Britain embraces trivia because it is stuck on the big issues

To south-east Asia, with its EU-dwarfing population, its aspirations beyond middle-income, its clout as a hinge region in the tussle between the US and China. How to explain to someone here the almost subatomic littleness of the main story in the UK?

You see, we have this sports presenter. And he tweeted something noble but hyperbolic. And the response was even less measured. And the fuss consumed MPs and the national broadcaster. Yes, for a week. No, we don’t have 5 per cent growth and industrial peace. We aren’t immersed in this trivia because the big things are going too well.

In fact, perhaps the opposite is true. It just takes a bit of geographic distance to appreciate it. Britain, I suggest, is a nation that gets lost in froth and frivolity because, on the serious stuff, it is stuck.

Let us count the different kinds of deadlock in the kingdom. Britain knows that Brexit was a mistake. It also knows that revising the decision would open the gates of domestic political hell. And so the governing class prefers a conspiracy of, if not quite silence, then awkward terseness on the subject.

Britain knows what can spur economic growth: housebuilding, a shift in taxation from the young to the asset-owning old. It also knows that Nimbies and pensioners slap anyone who fiddles with the existing settlement. And so the opposition Labour party does not propose to do much more than the ruling Conservatives to displease them.

Britain knows that its public services could do with more cash. It also knows that its tax burden is nearing longtime highs. Even the state of the union is a kind of impasse. Scotland’s place in it is contested enough to bring constant stress but not so contested as to force a clarifying referendum in the medium term.

This is a stalemate society. All the energy that would ordinarily go into the debating and doing of meaningful change now finds an outlet in proxy wars about petty things. The Gary Lineker affair (though not the refugee crisis about which he tweeted) is one such trifle. The rolling melodrama of Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, is another.

To be clear, there are worse things than stalemate. Britain isn’t a disaster zone. It might avoid a recession. It has broken a run of inadequate prime ministers. One outcome of always skirting hard questions is relative civic peace. (Britain is easier to inhabit now than it was when Brexit was a big subject.) Nor does net annual immigration of more than half a million suggest a country on which the world has given up. Bangkok, Singapore and Ho Chi Minh City are permeated with some of Britain’s abiding assets: the English language, the inescapable Premier League, the elites who choose the UK for part of their education (or property holdings).

But to plateau at a high altitude is still to plateau. With no movement on the big questions, no projects to be getting on with, expect Britain to throw itself into ever more sagas about nothing. Consider these low-stakes simulations of the debates it should be having. At least France goes direct. At least it is ripping itself apart over something important. Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms entail vast public sums and the very contract between citizen and state. I had to be reminded, in the age of on-demand goals highlights, that Match of the Day still exists.

The problem isn’t, or isn’t just, an unserious political class. Or an electorate in love with circuses. It is the insolubility of the UK’s problems. Brexit is as grim as the reopening of it would be. Fraying public services bother millions, but so would a net increase in taxation. The problem underlying everything, low growth, has cures that are as politically incendiary as the sickness itself. For Britain, on issue after momentous issue, there are no chess moves available that don’t hurt its position elsewhere on the board.

One recent prime minister wasn’t so defeatist. She defined herself against the stalemate culture. She abhorred the polite ducking of hard choices. But Liz Truss will spend the rest of her life as a punch line. No wonder Britain thinks avoidance isn’t so bad after all. If the price is the diversion of national energies into such small potatoes as Lineker-gate, well, worse fates can befall a people.

A phrase sticks in the mind from a different drama in a different country over a decade ago. “We do not have time for this silliness,” said Barack Obama as he released paperwork to confirm his American birth. Well, Britain has all the time in the world for silliness. What else is there to do?

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