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Fintan O’Toole: Britain is becoming ungovernable and Truss will not last long

Liz Truss knows that Brexit cannot solve Britain’s problems. That will make her an even bigger phony

Ten years ago, Liz Truss and four other young Conservative MPs (among them Truss’s new chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng) published a book called Britannia Unchained. It is a manifesto for a renewal of full-blooded Thatcherism: cut taxes, regulation and public spending, control the deficit, bring back “hard work”.

The document is notorious for its contempt for ordinary British people: “Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world.” An Irish person who said that would be accused, quite rightly, of Anglophobia.

But, returning to this jeremiad now, the most interesting thing about it is actually what it does not say. For what it does not suggest, either explicitly or implicitly, is that what poor Britannia needs to be “unchained” from is the European Union.

Truss was writing just four years before the Brexit referendum. She is now, of course, an arch-Brexiteer.

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Future historians will surely look in this book for the ideological roots of the English revolution of 2016. They will be disappointed and baffled — there’s nothing there.

What can we expect from the new prime minister?

Listen | 46:18
London editor Denis Staunton and political editor Pat Leahy join Hugh to discuss the dawning UK premiership of Liz Truss. How will she govern, and what approach is will she take on the Northern Ireland protocol?

The EU is simply not an issue. There’s a glancing complaint that “Britain is increasingly isolated from the European Union, and distant from ... America”.

But the only real comment on Britain’s place in the EU is one very brief passage that in fact dismisses the idea that Brussels is the problem: “[Britain] retains enough independence from Europe to not get dragged down by a broken single currency, or an out-of-date social democratic model”.

It’s important to understand this: the people who are now governing Britain never believed in what is now Britain’s governing myth: that their nation’s greatness was being occluded by its unnatural incarceration in the EU. They may, in some respects, be quite stupid — but they were never quite that stupid.

What was at stake for Truss and Kwarteng and the others in 2012 was the question of blame. Whose fault was it that Britain was in decline?

To their credit, their essential answer was: we ourselves. They declined to make the EU what England (according to Wolfe Tone) had been for Ireland: “the never-failing source of all our evils”.

The diagnosis of those ills was wrong-headed — productivity has nothing to do with a mythic “work ethic” and everything to do with education, skills and technology. The cures were neoliberal quackery.

But at least it could be said for Truss and Kwarteng that they were trying to understand British problems without scapegoating foreigners, immigrants or Brussels bureaucrats. The chains they believed Britain had to lose were forged of home-made steel.

In this, Truss is a very worthy successor to Boris Johnson. Johnson never believed the Brexit story either — he just realised that he could hitch a ride on a rocket ship fuelled by English nationalism and fantasies of liberation.

And this, then, makes it a hat-trick. Since the Brexit referendum of 2016, Britain has had three leaders: the remainer Theresa May, the cynical opportunist Johnson and now the zealous convert Truss.

None of them really, truly believed that Britain was being oppressed and held back by the EU. But each of them, in order to attain power, has had to enact that pretence.

This is why Britain is becoming ungovernable, why May and Johnson lasted three years each and Truss will most probably not hold on even that long. It is not possible to sustain a polity in which there is such a vast gap between the obvious problems and the alleged solution.

Perhaps the most interesting question about British politics since 2016 is why no true believer in Brexit has actually become prime minister. It is, in this, unique among revolutions — in any other I can think of, the new regime that replaces the old one is made up of those who genuinely thought the revolution was a good idea.

This time, in their leadership contest, the members of the Conservative Party in fact had one of those. Rishi Sunak was a sincere Brexiteer who adopted the cause at a time when it was by no means obvious that doing so would be good for his career. The party rejected him.

So why is this, apparently, a cause that can be led only by those who don’t really believe in it? Perhaps for the same reason that religions really like converts and reformed sinners — they reinforce the faith by showing that even those who once stood outside it cannot now stand against it.

The consequence, though, is an inescapable phoniness. If Brexit Britain were led by Britons who really believe in Brexit, there would at least have to be some attempt to make it work, to do what revolutionaries must do and accommodate the ideals of the revolution to the real world.

What we have with Truss, though, is the continuing necessity to treat Brexit as a performance. It has not, to put it very mildly, solved any of Britain’s big problems. But, instead of making pragmatism more likely, this truth makes it almost impossible.

This is the problem for Ireland. We ought by now to be in the post-revolutionary period when Brexit is a settled fact and everyone is trying to knuckle down to the expediencies of damage limitation — especially in relation to Northern Ireland.

But the very insincerity of Truss’s attachment to the project has the paradoxical effect of making it all the more necessary for her to enact her role as its champion and defender.

Her dilemma, as things fall apart very rapidly around her, will be the old one: who to blame. Having been in government for eight years herself, the answer can’t be “us” any more. What was possible in a neo-Thatcherite manifesto a decade ago is not possible now.

For the blame game on the right of British politics will now always be played on the Brexit field: why is Brexit not working? Why are we not in the golden age already?

Truss knows the answer damn well: because Brexit was never a solution, merely, at best, a distraction from the real problems. But the more she knows that, the less likely it is that she will say it.

So why isn’t Brexit working? Ah, the answer to that question takes us back to the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone.

Ordinary political logic would dictate that Truss should quickly negotiate with Brussels a package of measures to deal with the practical problems of the Northern Ireland protocol. Get that off the table and move on to the much more urgent questions that her electorate actually cares about.

But we’re not in Kansas any more. The grimmer things get for Truss, the more desperate she will be for distractions: culture wars, enemies of the people, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish, the EU. She does know better — but that will make it all the worse.