Don’t laugh at us, Argentina

Don’t laugh at us, Argentina

A lot can happen in a hundred years or so.  On the eve of the First World War, the United Kingdom was a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, but it didn’t look very united at all.  The nation was on the point of civil war, with the Conservatives openly allied with the Ulster Protestants who were prepared to fight for their cause both politically and paramilitarily.  Industrial unrest was rife, with 1,400 strikes in 1913.

The intervening years have not been particularly good for the UK.  While the standard of living for ordinary Britons is of course far better than it was then, UK has endured relative decline for much of that period.  Some things don’t change of course.  The United Kingdom of what is now Great Britain and Northern Ireland is riven by strife, with the Conservatives once more seeking to ally with a grouping of Ulster Protestants whose relationship with paramilitaries could usefully be clarified further.

There is always someone worse off than you, of course.  Few British people know that on the eve of the First World War, Argentina was one of the ten richest countries per head in the world.  It was a popular destination for European emigrants and looked to be set on a similar course to the USA.

Its decline since then has been precipitous.  It did not participate in either world war, staying neutral in both (until almost the end of World War Two).  Indeed, aside from the Falklands War and a nominal role in the first Gulf War, it has not fought any wars.  The impact of the Great Depression was relatively mild.  But as of 2015, it ranked 63rd in the world for GDP per head. 

Argentina’s stumbles have been in large part down to dreadful governance and prolonged periods of deeply misguided policies.  After 1930, the start of what is known as the Infamous Decade, Argentina first retreated towards autarky and protectionism, flirted with wholescale nationalisation, then spent decades unravelling and reravelling these policies, seeking alternately to appeal to populism and to deal with the inevitable consequences.  It is far from clear that this cycle has yet ended.

What does this have to do with Britain? There is no inevitability that countries that currently rank among the global winners will stay there. And right now Britain seems to be taking wrong turning after wrong turning.  In 2015 Nigel Farage said that he’d rather Britain was poorer with fewer people.  In the EU referendum last year, the British people on balance agreed, voting to cooperate less with our closest neighbours, primarily in order to put a brake on immigration.  The public liked the idea of saving contributions to the EU to spend on funding NHS contributions (this mysteriously has not yet materialised) without placing much weight on the existing advantages of membership that Britain was putting at risk.  Leave campaigners saw this as vindicating their vision of a Britain facing the open seas, securing superior trade deals with still-to-be-identified trading partners to more than compensate for the inferior access to the EU’s markets.

The intervening months have done nothing to suggest that parting from the EU will be harmonious or cost free.  The Prime Minister has asserted that no deal is better than a bad deal while the EU is shaping up to make colossal alimony demands.  The rights of EU residents in the UK are in limbo (and UK residents in the EU).  The Article 50 notice has been served and the clock is ticking.

A Brexit pessimist is someone who believes that it can’t get any worse.  A Brexit optimist, on the contrary, believes that it can.  And the result of the general election has justified the Brexit optimists.

For it turns out that the public’s desire for free stuff hasn’t been sated by a bogus promise for £350 million a week for the NHS.  Indeed, Jeremy Corbyn’s bungs for all and sundry has secured the vote of over 40% of the population, apparently entirely untroubled about how it would be paid for and leaving the country with a hung Parliament.  Many Leavers who were ecstatic and gleeful that their own nonsense promises won the day are now hysterical that different nonsense promises also have a wide audience.

For those of us that voted Remain, this is wryly amusing in the short term.  But the long term outlook is bleak.  Britain seems set for a spiral of decline, alternating between right wing fantasies and left wing fantasies, with each side stridently blaming the other for the calamities that both have contributed to.  Already we have seen Daniel Hannan claim: “The referendum has not harmed growth, investment or confidence. The *possibility* of a Corbyn Government could be a different matter.”  Mr Hannan: You Brexit, You Own It.

Now that Britain has a hung Parliament, Britain’s approach to the Brexit negotiations is likely to be revisited, but there is no assurance that will result in a happier outcome.  The negotiations remain fiendishly complicated, will now require much more consultation on the British side and the mistrust between the two sides persists.  The chances of talks collapsing remain high.

How can Britain get out of this oscillating cycle of destructive populism?  The first step is for some serious politicians to speak out against it.  And there too the prospects are bleak.  The centre has been hollowed out.  Brexit cleared out the Conservatives who were able and prepared to do this: David Cameron and George Osborne have left the stage.  The Labour right has been muzzled by Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpected success.  For the foreseeable future, there are no voices to speak for responsible government and against incoherent populism.  We merely have competing versions of incoherent populism.

So right now the prospects for Britain look bleak indeed.  Hunker down.  Winter is coming.

Alastair Meeks

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