(Not so) Great Britain

‘A country that used to rule the waves now cannot even fit an aircraft-carrier with aircraft. We have to share with the French’

Outside a small fringe of soon-to-be-extinct (or homeless) Liberal Democrats, has anybody ever put forward prisoner suffrage as a cause? I ask because, despite such demands being not exactly deafening, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) last month forced Britain to give prisoners the right to vote.

By not being allowed to take part in the election of parliamentary representatives, Strasbourg ruled, prisoners were being deprived of an important human right. The natural follow-on point for the ECHR would be to state that being behind bars in the first place is a serious infringement of rights and demand that this too be scrapped. Meanwhile, if you want to stab and kill your local MP, you can have a say from prison in who replaces him.

“We’re losing our country.” “We’re losing our sovereignty.” These laments have been heard many times over recent decades. Nightmare scenarios have been wheeled out but perhaps only now are we seeing what it is actually like when they are fulfilled.

Questioned on this obscene decision during Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron said that the idea of giving the vote to convicts serving time for rape, murder and child-assault made him “physically sick”. And so the charade of Westminster trundled on.

As with all important issues in our current politics, nobody wanted to ask a thumping supplementary. To recap: a policy is deeply unpopular in the country, deeply unpopular among the country’s elected representatives, and the Prime Minster says that the deeply unpopular policy makes him feel physically sick. Even for some of us non-criminal voters, there must at this point arise a temptation to rebel. Because when it comes to actual political representation, those institutions that granted prisoners the vote are ensuring that we are all prisoners now.

For years, those who have predicted that Britain would soon lose its sovereignty were ridiculed. How fantastically atavistic such claims were made to seem. Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem leaders joined together in deriding anybody who made them. Yet now they have become banal reality and pass almost without note or (more importantly) solution. And neither the British people nor their elected representatives can hold out for long against the demands of unelected judges in Europe.

This is simply what it feels like to live through the degradation of a once-great power as it slides downwards from the top rank. When you read about the rise and fall of great powers, it is easy to assume that it was all so inevitable and so unalterable, caused by events far beyond the sight of actual individuals.

To have been born in Britain in the last 70 years is to be born into a nation in decline. Many people have recognised that. But fewer are reconciled to it and fewer still — at least among the political class — appear to recognise what the sources of that decline are. Even if they do not recognise the problems that arise, perhaps witnessing that we are no longer allowed any way out might concentrate their minds. 

Nothing better defines the current impossibility of reversing the trend of decline than the fact that we no longer have the right to make decisions for ourselves. Until this situation is overturned, our leaders will just have to keep scrambling desperately for whatever temporary face-saving deals they can find.

A country that used to rule the waves now cannot, it transpires, fit an aircraft-carrier with aircraft. Indeed, we cannot afford an aircraft-carrier on our own. Instead, we will shortly have the extraordinary sight of Britain reduced to sharing carriers with France.

If this didn’t make you do a double-take when it was announced, things may be worse than I thought. A country with whom Britain has had no strategy in common for centuries is now to own parts of our fleet? And not on a custody-style agreement, where we have the carrier on weekdays, with the French taking it off our hands at weekends. But rather through a fully-fledged, permanent-sharing basis formed on the presumption that, though our interests and those of France have rarely if ever coincided in the past, they will always do so in the future. Not so much an entente cordiale  as a pre-nup.

Every week now we receive a reminder. More than suggestions and more than hints, they are demonstrations that the British people are no longer in control of their own destiny. The noise of Westminster carries on. The noise of government continues. But the action, indeed the direction, is coming from elsewhere. If Britain’s slide to the bottom of the second division of global powers is to be halted, we must start by admitting what has been done. And if we are to turn our national life around, then we must first cease to become docile wards of court. 

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