When the entire world is looking nervously into the abyss, it may seem solipsistic to concentrate on the particular circumstances of Britain’s national crisis. It’s worth doing so, however, because for the first time since 1945 the British themselves seem dimly or acutely or angrily aware that the very existence of their nation is threatened. Earlier crises—financial, foreign, wartime—were problems to be solved or disputes to be settled by the British people themselves through national institutions in accordance with stable national traditions. But the unstated assumption—unstated because it was universally understood—was that it was they who would be solving and settling crises. They assumed the permanence of their own distinctive society which rested on Orwell’s left-wing but gentle depiction of the British people in 1940 as “a family with the wrong members in control”.
Orwell’s description has sounded almost utopian in the weeks since October 7, when the savage attack on Israel by Hamas provoked a massively divisive political crisis not in Israel (where it arguably settled one, at least temporarily) nor in Middle Eastern “mainly Muslim” countries nor even in France, Germany and the European Union but in Britain and especially in London. The attack itself, conducted with a joyfully sadistic brutality against all in its way was shocking enough in itself. No God other than Moloch could possibly approve of it. What most shocked most British people was not the attack’s murderous brutality, however, but the fact that it was praised by respectable middle-class people in good academic and corporate jobs, discussed in an “even-handed” way by media commentators, and even celebrated as a legitimate reaction to a fictitious Israeli “genocide” by vast, multi-ethnic, “pro-Palestine” marches through London on four successive Sundays. Inadvertently, or perhaps not, the marches themselves undermined this attempted whitewashing of Hamas war crimes because they were attended by people dressed in imitation terrorist uniforms, carrying openly anti-Semitic banners, shouting slogans in unison that were implicitly genocidal towards Israel, and altogether erasing any distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. They were plainly intended to frighten Jews and to intimidate everyone else with a show of force. In short, as the then Home Secretary Suella Braverman said, they were “hate marches”.
Mrs Braverman, a self-confessed “child of Empire” and a tough-minded stalwart of the latest Tory Right, then wrote an article in the Times in which she criticised the Metropolitan Police Service (formerly Force) for biased policing since they acted as helpful facilitators of the “right” to protest towards left-wing marches while cracking down on right-wing or semi-political demos such as vaccine protests.
After which, in quick succession, Downing Street indicated its nervousness about the protests; the Met’s chief officer gave his judgment that they would turn out peacefully (probably after private assurances from its organisers); the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, accepted his verdict; the march went ahead at first peacefully, then less so; the police promptly cracked down hard on a handful of drunken yobs who had interrupted a ceremony at the Cenotaph and who, being white, were instantly diagnosed as “far Right” (though not, on this occasion, anti-Semitic); a Met spokesman made a statement contrasting the peaceful behaviour of the “pro-Palestinian” march with that of the yobs; the peaceful march then turned less peaceful at its edges, mobbing a senior Cabinet Minister, Michael Gove, who had to be rescued by the cops; Labour spokesmen, echoed by morally indignant journalists, condemned Mrs Braverman for inciting the yobs to attack the police; the Prime Minister said nothing very much about this train of events, which seemed to justify Mrs Braverman’s prudent counsel, but waited a day and fired her; she also said nothing very much in response, but ominously so; and finally Sunak briefly surprised the political world with a larger reshuffle that gave former Prime Minister David Cameron a peerage and made him Foreign Secretary in the Lords.
A week is a long time in politics, as Harold Wilson said in the 1970s, of which these events are vaguely reminiscent.
The Tory Right expressed emotions from disquiet to outrage at these events, as we shall see. Not many people have wondered, however, how British Jews feel about them. It’s hard to imagine they would feel reassured by the firing of the one senior politician who had spoken out strongly against the people who plausibly threaten to murder them. That will limit what would otherwise be a sharp electoral turn to the Right. So will the serious talk among British Jews of emigrating to Israel which after October 7 amounts, alas, to a resounding vote of no confidence in Britain. Sir Keir Starmer, who has taken a firm pro-Israel stand as Labour leader, must also be made anxious by this new phenomenon of large left-wing anti-Semitic marches. He and his colleagues were able to relieve their anxieties on this occasion by directing their fire at the “far Right” yobs and at Suella Braverman for allegedly inciting them. But they signify that, as in America, the energy (and thus the future?) of progressive parties is now to be found on the “far Left” which joins Middle Eastern migrants driven by Third World resentments and religious hatreds together with ultra-Left white radicals disappointed by the proletariat, let alone Labour, who see Israel as a Western settler colony and Jews as whites enjoying a privilege that deprives them of sympathy.
