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Fool Britannia: The future of the U.K. has never looked so grim

OPINION

Fool Britannia

There was a time, not long ago, when the U.K. was undeniably cool. Now the pound is down, crime is up, and anxiety is even higher. What happened? Tom Rachman looks at a nation that has lost its way

Tom Rachman is a novelist and journalist based in London. His new novel, The Italian Teacher, will be published in March.

Mice scurry through the Houses of Parliament, sniff the trouser cuffs of venerable lawmakers, then dart from sight, scampering down corroded old pipes that trickle perilously close to high-voltage cables, threatening catastrophic fire – although the smellier fear is a sewage leak flooding through this dilapidated palace on the Thames. And that is the brighter side of British politics today, where disaster looms and incompetence reigns.

Half of the country is panicking as the march to Brexit stumbles closer, while the other half clamours for the self-amputation from Europe to hurry up. The pound has fallen, prices are up. Housing was unaffordable already and the health service teeters. Crime has risen, too, with an overburdened police force scarcely investigating thousands of offences.

Yes, mice and sewage are the least of concerns.

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What has happened to Britain? Not long ago, this was among the most stylish, creative, vibrant places on the planet, with nimble businesses, an edgy cultural scene and affordable flights jetting around Europe and beyond. Then the hardy nation – always prone to a grumble, but scornful of the moan – erupted in a revolutionary roar, and it's costing these isles dearly.

This is a story of how politicians flopped and money corrupted; how Second World War idealism and financial-crash cynicism formed a toxic mix; how a new divide overtook the class system; how a rabid right-wing press lit the match; and how precarious is the future of Britain, the kingdom once known as united.

"Just last week, a big piece of stonework fell off the roof and went straight through an MP's car," said a scholar temporarily based in Parliament, Matthew Flinders of the University of Sheffield, who studies both the wretched buildings and the wretches within. "Could easily have killed somebody."

These days, even Big Ben isn't itself, lost behind scaffolding, its commanding hourly chimes silent since August. When I wandered through Parliament recently, I found numerous construction sites – not for a thorough restoration so much as desperate repairs. The palace deteriorates annually, yet no government budgets the billions needed to prettify its home – politicians are mistrusted enough already. So everyone muddles through, dodging workmen, dodging decisions.

"The risk of a real catastrophic failure is so high," Prof. Flinders told me, "we might not have that time to wait."


British Prime Minister Theresa May somehow was an unlikely person to run a country after David Cameron’s government left her with the Brexit mess. Now, she has sunk to the occasion.

Winner loses all

The Prime Minister is a mess.

Even her enemies consider Theresa May with a wince of pity. She is trapped, exhausted, with a hunch that seems only to worsen, turning her into a lower-case "r" as she trudges to the podium for the next public humiliation.

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In a key speech to the Conservative Party conference, she lost her voice, croaking and sucking lozenges before the embarrassed crowd. While she spoke (or tried to), letters in a wall slogan fell down, leaving the gibbered pledge: "BUILDING A COUNTRY THAT WORKS OR EVERYON."

Ms. May was never a natural leader so much as that student who'll surely win "most punctual": proper, dutiful, rigid. Somehow, she ended up running a country – and has sunk to the occasion. Ample blame lies with her predecessor, David Cameron, who called last year's reckless referendum on leaving the European Union – not to satisfy a national outcry, but to quell discontent from the irascible right wing of his party. The presumption was that he'd thump the dissenters, they'd shut their gobs and that'd be that. It was a bet on personal political glory, using the country as his chip.

Every living prime minister wanted Britain to stay in the EU. Major figures in business, in the arts and in positions of prominence and responsibility said the same. Membership conferred a range of benefits, with an alliance of 28 countries from Finland in the north to Malta in the south, Portugal to the west and Bulgaria in the east, not to mention the powerhouses Germany and France – a half-billion human beings, trading without tariffs, vacationing without visas, filling jobs across the continent.

