I’ve written before on this blog about a general lack of ambition in Europe, the noticeable absence of a strong desire from Europeans for themselves or their country to achieve success. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the reaction of the British public to the unfolding expenses scandal which may be hours away from causing the resignation of the Chancellor.
The British media has been telling us that the public is “enraged” by the unfolding scandal, which is precipitating a “revolution” that could topple not just the current leadership but the entire system of British government. But judging by the reaction I’ve seen from ordinary Brits, this seems a highly dubious claim. In fact all I’ve heard so far is a whole lot of whinging, but very little ideas about what should be done about the problem. We can laugh that, of course, this is the stereotypical British way of dealing with everything. But in the end it’s a real problem, especially right now.
A friend of mine who is a journalist covering Westminster made this observation: as he’s been doing the “man on the street” interviews that every reporter is required to do while a scandal like this is unfolding, the reactions of people are all the same. “They’re all a bunch or crooks aren’t they?” “They should string ‘em up from the rafters, the lot of ‘em!” “All of the MPs have been on the gravy train!” But when my friend asks a follow-up question on their opinion of the system itself – like whether they believe MPs should be given a raise instead of using expenses, whether the number of MPs should be cut, or whether the House of Lords should be abolished – people just stare back at him blankly. “Oh, I don’t have any opinion on that” they say. Well hang on, a second ago you were just calling for all MPs to be hung from the top of Big Ben, but who exactly would replace them in this great plan of yours, Average Joe?
I may be accustomed to apathy having grown up as part of America’s Generation X, but this strange combination of indignation and cynicism I find in the UK is truly bizarre to me. Everyone is completely disgusted with the UK parliament – across all party lines – but nobody has any ideas or ambition to change things. Throughout all of the media analysis I’ve seen, as commentators go on and on about how “furious” everyone is, I have yet to hear a real discussion about ideas for reform. And I have yet to see one member of the public who really seems “furious”. I know that this sort of understated composure is the British way, but it’s hard to see how anything is going to change when nobody seems to care all that much. I mean, where is this fury the media has been describing? Where are the protestors outside the houses of parliament? If the definition of “fury” in the UK translates to a couple of people in the audience of Question Time making some half-hearted boos, I think all this talk about a “revolution” is premature, if not downright fantasy.
This country just doesn’t seem to have any plan for its own future, which worries me. And it never ceases to amaze me that British people will complain about too much power being handed over to Brussels on matters that should be dealt with by national MPs in Westminster, and then in the next breath go on to talk about how inept and corrupt British MPs in Westminster are. So let me get this straight – you think your own government is corrupt and dysfunctional, so as a consequence you want them to be in charge of more things? But interrupt a Brit’s rant about the EU to ask them their opinion about reforming the British system of government and they don’t’ have much to say. They’re simply not interested.
It’s shocked me that this week, in the run-up to the European Parliament elections on Thursday, people here are still going on about MEPs abusing their system of expenses in Brussels. Are they really serious? The shocking level of excess from British parliament MPs uncovered over the past several weeks makes the limited about of Brussels MEP abuse in a transparent expenses system look like child’s play. And nevermind the fact that it was UKIP MEPs, who were elected on an anti-EU platform saying Brussels was full of crooks, who ended up being the ones abusing the system!
It goes to the heart of the problem this country faces. Britain is suffering from a drought of ideas, wandering in a period of post-imperial trauma where it hasn’t figured out its place in the world, and doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to do so. While dithering over small, insignificant issues like MP salaries and expenses, nobody here is thinking about the big issues or engaging the public in a real honest conversation about Britain’s future.
And that, in the end, is the real crime being perpetrated by this country’s leaders against its people.