Britain”s leadership deficit and the state of utter stagnation.
Despite being such a great influence on cultures the world over, Britain is, in some ways, a strange society to live in. It does have certain clear advantages over South Africa, notwithstanding the weather of course, but in terms of its stability, its fascinating vibrant history, its centrality and primacy on the world stage, the availability of just about everything; all owing to it being something of a global hub between Europe, America and its former colonies, there is much to praise.
That being said, most of the optimism about Britain relates to its past and it is difficult to find individual citizens who are genuinely optimistic about its future. The stagnation of its political culture has run parallel to an increased pessimism about its society and even a sense of resignation about the whole process.
What is curious about Britain, and perhaps apparent only to those who live here for any length of time, is that its national demeanour and political culture has come to resemble the aforementioned weather: grey, unchanging, moist and stagnant. Of course, some sense of melancholy is perhaps inevitable after the loss of its empire followed by half a century of stable shrinking as a world power; one gets the sense from talking to a fairly broad cross-section of society that the greatest things have passed, the heroism of the Trafalgar, the Battle of Britain and D-day replaced by the dystopian squalor of reality television and celebrity gossip; the Britain of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. A sense of guilt runs parallel to this, those who are not lamenting the loss of Britain’s past, are apologetic that it happened at all, the middle ground is hard to find. This social malaise has been a gradual process amplified in recent years by economic decline as has the loss of animus in the political system.
Despite their mutual acrimony, the three main political parties share some common ground in their inability to offer any kind of vibrant vision for Britain’s renewal. The Labour party have lost what was previously their main USP: their perceived moral high-ground. Tony Blair, a shrewd and skilled politician and a far cry from Labour’s previous naive idealists, took a leaf out of both the respective left-wing hard-line unionist and right-wing Thatcherite books in his fairly autocratic style of personality politics. There are aspects of Blair that I admire but, having run Britain like a mafia organisation for a decade and embroiled it in an unpopular and damaging foreign conflict it is hard for Labour to claim to be the voice of the common man any longer. They now tread a deft line between uncharismatic incompetence, thinly veiled corporatism and champagne socialist hypocrisy, elegantly distilled in their gormless leader Ed Milliband; a man whose election as leader over his more charismatic brother was predicated on his endorsement by Britain’s racketeering unions and whose main political tactic is the repetition of the hypocritical mantra of “same old Tories!”
The Liberal Democrats, for a time, seemed to offer a middle way. Prior to the last election their popularity climbed, their leader was young and fresh-faced with a strong academic background and they were untarnished by the historical baggage of the other two. Indeed their own history as a breakaway party gave them increased credibility of a sort. However, the ominous signs were there in the run-up to the election for those who knew what to look for. The Lib Dems didn’t so much offer a fresh new vision so much as one that slalomed between the views of the other two. During the prime ministerial debate Nick Clegg commented that the more David Cameron and Gordon Brown bickered, the more alike they sounded, however, this did not bode well for him either as he was attempting to secure the apparently centrist gap between the two. The party has now been abandoned by swathes of former supporters on the left and right, their personality assimilated into the murk of coalition politics. To the right they are pliant and ineffectual, useful only insofar as they were able to make a Tory government more palatable to liberal voters in the form of the coalition. To the left, they are sell-outs to the right, pure and simple.
The Conservative party too, seem to have lost their identity. In their scramble for the centrist position they are led by an ungainly bunch of what Thatcher would have called ‘wets’, with the Tory old guard playing their part from the shadows. For many libertarian or conservative citizens, Britain’s last fifty years has been a repetitive cycle of Labour coming into power on the basis of popular but idealistic and impractical policies, leaving the Tories with the task of having to clean up their mess by implementing unpopular but necessary readjustments. After years of money-squandering from Labour and a turgid public sector bursting at the seams, fiscal Conservatism seemed like an attractive prospect for many disillusioned Brits but since they have come to power, they have stumbled from one humiliating catastrophe to the next. Even staunch Conservative voters who have never deviated from their core party even during Labour’s glory years of the late 90s, are now cradling their foreheads in embarrassment; the administration is doing itself no favours.
Enduring both crippling economic woes and an almost pubescent political identity crisis is certainly taking its toll on Britain’s morale and collective will. The weakness of both leadership and the opposition is serving to prolong the recession and, by extension, the loss of optimism; they are without a doubt, mutually reinforcing problems. Is this a new phase of terminal and permanent decline? The political scene is desolate but Britain is a an island nation with cold grey winters, battered by countless wars and invasions over the years, and thus imbued with a unique ability to limp on. What is needed for some sense of renewal in this country is more than cabinet reshuffles and bitter opposition. British political parties need to stop trying to have it both ways in the battle for the centre ground and to regain their sense of identity. Reinvention is inevitable and the party faithful of all three entities are nearing the end of their tether. It is essential that neither they nor the electorate recede into nihilism and resignation. But who knows how long this slump will continue?
Whereas America thrives on patriotism and optimism, Britain gets by on irony and lugubrious self-deprecation. So until we find a way out of this economic and existential ditch, we will at least have the capacity to enjoy complaining about it