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Au revoir to post-Brexit Britain + Germany, Europe & Ukraine + An interview without words
History of the Present (fortnight ending 29 July 2023)
I'm just packing up to head off for my usual summer sojourn at Stanford. Since 2016, Stanford friends and I have had an annual dark humour contest: who is doing worse, the US or the UK? I must admit that in the prospect of the return of Donald Trump as President of the United States they hold a – forgive the obvious pun - trump card. But more about the US when I've spent a little more time there.
Meanwhile, I can't think of a time in the last 50 years when I've been more depressed about the future of my own country. Not even in the late 1970s, when Britain was 'the sick man of Europe', experiencing the 'winter of discontent'.
The first reason for this is Brexit. Not only are all the negative economic consequences that we foretold becoming apparent – often hitting hardest those who voted for Brexit, be they hill farmers, fishermen, small business owners, or the old working-class in the post-industrial north of England. As important, this country has suffered a drastic decline in its international reputation, influence and soft power - famously defined by Harvard's Joe Nye as the power to attract. (And even those it still attracts can't get or can't afford a visa. Ukrainians, whom we are supposed to be supporting to the hilt, have to go all the way to Warsaw to get their British visa.)
I asked a senior American official the other day how much less important Britain was to the United States because of Brexit. His instant, emphatic answer: 'Much less important'. In continental Europe, where I've spent a good deal of the last six months, Britain is hardly talked about – and when it is, then in terms of exasperation, ridicule or contempt.
But it's by no means just the consequences of Brexit. Britain's economic problems are also due to other, deep-seated causes, such as low productivity, underinvestment, poor education and inadequate vocational training. The austerity policies implemented by Conservative governments since 2010 have eaten away at the substance of public services, so that now the National Health Service (NHS), which is the nearest thing Britain has to a national church, is close to breaking point. Our roads are full of potholes, schools struggling to make ends meet.
A country in which you can buy a seat in parliament, or be placed there at will by the head of government, would generally be called a banana republic. But – I choose my words carefully for fear of a libel suit (and our libel law is another thing wrong with this country) – in the case of the House of Lords, some unkind spirits would say that Britain has come close to that. As prime minister, Boris Johnson made Peter Cruddas, a generous donor to the Conservative party, a member of the upper house of the British parliament, despite the fact that the House of Lords appointments commission had recommended against his appointment. According to a report in the Guardian, Cruddas gave the Conservatives another £500,000 just three days after taking his seat. (No connection, obviously.) More recently, we have had Johnson's retirement honours list of peers, including a 30-year-old former political adviser of his - doubtless a capable young woman, but with none of the qualifications that would normally earn you a place in the Lords.
Apparently Liz Truss, the most disastrous and short-lived prime minister in modern British political history, will also be entitled to put a gaggle of her chums into the upper house of parliament. And now we read that an incoming Labour government, rather than reforming the house, is thinking of stuffing it with more of its own appointees, so that it can get its legislation through. Although many peers actually do excellent work, also defending our civil liberties, the way in which its membership is created has made it ridiculous. (A few years ago, a senior member of the Lords suggested to me that I might make a useful addition to their ranks, since they could do with more European expertise. 'But isn't there some procedure?' I asked. 'Oh yes,' came the blithe reply, 'you have to fill in a few forms'. I politely declined the suggestion.)
Along with this has gone a more general decline in the standards and probity of appointments and conduct in public life. As Home Secretary, Priti Patel was found by the prime minister's ethics adviser to have breached the ministerial code by bullying her staff, but Johnson kept her on. Instead, it was the ethics adviser who resigned. The chair of the Office for Students, which has significant powers over our universities, is a Tory peer (and Johnson's former leadership campaign manager) with little knowledge of academic life. He participated in a CPAC meeting in Budapest and congratulated Viktor Orbán on his election victory, welcoming the chance to 'fight for the values that we all hold dear'. That’s the Orbán who had just kicked the Central European University out of Budapest. So he’s thoroughly well-qualified and impartial, clearly. He was preferred over Ivor Crewe, a hugely experienced and distinguished academic.
Having a privileged, white middle-class English childhood, I grew up believing that one could trust our police. After a long series of quite shocking police scandals, I no longer do. Evidence falsified or destroyed. Corruption. Widespread racism and sexual harassment. The shameful cover-up of the Hillsborough football crowd crush disaster. Now we learn of a man who has spent seventeen years of his life in prison for a rape he never committed. (Greater Manchester police failed to disclose crucial evidence at the original trial.) Seventeen years for a crime you didn't commit. Imagine.
Next to the NHS, one of the best things about Britain is the BBC. But this national treasure, too, is being degraded by underfunding from government, political pressure from the right and harassment by the tabloids. A lot of its news coverage, analysis and cultural content – especially on radio – is still brilliant. But morale is poor. Some of its best presenters have left. Its management runs scared before right-wing critics close to government and the hyenas of the tabloid press.
In a cost-cutting measure, the BBC has merged the BBC World and BBC News television channels. Watching a new 7 PM (UK time) programme called Daily Global the other day, I found it spending the first 20 minutes of a half hour programme on speculation about an unnamed domestic BBC television presenter (subsequently named as Huw Edwards) whom the tabloid Sun had accused of having inappropriate sexualised text exchanges with a young woman allegedly under 18. Clearly the most important story in the world. Daily Global, my foot. News values? A sense of proportion?
This a tragedy because, for the price of two bathrooms on one of Britain's vainglorious (and largely useless) aircraft carriers, the BBC could actually be the best international news broadcaster in the world.
To add insult to injury, all this decay is wrapped up in a ludicrously self-aggrandising, boastful, insecurely boosterish rhetoric in which everything Britain does is 'world-leading' or 'world-beating'. And there's that excruciating advertising campaign which declares 'Britain is GREAT'. If you have to keep telling people you're great, you no longer are. This is Trumpism in an English tea caddy. Whatever happened to that nice old British habit of self-deprecation?
Shakespeare says it best, of course. People always forget that John of Gaunt's great 'This sceptr'd isle' speech is actually a lament for the diminished state of England, concluding
That England that was wont to conquer others
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Fortunately, this also reminds us that countries can recover from deep lows.
Germany, Europe and Ukraine
Those who read German might like to look at this interview in which I discuss the prospects for Ukraine and Europe, and call for German strategic leadership in crafting a new 'Gesamteuropapolitik', an all-Europe policy:
Interview without words
And just for a bit of summer fun, my ‘Interview without Words’ in the Süddeutsche Zeitung:
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