In a year with so many memorable moments (I’m assuming here that by now we all know that ‘memorable’ is code for ‘cathartically, mind-blowing awful’) – one in May stands out. The Prime Minister had just announced a U-turn on her plans to make people pay more for social care just days after they were first announced. The plans (which hadn’t been mentioned in the manifesto) had been dubbed the ‘Dementia Tax’ to ask the elderly to contribute more towards care and had caused a massive backlash.
Hilariously she lashed out at Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, accusing him of trying “to sneak into No 10 by playing on the fears of older and vulnerable people” (some of this may sound familiar to Scottish viewers).
But the really funny bit was her reaction under the very mildest of questioning: “Nothing has changed!” she shrieked, visibly shaken and angry.
And then everything changed.
The Conservatives are usually adept at projecting power. Even through vapid meaningless speeches and sound bites and clunky octogenarian conferences, they normally succeed in putting across a subliminal message of “We are powerful” that acts as a sort of hypnotic soporific to millions of dim-witted Tories up and down the land. In that sense the idea of just repeating ‘Strong and stable’ to a country fearful of: Red Jezza, foreigners, economic collapse, but mostly ‘itself’ probably seemed a good idea at the time.
What could be more reassuring than a vicar’s daughter in expensive clobber touring about calmly reciting a soothing mantra of calm. It would be like a gentle political massage with oils and smelly candles and whale music.
It didn’t quite work our like that.
In the aftermath of her disastrous election she lost three Cabinet Ministers (a feat not matched since 1986) and has presided over the disastrous calamity of Brexit negotiations.
But just when we thought we’d reached Peak Schadenfreude along came Theresa May’s conference speech. It is rare that a single event gives such large amounts of people pleasure and pain simultaneously.
This was like an S&M convention streamed by the BBC as May’s political career went down the toilet live on air.
It wasn’t just the bizarre hacking cough that went on and on and on – or the spectacle of the actual infrastructure of the backdrop collapsing behind her – as if God herself had intervened to mock the Tory Party just for a laugh – it was if we were being provided with a clumsy metaphor for the dysfunctional country she presided over.
Her promises seemed insincere and inadequate – and – after she was handed her P45 (itself an astonishing security breach) her pathetic attempts to come over as somehow ‘anti-racist’ were a step too far even for politicians who have trademarked Hypocrisy. As Kate Maltby remarked at the time:
“You can’t promise “a more open, global Britain”, when you are still remembered as the architect of “Go Home” vans and the woman who referred to “citizens of nowhere”.
Such majestic incompetence would have destroyed any other politician in any other era. But incredibly the Tory Party have no-one less toxic to hand, are terrified of the “Marxist” Corbyn waiting in the wings and are also engaged in the most disastrous foreign policy humiliation since Suez. So she stays.
The problem for May is she invokes pity, and this isn’t a good thing for a leader.
But if May invokes pity her groping grabbing American colleague summons shame and contempt.
Even through Thatcher, and Blair, Reagan and Bush and then his imbecile son, I can’t quite remember anyone making me actually ashamed to be human like Trump does.
Every day brings some fresh hell, some new level of horror and corruption, some new height of misogyny, some new peak of foreign policy folly.
Nor are the emergent revelations about Russian interference really the point. As Ariel Dorfman wrote in the LA Times the truth is darker and close to home:
“Those were not Russians voting in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, handing the election to the Republican candidate by a bit more than 80,000 votes. They were American men and women,” Dorfman wrote. “As were the 62,984,825 others who decided that such a troublesome, inflammatory figure expressed their desires and dreams. Trump could be impeached or resign, or his policies could simply implode under the weight of their malice, divisiveness and mendacity, and the country would still be defined and pressed by the same conditions and dread that enabled his rise.”
“Now, every desperate American must gaze in the mirror and interrogate the puzzled face and puzzling fate that stares back: What did I do or not do that made the cataclysm possible?” he continued. “Did I ignore past transgressions that corrode today’s society: the discrimination, the sexism, the violence, the authoritarianism, the intolerance, the imperial ambitions, the slavery and greed and persecutions that have darkened America’s story? Did I overestimate the strength of our democracy and underestimate the decency of my neighbors? Was I too fearful, too complacent, too impatient, too angry? Whom did I not talk to, whom did I not persuade? What privilege and comforts, what overwork and debts, kept me from giving my all? What injustice or humiliation or bigoted remark did I witness and let pass? How can I help to recover our country, make it once more recognizable, make it luminous and forgiving?”
“We must vigorously protest the president’s craven actions, but above all we need to acknowledge that what ultimately matters is not what a foreign power did to America, but what America did to itself,” he lectured. “The crucial question of what is wrong with our country, what could have driven us to this edge of catastrophe, cannot be resolved by a special counsel or a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives or spectacular revelations about Russia’s interference.”
If Grenfell Tower stood out as a crystallisation of the crisis of austerity Britain, the abject failure of housing and citizenship it also stood out as the moment when the ‘hidden civil war’ was exposed.
As Robert Peston has written:
“The horrific corollary of a faceless, irresponsible system of public-housing governance is that many of the poor and vulnerable people who died in the fire are not even being given the respect of formal identification as victims – because they live on the fringes of the state, and the authorities seem unable to be confident they even existed, let alone that they have died.
