The death of a delusion

Britain is a zombie country. It may not have the gore of Night of the Living Dead, but it's staggering around for all that. Welcome to the post-EU era, writes Paul Atkin.

The country we grew up in is dead. It doesn’t realise it. But it is. On the day after the House of Commons voted to give the government permission to proceed with article 50 to leave the EU, the headlines on almost every newspaper concentrated on the death of Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. As people used to say of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, “the condition of the Empire is fatal…but not serious.”

In the 1890s, the sad remnants of the great bison hunting horse tribes of the American plains, driven destitute into reservations with no hope and no future, fell prey to a mass delusion; the ghost dance movement. This was the belief that the rituals that had always preceded the hunt – the ceremonial dances – would somehow bring the massacred and nearly extinct bison migrating back onto the old hunting grounds. Dance it, and they will come. All over the reservations the dances took place with the fervour of desperation: the last gasp of the old way of life, faith as a substitute for an unbearable reality. The disappointment when the bison stayed dead must have been devastating. First the reality dies, then the faith. The UK in the period of the EU referendum is like a milder version of this. Many people are convinced that if they wrap themselves in the Union Jack and sing the national anthem loudly enough, they can avoid being flushed down the toilet of history.

Many people are convinced that if they wrap themselves in the Union Jack and sing the national anthem loudly enough, they can avoid being flushed down the toilet of history

The peculiarly antiquated form of the UK state is coming home to roost. The paradox that it was rich and powerful enough in its day to be able to avoid the more traumatic modernisations that took place on the continent also allowed it, as a partially integrated member of a continental economy, to maintain its outmoded ways and beliefs. To the point that millions of people seriously believed in June last year that it was creative, dynamic and productive enough to survive on its own in a world of much bigger beasts; they voted themselves into a world of their own delusions.

The problem is that Britain has never been an independent free trading nation. It was founded as the core of an Empire. Its wealth was dependent on ruthlessly exploiting that Empire. This was put rather succinctly by my great uncle Dave who unloaded the fruits of that exploitation in Tilbury Docks in the 1930s. “They used to send us all this valuable stuff from the Empire, and we’d pay ’em shirt buttons for it.” When Britain no longer had the power to sustain that exploitation in the face of the greater power of the USA and the Soviet Union, and the challenge of independence movements it could no longer repress or co-opt, it sought instead to sustain and challenge itself by linking up with the EU. So it has never been outside a trading bloc bigger than itself. In the first case, one it dominated; in the second, one in which it had a say.

Even its own internal cohesion as ‘Britain’ is now under increasing strain. The same kind of hard-headed calculation that went into the Scots’ decision in 1707 – that the debacle of the Darien expedition meant they did not have the independent resources to build an Empire of their own – that forming a joint state enterprise with the English would be the way to go, is now reopened in a debate over whether to remain with the 55 million people of England or the 600 million people of the EU. And we now in March 2017 have Unionist parties in a minority for the first time ever in the Stormont assembly in the North of Ireland. ‘Britain’ as it has been is a dead country walking.

When Theresa May scuttled across the Atlantic to offer Donald Trump the Ruritanian respectability of a state visit and tea with the Queen, the desperation for a trade deal could hardly be missed. In the peculiar mixture of national self-importance combined with abject self-abasement conjured by the term “special relationship”, the latter is becoming increasingly overt and apparent. Any trade deal is a pooling of sovereignty. Any deal with the United States, especially in full on ‘America First’ mode, is always to the advantage of the United States. “Taking back control”, just to go over the edge of a cliff hand-in-hand with Donald Trump.

Any deal with the United States, especially in full on ‘America First’ mode, is always to the advantage of the United States. “Taking back control”, just to go over the edge of a cliff hand-in-hand with Donald Trump

When Edward Heath led Britain into the EEC in 1972, part of his thinking was that being in a common market, with more modernised and rapidly growing continental economies, would give the UK capitalist class a salutary kick up the backside and force them to up their game. They didn’t. A recent report from McKinsey on British manufacturing concludes that only 14% of it is world class, innovative and competitive, with 64% scraping by on low investment, weak and backward technology and low labour costs. An awful lot of firms are swimming naked, with the tide going out.

