Johnson’s government: From the sublime to the ridiculous
By Julian Glassford: Having vanquished opposing political forces on the electoral battlefield, and in the absence of effective residual opposition at the dispatch box, our feisty and yet curiously elusive new executive is now at risk of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
A couple of months into our bold new ‘One Nation’ Conservative government, and with ‘Brexit Day’ now but a bleary memory, the UK finds itself beginning to wake up and wonder: “what have we done?”.
Everyone from natural opponents and critics to staunch allies and members of the Tory faithful now finds themselves scratching their heads in a state of some bewilderment as events unfold. In a matter of weeks, our politics has gone from fundamentally divided and unpredictable to superficially united and incomprehensible.
For reasons known only to a select few insiders, the low on detail, high on machismo, combative, opaque, quasi-populist modus operandi that came to characterise the 2016 Vote Leave and 2019 Tory electoral campaigns has not fizzled out – as most would have hoped.
It’s as if news of victory has still yet to reach the out of sight (electoral) war cabinet – still hiding out in their underground bunker or, in the Prime Minister’s case, perhaps the infamous giant fridge. Demobilisation orders do not appear to have been issued and conflict with portions of the media appears, if anything, to be escalating.
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Having vanquished opposing political forces on the electoral battlefield, and in the absence of effective residual opposition at the dispatch box, alas the situation is beginning to take the shape of an unbecoming pitched battle between at least three of the four estates. Suffice to say, the optics of this are not good.
deal-making on the fly is no substitute for a serious, grounded negotiation strategy or broader diplomatic posture
Beyond clumsy interference in cherished (if flawed) institutions of parliamentary sovereignty and scrutiny, justiciable law and order, public service broadcasting, and the upper echelons of the civil service, major questions have started to arise elsewhere; questions that, far from evaporating, appear if anything to be mounting – particularly since the Chancellor was compelled to resign.
Consider, for example, the sense and sensibility of apparently reckless and feckless approaches to (hasty) motor transport curtailment, runaway train vanity projects (HS2), indefensibly risky 5G deployment, and UK-USA diplomatic immunity/extradition arrangements (laid bare by the Harry Dunn tragedy).
On broader foreign policy, uncompromising rigidity in some areas – e.g. with the EU on trade and immigration – versus signs of weakness and myopia in others – e.g. with China regarding Hong Kong and Huawei – speaks to political economic naivety and impetuousness that may well cost the country dearly in the long run. That is, should we not now see timely recourse to a considered, settled, and statesmanlike approach.
Important as it is to set out the EU trade position clearly from the outset, and to be open to various opportunities further afield, contrary to the Trumpian school: braggadocios bluster and deal-making on the fly is no substitute for a serious, grounded negotiation strategy or broader diplomatic posture.
Those involved must be mindful of the fact that they are writing a key new chapter in our nation’s history … and the whole world is watching.
Complex, high stakes agreements invariably necessitate a degree of compromise on both sides: supposing an equitable and stable settlement is the object; that is to say nothing of optimality. Of course, we must have and maintain our red lines, but these should be fair and proportionate, commensurate with common values and interests, and communicated in a suitably dignified and sophisticated manner to “our European friends and partners”. If we want to have our cake and eat it we’re going to have to take the time to first refine the recipe.
Britannia should absolutely resolutely move to enshrine and protect its hard-won, newly restored sovereign powers, rights, and freedoms as it works to ‘get Brexit done’, but there is a right way to go about this. The onus is now on incumbents not only to get it done but to get it done right.
Those involved must be mindful of the fact that they are writing a key new chapter in our nation’s history … and the whole world is watching. If Global Britain’s main asset is ‘soft power’, as is frequently suggested, then it must learn to navigate uncharted waters with greater care. Plotting a new course will be tricky enough without making waves, and the fact is we are simply no longer equipped for retrograde ‘gunboat diplomacy’ (metaphorical or otherwise).
On a political philosophical level, rather than lurch from one extreme – e.g. the sell-out globalism of the Third Way – to another – e.g. the retrograde lures of the far right or left – the new M.O. ought to be the ‘Fourth Way’ mantra of balance in all things, and all things in balance. Ideologically diverse, dynamic, and outcome-oriented pragmatic pluralism, and within that post-neoliberal ‘globalism’, likely holds the key to delivering on a true ‘peoples government’: if only those in power would recognise the need to do things differently and really seize the moment.
What the citizenry wish to see in practice is the new cabinet getting a grip on the tiller and steadying the ship. This means showing principled, steady-handed leadership on issues ranging from novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and extremism to maintaining and strengthening environmental, product, and labour standards and genuinely ‘levelling up’ e.g. through targeted, productive, and sustainable trade and investment.
Rather than (continue to) struggle to keep pace with and reactively respond to events, the expectation is that a genuinely representative ‘strong and stable’ administration will now proactively ‘take control’ of the agenda and start to get things done, and done properly. That is, after all, precisely what the people voted for.
Julian Glassford is an independent researcher and social entrepreneur with a keen interest in economic, social, and environmental sustainability