The decline of the British state has been years in the making

On Tuesday I was in London, giving evidence to the Commons Scottish Affairs Select Committee.

Afterwards I walked over to College Green, a stone’s throw from the Houses of Parliament, where TV interviews with politicians usually take place.

Although I am in London almost every week, I hadn’t been there for a while.

And what a change there has been.

This elegant space, bounded one side by a busy road and the Thames Embankment and on the other by old buildings and manicured lawns has become a bizarre and raucous mirror image of the chaotic anti-democratic disaster that is Brexit.

It is a living exemplar of how badly UK politics is broken.

The Green itself is now full of little tented booths where incredulous television crews from all over the world are conducting their interviews in at least a modicum of shelter. Some have built grander structures, rising up above the rest and providing a backdrop of a scaffold shrouded Big Ben for their presenters and guests.

This media circus – for that is what it has become – is however now ringed by barriers behind which stand, dance and roar an astonishing variety of protesters, waving banners and placards.

The whole thing looks like a medieval fair. Indeed I wouldn’t have been much surprised to have glimpsed a whole ox roasting on a spit torn from the railings, or heard bear baiting taking place in the flowerbeds.

Certainly the garish costumes some were wearing (either in the colours of the Union Jack, or made out of European flags) only needed the addition of bells and curled up shoes to re-enforce the point.

It is physically difficult to make a way through this, and fortunately I am not a recognizable political face in this setting. If I was I suspect it would have also been an unpleasant experience as both Anna Soubry and Damien Green (from different sides of the Brexit divide) found out again this week.

But even when looking down the lens of an interviewer’s camera it is hard to ignore the surroundings for the noise generated by the crowds is overwhelming with songs, shouts and chants clashing together. The word “Brexit” is the only comprehensible thing on everyone’s lips but there is a big difference in how it is bellowed – with derision by some, with despair by others.

I have to say that I was both fascinated and repelled by this spectacle.

It is certainly colourful but it is also a huge reminder of the usually noisy, often nasty and always negative Brexit parliamentary proceedings being played out just a few hundred yards away.

The Tories must bear much of the responsibility for making UK politics into this type of dangerous bear pit. The Prime Minister, in contemptuously refusing to accept democratic norms – for example no Government in a modern democratic state should be allowed to bring the same thing back to an elected body time after time in the hope of bludgeoning it into submission – and by absolutely rejecting the need for compromise has set the stage for a type of discourse in which shouting loudest, waving the biggest banners and refusing to listen to rational opposition triumphs.

In May’s world might is right, and if you haven’t got the might you simply wear down your opponents by attrition. You pay no heed to how your actions will have poisoned the well of politics for years to come.

Where I meet diplomats and journalists from other countries they nearly always end up remarking that their admiration for British governance – for debate and dialogue – has been completely destroyed by what they have witnessed in the last two and a half years.

I point out to them that this decline has been years in the making, and that the long term inability of the British state to recognise, and welcome, the fact that its imperial days are over is the root cause of the present crisis.

Dean Acheson, the US Secretary of State in the aftermath of WWII observed in a famous Harvard speech in 1962 that Britain “had lost an empire but not yet found a role”.

Twelve years later Britain joined the EU and settled that issue. But now it seems determined to walk off the European stage in a huff.

What would be Britain’s role then? Sadly the evidence from College Green suggests that it is fated to become a fractious, backward looking and rather unpleasant jester.

Scotland can do far, far better than that.