The British "Polycrisis": An interview with Rafael Behr
Episode 1 of The Lowdown
I would love to be able to dismiss the fashionable neologism “polycrisis” as pretentious jargon. Unfortunately, the World Economic Forum has every reason to deploy the term to explain, “a cluster of related global risks with compounding effects [in which] the overall impact exceeds the sum of each part.”
In the first quarter of the 21st century, the UK had its own constitutional polycrisis – and I am not sure it is over yet.
The British breakdown destroyed what naïve and cherished notions we once had about innate common sense in the national character. First, the financial crisis of 2007/8 led the English nationalist right to promise that leaving the European Union would revitalise the UK. Mirroring, the rise of radical nationalism in the Conservative party was the rise of the far left in Labour, a phenomenon you can again trace back to the 2007/08 crash as it was in part a reaction against the Labour establishment’s inability to regulate capitalism when it was in power.
Fear of the far left helped produce a thumping Tory victory in 2019, which Boris Johnson used to trash the “gentlemanly agreements” that once regulated British politics. Johnson’s fall did not kill the strain of Tory Maoism that took us out of the EU. With the Brexit project manifestly failing, the party’s desire to smash any institution that stood in its way led to Liz Truss turning on the Treasury and unleashing a second economic collapse.
For my first Lowdown podcast, I wanted to talk about the state of the nation with Rafael Behr, whose latest book, Politics: A survivor’s guide is the best and most honest account from a political journalist I have read of the UK’s trauma. The political is personal. Behr describes how, as the country had a nervous breakdown, so did he. And how, as politics had a cardiac arrest, he had one too.
You can listen to the interview above or by clicking on this link. But I thought a couple of our exchanges on Breixt, antisemitsm and populism were worth drawing out.
The failure of journalism
Behr was a Westminster lobby reporter, who got a little too absorbed in a “courtly” style of political journalism. He didn’t fawn on the people in power but was “so interested in what's happening at Versailles,” he didn’t notice “the rumblings of revolution out in the country.”
Looking back with characteristic frankness he realised he had fallen into what the US media academic Jay Rosen described as the “savvy” style of of political journalism, where the reporter relished his or her insider access and was concerned only with who was up or down.
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