It’s not 1940. Might it, though, be 1945? By that I don’t mean we are at the end of some epic contest of national survival, let alone of national liberation. It’s not been that sort of contest, and anyway, this doesn’t look much like the end. But for the last few years normal politics has effectively been on hold as the government has grappled with a grim and grinding task that has consumed almost all its energies. Now that one significant part of the task may be reaching a conclusion of sorts, the appetite to resume more conventional hostilities is palpable. The politicians want to give the voters permission to start caring again about the things they normally care about. Their problem is that the voters never stopped caring about those things. Deep public frustration with conventional politics has not been on hold while conventional politics has been frozen. If anything the anger has been building. The appetite for change that was revealed in the Brexit vote has been given the chance to deepen while the political class has been stuck trying to deliver on the change the Brexit vote called for. The government may be anticipating some gratitude if and when it fulfils the mission the electorate set for it. The electorate may have other ideas. Perhaps an entire political order is about to be swept away.
This is clearly what Labour’s leadership is hoping. But it needs to be careful what it wishes for. Attlee was able to harness the mood for change in 1945 in part because he had proved his bona fides by serving as a reliable member of the national government that prosecuted the war. Corbyn has done nothing like that. His policy of effectively trying to sit this one out, in the hope that he will be relatively untainted when the voters get to pass their verdict on the whole sorry business, is enormously risky. No doubt he will take comfort from the thought that the Tories threw everything they had at him in 2017 and he emerged more or less unscathed. Scaremongering didn’t work in 1945 either. Churchill made a foolish mistake when he tried to warn against the risks of voting Labour by suggesting in a radio broadcast that an Attlee government would require ‘some form of Gestapo’ to prosecute its policies. It sounded both desperate and ridiculous because Attlee had already shown that he was as loyal and competent a democratic politician as Churchill – in many ways, more loyal and more competent. Corbyn has spent the past two years cementing his reputation as a less than competent obstructionist. Being seen talking to Hamas did him no harm last time. Being so reticent about talking to May will be harder to shake off. Change born of frustration could sweep him away too.
Even if Corbyn is no Attlee, might May still be Churchill? I realise this will probably sound absurd, especially to those Brexiteer politicians like Boris Johnson who have been assiduously channelling Churchill’s spirit for so long they can scarcely remember what the point is anymore. May, with her pinched, airless, bureaucratic approach to Brexit looks to them like a modest little woman with a great deal to be modest about. It is true that she has never approached even the foothills of Churchillian rhetoric during her premiership – no one will be quoting from her best Brexit speeches fifty years from now, except to mock them (‘Brexit means … we never did find out’). But Churchill wasn’t just a speech-maker. He also made plenty of fateful decisions throughout his long career and it is worth remembering that although May has not reached his heights, nor has she plumbed his depths. As the American economist Kenneth Rogoff said recently, ‘Even the worst Brexit should not be nearly as painful as Churchill’s disastrous choice to deflate the economy in 1925 by going back on the gold standard at too high a rate.’ Sometimes a bad decision is much worse than no decision at all.
Where May has come to resemble Churchill is in her capacity to make herself so central to this moment of national crisis, while also remaining a woman out of time. Churchill became indispensable to the political life of the nation in diehard defence of a vision of Britain – of England – that belonged to another age: romantic, hyperbolic, imperialist, oblivious. His ability to put this vision into words that roused millions to the cause should not blind us to the fact that it wasn’t shared by most of his fellow Britons, as he was to discover in 1945. They had been indulging him in it only as long as they had no choice. May is neither romantic nor imperialist, though she can be hyperbolic (‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere’) and she often seems oblivious of the price being paid for the course she has chosen. She follows that course, so far as one can tell, out of a sense of duty and also in dogged defence of a view of England she has held for most of her life, probably since childhood. She sees it as a sensible place, made up of largely sensible people, doing their best to resist fashionable nostrums and to get on with their lives without too much fuss. How many others still see it like that?