There is a social contract between those of us lucky enough to have voices that are heard and those who don’t that we should not put them in harms way. Grenfell seems the most grotesque breach of that contract in my lifetime. It shames us all.”
It doesn’t shame us all at all, but he is right.
Peston’s observations give Prime Minister May’s famous speech “…if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere…” a much darker hue.
With this swirling mass of anger and despair, now comes the most significant foreign policy and trade negotiations of our recent history. It’s a moment that is looked forward to here by Fintan O Toole (‘Britain the End of a Fantasy’):
“Last year’s triumph for Brexit has often been paired with the rise of Donald Trump as evidence of a populist surge. But most of those joining in with the ecstasies of English nationalist self-assertion were imposters. Brexit is an elite project dressed up in rough attire. When its Oxbridge-educated champions coined the appealing slogan “Take back control,” they cleverly neglected to add that they really meant control by and for the elite. The problem is that, as the elections showed, too many voters thought the control should belong to themselves.
Theresa May is a classic phony Brexiter. She didn’t support it in last year’s referendum and there is no reason to think that, in private, she has ever changed her mind. But she saw that the path to power led toward the cliff edge, from which Britain will take its leap into an unknown future entirely outside the European Union. Her strategy was one of appeasement—of the nationalist zealots in her own party, of the voters who had backed the hard-right UK Independence Party (UKIP), and of the hysterically jingoistic Tory press, especially The Daily Mail.
The actual result of the referendum last year was narrow and ambiguous. Fifty-two percent of voters backed Brexit but we know that many of them did so because they were reassured by Boris Johnson’s promise that, when it came to Europe, Britain could “have its cake and eat it.” It could both leave the EU and continue to enjoy all the benefits of membership. Britons could still trade freely with the EU and would be free to live, work, and study in any EU country just as before. This is, of course, a childish fantasy, and it is unlikely that Johnson himself really believed a word of it. It was just part of the game, a smart line that might win a debate at the Oxford Union.
But what do you do when your crowd-pleasing applause lines have to become public policy? The twenty-seven remaining member states of the EU have to try to extract a rational outcome from an essentially irrational process. They have to ask the simple question: What do you Brits actually want? And the answer is that the Brits want what they can’t possibly have. They want everything to change and everything to go as before. They want an end to immigration—except for all the immigrants they need to run their economy and health service. They want it to be 1900, when Britain was a superpower and didn’t have to make messy compromises with foreigners.
To take power, May had to pretend that she, too, dreams these impossible dreams. And that led her to embrace a phony populism in which the narrow and ambiguous majority who voted for Brexit under false pretences are to be reimagined as “the people.”
“The People” can and must be evoked when it is politically useful, but when they emerge as actual people actually “taking back control” they are to be despised, smeared and treated as “saboteurs” and insurgents, “vile separatists” and Remoaners. As Peston suggested they are treated as less than human, certainly citizens of nowhere, possibly traitors.
And ‘so it goes’ as Kurt Vonnegut would have said.
This was the year of Grenfell: “A vision of hell. A smouldering, charred tower of death rising into the west London sky, surrounded by streets that were plastered with missing person signs, left by the bereft and the brokenhearted.”
It was the year when fascism was mainstreamed by an American president calling nazis and racists ‘fine people’ and re-tweeting Britain First.
It was the year when the Spanish state unleashed its own riot police against Catalan people exercising their democratic rights and the world turned away.
It was the year of Priti Patel freelancing British foreign policy and ongoing Israeli apartheid.
It was the year British arms companies made huge profit selling arms to Saudi Arabia and stoking the crisis in Yemen.
It was the year the world came closest to nuclear ‘war’ since 1962 and nobody was even really that bothered because we were either so immersed in our own tribal parochialism we didnt even notice, or we were ‘just about managing’ and could scarecly look up / keep up.
Running through all of this like threads through your Stilton is the gender wars of toxic masculinity, abuse exploitation and violence.
And of course across the year the interlocked issues of Brexit, democracy and what used to be called ‘the national question’ hangs over us.
As David Marquand has written:
“…the UK is set to leave the European Union because an English majority has voted to do so, ignoring the opinions of two of the UK’s four nations.
The great question is, why? Partly it’s that for centuries, myths, memories and rhetoric have transmitted a vision of Englishness of extraordinary power. Two examples stand out: Shakespeare’s hymn to England as a “precious stone set in the silver sea”, and Enoch Powell’s evocation of the “sceptred awe, in which Saint Edward the Englishman” claimed “the allegiance of all the English” and in doing so symbolised “the unity of England, effortless and unconstrained”.
It is a profoundly reactionary vision, but emotionally powerful. It conveys the message that England is a special, exemplary, even providential nation, set apart from others. Iconography tells the same story, from the mock-Gothic Houses of Parliament to the trooping of the colour on the monarch’s official birthday.”
That reality, that acceptance has at least become clear in this year.
All of this has the seeds of hope in it; hope for the emergence of a different expression of English political identity, of a global and personal response to the attack on women, for the horrors of British austerity to be overthrown and for Scotland to position itself back into a space from which we can reclaim democracy. Some (all) of this seems distant and difficult to hope for. As our Prime Minister told us:
Nothing has changed.