Even as doodlebugs smashed into the surrounding streets, George Orwell consoled himself with this thought: “One thing that has always shown that the English ruling class are morally fairly sound, is that in time of war they are ready enough to get themselves killed.” Present those who governed us with an existential crisis, he argued in his essay England Your England, and they would do what they believed to be right for the country.
Almost eight decades later, the UK stands on the verge of a calamity as great as any since the war. Whatever the protestations in parliament, we could within days crash-land into a world of medicine shortages and food riots. And where are our political classes? According to the lobby correspondents, Monday’s cabinet meeting was spent war-gaming general election strategies and thinking how to timetable voting so as to “scare” Labour. Wherever the national interest actually featured, it was buried under a thick dollop of party interest.
Sunday afternoon was Theresa May’s crisis summit at Chequers, to which Iain Duncan Smith came as Toad of Toad Hall, complete with open-top vintage sports car and cloth cap. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s chosen passenger was his 12-year-old son, Peter, because a national crisis evidently created the perfect occasion for bring-your-child-to-work day. Boris Johnson rocked up in his Spaffmobile before chuntering back to London to publish a column dumping all over the woman with whom he’d just been talking, dubbing her “chicken” and saying she had “bottled it”. (One of the columns, if it’s not too unseemly to mention, for which the Telegraph pays him £275,000 a year.) The BBC reports that these men refer to themselves as the Grand Wizards. Since that is an honorific used by the Ku Klux Klan, the best can be said is they have put as much thought into their nicknames as they ever did into the Irish backstop.
This is how today’s governing classes comport themselves, while the country teeters on the edge of a cliff: they behave with neither care nor caution, let alone concern for the welfare of the nation. These people are laughing at us, even as they take our money to go about their daily business.
I am not going to bleat about “leadership”, as if whatever ails Britain could be set right by the thwack of firm government. I want instead to point out a fundamental trend in public life that is utterly corrosive. Far from resembling the sometimes dim but dutiful set depicted by Orwell, today’s political elite are strangers to collective interest or public responsibility. Their conduct serves to undermine both the establishment of which they are part and the country they run.
This observation runs wider and deeper than a bunch of backbench headbangers. The fecklessness can be seen in the prime minister’s daubing of those red lines in her first conference speech as Tory leader, without consulting or warning cabinet colleagues and civil servants, let alone business or trade unions. It’s there when Ivan Rogers, resigning as ambassador to Brussels, inveighs against “the ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking” of government ministers.
This is playing games with other people’s money, and sometimes with the basics of their lives. Think of Johnson’s love of pointless and expensive monuments to himself, such as the garden bridge or the Boris Island airport. Recall how, in 2015, George Osborne planned to scrap all taxes on savings. The measure would have cost well over £1bn a year, at a time when the chancellor was slashing budgets for schools and hospitals. But as former Liberal Democrat minister David Laws records in his memoir, Coalition, Osborne laughingly said: “It will only really be of help to stupid, affluent and lazy people, who can’t be bothered to put their savings away into tax-efficient vehicles. But it will be very popular – we have polled it.”
Such myopic cynicism has run through our politics for years, under both Tony Blair and David Cameron, and has been captured in historical record and TV satire. Yet it is the serious mess of Brexit that has truly exposed the profound unseriousness of the people in charge. The failure of our governing elite is technical and political, for sure. But it is also moral. They have short-changed the public for so long that they don’t know any different.
In his essential recent book Reckless Opportunists, Aeron Davis charts the breadth and the depth of this betrayal. The sociologist has spent two decades interviewing more than 350 people at the top of Westminster and Whitehall, big business, the media and the City. Across these interlocking elites, he finds common trends: they reach the top far sooner, stay in post for far less time, before rushing through the revolving doors to the next gig. The result, Davis writes, is a generation of leaders who are “precarious, rootless and increasingly self-serving”. They grab whatever they can – be that cheap headlines or fast money – and then crash out, even while loosening the very foundations of the institutions entrusted to them. Crucially, this is a genre of politics that relies on a strong state even as it bilks it of the necessary tax revenue.
There is no heroism here, just moneyed nihilism. There are no ideas, just reheated Thatcherism about low taxes and burning red tape. These people say little about national interest, but their ears prick up when it comes to compound interest. Much has been said about how Brexit Britain might be put back together again, with solutions ranging from more cash to more listening to each other. It’s a healthy and necessary conversation. Yet one of the strongest lessons of this period is that we need a wholesale reimagining of our institutions so that they better serve the rest of us, rather than just those who run them. This was one of the promises of the leave campaign, of course, but it was always destined to be folded and put away inside the pocket of one of Rees-Mogg’s double-breasted jackets. It is up to the rest of us to rescue it and give it some meaning.
Pulsing through Orwell’s essay about England is an anxiety about whether the upper classes might succumb to the lure of fascism, just as they had done in Weimar Germany. Orwell eventually settled on a comforting conclusion: “They are not wicked, or not altogether wicked; they are merely unteachable.” I thought about that line while reading a remarkable recent article in the Financial Times by John Redwood. The arch-Brexiter and Thatcherite MP has a side-gig in the finance industry (or perhaps it is the other way round) and observed here what a tonic populism had proved for markets. Donald Trump’s tax cuts had been great for Wall Street; the Brexit vote had pumped up the FTSE-250.
Of the upcoming European parliament elections, Redwood wrote: “A bit of populism might be no bad thing when I look at the state of the euro area economy.” By “a bit of populism” the MP for Wokingham presumably means the Mussolini-worship and xenophobia of Italy’s Matteo Salvini. And Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, silencing the media and driving judges into retirement, behaviour that has earned him unprecedented sanctionsfrom the European parliament. Chaos and authoritarianism are fine, it appears, as long as they prove good for asset prices. In that elision between morality and financial returns is much that’s gone wrong with the governing classes. Would today’s ruling classes opt for fascism? Perhaps, if the price was right.