Letter from London

Lost in Fantasy Island

Lance Price is an author and political commentator. He is a former BBC journalist and later adviser to Tony Blair. He has published four books including Where Power Lies and The Modi Effect: Inside Narendra Modi’s Campaign to Transform India
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British politics loses the famed English virtue of common sense

NESTLED AMONG THE holiday camps and caravan parks in the English coastal county of Lincolnshire is a popular attraction offering ‘extreme rides and roller coasters’ for all the family. It goes by the name of Fantasy Island and promises ‘white knuckle thrills’ for those with the stomach for it. If that’s not your idea of fun, there are plenty of places for a nice cup of tea and a slice of cake. This is Britain after all.

For more than 20 years, Fantasy Island has been offering its special brand of escapism to tourists who can’t afford to—or prefer not to—go abroad for their holidays. How the country has changed in that time. In 2017, there is no need to travel to Skegness to know what it feels like. The UK has become one large Fantasy Island, cut off from the real world and hurtling on a roller-coaster ride that goes round and round in circles with no end in sight.

Traditionally, September is the month when Members of Parliament leave Westminster and commune with the party faithful at a veritable merry-go-round of annual conferences in different cities up and down the country. Most citizens pay scant attention to their deliberations and could imagine nothing worse than spending days on end cooped up with political obsessives and policy wonks. Fortunately for them, they don’t have to.

There has always been a wide gulf between the vast bulk of the population, getting on with their daily lives, and the tiny minority who chose to take an active role in the politics of the country. There’s nothing wrong with that. Representative democracy means we elect our MPs every few years and then expect them to get on with the job without troubling us too much.

In today’s Britain, however, people are getting increasingly troubled. Our so-called representatives in Parliament have never appeared so un-representative of the electors who put them there. The gulf is no longer just between the ordinary voter and the political elite, but between the common-sense pragmatism of most people in this country and party leaders ever more out of touch with reality.

Each one, in his or her own way, is pursuing a pipe dream while telling us, with apparent sincerity, that they hold the key to our future happiness and prosperity. It’s as if something got into the water supply at Westminster and infected them all with viral wishful thinking.

If Sir Winston Churchill were alive today he would look around and conclude that his famous aphorism had never been more self-evident: ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.’

Of course, plenty of political leaders in the past have had the odd flight of fancy. Churchill himself had more than a few in his time. But until today we could be reasonably confident that common sense would prevail and Britain would continue to be one of the best administered nations in the world. There is a good reason why in decades gone by, our system of government was exported to all corners of the globe in the hope that it would bring with it a tendency to stability and level-headedness.

Democracy quite rightly throws up competing visions for how to manage society, but the key to successful government has always been a solid degree of basic competence. Today, world leaders look to us and shake their heads in disbelief that we have thrown up a generation of, at best, second- and third- rate politicians who seem unable to look after the best interests of the country. The array of mediocrity is so depressing that it’s difficult to know where to start.

Start we must, however, with the prime minister, the Right Honourable Theresa May, MP. Even her own MPs know that she’s not up to the job. She keeps it only because there’s nobody more obviously qualified on hand to replace her. The voters have already passed their verdict on her leadership. When she called a totally unnecessary general election for last June and asked voters to choose between her ‘strong and stable’ leadership and an alternative she described as ‘chaos’, she was humiliated. Instead of getting the thumping victory she had complacently expected, she was stripped of her parliamentary majority and forced to go cap in hand to a minor party to prop up her government.

Theresa May’s preference for inventing her own reality and adhering to it despite all the evidence to the contrary now extends to those crucial Brexit negotiations

Far from strong and stable, she now looked weak and wobbly. She was forced to drop some of her signature policies because she couldn’t be confident that even her own MPs would fall into line in support of them. She was neutered domestically and diminished internationally. Her purported reason for calling the election was to strengthen her hand in the negotiations over Britain’s departure from the European Union. Instead, her hand has been weakened.

For reasons best known to herself, May often chooses to advertise her inability to acknowledge the reality of her situation. She ditched a controversial policy on care for the elderly and then boldly stated that “nothing has changed”. After the voters had taken away both her majority and much of her authority, she appeared outside Downing Street and spoke as if nothing of the kind had just befallen her, promising to form “a government that can provide certainty and lead Britain forward at this critical time for our country”. Even normally sympathetic commentators wondered what planet she was on.

Her preference for inventing her own reality and adhering to it despite all the evidence to the contrary now extends to those crucial Brexit negotiations. So far, the talks have gone something like this:

British government: ‘We want all the benefits of being in the European single market and also all the benefits of not being in the European single market.’

European Union: ‘Sorry, that’s not how it works.’

British government: ‘We want all the benefits of being in the European single market and also all the benefits of not being in the European single market.’

European Union: ‘We’ve already explained. Nobody gets that.’

British government: ‘You have to be more flexible.’

European Union: ‘No we don’t. Brexit was your idea, not ours.’

The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, an embarrassment to Britain who May is too weak to be able to sack, helpfully made explicit the fact that the government was pursuing an unachievable aim. “Our policy,” he said, “is having our cake and eating it.”

May, who campaigned for Britain to stay in the EU, albeit without much evident enthusiasm, is now peddling the fantasy that a bright new future exists for the country after we walk away from the biggest and most successful free trade area the world has ever seen.

