Liberation Day

No matter what the future may bring, those of us who were lucky enough to be alive and British on March 29 2017 will never forget the glorious day when the United Kingdom finally threw off the yoke of the European Union.  In the years to come, perhaps very soon, we will hold a national holiday to commemorate our liberation from four decades of unrelenting tyranny and near-total darkness, in which we had seen our precious nation brought to its knees by the dictatorship of Brussels.

At last, our emissaries handed over the letter expressing the will of the people,  and we were able to believe that it was really going to happen.   It was the end of a nightmare or the beginning of a dream.  Or the beginning of the beginning or the first birdsong heralding a new dawn or the birthpangs of a truly Global Britain.  For some, it was only comparable to VE Day or the liberation of Paris.  It was a moment that so many of us had dreamed of throughout the years of toil and suffering under the EU’s slippered jackboot.

Even Jacob Rees-Mogg was barely able to maintain the stiff upper lip and hold back the tears of joy as the first members of the EU occupying army began to pack their bags, taking their subsidies with them.  Others smiled contentedly as the EU nurses left in the wake of the occupying forces,  at the thought of the NHS that would soon be theirs. Cornwall and Wales let out a sigh of relief at the thought of all the European money that they would no longer receive.  Ukip MEPs, hardened through decades of guerrilla warfare in the belly of the beast on salaries of only £84,000 a year plus expenses, came back from Eurostar with their sten guns and handgrenades, wondering how they would turn swords into ploughshares and forge new careers in a country where their single MP had just turned independent.

Watching the non-existent crowds in the empty streets, Michael Gove felt a lump in his throat at the thought that he would not be prime minister after all, but took consolation from the prospect of all those drugs that could now come onto the UK market without EU clinical trials,  and the green spaces that could now be built over without all that EU red tape to prevent it.  Boris Johnson shambled out into the street with his shirt hanging out over his trousers wondering how long he would have to wait before he could prime minister.

Others dreamed of bigger things. Oceans full of fish.  Selling cows to New Zealand. Factories and coalmines reopening. Empty motorways and well-paid jobs for all. And above all, controlled borders and no foreigners, even though the government is now saying that immigration won’t go down after all.

The Sun, passed out like Father Jack in a corner of the nation’s living room, lifted its unshaven head and belched as it warned the Eurocratic scum that if they failed to reach a trade agreement the UK would stop sharing our ‘world-leading counter-terror and crime-fighting abilities’ with the EU.  ‘Your money or your lives!’ the Sun croaked drunkenly, because we really are that great.  And because in any trade negotiations, as the Sun reminded us before passing out again ‘ our crack team of politicians and civil servants’ will always vanquish the ‘Brussels no-hopers.’

Truly the white man had got his country back,  and could look forward once again to taking the underground and not hearing Polish in a journey that would hopefully end up somewhere in the early 1950s.   And the white woman  could also rejoice, like the woman in Hastings who found historical parallels between our current slavery and the Norman Conquest, and concluded that ‘The concept of being governed by an unelected body would have been absolutely abhorrent to anyone in those days. It’s almost like the state has been lost. It was like another takeover, we relinquished our law and power to an unelected body.’

As any student of history knows, those Normans would never have allowed England to be taken over by an unelected body, so we could only put out the flags and cheer even louder that such great and noble thoughts had brought us to this pass.   And the left could celebrate too, because as John McDonnell reminded us not long ago,  ‘Brexit is an opportunity.’   Now the working class had spoken and delivered a fatal blow to ‘the elite’ and the neoliberal order and the British had the chance to get the socialism they had always secretly wanted – even if it was only socialism in one country.

Bliss was it to be alive, as Wordsworth once said about an equally historic moment, and it needed a poet to capture the beauty and the history of our own Liberation Day. Fortunately we had Theresa May, one of those rare politicians with a poetic license to make the impossible sound plausible and articulate the opposite of what is actually happening with absolute and total conviction.

