To Australian eyes, British politics appear relentlessly chaotic, even anti-social. The solutions seem impossible to find, forever out of sight, let alone reach and – as in true tragedy – entirely self-inflicted.
On Wednesday 19 June the (then) five self-selected aspirants for the important (or previously considered important) position of Prime Minister of Great (sic) Britain appeared on BBC television at prime-time. Perched, in the preferred English style for such shows, on high and uncomfortable stools – as if they were hoping for a beer or (very unlikely) to be “chatted up” by an attractive woman — these men were subjecting themselves to robust questions from the hostess of the program and about six selected members of the public from around the country – one of them a very confident Scots schoolgirl who was (as it proved) the only plausible and formidable participant in the uninformative and unedifying event.
Those men were, in the manner of politicians, seeking to conceal more than they revealed, whilst hoping to convey precisely the opposite impression. They did not have to try very hard, however, because as the program rolled on their fundamental ordinariness became ever more apparent. And, as I watched with growing disappointment, I was reminded of another such pedestrian display. That earlier one was in Sydney, in February 2017: the appearance of the five senior Catholic Archbishops on the last days of the so-called “Catholic wrap-up” of the Australian Royal Commission into sexual abuse of minors. At the end of their first session, I observed to an eminent layman, “These blokes are seriously unimpressive”. His world-weary reply was, “You’re right, Jack; but you should have seen them before I gave them some basic coaching in presenting evidence”.
Like those British politicians, the Australian prelates were hardly inexperienced in “selling” themselves and their policies to the public. The dispiriting conclusion can only be that the most capable and admirable people in our society are avoiding public office. But why? None of those men in that BBC studio revealed strength of character or an ethos of public service. None of them presented as an admirable potential Prime Minister.
That deficit has blighted British public life for a long time. Whenever I saw David Cameron on the television or quoted in print, I decided that he was one of the least capable professional politicians I’d ever seen. Then, as if to prove the point, he sought to “solve” the problem of divisions in his Conservative party by rushing into the ill-considered referendum on “Brexit”. He was, apparently, advised against that decision but is purported to have said, “I feel lucky this year.” That was how he initiated important public policy!
When he was forced to resign, he was succeeded by Theresa May who, while stubborn and indomitable, proved to be at least as incompetent as her predecessor. In fact, the signs had been there when she assumed office. Her previous ministerial experience had been in “Home” affairs, but all of the challenges facing her in mid-2016 and thereafter – “Brexit” itself, or dealing with Vladimir Putin or Angela Merkel, let alone the prospect of Donald Trump or Emmanuel Macron — demanded experience in international affairs and skill in diplomatic bargaining. As events proved, she lacked all of those essential capacities. She, too, fell prey to the fallacy of believing that attending to the schisms within her own party should be the principal way of dealing with this fateful challenge to statecraft and, even, the very future of her nation.
She looked inwards, therefore and – forgetting that politics is essentially seeking success through compromises and securing majorities — refused to deal with the Labour Party, notwithstanding the embarrassment of a near loss at the 2017 election which she recklessly and prematurely called. She needed Labour’s support but never seriously sought or secured it. Perhaps she relied, too much, on a pervasive lack of enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn, the lacklustre Opposition Leader, who, apart from the apparent flaws in his own character, has serious clefts – of policy, philosophy and personalities — in his party, too.
It is important, though, to emphasise that – for all the attention that “Brexit” receives from politicians and commentators – the problems run far deeper than that single (though multi-faceted) issue: the essential problem is a dysfunctional government. Theresa May (who has not, as yet, presented her resignation to the Queen: it is speculated that will happen in late-July) seems to have been incapable of presiding over a disciplined and competent administration. In all, she has lost about 40 Cabinet ministers, and by no means have they all resigned because of disagreements over “Brexit”. The inevitable result has been a serious dilution of ministerial experience, a debilitating loss of party coherence (let alone loyalty) and, worst of all, increasing public disillusionment and cynicism.
