London party

My first home in London was the Paddy Hole. Our owners felt guilty – but not enough to let us live above ground – The Irish Times

There is a sickly familiarity with the faint buzz of terror that reigns around Britain. With Rishi Sunak installed to clean up the mess after the sugar high of Boris Johnson boosterism and the deranged lab experiment that was Trussonomics, the nation is prepared for something it knows all too well: austerity. And it will be administered by a man richer than the king.

I moved to London just as another Tory Prime Minister, David Cameron, ushered in the latest ‘era of austerity’, the first of its kind since the aftermath of World War II. I lived with other Irish boys in a windowless basement under a hostel. We called it the Paddy Hole.

The hostel we lived under was run by two Irishmen who had lost their shirts when the Irish property market crashed and had come to London for one last shot at the big time

The room was lit by a dirty fluorescent bulb and had shelves full of washed laundry, which gave the air a chemical flavor. We paid £70 a week, or about €80 a week at today’s exchange rate, to sleep in bunk beds and thought that was a bargain. Eventually a friend came to visit and was so alarmed that he threatened to alert the authorities. He was only half joking.

The hostel was run by two Irish men in their 40s, which seemed incredibly old at the time. They had lost their shirts when the Irish property market crashed and had come to London for one last shot at the big time. They felt guilty for charging us to sleep in an underground linen room – but not guilty enough to let us live above ground.

Sometimes they bought us alcohol to feel better. They would take us to dive bars and we would watch them drunkenly stumble into a crude caricature of middle-aged men. I made a mental note to myself never to end up like them (result to be confirmed).

The inn keeper was a delicate man who attributed his difficulties to mass migration. That his xenophobia seems out of step with his work in an international youth hostel is a point on which I did not insist. His outlook was decidedly bleak. Britain’s financial system had been destabilized by decades of deregulation, but for some reason he seemed to think immigrants were to blame. This fundamental misattribution of blame finally manifested itself in the Brexit referendum. The data is unambiguous: Britain’s decision to leave the European Union has not only failed to improve the lives of ordinary people, but actually makes matters worse.

It is perfectly legitimate for a democratic country to withdraw from a political and commercial arrangement which no longer seems to serve its interests. Norway has never been in the club, and they are not treated like an outcast. The problem is not Brexit but the divisive way the divorce has been pursued. At times, it felt like the British government was less interested in cashing in on Europe than in fulfilling the fantasies of a schoolboy of Alfred the Great. Upper-class British negotiators acted in bad faith from the start, endowed with the luxury of an ironic detachment from the economic consequences of their behavior.

While Covid, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and many other issues stunting Britain’s growth are largely beyond the government’s control, the country’s combative relationship with its biggest trading partner is a political choice. What’s worse is that the subject is too toxic for politicians to have an intelligent conversation about it. Tories suggesting a closer relationship with Brussels are shouted down while Labor leader Keir Starmer is terrified to even address the issue.

The impact of Brexit on growth is there for all to see, but Britain is no longer a country where politicians feel confident declaring the sky blue.

The difficulties faced by the country’s poorest are now comparable to those that followed the banking crisis. Instead of new ideas and honest reflection on past mistakes, the Conservative Party seems fixated on a macabre National Groundhog Day. New Home Secretary Suella Braverman has denounced what she calls an invasion of migrants, while spending cuts to be imposed by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt are expected to be punitive.

Sunak may seem like a safe pair of hands compared to his predecessors, but their scorched-earth approach to governance has left him with limited maneuverability. Like a sensible mom, he was brought in to tell us the party is over. Many will wonder if they have ever been invited.

Peter Flanagan left Ireland in 2016 to perform stand-up comedy in London. He is sure instagram and Twitter

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