ofthewedge

rooting around for grubs in diverse soils

Tag: Tories

Who put my man i’ the stocks?

LEAR: Who stock’d my servant? …

O sides, you are too tough;

Will you yet hold? How came my man i’ the stocks?

CORNWALL: I set him there, sir: but his own disorders

Deserved much less advancement.

KING LEAR You! did you?

REGAN     I pray you, father, being weak, seem so.

If, till the expiration of your month,

You will return and sojourn with my sister,

Dismissing half your train, come then to me:

I am now from home, and out of that provision

Which shall be needful for your entertainment.

There was me thinking the UK or rather England was about to elect its first robot for Prime Minister. Theresa May’s bizarre performances during the election seemed a distillation par excellence of the politician’s art of honesty-avoidance. I had all the same begun to worry for her mental state. On the few occasions she deigned to take a question in public, she would look at her inquisitor still and expressionless, apart from the odd involuntary shake of the head, perhaps signally scepticism, perhaps involuntary. At the end of the question, there was always a small pause, a jerk into response mode, like a crude voice-activated device, and she would launch into a non-answer of clichés and slogans which by the end of the campaign even her cheerleaders had grown weary of. Then there was her awkward leaning forward gait, those sharp uncomfortable limbs, and a face looking constantly on the verge of vomiting. She seemed a person increasingly ill-at-ease in her own body.

People were anticipating her eventual comeuppance, though few expected it was imminent. I foresaw a big Tory victory followed by years of attritional conflict with a growing body of the disaffected. The population would start to despise this government like they grew to despise the long Thatcher-Major regime. Instead the cards are being reshuffled again in this inscrutable, post-financial crisis, Brexit chapter of British democracy.

In the Middle Ages the English had a reputation among the French as a people who killed their kings with unsavoury frequency.  Now the full arsenal of the Tory machine, and the plutocrats running its propaganda in the print media, has suddenly stopped insulting Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott and trained its attention on their faltering monarch herself.

Shakespeare’s Lear is in the opening act flattered by his sycophant older daughters until, once he has divested himself of his power, he is by turns emasculated, impoverished, humiliated, imprisoned and ultimately murdered.  It begins with the banishing of the entourage, the malevolent advisers who have corrupted the prince’s noble intentions. Prime Minister May had become umbilically dependent on Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, two proper bastards who had enabled their mistress to boss the Home Office for six years. These two were not svelte, cunning Etonians, nor had they proven their calibre by passing through the best universities. (Future political science PhDs might compare them with Piers Gaveston or William Catesby, the reviled confidents of Edward II and Richard III respectively.) Hill and Timothy have now been shoved from the shadows to the public pillory – “i’ the stocks” like the loyal Kent disguised as a peasant who assaulted Goneril’s servant for disrespect for the king. Lacking the appropriate breeding for a Tory courtier they failed to show requisite deference to those who did, and so this weekend has been a bit of a revenge orgy for embittered Conservatives.

Now this shell of a Prime Minister is left mouthing the empty platitudes of power, no longer in a bid to entrench herself, but rather like a hostage forced by her captors to read out a script on camera.  She knows, everyone knows, that she will be put out of her misery at some point soon.

I struggle to muster much sympathy for May. Her entire life has been openly directed towards attaining the highest political office, a bit like Gordon Brown, though unlike Brown she had to contend stoically for decades as a woman against the patronising party establishment of the chaps. Also, unlike Brown, she doesn’t appear to possess much moral fibre, given her craven obeisance before the barely inaugurated President Trump and her preparedness to sacrifice human rights in order to appear tough on terrorism and to divert attention from her downgrading of the police.

This ritual un-kinging of May is an exquisite form of political torture of which only the Conservatives, in their unbridled urge to run the UK at all costs, are capable of inflicting on their own. They will morph now back again into a more apparently emollient, pragmatic party that tries harder to avoid offending foreigners and gays and to resist letting its instinctive xenophobia interfere with the imperative of GDP growth.  But their core brutality will be undiminished, as we shall shortly see once Boris Johnson and all the other scoundrels start to devour each other in a bid to succeeed their zombie of a leader.

