James Butler

14 November 2023

Repetition Compulsion

Suella Braverman finally goaded Rishi Sunak into sacking her as home secretary yesterday morning. The nominal cause was the editorial Braverman wrote for the Times last Thursday, which libelled pro-Palestinian demonstrators as ‘hate marchers’ and criticised the police for ‘playing favourites’. Number Ten has since briefed that its suggested edits for the piece were ignored. Braverman’s baseless claim of threats to remembrance services at the Cenotaph helped mobilise hundreds of far-right counter-protesters; responsibility for the drunken violence and sporadic racist attacks against demonstrators returning home lies with her.

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11 August 2023

At One Cartridge Place

The audience of Punchdrunk’s The Burnt City is plunged into a world created in two vast warehouse spaces, one Mycenae and the other Troy, between which play out the events – more or less – of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Euripides’ Hecuba.

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25 July 2023

In Suburbia

One of Labour’s least attractive peculiarities is how restless it gets when deprived of opportunities for self-flagellation. It could have greeted last Thursday’s by-election results simply by stressing the obvious – that the country is repulsed by the Conservatives, for whom these elections were a disaster – and reciting the usual pieties about the need to supplicate further in suburbia. Instead the party has erupted in hopeless overreaction.

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9 May 2023

Nightmare Abbey

After the grovelling, thousands of troops processed in armed celebration. Somewhere beyond the cordon, the Metropolitan Police arrested a few republicans for precrime. Commentators purred that this, after all, is what Britain does best.

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21 October 2022

Short Termism

The spectacle of fringe libertarianism crashing and burning on contact with the real world would be funny if we didn’t have to live through the consequences. It isn’t clear what Conservatives think conservatism is any longer: what aspect of actually existing British society (rather than ersatz Victorian fantasy) they seek to conserve, or even what they think the roots of the country’s problems in fact are. The easy, nonsense answers – Remainer fifth columnists, decadent critical race theorists and debauched metropolitans – have their idiot adherents still, some of them sincere and dangerous rather than merely cynical. But they are fictions that won’t stand up to the very real problems of the winter now bearing down on us. 

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6 July 2022

Johnson, His Fall

An updated version of this piece appears in the 21 July issue of the paper.

Fewer ministers than ever care about their departments, as the internecine vortex of Westminster and dreams of a slot on Question Time suck in most of their attention. This doesn’t entirely explain why Britain, after twelve years of Conservative government, is run-down, stagnant, expensive, underpaid, unequal, corrupt, socially fractured, backward-looking, hungry and fearful. But it doesn’t help. It will take more than dislodging Johnson to change that.

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25 March 2022

At the Donmar

Max Webster’s production of Henry V at the Donmar Warehouse promised to examine a riven England and the alternating cast of cynics and inadequates who govern it. The interpretation is still apt, though the genuflections to colonialism and climate change seem like the perfunctory box-ticking of liberal orthodoxy. Other interpretations are now more pressing, and more awkward. This is a war play, the story of an overweening king set on reconquest, on the flimsiest of pretexts. Or is it? Isn’t it also the story of a master rhetorician, a reformed actor-king uniting a fractious nation?

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24 September 2021

Turning a Little Blue

Starmer should feel largely unthreatened from his left. The Corbynite rump in the Labour Party has broadly failed to regroup since 2019, spending much of the pandemic relitigating its defeat. Many left-wingers have disengaged from the party while retaining vestigial membership, giving their attention to less poisonous local issues, community support in the pandemic or climate activism. The left’s counter-festival of socialist ideas, The World Transformed, will be held again in Brighton alongside the sealed tomb of the party conference. Its wide-ranging programme suggests that sincerity, intellectual energy and ambition are still there on the left of the party. But the outcome of its scheduled debate, ‘Starmer Out?’, is academic: even as earnest members wrestle with how best to transform society in response to the climate crisis, the political capacity to realise those ideas ebbs.

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28 May 2021

The World According to Dom

In response to a series of adroit questions from Dean Russell about the structural and institutional lessons that might be derived from his experience, Cummings could only return to Johnson’s personal flaws, ‘like a shopping trolley, smashing from one side of the aisle into the other’. It’s true that ‘don’t elect Boris Johnson’ is a useful first step for dealing with any problem, but it is a little galling to hear it coming from the man who masterminded Johnson’s rise.

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11 May 2021

Beyond Hartlepool

A longer, updated version of this piece appears in the 3 June issue of the paper.

It was a disorienting election: incumbency was obviously an advantage, and the yardstick of what ‘ought’ to happen in a ‘normal’ political cycle is less useful with a government that has branded itself the liberator of its people from European bondage, overseen a vaccination programme that eclipsed its culpable failures earlier in the pandemic, and not yet turned off the economic life support. None of these facts are discernible under Labour’s stagey embrace of sackcloth and ashes, and they have not yet troubled the party’s instinctive factional fighters, who scent advantage in the wind.

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