11 August 2017

British politics has become a Beckett play – without the humour


To understand where we are today, it is best to start at the beginning. The Prime Minister – whose authority is shot and never to return – voted (we must assume) to Remain a part of the European Union just last year. However, she leads a party committed to Leave, and like many a latter-day convert seems determined to show she’s more faithful than the long-time faithful themselves.

Undaunted by the humiliation she experienced in June, she presses on, bowing to nothing and no one in her unswerving commitment to implementing a vision of Brexit for which no one voted and which she cannot herself even explain.

Meanwhile, the Leader of the Opposition, whose great triumph in June left him nearly 60 seats short of a majority, voted (we should assume) for Leave. However, he leads a party that is notionally in favour of Remain – or, failing that, of the softest, least consequential Brexit possible.

His voters – and of this there is no doubt, even if some of them now pretend otherwise – certainly did not vote Labour thinking the party would pursue a hard-Marxist Brexit. Too bad. That is what they will receive anyway. According to the people close to Jeremy Corbyn, we should embrace the upside of Brexit since leaving the European Union means leaving, in the words of his political secretary Katy Clark, “this capitalist system”. Okey-dokey.

We can’t go on like this, and yet we cannot escape it either. British politics right now resembles a Beckett play without the mordant humour. Neither Mrs May nor Mr Corbyn is capable of being straight with the British people, if the thought of being so ever even crossed their respective minds.

You can decide for yourself whether they are hypocrites or chancers or frauds or all of the above. What is not in doubt is that it is hard to recall a time when both major parties were so obviously so unpalatable and, indeed, unelectable. As for the Liberal Democrats? Well, if Vince Cable is an upgrade on Tim Farron, it is only a Ryanair kind of upgrade: one so slight you’d struggle to notice the difference.

And if you had hoped that the summer holidays might bring some respite from politics, you will have been disappointed. If anything, the mood is turning increasingly sour.

Today, the strength of an argument is not measured by its own merit or persuasiveness, but rather by the degree to which it antagonises your political opponents. If all the right – that is to say, all the wrong – people are offended, you must be doing something right. Bitterness is the dominant mood – and, if we are honest with ourselves, we will recognise that no segment of the electorate is guiltless.

If Nigel Farage is outraged (though when is he not?) then job done. Ditto if whatever line you pursue has Guardian readers choking on their quinoa. We divide the country into tribes, each marked out by their consumer preferences, and it often seems that all we care about is making sure someone else is more enraged, more put-out, more unhappy than we are ourselves. We all clambered aboard the banter bus long ago and no longer care where it has come from, far less wherever it might be going.

The rise of “whataboutery”, likewise, makes it impossible to have a coherent, let alone a considered, argument. Apparently, you lose the right to say anything about Corbyn’s infatuation with the Venezuelan disaster unless you have also said something critical about Saudi Arabia – even though the two cases are in no way comparable and though every adult knows that our relationship with Saudi Arabia is one of necessity and realpolitik, not chumminess and shared aspiration.

Similarly, those so-called moderates who think a hard Brexit sub-optimal and who cling to the tender belief that perhaps there could be a range of different types of Brexit available to the British people are told to shut up and get with the programme. Stop talking Britain down, you traitors – or, on the Left, pledge your fealty to a Labour leadership whose vision of Brexit is scarcely distinguishable from that pursued by the diehard Kippers. Heads they win; tails you lose.

And in turn, many of these so-called moderates struggle to suppress a measure of satisfaction any time anything happens which might suggest Brexit might be something less than a glorious, liberating success. Bad news comes with the silver lining of being able to say “I told you so, you cretins” – and while that might not be enough for proper nourishment, it’s not nothing either. Here again, your misery or embarrassment is my happiness or justification.

As choices go, all this seems less than joyful. But it is where we are. British politics is becalmed. Like a sailing ship stuck in the doldrums, we swim on a sea – if you will excuse the metaphor – stinking with our own filth.

In these circumstances – with both parties being led by politicians who are, in their respective fashions, little more than confidence tricksters – you can understand why the public has frankly had enough of politics. If you wanted to get somewhere better, you wouldn’t start from here.

And if, as you look from May to Corbyn and back from Corbyn to May, you think it all hopeless – well, I don’t blame you for feeling helpless. We cannot go on like this, and yet we must.

Alex Massie is a political commentator