It was while reading Will Hutton’s and Andrew Adonis’s recently published book Saving Britain that a curious and disturbing thought came into my head, unexpectedly and without invitation; it hasn’t gone away. I’m not a great fan of either author, though they can give useful insights at times. The book has two main parts, firstly, how Brexit came about, and secondly what can be done to save Britain. The thought occurred while reading the first part. Apart from this thought, my views on Brexit haven’t much changed from the time of the referendum, though they are perhaps more refined.
The authors date the origins of Brexit to Mrs Thatcher’s Bruges speech in September 1988. She declared:
“We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels”
This is a central element of what came to be called ‘Thatcherism’. Her political theory was greatly influenced by the Austrian economist, FA Hayek; she read his first ‘popular’ book, The Road to Serfdom while an undergraduate. Soon after being elected leader of the Conservative party, she said at a meeting in 1975 that ‘this is what we believe’ as she produced a copy of Hayek’s second volume, The Constitution of Liberty. Hayek was a founder of neo-liberal economics, and his reasoning was a rebuttal of the ‘socialist’ (by which he meant communist) idea of a planned economy.
As Prime Minister, Maggie, the ‘Iron Lady’, did indeed roll back the frontiers of the state through deregulation, a reduction in taxation, privatisation and the sale of state assets, a process that has continued under her successors. One unhappy outcome is that parts of England have become ‘left behind’. Where there was once industry and proper employment, this has now gone; the mistake was not to recognise this, and not to even attempt to replace them. The ‘left behind’ parts have suffered disproportionally from ‘austerity’, the shrinking of the state supposedly in the name of ‘reducing Labour’s deficit’, but in reality a political move to further enrich the wealthy and impoverish the poor; it increases inequality. Inequality is very bad for your health. A particularly clever part of the marketing of Brexit was to show the left behinders that their problems were caused by the EU rather than being the UK’s own failures.
I said ‘England’, for Brexit while nominally about the United Kingdom withdrawing from the EU, is, in reality, an English phenomenon. Hutton and Adonis are quite clear about this; ‘Leave’ is the effect caused by the ‘left behind’ English regions. The populations of Scotland, N Ireland and Wales were simply too small to really affect the outcome. It was the left behind areas of England that determined Leave in the referendum. Likewise, they are clear that Brexit is a vote against the better off and educated, and that ‘Faragism’ intends that an elite will dominate England, and that England will dominate the other regions of the UK.
The ‘Iron Lady’ had firm views about many things; her Cabinet members found it very difficult to argue and reason with her. A ‘strong’ leader can certainly be an asset, but one whose views are so rigid can also be a liability. Thatcher, for example, argued strongly against the reunification of Germany after the fall of the wall.
Within the EEC, the forerunner to the EU, the single market was largely a British construct; but note that it was a market for trade, for profit. What Thatcher so disliked, and made clear in her Bruges speech, were the ‘socialist’ ideas of Jaques ‘up yours’ Delors. These were regulations around social issues, including environmental protection, the health and safety of workers, annual leave for workers and paid holidays, and the working time directive. These social ideas were buried in the cries for reductions in red tape by the carpet-bagging Brexiteers, the red tape that was supposedly strangling business and trade.
Maggie’s fall came with the Poll Tax, a misconceived attempt at a modernisation of the rates. It was heartily disliked, widely avoided, yet she could not or would not see the problems with it.
It’s well known that Margaret Thatcher suffered from dementia in her later years, becoming a sad shadow of her former self. Dementia isn’t a single diagnosis, rather it’s the constellations of symptoms that destructive brain diseases cause. Alzheimer’s disease is the commonest type; second is vascular dementia, where a series of small strokes produces a step-wise diminution of faculties; there are other, less frequent causes. In an individual, there may be more than one cause of dementia. Thatcher certainly had a series of mini strokes, and, it seems very probable, also had Alzheimer’s disease.
The features of dementia include memory loss, difficulties with mentation or reasoning and problem solving, and the ability to pay attention. The Alzheimer’s Association has a useful website about dementia, with a page describing the differences between it and the normal, expected difficulties with mental abilities in later life.
It’s now clear that early diagnosis of dementia is no such thing; the disease will have been present, unrecognised, for some time; and ‘some time’ may be years. Ronald Reagan was formally diagnosed with dementia in 1994, but his aides had been concerned about his mental abilities by the latter years of his presidency, at the end of the 1980s; his son suggested that problems may have begun in 1984, a decade before the official diagnosis. Ken Clarke, a barrister and not a medic, wondered if Thatcher’s dementia began in her last year in office. He described her as becoming more paranoid, and losing her judgement.
This was the disturbing thought that came to me reading the book; there is no mention of dementia in it. Is it really possible that the Road to Brexit began with a prime minister not wholly in command of her faculties?