Plus, quitting would be a nightmare, picking apart four decades of intertwined laws and business. Less like walking out a door than unbaking a cake.

Results from the June, 2016, vote stunned most: 52 per cent to 48 per cent for Brexit. Mr. Cameron wasn't sticking around to clean up. He resigned the morning after, and a feeding frenzy ensued among top Conservatives who fancied kicking off their slippers at No. 10 Downing Street. The battle proved so unsavoury as to disqualify the leading candidates. Nobody obvious remained. Except Ms. May.

EU referendum result

Shetland

Islands

(Scotland)

Majority remain

Majority leave

Scotland

Overall result

48%

N. Ireland

50%

England

52%

Wales

Greater

London

EU referendum result

Shetland

Islands

(Scotland)

Majority remain

Majority leave

Scotland

Overall result

48%

N. Ireland

50%

Republic

of Ireland

England

52%

Wales

Greater

London

EU referendum result

Shetland

Islands

(Scotland)

Majority remain

Majority leave

Scotland

Overall result

48%

N. Ireland

50%

England

52%

Wales

Greater

London

EU referendum result

Shetland

Islands

(Scotland)

Majority remain

Majority leave

Scotland

Overall result

48%

N. Ireland

50%

Republic

of Ireland

England

52%

Wales

Greater

London

THE GLOBE AND MAIL SOURCE: BBC

Upon taking power, she promptly ended her support for EU membership, becoming an empty vessel for the most fervent Brexiters, who had campaigned on a masterful blend of patriotism and deceit. In a historic blunder, Ms. May then triggered a measure that irreversibly started the two-year countdown to departure, regardless of whether Britain has readied itself by then. This was like telling everyone on an airplane that you're sick of them, you'll get there quicker on your own, so out you leap – at which point, plummeting downward, you start negotiating for a parachute.

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In another misjudgment, Ms. May sought legitimacy through fresh elections this past spring. She started as the overwhelming favourite against a graybeard, granola leftie, Jeremy Corbyn of Labour, who was deemed far out even by many in his own party. But when the two candidates went before the public, Mr. Corbyn impressed while Ms. May froze, uttering a tumble of memorized phrases and earning the nickname "Maybot." (When Madame Tussauds added the Prime Minister to its collection, wags described it as the first waxwork to be more lifelike than its subject.)

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Upon learning of the exit polls, Ms. May burst into tears. She had promised "strong and stable" leadership – and instead lost the Tory majority, along with any firm mandate to negotiate with the EU. Britain was confronting its greatest challenge since the Second World War, and her cabinet hasn't stopped bickering, impatient Brexiters shouldering forward and covert Remainers tugging back. Adding to the spectacle, two cabinet ministers recently resigned in disgrace, one in a scandal over sexual misconduct in Parliament.

Meanwhile, that Brexit countdown ticks away, and Britain has achieved nothing tangible in talks with the EU.

If the British fail to reach a deal on future relations with the bloc by the March, 2019, exit – an outcome evocatively known as "the cliff edge" – it'd cost the EU. But it could devastate Britain.

Here's the worst scenario: Flights between Britain and the 27 EU countries would stop, and the only way to reach the continent would be by boat or the Channel tunnel, wreaking havoc at border posts – trucks lined up for kilometres, food rotting, supply chains broken, prices soaring.

Britain could lose access to EU security databases, with information on terrorist suspects and criminals blocked. Peace in Northern Ireland would be imperilled, with the soft border with Ireland – an EU member – again becoming a battleground.

British businesses would lose their privileged access to all EU countries, plus an additional 52 countries that have trade agreements with the European bloc. British citizens would forfeit the right to work and receive medical care across the EU, just as those from EU states would lose such rights in Britain. That's about five million people (3.6 million EU citizens live in Britain; 1.3 million Britons in the EU) excluded overnight.