Something that marks May out from most of her fellow politicians – and the vast majority of her fellow citizens – is her regular churchgoing. Many Mondays throughout her time in office, no matter how fraught things get, the papers have carried a photo of May on her way into or out of the previous day’s service at her parish church, accompanied by her husband Philip in his awkward smart-casual outfits, he often looking chirpy, she usually wearing an enigmatic smile. Recently I have been going to church a bit too, for boringly pragmatic reasons (school) – something I have never really done before. Apart from being surprised at how restful it can be, I have also found it strange to think that each Sunday the prime minister does something similar. The services I have been at are fairly low Anglican, so there isn’t a great deal of religious observance, more by way of worrying about the state of the world and of our relations with each other in it. There are prayers for the planet, which seems reasonable, and for those charged with difficult decisions at a time of national discord to exercise discretion and judgment, which sounds more wishful. Does the vicar in May’s church also ask for the country’s leaders to be blessed with wisdom? Or, seeing her sitting there, is he too embarrassed to get the words out?
Steady Anglicanism would once have helped connect May with her public. Now it is just another of the things that stands between her and them. It makes her, weirdly, more like the queen, who is also photographed most Sundays heading to or from a church service, either with or without her Philip (these days, more often without). May seems to share some of Churchill’s reverence for the monarch, or at least for the monarchy. That might have been a little shaken by the queen’s recent attempt to encourage her politicians to get their act together and resolve this thing. ‘Of course,’ the 92-year-old monarch told an audience at the Sandringham Women’s Institute last month, ‘every generation faces fresh challenges and opportunities. As we look for new answers in the modern age, I for one prefer the tried and tested recipes, like speaking well of each other and respecting different points of view; coming together to seek out the common ground; and never losing sight of the bigger picture.’ By making these remarks somewhere as homely as the WI, the queen may have hoped that they would be seen as nothing more than an unobjectionable homily. But we don’t do those any more. Certainly we don’t pay them much attention.
Many observers, including significant numbers of the public, have been struck by May’s exceptional reserves of quiet determination in recent months, often in the face of hostility that would have daunted a lesser politician. They see something to commend in her even as they see almost nothing to commend in her proposed deal: May’s approval ratings have risen as approval of her Brexit strategy has fallen. She seems set on getting this done and genuinely to believe that she is the one to do it. She still finds time to provide glimpses of the Britain she believes in and believes she is doing it for: here she is pictured in a hi-vis jacket volunteering to collect rubbish in her Maidenhead constituency; there she is at a care home awkwardly dishing out tea and sandwiches to the residents. Her relative detachment from the treacherous currents of contemporary culture swirling around her may have been her greatest strength. It is a large part of what has kept her going. Like Churchill, she may now believe that it is her destiny as well as her duty to finish the job and help determine what comes next.
She can’t expect the voters to see it that way, any more than Churchill could, and anyway her colleagues probably won’t give her the chance. If and when Brexit is a done deal – however contingent that deal is – her weaknesses will be brutally exposed. She remains a politician out of time and the country is not going to wait for her to catch up. Something is brewing that is bigger than Brexit. The world has not stood still while May has been doing her duty. The Paris climate agreement, in which the Cameron government played a leading part, was almost the last major international commitment Britain made before Brexit came along and swallowed our capacity to think beyond the current moment. Yet in the three years since then the news on climate has got much worse and the targets set in Paris, ambitious though they seemed at the time, now look inadequate. The idea of getting back to politics as usual after this three-year hiatus is increasingly absurd. We can’t carry on like this, but we can’t carry on like we used to carry on either.
When Churchill lost, he could jut out his chin and wait until the world turned back his way. That was one of the virtues of the British system he believed in: its ability to right itself, given time. It’s not clear that it works like that anymore. The Tories may find that replacing May with someone younger and more in touch – or with someone more flamboyant and conventionally Churchillian – makes little difference to their fate, which is already set. But Labour shouldn’t assume that all it has to do is wait. Perhaps no alternative leader will be any better able than May to take the Conservative Party forward. There are any number of alternative leaders better equipped than Corbyn to move British politics on. She has made this her moment, and he let her. Soon they will both be relics of the moment they made.
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