The last few weeks in British politics have been some of the most consequential and farcical moments in the nation’s history since the end of the Second World War. Only in Britain could such momentous events be so wrapped in slapstick. What has been happening in Whitehall and Westminster since the vote to leave the European Union has reminded me of that great British comedy show «Fawlty Towers». The classic programme starring the Monty Python genius John Cleese told the tales of a rude, offensive and incompetent hotel owner Basil Fawlty afflicted with a superiority complex who constantly put his guest down and felt as if the world was out to get him. Nothing ever worked properly or ran smoothly in the hotel Fawlty Towers. The guests never got value for money and had to contend with the antics of the deranged owner. One infamous episode featured a group of German tourists which sent Mr Fawlty into an apoplexy of anti-German WWII sentiment. In many ways Fawlty Towers is an excellent depiction of what modern day Whitehall and Westminster is like. Nothing really works properly. Everything takes forever and a day. The attitude is appalling and the smug nationalistic arrogance nauseating and counter-productive.
The former British Prime Minister, David Cameron, decided to give into the extreme Europhobes in his crazed Tory Party in the run up to the 2015 General Election and promised a referendum on UK membership of the EU, despite the fact that this was not in the national interest. We have all witnessed what has followed since: the disaster that has befallen the UK by voting to leave the European Union. And let us not attempt to put any type of gloss or spin on the result. It was and is and will continue to be for a very long time a complete disaster which will have deep and long lasting effects for decades to come. Never before has the UK in the last half a century had a more reckless, irresponsible and weak leader such as David Cameron.
His decision to hold the referendum in the first place, despite all the grave warnings of danger that flowed from him during the referendum campaign, and then the inability of Cameron and Co to win it, will stand as one of the greatest failures of leadership in modern times. The fact he couldn’t wait to resign and pass the buck for the mess he has created illustrates what a self-centered lightweight we all knew he really was. No British Prime Minister who truly cared about the UK would have ever allowed such a referendum to have been called in the first place and then just walk away after the result for someone else to sort out the mess.
Now, Britain has been plunged into an internal political, economic, social and constitutional crisis the like of which has not engulfed the country for quite some time. The result revealed a country deeply divided between pro-Europeans and anti-Europeans. Even though the Leave campaign won the vote it was close and showed that despite its title the United Kingdom is anything but united. Scotland voted overwhelming to stay, as did London and Northern Ireland along with some other important cities such as Cambridge and Brighton. Yet most of England and Wales voted to go. In reality this had nothing to do with the European Union, but rather unfounded fears over immigration and a backlash against the austerity of the last six years, the extreme imbalances in the UK economy and a tabloid press more interested in appealing to and stirring up the worst aspects of human nature.
Since the result was announced there has been something akin to a state of meltdown and a nervous breakdown in the heart of the British State. The governing Conservative Party has now had to turn in on itself and start to refashion a new administration. The British Parliament and public have been left without an effective opposition to hold the Government to account as the Labour Party is basically imploding. The UK civil service have not got a clue what they are supposed to be doing since the previous Prime Minister Cameron unbelievably order the Cabinet Secretary, Jeremy Heywood, not to carry out any contingency planning in the event of a Brexit. One of the architects of the disgusting campaign to leave the EU, the dangerous buffoon Boris Johnson, has now been appointed Foreign Secretary in one of the most appalling Cabinet appointments in a very long time. The British Government have no in-house trade negotiators and will probably have to recruit them from abroad. Meanwhile, the entire focus and energy of the British Government, especially on matters of trade, foreign affairs and a whole host of other important public policy matters will now be consumed for many years to come with extracting the UK from the EU and remaking the country after 43 years of European integration.
Britain has and will continue to turn in on itself becoming more isolationist and xenophobic, retreating further into the pathetic nostalgia and arrogance of a mythical Britain that never really was while becoming poorer and more alienated on the world stage. The institutions of British governance and the caliber of the people involved are simply not up to the massive task ahead while the UK’s behavior has weakened the EU at a time of critical challenges which require maximum focus and unity. I have never felt more ashamed to be a British citizen than I do now and never have I felt more pessimistic about the future of Britain. It is an appalling state of affairs which the country has the Tory Party and David Cameron to thank for.
As Michael Heseltine, arch pro-European and former Deputy Prime Minister said of Boris Johnson, which could be adapted to a whole host of others: «(they) will have to live with the shame of what (they) have done for the rest of (their lives)». As is typical of the British State when catastrophe happens, Whitehall and Westminster bury their heads in the sand, reach for clichés like «keep calm and carry on» and attempt to put a spin on everything with the slogan «we are all Brexiteers now». Well, I am afraid that is simply not good enough this time and no amount of gloss can take away from the fact that Britain as a country is going through a deep period of change, and not for the better. Some of us are not «all Brexiteers now» and never will be. Some of us will never accept being led in this pathetic way and allow ourselves to be dictated to about our European identity and place in Europe. Some of us will never accept being ripped out of Europe and pulled away from our European brothers and sisters. Whatever happens going forward this moment in time will be seen to the rest of the world as the Downfall of Britain. All pretense to being a modern, dynamic, competent, efficient and rigorous nation-state (which Whitehall and Westminster are the exact opposite of) has been blown away for the globe to see how disorganized and badly run Britain is and I’m afraid Brexit is not the national salvation which some of its deranged advocates claim it will be. It is going to get a lot worse. Internationally, Britain’s voice and role on the world stage, already significantly reduced and diminished since the days of the grotesque British Empire, will grow even weaker and become largely irrelevant.
The United States will turn more and more to working closer with the French and Germans while the rest of the world’s governments will rightly conclude that the UK is not a reliable or trustworthy partner and that by weakening itself globally, the country is even more ripe for the pickings economically and politically. The British State and sections of the political class and public have never been able to come to terms or adapt to the reality of Britain’s reduced status after the end of World War II. Nor have they succeeded, unlike the Germans, in building a post-War country which is balanced, efficient, rigorous, organized and cohesive. It is probably for the best now that the whole idea of the United Kingdom is abandoned and the country breaks up into its constituent parts. It will also have to spend a great deal more time reinventing and regenerating the country and building up other cities as great cosmopolitan global hubs rather than just obsessively and foolishly putting all its eggs in the one London basket. Indeed, the outsized and disproportionate dominance of London, just one city which accounts for between 20-30% of total UK GDP and almost 10 % of the population has become part of the problem and will need creative, imaginative and radical reform. Yet, something tells me the British State will simply, as it always does, just muddle through and stick a few plasters on some wounds here and there without really tackling the underlying issues and then doing something about it.