Tunku Varadarajan is executive editor at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is a contributing editor at POLITICO Europe.
On December 12, the United Kingdom will conclude the tawdriest election in memory — which is saying a lot, given how inglorious the last one was in 2017.
That election confirmed Theresa May as prime minister — arguably Britain’s second-worst leader since Lord North, the man who lost America in the 18th century. (The worst PM since North is agreed to be David Cameron, for his decision to have a Brexit referendum in 2016, the results of which have poisoned British politics ever since.)
Looking at Boris Johnson, the prime minister, and at Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition, one is hard-pressed to find in history a less edifying pair of party leaders in competition for No. 10 Downing Street.
How did we get here? What follows is a list of a dozen people, institutions or ideas that have turned British politics into an emetic farce.
1. Winston Churchill & Charles de Gaulle
The toxic twins on whose bygone fumes Britain chokes today. Churchill’s cherished myth — of a people standing alone in the face of peril from the Continent — entrenched the view that Britain is at its best when on its own.
That imperious ingrate De Gaulle played his part by confirming to Britons that a European compact was a French project. Twice he vetoed Britain’s application to join the European Economic Community, in 1963 and 1967, delivering a resounding non to Harold Macmillan and his successor, Ted Heath.
“The French always betray you in the end,” Macmillan wrote in his diary after the first betrayal. Brexit is the much-delayed fruit of those inauspicious beginnings.
2. The National Health Service
Created in 1948 by Aneurin “Nye” Bevan, minister of health in the postwar government of Clement Attlee, the NHS is as much a political shibboleth as it is an institution cherished for giving Britain a veneer of socioeconomic equality.
The NHS has not only distorted rational debate about health and social care, it has become the institution by which a delusional Britain sees itself as a cut above the United States, its free-market fellow traveler. Not surprisingly, politics in recent days has been dominated by fears that the NHS will unravel in any future trade deal with the U.S., as Donald Trump’s barbarians arrive to carve up this sacred cow.
3. Oxford University
Britain’s oldest — and most worldly — university is the womb of conservative anti-Europeanism.
The Oxford Campaign for an Independent Britain was hatched in 1990 in a High Street coffee shop — in opposition to the Maastricht Treaty, which turned the European Community into the European Union in 1992. Founder members included Tories (or ex-Tories) Jacob Rees-Mogg, Mark Reckless and Daniel Hannan, the primordial ideologues of Brexit long before the likes of Nigel Farage erupted on the scene.
Modern British politics might, in fact, be seen as an extended spat between Oxford adversaries. These include George Osborne (Cameron’s former No. 2 and would-be successor, now a newspaper editor, who encouraged the demented plan for a referendum); Rory Stewart (a prominent Remainer who ran against Boris, himself an Oxford man and former president of the Oxford Union Society); and Nicky Morgan (a Remainer and Cabinet minister). All of them were members of the Oxford Union and the Oxford University Conservative Association, whose diaper politics in the early 1990s foreshadowed national politics two decades later.
4. The U.K. Supreme Court
Had the Brexit referendum not bagged first place, the abolition of the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords and its replacement by a U.K. Supreme Court would be regarded as the worst political misjudgment by a modern British prime minister.
Created by Tony Blair and his former flatmate-cum-lord chancellor, Charles Falconer, in 2009, the court has an implicit mandate to wade into constitutional questions from which the House of Lords, by demure but wise convention, had always shied away.
Blair shredded centuries of legal and constitutional history with his curial “reform.” The consequences were evident in the court’s recent ruling, in which it found that Johnson’s decision to suspend parliament was unlawful because he didn’t provide adequate reasons for prorogation. This was a ruling without precedent on a matter that the old House of Lords would have regarded as beyond the scope of a court of law.
The court’s chief justice, Baroness Hale, is an unapologetic progressive in the Ruth Bader Ginsburg mold, and it will not be long before the U.K. court is beset by the same problems of partisanship that ail the Supreme Court in the U.S.
5. John Bercow
Among the institutional actors that abdicated their responsibility to remain neutral is John Bercow, the former speaker of the House of Commons. Bercow bears a good deal of the responsibility for a poisoned atmosphere in the House of Commons by abandoning his role as referee and, instead, choosing to become a partisan goal-scorer for the Remain side in the Brexit debate.
As speaker, he (with the help of some others in the House) twisted parliamentary conventions to block “no deal” as a position the prime minister could take, thus robbing the government of leverage in its negotiations with the EU. Immodest to a fault, his actions have enraged many voters and corroded popular trust in parliament.