Yesterday the vicar’s daughter reached new rhetorical heights as she reminded the nation that we are now going to ‘going to make our own decisions and our own laws’, regardless of the fact that we already do.   She told us that the government that brought us foodbanks, fitness to work tests and the bedroom tax would ‘build a stronger, fairer Britain.’   Like so many others, she urged us to ‘ look forward with optimism and hope – and to believe in the enduring power of the British spirit.’

She told us ‘I choose to believe in Britain and that our best days lie ahead ‘ and we ‘chose’ to believe it too, even though there was absolutely nothing to suggest that any such future lay ahead.   We did so because we had learned that fairies were real and because Brexiters warned us that they were tired of negativity, pessimism, and doubt, and some of them were even suggesting that those of us who harboured such thoughts might be traitors or criminals or collaborators with the EU death machine.

Our Great Leader also ‘chose’ to believe in ‘the British spirit’ and we did too, because the spirit can reach places where material processes fail, and she was ‘confident that we have the vision and the plan’ even though nothing that has happened since last June suggests that she has either.  She promised us that we would become ‘a magnet for international talent and a home to the pioneers and innovators who will shape the world ahead’ –  even though we already are exactly that.

Typically British in her magnanimity, she offered the olive branch to the European despots, and told them that she wanted to have ‘a new deep and special partnership between Britain and the European Union’ – as opposed to the old one which we already have.

She also promised ‘ a bold and ambitious free trade agreement with the European Union that allows for the freest possible trade in goods and services between Britain and the EU’s member states; that gives British companies the maximum freedom to trade with and operate within European markets; and that lets European businesses do the same in Britain’ – precisely the agreement that we already have.

She pledged to ‘ strengthen the Union of the four nations that comprise our United Kingdom’ even though Scotland and Ireland are already pulling away and Wales is unlikely to be far behind.  She assured the workers amongst us that ‘workers’ rights are fully protected and maintained’ even though the British standard of living ranks at number ten out of 18 European countries and the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that most British workers will be earning no more in 2021 than they were in 2008.

Last but not least, she reminded parliament ‘ at moments like these – great turning points in our national story – the choices we make define the character of our nation.’

She was right about that too.

Empire 2.0

In years to come, historians will look back at the ruins of the country that was once the United Kingdom and wonder what brought about its spectacular and stunning collapse. As they pick their way through the rubble,  they will eventually end up in the strange and barren period that we are now living through, in which there is almost nothing that we seem able to do except watch as one of the greatest collection of fools, frauds, fakes incompetents that has ever led the British state leads the country towards disaster with the gleeful insouciance of a drunk batsman tottering out to the wicket to take a wild swing at any ball that moves.

Yesterday, for example, Theresa May had the unbelievable gall to accuse Nicola Sturgeon of ‘playing politics’ with the country’s future, as if she would never dream of doing such a thing.   And today, the pitiful David Davis admitted that the government has no contingency plan for leaving the EU without a deal, even though Theresa May only recently insisted that leaving the EU with no deal would be better than leaving it with a bad deal.  How could she be so sure, if she hadn’t actually assessed what might happen?  We don’t know, and she obviously doesn’t know either. Yet that didn’t stop her promising to inflict on the country what she didn’t know, regardless of the consequences, and there is little indication that those who voted to leave want to know, or even know that they don’t know.

This is the terrifying dynamic that the country is now trapped in.  It unfolds day after day, gathering pace and idiocy with each passing week.  There appears to be nothing that anyone can do to stop it.  Today, a report from the construction industry predicted the loss of 200,000 construction jobs.  Since the Referendum there has been a 90 percent drop in the number of EU nurses coming to the UK and there are nowhere near enough nurses to replace them.

Try and stop this – or even try to allow parliament to actually look in detail at what the unelected PM is planning – and you are likely to be dismissed as a ‘Remoaner’ and ‘whinger’ or even a ‘traitor’ who has defied the ‘will of the people’.

