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Since the Suez crisis, British Prime Ministers have tended to be undone by forces beyond their control. The decline in Britain’s status, as it adjusted to the end of Empire and the rise of rivals, meant that the British had much less scope for semi-autonomous action and superpower delusions. It has moved in little more than a century from thinking of itself as the preeminent power whose leaders shape history, to an important but second tier country that must adjust to decisions taken by others.
The Second World War was a defining moment in the transition, not just because it cost the country so much money and diminished British power. The UK was rapidly eclipsed after 1944, when the US and the Soviet Union’s scale and strategic muscle overshadowed Britain. Then, when Eden gambled on the Suez operation, he discovered that America could overrule the post-War UK quite easily. A few years later, a tired Supermac was caught in the cultural crossfire as PM, just when Britain was about to experience the Western revolution in social attitudes.
In the 1970s, heavy industry teetered, eroding class loyalties, and fatally weakened the foundations of the British Labour movement, although it took Margaret Thatcher to pull the house down in the 1980s. Jim Callaghan, a decent man, was helplessly swept away in 1979.
Margaret Thatcher’s fans like to say she was different, and in a sense she was. By acting decisively in the Cold War in particular, she made history. But she too was undone by powerful forces that were too strong to counter. She wanted global, open markets, but then wanted a strong self-governing nation state too, at a moment when thanks to the emergence of a new wave of globalisation, the West was moving in an increasingly multi-lateral direction. Thatcher (although right latterly about the dangers of the EU) was deemed a relic unfit for the 1990s.
Tony Blair’s failure is highly unusual and interesting. His undoing was his own doing, even though more than most leaders since Churchill he was interested in historical destiny and big theories about how the world was being shaped by global terror, technological change and free trade. It was as though he became intoxicated with that stuff, and messianic too, and then spent too little time on practical details, such as how diplomatically to restrain American power and how to use influence.
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And then there is David Cameron. What will history make of the man who called a referendum on the UK’s EU membership and lost, in the process delivering the worst defeat for the British Establishment and a ruling orthodoxy since Suez or the economic meltdown of the 1970s? He will be blamed by hardline Remainers. Could he have run a more positive campaign? Possibly. Could he have negotiated a better deal or delayed last month’s EU referendum? Perhaps.
Nonetheless, I think the Remainer complaint that it seems will be heard from here to eternity – that it was all Cameron’s fault – may be unfair. The British had never settled properly into the European Union anyway. Poll after poll showed that there was lingering discontent. Voters had increasingly grown worried (rightly) about uncontrolled immigration. All the signs of a breach were there, for years. What is surprising is that we are surprised by the Brexit vote.
Brexit may turn out instead to be more about an overdue reassertion of national democracy and a reining in of multilateral organisations that have grown too distant and too big for their boots. There will be economic trouble, but the British (or voters in England and Wales) have done something bold and brave that is for the best.
It is then rather unfortunate, to put it mildly, that there should be such a shortage of leadership at this important time. The Tory contest that has followed the referendum has not been a good advert for the British system. Michael Gove blew up the favourite, Boris Johnson, and himself. No impressive young candidate could cut through, and Tory members now have an unenviable choice between Home Secretary Theresa May and the energy minister Andrea Leadsom, the unsettling new darling of the Tory Right. Leadsom is little more than a blank canvas on to which too many Tory MPs are projecting their ideological fantasies. It is questionable whether she is ready to be a minor cabinet minister, never mind PM.
On Reaction this week we revealed the concerns about Mrs Leadsom’s CV and the worrying inconsistencies in it. It has been terrifying, frankly, to see some otherwise intelligent people say that what has emerged does not matter. I wrote this week that I was astonished at the thinness of the CV that was sent to me by Team Leadsom. I commented that my cats have more detailed CVs, but now having read more on her I would go further. My family’s cats would be a safer choice to run the country than Andrea Leadsom. That’s Moss (after Stirling Moss) for Prime Minister and Button (after Jenson Button) for Chancellor of the Exchequer.
But, wait… do not go off for the weekend depressed. Yes, Theresa May begins with expectations low and she will have to work hard to reach out, something she has not in her career been good at. There is a terrific opportunity, however, after the bitterness of the referendum and its aftermath, for her to unify a large part of the country in the next couple of years, if she can square the Brexit circle.
As I said last week, public opinion is divided post-Brexit into four groups unequal in size. At the two extremes are the furious Remain Refuseniks who cannot accept the result, and on the other side the shouty Leave means Leave Ukippy crowd watching for any hint of betrayal (for which read compromise). In the middle sits most of the country, made up of moderate Leavers and moderate Remainers, who want to get on with their lives. The prize is to get a reasonable deal that contains a few compromises to protect trade and reassure Remainers but which takes the UK out of the EU, which is what more than 17m Britons voted for. After the turmoil of recent weeks, people may well be delighted if a sensible deal appears and it is explained honestly to them by a grown-up.
Beyond that, the UK system has deeper problems that may not be solved by the election of Mrs May, and certainly not by Mrs Leadsom. The parties outside Scotland have not yet produced a new generation of leaders who can rethink politics on the left or right, with the blowback from globalisation emboldening crazy populists. Blairism, the attempt to reconcile the centre-left to the Thatcherite inheritance, lies in ruins after the publication of the Chilcot report into the Iraq War and the takeover of the party by Corbynistas. Who knows what Mrs May believes, really?
The yearning of moderate voters for a better way will not be satisfied by ever more anger and nihilistic tribal division. Eventually the fashionable “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it any more” fury leads, as we saw on Friday in Dallas, to the hell of political violence and terrorism, which the UK has recent experience of. Instead, leaders are going to have to find new ways of talking to the moderate bulk of electorates that have lost faith in leaders and institutions. That will involve admitting that nothing – Brexit for example – is a simple or magic solution. It will involve treating voters like adults and not children who get what they demand instantly.
For Britain, in practical terms, it means energising our civil service – not knocking it for the sake of it – and harnessing diplomatic and business clout to explore new alliances. It should also involve an attempt to rebuild faith in the fairness of our institutions and in the capabilities of the nation. To that end, I would look at a new cross-party constitutional settlement, rebalancing the UK, giving England its own arrangements and devolving everything bar foreign affairs and defence, with a joint UK-wide second chamber with clearly defined powers. Then, what can be done in transport and the internet economy to connect the disparate parts of the United Kingdom? The UK is the world leader in terms of the internet economy’s share of GDP, but parts of the UK lag well behind. On all that and more, the great changes unleashed by technology and trade require openness to the development of a new approach.