Financial services – vital to the British economy – could be crippled. Environmental regulations would be thrown into question. Supplies of medical products might be compromised. The health service, which employs thousands of EU citizens, could face a staffing crisis, meaning longer waits at emergency wards that are already missing targets.

Brexiters dismiss such doomsday visions. "Look," they say, "the Remainers wailed about the devastation that would follow a Leave vote, and where is it? People are still going to work. Shops are stocked with food. Unemployment is fantastically low. Admittedly, the pound has dropped about 14 per cent. But that is hardly the apocalypse!"

True. But for one tiny matter: Brexit hasn't happened yet. Many of the worst fears – all flights grounded, say, and food supplies imperilled – will probably be averted, I agree. But what sane country would toy with such possibilities? And if no deal is reached, an economic shock will occur, leading not to the end of Britain, but to its needless decline.

Ms. May, asked recently how she'd vote if the referendum were held today, declined to answer. Meanwhile, the government commissioned studies of 58 economic sectors affected by Brexit; it won't let the public see the findings.

"Let no one doubt our determination or question our resolve," Ms. May wrote recently. "Brexit is happening."


No way out

Ruth Cadbury can't stop sighing. "It's incredibly frustrating. Deeply frustrating," the Labour MP told me.

Most members of Parliament wanted to stay in the EU, yet have largely acquiesced to Brexit, seemingly petrified of a backlash by Leave voters. Ms. Cadbury – among a minority of MPs to endanger their political careers by advocating for Remainers – told me: "Both main parties seem to be ambling with their eyes closed towards Brexit without really thinking through the consequences and without considering what they could be doing in terms of political leadership."

But this raises a question. Is political leadership doing what you believe? Or is it channelling the will of those you represent? What if their wishes could drive your country to ruination? It's a legitimate quandary. But reasoned questions are drowned out by the clanging of the pro-Brexit press, which has spent years bemoaning the EU as a mob of foreign poindexters trying to boss the British.

On the eve of the referendum, the front page of Britain's most influential newspaper, The Daily Mail, showed a picture of a resplendent Big Ben beside the headline: "Lies. Greedy elites. Or a great future outside a broken, dying Europe … If you believe in Britain vote Leave." After the vote, this paper and others maintained the pressure, attacking those who dared worry aloud about Brexit or who merely supported a more measured and slow departure. "Damn the unpatriotic Bremoaners and their plot to subvert the will of the British people," The Daily Mail thundered. The broadsheet of the traditional right, The Daily Telegraph, printed a banner headline – "The Brexit mutineers" – denouncing supposedly obstructive Tory MPs, pictured as if in an identity parade for the crime of high treason. (One of them later reported 13 death threats. "A number of tweets have said we should be hung," MP Anna Soubry stated.)

Throughout, the Labour Party has presented meek opposition. Sixty-eight-year-old Mr. Corbyn – a marginal socialist in Parliament ever since the previous Trudeau was running Ottawa – has built a keen following as party Leader, especially among the young, having held to his principles so long that they returned to fashion, rather like the beard. His foes say he'd bring far-leftist policies similar to those that impoverished places such as Venezuela. (Mr. Corbyn has praised its ruinous late leader, Hugo Chavez, for "massive contributions to Venezuela and a very wide world.")

Mr. Corbyn also has a long record of hostility to the EU, not for British-bulldog reasons but as a Marxism-flecked oldster who has considered the bloc a capitalist club ever since Britain joined in 1973. During the referendum campaign, his efforts for Remain were limp; many assumed he secretly favoured Brexit. Anyway, plenty of traditional Labour voters ticked the Leave box. Hence, a strange situation: Most MPs and almost half the country opposed Brexit, yet neither main party has resisted it.