The race to the centre of British politics is back on and, given the self-righteous jubilation of Corbyn and his friends, I can only still see one winner, though I would love to be proven wrong again. The prize is likely a working majority after yet another election in the autumn. Meanwhile the ousted Theresa May and her erstwhile henchmen will have plenty of time to recraft their public personas, and probably, in the cases of Hill and Timothy, return to the arena. It is a preferable denouement to the gory ends which befell their equivalents on the Jacobean stage, I suppose. 

 

 

Let’s remain. Remain to complain

 

blame canada

Your prophets are like jackals among ruins. Ezekiel 13:4

I wrote three years ago that a plebiscite might lance the boil of the EU’s perceived undemocratic illegitimacy. But the choice needed to be on a clear prospectus: what are we actually voting for or against? What is going on in the UK at the moment is not what I had in mind.

First of all, this referendum is about the Tory party’s failure to exorcise their inner demons since immolating Thatcher 26 years ago. Our current overlords cut their political teeth in the 1990s and have needed to purge their collective guilt for the decision in November 1990 to slay their messiah on the altar of the European project. A few years ago people grumbled about the EU like they grumbled about politics in general, but it was never among the top concerns according to the opinion polls. But the Conservative Party has long considered itself the incarnation of Britain (the ‘natural party of government’ etc.) so it is only natural for Cameron, their most patrician leader since Alec Douglas-Home, once restored to government, to make his party’s internal problem into the whole country’s problem: except of course that now it is not just a problem for the United Kingdom but a problem for the whole of the shuddering edifice of the EU and probably beyond. This insular referendum cannot be isolated from globalised politics and capitalism.

The tenor of the referendum debate has become so jaundiced, polarised and bilious that the murder of Jo Cox last week by an extreme right wing loon has led to petitions for the whole business to be aborted. But we cannot go back now. David Allen Green’s elegant unpicking of the whole premise of the referendum as unnecessary and non-binding is legally sound but politically implausible. But he is spot on that, because there is no concrete proposal to focus on, the debate is about everything and nothing.

Second thing: the Leave campaign have struck a chord with a lot of people, mainly in non-metropolitan England, because politicians are not giving them what they want. The chord Leavers strike is a dissonant one, transferring the blame for domestic frustrations onto to foreign shoulders. So, in the minds of large sector of society which is frustrated and irritated, foreigners, immigrants, migrants, terrorists,  bureaucrats and the EU all meld into one. And as the global establishment, freaked-out at the prospect of yet more political and economic uncertainty, have rallied to cause of Remain, Leavers add ‘experts’ and the ‘elite’ into this demotic cauldron of the damned. It is a mild British equivalent of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. (The same thing explains Trumpmania in the US, though it’s more dangerous because they all have guns.)

David Cameron’s team have today drafted for him a splendid, optimistic plea for sanity, the sort of positive endorsement of the UK in the EU which was needed but which he shunned for years while he acted as tribune of the grumpy eurosceptics. (Mario Monti said this in an interview with the Economist last week.) Now he is the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, desperate to contain the mayhem which he has unleashed in a bid to keep his party together.

The referendum campaign has exposed and aggravated fault lines right down the middle of the electorate. England versus Scotland, city versus countryside, graduates versus school leavers, pensioners versus young adults (though not very old pensioners: surveys indicate that people who experienced the last World War are more likely to appreciate than to disdain the EU project), and even Hindu versus Muslim. It has exposed the castrated condition of the post-Brown/Blair centre-left of British politics.  Most of all, it has exposed the unscrupulous hypocrisy and imperiousness of the Tory ruling class, prepared to stoke tensions between the indigenous poor and first generation immigrants.

