The fallout from last week’s EU referendum has brought one thing in particular into sharp, unforgiving relief: the immaturity of the British political class. I have never been a fan of the politicians and institutions that govern Britain, nor of the media elites and expert cliques that increasingly make up a key plank of the political realm. But even I’ve been shocked at the infantile nature of their response to Brexit. They’ve responded with fear, distress, emotionalism, statements about feeling ‘lost’, and they now run a serious risk of talking Britain into a state of crisis. We now know that we are ruled by a political class that lacks the institutional, intellectual and moral resources to deal with the uncertainty that attends major change.
Listening to politicians and the opinion-forming set, you’d be forgiven for thinking Britain was about to expire, or at least collapse into an historically unprecedented state of irrelevancy and difficulty. The political and media elites are feverishly predicting economic and social disarray, and in the process they threaten to make such things a greater possibility than they otherwise were. There’s been non-stop handwringing over the turmoil in the markets, even though it’s been fairly minor, and even though such panicked chatter could have a real impact on economic matters, primarily through making both domestic and foreign businesses even more reluctant to invest and hire in this nation apparently heading to catastrophe.
Even worse, politicos talk up the dangers of social conflict. They claim there’s been a huge rise in racism in the five days since the referendum. They are in essence scooping together relatively normal and unfortunate instances of low-level prejudice, and cynically systematising them, packaging them up as a post-referendum pogrom. It is a see-through effort to construct a moral panic. Not only is this deceptive, it is also grossly irresponsible, speaking to the irrationalism of their referendum response, since it threatens to convince certain communities they are under threat and to intensify social suspicion. Others, meanwhile, tell us that young people’s futures have been ‘destroyed’ by the referendum result, inducing alarming levels of fatalism and fear among certain constituencies of the young. A Guardian journalist went so far as to suggest that perhaps young people should ‘abandon Britain… a country that clearly hates them’.
The visceral nature of the chattering classes’ response to Brexit is captured in their numerous statements about feeling scared. They speak in the language of the threatened child rather than an in-control class. Britain is ‘in crisis and scared’, says Green MP Caroline Lucas. The headline to a piece by an EU-supporting academic said simply: ‘I’m scared.’ ‘I’m just frightened’, said a columnist for the New Statesman, the supposedly rationalist left magazine. There’s a performative element to these declarations of fear and predictions of crisis. They’re intended to demonstrate the political and media elite’s strength of feeling about the EU. They are elevating their need to advertise their heightened sensitivities, their grief for a cosmopolitan institution they loved, over the more pressing task of rationally grappling with a new reality.
These infantile expressions of personal fear find institutional expression among a political class that has gone into meltdown in response to the result. No one seems capable of taking charge, of confronting reality. Evasion and cowardice are the order of the day. David Cameron has backed off from his promise to swiftly enact the people’s decision; Labour has evaporated as a political force; other political actors agitate against the public call for a Brexit, or hope the momentum behind it will slow. The combination of fear and incapacity that now defines Britain’s political elite was captured in the disturbing, seemingly late-night language used by Labour MP David Lammy: he described the anti-EU vote as ‘madness’ and a ‘nightmare’ and said parliament should override it. Madness, nightmare… it was a stark insight into the minds of the ruling class, not only in terms of their disdain for democracy, but also their immature feeling of crisis and incapacity.