It’s been hard for me to make sense of UK politics ever since the start of the Leave and Remain campaigns for the Brexit referendum. Some politicians lie, we have always known that. After all, people lie and politicians are people too. We saw this type of behaviour in spades during those referendum campaigns of half-truths, fear and wilful deception.
Yet it feels like something else is going on since the June election, the triggering of Article 50 and the start of the Brexit negotiations in earnest. Among all the obvious political examples of the Peter Principle*, the blatant U-turns and ship-jumping to maintain personal or party advantage over the interests of the country that became almost established party policy in Cameron’s time, I think there is something new. If I’m right it is something that will profoundly affect us all for generations, whatever our political views or position in society. I think it is this – Loss of Privilege.
For the first time in decades the UK is no longer negotiating on the world stage from a position of authority and power. We’re not even negotiating from a position of equality. This has cut the ground out from under the established assumptions of what our current government can do or say and how everyone else will react. (I’ll say now I have little confidence Labour would cope any better, they too are a party that is used to power and the ways of behaving with power. Possibly only the Liberals and/or the Greens could cope in this new world, they are parties used to junior partner status and used to the realities of what kind of deal can be made when you have limited influence.)
The result of this loss of privilege is that the assumption that when the UK speaks the world listens is gone. The business as usual principle that a deal, a compromise no matter how good or bad, enlightened or grubby and self-serving, however good or bad in short or long terms can be made on the international stage and sold to the electorate as some kind of win no longer holds. What used to work no longer works. Our government has no idea what to do or say. It lacks the self-confidence to lead. It no longer knows how to behave.
Which is why we have ‘Brexit is Brexit’, ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’, and all the other empty bluster, culminating in Johnson’s recent petulant baby-tantrum the EU can ‘go whistle’ for money owed.
I’ll reverse a little here. We didn’t actually lose those privileges, we gave them up. We gave them up when we decided to leave the EU and try to become a plucky little nation forging its way through the international seas led by the spirit of Drake, or Churchill, or Christmas. Whatever. Sure, it’s our national right to do that, just as it was my dad’s right to spend half his pension on gold-plated sixpences from the Franklin mint. It doesn’t mean that behaviour was wise, in our best interest, or entirely rational, we’re free to do it. I know it continues to make some of us very happy just as it made a part of him happy – for a while.
Michel Barnier’s response to Johnson’s ‘whistle’ rhetoric is the perfect example of how far away and how fast that privilege has now gone. ‘I am not hearing any whistling,’ he said, ‘just the clock ticking.’
If my love of history has taught me anything it’s that change can happen very fast and be very unexpected. When it does happen leadership flounders, collapses into indecision, and a series of ‘palace coups’ introduce a period of chaos. Societies recover, the sense of self as a nation is a powerful thing. Most of the rich stay rich, institutions and business keep running, people work hard, the lines of wealth and health drawn through the population move up and down.
I think we’re in the transition from being the United Kingdom with all her garnered privileges from Empire and Power to being just another country on the world stage. A county with huge assets and cultural, artistic, intellectual and scientific resources, but just a country after all. We’ve probably been that for quite a while but the inertia of international status-quo means that the rest of the world have only just sat up and noticed. And that only happened because we made them. I think it’s going to hurt. Long term I think this loss of undeserved privilege will be a good thing.
*Peter Principle – Promotion is based on performance in the current not future role. Managers therefore rise to their level of incompetence. Laurence J. Peter, 1969