Brexit cheerleaders such as Daniel Hannan, Isabel Oakeshott, Tim Montgomerie, Toby Young, Julia Hartley-Brewer and – the toadiest of all – Louise Mensch have aimed an endless stream of blinkered, reductionist rancour against the EU, perpetuating the myth that membership of the EU is what holds Britain (they mean England, they are always from blessed shires of England) back from utopia. As if our own shit doesn’t stink. These educated, privileged individuals seem to have no moral compunction. I was perplexed at why, in the wake of the horrific murder of Jo Cox, they were desperately urging everyone not to ‘politicise’ the outrage or to ‘jump to conclusions’ that the assassin had far-right politics, that he was just a quiet gardener with mental health problems. Yesterday before the Beaks Thomas Mair gave his name as ‘Death to Traitors Freedom for Britain’ – what might easily pass as a drunken paraphrase of one of the familiar Leaver slogans. It is as if these people consider any criticism of the far-right as effective criticism of themselves.

(There are similar quirks across the political spectrum: speaking ill of Israel’s government is tantamount to antisemitism, while you cannot condemn violence by Palestinians at the same time as supporting their fight for human rights and statehood.)

Bizarrely in contemporary Britain it has become worse to insinuate that someone is racist than actually to be racist. Timothy Garton Ash has just published a book decrying the threat to free speech of today’s squeamish generation demanding a right not to be offended.

So senior Tories, former Eton and Oxbridge chums, take their high japes and repartee out of the quad and onto the high street, chucking around hyperbole and inventing big numbers to frighten the plebs into voting for them. ‘Take back control’ is the mantra.  Who is taking control from whom? Well, Johnson and Gove are trying to take control of the government from Cameron and Osborne, that’s the only certainty. They incite baser instincts, telling people that their lives, identity and self-esteem which have been undermined by globalisation can be restored simply by leaving the EU. Such is the brazen hypocrisy – since time immemorial – of one faction of the elite telling people  not to trust the other faction of the elite. No more room? There is room enough on the country estates of the prominent Leavers for refugees and people who want to make a better life for themselves and their families. If you object to all things foreign, then you should evict McDonalds and Starbucks from the high street, turf out oligarchs and oil sheikhs laundering their money in London’s property market, stop buying cheap stuff produced by the underpaid and overworked in Asian sweatshops. That would be taking back control.

Blaming the EU and immigrants is the equivalent of the expulsion of the Jews from England under Edward I: a sop to prejudice from a bankrupt state.

All the while they are trying to harness and to indulge their court jester Nigel Farage, who is basically one of their own but slightly off the rails, the man who at Dulwich College had a Hitler fixation and decided not to bother with university and instead to make a packet trading in the city. (That Farage and Cameron are fellow travellers is betrayed by their shared idiom and speaking style – a fluent duck-and-jab, sprinkling their pronouncements with ‘and franklies’ as if being ‘frank’ somehow equates to telling the truth.)

A few hours before Cox’s murder Farage unveiled his ‘Breaking Point’ poster, an image directly lifted from Nazi propaganda insinuating that hordes of darkies were about to overwhelm England: because of the EU. It was a calculated intensification of toxicity, a ramping up of the populist rhetoric which was scheduled to continue in the last week of the campaign until the slaughter on the streets of Birstall rudely intervened and occasioned a brief moment of national reflection. There were signals, logically enough, that Farage would be given a post in a post-Brexit Johnson administration.

In effect this is a right-wing putsch masquerading as a public policy plebiscite.

Once Britain has flounced out of the EU, the same Leavers will move on to their next scapegoat.

I am an EU official, part therefore of that privileged class, so I have a personal and direct interest in the EU’s success. When I arrived in Brussels in 2008 it was three weeks after the Irish had voted down the Lisbon Treaty. I remember the high dudgeon of Commissioners and other EU politicians at this petulant act of ingratitude by a small nation which been one of the biggest recipients of the EU’s largesse. The prevailing attitude was – How dare they! Well, they will have to vote again until they give the correct answer. Here you had the much vaunted EU democratic deficit writ large. At this time the strongest advocates of ever closer federal union were in their pomp: the technocratic will to harmonise everything, it was peak ‘more Europe’. This was also the moment when the inner core of EU decision-makers decided to leave Turkey’s application indefinitely out in the cold, on the grounds that they were not really European (i.e. they were Muslim). (Sarkozy is still at it.) Since then, Turkey has become an increasingly authoritarian and intolerant bastardised Ottoman Empire, which the EU now has to bribe to stop people from bloodied Middle East and central Asia crossing the EU’s borders.

