‘So how’s all this going to pan out in the end?’ That’s the question that flummoxed me. I understood the context – Brexit, and the state of British, and European, politics. But as to an answer….
We’ve had political crises before. Major ones, existential ones. World Wars, the Great Depression, Suez, stagflation, the financial crash. This crisis for Britain feels a bit like the First World War, or the Depression of the 1930s, not that they were unconnected.
The First World War marked the end, or perhaps one should say, the beginning of the long, slow end, of Britain’s industrial and imperial might. The confident, swaggering Victorian age bred the clueless generals who sent a generation of the young over the top in Flanders’ fields, as well as the complacent politicians who negotiated a toxic peace, carved up the globe, and presided over steep decline at home. A ruling elite completely out of their depth, and uncomprehending of the changed realities, of a new century with different players and new rules. A hundred years later, and their legacy endures as the inescapable mood music of Brexit. Except that this time, it is we who will pay those toxic reparations.
Not that one need pursue the analogy. My feeling is more that what we had a hundred years ago, and what we have now, is a country in which it is not at all clear where power lies, nor what interests it represents, nor how any of that maps on to democratic politics.
The strength and power of the Conservative Party – ‘the natural party of government’ – has always been that it represents the interests of wealth through a focus on stability, that latter being what has given it electoral traction with the substantial part of the population who are uncomfortable with change, and crave a quiet life.
Brexit is the obverse of that. Brexit is a headlong rush into instability, into unknowable, uncontrollable change. And it only represents the interests of the smallest fraction of wealth; the psycho-billionaires at the dodgiest end of finance capital. It is difficult to see how any of this foolishness on an epic scale can, in the end, be finessed away by the waning Tory press, and the ministrations of electoral magicians like Lynton Crosby. The Tory Party never prospers when it frightens its own supporters. If they were jinxed by talk of a Dementia Tax, how much worse will be the car crash scheduled for less than two years time?
Don’t underestimate the Tories’ impressive instinct for survival. It remains entirely possible that they will turn on the Brexiteers, excise them ruthlessly, and restore the Conservative Party to its former glory. Certainly that was the message sent out by their proxy, Vince Cable, when interviewed on Peston yesterday, when he spoke of talking with some of his former colleagues (“Tory dissidents”, as he called them.). He even repeated one of their mantras, when he said, dismissing Labour, “There is no magic money tree”. Just as he’d once been happy to say that “Labour crashed the economy”, or “left a mess we had to sort out”, as part of the Cameron coalition (author of all our woes), so Sir Vince is once again willing to put his party at the service of the economic liberals of the Tory Party.
But he cut a diminished figure, however much he wants to relive his glory days in Cabinet, constantly, vainly, declaring his “experience in government”. There’s the electoral arithmetic, for one thing. The Lib Dems’ 12 seats outgun the DUP, but that’s not the end of the story. In 2010, the Lib Dems had 57 MPs, spread across Britain, and no lost deposits, indicating some depth of support. This time around they lost their deposits in 375 seats, and achieved second place in only 37. That’s a steep hole from which to climb. He simply can’t offer the economic liberals in the Tory Party an electorally viable means of disposing of their Europhobic wing, which is a big wedge of MPs, and almost the entire Tory Party membership.
The Lib Dems could, one supposes, do a very short term deal with a section of the Tories in the event of Brexit-related events spinning badly out of control, but it is quite difficult to construct a scenario in which this would work out well for either party, especially not the smaller one. And in any case, it doesn’t affect the central question for political parties of government, which is who, and what interests, do they represent?
The talk, most of it coming from sections of the Tory Party, of a need for cross-party, meaning involving Labour, co-operation on Brexit, is basically a plea for all parties to own the debacle. Before the general election was called, this idea might have had more traction, and could have been seen as an act of Statespersonship from an authoritative Prime Minister, but now it is probably dead in the water, as our short-termist political class look at the likelihood of another election sooner rather than later.
And so we remain here. There’s no one in charge.