Belatedly, this may be shifting. Mr. Corbyn – perhaps tipsy on chatter that he could be the next prime minister – has edged away from his far-left roots. The man even wears good suits now. Yet Labour doesn't talk of stopping Brexit, only softening the departure.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. REUTERS

More probable than an imminent Corbyn administration, I suspect, is another Tory taking over from Ms. May. A bookies' favourite is the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, known for eloquent witticisms and gobsmacking gaffes, ever ruffling his mop of blond hair like some chortling toff in a P.G. Wodehouse novel. Yes, life's a giggle when you've never known a consequence! Boris – enough of a celebrity to go by his first name – has peddled the same prank twice. Following a stint at The Times (fired for falsifying a quote), he became the Brussels correspondent at The Daily Telegraph from 1989 to 1994, taunting the European Union for crusty conservatives back home. "Some of my most joyous hours have been spent in a state of semi-incoherence, composing foam-flecked hymns of hate to the latest Euro-infamy," he later wrote. After raising his profile as mayor of London, he became the charismatic front man for the Leave campaign, which notoriously claimed that quitting the EU would shift £350-million ($609.5-million) per week to the strapped health service. Those numbers were nonsense. They were also influential.

Jacob Rees-Mogg. FACEBOOK

Another favourite as next Conservative prime minister is Jacob Rees-Mogg, an MP dubbed "the honourable member for the 18th century." That's unfair – he's a throwback merely to the early 1900s, with buttoned-up accent, hair short-back-and-sides and spectacles, like the stuffy uncle in an Edwardian period drama. "I'm sorry to say that I was young once," he quipped in a recent speech. "I wasn't very good at it. But I was at least technically a youth at one point in my life."

Like Boris, he's a posh product of Eton and Oxford. Mr. Rees-Mogg worked in finance and is now a hero to the right, with a faithful Christian brood of six children, with names such as Alfred Wulfric Leyson Pius and Sixtus Dominic Boniface Christopher. He's against same-sex marriage, against abortion even in cases of rape or incest – but very much for Brexit.

Unless something surprising happens, this looks unstoppable.

A crucial Brussels summit awaits on Dec. 14-15. Britain is desperate for the EU to open talks on a post-Brexit trade deal. But the bloc insists that Britain first pledge about €60-billion ($92-billion) to pay its existing obligations. The May government long resisted, wasting precious months, but is now expected to give in. However, another EU demand – finding a plan for the border of divided Ireland – remains deadlocked. Even if this is somehow resolved in the next few days, Britain has mere months – until fall of 2018, probably – to negotiate its trade deal, which every EU country must then ratify. Canada's trade deal with the EU took seven years to conclude.

"We've got to get through this somehow," Ms. Cadbury said, "when we work out what 'this' is."


Make Britain Great Again

The English are fond of musing over history – it's cheering to ponder bejewelled monarchs, not to mention an empire that once transformed the world. In discussions of Brexit, one might hear of the Protestant break with the centralized power of the Roman Catholic Church, or of the English Civil War, or peace treaties with Napoleon. The boldest will evoke the 1800s, when Britain was a naval giant, storming around the globe for riches. Yes – perhaps that is the future after the EU! Or perhaps not.

The historical event, I believe, with most resonance is the Second World War, near enough to mould national identity, far enough to permit convenient interpretations. I spent my first years in Britain, and by the time I moved to Vancouver at the age of 7, I had already nurtured a boyish pride in Winston Churchill and the war effort. We'd won through pluck and decency – and largely on our own, I believed. The evil transpired across the English Channel; Nazis never planted a swastika flag here.

If the war burnished British pride, it scorched the continent. Trauma and guilt and denial twined into a barbed wire of horror at what had just passed. The new ruling class shrank from nationalism and endeavoured through the creation of a European Union to link neighbours by their wallets. Battle should become costly, crippling, absurd.

Britain stood aloof; its patriotism knew no taint. The national character was, many believed, how Britain had defied Nazism. (A watery border is rarely mentioned in this telling.) The psychological gulf is evident even in language, with "Europe" used here to mean "the rest of Europe, not us."

