Letter from a Cheerless London Summer

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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Britain between a redundant Brexit mom and a comic strip socialist

JUNE IS THE cruellest month for British Conservatives. Last year around this time, the summer of discontent was all about two words that define the identity and attitude of the English mind: ‘United’ and ‘Great’. David Cameron, whose poshness was only matched by his dignity, could have done without a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. He insisted that his word be legitimised by history. He lost the vote in an eruption of middle England resentment, and only those who were trapped in the cosy cosmopolitanism of London could not anticipate the power of nostalgia. Brexit evicted from 10 Downing Street an elegant Conservative with the soul of a social democrat. Boris Johnson, the dishevelled neo- Churchillian, was on the verge of becoming the Brexit prime minister. Ridiculed by Tory grandees, stabbed in the dawn by his comrades-in-arms, he was the outsider who fell at the door of destiny.

Theresa May stepped in, and she exuded the power of illegitimacy from the very beginning. ‘Anything but Boris’ was the mood in the Conservative establishment then, and May just happened to be the convenient ‘anything’. The illegitimacy was greater than the paradox: a Remainer as Brexit prime minister. History did not repeat itself as May squandered her parliamentary majority in an election she thought would legitimise and strengthen her—and stabilise the country. History just accentuated the hubris of just another politician. As the leader of a minority government, she is the lamest duck now working out a confidence-and-supply deal with, of all people, the Democratic Unionist Party of Ireland, whose religious conservatism is marked by, among other things, creationism and homophobia. George Osborne, the erstwhile ‘Remain’ chancellor dumped by May and now the editor of The Evening Standard, calls her a “dead woman walking”. Columnists inspired by the Austin Powers female robot call her Maybot. In most editorial cartoons, she, weighed down by her power necklace of oversized pearls, is the wicked witch with a menacing beak. May aspired to be the next Thatcher and achieved political purgatory.

Last summer, when Cameron gambled, British conservatism looked invincible. He was not the rightful progeny of Thatcherism. It was not the marketplace that concentrated his mind; it was society—the broken Britain—that he wanted to fix. There was about him that solidity of a conviction politician even as the elders of the orders found him to be a privileged toff trapped in his own guilt complex. And it was conviction—and decency—that cost him his job. May as Brexit matron evoked little conviction, and her call for fresh elections was not a re-referendum on Brexit but an appeal for legitimacy. The vote was a rejection of not Brexit but May. She was, and still is, the wrong leader to represent an idea that divided the party and the country last summer. The betrayal of the Brexit vote sought justice in retrospect.

Theresa May as Brexit matron evoked little conviction, and her call for fresh elections was not a re-referendum on Brexit but an appeal for legitimacy. The vote was a rejection of not Brexit but May

As she lost her last claim to authenticity, someone else looked terrifyingly original. Till Election Day, he was a joke bigger than his ideology. Imperious May did not even consider him worthy of being her debating partner. In his own shrinking party, he was a little tyrant dreaming of eternity. It was as if a cartoon character of the op-ed pages had accidentally stepped into the arena. On the stump, he wanted to be the Hugo Chavez of Britain. Against May’s austerity, he was all spend-and-squeeze-the-rich. As May threatened downsize the welfare state, he wooed the old and the young as a socialist with the biggest heart in Britain, and it seemed no one much worried about his silly views on Islamic terror at a time when Britain was its worst victim, but they seemed to have noticed his personal austerity. Pure comic strip, but the underdog was being lapped up. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the ‘old’ Labour, white beard and red tie, was retro-romance for the so-called Snowflake Generation. He was socialism’s Islington Jehovah promising them a fee-less, painless future in the age of the cheerless austerity mom. He bounced back from the margins and, in defeat, became the moral winner of June 8th. It is a victory shared by someone like Emma Reyburn, a gallerist in Chelsea. She tells me: “You, me, my parents and our social circle are generally living in cities, employed, and many own their own homes. I think we forget what a hard blow has been dealt to so many people by a society so solely focussed on huge corporations. I find it incomprehensible that so many politicians seem to be blind to this. It’s only getting worse.” Emma has more reasons to be a Corbyn supporter: “I have been in the hugely fortunate position to be privately educated, had a wonderful university education, and to have grown up in London. I’m already saddled with a loan of over £50,000, which I’ll probably never pay off anyway. I live at home at 22 because rent in London is so high. The prospect of buying a house seems almost impossible. If I’m in this position, imagine how someone less fortunate than me feels.” For her, “Corbyn offers a sense of hope and optimism, and he seems like a genuinely good person with good policy.” A whiff of Bernie Sanders? Corbyn ruled the social media.

It seems the Corbyn charisma has united generations. Emma’s father, a writer and a journalist, finds him “endearingly ordinary”. “He makes his own jam, he has an allotment, and he talks about how important it is to read a book,” he tells me, “there’s an ethical purity about him.” It was not long ago that even The Guardian did not find this medieval revolutionary worthy of Britain’s or the Labour’s future. The right-wing media had only contempt; nobody took him seriously. They were all Mays in undervaluing him. “Don’t chuck Britain in the Cor-bin,’ the Sun asked its readers on its front page. Angry Corbynistas binned and burned right-wing tabloids that mocked their icon. For the believers, he was not cartoon but prophet. The lionisation of a Soviet-vintage socialist in 21st century London was made possible by the absence of a Conservative who could unite a divided—emotionally and demographically— Britain. Osborne was right: dead women should not be allowed to walk over a party that was having the best of its time in post-Thatcherite Britain. Last summer, history shifted in Britain, and a vote for freedom from a calcified Brussels bureaucracy was misread as an anti-Europe vote. It was an anti-EU vote, and Brexit lite for stability would be a perpetuation of the original betrayal. The kingdom of frayed nerves needs a Conservative who can return to the reassuring text of an idea that prefers the pursuit of the familiar to a fantasy of a greater tomorrow. And Boris Johnson is lying low. Pity, in this gorgeous London summer, politics requires a comic strip socialist to cheer up.