Why is Britain in such a mess?

What was once a 'strong and stable' and safe country seems to be descending into the chaos. Why did my (African heritage) taxi driver in Copenhagen say recently “I don't know much about England but I know it's a country where bad things happen”. He was referring to the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower, which he assured me could never happen in Denmark, or if it did, the government would have to instantly resign. The squabbling, back-stabbing and abusive tone of parliamentary politics looks more and more like what we used to expect from countries which the Brits used to rather look down on. It's now us being looked down on by the rest of Europe.

The answer, I believe, is that we now lack a culture of consensus, and have lost our means of building and developing one. Instead, divisions seem to get magnified and deepened. The Brexit referendum and the increasing ideological polarisation in both main political parties are a sign of this.

Other north European countries have some sort of culture of consensus. The Scandinavian countries in particular have a very strong culture of consensus in politics and around socio-economic issues. This has undoubtedly played a major role in their extraordinary economic success and the high quality of life of their populations. The Dutch are pretty good on consensus too; you have to be if the sea is always threatening to come gushing over the dyke. It's not something which is so often associated with Germany, but there is little doubt that German politics and decision making relies heavily on consensus, powered to a large extent by the results doled out by the electoral system which forces political opponents to talk to each other.

Right. That's one clue as to what is going on. Britain is about the only country in Europe with a primitive 'first past the post' electoral system. It tends to end in 'either or' results, and we used to believe that the resulting alternation of political parties in government was a good thing. However it also encourages divisiveness. Anyone who has heard the British Parliament on the TV or radio tends to be rather horrified by the level of shouting and jeering going on. Even the geography of the place seems to encourage this, with two 'sides' on each side of the house; most other European parliaments have horseshoe or semi-circular shaped assemblies which discourage such binary confrontations.

In fact once you start to look around, there are quite a lot of binary oppositions in British society. The legal system for a start: prosecution and defence locked into trying to persuade the jury of the rightness of the case they are being paid to defend. They may not believe their clients but their job is convince through their rhetoric or their skill in demolishing their opponents. Any idea of impassively and objectively seeking the truth is simply not part of the business. And then there is the institution of the debate, a key part of the elite Oxford and Cambridge student 'unions' and mimicked in the so-called public schools (they are actually private). Debates between two oppositions encourage black and white thinking, there is a failure to appreciate subtlties or any encouragement to negotation or consensus.

Lots of binary opposition then. No wonder no-one can agree on anything. But why has this developed only now? For the answer we need to look back at history. England had a nasty civil war in the 17th century. King Charles I lost his head, and so did many others. This came after some vicious disputes over religion, lots of burnings at the stake etc. The solution seemed to be a historic compromise achieved in 1688 when the Dutch William of Orange took the throne after a palace coup (British version) or a Dutch invasion (Dutch version). Monarch and Parliament agreed a compromise, a division of powers and religious toleration (of a sort) was agreed. Ok, Catholics were still second-class citizens, as were dissenting Christians, but the killings, the burnings and the torturing stopped, and one of the defining characteristics of the true British gentleman came to be a phlegmatic tolerance, part of which was a strong presumption against political and religious 'enthusiasm', which in those days was understood to mean what we would now call 'passion' or 'evangelism'.

For the next three centuries this held pretty well. The historic compromise became part of the ethos of an effective and relatively tightly-knit ruling class. Disputes and disagreements could be aired, but always within the constraints of a set of rules of behaviour strictly controlled by the elite – who all went to the same schools, played the same games, read the same papers and tended to marry each other. This elite was always flexible, with newcomers such as vulgar industrialists, religious dissidents successful in business and valuable members of minorities (i.e. Jews) were never excluded for too long and eventually invited to join. The rough and tumble of parliamentary debate was between men who were basically all part of the same club. Politics in Victorian England may have been a constant ding-dong between two men who hated each other (William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, the latter a Jewish convert) but who agreed the ground rules.

Fast forward to the end of the 20th century and the elite consensus that managed the binary oppositions starts to fall apart. Comprehensive education sees a watering down of the elite, large-scale immigration is rapidly followed by much breast-beating over racism, followed slightly less rapidly by second-generation immigrants making it big in business, media and politics. No longer is the old elite able to manage the tensions inevitably created by binary oppositions, particularly since the electoral system does nothing to encourage politicians to agree with each other.

Increasingly there is a 'new Britain': multi-cultural, happy with 'difference', globalist, innovatory, outward-looking, and an 'old Britain': unhappy with change, nostalgic about the past, frightened of the future, unwilling to douse its fish and chips in curry sauce. There is nothing to encourage these two cultures to talk to each other. 'Old Britain' would like to carry on running the consensus in the way it used to; 'New Britain' wants a different, and much wider, consensus.

Few people are now really nostalgic for empire, although a great many don't realise just what a hideous mess it often left behind, but why are we so obsessed with what is called 'the war', i.e. World War 2: films about Winston Churchill, TV history programmes, recycled wartime government posters etc. Nostalgia seems to have become a big part of British public life. Nationalism and sectarian politics feed on nostalgia like vampires feed on blood. Nostalgia helps/ed fuel Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Daesh/ISIS and all the other thugs and bigots who currently seem to afflict us.

One outcome of the inability to compromise in Britain, has been the 'austerity' economics practised over the last eight years. More than anything else this is what is driving so many people into poverty (20% now below the official poverty line), is degrading our health and education services, shutting museums and libraries, causing our physical infrastructure to break up and much much more. Systems that encourage politicians to talk to each other, even do rather sordid little pork barel deals with each other tend not to end up condemning so many to suffer such a long period of neglect.

Northern Ireland is an interesting and hopeful example of how people who hate each other can be made to talk and to make deals. For years this small province (1.5million people) suffered a low-level civil war, the result of centuries of historic mismanagement by the rulers in London; with two communities at each other's throats - I think the word 'tribal war' would be used if we were talking about Africa or the Middle East. But, as part of a series of reform measures, the British government introduced what they have never dared to do at home, a proportional electoral system. No longer could local councils be dominated by one (inevitably sectarian) political party. You may be wanting to kill each other, but you still have to decide when the dustbins are going to be emptied. Behind the scenes and then more openly, the enemies talked over the boring minutiae of how to make basic services work and then found they could talk to each other about other things too. And two of the biggest enemies, an ex-guerrilla leader (Martin McGuiness) and a sectarian politico-religious leader (Ian Paisley) ended up as back-slapping best mates.

Now of course, the delicately-constructed good example of communal healing in Northern Ireland is threatened with being derailed by Brexit. That would be a savage irony, as it is the one place on this increasingly divided set of islands where there has been real hope, led by a fairer and pragmatic electoral system.

So there, that's my analysis. Condemned by being unable to move on. A sense of complacency about our past and our antiquated institutions has led us to be unable to see how to heal new divisions. In particular an inability to develop an electoral system that helps build consensus. Something, I might add, that the United States, another country with a once admired political system, but now also brought low, might take notice of too.