"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
Three weeks in the UK leave me baffled as ever about Brexit. Never mind it’s consuming all the political oxygen to the detriment of everything else. Never mind that the trains don’t run, that the NHS is about to fall-over or that the military is unable to deploy. Forget about the 3% detection rate for burglaries as crime ramps up. All that falls off the radar. In the Westminster bubble, only Brexit matters.
When it comes to Brexit, the great British public divide into three camps. The Brexiteers, the Remainers and then last of all we have “I don’t give a shit”. Between the Brexiteers and the Remainers, there is no middle ground. Wading through the morass of detail that Brexit has thrown-up, pushes most into the IDGAS camp. While the country may be about to fall off a fiscal cliff, Love Island draws more attention. This piece of TV piffle illustrates the fickle nature of public sentiment.
Meanwhile, the Brexit cheerleaders cast aside any evidence that business will falter. We know that business leaders hate Brexit. It will cause them massive disruption and uncertainty. Industry hates uncertainty. It will screw their supply chains plus the ability to move staff across borders. Some are making noises about withdrawing their business investments from the UK.
Signs are already emerging of an impact. European crop pickers are staying away, leaving Norfolk farmers struggling to harvest. Brits are unwilling to do the work even as wages increase.
So Brexiteers can whine about the neoliberal thwarting of democracy. They can throw insults and demand the people's will, but it won't make a jot of difference. Airbus, BMW, Jaguar and a host of other employers are making plans to move staff and facilities out of the UK. Whether these plans take flight is another matter. It's all about sentiment.
In response, the Brexiteers claim the UK will be free to negotiate new advantageous trade deals. Although, it appears potential future partners are holding off. They want to see how Brexit plays out. Meanwhile, the UK is the slowest growing economy amongst the leading western nations. This trend has held for some time. It suggests something is going on.
Listening to the Brexiteers, you'd get the impression that they can’t accept that their ideas may have intrinsic flaws. They double-down on any criticism, digging themselves into a deeper ideological hole.
On the Remain side, a campaign is building for a referendum to ratify any deal. An estimated 100,000 marched in London calling for that right. Despite the intentions, this looks like another bite at the Brexit cherry, with an attempt to derail the whole process. It's probable that Remainers are over-confident that a second vote will swing it. By my reckoning, the majority are now bored and disengaged.
Remainers portray Britain in disarray after Brexit. Economic collapse, a run on sterling leading to widespread disorder. The Scots will then seek the opportunity to go their way, ending the Union. We then enter dangerous waters as the UK national identity unravels. Again, this is over-stating the worst case scenario for effect.
Of course, decent Remain people are not going to set fire to shops and burn barricades. It won't make any difference what you say or how righteously indignant you are. The “you are heading for a cliff, and you are going to drive us right over it” is as risible as the Brexiteers claims. Anyway, the Remainers ability to influence the outcome is limited. They have no heavy-weight political figure to rally around.
The potential landmine under Brexit lies in thousands of boardrooms across the UK and beyond. The decisions taken there may yet detonate a change. Theresa May can’t ignore those voices. In private business leaders have warned her. These warnings are spilling into the public domain with increasing frequency.
Across the Channel the negotiations are jarring. Europe is holding most of the cards and not about to give up its strong hand. Moreover, by playing hard, the EU is seeking to discourage others from spoiling their grand experiment.
I have to say I despair at the mention of Brexit. I don't see it bringing the tangible benefits that people sought. Also, I don’t foresee the "falling off the cliff” scenario playing out. A deal will emerge. It won’t be tidy or be particularly favourable, but life will go on. No doubt some businesses will opt to move out of the UK. Others will remain and prosper. New businesses will move in. It will be the preverbal “swings and roundabouts”.
For me, the most deplorable aspect of the whole Brexit saga is the shameless self-interest displayed by politicians. Boris Johnson is acting in a thoroughly unstatesmanlike manner. At any other time, he’d be out of office. Only May’s weakness prevents her acting.
On the other side of the house, Jeremy Corbyn is no better. He’s failed the leadership test with his wishy-washy statements. You'd be hard-pressed to define his actual intentions. He thinks he's smart. Unfortunately for him, people have got the measure of his antics, and most are not impressed.
Brexit will happen. Nonetheless, it won’t be the end of life as we know it nor will Britain ascend into sunlit uplands. Things will bump along. Britain will struggle, but not be overwhelmed. I wonder if all the effort and bile is worth it, when compromise so tarnishes the prize.
In the UK men are three times more likely to kill themselves than women. Every week 84 men commit suicide. Homelessness and sleeping rough is a male thing. There is a generation of lost men attempting to navigate their way in a world that has changed at light-speed.
