Another short-fingered vulgarian: Boris Johnson, September, 2019. | UK Parliament
Laurie Penny,  December 18

Necessary Anger

Coping with a crushing defeat for the British left

Another short-fingered vulgarian: Boris Johnson, September, 2019. | UK Parliament
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Right. Barbarism it is, then. It was carnage. The biggest defeat for the British left since 1935. In last week’s election, the Labour Party was wiped out, including in parts of the country that have sent socialists to Parliament for eighty-five years. Boris Johnson now has an eighty-seat majority, more power than any Tory leader has had since Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, more power than even a morally continent and political leader should ever be allowed. He can, and will, do whatever he wants. There’s nothing the opposition can do to stop him. Labour tried their very best, put forward a manifesto that will now go down as one of the great utopian novels of the century, and mobilized armies of young people to get out the vote. It came too late. It wasn’t enough. And now—now I don’t know what to do with all this anger.

It wasn’t close, this time, you see. This time, it can’t just be explained away by foreign cyberspies, or vote-rigging, or witchcraft, or the weather. The awful truth is that people had a choice. A choice to empower a lying racist shitclown who’ll sell off our precious health service and tip us toward climate disaster—or to take a chance on something better. Something positive. By a small margin, most of the country cast votes for parties that weren’t promising to drive the burning clown-car right over the Brexit cliff screaming abuse at foreigners all the way down; and if we had a representative democratic system that actually did what it said on the tin, the outcome would have been different. But we don’t, and enough people saw the abyss and chose to jump. Enough people heard the lies and chose to believe them. I don’t think those people are stupid. If I did, I wouldn’t be so angry.

A week before the election I stepped onto a shuddering London Underground train, still wearing a Labour sticker left over from canvassing. The tweedy-looking gentleman next to me accused me of shilling for a terrorist sympathizer. He reminded me that Jeremy Corbyn was an anti-Semite who hates his country. I listened in mounting horror as this educated and eloquent man reeled off a list of untruths that he had chosen to believe. Before we parted ways at Euston, I asked what he does for a living. Reader, this man was Great Britain’s foremost expert on sloths. He publishes books about sloths. Because, as he correctly informed me, sloths are brilliant. 

It was around then that I realized we were in deep trouble. 

I am furious that it’s come to this, that a person who cares so much about sloths has been led to care so little about his neighbors. I am furious at Labour, obviously, not least for the staggering hubris of agreeing to the election in the first place. I’m fascinated to know who, exactly, thought that would be a good idea.

To be clear, I don’t think being extremely angry at your friends and neighbors is a winning soundbite for the next election. I wouldn’t lead with it. We are allowed to feel things that don’t make reasonable electoral strategy, particularly in the teeth of this sort of shock. Personally, I don’t think that my darkest and most uncharitable impulses are the stuff of sensible policy. I believe in my own and others’ capacity to handle pain and fear like sensible adults, rather than building an entire movement out of refusing to do so. “I’m suddenly very afraid of my neighbors” is not—well, I was about to say it’s not a vote-winning slogan, but then I remembered.

I can wish no worse on those people than that they will one day understand the consequences of their actions and be obliged to live with them.

Being angry and disappointed in your fellow citizens is not the same as thinking they’re evil, and it’s not the same as wishing them harm. I don’t want to see anyone locked in a cage at the border or dying in a homeless shelter or watching their kids going hungry just because I happen to find their opinions distasteful. I don’t want those things to happen to anyone. As a dear friend wrote on Facebook, I can wish no worse on those people than that they will one day understand the consequences of their actions and be obliged to live with them. But honestly, nobody deserves what’s coming.

