It seems all too fitting that it was none other than Adrian Wooldridge himself travelling all the way north to the middle of the nowhere that is St Andrews to discuss Brexit and British politics, while on the same night, Theresa May flew to Brussels for anemergency talk in an effort to break the deadlock over Brexit negotiations.
Despite the looming deadlines that most classes decided to pile up on week five, coupled with the £7 ticket price being on the higher end of Lafayette talks, students flocked to see Dr Wooldridge speak, and rightly so. An illustrious man, he is the political editor of The Economist and writes the Bagehot column. He previously worked on the Schumpeter column on business, finance, and management and the Lexington column. He received a PhD and was awarded a fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford and was also a Harkness Fellow at the University of California in Berkeley. In his introduction, Daniel Rey, one of the two Lafayette Club hosts, jokingly declared that whilst the future of Britain hung by a thread, “I foresee Adrian Wooldridge’s talk tonight to be a more productive discussion than the one held in Brussels right now.”
Indeed, productive it was. Dr Wooldridge wasted no time diving right in and presenting a disparaging and dismal view of current events, making his own opinions very clear.
He began by stressing the ever-increasing polarity in the political spectrum on all sides of Westminster, and noted that this is an especially fragile and uptight time in British politics.
“The Labour Party is captured by a hard-left set of Corbynites, who are all against Blairism. They take Lenin and Trotsky as models. The Tories, however, are driven by extreme right-wing ‘Brexiteers,’” he stated.
You would think that the Liberal Democrats are doing well as a middle ground alternative, but the General Election in May showed them not doing well at all, as they won eight seats in total and have old leadership in place. Dr Wooldridge finds the cultural shift alarming, “Ideas that were once marginal like nationalism and populism are now right in the center spotlight. Whilst there was once a time when Tony Blair could declare that “globalisation is a fact of life” and not be questioned, now, such ideas are more marginalised and even condemned by people such as Canadian political analyst Naomi Klien.”
As he stated, most people would think that this extreme polarisation is a series of accidents in the making, and indeed there is some truth in that. Yet the real beginning of these series of accidents had started long before the Brexit referendum. Fundamentally, Dr Wooldridge believes that if a series of accidents are happening and simultaneously falling in the same direction, it ceases being an accident anymore.
According to Dr Wooldridge, the first accident happened when the people nominated Jeremy Corbyn to become the leader of the Labour party. “Corbyn would not only turn out to win, but also be allowed to keep his position as MP and maintain a tenacious grip on his power” continued Dr Wooldridge.
The second accident came with the advent of the Brexit right. Former Prime Minister David Cameron wanted to get rid of the Brexit issue and, according to Dr Wooldridge, would have closed the Brexit debate had one of two things not happened. Cameron had unfortunately run a very weak “Remain” campaign, while his opposition ran a very good pro-Brexit campaign. The opposition successfully turned the issue from what was supposed to be a very specific question of the UK leaving or remaining in the European Union, to a more general all-encompassing question about the sovereignty of the UK, the control of the British government and the issue of immigration. “By opening up the question, more people got on board with the idea of a Brexit and eventually, the referendum backfired on Cameron profoundly,” said Dr Wooldridge.
“This Brexit phenomena is essentially a breaking down of an entire political regime […] Brexit is in fact a long-term echo of the English Civil War; it represents a fundamental breakdown of the capitalist economic model.”
He reflected upon the British regimes that came before; the economic policies that Britain used to help gauge where we might be headed. “The first regime was rife with the policies of a welfare state to provide for opportunities, trade unions, and mainstream Keynesian economics. It worked extremely well up to the 1970s, when Britain faced stagflation, low economic growth, and disruptive interest groups,” he said. Thus, a second regime, Thatcherism, began to take over. Margaret Thatcher’s policies gave rise to dynamic entrepreneurs as opposed to big businesses, and privatised industries as opposed to public ones. In this dynamic economy, trade unions fared well. But then came the global financial crisis. As Dr Wooldridge said, “No income growth, no money for public services, austerity is rampant.” The “neoliberal project” to control it had failed; people felt the pain of turbulence, but did not gain the benefits economic growth. Meanwhile, bad jobs were on the rise, with not many good ones to go around. And now, we await a third regime to take us out of this “rut.”
However, Dr Wooldridge finds the current Brexit policies too incoherent; he believes there is a tangent between working class demands and the demands of those steering Brexit, who seek a deregulated, capitalist state that would damage the working class. He declared, “The leader of it, Theresa May is, in my humble opinion, a woman of low intelligence and even lower imagination. While the Labour party does have more of a coherent blueprint, their plan consists of shutting Britain off from global capital flows and also expanding welfare at the same time, which is unfeasible.” Meanwhile, he reduced Brexit to what he sees it to be. He said, “All Brexit really is, is a referendum. It has no set of policies it can implement. We’re back in the 1970s, with industrial disorder and discontents around.”
His frustration was clear, the bulk of the blame being placed on Britain’s political and economic elites, whom he feels have reaped too much gain for themselves, alongside rigged markets and corruption. He bluntly stated, “In short, we are really, really screwed for a long, long time to come.” This statement was indeed his finale, as he concluded laughing alongside the audience at the bizarre nature of it all.
As a Malaysian who isn’t too familiar with the political history of the UK, I was initially apprehensive that the talk might be hard to follow for such people in my predicament, especially with a talk from such a veteran of politics like Dr Wooldridge himself.
Nonetheless, his talk resonated quite universally during this turbulent time of world politics, with the rise of fringe movements of populism and anti-globalist campaigns. Even though his tone was quite pessimistic the entire time, his sharp humor made light of the absurdity of it all.
Although I did anticipate it, it was still an experience to be hearing such open criticism of the UK government and the political elite. Coming from a country such as Malaysia, where free speech is often infringed upon, it was quite refreshing to witness.
Perhaps this is the greatest gift of the Lafayette Club, where speakers, giants, and disruptors of all sorts of backgrounds and cultures come together to give talks that inform and inspire, uninhibited.
For that, I salute the club for their efforts to keep talks like this ongoing. Their next event, “A Conversation on US-China Relations,” welcomes former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Australia Kevin Rudd on 6 November at the Buchanan lecture theatre. Visit their Facebook page or Official Website at http://www.thelafayetteclub.com for more information on past and upcoming guest speakers. You can also subscribe to the podcast found on their website and follow their brand-new Instagram page.