Febrile doesn’t begin to describe it. The two dominant political parties are beginning to rupture, Brexit is just over a month away and the economy shows signs of having hit a wall.
We are used to everything being blamed for Brexit, now everything is being blamed on Brexit. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any weirder, a prominent ex-Tory MP describes Theresa May as the “Death Star of UK politics” and a noted cleric says a no-deal Brexit is necessary for both the restoration of family values and to end the destruction of communities.
With just over 30 days to go, we still don’t know much about Brexit. If you thought things were bad, it’s important to realise that the current row about the backstop, even if it is resolved, is barely the beginning of Brexit, let alone its resolution.
If we know little about the manner of the UK’s leaving, we know nothing about Britain’s future relationship with the EU. All we know for sure is that as a strict matter of law, the UK leaves the EU next month.
Something dramatic will have to happen to stop that. All else is speculation, including the precise manner, if not the timing, of that departure. If that’s not a description of crippling uncertainty, not least for the economy, I don’t know what is.
What has Brexit got to do with family and community? Apparently, it’s about freedom of movement: if we were less free to travel, particularly, between countries, we would be more likely to stay close to home and look after our ageing parents.
If we were to suspend disbelief and think about this more than necessary, for a second or two anyway, we might concede that ties to locality have been broken by the disappearance of manufacturing jobs in deprived regions. The argument must then be that the EU is to be blamed for loss of coal mining, shipbuilding, steel and car factories. We can respond by pointing out that “de-industrialisation” is a term coined years before Britain joined the EU, but that would be to engage a debate that is lost before it has begun.
The fissure in British politics could be thought of as a time-honoured attempt to reclaim the centre ground while the mainstream is rushing to the extremes of left and right.
And to hope that, as has happened before, reasonable politicians can debate rationally and tolerantly. But when both the extremes are showing signs of obvious psychosis, that is a forlorn hope. Brexit, and the British body politic, is now utterly captured by the extreme right and left. Both factions now want the same thing – hard Brexit – albeit for different reasons.
The authoritarians who have their vision of a very different social contract hate the EU precisely because it is a construct designed to deprive them of power.
The EU was built to keep fascists and Stalinists away from government. The EU was designed for messy compromise, recognition of political nuance, the need to muddle through. The EU is an explicit acknowledgment of the uncertainties about economic policy, the contingencies implicit in any political decision. It’s end-to-end fudge. Seen in those terms, it works brilliantly.
An examination of broken communities, left-behind regions and individuals would speculate about partially understood interactions between many factors, globalisation and technological change being the most obvious. But a proper analysis would look at the demise of religious faith, the emasculation of trade unions, the way nobody watches the same TV programmes and the rise of social media.
We laud social mobility, but when children gain the education so desired for them by their parents, why are we surprised when generational gaps emerge?
University graduates may not return home because there is no work. Equally, they might simply not want to go home. They may not want the assembly-line jobs of their parents, even if the factories still existed. Not so long ago less than 10 per cent of British youths went to college. Now more than half do.
That sets them up with very different expectations and desires compared with their parents. How is this all the fault of the EU? And when those hyper-educated individuals express disappointment with the opportunities afforded them by a degree, is that not a simple function of mismanaged expectations and ridiculous house prices? No: blame it on the EU.
Theresa May rightly comes in for a lot of stick. Matthew Parris, who coined that “Death Star” description, didn’t stop there. According to Parris, May is a “political black hole from which nothing escapes. Ideas, beliefs, suggestions, objections, inquiries, proposals, projects, loyalties, affections, trust, whole careers, real men and women are sucked into that awful void that is Downing Street”.
I would add that she can best be understood in terms of Stockholm syndrome: having been captured by Jacob Rees-Mogg, she is now his acolyte.
The former prime minister John Major this week said that for anything like normality to be restored, the electorate needs to be able to choose between parties that are sane. The way in which both left and right have taken the Brexit debate into the realms of madness does not bode well. This is not going to end well.