Michael Binyon on the UK's sense of loss as Brexit talks start

The mood in the UK as the Brexit talks start

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Michael Binyon, Lon­don

It was a 91-year old woman who summed up Bri­tain’s wide­spread anger, sense of tragedy and loss of re­spect for gov­ern­ment and author­ity. The coun­try, she said, was in a “very som­bre na­tional mood”. There have been four ter­ror­ist at­tacks in four months, a gen­eral elec­tion that left the gov­ern­ment weak and floun­der­ing, the open­ing of dif­fi­cult and di­vi­sive talks with the European Union and a ter­ri­ble fire in Lon­don that killed around 80 peo­ple in a tower block that housed mainly im­mi­grants and poor peo­ple.

The per­son who summed up Bri­tain’s frus­tra­tions and fury was the Queen. She now ap­pears to be the only na­tional fig­ure still to com­mand wide­spread re­spect. The gen­eral elec­tion on June 8 has left the Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment with­out a ma­jor­ity, and has dealt a fa­tal blow to Theresa May, the prime min­is­ter, who now be­come a fig­ure of de­ri­sion even within her own party. Strug­gling to re­assert her author­ity, she has seen her pop­u­lar­ity plum­met to a record mi­nus 34 points, and is un­likely to sur­vive more than a year at best. The gov­ern­ment has been forced to aban­don al­most all its planned pro­gramme for the com­ing five years and is stum­bling along day by day. Ge­orge Os­borne, a for­mer se­nior min­is­ter and col­league, has called her a “dead woman walk­ing”.

Ev­ery­thing seems to have gone wrong for Mrs. May. The ter­ror­ist at­tacks, in­clud­ing a re­venge at­tack by a white man who tried to kill Mus­lims out­side a mosque last week, have left the coun­try jumpy, ner­vous and di­vided. Mrs. May promised firm ac­tion af­ter the sui­cide bomb­ing in Manchester and the ran­dom stab- bing of pedes­tri­ans in a mar­ket by Mus­lim ter­ror­ists in cen­tral Lon­don. But no new plans have been an­nounced on how to pre­vent ter­ror­ism. In­stead, the prime min­is­ter was blamed for cut­ting po­lice num­bers.

She has also been blamed for the tardy and chaotic of­fi­cial re­sponse to one of the worst fires even seen in Bri­tain, when a tower block be­came an in­ferno be­cause it was badly and cheaply re­fur­bished by a rich Con­ser­va­tive lo­cal

BRI­TAIN IS UN­USED TO PO­LIT­I­CAL CHAOS. IT HAS LONG PRIDED IT­SELF ON HAV­ING AN OLD AND DEEP-ROOTED DEMOC­RACY AND A TRA­DI­TION OF PO­LIT­I­CAL TOL­ER­ANCE. BUT THIS AP­PEARS TO BE BREAK­ING DOWN

coun­cil that de­cided to save money by not us­ing fire­proof build­ing ma­te­ri­als. Mrs. May was too scared by the an­gry sur­vivors to meet the lo­cal res­i­dents, and many had to wait days be­fore any gov­ern­ment help was of­fered. It was left to the el­derly Queen to make a per­sonal visit to the black­ened tower block and talk to the vic­tims.

Fires and dis­as­ters hap­pen in ev­ery coun­try. But this one has had sharp po­lit­i­cal con­se­quences be­cause it has high­lighted a deep so­cial malaise in Bri­tain. Lon­don is a wealthy city, but gov­ern­ment aus­ter­ity has par­tic­u­larly hurt the poor. The rich still live well. But in­equal­ity has been grow­ing. The hous­ing blocks for im­mi­grants and the poor are of­ten be­low stan­dard. No one paid at­ten­tion to warn­ings that some tower blocks are a ma­jor fire risk. Noth­ing has been done to help young or poor peo­ple who can­not af­ford Lon­don’s very high rents. Real wages for or­di­nary work­ers have fallen, but the bosses of big com­pa­nies have dou­bled or tripled their own salaries. There is a gen­eral feel­ing that the raw cap­i­tal­ism of the Thatcher years, when state pro­vi­sion was cut back, has led to a very un­equal so­ci­ety. “Greed is good,” en­trepreneurs used to say in the 1980s. The con­se­quences are not.