In order to understand what is about to happen in Britain, you must understand what has already happened. We’ve just been through nine years of austerity, a disastrous Tory project that tore up the entire social fabric of the nation. Austerity is a delicate word for the wanton destruction that ruined lives and shattered communities. Here’s what it actually means: Close to one in three children now live in poverty in one of the wealthiest nations on earth. Hundreds of thousands have had their disability benefits cut or withdrawn—terminally ill people have been forced to apply for work that isn’t there in order to keep their heating on in winter, some of them dying in job centers. Before Tory austerity came in, food banks were almost unheard of in Britain; a survey last year by The Independent estimated about one in fourteen Britons have resorted to a food bank for a meal, which amounts to about 3.7 million people. Homelessness in England has more than doubled since 2010. Rates of mental illness and domestic violence killings[*] are rising. Average student debt has nearly tripled over the last decade and a generation has seen its future snap shut like a set of jaws. By some counts, at least a hundred and thirty thousand people have died as a direct result of Tory cuts. Any way you stack it, that’s a hill of corpses Boris and his cronies are standing on. But there will be no final spreadsheet for this back-handed brutality, this death by a thousand cuts, the lives pared down and rubbed out, and all of it blamed on the poor, on immigrants, on foreigners, the message repeated day after draining day in the tame tabloid press. The thing that sticks with me? There are no libraries anymore. The Tories have closed nearly eight hundred libraries. And now they’ll stay closed.

I’m angry about that. So are millions of British people who never voted for any of this, a constituency that includes the majority of women, people of color, as well as the young. But apparently our anger doesn’t count, because we’re not white people over fifty living in swing constituencies.

I’m part of the generation that graduated into the teeth of the Tory takeover and slowly watched the country I was born in become a colder, meaner, stranger place. Like a lot of people, I went out in the frigid December wind and rain to knock on doors for Labour. I canvassed in Hastings, where Labour lost to a candidate for Parliament who the week before had said that disabled people didn’t deserve full salaries because they had no capacity to appreciate them. She was howled out of the hustings, and she was shamed in the press. And she still won. And there will probably come a day when I’m not horrified by that, where the shock and shame of it simmers down into something I can tame and contain, but right now—give me five minutes.

The mistake the left always, always makes is to believe that given possession of all the facts, people will behave rationally and in their own self-interest. In this respect, even the Corbyn-Sanders axis has yet to abandon the ruined ideological fort of neoliberalism. The grubby game of parliamentary politics in a first-past-the-post system cannot be won by ideals alone, though occasionally, with a very weak opposition, it can be fought to a stalemate.

People vote on feelings, not facts. For example: I wrote the first version of this column a week before the election. The reason I did that is because in 2016, I filed some early copy about Hillary Clinton’s surely inevitable victory and somewhere in my mind I still think I might have jinxed it. I didn’t want to jinx this one. That’s how much I don’t want to be this angry. I would much rather believe that the outcome of this election had something to do with random chance than believe that millions of my fellow citizens allowed themselves to be lied to like this.

But the reality is that while Corbyn and Labour won all the arguments, they still lost the election. Because at the end of the day, enough people were fed up with being asked to be reasonable and decent and tolerant and to trust that a better society was possible. Enough people didn’t actually want to live in a country where immigrants and people of color and Jews and Muslims and gays and lesbians are equal to them, because in their secret hearts they don’t want to be told that those people are their equals.

Britain is not the only country collapsing under its own cognitive dissonance, but the way it’s happening should worry what remains of the global left. There’s an incoherent violence to the British national character, running below the thin skin of decorum. It comes out when we drink and when we vote. We like to think of ourselves as sensible, but all it takes is two pints of cider or a slick dog-whistling psychopath to have us at our neighbor’s throats. 


The truth is that lying works. That’s one of many truths currently dawning like the morning after a war. Lying works, and lying outrageously and repeatedly in the face of blatant evidence to the contrary works even better. Integrity and decency are no longer seen as leadership qualities. Boris Johnson is a liar. Everyone knows it. In one of the TV debates, there was a studio audience selected for as close to balance as could be managed these days (when a schematic of objectivity that involves assembling an “even number of people from both sides” in one room means you need to know your escape plans). They all laughed at him. And they still voted for him.

Nobody trusts Boris, and that’s exactly what they like about him. Corbyn went at Johnson like a damp flannel, limply refusing to make personal attacks. Corbyn is clearly a person of principle and integrity. Some people don’t like his principles, but he at least has some. Not only was that not enough, it was an active impediment. The tabloids called him a raving terrorist every week for three years, and someone on his team thought it was a good idea not to argue. Corbyn promised to tax the rich and reinstitute social democracy. That’s not how I’d define terrorism, but someone was certainly scared.

Lying works, and lying wins. And this time, the dishonesty was weaponized with a new and ruthless efficiency. This time, the Tories and their backers didn’t just lie. They didn’t just cheat. We’re way beyond that now. They have manipulated the very mechanisms designed to ensure honesty and democracy.

Take, for example, the ideal of balance in public broadcasting, which Britain still has, at least for now. The BBC and other public broadcasters have a duty to at least try to offer “balance.” For decades, they’ve tried to square that vicious circle by treating every argument as reasonable, and hoping all players will at least pretend to play along. That schematic had no defense against a campaign like this. Johnson and his team ape the aesthetic of bumbling aristocrats while lying on a scale and at a volume this country has never seen before. Lying so loud and so hard it drowns out honest players. Forcing public broadcasters to give airtime to their lies in the name of balance. They’re used to refereeing political battles with gentlemen’s rules—no biting, no kicking, no kidney-punching. They were not prepared for a player who placed large bets on himself before stomping into the ring with a mad grin and a submachine gun.

Lying works, and lying outrageously and repeatedly in the face of blatant evidence to the contrary works even better.

When it came to the climate debate, Boris simply refused to show up. Channel 4, in a rare display of bravado, put a slow-melting ice statue on his empty podium. The prime minister responded by threatening to end funding for public broadcasting. Days later, the national news ran a feature on how Boris likes his scones—jam first, or cream?

This election was a test-case for a new political playbook. The institutions of British democracy—Parliament, the press, the high courts—are all founded on the assumption that people will play vaguely by the rules and behave with basic decency. They are not equipped to handle naked, shameless dishonesty or upfront cheating, because on some level they don’t want to be. People who retain a shred of faith in the institutions of state don’t want to acknowledge that they’ve being taken to the cleaners by a bunch of dangerous con artists in aristocratic drag.

Johnson is a wrecking ball of wanton charisma, so it doesn’t matter that he literally lied to the Queen in August about his reasons to temporarily suspend proceedings in Parliament. He lied to the Queen. Corbyn won’t sing the National Anthem and can’t keep his glasses on straight, so it didn’t matter that he was offering the most hopeful and exciting manifesto since the Second World War. People liked his policies. In fact, Labour’s policies consistently polled  higher than those of the opposition.

Let me repeat that: the policies were not the problem. Most people liked Labour’s policies. Where Labour put forward a bold program for social transformation, the Tories had nothing to offer—nothing but Brexit and Boris, a one-two punch of vacuous televangelism. Before this, many thought the Tories were finished. The party was in crisis, hated by the public for inflicting almost ten years of miserable austerity, necrotic with infighting, choking on the last fumes of talent and policy. Half of them hated Boris and all of them were scared of him, but some of them found the courage to stand up to him. Traditional conservatives were horrified when Johnson gave the Queen a bogus story to suspend Parliament. Many found themselves sounding the alarm and urging voters to stop Johnson at all costs, placing principle before party. The likes of former Prime Minister John Major and veteran ministers Ken Clarke risked their own careers to take a stand. They’ll all fall in line now.

While the BBC and the official opposition tried hard to maintain a frantic neutrality, the rest of us spent weeks pointing out that Johnson is a liar, a bully and a thug—just as unwilling as so many U.S. Democrats were in 2016 to admit to ourselves that that’s exactly what some people like about him.


This is not a normal Conservative victory. This is a mandate for a species of populism Britain has never seen before. Johnson came to power as an interim leader and immediately shut down the government; he led this election on personality alone. Corbyn had a carefully costed plan to renationalize the railways. Boris went on TV and smashed through a wall on a forklift truck that said “Get Brexit Done”—an insipid fitness slogan for people running away from their problems. His first act in government has been to threaten to hobble public broadcasting if it doesn’t do what he wants. And it’s only Wednesday.

