Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler speaks to Sam Fowles about his new book Britain is Better than This and its call for a written constitution
Britain is Better than This: Why a Great Country is Failing”,
by Gavin Esler (Bloomsbury, £18.99) is out now

I first met Gavin Esler in a bar. We’d both spoken at the York Festival, and, over a few drams, we put the world to rights. Esler, as a journalist, covered everything from the Troubles and two Iraq wars to film and literature. In his early books he is the arch observer. His more recent work, however, eviscerates the absurdities of politics (and politicians) with an edge of anger and “not a little sadness”. His new book, Britain is Better Than This: Why a Great Country is Failing, asks a very simple question: “why are things so shit?”

When we meet to talk about the book (sans whisky this time, it’s first thing in the morning) Esler’s answer is simple: our constitution is not up to the job. Those in charge have too much power and no real incentive to play by the “rules”. Once, in an era of top hats and mutton chops, “good chaps” could run the country based essentially on an honour code (albeit while pillaging twenty per cent of the globe). Today, a generation of politicians willing to do anything to get and keep power has exploded the myth that Britain’s unwritten constitution “works in practice”.

Our political system offers no incentive to tell the truth

The trajectory from BBC presenter to constitutional revolutionary is not common. So what prompted the change? Esler’s answer: two referenda. Voters in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum were urged to remain in the UK to ensure Scotland remained in the EU. Two years later, the UK left the EU, taking Scotland (which voted to remain) with it. The UK and EU both claim to be voluntary unions of peoples. The UK left the EU yet continues to refuse the Scots a say on whether they remain within the Union after Brexit. This, for Esler (a Scot), exposes a deeper problem. The rules that govern our politics are so nebulous that they allow those in power to bend them into whatever shape is convenient, he explains. The EU, with a clearly defined constitution, set out a clear path for the UK’s exit (Article 50). In the UK, even a referendum on Scotland’s membership of the (so-called) voluntary union is entirely dependent on the whim of (English-dominated) Westminster.

Is this just about Brexit? Esler voted remain and stood as a candidate for Change UK, (his only foray into politics). But he isn’t interested in rerunning the Brexit referendum. His problem is that people weren’t given a say in what came after. Unlike in the Scottish referendum (where the SNP produced a largely worked-out model of what an independent Scotland might look like), Brexit was always undefined. Yet the (relatively marginal, advisory) result was immediately interpreted as an iron-clad mandate for the most extreme form of Brexit. A tiny (mostly unelected) group was allowed to define our constitutional and economic future almost entirely without accountability. Boris Johnson negotiated a deal that he and his chief negotiator Lord Frost repudiated months later. Voters have never had a say on the ultimate form of Brexit.

As Esler and I are talking, Liz Truss is giving a speech at the Institute for Government. It’s part of an ongoing attempt to rehabilitate her “legacy”. Truss personifies the problems Esler is highlighting. She was in government for a decade but, he asks, “can you think of anything she actually achieved?” Truss was made prime minister by Conservative party members, comprising less than 0.3 per cent of the population. She enjoyed a majority in the House of Commons courtesy of Boris Johnson’s 2019 election victory.

Johnson only won around 44 per cent of the vote, yet our first-past-the-post electoral system (an idiosyncrasy unique to the UK and Belarus) delivered him a “stonking” majority. In the UK you can win an election even when most people voted for someone else. Truss was in power for just 50 days but managed to cause the most acute economic crisis in a decade – impressive given the decade included both Brexit and a global pandemic.

Once politicians get their hands on the levers of power, says Esler, there is little stopping them from doing whatever they want. Where other states ensure leaders must govern according to independently enforced rules, the UK makes the prime minister the final arbiter of almost everything. Most of the British constitution can be changed at the prime minister’s whim. Effective government is unlikely when there are few consequences for corruption or incompetence.

Back at the IFG, Truss claims an “establishment consensus” (rather than her own incompetence) was the cause of her spectacular economic failure. She now paints herself as the saviour of free market capitalism. The state is “too big” she says (somewhat unoriginally). Yet, as Esler points out, her flagship policy was an unfunded tax cut: the power of the state used to shift wealth from one sector of society to another. In government, Truss supported a range of subsidies and helped impose the greatest regulatory burden in history on British business. She proposes cutting green subsidies in the name of the free market while neglecting to mention that fossil fuel subsidies remain much higher. Truss has always been perfectly happy to interfere in the market so long as it benefits people she likes.