6. ‘The Stalinists’
A dark trio of Stalinists steers a course for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. In 1976, Andrew Murray, a privately educated young Englishman, joined the British Communist Party. He associated himself with Straight Left, a monthly run by Seamus Milne, above, another posh young Englishman. Fellow Communists knew them as “super tankies” — not just pro-Soviet but Stalinist. Four decades later, they are two of the three people thought to be the inner sanctum around Corbyn, the other being the dauntingly leftist trade union leader Len McCluskey.
Together, they’ve brought Stalinist sectarianism to the running of the Labour Party, once a social-democratic Big Tent but now a body where power is hoarded in closed meetings and loyalty to the leader is all.
Transparent anti-Semitism in the Labour Party has contributed to the ugliness of British politics since Corbyn became leader in 2015, when hard-left extremists joined the party in droves. “The vast majority of British Jews,” wrote the Jewish Chronicle in a recent front-page editorial, “consider Jeremy Corbyn to be an anti-Semite.” (The newspaper conducted a poll which found this majority to be 87 percent of all British Jews.)
Corbyn has not only refused to address the problem adequately, he has contributed to it by failing to dispel the belief that he is anti-Semitic himself. The Labour Party is also under investigation for anti-Semitism by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Only one other party has been investigated by the EHRC for racism: the nakedly nativist British National Party.
8. Priti Patel
One of the more incongruous — her critics would say distasteful — sights in British politics this year has been that of Patel, Britain’s first home secretary of Indian origin, telling the Conservative Party conference that she will “end the free movement of people once and for all.”
Patel’s parents are Gujarati immigrants from Uganda who left a few years before Idi Amin stripped all Ugandan Asians of citizenship and expelled them from the country in 1972. Almost all of these refugees were taken in by Britain. Under the strict immigration rules Patel favors, her kith and kin would not have been able to resettle in the U.K. That irony notwithstanding, this Gujarati version of Norman Tebbit says that she, a “daughter of immigrants, needs no lectures from the north London metropolitan, liberal elite.”
9. Bien-Pensant Bubbles
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the British media and educational elites reside in a bubble — or, better put, in a fortress that excludes the entry of inconvenient opinions.
The BBC has displayed a notably monolithic Remain bias, as has Channel 4. And if the print media offers a more varied ideological menu, it is counterbalanced by an enormous anti-Brexit prejudice in the academy — compounded by the modern tendency to favor senior editors with plum jobs as heads of colleges and universities (Will Hutton as principal of Hertford College, Oxford, is one example; Alan Rusbridger at Oxford’s Lady Margaret Hall another).
The bias in universities ranges from individual cases — such as that of A.C. Grayling, a philosopher driven mad by Brexit, who embodies the refusal of extremist Remainers to compromise with the will of the electorate — to entire faculties of EU law at universities. This last group of scholars is a bastion of inflexible Remainer resistance, making Brexit much harder than it otherwise would have been.
10. The Democratic Unionist Party
This cohort need not detain us, for there is no subtlety or nuance to be explained. Adamant in their adherence to the Orange credo of No Surrender to the Irish backstop, these Ulster loyalists have exploited to the limit the “mathematics of the Commons” — to use the phrase of columnist Daniel Finkelstein.
“We have all been trying to find something in Brexit that can unite us,” Finkelstein wrote recently in the London Times. “I’m excited to say that I think I’ve found a contender: we can all agree that we have had enough of the Democratic Unionist Party.”
11. Ed Miliband
This is the man — only the second-best politician in his own family — who in 2015 led the Labour Party to its worst general election defeat since 1987. He had shifted the party well to the left, making it sweetly unnecessary for Corbyn, his successor, to have to make a case against centrism and compromise.
More helpful to Corbyn than Labour’s prevailing ideological current were its rules to elect the party leader, which Miliband had changed in 2014 to one-member-one-vote. Members of the public could vote for Corbyn on payment of a mere £3.
This led to a wave of what Trotskyists called “entryism” on the left — with new hardline Corbyn voters flooding the zone — and the rest is history. Labour became unelectable.
12. Michel Barnier & Sabine Weyand
This is the EU’s Brexit negotiating team, a Frenchman and a German woman whom the Brits just could not budge. They’re on this list not because they are malign, but because theirs was a job superbly done. And if the result of their labors was great pain in Britain, it might be said that much of that pain resulted from the Brits shooting not merely their own foot, but also at each other.
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