The crowds sunbathing in the parks and strolling the shopping streets in their shorts and T-shirts seem so happy and carefree that if you didn’t read or watch the news you might have little sense that Britain may be finally, genuinely going down the tubes. Indeed, their calm and good cheer make you almost wonder if the panic, anger and bitterness so prevalent among the political and media classes might be misguided or at least excessive.
It was different last summer. In June, during the humid, febrile days after the terrible Grenfell fire, which came on the heels of Theresa May’s election debacle and assembly of a shaky coalition government, the capital felt as if it was on the verge of revolution. But then things calmed down and there was nothing like the run of headlines that over the past few months have prompted pundits to wonder if the UK as we know it is falling apart.
This dispatch appears in October’s Quadrant.
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Some of the more frightening ones may well be (consciously or unconsciously) part of the continuing campaign to stop or reverse the dismayingly chaotic Brexit process. These include the reports from both inside and outside the government that warn of catastrophic shortages of food, antibiotics and other vital goods come March 2019.
The UK may well face some difficult times after next spring, but it does seem a little unlikely that the country will be devastated by the equivalent of Napoleon’s naval blockade. It is not obvious that the hostility of M Barnier’s European Commission is shared by all the EU member governments, and surely one thing that has been made clear by various efforts to enforce sanctions on rogue regimes during the last decades is that there is no pariah state so despised and hateful that France, Germany and others won’t fight to trade with it. (As for the dark talk of civil unrest when or if Britain ceases to be a member of the EU, such an outcome seems more probable if the predominantly “Remainer” political class tries to overturn or reverse the referendum.)
However, there have been plenty of developments completely unrelated to Brexit or the EU that might make a Briton think a bit more seriously about buying a one-way ticket to the Antipodes or Americas.
This week, for instance, there was the report that a Birmingham prison whose management had been outsourced to a well-connected private company was actually being run by prison gangs, and was therefore even more chaotic and drug-ridden than the state-run penitentiaries. This was soon followed by an announcement by the Justice Secretary (a slow-witted fellow even by the undemanding standard that the Prime Minister prefers for her cabinet colleagues) that instead of enforcing the prison ban on mobile phones he would hand one to every prisoner. As is widely known (at least outside the Ministry of Justice), convicts use mobile phones not just to run their criminal enterprises from inside but to arrange the intimidation of witnesses and to put pressure on prison guards by targeting their families.
Meanwhile, the latest statistics confirm a great surge in knife crime in London, already one of the more physically dangerous cities in Europe. The knife-crime phenomenon baffles everyone who has not noticed the physical absence of police officers from the capital’s streets since the Metropolitan Police abandoned the traditional beat and generally chose to get out of the business of deterring crime.
Some of the stabbings take place during mobile-phone robberies, but according to the police many are the result of territorial disputes between street gangs, and both victims and perpetrators tend to be black. More significant perhaps, but largely unnoticed and in any case unmentionable by the police, is the fact that the names of the perpetrators and victims tend to be disproportionately West African. However, it is (weirdly) more acceptable for the authorities to think in terms of race than specific regional and national cultures. The same is of course true of the national crime phenomenon that involves the systematic targeting for rape and sexual exploitation of white and Sikh girls by what the media like to call “Asian” grooming gangs, but which are almost entirely made up of men from particular Pakistani communities.
On the other hand, no one pretends that the teams of men who have carried out what is now a long series of assassinations of Russian defectors and émigrés on British soil are anything but Russian secret agents. Britain seems unable, not only to deter such state-sponsored murders—we have a military and a navy so hollowed out by foolish cuts that they can no longer defend these islands let alone guard distant sea lanes and project force abroad—but also to keep a protective eye on the Russians who make this country their home.
Many of these crises have been widely covered around the world. One that is less well understood is the controversy about anti-Semitism in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and the leader’s friendships with an unsavoury list of Holocaust deniers, conspiracy theorists and terrorist commanders, all of whom he happened to share platforms or dinner tables with at anti-Israel events. Many people, especially in the parliamentary Labour Party, believed or hoped that Corbyn’s leadership could not survive the emergence of a photograph of the leader placing a wreath on the graves of the men who ordered the brutal murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. However, Corbyn and his politically adroit Trotskyite comrades have a solid hold on the wider party, and have been able to use the crisis to attack and de-select centrist MPs. This means that if Corbyn does become prime minister—a prospect that becomes more likely as Theresa May’s inadequacies as a leader become more apparent—the damage he could do to the UK’s economy, armed forces and social cohesion is far worse than anything envisaged by the gloomiest doomsayers among those who oppose Brexit.