We are now living in the ruins of Heath’s aspiration. The last serious attempt to live up to it was Nigel Lawson’s shadowing of the Deutschemark in the late 80s; which led to recession in the early 90s as an underinvested UK was unable to keep up with Germany and finally collapsed with much singing in the bath, on Black Wednesday 1992.

The last true believer was, and is, Tony Blair, who fondly imagined that Britain could survive in the eurozone. His governments at least made an attempt to get British spending on education and health up to European levels, to save us falling further behind in these areas, doing for the public sector what the private sector was so spectacularly failing to do in the bulk of the economy – invest.

We are now sailing forth with the opposite delusion. That an economy too weak to survive inside the eurozone is nevertheless dynamic and world class enough to make it on its own, on WTO terms in a world dominated by three massive power blocs, the USA, China and the EU, without being gobbled up and subordinated by one of them. It is paradoxical that Boris Johnson’s most effective put down of Blair’s recent call to rise up against Brexit was that Blair wanted to be in the Euro. That tacitly admits that Johnson knows, and we know, and everyone knows, that Britain would have been a complete basket case by now had we joined. Even with a massive and continuing devaluation of the pound against the Euro, which would have been impossible inside it, Britain has still seen the greatest squeeze on wages of any EU country apart from Greece since 2008. Why Johnson and people like him never ask themselves why this devaluation has been necessary may be a tribute to the human capacity to believe what we want to; but doesn’t reflect well on his grasp on reality. It belongs in the same category of “hippy thinking”, as Ian Duncan Smith’s oft stated view, that the other countries in the EU will want to be nice to us because they sell us more stuff than we sell them. Just think about that for a moment.

A country dependent on inward investment from overseas capital and inward migration of labour to maintain its levels of growth, as Britain has been, will have to subsidise the former and pay the price for cutting off the latter. We are already seeing the government cutting away the key underpinnings of an effective modern society. This is already apparent in the health service. Schools are also being squeezed. A country that under-invests in its schools is giving up on its future.

A country that under-invests in its schools is giving up on its future

Among some of the electorate, the sense of being adrift in a threatening sea, with real declines in living standards and no clear confident future, leads to old totems and shibboleths getting dusted off and re-erected. The government will encourage that. When the future is bleak, a search for enemies is always on the agenda. Just as in the final scene of Moby Dick, as the Pequod sinks beneath the waves, one of the crew nails a flag to the mast.

The outline of a failed deal with the EU is now clear. Britain (or England+) will deregulate on everything from labour standards to environmental protection, and use the imperatives of business survival in a newly harsh climate to justify it.  After the EU directive on clean air last month I was waiting for some of the black top tabloids to launch a “Save our British Smog” campaign. I hesitate to write this in case it gives them the idea. This is not far-fetched. Point 17 of the Daily Telegraph’s 20 reasons to leave the EU was “It will be easier to get rid of fridges”. The special relationship with the Trump administration busily deconstructing “the administrative state” will provide them with a model to harmonise with.

So the future is painted if we proceed down this path without resistance; what’s left of Britain will be a nuclear-armed tax haven-cum tourist heritage theme park, with shoddy housing, declining schools and a threadbare health service; and present itself to the world as a luxury bolt-hole with homelessness ‘spikes’ and ‘poor doors’, to keep the hoi polloi away or in their place.

People thought that leaving the EU would be a bit like taking off a hat you didn’t like very much. After 43 years of partial integration, it’s actually a bit more like one of those operations where Siamese twins are separated. In those operations, of course, the weaker twin often dies.

If you don’t like this prospect, what are you going to do about it?