Sometimes it’s difficult to take a look at our own lives and discern where our story is heading. That’s when it helps to have the advice of good friends – those who have enough distance to see the patterns and trends, but are also close enough that they understand and care.
This month Britain’s friends spoke up in the form of a monthly political magazine, which has been chronicling the state of democracies for sixty-five years, and a well-respected journalist. The publication is Die Blätter – The Pages – and the journalist Annette Dittert. Around the time of the UK’s 2019 general election Dittert began her second spell as chief correspondent in London for Germany’s main public broadcaster, meaning that she has got to know the country both during the era of Boris Johnson and in what we might call more normal times.
Her article for Die Blätter was widely shared on Twitter, and has since appeared in translation in the New Statesman. In it, she expertly draws out the trends of recent years and what they may mean for the future of British democracy – which she describes as “a beautiful illusion that worked brilliantly as long as everyone wanted to hold on to it”. With the analysis comes a stark warning that the path Britain is currently travelling has potentially fatal consequences for parliamentary democracy.
The arguments ring true and we highly recommend reading the piece in full. But briefly, the threat is made up of three things:
- Direct attacks by the government on the institutions whose job it is to hold the executive to account. These include the judiciary and the BBC.
- Corruption, including contracts and influential positions in government being awarded consistently to the friends of ministers or financial donors to the Conservative Party.
- The degradation of truth and honesty, which Dittert calls the currency of democracy, and their replacement by half-truths, lies and ‘bullshit’.
The third of these phenomena is perhaps the one most obviously connected to the persona of the Prime Minister, but from him it spreads to all of government. Over the course of more than 5,000 words, the author cites many different examples and individuals – such as the Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, demanding that the EU find solutions to post-Brexit problems that he quite recently claimed did not exist.
In an accompanying interview with the excellent Blätter Podcast, you can hear Annette Dittert talking about her article and commenting on further examples, from the government’s slack handling of the delta variant to the resignation of Matt Hancock. She makes an astute observation that Johnson will never sack a minister for lacking integrity or truthfulness, even when the circumstances are as stark as they were in the case of the former health secretary. To do so would set a fatal precedent for the Prime Minister’s own career.
It is clear that the article struck a chord with many in the UK. But why are we not hearing a similar level of challenge in the domestic media? Part of it, Dittert says, has to do with the chilling effect of the government’s stance towards the BBC. But beyond that she views her British friends and colleagues as tired and bewildered by the news cycle and its constantly shifting reality. Britain is a society at a low ebb.
We need our friends.