Arrogance and strategic errors are inherent to human politics.  But the European Union represents the most ambitious of all post-cataclysmic endeavours in the 20th century to stop countries fighting each other. The armies which for centuries looted and slashed their way around the continent have been largely disbanded, and only partly replaced by a host of suited bureaucrats. Thanks to the EU. The EU’s bureaucracy is in my view badly structured, but with 55 000 officials in a continent of 508 million it is no more ‘bloated’ than other tiers of national administration. Almost all of them work in a second language with a sense of ideals which is almost quaint in these cynical times. Its internal procedures like its buildings are impersonal and prone to abstraction. Its Byzantine snake-like policy-making process lacks transparency. The members of the European Parliament are generally there because they have been selected for their party lists by party apparatchiks. The monthly decamping to Strasbourg is a comic travesty. But these are the results of compromise agreements between democratically elected governments and the democratically elected parliament. The underlying ethos of the whole extraordinary project is inclusive social democracy and care for the environment grounded in human rights.

I can guarantee that, if you codified everything about the governance of Great Britain and Northern Ireland into a single document and put it to the electorate in a referendum, in the current climate more than ever, the majority of British voters would reject it. The problem is politicians lacking vision and growing inequality and economic uncertainty. That is why I argued a couple of years ago for referenda in every country that is or that aspires to be a member of the EU, with a simple statement of values and objectives that all citizens in their busy or torpid lives can understand. Let them vote yes or no, and for those that vote yes there would be a democratic mandate to talk and draw up complicated constitutions. I also worried that without such a recourse to the popular will the far right will rise up from the debris of economic decline and stagnation and the victimisations would begin.

This is happening now. A Brexit vote will accelerate this trend. The world will continue to spin on its axis.  Humans will continue to consume, defecate and multiply as before. But as the last people to remember World War II pass away in the next few years, the post-cataclysm efforts to work together will have gone into reverse, and all because of the vaulting parochial ambitions of Boris and his chums. At best, Britain will remain but it will have been such a close run thing that a rocket will have been fired up the arse of complacent Europhiles. We clearly cannot go on like this.

It’s time to save England, this beautiful mongrel nation, from itself. Remain, complain and do something to make it better.

Twentieth Century Blue

hedgerow

With Britain’s declaration of war on Germany 100 years ago this week the old ‘ornamentalist’ order (David Cannadine) began to self-destruct. A year earlier in 1913, George Butterworth, grainily recorded here reviving folk dances, had composed his melodious ‘idyll’, the Banks of Green Willow, as if a soundtrack to the last spring of old England. The Somme took Butterworth and a large part of his generation, in the first movement of the protracted catastrophe of the ensuing decades. In the broadcasts marking the painful centenary of this sleepwalk [link] to cataclysm, a younger Winston Churchill – familiar emblematic scowl but still a wisp or two of hair – figures in the margins. Churchill was already a  hyperactive presence, and remained so throughout the first half of the 20th century.

Thatcher is compared to Churchill by her posthumous army of sycophants, but this is a tenuous analogy. She was aberrant. He by contrast was always one of the chaps, albeit an eccentric one lacking the patrician smoothness of Chamberlain, whom he supplanted as prime minister, and of Eden, who eventually supplanted him. Thatcher was weird, an outlier; acutely conscious of her sex and at pains to pronouce upon the lessons of her modest upbringing, yet barely ever mentioning her mother, or her older sister. Her forthright manner was, in part, (Hugo Young) ‘an act, put on to convince herself and others that she really was the boss, and a cover for deeper apprehensions’, where every policy decision was a ‘virility test’, a cover for her lack of self-confidence and political strategy.

