England in 2017

Glen Newey

For the time being the election has left the country with rulers that neither see, nor feel, nor know, but leech-like to their fainting country cling. Theresa May has put together a coalition of convenience, formed of incompetents whom she’s too weak to sack, and the DUP, whose votes she can’t do without. Her weekend reshuffle recruited such stellar talents as Gavin Barwell and Michael Gove, the renowned environmentalist, to the praetorian guard. One theory, that Tory grey eminences have demanded she stay on, makes her out to be too weak even to sack herself. May has already had to reassure Ruth Davidson, the lesbian leader of the Scottish Tories, that some of the Orange people’s unreconstructed attitudes on family values are unlikely to find their way into official policy. Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, joint chiefs of staff at Number 10, have taken one for the team leader, rather as John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman did in a vain bid to shield Nixon. On Saturday evening, Downing St said that the coalition was a done deal, only to be contradicted by the DUP. Over in Brussels, Eurocrats awaiting the kick-off of the Brexit negotiations must be quaking at this show of national strength.

The brittle person’s notion of strength is to avoid countenancing any lapse from infallibility. Hence May’s bizarre statement in Downing Street on Friday, which contrived to avoid all mention of the fiasco that has unfolded over the past seven weeks. In a post-flop telly interview, recorded after the statement, she tried to get in touch with her human side. She was sad that the election campaign had bungled away the careers of colleagues who’d lost their seats, but:

What I think is important in the Brexit negotiations which will start in ten days’ time is that we have the certainty of a government that can take forward a plan into those Brexit negotiations. That’s why I think at this critical time for our country it’s important to form a government in the national interest. As we’re the party what [sic] won most seats and most votes we’re the only party that is in a position to form a government that can do that, and that’s what we’re doing … What I’m doing today is focussing on forming a government. As I say I think that’s important in the national interest. And as the largest party with the most seats and most votes we’re the only party that can form that government to take this forward.

When she’s in this mode – and it’s not clear she has any other mode – May comes across like a bot mouthing text that’s been through several iterations of Google translate. The dimboat prosody leaves one doubting not just May’s intelligence, but her wits. When the campaign began, I assumed that her intonation of stock phrases was a boilerplate norm of the Lynton Crosby campaign playbook, but I later came to think that he had tailored it to May’s shortcomings. Suspended in obscure fluid, phrases detach themselves like the blobs of gunk in a lava lamp, and swirl, lit up by the odd flash of almost-meaning. It seems pointless to point out that forming a government isn’t a prize awarded for getting the most votes or even necessarily the most seats. What matters is being seen to say something, even if it’s nothing, and never admitting weakness.

One of May’s problems is that the press has turned. The Mirror (‘Coalition of crackpots’) has been joined by the dear old Sun, which went with the screamer ‘She’s had her chips’ on Saturday’s front page, over a photo of May munching fries on the campaign stump. When you’ve lost the red tops, and even the Mail (‘Tories turn on Theresa’) isn’t full-throated in its support, you’re probably on the skids. Murdoch’s hard-right Times had ‘May stares into the abyss’.

Now the abyss is staring back. At this point the PM is, as George Osborne said yesterday, a dead woman walking, while the nation looks on, fascinated or aghast, through a viewing window. It’s a matter for conjecture – the books have already opened on it – how long she’s got before the grandees in grey strap her into Old Sparky. Whenever it happens, the spectacle is likely to be grisly.


  • 12 June 2017 at 9:47am
    Simon Wood says:
    There must be loads of really good MPs who don't want to become involved in party politics. Mrs May's repositioning of some tired old objects on her mantlepiece points to this.

    This is a frail and insubstantial thought, but I'm beginning to think people without strong opinions are the wisest, and those with are the strangest.

    • 12 June 2017 at 11:28am
      streetsj says: @ Simon Wood
      Strong opinions obstruct clear thought and make the holder especially vulnerable to confirmation bias. In general, the more you know about a topic the more you are aware of what you don't know or can't be known. The Punch and Judy presentation of politics, encouraged by programmes like Today on R4, doesn't allow for shades of opinion. Away from the media spotlight I believe our politicians have more nuanced debates but who knows - the moment they know we're watching their behaviour changes.

