Britain is Self-Destructing
And I’m watching it unravel from the inside.
You’re a helpless, vulnerable, Afghan stranded in Kabul with no way out. You’re handed a lifeline by the British government. “Here’s our refugee helpline,” they say. You dial the number, your future uncertain, expecting to speak to someone in government who could help you escape. The phone rings. Someone answers. They ask you what’s wrong with your washing machine.
Yes, you read that right. The telephone hotline for vulnerable Afghans seeking to leave that was set up by the British government actually rang through to a washing machine repair company. I’d put that level of incompetence into words had it not been for the limitations inherent in human language.
What I can do however is tell you this is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s just another symptom of a nation that’s self-destructing. Of a Titanic that’s wilfully headed for the iceberg.
What is hard is to describe what it’s like — all of it. Living in a country where the government is, at best, indifferent to whether you live or die. A country where the perfect conditions for Covid to spread, mutate, and kill were being established and maintained. A country where over 17 million voted to shoot both themselves and their fellow citizens in the foot. A country where the government stokes divide, hate, and racism. Where asylum seekers fleeing trafficking and torture are treated as criminals, detained, and deported. Where the Right-wing media, through its overwhelmingly negative press on the opposition, drove support to the now kleptocrats at the helm. Where health professionals on the front line — the very people who kept the country afloat while the government was letting it sink — were given a pay cut.
I could go on. No, really, I could. But perhaps that in itself — the list of what’s gone wrong in Britain in the last five years being mindbogglingly long — is partly what’s kept me from writing about it. It’d take a true master of words to capture, comment on, and articulate the story of what’s perhaps the fastest unraveling nation in the Western world in a single piece.
Actually, there’s more to it than that. Because you've still got to contend with the sheer ridiculous of it all. I mean, would anyone believe me? Would I believe me? After all, how can a country’s leadership be this narcissistic, cold-hearted, incompetent, corrupt, dishonest, racist, and out of touch with reality? Even better, how could they still be ahead in the polls? That too after all this death and misery?
You almost wish the answer was “it’s the public’s fault.” Not because one has a deep-rooted desire to demonize the British, but because it would’ve been the easy answer. And Britain is in desperate need of easy. Instead, you can safely point your fingers at its outdated, broken, and frankly demagoguery-encouraging electoral system. In America, you've got something similar in the Electoral College. But First Past the Post in Britain is another level of broken. Take Boris Johnson’s victory in December 2019 as an example. All it took was 43.6% of the popular vote to win him an 80 seat majority.
What that means is — and forgive me for the pessimism — things are only going to get worse. Because who’s going to change the system, exactly? The very politicians who’ve benefited from what you can arguably call tyranny of the minority? They’re going to deny themselves high offices? No. And so you may well see Britain’s shattered present leading to a shattered future as demagogues continue to occupy the halls of 10 Downing Street.
And they realize that — the British, that is. But despite the high improbability of things actually getting better, they — faced with one crisis after another (electoral system, Covid, Brexit) — ushered silent cries for the opposition to rise to the occasion. To save them from the abyss they never consented to fall into. But what did they get instead? A lack of passion and ineffectiveness from an opposition leadership that’s dreadfully inept at politics. One that’s made a habit of not cracking down when it needs to, of squandering perfect opportunities, of trying to slide further and further to the Right, and of often being so light on the government you’d think their condemnation never made it past the world of Twitter.
All this in a time of crisis.
It was only once Kabul fell to the Taliban that the opposition seemed to rise out of the chasm it had thrown itself into. But do they really deserve high praise for that? Johnson’s government had handed them ammunition on a silver platter. He and his foreign secretary had gone on holiday while chaos was moments away from unfolding in Kabul. Johnson’s own predecessor, Theresa May, implied in parliament the government had blindly followed Biden’s plan (which was a bad plan to begin with) and hoped against hope he had thought it through.