Boris Johnson is cut from the Trump mold, a shiftless spoilt aristocrat posing as a man of the people from his stagnant pool of privilege, the sleazy con-man, the blustering moral black hole on the political event horizon. He stands for nothing except the image of himself in power, and that makes him infinitely more dangerous than any ideologue. His very shamelessness appeals to those who are sick of feeling ashamed. They agree with him about “tank-topped bumboys.” They agree with him that “The problem is Islam.” They think it’s fine to call black people “piccaninnies.” Day after day, frantic liberals reminded the electorate that Boris had said all those ugly things and more and his growing fanbase lapped it up. The head of the far-right, anti-Muslim English Defence League, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (a.k.a, Tommy Robinson), announced that he was joining the Conservative Party because he now feels most at home there. And that’s shocking. And no, nobody likes being called racist. I’m not calling anyone a racist right now. I’m not saying that everyone who voted for the Tories or the Brexit party is racist, although I’d be prepared to bet that most of the actual racists did just that. I’m merely questioning, politely, by what exact logic so many people were apparently so upset about being called racist that they voted for a party promising to persecute travelers and Roma and to clamp down on immigration. I’m merely questioning what it is about this victory that, for them, feels good. I’m questioning when good, in politics, became a thing you feel, rather than a thing you do.

This is not a normal Conservative victory. This is a mandate for a species of populism Britain has never seen before.

There were times, of course, when it felt good to be canvassing for Labour in the last weeks of the campaign. Arriving at the meet points outside tower blocks and town squares and recognizing friends from the student movement, amazed at how many people had shown up, the staggering efficiency of the organization, the buzz in the pub. It felt like being part of something. The left throws an excellent party. The trouble is that it sometimes forgets to invite everyone it should. It leaves a lot of people off the guest list, people who could do with a bit of that energy, people whose only contact with it was frazzled young activists showing up on their doorsteps in ones and twos with big expectant eyes and stacks of pamphlets. Those young people gave it all they had, gave up work they needed and paid fares they could scarcely afford to catch trains to the north, abuse from strangers, and winter colds. They should not be shamed for wanting a fairer world and working for it. They should not be smeared as “unpatriotic” for believing that the country that raised them could be better than this.

I thought we were better than this. I still think we can be better than this. But we’ll have to find some way to be better. And yes, we have to stay hopeful, and yes, we’ve got to get up tomorrow and start rebuilding, but the fact is that hope alone won’t carry everyone through the next five years. People are going to die. People are going to live shorter, meaner lives. Communities on the brink of collapse will implode. We’re going to have to try and hold it together through these years.

Right now, it’s OK to be angry. It’s OK to be scared. Those are honest feelings, and it’s better we feel them now than let them fester and eat away at us from the inside. There is a difference between being tired and scared of some of your fellow citizens—as many of us in Britain are today—and legislating on that basis. That, in fact, is still the difference between political tendencies. Anger is allowed. Hurt and fear are allowed. Feelings are allowed. But treating those feelings as facts is a terrible, terrible plan.

Which is exactly why it’s alright to be angry today. It’s necessary, even. Because today we’re not fighting an election. We’re in recovery. And part of recovery is feeling all the fury and fear and confusion and moving on, rather than letting all that ugly emotion fester and eat us up from inside. It’s alright to be scared. It’s alright to rage, because very soon, we’ll need to start the fightback, and that means we’ll need every spare scrap of compassion and more. The nights are drawing in. Buckle up, turkeys. Christmas is coming.

[*] Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that domestic violence rates have risen in England. It has been changed to reflect that the rate of domestic violence killings has increased.

Laurie Penny is a journalist and screenwriter from London. She has contributed to The GuardianThe New Statesman, the New York Times, Time Magazine and many more. She is the author of six books, the latest of which, Bitch Doctrine, was published by Bloomsbury in 2017.
 

 

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