrival in Downing Street opens a new chapter in the seemingly endless Brexit saga – but it solves none of the fundamental issues threatening the very existence of the political entity known as the United Kingdom.
“Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad”.
(variously attributed to Greek and later authors)
Summer in the Northern hemisphere. Vacation time, when people prefer not to think about politics, let alone existential threats facing their country.
This disconnect mentality is universal, as the Israeli political system and media are currently discovering. Yet nowhere is it currently more prevalent than in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, aka Britain — and also widely, if confusingly, called England. Most people in the UK have, for some time now, desperately wanted to not hear about politics, least of all in the summer. This is so not despite the fact that their country is in a deepening and potentially existential political crisis, but precisely because of that.
The latest development in this crisis is the election of Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party and, by extension, as Prime Minister – replacing the hapless Theresa May, who was eventually forced to resign by her own party, after serial blunders and a record of unparalleled failure.
The general public in Britain, however, is neither excited nor even much interested in this supposedly important event. Nor is it exercised by Johnson’s promise to ensure that the UK leaves the EU – “Brexit” – by October 31st, the latest of many deadlines for this to take place.
In fact, most British people have long since ceased to follow Brexit — the one-word summary for an extraordinary, and extraordinarily complex, socio-economic, political-constitutional mess in which the country has willfully embedded itself. The turn-off reflects two aspects of Brexit – not just its complexity, but also its apparent endlessness. Bitter experience has shown that however many times the politicians and media identify an impending event on a specific date as ‘decisive’ – both event and date will come and go with nothing resolved, leaving behind only greater confusion and increased lack of clarity.
People therefore have no incentive to pay attention to the latest political machinations, whatever they may be. They do have very strong incentives to pay no attention: not only is it a waste of time, it will make you angry, frustrated, repulsed, depressed — or all of the above.
If that is how it looks and feels for citizens inside the country, any attempt to follow Brexit from the outside is rendered almost impossible by its sheer perplexity – which takes two forms. One is intellectual, the Sisyphean effort involved in tracking what is being said and done, trying to understand the interests of individuals, factions, parties and sectors of the population.
But the perplexity is also emotional, a response to the sight of a once-great country and culture bent on suicide. As with an individual displaying suicidal behaviour, when an outsider can identify no rationale which might justify national hara-kiri, all that is left is sadness mixed with horror.
This septic isle
The UK is in decline. To members of my generation, born after WW11, that has always been a reality, a basic fact of life embedded in national and individual consciousness. Even to the previous generation, born around the First World War, that reality was obvious and undeniable, albeit less acute. One would have to go back to generations born in the late nineteenth century to find Britons for whom national decline was not an inherent feature of their socio-political environment.
But decline is not an excuse for suicide, for countries any more than it is for individuals. On the contrary, nations are not doomed to fade into the night. They can seek to reverse their downtrend. That is what Margaret Thatcher sought to do in the UK in the 1980s and, irrespective of the argument over whether she made matters better or worse — and for whom, where, when and why. The same can be said for Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and ‘New Labour’. These were serious efforts to adjust to a problematic long-term reality and yet still try to improve it — to stop and maybe even reverse the negative trend.
These relatively recent examples make the current collapse all the more shocking. Even in decline, the United Kingdom boasted a political culture and constitutional framework that made it the focus of respect and even envy from people and nations around the world. It continued to be a poster-child for the basic features of parliamentary democracy – made in Britain and exported far and wide – namely the separation of powers and the orderly transition of political power, both within and between parties, giving rise to political stability.
Beyond these political and constitutional aspects, even more fundamental concepts — such as integrity, decency and that uniquely British idea of ‘fair play’ — were so ingrained as to be taken for granted. Proof that the system worked well came from the instances when these abstract ideas were subverted, as in the Profumo scandal of the early 60s, the Thorpe scandal of the late 70s and, in a different context, the Suez fiasco of the mid-50s.
Thus, even when the country was in overt and relentless decline, the British constitutional framework and the political system functioned well. Critically, the social fabric also held together, even during episodes of severe strain, such as the Three Day Week in 1974 or the Wapping ‘dispute’ in 1986-7.
Brexit has exposed for all to see that none of the above holds true any longer. Whether the Brexit process, from its flawed inception to its incompetent and impotent execution, was the direct cause or merely the symptom, or some mixture of both, the country has reached a state not only unprecedented, but also previously unimaginable.
The country’s ‘unwritten’ constitution, its procedures, precedents and traditions, is no longer working. The two-party system has collapsed, with both of the ‘big parties’ having fallen under the sway of extremist factions and become deeply split, both in parliament and in the country. Boris Johnson is part of this collapse, quite possibly a catalyst, but not someone who can – or even wants – to repair the damage or reverse the process.
With the normal political structure gutted, opportunity knocks for extremist and narrowly-focused movements. However, the problematic features of the British ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system — which served to promote and bolster stability in a functioning two-party system — are revealed in all their anti-democratic ugliness in the present imbroglio.
Government itself is largely dysfunctional, because Brexit not merely dominates but actually overwhelms all other activity, whether in the legislative arena or the executive branch.
Worst of all, the foundation of the democratic system — the general public’s belief in its integrity and confidence in its functionality — is being systematically eroded. Once again, the precise role of Brexit in this disastrous dynamic — sole or primary cause, catalyst, symptom, whatever — is no longer important. Even if Brexit could miraculously disappear overnight, the accumulated damage would not and the downward spiral would continue.
Consequently, if the present pass is grim, the outlook is worse. The continued existence of the political entity called “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” is increasingly unlikely. The speculation focuses on which parts — Northern Ireland, Scotland — will depart or be jettisoned and in which order. Given the depth of the socio-economic rift between London and its environs and the rest of England, even the assumption of a cohesive English entity — which underlies the Brexiteers’ optimistic expectations — is open to question.
This boils down to a simple, albeit mind-boggling, fact: the UK is now a country characterised by high political risk. As recently as fifteen years ago, that sentence would have been absurd, but today it is a political, economic and financial reality.
What now need to be assessed are the practical implications of this new reality — in particular, for the hapless Jewish community in the UK, as well as for the Jewish state and its complex relationship with its former colonial master and mentor.