Whatever happens with Brexit, even if it were overturned in a second vote, or perhaps the best of three, the referendum and the battles over it have transformed this country and its political culture in ways that no one expected or predicted. Questions of class identity and cultural allegiance that lay more or less dormant under the surface of British politics, for good or bad, are now active and exposed.
It has probably been the case for quite a while that many members of the British “middle class” (in the UK a euphemism for upper-middle-class folk like lawyers and doctors, unlike in the USA where it is a euphemism for working-class folk like police officers and schoolteachers) believe they have more in common with relatively wealthy professionals like themselves on the Continent than with proletarian fellow Britons, and prefer their company. At the same time many working-class people may well have noticed that even if their MPs represented their economic interests, the MPs were less attuned to their “reactionary” concerns about cultural and social impact of migration and immigration.
However, until recently it was relatively rare to hear anyone express such sentiments openly. It was even rarer to hear anyone in polite society express overt contempt or hatred for what Marxists used to call the masses, though such contempt was arguably demonstrated in other ways, not least ostensibly progressive education and housing policies that actually served to undermine social mobility.
(Of course, since the advent of multiculturalism, much discussion of public policy has been based on the implicit assumption that the proles are generally ignorant, bigoted and racist. This is partly because not being these things is supposedly a sign of middle-classness and partly because that is how working-class white people are depicted by the mainstream media, especially if they object to the import of cheap labour from abroad. First-hand experience plays a minimal role in the formation of this stereotype because today’s political and media class have so little contact with the indigenous working class. Their Edwardian ancestors were much more intimate with such people because they employed them as servants and were even brought up by them; today middle-class Britons still employ servants but they are invariably from abroad.)
Regardless of the wisdom or unwisdom of Brexit, the shock of the referendum result has made bourgeois class consciousness considerably more overt and explicit where it was once discreet and implicit. Of course, people don’t actually say, “We are the civilised, cultured, respectable people, as demonstrated by our belief in the European ideal and open borders, unlike the ignorant, Florida-going patriotic oiks who understand nothing of the Continental good life and are deeply, hopelessly prejudiced.” They complain instead of the dangers of too much democracy, of the foolishness of entrusting complicated and important decisions to the uneducated and ill-informed, all of which sounds, and perhaps is, both reasonable and in tune with some very old conservative traditions.
What is perhaps not so reasonable nor in tune with British tradition, conservative or otherwise, is the way Brexit has torn a rift within the political and media class. For most of my lifetime, social life in “middle-class” Britain, or at least in England, carried on in a way that was immune to ideological dispute, in the sense that most reasonable people would have considered it embarrassing to allow a disagreement about mere politics to ruin a dinner party, still less end a friendship. Highly contentious matters like the Iraq War, nationalisation, Scottish independence, abortion, Tony Blair, anti-Americanism, Margaret Thatcher, the Arab-Israeli conflict and even the EU, until the referendum, were subjects on which people who considered themselves civilised could (just about) agree to disagree.
Brexit has changed this. It is seen by many people, especially Remainers (I know Remainers who have broken off old relationships with Brexiteers, but no Brexiteers who have done the same thing to their Remainer friends), as something much bigger than a mere political question. Many people who could bring themselves to break bread with a Stalinist or an Islamist or, say, a convicted rapist, will not share a table with a Brexiteer. For them, having voted the wrong way is literally unforgivable. It may be that no issue has divided the political class to such a poisonous degree since the 1938 Munich crisis, or even the Civil War.
Which makes one wonder if the happy, carefree people enjoying the unprecedented sunshine in the parks are not members of the political class, and therefore are more confident that things are OK and will continue to be OK. Some of them are foreigners (the thousands of French families living in London seem to have a particular fondness for London’s abundant and, by French standards, wildly un-Cartesian green spaces). They may be more impressed by all the things that do work here, by the order and civility and gentleness that, though diminished and challenged, are still remarkable in such a crowded, diverse, rapidly changing city, at least on a lovely late summer day.
Jonathan Foreman is a journalist based in London. He was a co-founder and deputy editor of the British monthly magazine Standpoint, and is the author of The Pocket Book of Patriotism.