It’s nearly as impossible to write about Brexit as it is not to write about it. It does indeed change everything – but unfortunately that includes the things you were going to say when you sat down to write but which the latest improbable twist, betrayal, reversal or reaction has magicked into its opposite before your eyes. We may even have to wipe the grim grin off our faces as the one apparently unalloyed gleeful moment in the whole dismal farrago – the political assassination of Boris Johnson – melts into a Pyrrhic victory (but more of that, briefly, in a minute).
There are however a couple of things that can be said without fear of contradiction. There is more pious twaddle spouted about leadership (‘lay preaching’, as Jeff Pfeffer calls it) than any other subject, and I have no wish to add to to the compost heap. But whatever leadership is, as Andrew Hill noted in the FT as he helpfully enumerated five kinds of failure on show in the episode, this isn’t it. Indeed, accidentally severing our ties with the the rest of our continent and then leaving the country effectively leaderless, planless, and witless must be the most inept leadership miscalculation since King John ordered his baggage train bearing the Crown Jewels to take a short cut across the Wash in 1216.
To be bounced into holding the referendum on someone else’s terms in the first place; to set no prior conditions (allowing a decision of this importance to be made by 36 per cent of the electorate?); to spend years blaming Brussels for all our home-grown ills and then insult voters by expecting them to swallow Project Fear; to have no contingency in case the electorate called their bluff – all of those were needless eggs that duly hatched into the chickens now flapping cackling home to roost. And this is just on the Remain side. And people call the EU dysfunctional!
It somehow seemed unsurprising that English footballers subsequently proved unable to pass the ball to each other, let alone push forward to an agreed gameplan, under pressure in the match against Iceland. The analogies between sport and politics don’t go very deep, but then they don’t need to. The squabbling among members of the management team and the inability to get individuals to work as a team were strikingly similar.
Anent the football failure, a kind reader sent me back to a piece I wrote in 2007 pointing out that the real British disease was a total inablility to think in terms of systems. I’m all for pragmatism, but if you want synergies (in other words, overperformance, as in Iceland and Wales in France), you have to have a minimum of ability to join things up. The unfortunate product of British management is all too often the opposite: reverse synergies that make two and two equal not five but three.
Perhaps we should ask for a couple of seminars from Eddie Jones, the blunt Australian head coach of the England rugby team, who has overseen the conversion of almost exactly the same group of players who had been sad World Cup losers in 2015 into clean-sweep victors of a series down under for the first time since 1971. (This occasioned one of two great Brexit newspaper front pages: ‘WELL DONE ENGLAND. NOW ANOTHER CONTINENT HATES YOU’, crowed an Australian tabloid, while French daily Libération carried an image of Johnson dangling from a zipwire above the headline ‘GOOD LUCK’.)
The second thing that is beginning to sink in is the realisation that the political crisis is the septic symptom of a deeper economic one. The popular two fingers, or punch in the face, to the political class signals that something is deeply broken, and that something, as I have been arguing for ages, is our current debased and dysfunctional version of capitalism. People have a right to be angry, even if the EU, the spectacular casualty of the referendum, in the event was collateral damage in a mostly shameful leave campaign whose rallying cry of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘control’ was really code for ‘kick out the immigrants’. Capitalism as currently practised in the US and UK is a zero-sum game in which the dice are heavily loaded against those who don’t already have wealth. As John Gray noted recently, ‘The stabilisation that seemed to have been achieved following the financial crisis was a sham. The lopsided type of capitalism that exists today is inherently unstable and cannot be democratically legitimated. The error of progressive thinkers in all the main parties was to imagine that the discontent of large sections of the population could be appeased by offering them what was at bottom a continuation of the status quo’.
Quite. What the status quo has delivered – increasingly large and frequent crises, declining real wages, growing insecurity, fewer good jobs, and inequality – is not anything anyone signed up to. They didn’t sign up to it because there wasn’t a deal. Or rather, the deal was no deal – trust us, everything will be fine as long as we intervene as little as possible and leave it to the markets. That’s why blaming impersonal forces such as globalisation or technological change, still less immigration, for our current ills is disingenuous. We’ve had these things for centuries, and they work when there’s a deal, a negotiated balance in which state, public and private sectors all play an active and complementary role. At the moment governments have opted out in favour of a rent-seeking private sector which accepts no responsibility to the wider community, while a scorned and demoralised public sector is is reduced to eating itself by austerity. With nobody driving the bus or doing their job, it’s not surprising large swathes of the population are marginalised.
The question now is, who is going to construct a deal to put Humpty Dumpty together again? Normally this would be natural Labour territory, but let’s not go there. So, the dour safe-pair-of-hands May? The dreadful City ‘banker’ and mother Leasdom? No, me neither. Which is where we circle back to Boris Johnson. The breathtaking opportunism of the blond bid for the Tory leadership and his fundamentally dishonest campaign made Johnson’s comeuppance deeply relishable. But as well as an opportunist, Johnson is also by instinct the most liberal of the Tory postulants and also, unlike them, a chancer who is quite up for a risk or two. Indeed it is just this racy combination that may have persuaded the fanatical Gove to unsheath his stiletto. The final irony, it now turns out, is that with Johnson may have gone the last best hope for something different from bankrupt, brain-dead business as usual.