With hindsight historians may be able to understand how this incredible disaster was allowed to happen.  And when they sift through the fanaticism, the arrogance, the glassy-eyed optimism, the flagwaving jingoism and the sheer stupidity and destructive malevolence of the political class that made it happen, they may well discover something called Empire 2.0.

This apparently is the name that Whitehall civil servants have given to the government’s proposal to reinvent the Commonwealth as a post-EU substitute for the EU.  Liam Fox, the sleazy spiv who should never have been allowed to take office yet has inexplicably become trade secretary, does not like this terminology, saying ‘It’s a phrase I find slightly offensively caricaturing. So it’s not a phrase I would use.’

No one could caricature Fox and his colleagues better than they do themselves, but Empire 2.0 is in fact a very good shorthand explanation for what is taking place.  Empire 2.0 sounds like Hawaii 5.0 and for these clowns it is just as thrilling, or ‘terribly exciting’ as Nigel Farage put it.   Because one of the main reasons why this country is now preparing to commit collective national suicide is because it once had an empire and it has still not got used to the fact that it does not have one.

Like the woman on Question Time who insisted that Britain ruled as  ‘the light of the world’ for ‘thousand of years’, the British political class, and a significant percentage of its population believes that the British empire was great and it cannot get used to the fact that it no longer great.

This is a country haunted and poisoned by imperial nostalgia and imperial amnesia.  It’s a country that has tried to cling onto greatness by stacking up nuclear weapons so that it can sit at the big table at the UN; above all by kidding itself that it was acting like ‘Greece to Rome’ in its servile and subordinate relationship with the United States and its willingness to ride shotgun with every lunatic American military adventure.

But despite all this, the country senses that it is not great as it once was or has it should be.  It remembers a time when the tables of the world ate with British steel, when gunboats were there to remind dodgy foreigners and governments trying to prevent their populations from becoming opium addicts of their duties and responsibilities.

Now we have to abide by the rules of an organisation – the EU – that we willingly joined, and so we tell ourselves that the EU is a new ‘Reich’ and that we are living under the ‘dictatorship of Brussels.’

Having foreigners tell us what to do is bad enough, but the real indicator of our fall from greatness is the presence of foreigners inside ‘our’ borders.  It was alright once for us to emigrate to any country that took our fancy and conquer countries that opposed us – immigrants were not supposed to come here, at least not in such numbers that they became noticeable.  They were not supposed to walk around our streets and SPEAK THEIR OWN LANGUAGES.

For too many of our countrymen, such things are unacceptable.   And that is why we had to leave the EU.  That’s why we want Empire 2.0 to restore our links with our old friends from the Commmonwealth who once belonged to Empire 1.0, because we are a ‘great trading nation’ and great trading nations can do what they like even if they can’t.

It’s no good pointing out that countries that replace a rational and thoughtful analysis of their actual possibilities and prospects in the real world with fantasies are not going to get very far.   You can try to explain that leaving the single market and falling back on WTO rules is a catastrophic error.  People like Fox, who believe in the ‘tremendous opportunities opportunities to importers and exporters from across the whole Commonwealth, a genuinely win-win situation’, will never listen.  They will never change their minds, never think twice, never allow even the shadow of a doubt to drift across the bright horizon.

They remember when we were great and they know we can be great again.  For them, every precipice is a chance to fly.   Unfortunately, too many people share the same belief, and they will probably continue to share it, long after we hit the ground, and the bubble of Empire 2.0 floats out of reach, and bursts above their heads.

 

Brexit 2017: The Year of the Mogwai

Looking down with a vaguely-superior disdain at the outside world is a long-established Anglo-Saxon pastime.   Over the years we have been taught to use the words ‘very British’ to distinguish the bad things that happen in the world beyond from the better things that happen here.  We talk about ‘very British revolutions’ with a certain smugness.   The notion of something being ‘very British’ conjures up comforting notions of a national character based on gentleness,moderation and an aversion to extremes.  It evokes a nation supposedly moved more by common sense than the hot political passions that cause civil wars and revolutions in less cultured or sophisticated places.

