At amazing speed, the UK has become pragmatic again

Janan Ganesh: Britain has turned against radical politics faster than other rich nations because it has lost more from it

You can tell a Zaha Hadid building from the absence of right angles. You can tell a Frank Gehry one because it seems to have been frozen midway through an explosion. Herzog & de Meuron, the great architectural pragmatists, leave no such calling card.

No big idea links the Bordeaux stadium (the airiest and most human venue in which I have watched elite sport) to 1111 Lincoln Road in Miami (the only multistorey car park in which I have passed an afternoon) to the Dominus winery in California. Sure enough, when the firm rose to world acclaim, it was in the era of undogmatic politics either side of the millennium. Its winning proposal for Tate Modern in London was architectural Blairism, tweaking an existing structure instead of attempting a revolution.

The Herzog & de Meuron show at the Royal Academy in London is one of those exhibitions that, without trying to, captures the spirit of the times. Britain is a nation re-embracing pragmatism. Boris Johnson is out of parliament. So is Nadine Dorries, his Saint Paul. The Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer is elevating politicians of the centre ground in his cabinet-in-waiting.

Scotland is becoming less of a one party state. Tony Blair is no longer persona non grata. At discreet intervals, the UK government makes some kind of accommodation with the EU: a deal on scientific research funding might be next. In 2019, Britain had to choose between Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister. Next time, voters will have their pick of adenoidal but meticulous technocrats in Rishi Sunak and Starmer. When the principal complaint about its leaders is a lack of charisma and grand vision, a country is normalising.


At amazing speed, the UK has become pragmatic again. By this, I don’t mean that all its policies are wise, only that those behind them are conscientious adults who know that government is about trade-offs and half-loaves. For comparison, the spread of plausible outcomes at the next US election includes another Donald Trump administration. In France, extremists won’t have the twice-elected Emmanuel Macron to contend with. Even in Germany, which avoided the worst of the populist wave, Alternative für Deutschland is now the second-best polling party. (Equivalent parties poll in single digits in Britain.)

What can the world learn from the UK’s political cleansing? First, parliamentary systems fail fast. When the head of government has no direct mandate, it is simple and legitimate for lawmakers to remove them. Liz Truss was cashiered in all of 50 days.

Second, don’t be choosy about your saviours. Sunak and Starmer aren’t far-sighted moralists. One went along with Johnson until almost the end. The other campaigned to make Corbyn prime minister. But by doing so, each had more “permission” to change their parties than a life-long liberal would ever have had.

The most important lesson, however, is almost too distressing to state baldly. In order to turn against radical politics, a nation has to suffer quite tangibly from it. Britain is unique in that it didn’t just vote for an unconventional individual but for an unconventional project. In the form of Brexit, it has put post-liberal politics into direct effect to a degree that is rare among mature democracies.

The far-right forever stalks the French Fifth Republic because it has never been tested to destruction in office. Trump, too, though he became president, was stymied by a Democratic House of Representatives within two years, and by his own inattention to detail from day one. Even the populists who govern Italy have to reckon with that polity’s fragmented nature.

Brexit is different: a specific, discrete venture, enacted in full. One in three voters now think it was a good idea. I don’t suggest the disillusioned majority will reverse the decision any time soon. (That wouldn’t be pragmatic.) But they are inoculated against anything – leftist, rightist or hard-to-place – that smells of grand visions, easy answers, personality-led demagoguery. Even on the airwaves, the faux men-of-the-people and undergraduate communists who grifted so well in the Johnson-Corbyn years are less and less heard from. No, a nation is adamant: we’re not doing this anymore.

“You cannot always start from scratch,” said Herzog & de Meuron at the opening of Tate Modern in 2000. For a pragmatic nation at maybe its most pragmatic ever point, that was a statement of the obvious. A generation on, it stands out as a warning, and one being absorbed too late. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023