They see that the rich have gotten richer, and that one million people have been driven to rely on food banks for daily sustenance. / Peter Burgess
Robert Appelbaum,  May 19, 2015

Nausea in the UK

They see that the rich have gotten richer, and that one million people have been driven to rely on food banks for daily sustenance. / Peter Burgess
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It still feels like the morning after. People still have headaches, feel dizzy, nauseous, confused. What happened? A party controlled by inept bullies has been swept into power with a parliamentary majority of 51%. Stalwart objectors point out that under the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, the Conservatives achieved their majority with only 37% of the popular vote, that surely this is irrational. But, then again, nearly 13% of the vote went to UK Independence Party, whose platform was based on a mixture of xenophobia, know-nothingness, and latent racism. All is not well in the UK.

In Scotland, the majority is thrilled. The Scottish National Party has taken electoral control of almost the whole of the country. And they have done so, many Scots believe, not because of old-fashioned nationalist fervor, but because the SNP offered, in contrast to the previously dominant Labour Party, a genuine model of social democracy. But it is likely that fear of Scottish nationalism played a part in the rejection of Labour in England, and thus in making it impossible for Scottish nationals to live, for now, under a regime with social democratic values.

The recriminations are flying back and forth about whether Labour ran on a platform that was too far to the left or not left enough. The fact is, the platform was a muddle, a mastication of promises, reluctance, and reservations, but it was based on ideals that were at bottom social democratic indeed, hearkening back to the great Labour days in the 1940s. The problem was the muddle, not masked by an attempt to use 1940s rhetoricthe word “work” employed so often in the party manifesto that it sounded as if a conclave of Presbyterian elders had written itseventy years too late.

Politics in the UK is traditionally more ideological than in the US, in that most voters understand whose side the different parties take in the struggle for power. If there is something the matter with Kansas, where poor people vote for incompetent right wingers with trust funds, there is usually nothing the matter with the north of England, Scotland and Wales, where real economic deprivation persists, and voters in need vote for the Left. But politics in the UK has become less ideological, since it is now very hard to appeal to the British voter (or to the Northern Irish one, either) purely on the basis of ideals. It’s hard to sell the distinction between self-interest and the general welfare to a nation whose unifying trait is to pride itself on its cynicism. (The Conservative Party has been astute in re-purposing the phrase “British values” to thinly veil attacks on democratic freedoms, all in the name of democracy.)

So when the Labour Party made noises about a more egalitarian society, a lot of people instinctively reached to protect their wallets, stuffed though those wallets may have been with maxed-out credit cards. Of the wealthiest countries in the world per capita, the UK has one of the lowest savings rates per household, even lower than the US.

If you look at studies of people in the wishy-washy middle, among them the “shy Tories” who bolted toward the Conservatives at the last moment, you find individuals who do not believe that the future can be any improvement on the present. They sense that the UK is stagnating economically and culturally; they know that it has become less fair than it used to be. They see that the rich have gotten richer even since the coming of the Great Recession, and that one million people have been driven to rely on food banks for daily sustenance. But they don’t feel anything can be done to improve the situation, and their basic instinct is fear that things could get worse.

The shy Tories are neurotics in love with their symptoms. They complain, they feel bad, but they don’t really want to get better. And so given a choice between a remedy and more of the same, they have chosen more of the same.

The only bright spot of the election was the utter demise of the Liberal Democratic party. The Liberal Democrats were the only party without a tribal constituency, and they were also the solitary party with a clear philosophy of governanceliberalism now! But when, in 2010, the opportunity arose for them, they chose power over philosophy and self-interest over the welfare of the people they were supposed to serve; and so the people punished them last week.

In the midst of the nausea, while the bullies revel in power and all the other parties wallow in self-recrimination, British voters of both the left and the right and the north and the south can take heart in the fact that the one party which best represented themwhich had recently become frank about its cynicism, its lust for domination, and the hypocrisy of its good intentionswas the party that suffered the most.

Although the Conservatives have real majority now, without needing to stay in coalition with the hapless Lib Dems, the majority is only 51%, and there are major divisions in the party of privilege. The morning after the morning after, they may find that among their dearest advantages is the power to embarrass themselves. The UK, as a single nation, as a European nation, and as prosperous nation may not survive them.

Robert Appelbaum is professor of English Literature at Uppsala University, Sweden. His most recent book is Working the Aisles: A Life in Consumption (Zero).

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