The British political system used to be seen as one of the wonders of the world. A hundred years ago last month, Max Weber, the great German sociologist, gave a seminal lecture on “The Profession and Vocation of Politics” in Munich. Speaking in the chaotic and revolutionary aftermath of the First World War, he expressed his admiration for the British system and the way its politicians and officials managed to maintain prosperity and stability while allowing a working democracy to flourish. We were reputed around the world as the cradle of democracy, tolerance and downright decency. No longer.
My work nowadays requires me to travel from conflict zone to conflict zone to meet elected leaders and guerrilla leaders. A strange thing has happened in the past six months. After half an hour discussing the Farc in Colombia or Mozambique’s Renamo or North Korea, they will turn to me and ask, “What on earth has happened to Britain?” They are not enquiring about the latest on Brexit, but rather the complete collapse of our political system. It is painful to see people engaged in real civil wars pitying us for the deep division in the country and the inability of our political leaders to resolve it. In the words of Sylvie Kauffmann, editorial director of Le Monde, “Continental Europe has watched with bewilderment, despair and exasperation as the world’s oldest democracy… a former empire, winner of two world wars, aspires to become Singapore upon Thames.”
We have gone from being the most stable country in Europe to one of the least, from a country governed by a broad pragmatic consensus to a society divided into two doctrinaire camps and from a government that managed crises well to political leaders who can’t even control their own parties. Worst of all we have gone from a relatively civilised and tolerant political discourse to violence on our streets directed at people who have different points of view.
When the inquiry is eventually held into Brexit it will, unlike those into the Iraq War and the Scott affair, focus not just on individual failings but the whole system – the government, the opposition and even the civil service. [Continue reading…]