How did we get here?

:: politics, doomed

I don’t understand how the UK got onto its current death march, or where that death march will end. Here are some ideas which are worth what you paid for them.

A death march

In the middle of 2022, the UK is watching a competition between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss to replace Boris Johnson as prime minister of the UK. Johnson is an incompetent, narcissistic liar who is and always was grossly unfit for any high office. Sunak is a plutocrat: he is a man who has never used a contactless payment card, presumably because he has servants who do that for him, a man who doesn’t know the cost of bread, and who pretends to take his children to MacDonalds to buy a meal which has not been available for two years. Liz Truss is merely very stupid: it is curiously difficult to discover what class of degree she boughtwas awarded.

Both Sunak and Truss served in Johnson’s cabinet: Sunak did, at least, eventually resign, triggering the cascade of resignations which finally lead to Johnson’s downfall. Truss did not resign: she is a Johnson loyalist who seems to think that Johnson almost literally dancing on the graves of the people of the UK was just fine, not to mention his incompetence, endless lying and theft from the country is just fine. Liz Truss is, in fact, Continuity Johnson.

Sunak and Truss are not competing for the votes of the UK electorate: they are competing for the votes of a tiny number of conservative party members who have paid for the privilege of selecting the prime minister. These people are overwhelmingly well-off, old if not actually senile, white, and male. Most of them live in the south-east of the UK. These are people who read newspapers, on paper, and they have the views you would expect them to have: they’re right-wing racists who look back fondly on an imagined golden age of the 1980s and before. They think anthropogenic climate change, if not actually a lie, is something that will matter only after they are dead (this is true: it will matter mostly after they are dead) and since they value their comfort far above the lives of their children and grandchildren they are happy to do nothing about it. They don’t like cyclists, feminists, people who are not white, gypsies and travellers, poor people, immigrants, and so on. ‘Woke’ — a term which means ‘being decent to other people’ — is anathama to them: they do not want to have to behave decently to other people, especially not people who look different than them. They are, in other words, exactly who you would expect them to be.

This group is extremely unrepresentative of the population of the UK, and increasingly so. And they know this, at least dimly. They know if they are to continue their lives of comfort then something must be done about this awkward fact: something must be done about democracy.

Both Sunak and Truss are working hard to appeal to this group: lurching ever further to the right and ever further away from democracy. Probably they will not succeed in levels of voter suppression sufficient to ensure their long-term survival, although they may. But whoever wins will actively and intentionally do vast damage to the UK in the next two years, and will certainly do nothing about climate change. And by the time the victor leaves power — if they leave power — it will be too late: too late to rescue the UK as a serious country, and too late for any concerted, international action to address climate change which must happen now.

Finally, of course, it is almost inevitable that Truss will win: tory party members are racists, and she is white and blonde, while Sunak is not. Both would be terrible prime ministers, but Sunak might at least be competent:

The Tory party itself is quite rotten now and the sign of that is that they can’t think of anyone better than Boris, who’s clearly just completely shot. They are collectively saying, “if we get rid of him, we might get somebody worse”. It says a lot about the state of the Tory party. And they actually could get somebody worse: Liz Truss would be even worse than Boris. She’s about as close to properly crackers as anybody I’ve met in Parliament. — Dominic Cummings

The future for the UK is not bright.

No easy answers

It’s tempting to say that, well, it’s brexit: this is what was always going to happen after brexit. I don’t think that’s true: brexit was certainly a bad idea, but it didn’t have to be anything like this terrible.

Brexit was always going to be extremely challenging1 to implement in a way which was not a catastrophe, which should not have been surprising to anyone. However it does seem to have been surprising to a lot of the politicians who were so desperate for brexit. They had no plan, at all, for how it should be implemented. Why not? Why did the very people who wanted brexit so much have no plans?

Well, I think there are three or four plausible reasons.

  1. They didn’t understand that brexit would be complicated, because they were not terribly smart. Smart people, after all, understand that it is often best to quietly abandon goals which are extremely complicated and risky to achieve2, even if they are much-desired: brexiteers did not.
  2. They did not expect to win, so having a plan for winning was not seen as something they needed to do.
  3. They expected that other people would plan for them. The motivation for brexit has always been mostly about resentment: somehow other people are always the problem, in the case of brexit those other people are the EU and foreigners generally. And, like children, they then expect the other people to solve the problem for them.
  4. Perhaps brexiteers wanted a catastrophe because they thought it would give them a route to wealth and power. People do suggest this, usually under the rubric of ‘disaster capitalism’: I think it’s not very plausible.

Between them, I think these do explain what happened.

