It is hard to escape the impression that there’s been a creeping but potentially catastrophic loss of political maturity across the west. Every opportunity to act as a states(wo)man, it seems, is actively being refused because… Well, you can take your pick of excuses.
In the capital of the richest country in the world, federal civil servants now face the loss of a second monthly cheque, and are turning up on breadlines, or serving up to fellow workers. They continue to do their jobs as Congress and the President row over a (feckin’) wall.
In what sane human space is this form of real-world trolling of real people’s livelihoods acceptable?
Brexit has also shown the limitations of posturing and pushing negotiations to breaking-point. Not something we’re unused to in Northern Ireland. Indeed the sterile relationship between Sinn Féin and the DUP is so accepted that no one notices Stormont’s is down two years.
It’s no surprise that a certain sui generis (and fatalistic) gamesmanship has now made its way to a Westminster which is almost totally dependent upon the DUP to make or break any functional deal with the European Union.
Years ago, a friend warned me that a job he was offering me would involve a tough and challenging learning curve and that if I was only fifty-fifty about the opportunity that I would find very quickly that the negative side would soon outweigh the positive.
With a near 50/50 split in public sentiment, the temptation to play politics with Brexit has been too much to resist. But as people divided between the two the UK public is both deeply enthusiastic about leaving and staying with everything to do with the EU. We are left with a vacuum.
It seems that every clever manipulative trick that politicians have ever learned about their craft is now coming back to haunt them, and has led to them to drop into a deep well of inaction.
As Phil notes over on his blog, Steve Eisman the American money manager who predicted the subprime-mortgage collapse before the 2008 financial crisis (and made a fortune out of it) is shorting three big UK banks he told Radio Four earlier this week:
I don’t think anybody has any idea what the economic impact of Brexit will be. I don’t, you don’t and all the people who have prognosticated about it, they certainly don’t,
The only thing that I know for sure is that the people who invest in the UK, those investors, believe strongly that the ramifications of a hard Brexit are very bad and they believe that a recession will take place in the U.K. and that would clearly be negative for banks of the UK.
Asked why he had made the move, he simply replied, “it is the path of least resistance”. Even with the DUP’s the numbers, there remains no consensus around any one single action.
Politics needs drama and resonance. All populists, from Chavez to Johnson, share this understanding (if little else). Trump and the Brexiteers proved better storytellers, as Richard ably highlights, with a story that connected with non-voters was a cypher for a deeper disaffection.
It went viral whilst the rest of us were “tuning out” as mainstream politics ‘bored on’ in a highfalutin language that ordinary folk have little time for. As regards the negotiations, Slugger [ir]regular dissenter makes an important point here about the misuse of red lines:
The PM’s ‘there is no alternative’ and the EU’s equivalent may be where we find ourselves, but there is a sense that everyone has been trying to be a little too clever; too clever to explain in simple terms the anticipated outworking of this stage of negotiations and what it means for the next round.
A black and white choice, when (see above) there is a lack of clarity on meaning and a lack of confidence or trust moving forward, cannot end well.
For all the talk of future partnership, there is a sense that neither side has a measure or understanding of the other. Red lines don’t make for practical decision making, particularly where two parties have mutually exclusive red lines and cultural, economic and political histories create a too often very different view of the world. [emphasis added]
This last is a hugely salient point when it comes to a discussion about the backstop (which even though as Brian Walker has endlessly pointed out on Slugger could have been framed as a temporary compromise, the Irish government’s poor fist at diplomacy has helped render it toxic:
For Northern Ireland unionists however, it is not the Irish government’s stated position which is problematic, rather it is more often than not, the manner in which that position is framed. When Foreign Minister Simon Coveney talks about achieving a united Ireland ‘in my political lifetime’, this is met with alarm by a unionist community which has long felt vulnerable and besieged.
Unionists were similarly dismayed when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar promised nationalists in Northern Ireland that ‘You will never again be left behind by an Irish government’. The unionist response to these pronouncements is to question the motivations of the Irish government, and to perceive a link between the aspiration for Irish unity and the Irish government’s policy on Brexit.
Yet, as Mary C Murphy also notes, a priori, there’s been little substance to such ‘threats’:
There are no policy documents, no public consultations, no Dáil debates, no civil society movements and no media sources actively agitating for a united Ireland. Notably, there is also a reluctance among Irish political parties to enter a coalition government (or a confidence and supply arrangement) with Sinn Féin, the party most wedded to future Irish unity.
Ditto, for the reasons outlined above, any serious likelihood of a border poll. In the half-light of easy panaceas, simplistic solutions, marketecture and spin such limply thought through ideas can take hold of the public imagination even if Unionism leads Nationalism by 47.2% to 41.1%.
In the morass created by endless polling, wall to wall comment and the eternal quest for drama (endorphins) and self-actualisation political narratives are short lived and have come detached from credible forms of actions.
The digital fragmentation of our human voices through proprietory platforms like Twitter and Facebook is leading us towards drift and confusion in the very institutions we need to make sure important things get done.
Earlier in the week, Winston Churchill’s grandson put it well (H/T Jenni Russell in the NYT), on Twitter of all places…
Who is in charge of the clattering train?
The axles creak,and the couplings strain.
For the pace is hot and the points are near,
And Sleep hath deadened the Drivers ear;
And signals flash through the night in vain
WHO IS IN CHARGE OF THE CLATTERING TRAIN #wearegoingtofindout
— Nicholas Soames (@NSoames) January 13, 2019
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty