At the end of the year, it is inevitable that there will be a multitude of articles published that take stock, that are looking over the journey we all just took together, presenting an inventory of both the success and failures of the year, and then looking forward, with suggestions as to what we might do next, perhaps as individuals, perhaps as a nation.
The year 2022, however, was a horror show, and that’s after the previous two years that were their own horror shows. War, inflation, the aftermath of plague, and, if you’re British, the sort of political turmoil usually only found in lawless banana republics.
This time last year, as we stepped from 2021 with our paper-thin hopes in the face of all experience, we entered 2022 with a government that had just tried, although thankfully failed, to change the law so that Owen Patterson’s lobbying practices weren’t illegal (but they were), and partygate was slithering out piecemeal and indicating a blatant “one law for them, another for us” attitude, and the first stirrings of doubts regarding the legality of the government’s Covid procurement practices were emerging.
“Banana republics” and PPE procurement
The phrase “banana republic” was being used by some commentators, and the application was admittedly problematic for a few reasons, one of which was addressed by the variant “banana monarchy”, but the allusion, horrifyingly, simply wasn’t as absurd as it certainly would have been a decade before.
The term “banana republic” was first coined to refer to a nation operating a form of state capitalism that granted a small oligarchy the rights to make profits out of a natural resource, whilst socialising any debt or loss, thus keeping the general population poor. It originally referred to certain of the states of South America, notably Honduras, selling fruit to the US in the late 1800s. Whilst PPE is hardly a natural resource (thus another reason the comparison is problematic) it was certainly procured in a manner that restricted the opportunity of access to, and thereby facilitated the profit of, an elite class – the so-called VIP lane – to which access was granted by referral from government allies and even ministers of the crown. Tory donors figure prominently in the rollcall of persons prominent in the companies granted PPE contracts, but few, if any, of these companies had any track record whatsoever in providing PPE prior to the pandemic. It is, therefore, not surprising that much of the PPE so procured proved to be inadequate, unusable, and, indeed, destined for the incinerator.
PPE still had to be found, however, as medics were risking their lives in the fight against covid, especially that first year before any vaccination had been developed, and so other providers – usually the companies who had been supplying PPE for years, the companies that one might have assumed would be the first option of procurement – would eventually satisfy this pressing need.
This resulted in two consequences of note which I do not believe have been given the popular consideration they really ought:
1. The British taxpayer was constrained to pay TWICE for this essential PPE, as initial contractors were not required to return the money shelled out for the first batch of faulty goods
2. Whilst I have no figures on this, it absolutely beggars belief to assume that the delay in furnishing adequate and functioning PPE did not kill medics. We know medics died caring for us, and some of that was, perhaps, a matter of inevitable tragedy, as we found ourselves as a planet confronted with the fact of pandemic. But, after that – how many nurses and doctors might be with us here and now had the PPE that first arrived in hospitals been up to the job?
It’s not simply that we were fleeced – some of us were sacrificed. All of us were robbed, but some of us were slain.
To facilitate this rape of a nation (for that is what it amounts to) the law must not be applied equally to everyone. An oligarchy exempts itself from law. It must. However, the outward forms of law and democracy will be observed, so there will be a government, with ministers, there will be a judiciary, there will be elections. You will find that all these things are there in Russia.
These forms are observed for three reasons – 1) an oligarchy will sometimes need to excise and discipline its own (see Putin’s Russia), so sticking a fellow oligarch on trial can be useful for both getting them out of the way and setting an example (the political theatre of the show trial), 2) it allows those of the population not of the oligarchy, but content to catch the crumbs dropped from the high table, to maintain a myth of legitimacy, and 3) all these now empty forms of democracy (the police force, judiciary, elections, etc) can be twisted to serve as tools of oppression, which the oligarchy will need because those bloody plebs will have to be oppressed.
In the UK, for as long as we’ve held elections, we’ve had a First Past The Post electoral system, so that isn’t a new oppression brought to bear, but it had certainly become an anachronism (the only other European nation that has maintained such as system is – wait for it – Belarus). We are an old democracy, and democracies tend to develop in fits and starts. The deficiencies of our system were, however, mitigated by conventions that pulled us back to established constants, the most obvious of which was the supremacy of parliament, the sovereignty of the nation being vested in parliament. Yes, a crude majority might carry the day in an election, but any popular excesses could be ironed out in parliament where sober, elected representatives would thrash out difficulties with a mind to our constitutional settlement and the good of the nation, all overseen by the expertise and experience of an advisory chamber. There could be outliers and rogues amongst those who got into parliament, but their idiocy and extremism would be outnumbered. You may well say that this system was past its sell-by date in the 21st century, and I’d agree, but it had actually served us quite well for a long time, and nothing’s perfect.
What we now know was that this system was vulnerable. The vulnerability was this – it made us something that was not quite a two-party state, but close. It encouraged a tribalism between those two parties which meant some people would vote for a cabbage as long as it wore the appropriate coloured rosette. This in turn meant that, in order to capture the attention, and then the vote, of those who were not tribal, and who were therefore content to consider all options, that the points that might enter political discourse became ever more exotic, far beyond the meat and potatoes political matters that have usually concerned the nation, such as “the economy, stupid”.
The Brexit referendum
This necessity of accommodating a lunatic fringe within a mainstream party convinced a patrician, in the arrogance of his class, to play the populist just a little bit, and resort to a short-circuiting of the representative parliament which, I believe, he always intended and expected to fail, as it was supposed to be merely a sop to the extremists, one which might shut them up for a decade or so: The Brexit referendum. The nation was presented with an absurdly simplistic question intended to encapsulate a judgement upon a fantastically complex matter of geopolitics, a matter that really did require the deliberation of a sober parliament. Instead, it got all the deliberation we might expend on the public vote for Strictly Come Dancing. Representative democracy was suborned, the rabble had been roused, then the rabble was assured that every little niggle of the last couple of decades was the EU’s fault, and the sobriety of parliament was thrown aside. Both of the key political parties were suffering an existential crisis, and one of them responded by throwing out anyone who would respect our conventions, as such respect had become intertwined in the popular view with privilege, and in the place of these admittedly sometimes stuffy and dusty stalwarts, there emerged a new breed, a breed who could see themselves becoming a new oligarchy, just like there is in the nation that had been subsidising many of them for years: Russia.
At which point the attack upon the judiciary – which had been grumbling away for a few years – suddenly ramped. Laws were written to suppress protest. Not to mention, laws were also conjured to suppress the vote of the young, laws requiring photo ID to prevent voter fraud by impersonation, which can seem quite reasonable until you understand that this has *almost never happened*, and the laws intended to remedy this all but imaginary crime would permit the elderly (and therefore often conservative-leaning, as well Brexit supporting) to use their senior travel passes as ID at the polling booth, but did not permit the young (and therefore usually progressive leaning, as well remain/rejoin supporting) to use their student travel passes as ID at the polling booth. This is gerrymandering by demographic.
The state of the country
It’s a lot to process. Our country has been demeaned before the rest of the world, we’re an international joke, we’re doing worse than any other member of the G7, our NHS is grinding to a halt and people are dying in their hundreds, thousands perhaps. The VIP lane has been judged to be unlawful by a not quite quelled judiciary (although that judiciary has generally ground to a halt with even barristers striking), and yet one of the most obvious profiteers from Covid has been permitted to skip the country. The spectacle of votes of no confidence and resignations was embarrassing. Whilst the rest of Europe saw state intervention to ensure that the extraordinary profits of energy companies were clawed back to mitigate the rise in prices, we in the UK have been graciously granted a compulsory loan so that we can feed those company profits (it is, of course, a total coincidence that Liz Tuss had accepted contributions from BP), and be swamped in even more debt.
And so, in his article rounding up the horror show of 2022, one Martin Fletcher writes in the New Statesman that:
“It’s time for Remainers to try and make Brexit work.
As we enter 2023, the mass of the British people are exhausted by the battles of the past six years and yearn to move on.”
The horror show of Brexit
There’s been horror show after horror show, and yes, of course, the whole world has suffered, and yet the UK has been ground down in a way we aren’t seeing in the rest of the western world. Why? What’s different about us? Obviously, Brexit. But, particularly, Brexit that could only be pushed through by an incipient oligarchy playing fast and loose with our laws, working to exempt itself from the rule of law (prorogation, for instance.)
Fletcher continues with a sort of conciliatory bleat that recognizes things haven’t gone well of late, but we have to find a way forward. Well, we do have a way forward, and it’s rejoining the EU, but that is dismissed because the idea is unconscionable. He doesn’t go into why it is unconscionable, but I think I can answer that – to do so would require the Brexiters admitting not just failure, but treason, treason in the form of collaboration with the nascent oligarchy. And of course, Fletcher – usually a fairly reasonable commentator who, having read other articles of his, I will believe when he says he voted Remain – recommends that Remainers / Rejoiners sort out that whole debacle, because, well, who else is going to? As he himself obliquely recognizes in the article, we are the ones with the education. But I would suggest that his turn to Remainers implies something else in addition – we are the ones with the energy.
Because here’s the thing – the mass of British people are not exhausted. Brexiters are exhausted. A bunch of ideological lightweights who thought ticking a box was the height of political engagement should be expected to tire easily. Utopians in search of easy answers with handy scapegoats are not going to furnish the nation with the go-getter knights of a new prosperity. Nor are they going to resist the rise of an oligarchy removing our hard won rights, as long as that oligarchy plays along in painting the Brexiter as the hero, whatever the evidence.
Brexiters are exhausted. Overtired. They can stamp their feet a bit still, but only to demand we fix it all for them.
They’re now proven to be fantasists of limited understanding, and possessed of a very common or garden, even pedestrian, bigotry. They were wrong. And, in that error, they have collaborated in the greatest betrayal, the most grievous harm inflicted upon the UK since World War ll.
As a salve to the Brexiter ego, Fletcher suggests that we’re all exhausted, but the fact of him looking to those of the EU lobby to sort it all out itself implies that he recognizes that we are the people who have what it takes to sort it out: the vigour.
If we look around us, we see people choosing to strike, to picket, to protest, to bring court cases. Indeed, we see organised reporting on the horror show from outlets such as the Bylines Network and Byline TV. We see, in short, a people of vigour – but they’re not Brexiters. The Brexiters are certainly exhausted, but they have no justification for presenting themselves as in anyway whatsoever representative of “the people”. Fletcher’s thesis is fatally flawed – the British people are not exhausted, only the Brexiters are, and they were never the British people. They were never more than 37% of the electorate, 27% of “the people”.
A quarter of the population has demeaned our nation, cost us billions, installed a regime that has killed thousands of us in care homes and then who knows how many medics. And they are now a bit tired.
The matter of EU membership is now little more than emblematic. Don’t get me wrong, I still want to rejoin, and I’m confident it will happen (incrementally – customs union and single market first, but membership will then follow), but I always said, even as I recognized the EU’s many shortcomings, that my resistance to this madness of Brexit was my resistance to fascism. The people pushing the leave agenda always obviously believed that there would be one rule for them, another rule for the rest of us, and that’s where fascism will begin (for all its faults, when the EU recently uncovered corruption it moved fast to arrest people – compare that with the facilitating of Michelle Mone’s flight). Oligarchy leads to fascism in the modern era as I think Russia demonstrates.
Everything to fight for
All this is eminently resistible. Indeed, as more and more leave voters equivocate upon, or simple renounce, their vote (a leave voter is not a Brexiter – a Brexiter is one who holds an ideological conviction, a leave voter may have simply voted for something that was packaged to look nice) the reversal of this has become almost inevitable. There is, yet, however, something to fight for, so we cannot afford complacency. The longer we are out in the wildness, the more chance that oligarchy, and all that must ensue from it, may take hold. And even if we avoid that danger, the longer we are out, the more harm done, the more it will cost us, both in terms of money and, yes – lives. There is everything to fight for.
How fortunate, then, that it’s our side has all the balls, and all the energy.