Suppose Brexit wasn’t a thing. What would the government be worrying about instead?
More to the point, what should it be worrying about – because although you’d never know it from the newspaper headlines or the TV news bulletins, the rest of the world’s problems haven’t magically vanished while we try to extricate ourselves from the Brexsh*t.
Perhaps, for example, the government should be engaging more seriously with the conclusions of the UN’s devastating report on poverty in the UK, which said, among other things: “British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and callous approach...”
To which Amber Rudd, having barely found her way to her new desk at the Department for Work and Pensions, responded merely that she was “disappointed to say the least by the extraordinary political nature of [the report’s] language.”
Or how about doing something about the 320,000 people who, according to Shelter, are now homeless, more than half of them in London alone? It should be – and is – a national scandal.
Or trying to tackle the suffering of the tens of thousands of young people who are now seeking online counselling for mental health issues? The number has risen from 20,000 in 2015 to 65,000 last year, and is expected to reach 100,000 this year – little wonder as waiting times for appointments with NHS mental health providers can now be up to 18 months.
Or dealing with the appalling conditions in prisons, where so far this year 71 inmates have taken their own lives – more than during all of 2017. According to a report by the NHS regulator, the Care Quality Commission, leaked to The Observer last month, nearly half of the prisons in England are failing to provide adequate health care to inmates.
If Fyodor Dostoevsky was right when he observed that “the degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” we would fail miserably to be regarded as even moderately civilised.
Perhaps you think the UK government should be looking beyond the borders of the EU. Perhaps it should be expressing its utter disgust that, according to Save The Children, an estimated 85,000 children in Yemen – I’ll repeat that number: 85,000 – have died of starvation over the past three years as a result of that country’s civil war. (Reminder: the UK is a leading provider of arms to Saudi Arabia, which is the main foreign participant in the conflict.)
True, the UK has sponsored a resolution at the UN appealing to the warring parties to take ‘constant care to spare civilian objects, including those necessary for food production, distribution, processing and storage.’ Which, in the apt words of the shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry, sounds depressingly like the ‘safety instructions for a new vacuum cleaner.’ Not quite what’s called for.
I’ve saved the best for last: how about making a priority of the battle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the hope of saving the planet for future generations? As I write these words, I see that the secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organisation, Petteri Taalas, is warning that ‘without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gases, climate change will have increasingly destructive and irreversible impacts on life on Earth. The window of opportunity for action is almost closed.’
Ministers will doubtless argue that in the corridors of Whitehall, all these issues are being tackled. But they know – and we know – that for the foreseeable future, they will have neither the time nor the energy to deal seriously with anything that isn’t Brexit-related.
And that’s one of the main reasons why I shall never be able to forgive David Cameron for having unleashed the Brexit genie from the Tory bottle. We now know, thanks to the grotesquely inept chocolate soldiers of the European Research Group, that the anti-EU fanatics in his party are a tiny minority who would find it beyond their abilities to organise a group outing on Eurostar.
So he didn’t have to appease them by promising them a referendum, any more than Theresa May had to set her negotiating “red lines” so as to guarantee an outcome with which absolutely no one will be satisfied.
Meanwhile, those who are homeless, or living in poverty, or in prison, or struggling with mental health issues – they will all just have to wait while the Conservatives indulge in their favourite pastime: tearing themselves apart. It is both a tragedy and a disgrace, and I hope that one day, at least some of them will be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.