In a recent piece for The Atlantic, “How the UK Became One Of The Poorest Countries in Western Europe”*, Derek Thomson wrote ” When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, it hit hard, smashing the engine of Britain’s economic ascent. Wary of rising deficits, the British government pursued a policy of austerity, fretting about debt rather than productivity or aggregate demand. The results were disastrous. Real wages fell for six straight years. Facing what the writer Fintan O’Toole called “the dull anxiety of declining living standards,” conservative pols sniffed out a bogeyman to blame for this slow-motion catastrophe. They served up to anxious voters a menu of scary outsiders: bureaucrats in Brussels, immigrants, asylum seekers—anybody but the actual decision makers who had kneecapped British competitiveness. A cohort of older, middle-class, grievously nostalgic voters demanded Brexit, and they got it.” The big question is why?
Why did the UK go from a fairly stable, sensible and broad-minded community to the economic, social and political disaster we see today? At the root of most of the problems today is the utter insanity that is Brexit. Britain chose to throw away all the advantages won by Thatcher in her handbag swinging prime, the EU rebates, the opt outs and most of all the Single Market, Thatcher’s second greatest achievement. (She is reported as claiming that New Labour was her greatest.)
It can be argued that the refusal of successive governments to allow new Treaties to be put to the people in referendums as most countries did, allowed the myth of the supposedly all powerful Eurocrats to grow and fester. While it suited the governments to avoid scrutiny, they allowed the misconceptions and downright lies to take hold in the rabid right press.
In particular, the failure to put the Maastricht Treaty to a popular vote allowed not only the myth to develop arms and legs as it devoured John Major’s Government it allowed what David Cameron later called “swivel-eyed loons” in the Tory party to claim some kind of respectability. This in turn led to the BBC, ever willing to pander to the tory right, allowing the obnoxious Nigel Farage to take over Question Time. It’s often claimed that Paul D’acre and the Daily Mail were responsible for Brexit but to me that badge of shame is the property of whoever decided to give Farage the freedom of that programme.
Suddenly all Boris Johnson’s fabrications around square tomatoes, straight bananas etc were given a voice which invaded our living rooms to gibber whatever nonsense entered his head. Farage fed the fears and worries of an English (largely) paranoia about Britains’s loss of power, prestige and place in the world. Dean Rusk’s phrase about England having lost an empire but not found a role just about sums it up. Just as the Jews were made the scapegoats in Nazi Germany, the EU was given the full treatment here. Suddenly there was not only someone to blame but there was a loudmouth ready and willing to point the finger!
It’s easy to speculate what would have happened had Thatcher, Major or Blair put the changes to a vote but their failures resulted in fertilising the ground for some vey pernicious weeds. Many seek to hide behind the “we were promised” or “this is not what I voted for” lines but the harsh truth is that people were presented with both sides of the argument and made their choice. They have no-one to blame but themselves. Just as they had in 2014.
But even that would not, I suspect, have brought us to this crazy situation.
The final catalyst was when Farage realised that his UKIP would not achieve a real breakthrough in UK Parliamentary politics. Many have seen the light at the end of a by-election tunnel only to find that it was an oncoming General Election train. And that collision was not going to be nice to the smaller party, Ukip were treading a path well worn by the SNP, Liberals and the SDP.
Farage’s master stroke then was to fold UKIP and encourage them to join the Tories! Just as Labour had become an old, complacent and largely hollow vessel so had the Tories. England had few seats which would change hands in elections and had become settled in a political coma. Just as groups like Militant had sought to take over a moribund Labour, UKIP used the same entryist tactics to take over a similarly complacent Tory organisation.
Suddenly the EU became the defining issue of candidate selection for the right and very few were willing and able to stand up to the extremists. So good MPs (by Tory standards) were dumped in favour of anyone who would mouth the anti-EU catchphrases. Not for nothing did Donald Trump work with Farage.
We now have another in the long list of PMs since that fateful day in 2016. Cameron, May, Johnson, Truss have all gone and sadly Richy shows no signs of changing the direction of travel. Sadly, too both Labour and the LibDems have both accepted Brexit as a fait accompli, at the very moment when the electorate look to have realised just what kind of a pig was in the brown paper bag they purchased.
As usual, Westminster politicians with the capacity to lead are noticeable only by their absence. “A cohort of older, middle-class, grievously nostalgic voters demanded Brexit, and they got it.” And we must all pay the price!
I was pleased that my forecast of the Democrats holding the Senate came to pass thanks largely to Trump and his obsessive/compulsive overreach on both the January 6 riots and the Supreme Court where it’s badly out of touch with the American people, particularly on abortion. I was also delighted that Bolsonaro was kicked out in Brazil but this was tempered by the raving right winning in Sweden and the warmonger Netanyahu regaining power in Israel. The appointment of a Special Counsel to investigate the Trumpet though makes it a nett win!