Sunday, 23 November 2014

Despair is the only logical reaction to British politics right now

Imagine you live in a country that has such an ingrained problem with social class that a single photograph can set off a bitter debate about where we all stand. Or that you are the citizen of a state with a political elite that is so fevered, and so obsessed with day-to-day media management, that soon reactions to that story then became more important than any revealing delve into the putrid politics of who is better than who.

Except that you don't have to imagine those unpleasantries if you're British, because that's what just happened. In a keystone cops-style debacle of farcical dark humour, a photo of a house flying the English flag (above) set off a great tirade about who we are and where we're going. When Labour MP Emily Thornberry posted what, on the surface, was just a picture of a house with a van at the front, she lost her job because she was perceived to be a snob, rudely emphasising just how different the inhabitants were from her own lofty vantage point.

That was a bit unfair, to be honest (though the tweet was clearly very ill-judged), though what we're closely interested in here is this: the whole sad affair just said so much about class, power, politics and presumption that there'll have to be a PhD on all this one day. You can just imagine it: 'Discoures of representation in the Rochester and Strood by-election, 2014'. You'd need a great long lecture to explain it all to a non-Brit. And a set of prompt cards. And maybe a Powerpoint presentation.

And what it said was mainly depressing. We still judge each other by car, house, accent, haircut, neighbourhood and job. Long ago, George Orwell said that England (and he meant England) was one of the most snobbish places in the world. One Englishman only had to open his mouth to start talking, and some others would hate him. For a few years of affluent post-war wage rises which saw normal-sounding people appear on radio and TV, all that looked like it might shrivel. 'Embourgeoisement', by which working people stopped thinking in class terms and everyone became middle class, was supposed to take hold; we'd all sound and look pretty much the same, the theory went, despite our different habits and ambitions. Except that we don't. Class came back with a vengeance in the 1980s and 1990s, and now it's entrenched very deeply in the power of a network of public schools, 'top' universities (not, by any means, limited to Oxford and Cambridge alone), free internships, huge accountancy firms, law chambers - and political parties. Emily Thornberry's chief mistake was to step on a land mine that everyone else spends their days warily tiptoeing around.

It's a depressing time for British politics and public life. The Prime Minister, the Mayor of London and the Archibishop of Canterbury all went to a single, particular and elite school. A Mayor, by the way, who has just penned one of the most eye-watering and embarrassing books about Winston Churchill that has ever hit the shelves - a travesty of a history that is fit only for the remainders pile, made worse only by the obvious implication that Boris Johnson sees himself as a new Churchill. Well, he wouldn't have been fit to comb the hair of the man who had to tie Winston's shows. A History of the English Speaking Peoples his latest journalistic effort is not, and the spectacle of Mr Johnson lambasting Labour for elitist views - when he is and has always been one of the most privileged people in the country - is simply grotesque.

Elsewhere in our unfair system of ranks and orders, the Government itself seems determined to bring shame on itself via welfare 'reforms' that equate at best to stupid vandalism, and at worst to criminal negligence that may well require police investigation in due course. All to tar anyone needing help with a brush labelled 'malingerer'. Anyone who has any contact at all with the benefits system knows that its officials are now busy frightening vulnerable people and taking unacceptable risks with their health. Have all the protests made a difference? Well, not so much.

Instead the Conservatives focused on an imaginary threat to house prices when they tried to put off Rochester and Strood voters thinking of turning to the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party. Without much of anything to believe in any more, it is little wonder that house prices have become Britons' main household god and snooze-inducing talking point, but 'vote for us or your house prices will fall' is a new low amidst naked appeals to self-interest. And what else did the Conservatives' electoral gurus come up with? Well, that Mark Reckless, the new UKIP MP who until a few weeks ago sat as a Conservative, went to Oxford University. Well, gasp. What a crime.

They're faced by an Opposition with a press team that manages to make almost every difficulty much, more worse than it might have been - including this one. That can't even get its apostrophes in the right place when it writes an article for Labour's leader (have a look at this less-than-impressive effort). Whose leader just took a battering from a pop star over one of his key tax policies.

Here's a word that describes how anyone sane would react to all this: despair. Just despair.