I recorded an audio version of this article above, as an experiment, for those who prefer it, or want something to listen to when doing the ironing. Let me know your comments and feedback. If people like it or find it handy, I can set it up as a regular thing.
Yesterday afternoon I read that Rory Stewart has announced he’ll be standing down as an MP at the next election, and will be running for the Mayor of London. I suspect he’ll do well. He’s shot to prominence in the last couple of months, getting plenty of good press after running for the Conservative leadership in this year’s leadership election. He was never going to win. The Tory Party, having bound itself up in the European question ever since Thatcher, and now finding itself totally restrained, has begun hacking off its own limbs in order to untie itself, and, as a supporter of Remain, Stewart was only ever a minority candidate. But that wasn’t the point. Stewart’s pitch was an attempt to recalibrate public discourse in the United Kingdom, which has been reaching a fever pitch of intensity as the contradictions of neoliberalism, Brexit, and a crisis of meaning finally clash against each other, creating light, friction, and heat. Perhaps you could say HMS Great Britain has careened into the iceberg of consequences.
It would be difficult to know where to begin in diagnosing the causes of this intensification of political debate, and the social disaffection and polarisation that accompanies it. The ravaging of the country through deindustrialisation and disinvestment would be a part of it; the asset-stripping of Thatcherism, which produced the illusion of growth through the short-term fire sale of its manufacturing base to fuel the financial services industry, decimated much of the country outside the South-East and undermined many communities. Another problem is the narrow, small-c conservative milieu of the British media. Power is held in a startling small number of hands and, even outside of the dominance of the right-wing newspapers, liberal papers like the Guardian are controlled by an even more restrictive social background. Oxbridge graduates dominate, and an Oxbridge attitude rules. It’s not that editors tell commentators what to say – nothing so crude as that. It’s that few are given those positions if they’re the sort of person who might say the wrong thing. Thus the semblance of free thought is preserved, and the logic of entitlement to power and a ‘voice’ pervades the opinion pages and late night news shows, more so even than in Parliament. Those without that voice simply are not heard; no wonder everything from the landslide victory for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership election, and the ‘surprise’ victory of a reactionary Brexit campaign, were such shocks to the system.
But back to the Thatcherite legacy that fundamentally restructured British society. It was sold under the rhetoric of rationalisation, of economising, and played to the idea of the business of state being something like running a household. That argument was consciously underpinned by the presentation of Thatcher as ‘the grocer’s daughter’. Britain prides itself on the idea that it’s a moderate country, and pitching the economic defenestration of industrial communities (in order to break working-class organisation and power) and encourage a speculative financial industry was always going to be an easier sell if it could be presented as something like moderate home economics. Like the smart and prudent grocer’s daughter, we must balance the book. Enormous acts of ideological aggression can be passed off as sensible moderation in such terms, and austerity was sold on the same premise; a simple false equivalence between the household budget and the national budget, something that might be a lie, but has the benefit of being an easy-to-explain lie.
Rory Stewart sings from the same hymn-sheet of moderation. In his announcement for his mayoral candidacy from Millennium Bridge he filmed in the very domestic-scale ‘selfie mode’, declaring his fears over ‘the kind of extremism that is taking over our country’. Britain, he claimed, ‘was one of the most moderate places on earth...a place that treated people with dignity.’ This, of course, is nonsense, pure nonsense. Britain’s domestic history is one of radicalism and extremism, of heretic-burning and dispossession. Within living memory homosexuals in the UK were being electrocuted, jailed and chemically castrated, 150 years after many European countries decriminalised same-sex activity. Within living memory Britain was interning Catholic citizens without trial, our neighbours forced to establish refugee camps to accommodate those who were fleeing torture and persecution. Parts of the UK have the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. In Britain this year tens of thousands of people will pass through a prison system for immigration infractions that was surely a model for Trump’s camps, that holds them without trial, subject to sexual abuse and cruelty. Many of them will remain detained, indefinitely, with no idea when they might be freed, and no trial awaiting.
