LAST week, Change UK unveiled former BBC Newsnight anchor Gavin Esler as one of its candidates for the upcoming European elections.

Setting out his reasons for entering the political fray, Esler painted the following picture: “Our political system is a joke. It’s a world-wide joke. They are laughing at us. Not with us. At us. It’s broken. We know that this country cannot possibly be strong abroad when it is weak at home.”

Once you notice something, you begin to see and hear it everywhere. There are umpteen ways Esler might have described the faults and failures of Brexit and what it tells us about the “broad shoulders” of the British state. A car crash. A boorach. Like removing a tattoo employing only wire brush and Dettol. Colonic irrigation performed in a cold room by a nervous first timer using only a sea urchin. But Esler evoked none of these images.

Instead, he chose to conjure up the psychological power of ridicule. His Britain is a mortified character, surrounded by many pointing fingers and much unkind laughter. You’re right to laugh, he says. Mock us. We deserve to be mocked. I’m with the mockers.

It’s not that there’s nothing to jeer at about how Brexit has unfolded. It’s not that Britain’s global standing hasn’t – as Esler says – taken a massive dent as a result of the incompetence and hubris of how Theresa May’s administration has handled the UK’s delayed and extended departure from the EU. All of these things are true. His scorn is justified. The chassis is wrecked.

Experience has shredded the idea Scotland needs Britain’s governing classes to make its way in the world. The old knack for statecraft – if the United Kingdom ever truly had it – seems to have deserted this country. Everything that has happened since June 23, 2016, trashes the notion that staying in the United Kingdom is the low-risk stake. Britain’s political culture looks increasingly gaga, the Tory Party dominated by increasingly nativist impulses, the Labour Party compromised and divided. “Confident Global Britain” feels neither confident nor global.

And it’s also true – you don’t have to look far in the European media to find baffled humour at Britain’s expense. In Germany, from Der Bund to Das Spiegel, the country is “Lachnummer Europas” – the laughing stock of Europe. In France? A chorus of “la mort de rire” after the Prime Minister’s latest setback.

But it interests me that both ultra-Remainers and ultra-Leavers seem psychologically haunted by hostile laughter. Their visions for Britain may be different, but both wings of UK politics are united by a psychodrama of humiliation. And that’s telling. This deeply unhealthy feeling now seems central to how British politics imagines itself. Whatever happens with Brexit, I’m not sure it is a turn in public life which will be easily exorcised.

You just knew there had to be a word for this. It’s called gelotophobia: the pathological fear of being laughed at, from Gelos – the Greek spirit of laughter – and our old friend, the phobia, the Fear. Snicker, guffaw, titter, cackle, chortle – crow and smirk and giggle. English has so many wonderful, many-textured words for laughter. But you can’t help but notice there’s a dark thread running through our vocabulary. We’ve countless words for cruel laughter. And British politics seems crammed to the gunnels with gelotophobes.

“Can a whole nation be humiliated?” asks the Telegraph. On the other side of the aisle, Vince Cable has returned repeatedly to the idea of Britain’s “national humiliation”. The hyperventilating hacks of the Express have taken to sharing the front pages of European papers with its readership, confronting its overwhelmingly pro-Brexit readership with a chorus of Spanish, Polish and Swedish guffaws.

We should beware of all those in whom the will to be humiliated is strong. If Saturday’s YouGov polling is anything to go by, his Brexit Party may be poised to seize a European seat off the Scottish Tories, but laughter still seems to occupy a particularly prominent part of Nigel Farage’s psychology.

On the back of 2016’s Brexit vote, Farage took a rare trip to the European parliament to rub his European colleagues’ nose in it. “Isn’t it funny?” he said – without a hint of real mirth in his nicotine slab of a voice. “When I came here 17 years ago, you all laughed at me. Well I have to say, you’re not laughing now, are you?”

I suppose, in his mind, this felt like a triumphant moment. In the belly of the beast, the politburo of the EUSSR, our sturdy English yeoman stuck it to the humbled Eurocrats on his day of victory. Agincourt, but with more simultaneous translation. Farewell, and an archer’s salute.

But from where I’m sitting, the speech only magnified the MEP’s emotional smallness. It offered a pen portrait of a character, banging on about restoring pride, but buried humourlessly in his resentment. Farage is still hearing the laughter. His verdict on the current state of Brexit? “They are laughing at us. I think the whole world is laughing at us. The whole thing is a national humiliation.”

DONALD Trump shows a similar preoccupation with the psychology of laughter and humiliation. A vast, terracotta monument to wounded ego, the American president is readily needled and gees up his base with metaphors of being humbled and diminished by others. A rote line on the stump during his first campaign was that “the world is laughing at us”.

Since his election, the American president has taken a Phileas Fogg tour of nation states, who’re all apparently mocking a humiliated and cowed United States, from China to Iran.

But the cantaloupe-in-chief has his audience. He speaks to something deeply felt and disturbing. Touchy, resentful, in the grip of suppressed feelings of bitterness, bent on simultaneously justifying their privileges and rationalising the denial of those self-same privileges to others.

We hear these voices increasingly in these islands too. Resentment is on the march. On Brexit, on immigration, on millennials, mainstream British commentary is thick with pure, clotted misanthropy.

Take Greta Thunberg’s recent trip to the United Kingdom and the extreme reaction which the climate activist provoked in significant parts of the mainstream British media. Grown adults were howler-monkeying away online about the Swedish 16-year-old’s best endeavours to change her world for the better.

These are the self-same characters who will chunter away about trigger warnings and generation snowflake, while spontaneously melting into a puddle of rage when faced with an eloquent young woman who articulates a different perception of the world to theirs.

It shouldn’t need saying, but this is not how authentically confident people behave. These pachyderms have rice-paper skin and an addiction to victim fantasies. The outlook can be summed up in the legend: “I want to keep all my objective social and economic advantages, while simultaneously feeling like a victim, if possible.”

Humourlessness is always a bad sign, particularly in politics. Politics, to adapt Mahatma Gandhi, is full of people who take themselves quite seriously enough for the both of us. The afflicted, as my mother always says, shouldn’t mock. But if folk as diverse as Gavin Esler and Nigel Farage are tossing and turning in the bitter watches of the night to the sound of laughter, it tells you Britain’s in a fever, and the fever dream hasn’t broken – and isn’t breaking – any time soon.