Activists drunk on this woke cocktail of historically absurd grievances threaten our entire society, its liberal and democratic institutions, and ultimately all its political, ethnic and religious groups outside the charmed circle—as did the Bolsheviks in 1917. But their arrival on the political scene has been so recent and dramatic that few analysts really have worked out where they come from. What follows is my own back-of-the-envelope analysis of how the events of this week emerged from the confluence of several developments. In brief, these are as follows:
The most obvious driver of these changes is the mix of mass migration and a multiculturalism that sought to encourage migrants to stay within their different communities rather than to assimilate into the national culture. Some communities assimilated anyway; others have formed parallel societies; still others live in two worlds. Multiculturalism introduces new group conflicts into Britain—see the recent Muslim–Hindu riots in Leicester—and aggravates the inevitable tensions in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. And it rests on a historical irony. Promoted by the Blairites to “dish the Tories” electorally, migration and multiculturalism have become the foster parents of ideologies much more dangerous to traditional Labour values—and to the wider taken-for-granted liberal ethos of British society.
A second contribution is the rapid and ill-managed expansion of the universities. About 3.5 per cent of the college-age cohort went to university in 1960. Major expansion began in 1968. It accelerated under the Blair government to reach a student share of today’s age cohort of almost 50 per cent. Britain’s economy lacks the demand for the number and kind of middle-class high-income jobs that a college degree implicitly promises, that universities sometime explicitly promise, and for which students pay by taking on heavy debts that later make taking out a mortgage impossible. We are therefore producing millions of graduates who can find only low-status jobs. This resentful lumpen-intelligentsia, unemployable at levels they think to be their right, is exactly the social class that has produced revolutions from Russia to the Third World. They find work in lower-middle-class occupations such as the police where they can act out their woke fantasies on the body of the public.
A third factor is the general growth of government and its para-institutions—the quangos and other bodies half-in and half-out of the public sector—that live off the taxpayer, provide homes for some of the lumpen-intelligentsia, claim to manage the discontents generated by migration and multiculturalism, and enforce the related doctrines of diversity, equity and inclusion under the guise of running museums or arbitrating labour and civil disputes.
And finally there is Brexit—no, not Brexit itself, which until it happened was seen, however reluctantly, as a democratic way of settling long-standing political disputes that were not reflected in Parliament’s party divisions. It was the reaction of the political class to Brexit that divided society profoundly. The establishment itself seems to have been surprised by its own strong feelings that the decision was a mistake that had to be rectified. Three years of parliamentary and official resistance to implementing Brexit followed and implanted a deep suspicion among non-official Brits that they were despised by those governing them. That suspicion wasn’t entirely unfounded. EU membership seems to have been attractive to top people across the board because it increased their powers through bureaucratic co-operation and corporate lobbying and decreased the powers of ordinary citizens through their votes. And they showed it, some openly expressing hostility to the idea of democracy itself. The result was a counter-reaction from ordinary citizens of growing suspicion towards “their betters”—leading to activism in some, including perhaps the “far Right” drunks, and democratic apathy in others.
If all these developments underpin this week’s turmoil, how have they been translated into Rishi Sunak’s reshuffle? The answer seems to lie in something as humble as parliamentary candidate selection. British Social Attitude surveys show that both Labour and Tory MPs hold opinions on social questions to the left of their respective voters and activists. That’s interesting in itself because it refutes the usual explanation that MPs in both parties are more “moderate” than their supporters outside. If that looks true of the Tories, Labour MPs seem more “extreme” than theirs—unless a better explanation is that both elites have imbibed at college and later a “progressive” outlook that sees wokeness as inevitable—thus reinforcing Labour’s leftism and diluting the Tory Party’s conservatism. Starmer is therefore resisting a full-blooded wokeness and Sunak nervously avoiding the open clash with wokeness that Suella Braverman, Tory voters and (according to polls) 70 per cent of the electorate would prefer. Hence the return of the Cameronians with their distaste for “culture wars”.
It seems that since Orwell wrote, Britain has become a very modern family indeed, divided, divorced, and always on the edge of domestic violence but that the wrong members are still in control.