But even then, the opposition was soft. Remember the washing machine repair company? To date, I’ve only seen this be talked about once by a single politician on Twitter. That’s it. That’s the high price demagogues have to pay in modern Britain for epitomizing incompetence.
Now couple that with a Right-wing press that can turn ferociously racist at the drop of a hat, 17 million whose motives for backing their own demise are still not clearly understood, and a government which is only too happy to remove the ‘Great’ from ‘Great Britain’ brick by brick, do you begin to understand why I and so many others have been at a loss of words.
I, perhaps, more so than others. More so than those who’ve spent their lives living in Western liberal democracies. Because I grew up under varying forms of authoritarianism. Under governments who, at best, didn’t care whether you lived or died. In a country that was consumed by poverty. I mean, we had real problems. Illiteracy, war, terrorism, corruption, a nuclear-armed enemy next door.
It’s only natural that I, for the life of me, couldn’t work out why the English had made such a big palaver out of something that was clearly a First World problem. Not only was the EU not some sort of draconian over-lord dictating to Britain as and when it pleased (I studied EU law), it made Britain richer. Take Cornwall, a coastal region in South West England, which voted to leave the EU, as an example. It was left facing a 95% loss in its funding after Brexit. Why? Because it voted to leave the very Union that provided that funding in the first place.
And many have hypothesized how something that ridiculous could ever have happened. And some of those theories do seem credible. Rise in poverty, unemployment, loss of empire, nationalism on steroids, misinformation campaigns, etc. But let me throw another one into the mix. Because there’s a part of me that believes, that for some, the reason is quite simplistic — and a tad (read very) asinine.
It goes like this — some in Britain were bored. They already had what most countries would kill to get. A healthy economy, a publicly-funded health service, no guns, some of the world’s best education, and peace. Everything just worked. By extension, very little went wrong. And so they went out in search of adventure — in search of excitement. A cause to rally behind, an enemy to stand tall against, and slogans to shout from the rooftops would've been just what the doctor ordered. And when Brexit came along, it was a match made in heaven. The country was consumed — bingo, excitement. Europe turned into the enemy — boom, you’re now tasked with defending your sovereignty. “Take Back Control” — there’s your slogan.
And if it sounds as if I’m saying a certain number of people got together to gamble with their own country’s future simply because it felt exciting in the moment, then that’s because it’s exactly what I’m saying. Mind you, I’m not the only one who thinks humanity has this innate ability to set things on fire to get a break from the monotony of peace and prosperity. Famous Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky does too.
Besides, with everything that’s happened in the last few years, is that really implausible? In a place as wacky as post-Brexit Britain? Where Navy warships would’ve been used to tackle migrants coming across the Channel in tiny boats had it not been for the UN stepping in and pointing out people could die? Where the government moved to break international law twice by refusing to honor the Brexit agreement it had itself signed? Where asylum seekers are now going to be arrested then imprisoned? Where the government wants to “detain” immigrant women in “detention centers?”
There are only two other places in the Western world where you’d expect to see something like that — Trump’s America and the silver screen. Actually, that might not be true. I’ve got my doubts Hollywood could script a movie like this.
And that — a reality so miserable and unbelievable — has taken its toll. Ask someone who lives in Britain, someone who likes to err on the side of rationality rather than pomp and delusions, and they’ll tell you exactly what it feels like — like the walls are closing in. And that it’s only a matter of time before what’s in the middle — the public — gets squeezed so hard it explodes.
What happens then is anyone’s guess. But consider what Brexit is leaving Britain with — a contribution in crushing supply lines leading to empty supermarket shelves, £113 billion loss in exports, a crumbling agriculture sector, loss of much needed European labor for the hospitality industry, immense polarisation, red tape that’s made it harder to do business with Europe than it would be with Jupiter — and you realize that when that explosion comes, it’s not going to be a small one.
I post daily (short) essays on Twitter, which you can find here.