Fool Britannia

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Photo by Can Esenbel
Photo by Can Esenbel

A pointless referendum, a prime minister resigning, the opposition collapsing in a heap, the finance minister disappearing and nobody having any plan about what to do: This has all happened over the last few years in Greece. Never, though, all at the same time as has just occurred in the UK.

The disintegration of Britain’s political system over a few hours, following a victory for the Leave campaign, has been a real revelation for those observing from outside, particularly in Greece, which has been seen as somewhat of a basket case since 2010.

The list of events that happened in the wake of Brexit were simply stunning: Prime Minister David Cameron threw in the towel after losing a referendum he did not need to call but whose result he promised to implement, Chancellor George Osborne went into hiding and only resurfaced three days later; the Parliamentary Labour Party turned on its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, following his lacklustre campaigning for Remain; Boris Johnson, who injected vitality into the Leave campaign, went off toplay cricket; and his other Leave colleagues admitted they had no plan for what to do next.

To cap it all, Johnson’s Leave campaign colleague, Michael Gove, then seemingly stabbed his running mate in the back by announcing he would stand for the leadership of the Conservative Party, blocking Boris’s own bid. Johnson is an admirer of ancient Greek statesman Pericles but it is hard to think of a drama during Athens’s golden age for Athens that could match the intrigue and subterfuge that we witnessed in the UK over the last few days.

At the same time, this grand unravelling confirmed that while Johnson may have taken inspiration from Pericles’s achievements, this is where the connection between the two ended. After the last few days, we can all turn to the ex-London mayor and, borrowing from a line used by the late US Senator Lloyd Bentsen, safely say: “Boris, you’re no Pericles.”

Even for close observers of Greece’s shambolic politics in the modern era, the turmoil of the last few days has been something to behold. One of the world’s most advanced economies, with no threat of bankruptcy and no need to adopt disruptive austerity packages, had suddenly propelled itself into a world of confusion, uncertainty and division virtually in the blink of an eye.

The bemusement with which Greeks observed this downfall, perhaps with a pinch of schadenfreude, was summed up by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s reaction at the European Council this week. As the European Union leaders gathered for dinner, the Greek premier reportedly wondered aloud how it was possible for the British government not to be prepared for a Leave victory when only two outcomes were possible. Apparently this intervention prompted much mirth around the dinner table because it was coming from the leader of a country with a strong aversion to any kind of planning.

Once the giggling had subsided, though, perhaps the leaders reflected on the fact that while Tsipras and Cameron had both held needless, divisive and risky referendums, it was the Greek leader that emerged into a more secure environment and was able to retain his job. Tsipras may have many faults but when he held the referendum, he left himself a tiny escape hatch: He said that a No vote was a mandate for him to return to the negotiating table to seek a better deal, not one to turn his back on Greece’s lenders and exit the eurozone. The idea of getting a better deal after the referendum was nonsense of course (and the plebiscite was held at great cost to Greeks, particularly because banks were closed for several weeks and capital controls enforced), but Tsipras allowed himself a route back to the negotiating table.

In contrast, Cameron had nothing. He held a simple Yes/No vote on a complex subject with no checks and balances. This meant that the decision to take the UK out of the EU was made by 36 percent of the population eligible to vote. "This isn’t democracy; it is Russian roulette for republics,” wrote Harvard University professor Kenneth Rogoff.

It also means that Tsipras proved himself a more skilful political tactician than Cameron, which is quite an overwhelming thought. You’re not laughing now, as UKIP leader Nigel Farage might say.

Then there is the nonchalance with which those involved in the Leave campaign greeted their portentous victory after spending weeks spreading lies and stoking hate. “You were only meant to blow the bloody doors off,” Michael Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, told the former education minister the morning after the referendum. She used a famous line from the 1969 British crime caper The Italian Job. It was very reminiscent of the “Honey, I shut the banks” that Greece’s ex-finance minister Yanis Varoufakis reportedly told his wife after Greek lenders were forced to close their doors in the wake of Tsipras calling the July 5 referendum. However, a key difference here is that Varoufakis was no longer a minister from July 6 onwards, while Gove is running to be British prime minister.

This sudden implosion in the UK, which includes roughly 40 billion pounds being wiped of the value of stocks on the FTSE 350, a credit downgrade, the possibility of financial institutions relocating and numerous businesses holding off on investments, gives an opportunity to reassess what has happened in Greece over the last few years. Perhaps the Greek political system showed more durability and poise than we had thought until now, especially given the immense pressure that was put on it by the economic destruction domestically and the anxiety felt abroad. Possibly Greek society proved more mature and less hateful than it gets credit for. Maybe Greece was the jelly that wobbled, rather than the meringue that caved in on itself.

While we reassess things, Greeks are in the strange position of staring at the mess Europe is in and, for once, being able to say that they did not cause it. Of course, any relief will be momentary as the chaos in the UK will find a way of working itself through the continent with damaging consequences. Greece knows at least this much from its travails in recent years.

*You can follow Nick on Twitter: @NickMalkoutzis

An earlier version of this article appeared in last week's e-newsletter, which is available to subscribers. More information on subscriptions is available here.

2 Comment(s)

  • Posted by: Dean Plassaras

    The obsession of figures like European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, railing against Brexit, was not a smokescreen. He and others really did see Brexit as the major danger to the EU. That is what is most troubling. Far more significant are Italy’s financial crisis and Germany’s extreme vulnerability. Whether the British stay or go, Italy’s and Germany’s problems have to be addressed, and the existence of the EU and its regulations make finding solutions extremely difficult.

    This all was put in motion in 2008, but it is not a 2008 crisis. This is most of all a political and administrative crisis caused by a European system that was created to administer peace and prosperity, not to manage the complex gyrations of an economy. Similarly, China introduced the doctrine of enriching yourself to please the Party, but hadn’t considered what to do when the party was over.

    The argument from those who are against internationalism is simple. Sometimes the major international systems begin failing. The less you are entangled with these systems the less damage is done to you. And given that such systemic failures historically lead to international political conflict and crisis, the case for nationalism increases – assuming you aren’t already trapped in the systemic crisis. In any event, increasing nationalism follows systemic failure like night follows day.

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  • Posted by: Dean Plassaras

    The UK is a very sophisticated country and clearly one which can not and would not be dominated by Berlin.
    The vote was about exercising democracy against an un-elected Brussels oligarchy. And democracy won and Berlin lost.

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