    • 12 June 2017 at 11:06pm
      Simon Wood says: @ streetsj
      What I really mean is, when even our politicians don't want to get involved in politics, it may mean something's up.

      Mind you, that scattering of DUP MPs now calling the shots must surely be ecstatic to be called upon to trash our tolerant society.

  • 12 June 2017 at 11:46am
    JamesBaldwin says:
    Calling the Times "hard right" is as misleading as calling Corbyn's program "hard left." This practice of politicians and writers imagine whatever space they inhabit as the center, and anything else as automatically extreme, is a real problem. It prevents people from thinking sensibly about political choices. It's the norm in all the broadsheets and TV news and I don't like to see it spread to publications like the LRB. Generally I think Glen Newey's writing is very good, perhaps this was just a slip-up.

    • 12 June 2017 at 4:32pm
      Stu Bry says: @ JamesBaldwin
      The Times is hard right but it shields it's politics behind a facade of reasonableness.

      They adopt an effective rhetorical tactic of acknowledging that the problems identified by the left exist and agree that action must be taken but if any measure is proposed which might actually address those problems they will find a way to argue against it. This is how they manage to be taken far more seriously than the Telegraph despite having exactly the same views on every major topic.

      They also employ people such as David Aarontvitch and Oliver Kamm who describe themselves as "centre left" despite having seemingly no interest in redistributive policies and never seeing an imperialist war they weren't in favour of. The purpose of this is to move the Overton window to a position where anyone further left than Peter Mandelson can be dismissed as an extremist.

    • 12 June 2017 at 6:02pm
      piffin says: @ Stu Bry
      And one might also recall who owns it..

    • 12 June 2017 at 6:48pm
      tenyards says: @ JamesBaldwin
      Recent independent research based on counting the number of pro-Tory and anti-Labour items in newspapers found that the Times was the most pro-Tory newspaper in Britain.
      Anti-Labour of course, but containing even more rabidly right wing propaganda than the Sun and the Daily Mail.

    • 13 June 2017 at 9:22am
      Graucho says: @ JamesBaldwin
      Did I read right that when Mr. Murdoch saw the results of the exit poll he stormed out of the function he was attending ?

    • 13 June 2017 at 12:16pm
      David Gordon says: @ Graucho
      Alleged to have stormed out but may have just left to grasp his editors warmly by the throat and to set the editorial line for the next morning.

      I agree with Glen's decription of the Times as "hard right". The difference from the Mail is that it is not as gratuitously offensive, it tries to be polite hard right. This leads to nonsense such as publishing two letters after Trump's Great Pull-out, one saying he was only following a campaign pledge, the other saying everything will be wonderful as the world burns - the deserts will "bloom". I was fascinated by the short article on one of the pages about the election, and a few days before the vote, instructing Mrs May to take Gove back into the Cabinet.

    • 13 June 2017 at 2:13pm
      juji says: @ David Gordon

    • 13 June 2017 at 7:54pm
      David Gordon says: @ juji
      Thanks for finding the reference juji.

      Ed Davey sums Gove up nicely

    • 14 June 2017 at 10:52am
      JamesBaldwin says: @ tenyards
      In reply both to you and Stu Bry:
      I don't doubt for a moment that the Times is consistently (relentlessly) right-wing and anti-Labour (or, at least, against the Labour party in any configuration other than Blairism). It is an ideologically-driven paper, for sure. But the kind of right-wing politics propounded by the Times cannot be called hard right, in my opinion. It is mainstream British conservatism, of the type that most Tory voters, most LibDems and even a significant chunk of Labour voters identify with. It is hard right neither in the Ayn Randian economic sense (no limits on markets at all, welfare state completely dismantled), nor in the cultural-nationalist sense (anti-globalization, anti-immigration, socially conservative, implied or overt racism).

      There has to be a distinction between the right and the hard right, otherwise our language is losing its ability to describe politics. We have seen this already in the media's consistent description of Corbyn as "hard left" when his politics is nowhere near hard left: it is a very ordinary left-wing platform.

  • 12 June 2017 at 12:13pm
    DanB says:
    "Dimboat"? Que?

    "Suspended in obscure fluid, phrases detach themselves like the blobs of gunk in a lava lamp, and swirl, lit up by the odd flash of almost-meaning." What can I say? Wonderful.