Internationally, the picture is worse; again, within living memory, Britain has perpetrated grotesque war crimes during decolonisation, torturing and murdering with impunity. The lists are long. Britain is not, and never has been, a country of moderation; it’s a country of wilful self-delusion that favours an omertà of comforting politeness at home and unequivocal and profitable brutality abroad. Stewart knows this — his father, after all, worked for the Malaysian civil service (Malaysia was then a British colony) during the Malayan Emergency, where the British forced almost half a million ethnic Chinese from their land into new settlement camps, burned their villages, and perpetrated horrific massacres against unarmed civilians.
What damage does such a history do to the Brit’s sense of self, the idea that this is, indeed, the most moderate place on earth, where people are treated with dignity? Nothing, no damage at all. 59% of Brits believe that the British Empire — the Opium Wars, the transatlantic slave trade, the Bengal famine, the genocide of indigenous Americans and aboriginal peoples in Australia, the invention of the concentration camps, the whole kit and caboodle — was, on balance, a good thing. Aside from murderous greed, the British vices are hypocrisy and sentimentality, a lethally complacent combination. What the British want, above all, is to feel like good people; it’s better to do bad and feel good than vice versa. We will not be accountable if it involves self-reflection. We’re nice people, ok?
This aspect of the British character is precisely why Stewart will win, or at least come very close to winning, the London Mayoral election. His media success in the Tory leadership race opened his eyes to an untapped mood of the time, that of rhetorical moderation. There is a huge gap in the market for someone who can restore to centrist Brits the idea of a calm, moderate tone, regardless of policy. The atmosphere of social conformity is still strong enough in Britain, and within the middle-class especially, that common sense is the highest personal attribute. Common sense is, of course, also a nonsense; it’s a socially agreed middle-ground but, as anyone following British politics in the last 40 years can tell you, the middle-ground is always shifting. Common sense has been moving right-wards since I was a child, a seemingly unstoppable march only hindered in 2015 when Labour tacked left under Jeremy Corbyn.
The combination of Labour throwing a spanner in the social consensus, and the very reasonable feeling of impotence from an electorate promised an easy Brexit that has since, inevitably, proved virtually undeliverable, has blown apart the political rationale of the moderate centre. Sustaining the rhetoric of so-called common sense around the austerity project has proved impossible under even moderate criticism of its damaging social effects, and has now been dropped by Conservatives, although the Liberal Democrats, hugely damaged by their role in the austerity regime, still tellingly push the idea that is was unavoidable housekeeping rather than ideological economic warfare on the public sector. With no feasible centrist political plan for dealing with the inherently polarising Brexit fiasco, and no wider vision for the country in general, the centrists continue to plead ‘political homelessness’. Stewart’s language is clearly aiming to provide that political home, and with it to pull in the votes of those desperate to feel nice, calm, British and moderate again.
Stewart’s voting record, however, is anything but moderate. While he’s an advocate of Cameron’s social liberalism, his voting record in Parliament is firmly in the camp of economic warfare against the public sector and Britain’s poorest citizens. He voted consistently for reducing capital gains tax, corporation tax, and a tax on Britain’s most expensive homes, and consistently against taxes on bankers’ bonuses and raising the tax rate for Britain’s wealthiest. Meanwhile he voted to restrict the effectiveness of trade unions to represent ordinary workers, to implement the bedroom tax, for a reduction of welfare payments (especially for those who are sick or disabled), against the Education Maintenance Allowance, for tuition fees for higher education, and for so-called Free Schools. He voted to retain hereditary privilege in the House of Lords, but against devolving powers to the people of Scotland and Wales. He voted against proportional representation, but for restricting funding to local authorities. Is this a moderate politics, where the truth lies somewhere in the middle? It seems unlikely; this is a conservative politics aimed at restricting the devolution of political power to ordinary people, at restricting the redistribution of wealth for a more equitable society, at restricting the empowerment of ordinary people through access to education or the ability to collectively organise, all whilst greasing the wheels of a system that allows the rich to get unimaginably richer.
