Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right…
As the U.K. goes to the polls for the third time in five years, in its first winter election for nearly 100 years, there’s a grim atmosphere in the nation of Great Brexitia. Alexander Mayor, Kaput’s man in London, provides a partial view from under a very literal blanket.
“Democracy is definitely a good thing…” You find yourself repeating this mantra, in the hope that you’ll start to feel that it’s true. Because right now it doesn’t. The UK political scene has been rendered so inherently dysfunctional by Brexit and three years of government-by-minority in-fighting that the whole thing is just exhausting to gaze at, much less engage with.
We’re having an election, for purposes both mysterious and obvious, purposeful and conniving. For those just joining us, last season the Prime Minister was a flinty-eyed woman called Theresa May. It was poor casting. The reviews were awful, and she got canned months ago. She lost her majority meaning the greatest political project of the last 60 years was running on fumes. Boris Johnson, a journalist whose hairstyles are driven by Netflix audience response algorithms, has taken over but also had no actual majority. An election then… so we can “get Brexit done.”
Brexit began with a decisive referendum result, but everything that has followed has provided less clarity and more fog. The debate around its meaning, form and future is largely a series of fantastical claims that bear no relation to the grinding process of disentangling our legal and trading arrangements from Europe. For both Labour and Conservatives, Boris and Jeremy, Brexit is just an end-of-season plot point they want to highlight and move on from. You can understand why the public has little interest in the election, or the leaders vying for their votes. It’s a process with the usual mix of posters and leaflets and stickers, but bugger all honesty or realism. The idea that anything will feel ‘settled’ by this campaign seems laughable. Everyone’s in their own echo chamber, hoping the others won’t notice the fake news they’re putting out before the results are published on Friday.
To say it’s a depressing time to be a British voter would be an understatement. Both main parties have fashioned electoral manifestos either long on wish-list items or bereft of meaning. No-one wants to talk about what Brexit means, in terms of costs and bureaucracy, lost jobs and aggravation. We have a democracy where only childlike visions get an airing. For Boris it’s the promise of 40 new hospitals, thousands of new police (replacing the same number they fired) and close to zero immigration (when there are already 100,000s of unfilled jobs in the NHS and a lack of trained UK staff to apply from them), a commitment to the country’s health service so strong that he refuses to look at a photo of a child left to be treated on the floor of Leeds General Infirmary. Jeremy Corbyn’s vision of ‘leadership’ is to claim he’s neither pro- nor anti- Brexit, a desperate attempt to hang onto northern Labour seats that voted Leave. On an issue that is at centrally about who gets to keep their job, in industries that rely on integration with Europe, the leader of the “Labour” party has no view. It’s all madness, really.
Democracy is definitely a good thing… repeat… repeat. A chance to air the grievances! To discover the best path forward. The battle of ideas! But GE2019 doesn’t feel that way. Brexit has unleashed a madness, in the parties and in the people. Policies have torn free of the idea of consequences. Brexit has turned everything into identity politics: Leavers vs Remainers, old vs young, educated vs under-educated. Britain will not be sewn back together by this or any vote for the foreseeable future. There are no adults in the room.
Do not turn on your TV
The other part of politics, the performance art bit, is all that’s left. An unedifying display at the best of times, in 2019 it’s been a combination of Boris Johnson avoiding interviews, Labour reheating the anti-austerity hits of 2017 (an election they seem to think they won, despite losing) and the third parties trying desperately to be heard at all. This is an election without substance, at a time when the country desperately needs an intervention and a few hard truths about its position. The economy is flat-lining but spending promises are extravagant and largely based on a frothy imaginary future where the government isn’t sacrificing entire sectors of the economy to ‘get Brexit done’. It’s a leaden spectacle, humanity reduced to stuttering soundbites like AI in ageing sci-fi thrillers. A battle of fantasies attempting to win over a nation that seems incapable of dreaming in detail.
Brexit, as many have observed, is a process, not an event. The pathway to a new UK is now being laid, paving stone by paving stone, each month a new bit of the old world listed for removal. This election is part of that. Different politicians will perhaps prosper in the coming regime(s). Ones we will likely scarcely recognise as Labour or Tory under current definitions.
For as the global economy integrates further, the clearer it becomes that Brexit is a strangely nativist economic-philosophical project, based on nostalgic visions of solitude and fortitude, ones that bear little relation to the lives and realities of most of our population. The Tories have set it in motion, driven by an emotional inability to deal with our neighbours. But quite where it ends, and who ends up shaping it, remains unclear. Populism is the new political drug, on left and right. This drudgerous winter election, with its absence of meaningful debate on where the country might realistically be heading, and only a chlorinated chicken-filled trade deal with the USA to ‘hope for’, is adding nothing. We are holding a beauty pageant in the last days of a bankrupt shopping centre.
One counter-intuitive thought to end on. If Brexit has proven anything in the last couple of years, it’s that big political projects are full of contradictory or paradoxical side-effects. It’s like anti-judo, your strength undermines you (and you tinker with the operating system of an entire country at your peril.) Should Boris Johnson, a man with few core political goals or achievements, win a majority on Thursday night, Brexit becomes his and his alone. He’s already committed himself to another impossible task, a completed free trade deal with the EU, one that diverges on the EU’s most valued standards and practices, by July 2020 (when a 2 year extension would have to be demanded). How will he proceed when it’s all of his own doing?
So the election might be a side-show, but we are, at least, about to see how much chaos and damage both the Tory Party and the population can truly handle. Are they going to be as committed as Margaret Thatcher was in her 1980s battles with the coal miners, to just destroy whole industries, like car manufacturing or agriculture, for the sake of their political project? Or are they and the population at large about to confront the true Brexit bill? Without facts, without a reckoning, democracy isn’t a meaningful process, no matter how many leaflets hit the mat.
Alexander Mayor is a writer and musician based in London. His new book and album Not From Above! is available from Amazon and Bandcamp, and contains pleasingly little content about Brexit.