"One thing that's different about British euroskepticism from euroskepticism in many other countries is that a significant part of the educated, respectable establishment supports it," said Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform think tank. "They are civilized, Oxbridge-educated, highly intelligent people who speak foreign languages, who have houses in France, and they just have a hang-up about sovereignty and Thatcher's legacy."

The late Margaret Thatcher – hallowed saviour for the right, fanged demon for the left – once donned a fetching sweater of European flags to support British membership. But as prime minister from 1979 to 1990, she soured on the power rising in Brussels, suspecting that a future EU superstate connived to subordinate her people.

"During my lifetime most of the problems the world has faced have come, in one fashion or other, from mainland Europe, and the solutions from outside it," she wrote in her 2002 book Statecraft. The European project is "a monument to the vanity of intellectuals, a programme whose inevitable destiny is failure; only the scale of the final damage done is in doubt."

That vein of contempt kept pulsing through British politics.

"For all the other European countries, they had quite positive reasons for joining the EU," the chief executive of the Leave campaign, Matthew Elliott, told me. "For the U.K., we joined in the 1970s, when we were at our lowest ebb economically and we almost had to join this club. We felt it's just a free-trading club, and we didn't buy into the idea of a European government – that aspect was never what was signed up to."

Leave campaigners emphasized the loss of sovereignty to Brussels, all the money paid to the EU budget, the hundreds of thousands of immigrants arriving in Britain. "Take Back Control" was its rousing slogan.

The Remain campaign, by contrast, was a drab affair, full of grumbles that the EU was a bunch of rotters – but isolation was worse. It failed utterly to convey the worth of European connections, how profoundly the exposure to languages, histories, cultures and even cuisines had enriched British lives – plus created new ones, given how many locals have gained European spouses. Sadly, another lesson of the Second World War was overlooked: solidarity. Rarely did anyone argue that these fellow countries, starting just 33.3 kilometres away across the water, were siblings.

Mr. Elliott told me: "For the U.K., we've never been part of the European demos in the same way, because we've had this bigger world vision and world standing."

But can Britain expect glory in the 21st century, adrift in the Atlantic?

Pascal Lamy, a former head of the World Trade Organization who also worked for years at the EU, mentions a long-standing debate over whether countries, by pooling sovereignty, gain or lose power. Britain believes that by quitting, it gains.

"In the world we are in, and will be in for the next 50 years – which is globalization with huge elephants like China, like India, like the U.S. – small animals will not be sovereign," Mr. Lamy told the BBC. "As a European, I don't want to be a small animal."


The buildings of London’s Canary Wharf financial district rise above the morning fog. Resentment of the liberal establishment embodied by London – which, unlike the rest of England, largely voted Remain – helped to widen the cultural divide that made Brexit possible.

Somewhere vs. anywhere

George Orwell's essays are plump with insight, even 75 years after publication. So I studied his writings on the English for clues to the current predicament. Yet poring over "The Lion and the Unicorn" (1941), I searched in vain for Britain today; what Orwell describes feels closer to steam engines and schooners: "the clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings."

"In moments of supreme crisis," he writes, "the whole nation can suddenly draw together."

Such a place is hard to see any more. That is part of the problem.

The infamous British divisions of class have receded somewhat, only to be replaced by a fresh cleavage. "The Great Divide" is what David Goodhart calls it in his book The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics. This divide doesn't hew to left and right, but to identity and culture. On one side are "Anywheres," often educated professionals in urban areas, at ease with different people and locations. On the other side are "Somewheres," less educated, often in smaller towns, whose sense of self is defined by where they're from, not what they've achieved. The Anywheres have led the culture in recent years, thriving on globalization, multiculturalism and the economic growth of the past quarter-century. Meanwhile, the Somewheres spent that time on the sidelines, snubbed and nostalgic for a lost land of pubs and dartboards.

