The new political buzzword is ‘Neglexit’: the state of being in which, because the government is so wrapped up in Brexit negotiations, Britain is barely being governed. No big, visionary new policies are being launched. Gone are the days when every parliamentary session included an NHS Bill, a Criminal Justice Bill or an Education Bill.
‘The UK is stuck in political and bureaucratic torpor. The country — as an administrative entity — has virtually stopped working… ministers just don’t have the time to attend to the needs and ambitions of ordinary citizens,’ said a report from Bloomberg Businessweek. ‘Theresa May’s flagship EU Withdrawal Bill has taken up 273 hours of legislators’ time — 17 times the average spent on other bills.’
How dreadful that sounds, I thought, as I crawled in my car towards a box junction last week. Then I realised I was at one of those junctions where the traffic lights had stopped working and no traffic police had yet arrived to take control. That very junction was not being governed. All of us crawling cars were having to make our own decisions about when to make the leap of faith across the yellow criss-crossing. We waved, we thanked, we let other people have their go. Was this, in microcosm, our non-governed country making a perfectly good job of managing on our own without being directed from on high? Was this ‘anarchy’ in the best sense of the word: anarchy meaning not chaos, but, literally ‘without chief / ruler’, which some see as the supreme utopia?
Not being governed is appalling, of course, if you’ve been waiting two years for the money that was ‘pledged’ or ‘set aside’ for your flood defences to materialise, and for the work to start, as is happening in Cumbria. It’s appalling if you’re in temporary accommodation, waiting for a new council house that hasn’t yet been built and now probably won’t be until 2028.
For many of us, though, who are trundling along in our small traffic jams, along our roads where the rubbish is still being collected, towards hospitals that still look after you, there’s a sense that Neglexit isn’t all bad. In books about how to be a good parent you are encouraged to enact ‘benign neglect’. Perhaps the same is true in politics. Neglect can mean temporary relief from constant interference. The neglected ones become resilient, mature and self--reliant. Rather than asking the fundamentally left-wing question when encountering any problem, ‘What is the government doing about it?’, we’re being trained to ask the question, ‘What are we doing about it?’ The era of austerity taught us to stand on our own two feet; Brexit is reinforcing this.
The current situation reminds me of a parish church during an interregnum: the services might be lacklustre, but at least no one’s trying to tamper with the liturgy. Or it reminds me of when a conductor, in mid-Messiah rehearsal, turns away and starts walking to the back of the concert hall to test the acoustics and everyone carries on singing unconducted.
A cousin in Wales tells me that before the Brexit vote, the National Assembly for Wales kept issuing new edicts ordering the Welsh people to abide by new standards to promote ‘wellbeing’ and ‘sustainability’. Those bossy edicts have dried up since June 2016 and everyone is feeling relieved.
Slightly annoyingly, though, some little laws are being passed in this Neglexit phase: the sugar tax, for example, passed in April. The government has time for two extremes of governing: for the vast matter of Brexit, and for fiddly little laws on the side, just so they can be seen to be doing something.
So government bills this session are for things like armed forces flexible working, the rolling out of smart meters and anti-upskirting legislation: worthy and kind but decidedly narrow. They’ll be looked back on nostalgically if and when Neglexit is succeeded by Labour coming to power. When Labour start renationalising the railways, taxing second homes and banning free schools, we’ll be nostalgic for these days of being not-governed.
Belgium survived for 589 days without a government in 2010-11, when opposing Flemish and Walloons were unable to agree on policy. The sky did not fall in. Now Northern Ireland has beaten that record: it’s into the 600s of days without a devolved government, but there’s not yet a state of panic. With civil servants keeping things ticking over, it can take a very long time for an absence of government ministers to be noticed by ordinary citizens.
Brexit swamps the national agenda to such an extent that, sitting round our kitchen table yesterday — and we’re quite a news-paper-reading family — we couldn’t remember who the current education secretary or health secretary were. Ten out of ten if you can name those two straight off. How different from the days when education was Gove, Gove, Gove, and he was doing big things and making a difference, love him or loathe him.
The current education secretary (Damian Hinds) was in Holland last week, it turns out, finding out about child mental health in a country that has a very good record on child mental health. Good for him. I’m thankful that he’s not trying to reinvent the national curriculum or change the public examination system again. We’ve had four different housing ministers in as many years. There have been so many Brexit- and g-eneral election-enforced cabinet reshuffles that it’s impossible to keep up with who’s who, and the people who are the new ‘who’ are so taken up with Brexit, and so new to their various posts, that they’re still learning the ropes and don’t feel equipped to make sweeping changes.
I only wish HS2 had not got as far as it had by June 2016, when it was pretty much unstoppable because so much money had already been invested in it, and new tower blocks near Euston were already being built to replace the blocks earmarked for demolition for the new line. If it hadn’t got that far, the whole ill-conceived, expensive, Chiltern-wrecking project — a project that will suck millions of people into London rather than away from it — might well have been shelved.
What fraction of May’s political thoughts are Brexit-related, and what fraction are about other things (housing, health, infrastructure, Syria, etc?) We can’t know, but I’d guess her thoughts are at least four-fifths Brexit, or maybe more, in these fraught weeks when everything is coming to the terrible crunch. She simply hasn’t got the hours in the day to think about much else. And tentatively, but with increasing confidence, we citizens are making our own way across box junctions.