Watching Brexit unfold from China, I despair at the inadequacy of the British political establishment

Watching Brexit unfold from China, I despair at the inadequacy of the British political establishment

I remember once witnessing a drunk trying to stumble home one winter’s evening. The combination of inebriation and an ice-covered pavement turned this simple task into an epic quest. The drunk – wobbling and stumbling – not only failed to recognise the spectacle he was creating, but was unaware that he had, through his slips and moments spent regaining his balance, turned a straightforward journey into a potentially lethal one.

Watching Brexit from abroad, I am experiencing a touch of déjà vu. Establishment politicians, stupefied by the responsibility of the task at hand, lurch from crisis to disaster. A much debased political class, both in intellect and in conviction, is unable to fulfil the democratic will of the people. A simple instruction, ignored and subsequently weaponised by our political and cultural elites, has become a crucial milestone on this icy road of betrayal.

Seen from outside, the current situation of British politics is baffling at best, humiliating at worst. I am perhaps the staunchest patriot you are likely to meet, yet even I begin to blush when having to describe our state of affairs. Currently in Beijing, I am frequently asked what on earth is going on. “Buggered if I know,” I mutter, before trailing off into bouts of despair. The sheen of our democratic system – the world’s most illustrious, as is often claimed – is quickly losing its lustre as years of pontificating and giving the nod to EU stipulations finally gives way to matters of national import. The hollowness of responses to our present crisis from both the Conservatives and Labour alike underlines the ineffectualness of our modern political set-up.

The apocryphal Chinese saying ‘may you live in interesting times’ often springs to mind. Indeed, these times are interesting when viewed from inside the Westminster bubble. Acting blatantly against their manifesto pledges and openly seeking to hamstring the Government’s negotiating position at every juncture, politicians scheme to indulge in moments of Brexit-denying glory. Yet with every such act, the disconnect felt by those outside SW1 becomes ever more severe.

The British electorate is not alone in viewing these recent months and years as myopic and self-indulgent. Viewed from Beijing, the situation is an absurdity. The Chinese political system is, above all, predicated on the maintenance of stability. This is a feature which politicians seem uninterested in preserving in our societies; sooner another trinket for their ‘legacy’ than what is in the country’s interest.

Starting from its emphasis on stability, China is able to plan decades into the future. By mid-century, China talks of possessing a military capable of winning world wars and seeks to recreate the Silk Road, shaping central Asia and beyond in its own image. Whether these feats are achievable is uncertain, yet there is a coherent vision. China is a civilisation that after years of slumber has come out swinging. Grand-scale narratives and beliefs inform the politics of the day, with even a modern-day ‘Chinese dream’ being promoted by the Communist Party.

By comparison, the simple task of extricating the United Kingdom from a trading bloc has been turned into a Sisyphean task by our political class. ‘Cliff-edges’ abound, food shortages await, and super-gonorrhoea is only minutes away. The past three years have demonstrated beyond any doubt that the majority of our political elite has lost any concept of a ‘big picture’. There is no uniting goal, no concept of where Britain could be decades down the road if it were but to grasp the opportunity. Fear is what informs every instinct of our political class and is what underpinned the UK’s abysmal attempts at negotiating with the European Union.

Paralysed in this way, Britain’s decision-making horizons extend to days at most. At times it extends just hours, if a new wrecking amendment happens to have been thrown into the mix. China, by comparison, plots its course decades into the future, by which time our esteemed politicians will be receiving generous, taxpayer-funded pensions and be earning generous sums from their one-day-a-week role on the advisory board of a large, multinational firm or NGO. They won’t be held to account.

Of course, this is not to say that the Chinese system of governance is preferable. We are blessed to have broadly free, open and fair societies. We are able to express our will and enact change through the ballot box – at least hypothetically. The rigid stability of the Chinese system is a juggernaut that crushes those who stand against it, leading to the suppression of dissent and the complete marginalisation of alternative beliefs. Totalitarian control of thought should be resisted at all costs.

Yet in terms of political horizons, it is hard to argue that the short-termism which has increasingly infected the Western mind has done anything but weaken us. Shed of our ideological imperatives – once Christianity, then more broadly a belief in the supremacy of Western civilisation – we have entered a timescale dominated by election cycles, quarterly GDP figures and succumbing to the most expedient course available – perhaps one dictated by a focus group.

This is, of course, saying nothing new. We are largely all aware of the lack of overarching belief within our societies. Their purposelessness is only reinforced by what has replaced former uniting beliefs: a soup of meaningless PC buzzwords, echoed by every arm of government and firm across the land. Yet elsewhere in the world, states and actors with a longer term belief in their societies and civilisations plot for the future. They are not in the business of managed decline.

For too long British politics has been viewed through the lens of weekly and fortnightly tumults. The ups and downs of individual politicians and the cohesion of insipid political parties have taken precedence over solving overarching societal pressures and cultural malaise. The release valve of our democratic processes has become increasingly ineffectual. As the drunk, we have too long continued to stumble on, hoping the next small step is not the one that brings us crashing to the ground. Recent events have shown how long we have been tottering around on borrowed time.

One can only hope to come out of the current crisis with renewed purpose. Perhaps the emergence of new parties will sound the death knell of established politics, recasting our political landscape. It cannot come a moment too soon, as recent history has shown our politicians’ claims of competence to be utterly threadbare.

Yet for the time being, in Beijing and beyond, the complete lack of coherence in London will be looked at in bemusement. No doubt they will surmise that we have become a weak, vain and ineffectual adversary. No doubt they are in large measure right.