London today reminds me of Ouagadougou in the 80s.
Back then, I rocked up to the capital of Burkina Faso, reporting for my old paper, The Observer. I wound up in Timbuktu—worth seeing but not worth going to see, as the great Dr. Johnson once wrote about somewhere in the north of the island of Ireland. But in Ouagadougou I had an appointment with, if memory serves, someone at the U.S. Embassy, and I looked fresh, clean, shaved, and sober.
I got into a taxi and gave the address of the embassy. The driver, an ancient, charming stick insect of a man, got out from under the wheel and started to push his clapped-out Peugeot toward the nearest pump. Embarrassed and at least a third of a lifetime younger than the driver, I got out to help him push. Whereat, he got back in and I pushed him toward the sorry line for petrol or, as the tea-into-the-harbor people say, gas.
By the time we got there under the Saharan sun, I was sweating rivers. Still, there were no fights at the pumps, so on that metric alone Ouagadougou then is better than London now.
The fuel shortages are mainly due to the lack of long-distance truck drivers caused by Brexit. Hundreds of thousands of European workers have either gone back home or set up new lives in also prosperous but less xenophobic countries—Germany, France, the Netherlands, and so on.
There are no fuel-supply problems in Europe, so it can only be Brexit. Worse, the haulage industry predicted the crisis three months ago, but junior transportation minister Lady Charlotte Vere decided to do nothing.
Same thing goes for pig farmers, who are complaining that the shortage of butchers from Europe may force them to cull almost 120,000 hogs in the coming weeks: not for meat but just straight to the bin. The fruit farmers are bemoaning the lack of fruit pickers. The big stores are saying that there will be major shortages at Christmas because there aren’t enough workers to move and stack.
For months now, surprising items have been absent from supermarket shelves. I’m barely sentient when I go shopping, but, at the risk of sounding pretentious, I’ve noted shortages in Italian pasta, fresh anchovies, and, my Montana survivalist–style favorite, tins of French confit de canard. Others are reporting supermarket shelves out of dog food, fresh vegetables, and even milk.
In pubs and restaurants, service isn’t quite back to the East German levels London used to enjoy in the 70s, but it’s gone south, no question. Getting jobs done is getting harder because, well, thanks to Brexit, we have sawed off our labor market.
But for the time being, at least, the architect of all this, that electrocuted polar bear who calls himself Boris Johnson, is riding sweetly in the polls.
So who is right? It’s hard to work out. The reasons why a wafer-slim majority of Brits voted to leave the European Union were many and various, but top of the list was irritation at immigration and at hard-grafting workers from Poland, Romania, and so on undermining British labor. The expectation was that pay for British workers would improve after Brexit.
Ouagadougou in the 1980s is better than London now.
That may be so down the track, but for now what we’re getting is an inability to fill our tanks and an inflation that is gobbling up wage increases faster than they are being made. This Christmas, it may not be just the turkeys that get stuffed.
To come clean (but you’ve probably already guessed), I am a passionate European, dating from the time I went to Strasbourg and watched the Northern Irish Catholic M.P. and stalwart enemy of the I.R.A. John Hume stand on a table and sing “Danny Boy.” My dad fought in the Battle of the Atlantic to end wars in Europe. With a passion that’s hard to control, I really don’t think that we should forget how much blood our victory in 1945 cost us. Peace in Europe is not a given and should never be taken for granted.
Lay that aside, lay aside my sillinesses about confit de canard and fresh anchovies, and I net out on a simple truth, that economic nationalism always fails. The reason North Korea is grotesquely poorer than South Korea is that the latter trades with the world and the former lives inside its own hermit-crab shell.
So I think what we’re looking at, in England (and Scotland, Wales, and, to a lesser extent, Northern Ireland), is a surreally fantastic case of cognitive dissonance.
For the moment Boris Johnson is a funny card that ordinary Brits would love to meet down the pub. People who know him better—a Tory M.P. and someone who was at Oxbridge at the same time he was—call him “a total c***.” But Boris seems to his supporters to be witty and human and to have outfoxed the coronavirus, while the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, comes across as an anxious lawyer fretting over his brief.
Quite how this pyroclastic pantomime ends no one is sure. But I’m putting 10 quid on Boris in trouble, sooner than you might think.
John Sweeney is a British journalist and author. He is the host of the podcast Hunting Ghislaine