Brexit is Theresa May’s Falklands war: a weapon of mass distraction | Zoe Williams

Zoe Williams
‘The Falklands was described as a distraction to keep the attention away from Margaret Thatcher’s more lasting acts of government.’ Photograph: Peter Jordan/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

On Saturday there was a demonstration against funding cuts to the NHS. A quarter of a million people were all willing to lay down a bit of their weekend to protect the institution that represents not just security but generosity, civility, cooperation and everything noble and worthwhile about living as part of a nation. Surely there’s some next move? Surely we don’t just have to stand by and watch as services are cut back and privatised, staff see their pay frozen and conditions worsen, patients get used to expecting less, and the government answers every charge with a bland remark about an ageing population?

The NHS always seemed to have a protective film around it, the decades of human ingenuity and effort it represented shielding it from the political scrum and assuring that even the most determined privatiser couldn’t really lay a hand on it. That turned out not to be true. Marches get a bad rap for having no concrete impact, but the alternative is to not march. Then you’re the kind of populace who merely watches their lives worsening to serve invisible interests on a nonexistent mandate.

If the problem with socialism is that it takes up a lot of evenings, the problem with marching against the destruction of public services is that we should be doing it all the time. We should be marching against the crisis in adult social care, the closure of care homes, the systematic exploitation of carers, the £4.6bn cut from social care budgets this decade. We should be making placards right now, asking: “What exactly is the plan, if we’ve decided we can no longer afford to care for the elderly and the disabled? What do we do with them instead?” Or something snappier.

We should be marching against cuts to education funding – some really simple banner for this: “Educating children costs money, but it is worth it, for civilisation”. Technically, we should be marching on behalf of the police force, stretched beyond their ability to enforce law and order . Sure, it would be a bit confusing to the liberal sensibility, and the officers who had to police it may feel a little bashful. But it’s no small thing to live in a country that can no longer afford functioning emergency services. We should at least make it clear that we’ve noticed. We should also be marching against cuts to the prison service, the overcrowded and inhumane conditions, the understaffing leading to bullying and an increase in suicides.

Every morning we wake up to someone on the radio explaining, despairingly, that you can’t fix the hospital bed crisis until social care is fixed, and you can’t fix that until council tax brings in more, and it can’t bring in more because wages are too low. Every time a long-suffering public servant is called upon to explain the insufficiency of his or her service, and has to tell us again that the money simply isn’t there, we should take to the streets. But when everything breaks at the same time, that is not a coincidence: it is a plan. As surely as Margaret Thatcher had an economic plan on employment, rights, industry and wages, this century’s Conservatives have a plan on public services, which is to smash them beyond all recognition.

Brexit is the new Falklands: in the 1980s, that war was described by the left as a distraction, a bellicose bauble to keep the attention away from much more important and lasting acts of government. That was true, but only half the story: it was also a way to appropriate the language of patriotism for a government that was the opposite of patriotic, utterly committed to breaking the bonds of nationhood that might make a person in the Cotswolds care about a person in Liverpool who lost their job.

‘May is capable of making the case for union and trade to Scotland and against union and trade to the EU with no sense of irony.’ Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

Likewise, Brexit has accrued to Theresa May the ammunition both of patriotism and modernity as she makes the UK and its new place in the world the object of all her focus. Yet in the raw and day-to-day business of running the country, she is the opposite of patriotic. Nationhood is about more than shared values (though obviously the Brexit project has taken a torch to those too). Patriotism lies fundamentally in its acts: the resources you pool, the things you build, the promises you undertake to one another, the way you fulfil them.

It would be impossible to make an argument for destroying public services in the name of loving one’s country. Not even May (a politician capable of simultaneously making the case for union and trade to Scotland, and against union and trade to the European Union, with apparently no sense of shame or irony) would attempt it. Instead, she makes Brexit her cause, the priority that obliterates all others, and daubs it red, white and blue, and makes traitors of its opponents.

Brexit, far more consequential than the Falklands war, nevertheless gives her the same battle dress: an armour of nationalistic fervour to neutralise what would otherwise be the constant question: if you love your country so much, why are you dismantling all that is good about it?

Our future relationship with Europe is important. These conversations, in which we balance prosperity against the intoxicating, hitherto unmentioned quality of sovereignty, are unprecedented. But set against the collapse of the NHS and the material damage to people’s lives from so many directions, Brexit should not take precedence. It should be resituated where it belongs, as a florid episode in the Conservative party’s long neurosis, interesting only insofar as its damage can be allayed. It is where the Tories want our attention, and should never be where we leave it.

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