Michael Binyon on the UK's sense of loss as Brexit talks start
The mood in the UK as the Brexit talks start
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.