Regeneration Will Only Come by Accepting Our Grief Over a Broken Britain
The first step towards rebuilding our country is to acknowledge the profoundness of the damage symbolised by Boris Johnson’s rise to power.
A strange sense of suspension has hung over the last few days.
Everything feels wrong and out of place and, yet, nothing so far has really changed. It is like the first disorientating moments of the morning when you can’t remember if you have just woken from a dream or lived through a real event. We braced ourselves for what was coming, it came, and now we must simply wait to learn if, when and how the full nightmare begins.
So far Boris Johnson has lived down to expectations.
He has demanded that Ireland must abandon its most basic political and economic interests and cave on the backstop, even though it was negotiated by a British government which included Johnson himself. He has declared that it is “up to the EU” to avoid a ‘no deal’, as though Brexit was the EU’s fault and, as such, its responsibility alone.
It becomes harder to love a place whose leader loves only himself.
Micheál Martin, the leader of the opposition in Ireland, has accused Johnson of not acting “within the realms of normal diplomatic or political behaviour”. The bilateral relationship is now more toxic than it has been in decades. The Queen’s 2011 visit to Ireland, the final step to normalise a partnership of friends and equals, may as well never have happened.
It feels indulgent to over-dramatise. Nobody has died (yet). But there is a palpable grief. Johnson’s accession to power feels like the worst thing that has happened in British politics in many decades. It confirms everything we don’t want to believe about this country: that it values privilege and bluff over merit and solid work, will repay a lifetime of dishonesty at the expense of integrity and truthfulness, and will always ensure that your school matters more than your character. It becomes harder to love a place whose leader loves only himself. Only a country which revelled in its arbitrary obscenity could have enthroned a Prime Minister who craved the job so much and deserved it so little.
Perhaps Johnson simply finishes the job Brexit started. We can now definitively grieve the illusion we were really a serious country to begin with. For some years, we entertained the notion that Britain might try to do better; that it would meaningfully engage with the rest of the world, rather than seek to mock, traduce or conquer it; that it was a country mindful of its entrenched injustice and which aimed to remedy it.
Now our Prime Minister is openly blackmailing our closest neighbour and obliquely warning that “no one in the last few centuries has succeeded in betting against the pluck and nerve and ambition of this country”. We tell jokes and reassure ourselves this won’t last, but we know we have lost something we can never get back.
To voice this feeling immediately invites ridicule.
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Johnson is not Trump – yet – and Britain is still governed by democratic principles and parliamentary sovereignty. But, we also recognise how complacent countries collapse. The rise of a cynical chancer like Johnson, just like the voluntary economic crisis of ‘no deal’, is not within our normal experience. The grave risk is it slowly becomes both normal and acceptable. That is what people feel compelled to resist. It is almost certainly why Johnson has been greeted by an unprecedented chorus of boos on his first visits to Scotland and Wales.
It is possible that what underpins the disbelief is a sense of powerlessness. The country at large was disenfranchised from the Tory leadership vote and millions of horrified Britons – by no means all of them Remainers – simply had to look on as 160,000 mostly white, affluent English people took a decision that could shatter millions of livelihoods. Powerlessness is the great theme of our times. It spurred millions to vote for Brexit in the first place. Few of them could ever have wanted this.
It is like the first disorientating moments of the morning when you can’t remember if you have just woken from a dream or lived through a real event.
Soon, the feelings of grief will subside. We cannot for long mourn the rise of Johnson and his politics of destruction, when we should instead be fighting it. Perhaps he will not last long. Perhaps our social, political and economic structures can be salvaged. Perhaps there really could be a happy ending to the drama of the last three years.
But, first we must accept that something has broken in Britain. The first step towards rebuilding it is to acknowledge the profoundness of the damage.
Jonathan Lis is deputy director of the pro-EU think tank British Influence and a political writer and commentator.