Given the evidence that young men, in particular, are struggling, you’d think attempts to help them would be welcome. Not so. Those who voice concerns, even from a professional capacity, are immediately attacked.
The Guardian newspaper is leading that charge. Hardly a week goes by without an anti-men article. The language used would attract the 'racist' label if applied to any other group. Much of their venom gets heaped on clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson. Why? Well, because he uses facts and scientific arguments to destroy unfounded opinions. In their latest attack, Peterson is "the evangelist of white male resentment”.
In reality, Peterson is pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. And he does it in a way that is so articulate and compelling, that the politically-correct crowd cannot deal with it. Lacking any evidence for their beliefs, they fall back on ad hominem attacks. Dogged and weighed with cynicism, they wave away the facts further underlining their lack of credibility.
If these people bothered to engage their brains, then listen to what he says, they’d see the clarity of his propositions. He's no evangelist. Instead, he attempts to understand the challenges men face and help them overcome these.
Whether we’ll admit it or not, young men as a group are getting left behind amid the shifting economic, social, and technological landscape. Everyone knows a young man who is struggling. Either in school or afterwards. Failing to launch, emotional issues, or poor interactions with the opposite sex, they flounder.
I’ve seen it in working-class friends and boys from well-off backgrounds. The alienation felt by young working-class men of all colours is troubling. In a de-industrialised economy, these young men are lost. In the past, they had jobs as welders, miners and in the motor-trade. This work defined them, connecting them to a community through shared hardships. Telemarketing and shelf-stacking jobs don’t measure up the same.
Of course, if these blokes complain, especially the white men, it’s assumed that any demands come out of their privilege. When all there want is decent employment and then left alone. To suggest otherwise is lazy, damaging to the debate.
The smart folks at the Guardian have an opportunity to contribute to this debate. But like everything in the current melee, this paper seems to be choosing a polarising path. Navigating a balanced route is too hard.
Perhaps more data will help swing them. Boys are well behind the girls in education terms. This gap is stark, starts young and is not new. For 11 years old the difference is six percentage points. By the age of 16, that’s grown to nine percentage points in England. Its impact annually is 30,000 fewer boys than girls are becoming apprentices; 60,000 fewer go to university every year. Fewer men are entering nearly all the professions. And here one for the feminists, young men earn less per hour on average than women, in both full-time and part-time roles.
Things are no better in the United States. A recent Congressional Budget Office report revealed one out of six young men are either not working or incarcerated. Add guns to the mix then things get messed up. Mass shootings have tripled since 2011, with the majority carried out by young men. Meanwhile, adolescent male suicide rates have increased by 50 per cent since 1994.
Similar data exists across all cultures. In Hong Kong, the suicide rate for males aged 15-24 is triple that of females. But, these statistics have no traction because there is an empathy gap when it comes the challenges young men face. As a result, boys are opting out.
For many, virtual reality has become a haven, and in some instances more structured and rewarding than reality. Thus we see the emergence of terms such as hikikomori - Japanese for “pulling inward”. Along with the rise of movements such as Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW).
Who can blame them for wanting to opt out? The shift into alternative realities disconnects them further. Asking what’s wrong with them or why aren’t they motivated the same way young men used to be, aren't the right questions.
A 20,000-person survey sought to understand what is causing motivational problems in young men. The number one answer chosen was conflicting messages from media, institutions, parents, and peers about acceptable male behaviour.
No wonder. With the rise of “toxic masculinity” classes on college campuses, masculinity is almost a disease. Also, there is a decreasing number of positive male role models showing younger men the path to acceptable manhood.
Jordon Peterson is seeking to understand, then guide these young men. He can do without the sneering, ill-informed diatribe from the Guardian and others.
It's natural to compare. Thus, I find myself assessing the situation of the UK against that of my adopted home in Hong Kong. Reading the press in both places, you'd assume a constant crisis. As is often the case, once you move away from the media-hype, the truth is more prosaic. Except is it?
Both places are in a post-colonial period. Although, coming at the process from different ends. Hong Kong is striding ahead. Its parasite economy feeding with relish off China's surging emergence as a world player. A third runway, a bridge across the Pearl River estuary, a high-speed rail link.
That’s not to ignore issues that dog the fragrant harbour. A growing wealth-gap, stagnant social-mobility and pollution top the list. Yet, Hong Kong continues to move forward. Taxation remains low, as does the crime rate. Jobs abound.
The same can’t be said for the UK. The decline that began with the Suez crisis may be gathering pace. Bad decision after bad decision, as signs of post-colonial decay abound. On all fronts of national life, one imbroglio after another is unfolding with embarrassing frequency. Peter Hitchen’s identified the trend some years ago in his “Abolition of Britain”. His account charted the course from self-confidence to self-denigration. That process rumbles on.