This, for Esler, is a feature of the system, not a bug. Politicians have embraced what he calls “strategic lying”. Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are past masters but they’re not alone. Many now see lying as a legitimate political tactic. In her speech, Truss admits that her team concealed spending cuts from the public. And why shouldn’t they? As Esler points out, our political system offers no incentive to tell the truth. As Truss’s career shows, serial dishonesty gets one to the top of the greasy pole.

Gavin Esler, author of Britain is Better Than This.

Would it work for anyone? Could a Labour politician succeed with the same tactics as Johnson and Truss? Esler is sceptical. Strategic lying requires more than mere opportunism. Successful liars must also be privileged. Johnson and Trump, for Esler, both fell into a certain stereotype of a leader. Trump presented himself as a businessman, the archetype of (one form) of American success (ironically, Trump’s business “success” also turned out to be a lie). Johnson is the Eton-educated, classics-(mis)quoting, embodiment of the ruling class. Both enjoyed promotion by a sympathetic press and a network of well-funded groups which saw them as a vehicle for their interests.

Esler notes that, like Johnson, Truss is friends with the right people. Her rehabilitation has been supported by the Institute for Economic Affairs. It’s unlikely a coincidence that, when she crashed the economy, Truss was implementing policies supported by the IEA. Describing those behind think tanks like the IEA, he quotes Teddy Roosevelt’s description, “malefactors of great wealth”. He warns that they purport to be serious research institutions while pushing (often) extreme agendas on the basis of research that “turns out to be non-existent or flawed”. Isn’t part of the problem that groups like the IFG are prepared to give people like Truss a platform? Esler agrees. He’s also scathing about his former employer. The BBC regularly hosts representatives of such think-tanks, portraying them as independent experts. Esler wouldn’t have anyone on the BBC unless their employer was transparent about their funding.

Early in his career as a journalist Esler covered Margaret Thatcher’s government. He quotes, with approval, her scepticism of referenda (which “sacrifice parliamentary sovereignty for political expediency”). Thatcher, I point out, fervently embraced the politics of division and imposed policies dreamed up by the same think tanks that helped Truss steer a course for disaster. Esler agrees, but only to an extent. Thatcher was ideological and ruthless, he says, but she would make today’s politicians look like intellectual minnows. Truss fired the permanent secretary to the Treasury when he gave advice she didn’t like, but Thatcher was open to contrasting views and genuinely interested in solving problems, rather than simply exploiting them for political gain. This is, perhaps, the fundamental point of contrast. Today, “issues are not raised so that problems can be solved, but in order to divide people,” says Esler. Politicians “govern with slogans, not policies”.

Esler thinks Thatcher would have approached the small boats crisis in much the same way as Keir Starmer. She would recognise that it’s part of a global problem that can only be solved by cooperation with other states. I can’t resist asking, “Are you saying Margaret Thatcher would be woke?”. Unsurprisingly, he isn’t. For Esler, those using “woke” as a pejorative are talking nonsense, seeking to stoke anger without actually saying anything of substance.

How, then, do we turn this crisis around? Esler favours a form of written constitution but accepts it’s no panacea. He points to Russia’s constitution which, on paper, looks great but is not enforced in practice. His book tells the story of Olga Misik, who publicly read out sections of the Russian Constitution, enshrining the right to protest. She was immediately detained and placed under house arrest. But Esler insists it should not be beyond our capabilities to put the basic rules for government on paper. “We have managed it for local government, for the devolved governments in Holyrood, Belfast, and Cardiff. Couldn’t we do the same for central government? Even if it’s not perfect, it at least it provides a starting point for debate and a fixed standard by which people can hold their leaders to account.” He quotes Harold Macmillan: “It would help us get a little way on the road if we had a clearer idea of where we wanted to go.”

Sam Fowles is a barrister, Director of the ICDR, and a lecturer at St Edmund Hall, Oxford

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October 2023, People

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