The aus­ter­ity im­posed on the coun­try af­ter the 2008-09 eco­nomic cri­sis has barely af­fected most busi­ness­men. Rich for­eign­ers, es­pe­cially Chi­nese, Rus­sians and Nige­ri­ans, have paid mil­lions for smart houses in Lon­don and other city cen­tres that are bought as in­vest­ments and left empty. But Bri­tain’s vaunted na­tional health ser­vice has run out of money and can­not meet the de­mands of the sick. Busi­ness­men are liv­ing well, while teach­ers, nurses and those who lost jobs in gov­ern­ment bud­get cuts are find­ing it hard to sur­vive. A shock­ing statis­tic this week showed that Bri­tain has the high­est in­fant mor­tal­ity rate in Europe af­ter Malta.

This an­gry so­cial mood was partly re­spon­si­ble last year for the vote to leave the European Union, which was of­ten a protest vote by those liv­ing out­side the rich south-east. It has fu­elled racism and hos­til­ity to im­mi­gra­tion. It also led to an un­ex­pected surge in sup­port for the op­po­si­tion Labour party and its left-wing leader, Jeremy Corby, at the elec­tion three weeks ago. And now all these frus­tra­tions have come to­gether in op­po­si­tion to the gov­ern­ment, and es­pe­cially to Mrs. May, who is a stiff and inar­tic­u­late per­son, un­able to re­spond spon­ta­neously to the chang­ing na­tional mood.

The re­sult is that she is weak­ened at the very time when Bri­tain needs firm lead­er­ship in or­der to un­der­take Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions that are likely to be harsh, pro­tracted and leave Bri­tain poorer and in­se­cure out­side the European Union. The Brexit ar­gu­ments have flared up again, with busi­ness­men say­ing they are be­ing ig­nored and econ­o­mists warn­ing that stan­dards of liv­ing will fall. Those who cam­paigned for Bri­tain to leave the EU have fallen silent, while those who want an end to aus­ter­ity are warn­ing that there will be no money to pay for the re­forms needed to lessen in­equal­ity.

The of­fi­cial ne­go­ti­a­tions on leav­ing the EU be­gan on Mon­day. But al­ready the Euro­peans are com­plain­ing that the Bri­tish side is un­re­al­is­tic about the kind of deal they ex­pect. Mrs. May still in­sists that the pri­or­ity is to stop im­mi­gra­tion from the EU. Her own fi­nance min­is­ter ar­gues that the pri­or­ity must be to pro­tect Bri­tain’s econ­omy. She made no se­cret of want­ing to sack him af­ter the elec­tion. He is now an­gry and de­fi­ant. But now she has no author­ity to chal­lenge any of her se­nior min­is­ters, who are quar­relling among them­selves over how the Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions should be con­ducted.

The gen­eral mood of un­cer­tainty, com­pounded by ris­ing so­cial dis­sat­is­fac­tion, has led to a cli­mate of un­cer­tainty. This is the worst of all worlds for busi­ness or sta­bil­ity. As con­fi­dence falls, a vi­cious cir­cle be­gins. The pound has dropped sharply in value. In­vest­ment is fall­ing. In­fla­tion is ris­ing. Liv­ing stan­dards are likely soon to see a sharp down­turn. Mrs. May, with­out charisma or per­sonal author­ity, is strug­gling to re­spond.

The im­me­di­ate chal­lenge for her is to form a gov­ern­ment with a ma­jor­ity. She had hoped to per­suade the 10 mem­bers of par­lia­ment from the Demo­cratic Union­ist party in North­ern Ire­land to back her. They have been ne­go­ti­at­ing for al­most two weeks, but have made de­mands are po­lit­i­cally un­ac­cept­able in re­turn for their sup­port. The op­po­si­tion Labour party does not have enough seats, even with the sup­port of the Scot­tish na­tion­al­ists and other smaller par­ties, to form a gov­ern­ment. The re­sult is dead­lock and stale­mate.

Bri­tain is un­used to po­lit­i­cal chaos. It has long prided it­self on hav­ing an old and deep­rooted democ­racy and a tra­di­tion of po­lit­i­cal tol­er­ance. But this ap­pears to be break­ing down. Bri­tain is now look­ing en­vi­ously at the po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity in Germany and the re­vived con­fi­dence the newly elected Pres­i­dent Macron has brought to France. Once a coun­try loses its own self­con­fi­dence, ev­ery prob­lem be­comes larger. Only the Queen seems now to rep­re­sent tra­di­tion and sta­bil­ity. But she is 91 and has no po­lit­i­cal power what­so­ever. The mood, as she rightly di­ag­nosed, is in­deed som­bre.

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