An unsettled feeling as that bastion of prescriptive reason, the West, goes bonkers

26 May 2019 - 00:01

There was a time not so long ago when the West, particularly the US and UK, were regarded as the gold standard in good governance. They would almost instinctively and willy-nilly dole out sage advice on how the rest of humanity should run its affairs.
Not any more. The West seems to have almost gone bonkers, while the Kremlin is smiling.
The US and the UK, especially when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were bestriding the globe, were the linchpin of what the West stood for - a democratic form of government, free press, human rights, free markets etcetera. Together they stared down the Soviet Union until it crumbled.
Things are a bit different now. The two countries are distracted by little difficulties at home as Vladimir Putin makes mischief around the world. And, in fact, in Donald Trump, the US president, Putin could not have found a more useful idiot. The world has become unfamiliar territory. It's difficult to make sense of it all.
This week Theresa May, the UK prime minister, dissolved into tears as she finally bowed to the inevitable and threw in the towel. It was an ignominious exit from a tenure that will be remembered for blunders and failures. She had to go, though. She had hit a cul-de-sac. Brexit will claim its second prime ministerial scalp in three years as she follows David Cameron into the political wilderness.
May was dealt a difficult, almost impossible, hand. Cameron called a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU three years ago in a vain attempt to shut up once and for all the noisy band of Eurosceptics in his party who had been the bane of Tory leaders and prime ministers in recent years. It was hoped the referendum would settle the matter.
As it turned out, the leave campaign squeaked through - and the genie was out of the bottle. Cameron duly resigned. Unlike May, who was in tears as she left the lectern outside Number 10, Cameron was caught by the cameras chirping happily after announcing his resignation. Clearly a burden had lifted from his shoulders.
The baton was handed to May, who was obviously delighted to be Britain's second female prime minister - but it was a hospital pass.
Three years after the referendum, the country has yet to find a way to leave the EU.
The outcome of the referendum was akin to locating the destination, but the country didn't figure out how to get there. It's not easy. Achieving a Brexit has been like nailing jelly to the wall, almost a fruitless exercise.
But May made some serious blunders along the way. The first thing she did on assuming office was call a general election, probably to take advantage of the vulnerability of the Labour Party, which in an hour of madness had elected Jeremy Corbyn, an unhinged left-winger, as leader. Labour surprisingly did very well in the elections and May lost her majority in the House of Commons. Her government has been limping along ever since with the help of 10 Democratic Unionist MPs. That also constrained her room to manoeuvre during negotiations with the EU.
The other serious mistake she made was her failure to consult within and outside her own party in Westminster. Her focus was to try to please the Eurosceptics who now style themselves the European Reform Group. But they were not interested in anything except total surrender. May might have cooked her own goose, but she was handed what turned out to be a poisoned chalice.
It's stunning to think that antipathy towards the EU, which was the obsession of only a few, has almost become the guiding principle of the Tory party. Both major parties are expected to lose heavily in European elections. Results are out today. And the frontrunners to succeed May are prominent leavers.
Across the pond, as they say, Trump, who defied the odds two years ago to win the White House, has remorselessly been on the rampage, breaking every law and every convention in the book to bend the system to his liking or his benefit. Some of his lieutenants, including his personal lawyer and campaign manager, are serving time in jail for offences committed during his successful journey to the White House. Under normal circumstances, the crimes and misdemeanours uncovered - including obstruction of justice - by the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 US elections could have led to the resignation or impeachment of the president.But these are not normal times. If Trump cannot be removed for breaking the law, he should at least be liable for impeachment for being mentally incapable of carrying out his duties. This week the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, hinted heavily that Trump was not well and that he needed help. It is a scary thought to even doubt whether the man who has the nuclear button at his fingertips is in complete charge of his faculties.The US has been the fulcrum of the West, but Trump has been acting in a way that instils fear in the hearts of US allies. He's besotted with Putin, who he's praised as a strong leader. He's cheered Britain's decision to leave the EU, which he's accused of "screwing" the US in trade. He's also blasted European countries for not paying their "fair share" towards Nato. Incidentally, Putin, apart from his aim to recreate a power similar to the Soviet Union, wants to see a decrease in Western influence, especially Nato. He must be quietly cheering Trump on.One of May's last responsibilities as prime minister will be to host Trump on a state visit to Britain. They will have a lot to talk about.

This article is reserved for Sunday Times subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Registered on the BusinessLIVE, Business Day, Financial Mail or Rand Daily Mail websites? Sign in with the same details.

Questions or problems? Email helpdesk@timeslive.co.za or call 0860 52 52 00.