Brexit Britain, the Golden Tortoise
I had begun to think of Brexit Britain as a sort of Weimar Republic, collapsing under its own decadence and decay. But maybe it’s more like the La Belle Époque – the period in France at the end of the 19th Century characterised by extravagance and excess. It was said to be “an age of neurotic, even hysterical national anxiety, filled with political instability, crises and scandals”.
The novelist Julian Barnes in his novel The Man in the Red Coat tells the story of Count Robert de Montesquiou, a notorious poet and dandy of the era. He is said to have gilded a live tortoise with gold and encrusted its shell with diamonds, sapphires and amethysts. The splendid creature was the Counts ultimate party-trick, but it died from the experiment like an earlier version of Jill Masterson in James Bond’s Goldfinger. Brexit Britain is like Montesquiou’s tortoise, a freakish exercise with no apparent purpose, staggering along giving mesmerised entertainment.
Instead of gold we are covered in Union Jacks, but the beasts certain demise is the same.
A new poll published on Friday shows that a majority of UK voters don’t believe Union will exist in current form in 10 years and you might be one of them if you’d watched Boris Johnson’s performance in Scotland this week.
He followed a now well-worn formula of Conservative leaders visiting their northern territories: he flew in – lied his face off – and flew out again. His central message was this: there is no democratic outlet for your expression. There will be no referendum on Scottish independence even if you renew your mandate by returning MPs and MSPs in overwhelming numbers.
It’s a strategy of sorts, but a risky one.
The signs that the malignant presence of Conservatism may well be removed from Scotland, and possibly of its place in government in England and Wales too are everywhere, from the powerful Tory Story website that tells in hand-written form the experience of people under Tory rule, to the #torieslie hashtag that trended throughout the week in peaks daily – as the Conservatives election campaign staggered from sexual scandal to eugenics outburst. The sheer contempt for which many Tory MPs and candidates have for ordinary people is being dragged into plain view.
Earlier in the week the legacy media couldn’t quite cope with Labour’s message that they would tax large corporations and that a society with billionaires was a sign of extreme inequality, and not something to aspire to.
On Thursday Emma Barnett Show on BBC Radio 5 spluttered in complete incomprehension at somebody being AGAINST billionaires. She was interviewing Labour MP for Brighton Kemptown Lloyd Russell-Moyle. Russell-Moyle made the case that the existence in twenty-first-century Britain of grinding poverty, deprivation, and hopelessness alongside the unfathomable wealth of billionaires is morally unacceptable. In an exchange that quickly went viral, the host was visibly angered and incredulous at Russell-Moyle’s critique. “Why on earth shouldn’t people be able to be billionaires?” she remonstrated.
The Daily Express frothed: “Emma Barnett stunned as Labour MP spouts ‘communist nonsense’ on banning UK billionaires.”
It was a sign not just of a broken media but a society that have been trained to venerate wealth and ignore and put up with disfiguring poverty. They are not treated as if they have any connection. Our actual worldview has been re-wired on this issue, our moral compass distorted.
As Luke Hildyard has written:
“A billion pounds is an almost incomprehensible amount of money. One of the most successful tricks that the rich and powerful have pulled on the rest of us is not merely capturing a disproportionately large share of global wealth, but hoarding amounts so vast that it is practically impossible to grasp the scale of it, and thus to criticise. If you had been given £1,000 a day, every day since Jesus died, and stuffed it under a mattress, you would still not be a billionaire. There are around 15 or so countries whose entire wealth does not equate to that of an individual UK billionaire.”
As the writer Arwa Mahdawi put it: “The fact that we are even having this debate is a depressing indication of the extent to which extreme inequality has been normalised.“
This kind of normalisation hasn’t come about suddenly. It’s ideology in action.
As Hugh McDonnell wrote in the Jacobin:
“Emma Barnett’s disgust, though, was not really rooted in technical questions of economic policy. This is an issue not of distribution but of recognition. Russell-Moyle was found wanting in deference and respect for the elite. Most often when people express such irreverence they are accused of resentment. Indeed, this was a dominant trope in the debate that the exchange sparked elsewhere in the media.”
“Ideology can be understood as the naturalization of social arrangements and hierarchies of power — and the charge of envy and resentment acts to facilitate that process. To cry envy and resentment is to do more than say that the concentration of vast wealth is right and proper. It is a form of ideological de-contestation. In effect, it is to decree not only that you must defer, but that you must defer unquestioningly, to existing divisions of wealth and power, no matter how iniquitous and exploitative they appear to be. To fall afoul of this imperative is not simply to be wrong but to be pathologically inadequate.”
There are some signs that people are sick of this, and that this election may not be the breezy coronation that Boris and his cabinet (and most of their media) assumed. Rees-Mogg’s contemptuous comments abut Grenfell were genuinely shocking and their botched apology made things worse. The Tories are inoculated against ordinary people but an election forces them into interactions they cant cope with or understand.
Every political campaign and career has its signpost moment. Think Neil Kinnock stumbling in the shingle on Brighton beach in a botched media stunt, or the tanned Jim Callaghan, returning from a conference in Guadelope in the middle of the Winter of Discontent earning him the sobriquet “Sunny Jim” (The Sun misreported his comments as “Crisis? What Crisis?” condemning him to appear detached and uncaring). He never recovered.
One such moment may turn out to be the unfortunate Kirstene Hair MP who appeared on BBC Question Time from Glasgow.
The programme seemed different from the normally carefully curated broadcasts. The audience was visibly hostile and the guests were articulate. Somebody had misplaced the plants and stooges.
As she uttered the words: “I believe Boris Johnson does absolutely care about Scotland … he was up in Moray…” the audience fell about in hysterical laughter. She looked stricken, aghast. The MP for Angus famously admitted that she didn’t vote at all in the Brexit referendum because it was just all too confusing. Now Hair may not have been blessed with the brains but she represents wonderfully the intake from Ruth Davidson’s much celebrated 2017 victories.
But along with the departed Alun Cairns and Ross Thomson the former MP for Aberdeen South, the whole impression of the Conservatives campaign is one riddled not just with incompetence and misrule but with a moral void. The whole edifice seems to be cracking, almost a decade of Tory rule crumbling before our eyes like the golden tortoise staggering under the weight of its own absurdity.