I learned this a long time ago, when I studied O’ Level History and learned how nineteenth century British statesmen grappled with continental instability and the Ottoman ‘sick man of Europe’.  Back then we were very much steeped in the ‘great men’ school of History and we understood that British leaders were greater than most.

We learned that our statesmen were visionaries like George Canning, who ‘ called the new world into existence to redress the balance of the old’; that they were sensible, pragmatic and diplomatic men who did not act rashly; who were always wise enough to prevent a serious crisis from getting any worse.

Other countries, we assumed, were not so blessed.  They were led by leaders who weren’t as wise or all-seeing as our own, and that was why we sometimes had to intervene in their affairs and perhaps even take over their countries.

Our ancestors had been forced to deal with the sick man of Europe.  They had taken on ‘the burden of Empire’.  They had intervened in two world wars.  They had been forced to deal with ‘the Irish question’, and the ‘problem of India’ and the dangerous aspirations of the ‘Russian bear’, when all they really wanted was to put their feet up in a Mayfair club or watch a good game of cricket somewhere.

Other leaders wanted power or territory.   Ours were only concerned with ‘the balance of power’ and safeguarding the nation’s interests – interests that we were never taught to question and always assumed were legitimate.  Even our empire was ‘accidental’.

Of course I have long since shed these illusions, or at least I thought I had. Because I still find it impossible to reconcile these schoolboy narratives of British caution and moderation with the mind-boggling combination of malice, idiocy, prejudice, magical thinking and epic incompetence that is dragging the country towards one of the great self-inflicted wounds in its history.

In the last week, lying in a sickbed watching the country speed towards Article 50 like a train heading for a cliff, I’ve often myself thinking of the Joe Dante 80s comedy Gremlins, when a dad purchases a little oriental animal called a mogwai for his son as a present and inadvertently brings forth an army of destructive little monsters that wreak havoc on a small American town.

I can’t help feeling that a similar process is now taking place on a national level as I watch the oafish Boris Johnson turning what was once seen as one of the most serious posts in the British government into a vehicle for his narcissistic buffoonery.  No one can be surprised that his own department is in despair at his inability to read briefings or his willingness to alienate his foreign counterparts, because such an outcome could have been predicted from the moment he got the job.

Which brings us to Theresa May, gremlin-in-chief, who has allowed her personal ambition to put herself in a position when she is painfully and terrifyingly out of her depth. Her party can’t even guarantee the interests of big business – the main purpose of the Tory Party after all – let alone the wider interests of the country.

May is nominally leading the country, even though she only seems to listen to the Brexit gremlins that prance  around her shrieking that we must leave, leave, leave the EU, regardless of how we leave it or what leaving means or whether their exits are even possible.  They include the more thug-like gremlins like Aaron Banks and Nigel Farage, ‘the bad boys of Brexit’ , who clearly don’t care what happens if we leave just as long as we leave.

And posh Jacob Rees-Mogg – a politician who looks more and more like a ghost from the fourteenth century rather than a living person.   And stonecold idiots like Ian Duncan-Smith and Andrea Leadsom – an environment secretary who is so pig-ignorant that she thinks farming has been around ‘since the dawn of mankind’.

Like Brexit secretary David Davis, these gremlins can’t be doing with any negative talk about what might happen, or any fussing about single markets, tariffs, schedules and regulations.  That is namby-pamby, lefty pinko liberal europhile talk and they aren’t having it. They want out and they want it now.  They’re ready to take the ‘economic hit’ that none of them will ever feel.  Because after so many years of continuous suffering they just can’t endure the tyranny of Brussels for a moment longer – now that the green fields of freedom are so near.

The more the pitfalls and negative consequences mount up, the more they put their fingers in their ears and chant ‘la la la la la’.   Or they stamp their feet and shout at  anyone who says anything they don’t want to hear.   So when judges uphold the rule of law and say that parliament should have some scrutiny over the Brexit process, the judges are vilified as traitors, and gremlins across the country  talk of hanging them for treason.  Because just like the gremlins in the movie, some Brexit gremlins initially seem cheeky and mischievously appealing – like Farage or Johnson – but they quickly turn menacing and even homicidal.