Before the referendum, Anand Menon, a professor of European politics at King's College London, travelled to the northeastern city of Newcastle and spoke about the risks of a Leave vote, explaining that savings from not paying into an EU budget would be dwarfed by the predicted drop in GDP.

A shout came from his audience: "That's your bloody GDP. Not ours!"

Many around the country glare at London (which voted Remain, unlike every other large area of England) as if the capital were a debauched party to which they'll never get an invite. Bankers earning enough in annual bonuses to buy an entire street. Politicians fiddling expenses and groping assistants. Celebrities paid a mint by the state-funded BBC to dance the rumba and nibble cakes. Foreign oligarchs snapping up beloved English soccer teams.

The Somewheres spent years thinking, "What happened to my country?" With Brexit (and Donald Trump), they exacted revenge. Now, it's the Anywheres who are aghast, asking, "What happened to my country?"

Seen this way, the rhetoric of "Take Back Control" assumes a second meaning. Not just reclaiming sovereignty from Brussels, but from the liberal establishment – those who transformed Britain from a rusting industrial has-been populated by pale folk into a multicultural, globalized, free-market dynamo. Or in the angrier telling: those who wrenched Britain out by the roots to suit an internationalist elite, stomping on local ways and pocketing the profits.

Some consider Tony Blair a culprit. As prime minister from 1997 to 2007, he was the upbeat front man of Cool Britannia. Yet plenty of Britons despise him now, either for his disregard of their opposition to the Iraq war or for his globalizing vision and a fateful 2004 decision to allow open-door immigration from new EU countries of the Eastern Bloc. A year earlier, net migration from the EU to Britain had been 15,000 people. Since then, about 1.5 million EU newcomers have settled here.

Tony Blair. TIM FRASER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Did Mr. Blair push his country too hard, too fast? I put the question to Alastair Campbell, who represented the prime minister with legendary vigour as press secretary and strategist.

"We underestimated the numbers that would come – there's no doubt about that. So I think that is a factor. I think not listening to public opinion more generally is a factor. But I think to me, the big one is the consequence of the crash," he said. "The feeling that those who caused it got away with it – and those who didn't had to pay a price."

Mr. Campbell, a vocal Remainer nowadays, laments the state of British politics: an old-school leftist representing Mr. Blair's Labour Party, a Prime Minister beholden to the right and little in between. "I feel sometimes that we're living through a grisly black comedy script that somebody else is writing for us."


Nov. 22, 2017: Union protesters stage a demonstration outside Parliament. In an age of social-media dissent, instead of ‘democratization’ Britons got screen rage, private mutterings amplified to a deafening public screech.

Burning down the House

My young-adult years passed in the nineties, that jaded era of the slacker. Why bother voting, people said, when both sides were the same? The Cold War had ended and the sound of peace was a steady chant about free trade, while the lone challenge for democracy was the smug question of how to spread our system everywhere.

Into this, the digital age shone its white glow, with a pledge to engage the disaffected, to "democratize" politics, business, music, news. Twitter and the rest changed the world, but not as promised. Not if "democratization" meant that power would be shared more fairly, or that crowdsourcing would improve governance. Instead, we got screen rage, private mutterings amplified to a deafening public screech, with a lust to wreck it all and start fresh. What was supposed to liberate us has enabled worse manipulation, whether it's tech companies monetizing us for advertisers or political saboteurs spinning us toward their causes. I almost hope we are being manipulated, because if the egotistical rage that proliferates is the will of the people, humanity is more disappointing than I want to believe.

Helen Lewis, a shrewd commentator at the left-leaning magazine The New Statesman, says many people err today by hunting for emblematic villains to topple rather than targeting what ails the system. "We get a lot more scandals about what people said because that's something everyone can have an opinion on," she observed. "So 'X-person said something really misogynist' rather than 'X-system is designed in a way that structurally disadvantages primary caregivers.' You can't put that on a T-shirt. You can't start a Facebook page about that."