The day after judgement

On midsummer day, 2016, the brexiteers faced an inconvenient truth: they had won. Now, instead of sitting around whining, they had to do something.

You might think that the sensible thing to do would have been to say that implementing brexit was going to be extremely complex, make some excuse about why they had made no plans, and explain that it would thus take a long time. But they couldn’t do that: they knew very well that the brexit vote was driven by older people: if it took a decade or so to be ready to actually leave the EU then enough of those people would be dead that it would be clear that brexit was being implemented against the clear will of the majority of voters. There would at the very least be strong pressure for another referendum, which they would lose.

So, if they were going to succeed in their stated goal, brexit had to happen rather quickly. But they had no plans: they were in a serious bind.

The phoney war

I’m not going to write some long, boring, and probably wrong, description of what happened between the referendum and Theresa May’s resignation. Enough to say that this was the period when it became clear even to people who had not being paying attention that implementing brexit was somewhere between hard and impossible. Perhaps the most interesting question is why May invoked article 50 as soon as she did: my guess is that she believed that, if she delayed, the brexiteers would destroy the tory party. Probably she was right.

But the brexiteers destroyed the tory party anyway.

The church of the subgenius

After the phoney war everyone who knew anything knew there was now now hope of a good answer to brexit, and that things were therefore going to get much worse in the UK. This really left two-and-a-half sorts of people interested in running the country:

  • people who were too stupid to understand this;
  • people who did not care;
  • and perhaps a foolish few who still sought to minimise the damage3.

What we got was Boris Johnson: the worst of all possible worlds. Johnson certainly does not care about the consequences of brexit for the UK as there is only one thing Johnson cares about: Johnson. He is often portrayed as brilliant but indolent: he is certainly indolent but he’s very far from brilliant. in 2016 he was too stupid to realise that the poisoned chalice of brexit would poison him as well; in 2020 he was too stupid to understand that a pandemic whose doubling time was three days required action to be taken extremely quickly, and too stupid to realise that, since phone cameras exist, holding drunken parties during lockdowns was not going to end well for him.

But he was not just stupid: he was a narcissist who regarded himself as a very god amongst men. He was not about to put up with dissent, or people who might cause him to suspect, however dimly, that they might be smarter than him as, for Johnson, there could be nobody smarter than Johnson. So talent was systematically driven away from his cabinet and from the parliamentary party: with Johnson in charge, what was rewarded was only bovine obedience.

And so a generation of competent people were driven out of government.

An infestation of idiots

After Johnson finally collapsed under the weight of his own arrogance and stupidity who then was left to take his place? The tory party has long been known as the stupid party4: after successive episodes of defenestrations of anyone who expressed independent ideas, that statement was now true. Only stupid people remained.

In particular I think the notion that the tories are somehow conspiring with some unspecified group of financiers to enrich themselves (the fourth possible reason for there being no plan for brexit above) is really pretty implausible. You only have to look at them: these people are idiots suffering from Dunning-Kruger syndrome, not evil geniuses.

It is possible, of course, that, while they are idiots, they are somebody’s useful idiots. But they are still idiots. Dark forces may perhaps be conspiring to get rich from the destruction of the UK, but if they are doing so they are not doing so with the knowledge of the halfwit clowns in the tory party who are, in fact, just what they appear to be.

In any case, the selection of someone to replace Johnson could only be made from the group of people who had not either left or been driven out by Johnson: from last remaining dregs of the tory party. A choice to be made from the dim, by the dim. And thus we have a competition between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak.

We wait. We are bored. No, don’t protest, we are bored to death, there’s no denying it. Good. A diversion comes along and what do we do? We let it go to waste. Come, let’s get to work. In an instant all will vanish and we’ll be alone once more, in the midst of nothingness.

Addendum: Liz Truss

When I wrote the above it was clear Truss would win, although she had not yet won. But I had no real idea what a spectacular catastrophe she would be: obviously I knew that she’s very stupid, but I don’t think I had any real appreciation just how stupid she would turn out to be.

I don’t know, now, what the best hope for the UK is: that she remain in power and lead the tories to a landslide defeat, or that she is evicted promptly and we have someone — anyone, almost — who will do less damage in the next couple of years.

The future for the UK really isn’t bright, is it?

  1. If not impossible: it’s very hard to see what could have been done about the Northern Ireland / Eire problem without serious damage to the Good Friday agreement

  2. I’d really like to move to a flat in London but I have too much stuff and too many entanglements and getting from here to there is just absurdly hard. So, however much I might want to move, I understand that it’s not really possible. 

  3. Rory Stewart, perhaps. 

  4. A quote attributed to John Stuart Mill.