Watching from Germany, I am endlessly struck by the gap between the bombast of the UK’s election campaign and the grim state of the country at large. Observing the country’s politicians, an uninformed foreign observer would conclude that the UK is either a fabulously wealthy country and a world power on the scale of the US or China, capable of unilaterally shaping the terms of global affairs (the Tories), or a naturally fabulously wealthy country trodden underfoot and deprived by an undemocratic occupying force which manages to be nonetheless safe, democratic and prosperous without the help of any regional alliances (Labour). Both are fantasies.
The Conservative Party promises to “get Brexit done”. The basis of its argument is that the UK is a leading world power and therefore can dictate terms. This philosophy may not turn out well. The country is, of course, a large economy with large military, but its decision to leave the EU — the most influential technology and trading bloc in the world — greatly reduces its negotiating power in any trade talks with Europe, the US or other major economies. The Tories treat the UK as a sort of giant cosplay for people who idealistically think that “Rule Britannia” is a reasonable guide to international relations. Romanticism has consumed the governing party.
Labour, for its part, also seems to be lost in nice but dumb ideas. The party is neutral on EU membership. Jeremy Corbyn, its leader, seems to think that the UK’s membership has little bearing on its ability to fund the country’s public sphere, on its internationalism, or on its ability to advance progressive causes in the world. He also struggles to differentiate the Palestinian cause from anti-Semitism and to differentiate genuinely needy Brits from thrusting middle-class interest groups. Labour’s leadership lives in a strange middle-zone between a world of simple baddies (employers, Americans, Israelis) and goodies (anti-Western autocrats, ill-defined victim groups and the sort of university students who become corporate lawyers and have to pay off their entire student loan).
It is this dogmatism — a Tory party obsessed with a hard Brexit and Labour Party that has confidently alienated Jews and continental Europeans — that explains the mess the UK is in today. The country’s infrastructure is a continent-wide joke. Its public services are falling apart (the photo of a boy sleeping on coats shown to Boris Johnson today was more typical than he imagines). It can barely cope with the demands of everyday life. And yet its leaders — Tory and Labour — continue to be motivated not by practical matters but by tribal hatreds, old dogmas and, above all, wildly dogmatic visions of the future. The 2019 election will be remembered as the time the big parties offered romantic tribalism to a country that was struggling to get the basics right.
German observers used to consider Britain the land of pragmatism. Today they associate it with cant, ideology and an unseemly rush for power and money in a land that has lost all sense of its own values. I always tell them that there is a better Britain: serious, honest, meaningful. It would be nice if, for once, British politics did something to help me make my case.