Some consider it fortunate that left-behind Britain had its release in the Leave vote. But short of bloodshed, it's hard to imagine a more damaging way to vent. Also, "venting" means a release of pressure. A lesson of Brexit (not to mention Mr. Trump) is that the triumph of a bad idea quenches nothing. Outrage grows insatiable, scanning for turncoats, for fresh indignities.

The Brexiters won, and yet they remain restless with a zeal that the English once foreswore, having deemed revolution dangerous, violent and probably French. After all, the French celebrate Bastille Day to recollect rebels who tore apart a tyrant's prison, while the British mark Guy Fawkes Day every Nov. 5 to commemorate the suppression of a 1605 plot to blow up Parliament.

This Guy Fawkes Day, the right-wing nationalist Luke Nash-Jones dressed up as the plotter himself – brimmed hat, black cape, six toy daggers in his belt sash – to lead a protest march of about 100 people from BBC headquarters, denouncing the broadcaster as an organ of liberal bias against Brexit and more. Parading down the Regent Street sidewalk, his followers waved Union Jacks and shouted slogans, to the bemusement of shoppers, many of them foreigners. Mr. Nash-Jones himself isn't from London and kept checking a smartphone map for their destination: Parliament.

"We feel more in common with Canada, with Australia, with America – most of these countries share the Queen with us, share the language. We have a common Anglo-Celtic culture. So we don't understand why we're in an alliance with, say, Germany or France," he told me. "I don't think people in Canada would be happy if people in Mexico were making decisions for the future of your country. Or if you had an open border with Angola or somewhere. Would it really be something that Canadians would vote for?"

He invited me to join everyone at the pub after they'd finished storming Parliament (peacefully, he stressed). Instead, I made an exit of my own, leaving Mr. Nash-Jones to study his map – a little lost in the capital of his own country, somewhere between the BBC and the Houses of Parliament.


The statue of Winston Churchill faces Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament in central London. The Parliament buildings, now in major disrepair and at high risk of fire, are in some respects as shaky as the democratic process that goes on within their walls.

Against the clock

A couple of weeks later, I stood beneath the clock face of Big Ben, admiring the legislative buildings, the exquisite neo-Gothic palace along the river, its sandy limestone spires and carved stonework: lions and unicorns, crowns and gargoyles. But I was headed underground, to peek at the bedevilled belly of this place.

My guides fitted me with work boots, a high-visibility vest and hardhat, then directed me to the stairs, descending from wintery chill to a sweltering maze of dark corridors, two floors below where lawmakers set the course of a country. The subterranean passages were lined with hedges of cabling twisted around old pipes that pump steam, hot water, gas, waste – often snaking through Victorian-era ventilation shafts insulated with deadly asbestos.

Parliament burned down once before, in 1834. The risk of another blaze is now so high that a fire squad patrols 24/7. But even reaching many of the problems here is impossible given how awkwardly layer upon layer of piping and wiring has accumulated, all to service the burgeoning needs of the modern legislature above: the crammed offices, the thronged cafeterias, the toilets flushing.

A mere burst pipe could easily get out of control, spewing sewage or asbestos into the chambers, forcing immediate evacuation. "We've had reports since the early 2000s saying there is no option but to move out," said Tom Healey, director of the Restoration and Renewal Programme. "But people are very reluctant to hear that."

One proposal requires all MPs to decamp for about six years at a cost of £3.5-billion. This is the quickest and cheapest option. Another possibility – to renovate around them – would take 32 years.

Parliament is supposed to debate this soon, possibly the very week of that key EU summit in mid-December. It's hard to imagine Britain will be focused then on a petty concern such as its legislature in flames.

"A bit like British democracy, or democracy around the world," said the parliamentary scholar, Prof. Flinders, "the building is actually far more shaky and fragile than many people realize."


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