Political time seems absurdly compressed at present. Everywhere. It used to be that a week is a long time in politics: currently, in Britain, even a day seems long and bafflingly eventful. Writing about those events – let alone actually understanding them – seems almost impossible. Is it because modern politics induces otherwise sensible people to rampage into irrationality? Around the world, the art of the possible has become the indulgence of zealotry, the yearning for monoculture and scorn for compromise.
No man is an island, as John Donne observed; and unless we want to live in absolute isolation, politics is essential and should be an admirable activity as well as an art. Yet the same people who can identify irrationality, demagoguery and unbridled self-interest in others can be utterly blind to it in themselves. Contemporary British politics, notably the fiasco of “Brexit”, thus looks like an unsavoury blend of a ship of fools and a tower of Babel.
Where did it all begin? Probably centuries ago. Whereas the Irish, in the westernmost part of Europe, have a great affinity with the Continent, the English have always had a kind of approach-avoidance attitude. Such victories as Agincourt and Waterloo are remembered. When (by referendum) they joined Europe in 1973 it was what was known to English-speakers as the “Common Market”; it was then an essentially mercantile decision for them, but the British have grown increasingly uneasy as the treaty metamorphosed into a community with its own Parliament, to which, incidentally, England elects members, pro rata. However, the suspicious English habitually speak and write as if it is simply an out-of-control bureaucracy over which they have absolutely no control. During the campaign in 2017 they were urged to vote “Leave” in order to reassert the independence and authority of their own Parliament at Westminster, yet, soon enough, in the early weeks of Theresa May’s leadership, it required a lawsuit for the Parliament to be allowed to consider the matter, rather than simply her executive.
Her current problem (apart from the fact that extrication from such a social, legal and commercial alliance is inevitably enormously complex) is that her party, which can govern only because of an odious arrangement with the “Democrats” of Ulster, is split into at least three warring factions which, frankly, seriously mistrust one another: there are those who really want to remain in Europe; and there are the two groups who, emphatically, want to be out of Europe – the so-called “soft” Brexiteers (who appear capable of some sort of compromise and concessions) and the “hard” group who seem like determined zealots, irrespective of the cost (to their party and government) of their aims. In their parliamentary scheming and manoeuvring, they have used as their weapons amendments to technical Bills – to do with tax or excise, and whether Britain should, subsequent to severance, seek some sort of (admittedly, potentially costly) customs arrangements (which the hard-liners emphatically do not want). The results of several of these debates — which might, if adverse, have led to votes of no-confidence in Mrs May — have been disturbingly close for the government: 305-302, for example, which have involved a few members missing the counting entirely; some Labour and Conservatives crossing the floor to vote against their own parties; and significant Parliamentary malpractice by the Conservative Whip who, seeming desperate, violated “pairing” agreements (including one for a Liberal Democrat on maternity leave). In securing some of these “victories”, the Prime Minister reportedly “infuriated” the Remainder Faction by her “surrender”.
Her position looks ever more parlous by the day, as several ministerial resignations have demonstrated. Of these, the most commented on was Boris Johnson’s from the post of Foreign Secretary with a trumped-up reason. It’s an age-old political tactic of course: Robert Menzies did it, successfully, in March 1939 to bring down Joseph Lyons as the Australian Prime Minister. Then, Johnson, deliberately sitting in the same part of the House of Commons from which Sir Geoffrey Howe delivered his demolition of Margaret Thatcher in 1990, attempted the same thing. But he did not succeed. One commentator asserted that, like his time in office, the speech was ”long on grandiosity, short on self-awareness”, something that nobody could plausibly have said, years ago, about the less flamboyant Howe. Whatever else it did, Johnson’s speech sadly demonstrated that that (unlike Canadians and Australians) the English have little understanding of what a federation is and what compromises it entails for the hope of a greater good.
He criticized his leader for abandoning the “vision for this country which she set out with great clarity at Lancaster House on January 17 last year” – an ironic criticism really when Johnson, himself, reveals little other vision than the progress of his career; instead, he asserted, “after 18 months of stealthy retreat”, she offered the (to her) pragmatic policy which she outlined at Chequers several days ago and which (to him) would make Britain mere “rules takers”. He spoke vacuously of the country becoming a ”miserable, permanent limbo”, and worse, an “economic vassalage”. Where, one wonders, does he find room for British imagination, flair, confidence and capacity for leadership (something of which I had been inspiringly reminded when I visited a superb exhibition on Captain Cook’s voyages which the British Library is currently showing)? In his rhetoric? In his praise of his Prime Minister? One cartoon, in a paper which is very sympathetic to the government, showed a puzzled TV presenter saying to the camera, “Mrs May scraped through a very difficult day….wait a minute, isn’t this yesterday’s news?” Unfortunately for whatever impact Johnson wanted that speech to have, it was rather spoiled by the almost simultaneous announcement of findings by the Electoral Commission of possible illegality in the 2016 referendum, involving alleged financial and other collusion by the “Vote Leave” organisation (of which the Ministers Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were prominent members) with a smaller outfit called “BeLeave” (which seemingly offered a means of circumventing legal limits on electoral spending). Accordingly, Vote Leave has been fined £61,000: this not a distraction which Johnson needs.
Another difficulty for him — which observers of contemporary Australian politics would recognize all too readily – is whether the electorate thinks that he is the person to replace the hapless Mrs May. If not – then who is? The field does not look strong. Two years ago, after his failed referendum, David Cameron announced that he would resign as PM – but after a few months. That political vacuum was unsustainable then and the question now is whether another damaged leader can remain in office in comparable circumstances. But there is an even more fundamental question? Could it be that at the heart of all of this self-inflicted (and self-indulgent) chaos there is something more serious than simply public disillusionment with politicians? More, even, than disgust at their venality.
It is striking, here in Britain, how inclined people are to suggest that it is neglect of the nation beyond London that is causing the rot.
John Carmody, who is currently in Europe, is a Sydney-based writer on politics, medical history and concert music.