Like the muscle on a broken arm, a nation’s political class withers and atrophies for want of use: after decades of rule from Brussels, it will take Britain many years to grow from scratch a new generation of truly worthy leaders.
The United Kingdom isn’t presently dealing with just a Boris Johnson problem. It’s suffering — and suffering really is the word — from a political class problem. While the ruling Conservatives rightly shoulder the lion’s share of media scrutiny as the governing party, there’s no doubt the parties in Westminster and beyond in the devolved administrations appear to harbour a share of sexually dangerous predators, antisemites, frauds, substance abusers, and much else well beyond the average you might expect in the wider population.
This is not unique. Money, commercial interests, supranational organisations, pressure groups, and a constellation of thousands of other probably well-meaning but ultimately putrifying influences push and shove politicians, political parties, whole governments in the direction of those narrow concerns, relieving politicians of the need to think. Look at the special interest-dominated thinking in Washington, Paris, or Berlin to know.
This means a lower class of politician. Mediocrity breeds worse, creating a negative feedback loop. This is where we are.
Britain’s politics is troubled by a blend of all those problems, but unlike most nations, it has just shrugged off one massive piece of that puzzle. We are now free — more or less — from the rule of the European Union.
The United Kingdom has been governed by remote control from Brussels through its membership of the European Union for years, and frankly, it shows. The avalanche of legislation that befalls EU member states’ capitols from the centre every year remains stupefying and regulates practically every area of life: national politicians to even the highest level are rarely called upon to think at all, such is the degree of decision-taking taken above them. Much new law at the nation-state level is reduced to the implementing, in local form, diktat from above.
Britain’s political class shows a worrying tendency to agoraphobia: locked in a gilded cage for so long, now free to pursue the country’s own interests, that liberty appears to frighten. And that is very likely something they will never grow out of. Britain under the European Union, even for Brexiteers, has been the only thing many top politicians have known their whole adult lives.
A nation’s political class really is, in some regards, like the muscle on a broken arm. It gains tone and utility with use, and withers away without. This metaphorical arm of politics has been broken a long time and the muscle is only being used properly — without Brussels’ direction — for the first time in years. Back-to-back challenges like Brexit and coronavirus showed politicians well out of their depth, and little wonder. This country once did well for great statesmen but has had no need for them in recent memory.
This inadequacy is something, unfortunately, the present crop of political leaders will never grow out of. For truly impactful individuals in politics, the enormity of the responsibility involved in actually governing an independent country effectively has to be baked in from day one. Such individuals are only teenagers now: soon-to-be interns, researchers, ‘Spads’.
Labour’s leader has just — belatedly — announced his party will no longer campaign to rejoin the EU, vowing to instead seek to make Brexit work. But he doesn’t really believe this, knows his party doesn’t support him in this, and the public knows it too. This would require a mindset change so considerable it won’t truly happen until the present Labour frontbench are all in old-age sheltered accommodation. It isn’t just the present batch: it will take their appointees, and their appointees’ appointees passing.
We all know that meme in such currency now: hard times create strong men. Boris Johnson may be gone now, and whoever replaces him will be as bad if not worse, but better days will come. Scant comfort now, perhaps. The best we can do now is to minimise the damage our present political class can hope to cause and hope there’s still a country to hand over to that future generation of enlightened leaders, the strong men and women this age will shape.