The polarised reaction to Thatcher’s death last year was contrived and nauseating at both extremes, from the uncouth baiting from her demonisers, to the pre-fabricated paeans on the Tory benches and their newspapers. Many of the former weren’t even born when she was evicted from No.10. Many of the latter were the agents of her downfall.

Years ago I would certainly have joined in the crowing, but growing up in the petit bourgeois end of Croydon, far removed from the harrowing of the north and of industry occasioned by the Thatcher governments’ policies, I had less immediate cause to despise her. I think I understand her better now. After she died I watched the footage of her speech at the College of Europe in Bruges and of the ‘no, no, no’ debate after the European summit in Rome, perhaps her most Pyrrhic triumph (it set in motion the inexorable train of events from Geoffrey Howe’s resignation to eventually her own). In neither of these iconic performances does she appear shrill or rabid; on the contrary she exercises her complete control with grace and wit. Hugo Young said she was as if uncaged.

And that voice. Trained such that it became half way between the average pitch of a male and female voice, she (in the words of the late novelist Angela Carter) ‘coos like a dove, hisses like a serpent, bays like a hound… a form of “toff speak” now reminiscent not of real toffs but of Wodehouse aunts’. Iain Sinclair said that, post-Grantham she’d lost her essential self through her manufactured voice coaching. He likened her to the robot warrior Maria in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

She was successful, with her party political opponents in fragmented disarray, so long as she agreed to be malleable. She would quietly backtrack if she met serious obstacles in her way, like in 1985 when she made a seemingly principled stance against retaliatory strikes and ‘crossing borders’ in general, before acquiescing to Reagan’s use of UK air bases to bomb Libya. Alan Clark in his diaries admiringly and repeatedly reflected, La donna è mobile. She unwisely jettisoned such artfulness in the late 1980s.

Young again: ‘Between Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher, the Conservatives were led for the quarter-century from the mid-1960s by people with tin ears and negligible capacities for inspiring any but audiences of the already converted.’ The Tories needed her, they dumped her, and now her political offspring fawn over her mythology. In many ways she was a poor leader. In later years she proved unable to harness the other impressive politicians around her, who were always men – she only ever admitted one other woman to her cabinet. She drove Scotland away from conservatism for a least a generation. Even in her devastating 1987 victory her party only persuaded 32% of those eligible to vote for her. At the end of her premiership, a poll found 54% preferred an emphasis on collective welfare over individual self-help, 59% preferred keeping people in unprofitable work over sacking them in the name of profit and efficiency, and 43% were in favour of a federal Europe compared to 31% against. Thatcher herself told her ambassador to the EU ‘we have to be in to win’ (as well as instructing him to ‘find out what the children are doing and stop it.’) Her self-styled acolytes today are incapable of mustering any such brass-balled determination.

Alan Bennett unsurprisingly had no time for her. A ‘mirthless bully… shut off from humanity’.  That’s too harsh for me. She was a proud, flawed, abrasive, vulnerable woman set up for a time to rule in an otherwise male-dominated world, her unyielding public poise finally giving way with that teary glance through the car window as her car pulled away from Downing Street. She resembles the sacred king/ solar deity described by Frazer in the Golden Bough, installed in spring, reigning in summer and sacrificed at harvest tide. (The ugly smear machine that was activated shortly after Sayeeda Warsi’s resignation this week shows that the instinct of the male Tory establishment is still to revile women in authority, all the more so if she isn’t white.)

Overall, these receding scenes of lived history recall my adolescence, and in particular the silent corridors of the posh school where I briefly flunked and floundered, its ochre hues and oak panelling, the aloof masters in a permanent state of mild amusement or supercilious disdain, and outdoors an eternal cascading autumn. Thatcher was one of two arrogant, blond and excessively-coiffed matriarchs, whose intimidating and unchallengeable presence loomed over childhood, the other being my grandmother.

Soon after that fleeting betrayal of her mortality, Thatcher put her mask back in place. She resumed, like grandmother, a stately descent into loneliness, insanity and fable.