Sunday 22 September 2019

Ben Tonra: 'Don't be smug on Brexit - we are not learning its lessons'

What a mess: A worker sweeps the street outside 10 Downing Street in London yesterday. Photo: Getty Images
What a mess: A worker sweeps the street outside 10 Downing Street in London yesterday. Photo: Getty Images

Ben Tonra

What are we to make of the state of UK politics today? For decades, UK politicians and diplomats - at their best - were renowned for a pragmatic, dispassionate approach to problem-solving. Even at their worst - and Ireland has had a ringside seat to see their worst - UK policymakers were dogged in the pursuit of what they saw as their national interest.

Over the last two years, however, we have seen the traditional bastions of British power - Westminster, Number 10, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the British cabinet - reduced to the status of players in a tragic farce. This has been fuelled by elements of a British press unhinged from traditional journalistic standards and it has been underwritten by electoral fraud, 'dark' money and a network of internationally funded 'institutes' and 'think tanks' responsible only to their small pool of donors.

Europe, of course, has been the crucible for this descent into mayhem. The UK has long been an outlier in Europe - but still a key architect of the contemporary European Union, from the creation of the single market to the enlargement of the EU itself. While many continental politicians waxed lyrical about European destiny, their British colleagues worked diligently at the hard graft of policy-making and problem-solving - always with a sharp focus on UK interests.

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At the same time, there was always a small fringe, to the far left and far right of British politics, that repudiated the UK's mundane European reality and longed for their own utopias.

The catalyst for liberating these extremes and creating this European maelstrom in British politics is partially rooted in unresolved issues surrounding British and, more especially, English identity. The UK's outlier status in Europe was a function of England's self-image as a great global power, with a proud imperial past and unique European history. A particularly English class of political leaders, supremely well-trained in the art of political debate, strained at what they saw as the shackles of perennial European compromise. They longed for a return to a mythical past of global buccaneers and benevolent empire. Held in check by a conservative electorate and a political system that rewarded broad-church parties, they were largely indulged as colourful eccentrics.

What appears to have changed is part of wider global currents surrounding national identity and perceptions of loss. While globalisation has delivered unparalleled wealth, the distribution of its returns has been uneven at best and seen as being profoundly unfair at worst. With the 'rule' of global markets seemingly fixed - in both senses of that word - many in the wider electorate feel themselves effectively disenfranchised and unable to secure desired socio-economic change. Frustrated, some have turned inwards to see who is getting what should be theirs, or who can be blamed for the shortfall. Identity politics is thus in the ascendant.

In the case of the UK, this kind of resentment politics has brought to the centre of the political stage personalities who a decade ago would indeed have been dismissed as buffoons. They have set themselves up as popular tribunes and either secured power themselves or now exercise such leverage over the centres of power as to bend them to their will. What we are watching in Westminster today is the collision of two worlds; the fantasy future promised by these true Brexit revolutionaries and the cold, hard reality of negotiating with a more powerful neighbour.

Theresa May's decision to engage Brexit zealots at the heart of her government was inspired but tragic. Their serial resignation from office has proven many of them to be charlatans of the first order, and yet their siren calls for a pure, clean Brexit - their demand for a triumph of the will over political and economic realities - still resonates with well over a third of the electorate.

It is too easy to watch the Brexit fever on the neighbouring island with a certain smug condescension. If a state with the depth of the UK's constitutional history and political sophistication can fall victim to such a contagion, why not ourselves?

We have seen flashes - sporadic and thus far contained - of the kind of politics we are seeing in the UK, but are we learning any lessons? Lessons about the funding of political parties and lobby groups, about diversity in media control, about journalism, about truth, about standards in political discourse, about the security of our electoral system, and about having real choice in our economics?

We may be watching in horrified fascination, but we must also learn.

  • Professor Ben Tonra is Professor of International Relations at the UCD School of Politics and International Relations

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