In these circumstances, no one can be surprised that a career diplomat like Ivan Rogers is ignored by his own government when he warns of the dangers ahead.   When Rogers resigns and has the cheek to write a resignation letter he is screeched at by the king of the gremlins Nigel Farage that he is just a ‘Europhile’ anyway and the foreign office is full of ’em, dontcha know?  And then the ghastly Theresa Villiers calls Rogers ’emotionally needy.’

Yep, that’s the way to treat your diplomats when they don’t tell you what you want to hear.   According to the version of British history I was once taught, civil servants were ‘mandarins’ who knew how to run the country and the empire and gave wise disinterested counsel to governments.   Given the staggering complexity that the task of leaving the EU involves,  you would have thought that even the most ardent Leaver  would want such men in place to ensure the best possible outcome.   After all, it’s only common sense to want an experienced negotiator to take part in … negotiations, right?

But Gremlin Britain is not a country where logic and common sense applies.  It’s not the country that my teachers told us about. Gremlins only want to see gremlins like themselves in power.   Because otherwise their vacuity is likely to be revealed to the world.   And the more it becomes clear that they have no coherent plan and don’t even understand what they’re doing and don’t even care about the consequences the more they shout down the people who point this out.

Meanwhile the NHS is crumbling away to the point when Red Cross volunteers are now assisting…the NHS as patients die on trolleys in corridors.   And prisons across the country are rioting – the same prisons where Paul Dacre’s Gremlin Times recently said that prisoners were living a life of luxury.

All this is also part of Gremlin Britain- a country where it’s much easier to rise high if you’re willing to destroy things than if you’re willing to build them, where cronies, grifters and zealots are promoted above their  ability while civil servants who actually have ability and experience must step aside.

The historians of the future will have their eyes popping out on stalks when they look back on this incredible mess and try to understand how this was allowed to happen. They will know it wasn’t because someone brought a weird oriental mascot for his son.   Some may Conclude that a combination of post-imperial corruption and decadence led  the British ruling classes inadvertently to apply shotgun to the nation’s collective head  like a boozy squire on a grousehunt, supported by a population that wanted to believe in Santa Claus when it wasn’t even Christmas.

Others might see it as a popular rebellion gone wrong, or another part of the same generalised democratic corrosion that has given us a president who boasts about his ratings on a tv show less than two weeks before taking office

But one thing is clear.  The words ‘very British’ are even meaningless than they were before, and in the future, like Joe Dante’s Gremlins, they may well conjure up horror rather than affectionate amusement

Theresa May’s New Year Message: the Blind Leading the Blind

In these uncertain times, as we move closer to the yawning abyss that is Brexit, one can only wait with bated breath for a good dose of platitudinous bromide from the politicians who are about to push us off it to lift the spirits.   Maybe idiot-at-large Boris Johnson’s Christmas invitation to get behind ‘global Britain’ didn’t do it for you.  Luckily there is Theresa May, her harsh visage only marginally softened by a glittering Christmas tree, had the following reassuring message to our troubled nation:

‘We all want to see a Britain that is stronger than it is today.  We all want a country that is fairer so that everyone has the chance to succeed. We all want a nation that is safe and secure for our children and grandchildren. These ambitions unite us, so that we are no longer the 52% who voted leave and the 48% who voted remain, but one great union of people and nations with a proud history and a bright future. So when I sit around the negotiating table in Europe this year, it will be with that in mind – the knowledge that I am there to get the right deal not just for those who voted to leave, but for every single person in this country.’

I feel better already.  Or I would, had these hollow and profoundly vacuous promises not come from a prime minister whose own civil servants have accused her of lacking in the moral courage to admit to the complexity of the task that lies ahead of her.

