The last few weeks have been unlike anything I can remember in my life, politically. There is a disconnect between people, and between the premises upon which they build their beliefs that is strange and unsettling. Listening to the Today programme this morning, in which Labour’s calm Seema Malhotra was interviewed by an aggressive Sarah Montague, the thought suddenly hit me: it was like a discussion about the route to take on a long sea voyage between a flat earther and someone who believed the earth was round. Montague was annoyed because Malhotra wouldn’t say where Labour would find the £15 billion needed to pay for tax credits, which Montague framed as an accounting question. Malhotra was saying, economic policy is not accounting, and that growing the economy grows revenues. They were talking about different things, with no point of contact whatsoever. Montague was yelling that if they did what Labour was proposing, they’d fall off the edge of the world, and Malhotra was saying, “listen, I’m telling you we live on a bloody sphere!”
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been attending sessions at the Birmingham Literature Festival. Nice, middle class people go to literary festivals. So why so much angry political talk? I’m not referring to the overtly political events, such as Martin Rowson’s entertaining tour of visual satire, or the Writing of Protest session that I blogged about last week. Just in general. On the stage, and in the bar, throwaway remarks and casual conversation seems infused with a barely suppressed rage.
Much of it swirls around the Corbyn Labour leadership. No one seems much concerned with Corbyn himself, the accidental leader. Perhaps some of the young Corbynistas, born too late to know the age when socialism was normal, and liberalism was quite right-wing, and conservatism was actually that – conserving the past with a pragmatic eye on the present, believe in their leader. But for the rest of us it simply seems to be a matter of feeling that we’ve had it up to here with rampant selfishness and greed served up as fiscal virtue. We long for a return to civic pride and public service. We see the possibilities of technological change as collectively empowering, and we are frustrated by those who seek to ‘monetise’ every space, and keep us in our place – as passive consumers, not active citizens. We’re mad as hell.
So who is mad as hell? The people who lost the election? Sore losers shouting impotently at the industrious victors who are simply going about their efficient duties, governing us all in the name of their well-mannered, unshouty supporters?
You see, I’ve been there, done that. 1992.
This doesn’t feel remotely like 1992. In 1992 we were deflated, demoralised, but also partly infected with the very same mood that propelled John Major to his victory. We were relieved that Thatcher had gone, and with her, we hoped, the Shouty Tendency of the right. We didn’t much like the grey man with his underpants over his trousers, but we didn’t exactly feel he’d enjoy resting a sturdily shod foot upon a pleb’s windpipe.
For Major’s was a Tory government, not a Cultural Revolution led by the Maoists of Neoliberalism. There’s an inchoate feeling all around now that this crisis is existential. They have made it ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ by seeking to crowd out, fence off, make off-limits any thought or deed that doesn’t contribute to their project.
Yesterday I was in Brighton for a meeting. Just work. I’d never met any of the other people in the room before. Polite strangers, all women, all ages, ethnically diverse. People in the arts world tend to be fairly liberal, but overt political talk, as is the middle class way, tends to be avoided. Not any more.
Impassioned ranting, sweary sincerity, explicit political passion were all unleashed. Something’s been let out of the bottle, I swear.
A number of people of late have ventured a tentative question about whether the political tide might be turning. I’m always cautious about this. And yet something does feel very different. A slow, subterranean shifting, perhaps?