That future supposedly depends on new open trade deals with economies like China, India and, most importantly, the United States of America. She appears blind to the fact that just as when Narendra Modi says ‘India First’, he means what he says, so Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ is more than a slogan. This week the US government raised the prospect of punitive 220 per cent tariffs on British-built aircraft. Trump, supposedly a cheerleader for Brexit, ignored May’s appeals to intervene and the headlines were all about a potential ‘trade war’ between the two countries. That new future suddenly looked rather less rosy.

If Jeremy Corbyn genuinely believes that all 13 million people who voted Labour this year are enthusiasts for his particular brand of outdated socialism then he needs to wake up fast

Free trade, a core principle of British conservatism for generations, no longer holds sway with a party that continues to insist it is prepared to crash out of the EU with no new trade deal if necessary. The combination of the Brexit vote and the disastrous general election result has left the Tories so weak and directionless that they find themselves having to defend even the most basic of their core beliefs against sustained attack.

THE OPPOSITION LABOUR Party used its conference in the seaside city of Brighton to call for a radical restructuring of the economy. Jeremy Corbyn, an old-fashioned socialist who was on the fringes of the political debate until his unexpected election as party leader two years ago, said he was on a mission to replace Britain’s “failed model of capitalism”. Corbyn and his far-left allies have tightened their grip on the party, which now espouses the biggest power grab by the state since the 1940s. His programme would see vast swathes of the economy taken back into public ownership, much higher taxes on businesses and the better off, with rocketing borrowing to help fund a massive increase in public spending.

The Prime Minister found herself having to defend the principle of capitalism itself, calling it “the greatest agent of human progress” in history. She might have got a more sympathetic hearing if she had echoed Churchill. Capitalism is the worst form of economic management, except for all the others.

Corbyn’s new-found confidence stems from Labour’s much better result than expected in June, when it secured 40 per cent of the popular vote. If another election were held tomorrow he would be the favourite to win. The Conservatives, through their own ideological obsessions and monumental tactical errors, have helped put radical socialist transformation back into the mainstream. The only thing that keeps Tory divisions from tearing the party apart is the fear that Corbyn and his red-flag waving army could find themselves occupying 10 Downing Street.

Jeremy Corbyn is extraordinarily popular with his party’s expanding membership. They chant his name and wave ‘Corbyn’ flags and scarves like the most passionate of football supporters. The Brighton conference felt like a victory rally with Corbyn hailed as a conquering hero who could do no wrong. Speaker after speaker took to the microphone to declare that the Tory government was on the point of collapse and Labour on the cusp of power. Corbyn asserted that they now represented “the real centre of gravity of British politics. We are now the political mainstream”.

The ideological gulf between the two main parties is arguably as wide as it has ever been, but in one respect they are depressingly similar. The Labour leadership, just like the Conservatives, is peddling a fantasy.

You could have been forgiven, looking around the Labour conference, for thinking that the party had actually won the general election. Yes, its showing far outstripped even its own expectations, but May’s party still has 317 MPs to Corbyn’s 262. The Labour vote went up in June, but so did the Tories’. It was the smaller parties that got squeezed. The new leader of the centrist Liberal Democrats, Sir Vince Cable, has been promoting his own fantasy, declaring that he could be the next prime minister. His party has only 14 seats and won just 12 per cent of the popular vote.

There is no ‘mainstream’ in British politics. Instead we have a deeply divided nation presided over by two monolithic parties both attempting to paper over their own deep internal fissures by offering utopian dreams that could never be turned into reality.

Corbyn has always been a bit of a dreamer, but if he genuinely believes that all 13 million people who voted Labour this year are enthusiasts for his particular brand of outdated socialism then he needs to wake up fast. Careful analysis of the results shows that large numbers of people who had previously voted to remain in the EU—including a significant proportion of former Tory-supporters—turned to Labour as the least-bad option. Others backed Labour candidates, including quite a few who were vocal in the criticism of their party leader, to punish May for her arrogance and her woeful election campaign. Many of these people did so confident in the belief that there was no danger of Corbyn actually winning.

The government is not about to fall. It might even be able to survive until the end of its term in 2022, thanks to an electoral arrangement with the unionists in Northern Ireland who share many of their policies. If and when the next election comes, Corbyn’s radical policy programme will be examined by sceptical voters with far more care than they were this time around. Only then will the contention that Britain has moved decisively to the left be properly tested.

Anybody who tried to convince Corbyn’s passionate supporters in Brighton that he may already have reached the peak of his electoral success faced the prospect of a lynching. It fell to the Harry Potter author, JK Rowling, a long-time Labour supporter, to prick the bubble of euphoria in a succinct tweet. ‘Incompetent clowns in power and the opposition turning into a solipsistic personality cult,’ she wrote. Adding, in language inappropriate to her younger readers, ‘I’m so ****ing depressed’.

If even the writer of the world’s most popular fantasy novels is crying out for a bit of sanity and realism, we know that we really are in deep trouble. Maybe a week or two at Fantasy Island is what our political leaders need to help get it out of their system. Then perhaps we could get back to discussing what really needs to be done to restore Britain’s reputation for common sense and responsible government.