Will this matter, when it comes to the Mayoral election? Not a jot. Rory Stewart’s actual record as a politician will be a minor talking point for a media culture that draws its commentators from such a limited group of people. For them, what will matter is not policy but tone. His public image is part adventurer, part intellectual, all-round nice chap. He has cultivated the image, beloved to the British middle-class, of the committed amateur, as though he never really intended to become a politician, but now that he’s here, by golly he’ll give it his best shot, and try to steer himself by the principles of moderation, common-sense and fair play. Stewart affects the attitude of a man who has just discovered that inequality, injustice and deprivation exist, rather than of a man who has spent the last 9 years making the political decision to deepen poverty and disempowerment.
Nevertheless, if the tone is right, the so-called politically-homeless will lap this up, in the face of what they see as ‘extremism’ from both Labour and Conservatives. They will prize his politeness, his use of moderate language, his very public reaching-out. They’ll thrill to his plans, no doubt already being hatched, to walk across every borough of London and ‘talk to the people’, as though he were a Victorian anthropologist getting a measure of the natives. They will be glad, at last, to have ‘an adult in the room’. And they will ignore any and all discussions of his political record and the effect it has had on creating the very division and anger he’s now searching to heal. In fact, just pointing out his political record will become evidence of your extremism, the extremism for which he is the cure.
But Thatcherism wasn’t moderate, and austerity wasn’t moderate. They may have been polite, well-mannered, civil ideologies in their formal expression. But they weren’t moderate, they were devastating and driven by a single-minded economic and political mission to concentrate wealth and power, and one’s ability to perceive the politicians who implemented them as ‘moderate’ depends upon your distance from their effects. The increasing anger of political discourse is not a cause of disenchantment in the political system, it’s a result of it. But until British political discourse, especially within the media, learns to put aside its desire for niceness and instead addresses the meat-and-veg substance of political ideas, ideas that will help solve Britain’s myriad social and political crises, that anger will not dissipate.
I said recently that I thought Johnson’s political language around the ‘surrender’ bill was proto-fascist, and I meant it; I think his office is looking to set up a scapegoat for when the always undeliverable Brexit is undelivered, at least in the form many of those who voted for it expected. I think that’s a conscious decision from Johnson and the ERG, and Britain will reap that whirlwind in horrible ways. But that doesn’t mean I think that all anger and all intemperate language employed in the UK at the moment is illegitimate. Social media has allowed a lot of opinions that could never find much voice in the narrowly determined print press to be heard. Britain is not a moderate country. It’s an extremely angry country; visitors from abroad find it bristling with aggression, with violence often just under the surface. Political anger should probably be listened to; at core, there are a lot of very good reasons for people to be angry right now, some bad reasons, as well as some illegitimate ones. But a nation with a politics and a media that starts to obsess over tone, that wants to erase anger in order to preserve its own self-image as moderate, will not temper down the frustration, it’ll just perpetuate it.
Face it; there’s a conflict in Britain between different visions of what society could look like. Pretending that conflict is the result of some sort of collective psychological breakdown or a crisis of manners will not offer any tools for moving past it. The old system, both politically and culturally, has failed most people, yet those who benefit from it want to see it continue, because antagonism is not in their best interest.
Do I have hope? I’m not sure. I’m filled with apprehension about how Rory Stewart is going to be portrayed by the centrist wing of the British media. I don’t hold out much hope that they’ll apply a critical lens to his record, but instead will see in him an appropriately ‘moderate’ tone with which they can suppress a growing socialist movement. I fear the Stewart stunt of running as an independent for Mayor of London is just the sort of spectacle of moderation that the old media will love. But I do still have hope that the years of false moderation are coming to an end, and the intellectually moribund idea that the truth is always half-way between two points, an idea that has gripped the intellectually moribund British press for a generation, will soon wither away, to be replaced with real opportunities for social change. From my perspective, Britain doesn’t need any more cruelty hidden behind a mask of politeness and common-sense moderation. It needs a redistribution of wealth, a redistribution of power, a change in priorities towards what it might mean to live a good life, and to be free.
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