  • 12 June 2017 at 1:21pm
    IPFreely says:
    Colourful! The analysis is spread thin like mustard on the sausage. The right wing papers have been howling about Corbyn as a loser, a Stone Age marxist but that didn't do him any harm did it? Hemingway and Yossarion paired down the adjectives to a minimum, but written style is like a tattoo - might look good at first but doesn't always wear well.

  • 12 June 2017 at 1:22pm
    Mr A J L Cruickshank says:
    England in 2017? What about Britain in 1957 as we sit out the creation of the EEC? Or Britain in 1973 when we join the same year as the Yom Kippur war and the start of an oil price rise that brings world stagflation? What about now? We are bottom of the growth league and are about to leave just when there are all the signs that the EU is about to stir itself into overall growth. One fact that gets little mention because we are rarely asked to see it from the EU's side is that by us leaving, the EU and the eurozone will make a massive step towards mutual convergence. Once we have left, apart from Sweden and Denmark, all other EU countries are either in the euro or have a commitment to join it. From an economic point of view that makes it much easier for the EU to go through their process of reassessing their economic objectives. Whether fiscal coordination follows is trickier. It can only be a matter of time: five or ten years before the EU moves its financial business from the City of London to Frankfurt, Paris or Milan. It is not the short-run that is so worrying, though bad enough, as the the next but one cycle of investment where multinational firms may decide then to shift a substantial portion of their operations into the EU. No one in the British political class of 2017 seems in any way able to take deal with this possibility.

  • 13 June 2017 at 7:04pm
    SpinningHugo says:
    "Ruth Davidson, the lesbian leader of the Scottish Tories"

    Nice. A credit to the LRB.

    • 13 June 2017 at 7:27pm
      SuZ says: @ SpinningHugo
      It was mentioned in the context of the DUP's hatred of homosexuality. You seem to be implying that's something the LRB is also guilty of. Silly.

    • 13 June 2017 at 10:24pm
      Lulu says: @ SpinningHugo
      There's a viciously sexist overtone in the piece's whole attitude to May. Is it even imaginable that someone would write about a failing man in this way?

    • 14 June 2017 at 7:03am
      streetsj says: @ Lulu
      Yes completely. The piece is just typically anti-Tory. It is part of the Left's charm that they are happy to call both men and women "scum".

    • 14 June 2017 at 8:18am
      Dominic Rice says: @ streetsj
      Slurs, smears, austerity . . . a winning formula that will deliver a landslide next time.

    • 14 June 2017 at 9:08am
      Glen Newey says: @ streetsj
      To Lulu: Yes it is. See various pieces that I have written about, say, Blair, Osborne and Cameron over the years. There is an obvious difference between the following: criticism of someone who happens to be a woman; criticism of someone because she is a woman. Nothing I write in the piece depends on or makes the latter claim. Nor do you cite any passage which does. As is well known, apologists for Israel's actions often make a parallel conflation to silence critics by charges of anti-semitism.

      To streetsj: I'm afraid to say that even by your standards this is a fairly asinine remark. I don't use the word 'scum' here, and have never used it about anyone in a blogpost (please do check). Since Lulu's point, such as it was, charged me with differential treatment of men and women, it isn't corroborated, but rather refuted, by the charge that 'the Left' (with me as a representative of it) treat them both the same. I can recommend one or two primers on clear thinking if that would help.

    • 15 June 2017 at 9:04pm
      streetsj says: @ Glen Newey
      I think it is your thinking which is less than clear. I agreed that you treat both men and women the same. Your vitriol is reserved for people with opposing political views not those of a different gender.
      Further I didn't say that you had used the word "scum" just that it was a word favoured by the "Left" when in dialectical disagreement.

  • 14 June 2017 at 10:34am
    Eddie says:
    Well said Mr Newey. I recall a Guardian article from last year which equated criticism of Theresa May as "not up to the job" with sexism. Just found it: We might have realised May's weaknesses sooner had candour been the watchword...

  • 14 June 2017 at 6:53pm
    medaoh says:
    I wonder if this sort of exchange would be helped (made redundant?) if we dropped right and left as political or social descriptions. It's a long time since the French Revolution.

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