As Britain faces a ‘summer of discontent’, our ruling class has retreated to fantasy island. The country faces an onslaught of crises – from the worst inflation in 40 years to travel chaos and the biggest rail strikes in decades. A new era of epic decline beckons, as Britain’s systemic weaknesses finally come to a head, from its sclerotic productivity growth to its atrophied dynamism. Britain’s politics is imploding, too: as the Government continues to botch Brexit, the country is without a safety valve to channel frustration into optimism. Once a populist pinup, Boris Johnson is now reviled as the epitome of elite complacency.
ut in the world of the elite – the mainstream political parties and the permanent state establishment – nothing much appears to be amiss. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that we will somehow, as always, muddle through. Nobody has the energy to confront the root causes that herald a prolonged period of misery for millions of Britons. Few have any ideas on how to even begin to fix the state of affairs. Everyone is content to blame someone else.
Britain’s inflation is set to be the most persistent in the G7, soaring to 14pc. The strikes are therefore likely to spread, with the teaching and NHS unions now threatening action. The extra billions raised to fix the Covid healthcare backlog look likely to be swallowed up in wages. The current airport chaos is just the tip of the iceberg of a greater labour crisis. Millions of working-age people are currently not in employment, and there has been zero impetus to get them into work.
Our challenges may be epic, but our politics is plodding. The government’s response to the strikes has been to repeat the mantra that Labour is in bed with the unions. They overlook the public’s awareness that it is ministers who have failed to negotiate a last-ditch settlement, and that this is just the latest chapter in the Tory reign of gloom.
Not that Labour is much better. On everything from Brexit to the unions to the economy, Keir Starmer’s strategy is to say as little as possible. Having failed to rein in his party’s left wing, he is nervous about articulating any kind of vision. So he can only sit pretty while watching the Tories implode.
The Tories, obviously, must take their share of blame for failing to fix Britain’s broken institutions. They have bashed the public sector’s woke diversity drives but have made no progress in tackling the intellectual conformism that plagues Whitehall. These remain institutions stifled by hierarchy and intolerance of dissent. They also lack the entrepreneurial edge to make the most of Brexit. A host of reforms are stuck in a bureaucratic doom-loop of internal consultations. The Foreign Office does not have the business expertise to maximise Brexit trade deals.
Not everyone is in denial that something has gone wrong. The problem is that the political class is refusing to take it seriously. All they can do is indulge in playground politics. This is most striking among the Remainers, who continue to dominate in the civil service, Labour and the Lib Dems. They have been seduced by the argument that Britain’s economic woes are down to Brexit – a theory that crumbles on inspection. It overlooks that in every global downturn since the 1970s, Britain has been worse affected by turmoil than its counterparts. It also overlooks that inflation was higher in the UK than in Europe as far back as the financial crash.
If things continue as they are – the political ineptitude, the bureaucratic mediocrity, the unwillingness to look Britain’s problems in the eye – this will not just be a summer of discontent. There seems to be an assumption among its leaders that the public will continue to put up with their country’s descent into mediocrity and chaos, overtaken first by European and then Asian competitors. That voters will forever accept the narrative that what is happening in the UK is hardly exceptional and just the unavoidable gales of globalisation and a gentle slump into inevitable decline.
That is a very dangerous assumption. It seems more likely that the ruling class will face an outpouring of political fury, not dissimilar to what is happening in France. There, Emmanuel Macron’s liberal centrist experiment has collapsed as the voters have flocked to the extremes. In this increasingly unpredictable world, the old ways will not survive, and nor will inert and obsolete establishments.