Sic transit Britannia

Boris Johnson’s arrival on Downing Street opens a new chapter in the Brexit saga but solves none of the fundamental issues threatening the UK.

By PINCHAS LANDAU
July 25, 2019 22:23
BRITAIN’S PRIME MINISTER Boris Johnson is welcomed in 10 Downing Street by staff on Wednesday.

BRITAIN’S PRIME MINISTER Boris Johnson is welcomed in 10 Downing Street by staff on Wednesday. . (photo credit: STEFAN ROUSSEAU/REUTERS)

‘Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.” – Ancient proverb.

Summer in the Northern Hemisphere is vacation time, when people prefer not to think about politics, let alone existential threats facing their country.

This disconnect mentality is universal, as the Israeli political system and media are currently discovering. Yet nowhere is it now more prevalent than in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, aka Britain. Most people in the UK have for some time now desperately wanted to not hear about politics, least of all in the summer. This is so not despite the fact that their country is in a deepening and potentially existential political crisis but precisely because of that.

The latest development in this crisis is the election of Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party and, by extension, as prime minister. The British public, however, is neither excited nor even much interested in this supposedly important event. Nor is it particularly exercised by Johnson’s promise to ensure that the UK leaves the EU by October 31, the latest of many deadlines for this to take place.

In fact, most Britons have long since ceased to follow Brexit – the one-word summary for an extraordinary and extraordinarily complex, socio-economic, political-constitutional mess in which the country has willfully embedded itself. The turn-off reflects two aspects of Brexit; not just its complexity but also its apparent endlessness. People therefore have no incentive to pay attention to the latest political machinations, whatever they may be. They do have very strong incentives to pay no attention: Not only is it a waste of time, it will make you angry, frustrated, repulsed and depressed, or all of the above.

If that is how it looks and feels for citizens inside the country, any attempt to follow Brexit from the outside is rendered almost impossible by its sheer perplexity, which takes two forms. One is intellectual, the Sisyphean effort involved in tracking what is being said and done, and trying to understand the interests of individuals, factions, parties and sectors of the population.

But the perplexity is also emotional, a response to the sight of a once-great country and culture bent on suicide. As with an individual displaying suicidal behavior, when an outsider can identify no rationale that might justify national hara-kiri, all that is left is sadness mixed with horror.

THE UK is in decline and has been so for more than century. But decline is not an excuse for suicide for countries any more than it is for individuals. On the contrary, nations are not doomed to fade into the night. They can seek to reverse their downtrend. That is what Margaret Thatcher sought to do in the 1980s, as did Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and “New Labour.” These were serious efforts to adjust to a problematic long-term reality and yet still try to improve it; to stop and maybe even reverse the negative trend.

These relatively recent examples make the current collapse all the more shocking. Even in decline, the United Kingdom boasted a political culture and constitutional framework that made it the focus of respect and even envy from people and nations around the world. It continued to be a poster child for the basic features of parliamentary democracy that was made in Britain and exported far and wide, namely: the separation of powers and the orderly transition of political power both within and between parties, giving rise to political stability.

Beyond these political and constitutional aspects, even more fundamental concepts such as integrity, decency and that uniquely British idea of “fair play” were so ingrained as to be taken for granted. Proof that the system worked well came from the instances when these abstract ideas were subverted, as in the Profumo scandal of the early ‘60s, the Thorpe scandal of the late ‘70s and, in a different context, the Suez fiasco of the mid-‘50s.

Thus, even when the country was in overt and relentless decline, the British constitutional framework and political system functioned well. Critically, the social fabric also held together, even during episodes of severe strain, such as the three-day work week in 1974 or the Wapping dispute in 1986-7.

Brexit has exposed for all to see that none of the above holds true any longer. The UK has reached a state not only unprecedented, but also previously unimaginable.

The country’s unwritten constitution, its procedures, precedents and traditions, is no longer working. The two-party system has collapsed, with both of the big parties having fallen under the sway of extremist factions and becoming deeply split, both in parliament and in the country. Boris Johnson is part of this collapse, quite possibly a catalyst, but not someone who can or even wants to repair the damage or reverse the process.

With the normal political structure gutted, opportunity knocks for extremist and narrowly focused movements. However, the problematic features of the British “first-past-the-post” electoral system, which served to promote and bolster stability in a functioning two-party system, are revealed in all their anti-democratic ugliness in the present imbroglio.

Government itself has become largely dysfunctional. What is far worse is that the foundation of the democratic system – the general public’s belief in its integrity and confidence in its functionality – is being systematically eroded. The precise role of Brexit in this disastrous dynamic is no longer important. Even if Brexit could miraculously disappear overnight, the accumulated damage would not, and the downward spiral would continue.

Consequently, if the present is grim, the future outlook is worse. The continued existence of the political entity called “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” is increasingly unlikely. The speculation focuses on which parts, Northern Ireland or Scotland, will depart or be jettisoned and in which order. Given the depth of the socio-economic rift between London and its environs and the rest of England, even the assumption of a cohesive English entity that underlies the Brexiteers’ optimistic expectations is open to question.

All this boils down to a simple albeit mind-boggling fact: The UK is now a country characterized by high political risk. As recently as 15 years ago that sentence would have been absurd; today it is a political, economic and financial reality.

What now needs to be assessed are the practical implications of this new reality, particularly for the hapless Jewish community in the UK, as well as for the Jewish state and its complex relationship with its former colonial master and mentor.

The writer is an independent economic consultant based in Jerusalem.


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