By the time this appears in print, I will have travelled to the UK and back. It’s a telling sign of how the world has turned that it’s anybody’s guess what kind of country I will have left behind once I touch down at OR Tambo International.
There is a chance that the UK will no longer be part of the EU, and headlines will be dominated by widely predicted chaos. The UK was originally scheduled to leave in March, and by the time of the latest extension, which took departure day to October 31, it was common to refer to the famous Eagles song, Hotel California, to characterise the the EU-UK relationship.
It seemed that while the latter was free to check out at any point, it could somehow never leave, due to its own miscalculation about the difficulty of doing so. In just over three years since the Brexit vote, the country managed to go through three different prime ministers, with a distinct possibility that Boris Johnson could end up among the shortest-serving of them in history.
After 36 months of confusion, one thing is certain: it will be a long time before any Brit will be brave enough to make more jokes about Italy’s chronically unstable politics. When I first moved to the UK in 2007, my biggest fear was that I would be bored. Used to our volatile rand and bond markets, the idea of covering gilts that moved half a basis point a week wasn’t very appealing.
But I never imagined how interesting, and self-destructive, the country would turn out to be. It’s hard to think of a comparable case of a deliberate act of self-harm in recent history. Robert Mugabe’s land grabs in Zimbabwe during the late 1990s come to mind.
Cool Britannia and Tony Blair are long gone, replaced by something more toxic and divisive than anyone could have imagined then
With Brexit elevated to something akin to a religion, its believers easily pushed warnings about potential disasters into a “project fear” box. The possibility of conflict returning to Northern Ireland, government debt reaching levels not seen since the 1960s, shortages of medicine, and public disorder are all somehow seen as worth it.
In a more sane world, my bet would have been that once Johnson was persuaded that his bluff would not work on the EU — Greece already tried that — sanity would prevail and there would be yet another Brexit delay. The strategy of threatening to blow your head off unless your adversary does your bidding doesn’t have a great record of success.
But the game changer is that the UK is (or was?) ruled by a group that doesn’t care much about such considerations. They truly believe they can reshape society by breaking it.
One thing they have succeeded in breaking is the country’s politics. Cool Britannia and Tony Blair are long gone, replaced by something more toxic and divisive than anyone could have imagined then. Who would have thought that after Blair’s unwise infatuation with George W Bush and stained legacy post attacking Iraq, his time in office would be remembered as a pinnacle for the country?
Perhaps it’ll make no difference if they decide to Brexit or not — the question is whether what’s been broken will ever be fixed.
• Mnyanda is the editor of Business Day.
• From the November edition of Wanted 2019.