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The defenestration of Britain

  • Published at 12:04 am June 10th, 2019
US UK
What else is on the table? REUTERS

The ship for a competent Brexit sailed a long time ago

A moment of clarity. The US President declares that the UK’s free at the point of use £120 billion a year National Health Service “must be on the table” for post-Brexit trade talks.

This being Donald Trump, he immediately backtracked during an interview with Piers Morgan. As his reality show friend and self-appointed transatlantic cheerleader, Morgan had presumably conveyed to Trump the overwhelming high regard and trust the British public places in the NHS.

While not perfect, the system delivers universal healthcare at around the average EU cost of c.9.8% of GDP. The US, by contrast, spends nearly twice as much -- just under 18% of its bigger GDP -- on a system which even after Obamacare is far from universal, institutionally unequal, and comes with fear of bankruptcy from illness attached. 

It goes without saying POTUS meant exactly what he said first time round during his state visit press conference with outgoing PM Theresa May. Chances are, in fact, most American administrations given the opportunity would seek, if not so directly say, the very same. 

After all, what else exactly is left for the UK to do a deal with the US?

Two close allies with deep cultural and economic ties predating a century of shared military intelligence and nuclear weapons. It’s not just trade in fanciful financial services and actors either, many a Boeing still relies on Rolls Royce jet engines to get up in the air. In just the last four years, Amazon, Bloomberg, Google, Facebook, and the US Embassy to name but five, have or are spending over one billion pounds each on a central London office to call their own.

Without the NHS, BBC, and un-American EU food regulations on the table, there is little for the so-called “US trade deal” to negotiate. 

It is no coincidence its loudest advocates in Britain have come from the same milieu of free market fundamentalist think tanks and deep right of the Conservative party, among which Nigel Farage first flourished before becoming the face of Brexit. They know full well no political party is going to win a UK election by offering to privatize the NHS. Euphemisms like “modernization and reform” on the other hand can still further their core goal of more handouts for the wealthy, crumbs for collaborators, and submission for everyone else.

A no deal Brexit leaving the UK feeling isolated in which “deals,” however meaningless, can be spun as a boon, offers a once in a lifetime Trojan Horse for “Hong Kong on Thames” slash tax ideologues to put their fantasies into practice. 

Things can only get bitter. The door for Scottish independence may soon reopen and David Cameron’s true legacy of a broken Britain will finally be complete.

But not yet. The next PM must work with the same parliament that recently rejected various incarnations of the unpopular deal and hard Brexit. They must also satisfy MPs from Northern Ireland’s DUP, a pro Brexit party from a pro-Remain province which both wants to keep borders open in the island of Ireland and is totally opposed to unification. 

Sectarian violence was simpler to follow. Not for nothing did the previous secretary of state for Northern Ireland have the surname Brokenshire.

Hence a general election with Boris Johnson, a man described even by friends as a sort of British Trump, as prime minister, is also possible before the year is out. With both the Labour party and government divided and opposition split many ways, this too might also deepen the deadlock. 

None of this is normal. The only time Johnson has had the semblance of achievement was on becoming mayor of London in 2012, when his predecessors had helpfully improved infrastructure policing and delivered the Olympics for him to preside over. 

As prime minister, the cupboard will be rather barer. While the current government has targeted harsh austerity measures on the poor and undermined basic services, it has also simultaneously enabled the national debt to keep growing (via quantitative easing) keeping liquidity and credit cheap for big banks and asset owners.

None of this was inevitable. Most if not all the division unleashed by Cameron’s referendum could have been deflected by stronger leaders championing reconciliation around a Norway style deal. 

It is only because Corbyn and May accepted some of the more irrational interpretations of the referendum result spouted by hardliners that both major parties have been stranded trying to square impossible circles. 

In a world plagued by climate change, inequality, and xenophobia, it should have been that simple, governments have more important long-term matters on which to focus.

Electoral arithmetic evidenced by recent votes and election results still offers (some) hope for those Remainers clamouring for a new referendum and Corbynites wanting to step into government. But neither of these two forces has been as steadfast and united as the hard Brexiteers counting on being the last men standing.

Obituaries of the UK have been written many times before. Even during Queen Victoria’s heyday, the manufacturing prowess of Germany and the US troubled its ruling classes. Yet pragmatism, not just the bounty of empire, helped keep its place at top tables and improve ordinary peoples’ standard of living over a century of managed decline.

A virtue much diminished by three bruising years of post-referendum politics. Danny Boyle’s joyful celebration of the UK’s capacity for invention and imagination at the 2012 London Olympics now seems like a far-off land.

Thanks to its imperial history and global footprint of popular culture, the world knows the UK, like Dr Who, Shakespeare, Orlando, and James Bond, has many faces. Take as one instance the 1960s when its residents enjoyed a far less turbulent time than most of the world (and England even won the World Cup.) 

The very same country that was designing Concorde was only just getting around, years after liberated Europe, to phasing out steam engines on its railways. And the same UK government that resisted joining the Vietnam war was secretively evicting Chagos Islanders from their homeland so the US could build a major base at Diego Garcia.

Britain’s ability to adapt and muddle through may one day revive. 

But in the meantime, as the faces on the wheels of fortune keep bringing up Johnson and Farage, a short order of panic seems apt. 

Hard, long, soft, or otherwise, the only thing anyone knows for sure is that the ship for a competent Brexit sailed a long time ago.

Division, dismay, and disunity are the UK’s zeitgeist on D-Day plus 75. 

Niaz Alam is Dhaka Tribune’s London Bureau Chief. A qualified lawyer, he has worked on corporate responsibility and ethical business issues since 1992. He sat on the Board of the London Pensions Fund Authority between 2001-2010 and is a former vice-chair of War on Want.