And Cruella’s cowardice and political dishonesty aren’t the only reasons why this listener does not feel like singing Kumbaya along with her.  There’s also the question of vision.  So far there is no evidence whatsoever that May’s government of the clueless, the shameless, the duplicitous and the useless have any idea how to extract ‘the right deal’ from the horrendous political and logistical spaghetti junction that the nation is now stepping into.

As for the future that she expects us to unite behind, it’s worth comparing it with the Institute for Public Policy Research’s excellent report:  Future Proof: Britain in the 2020s.  

Among other things the report predicts that:

  • Technological, economic and demographic change will supercharge inequalities, with middle and low income households struggling through a low-growth living standards decade, even as the rich pull away
  • A combination of low growth, political choices and demographic change will shrink the state and put the UK on course for a structural deficit by 2030.
  • The 65+ population will surge from 11.6 million today to 15.4 million by 2030. By contrast, the working age population (16-64) will increase by only 3%. There will be a surge in the ‘oldest old’, with the over 85s population nearly doubling by 2030
  • By 2030 the economy is forecast to be up to £55 billion smaller than it would have been without Brexit. In a ‘pessimistic’ scenario, where trade costs increase significantly, households are expected to be £1,700 worse off per year by 2030.
  • Without significant reform, longstanding weaknesses in the UK’s economic model will remain: poor productivity performance, weak real wage growth compounded by surging Brexit-related consumer inflation, sluggish public and private investment rates, yawning trade decits, heavily indebted households, regional disparities, extensive financialisation and rent-seeking. In the process, morbid symptoms will multiply: negative yields, interest rates near the lower bound, underinvestment and stagnant living standards.
  • Government spending as a share of GDP is projected to fall to its lowest postwar level (around 36%) by 2019/20. This trajectory will continue into the first half of the 2020s unless fiscal policy changes significantly post-Brexit. At the same time, spending will be more focused on pensions and health.  Even with lower expenditure, the public finances will be acutely vulnerable to shock. Brexit is expected to significantly worsen the state of the public finances.
  • Demographic change will drive increasing demand at the same time as public expenditure tightens. The NHS and social care will face an acute funding challenge. The education system will grapple with equipping people for the digital age. Childcare is likely to remain patchy and inadequate.
  • The UK economic model is unlikely to deliver broadly shared prosperity. Nine of the 10 poorest regions in western Europe are in the UK, but we also have the richest region.

How will the UK’s aging population fund the NHS or social care, without younger migrant workers coming to the country to pay taxes?   How can May’s government protect the population against the consequences of further shocks in the global economy?  What will it do to prevent or mitigate the ‘morbid symptoms’ identified in the report?  How will it prevent the rich from ‘pulling away’?  What will it do to address the fact that median incomes in the UK have stagnated or declined for more than a decade?  How will  this government and its successors respond to the technological revolution that will result in more and more jobs being done by machines?

There is not the slightest indication that May and her ministers are even asking these questions.  But I urge anyone interested in the future of the country – and the future in general – to read this report and consider them.   As in all futurist documents, the IPPR’s conclusions are only predictions, but the picture they paint is of a backward, reactionary country in dire need of democratic renewal, economic modernisation and social justice to cope with the new challenges posed by technological transformation and ecological crisis.

Nor is it simply a litany of worst possible futures.   The report asks its readers to become ‘architects of the future’ and calls for ‘ a new “common sense” that reclaims a different type of modernity to that envisioned by neoliberalism – one that deepens and broadens economic and social freedom for everyone, not just a privileged few.’

To achieve this, the report argues, ‘ will require collectively shaping social, economic and technological change to extend democracy and deepen human flourishing, creating institutions that harness the growing power of technology to promote shared abundance, and building a common life that rewards purpose and kindness.’

Now if Theresa May had delivered a ringing message like that, I might have sat up and taken notice.  Of course she didn’t,  and she never will, because politicians like her can’t even think in these terms.

But we can, and if we are going to avoid some of the worst-case futures outlined in this report and built a better one, we really ought to start looking for politicians who are prepared to consider them.