I will offer just a single – but exceedingly serious – example. On Monday March 13 this year, after a day of rumour, speculation and reports that an RAF jet was sitting, at the ready, on the tarmac of a base near London, Mrs May indeed made a nocturnal dash to Strasbourg for negotiations. She was then featured on the late news claiming that a “legally-binding breakthrough” had been achieved about the nettlesome problem of the “Backstop” at the Irish border. [What, incidentally the Continental politicians and bureaucrats actually understand about this term, derived from cricket, continues to mystify me. It actually refers to the pretence that – as now – there will be, for some time after the putative deadline of 31 October, no “real” border between the Irish Republic and Ulster (i.e. the UK). Otherwise, as well as constant inconvenience to trade and everyday life, the concerns are that violence and smuggling will reappear to harm the fragile civil society in that island.]
May’s fellow-Conservatives were less enthusiastic about this “breakthrough” last March, sensibly pointing out to reporters and the TV audience that none of them had yet seen the document and its details. They did, though, undertake to have their own legal people scrutinise the “Agreement” carefully and to take seriously the legal opinion which the Attorney-General, Sir Geoffrey Cox, promised to present to the Commons next morning. There was great expectation that Cox would modify the firm advice which he had offered the House in November which had caused so much concern to the “hard-line Brexiteers” and so much political damage for Mrs May – principally because that “Backstop” was nebulous and potentially indefinite. It was bad enough for her when Cox announced in his formidably stentorian tones that, in the light of that Strasbourg “agreement”, he would not change a single word of his earlier advice. May had been cut-down in public but her embarrassment made all the worse when, shortly after, it was reported that her Minister had not advised her in advance of what he intended to say. So much for the trust which is an essential component of stable and competent government!
At just that time, Boris Johnson had a haircut: I saw it as an early job-application.
Only a few days after that dreary BBC TV show, the MPs had eliminated three of those aspirants and the two residual candidates, which would then be presented for their choice to the paid-up members of the Conservative Party across the country, were Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt (both formerly Foreign Secretary). Whether, over the next few weeks, those Tories – richer, older and more conservative than the population at large – will follow the almost 50% vote of Westminster MPs who have opted for Johnson is the question du jour. Already his enemies have moved against him– with reports of police intervention in serious domestic disputation between him and his current live-in girl-friend and threats by disgruntled Conservative parliamentarians that, in the event that he’s chosen as PM, they’ll help bring on a motion of no confidence so that he’d be PM for a day, at most. One is reported as a potential defector to the Social Democrats. Even papers which one would think of as supportive, such as The Times, have declined to endorse Johnson and have published articles which declare him to be unfit for office. A week later the Sunday Times, with those two still-standing candidates out campaigning (in a genteel and summery sort of way), returned to the fray with yet another woman’s recollections of the alleged misogyny and brutish behaviour of the young Boris. The stoutly Conservative Telgraph, remained stoutly, to the slightly risible extent of publishing picture of Gilbertian Boris, on the bridge of a ferry-boat, binoculars to his eyes as if protecting Britain from a European invasion. The adjacent picture was of Jeremy Hunt insouciantly licking an ice-cream instead.
By sheer serendipity, I have just read The Tower of Babel, an essay which the great Austrian writer, Stefan Zweig, published in 1916. Referring to his own (relatively modern) times, and using the Biblical story as a metaphor, he wrote of a new Tower beginning “to rise gradually from the soil of Europe, the monument to communal brotherhood, mankind’s solidarity.” Never before “had nations such ease of access to the spirits of their neighbours, never had their knowledge been so intimately linked, never had commercial relations been so close in forming a formidable network and never had Europeans loved both their homeland and the rest of the world.” Contemporary Britons seem hostile to that amity and advantage. Their attitude suggests a revision of the Classical proverb: “Into those whom the Gods seek to destroy, they first instill hubris and solipsism.”
John Carmody, who is currently in Europe, is a Sydney based writer and historian. During his time as a medical scientist at UNSW, he spent a number of years working in Germany.