Even with rose-tinted glasses, its impossible not to see that institutions are failing. This manifests itself in a sad litany of floundering public services. Some sacrificed to the exigencies of the market, others because of willful blindness. Cue the Jimmy Saville scandal et al, and the awful rape of girls by gangs. All ignored by the police.
For the past three weeks, the railway system came close to complete collapse. Northern Rail has cancelled or delayed 43% of trains. The Lake District, a favoured holiday destination, currently has no train service. Hotels, campsites, restaurants are all feeling the impact. Thameslink services in the south-east are so intermittent the public never knows if a journey is possible. Left stranded late at night, people sleep in the office or seek hotel rooms. Meanwhile, rail bosses are receiving honours from the Queen on top of record salary payouts.
Much of the blame rests with the government. It's pushed a relentless program of outsourcing, intended to drive down costs. In the process, it also drove down accountability and coordination of projects. Delays in the electrification of lines and a lack of trained drivers gets the blame. Underlying this is serious management shortcomings. Despite all the fancy MBAs and technology, coordination of a national time-table appears beyond them.
Take one example. £858 million spent on electrifying the line between Glasgow and Edinburgh cut six minutes from the journey. Yet, the same trip was nine minutes shorter 40 years ago under British Rail. Currently, Thameslink is cancelling 230 trains a day, and Northern 165. Then you've got the delays. Meanwhile, trains that do run are dirty, with shoddy rolling stock. Anyone who has visited Japan would hang their head in shame. So much for outsourcing and public-private initiatives promising better outcomes.
At the same time, the NHS is in a permanent state of crisis. In the latest reversal of policy, recruitment of foreign nurses and doctors is back on. Of course, it’s overlooked that the NHS always relied on overseas professionals.
Passing through Portsmouth last week, I spotted an abundance of expensive navy ships idle at the dockside. The backbone of the fleet, six Type 45 destroyers, costing £1 billion each, are unable to take to sea. Various explanations exist: a lack of crews and engine problems top the list.
With engines able to deal with the cold waters of the North Sea, we are well-covered in that environment. But, the warmer waters of the Middle East cause a shut-down with total system failure. Nobody thought to tell the manufactures that the Navy may need to operate in warm waters. An engine refit will start in 2020.
HMS Dauntless and HMS Defender haven’t put to sea since 2016. The others undertake short missions in suitable waters. Joining these ships is the Navy's pride and joy. The carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth sits passive without any planes. She requires the protection of Type 45’s, otherwise she’d be a sitting duck in a conflict. No worry. She’s unlikely to be ready for service anytime soon. Delays stretch her time at berth. Since commissioning in late 2017, Big Lizzie spent only six weeks at sea.
Those looking after the less fortunate in British society are also faltering. A so-called “universal credit scheme” introduced in 2013 unified a variety of social benefits. The scheme, designed to save money, has proven costly in both financial and human terms. Heralded as a cheaper alternative, the National Audit Office revealed this week it's more expensive. Besides, those in need are not getting their payments. Stories abound of disabled folks, including ex-soldiers, left without money.
In normal times this shambles would be the focus of Parliament. But these are not normal times. Distracted by Brexit, the political class engages in an endless round of bickering. Internecine warfare is raging through both the Labour and the Conservatives parties. Brexiters and Remainers are at each other throats, in endless circular arguments.
The legal disputes associated with Brexit are head-crackingly complicated. Thus ordinary folks disengage or roll-over in boredom. Few people outside the Parliament bubble can explain what's going on, and those in Parliament are too busy beating each other up.
None of this is encouraging because such significant issues are at stake. I suspect that many who voted out of the EU may take a different decision now. Sold as a straightforward issue, Brexit is far from that. Untangling decades of legislation is proving a massive struggle. And that's before you get to issues of the Irish border, security cooperation and policing. The list goes on.
This week Scottish independence got thrown into the mix. Remember the Scots voted 62% to 38% against Brexit. Thus, the Scots nationalists played their cards to make it clear they want a say in the negotiations. Like Nessie rising from Loch Ness, the great scaly monster of national abolition is revealed in all its ugly menace.
I’m baffled how such a country can attain the best Brexit deal. It can’t organise its defences, health-care or public transport system. Theresa May is fighting battles on all fronts, without much to show for it. She is close to being removed by her own party, while only Labour’s disarray prevents a serious challenge from that side.
The impression is of chaotic EU negotiations. You have to be sceptical the outcome will be favourable. The road ahead looks rocky. As a mood of resignation hangs over the UK, Hong Kong looks like the better bet at the moment.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.