Political Amnesia as Trauma Response

I started the review of the year a few days ago, but I couldn’t remember anything that had happened. A friend told me this was a ‘trauma response’. It does seem that experiencing social reality seems like a blunt head trauma the best thing to do is to hide, forget, distract. Fragments of it are coming back to me, though the order doesn’t work.

There’s that UKIP guy decked-out on the floor of the European Parliament in Strasbourg … there’s Jo Cox’s murder and Sarah Everard’s too … there’s the killing of Sheku Bayoh on the streets of Kirkcaldy and the contempt displayed at his inquiry. I know these years are wrong but the persistent theme is violence. This timeline is marked by violent episodes: state violence, police violence, sexual violence, economic violence … interspersed with farce.

There’s that strange woman that they elected leader going on about Pork Markets; there’s thousands of people shuffling past the Queen’s coffin after her bodied was paraded around the country for what seemed like months; there’s the moment when the letters behind Theresa May started falling off as she coughed and hacked her way through her conference speech trying to pretend we were ‘strong and stable’, it was like watching Britain literally fall apart before your eyes; then came The Clown Years:

“The crowd loved him. They applauded their own impoverishment. They cheered his stoutly anti-intellectual demolition of their rights to free movement and free trade. They nodded when he proved to them how worried they should be about Turkish immigration by tracing his very own ancestry back to a small Turkish village. They laughed as he stole the popcorn they already had, ate it all — and then handed them back their empty boxes. As an artist, “Boris” had conjured something transcendent. And he knew it.”

“He would arrive in market squares draped in sausages or waving a kipper and address each audience with pure invention, airy nothings, chimera, fantastical tales of fish and bananas. The physical comedy continued to develop: this was the first show in which he would keep his trousers burning throughout. But now he began to script more of the act — introducing inventive verbal misdirection and peppering the show with what were to become his trademark wild-fabrications-that-everyone-knew-were-fabrications. He was in his element. Nobody knew anything. Nobody cared to know anything. Nobody understood what they were talking about or even why they were talking about it.”

Incredibly Johnson was actually elected (not by us of course), while his successors were not.

Things come in and out of focus.

The abiding imagery of this year is raw sewage being pumped into rivers across England and civilians being slaughtered in the biggest conflict in Europe since the Second World War, the rise of extreme weather into everyday lives for even northern Europe and pictures from round the world of climate breakdown.

Now we’re living through the closest any of us have experienced of a General Strike, with workers across the public sector fighting for decent wages and being faced-down by the threat of the army taking-over or accepting ‘deals’ which effectively mean pay cuts in real terms. The new sotto voce PM is distinguished by his absence. After the short-lived Truss debacle, and the Boris pantomime before, the new Conservatives policy is to do very little and say less. In place of leadership amid social collapse and economic catastrophe they offer a void.

Beyond all of this is the mundane reality of spiralling everyday costs of food and heating, the experience of Britannia Unchained is endemic fuel poverty. As Kerry Hudson, author of Lowborn writes about prepaid meters (The Meter Eats First):

“Who’d choose this precarity? Who would want the Meter instead of a monthly bill from the energy company? More than seven million households in Britain have one. There are people who prefer the control of paying as they go, and a lot of Britons are more afraid of huge fuel bills than they used to be. But a lot of people don’t get to choose. They’re in debt, or have a poor credit rating or move into low-income housing and find one already installed. Sometimes a landlord insists, or they fall behind on their bills and the energy company does.”

“And the number of people in debt to energy companies has risen markedly this year. The invasion of Ukraine has had a vertiginous impact on the cost of energy here. The British government has offered some belated financial assistance, but most people, however they’re billed, are feeling the strain. And as people have fallen behind on payments, power companies have moved aggressively to switch them to prepayment meters — more than 300,000 applications to forcibly install one have been approved by the courts this year.”

Britain has descended precipitously from the high rhetoric of pre-Brexit to claims of a Global Britain to one where people are cold an hungry and the state barely manages a shrug.

A Sense of Nationhood

Alongside all of this is a deep sense of impotence. Not just the rage of striking workers ignored and belittled, but the constitutional log-jam that makes everything in Britain not just broken but stuck. As this doom-scroll of a political landscape spools out in a blur, the idea of political possibility seems to recede. Everywhere a door might seem to open, a chance for changing any of this seems to be shut down. The political god of the Tories is still the market, and therefore a performance of ‘fiscal prudence’ amid financial chaos and spiralling debt. For the Opposition the narrow bandwidth of a response — even when faced with startling poll readings — is what is measured by the acceptable metric of Middle England and Tabloid Britain, therefore if the current crop of Tories are Thatcher re-treads, Starmer’s Labour are Blaire-lite.

But Conservative collapse hasn’t come as quickly, or as obviously as you might have expected. Perversely Lockdown, despite everything, benefitted the Conservatives, even if it was just delaying the inevitable. A sort of weird cleaving to the powerful took place.

Richard Seymour observed the phenomena in the New York Times (‘The Fantasy of Brexit Britain Is Over’). Back in August he wrote of the lockdown period:

“It was, of course, hardly a time of national idyll. Tens of thousands of older Britons needlessly died in overrun hospitals because of delays in declaring lockdowns. Food bank use rose to an all-time high, with over 2.5 million people receiving packages. By the end of 2020, nine in 10 low-income families had experienced a serious deterioration in their income, and the proportion of people reporting clinically significant depression and anxiety tripled, to 52 percent from 17 percent. Even so, the precarious project of national unity, supported by enormous public spending to manage the pandemic, briefly worked: The Tories led in the polls, impervious to scandal and discontent.”

Seymour is quite right that our current predicament was preceded by years of austerity which lay underneath the social collapse of 2020/2021. But Seymour’s analysis of what happens next, and what sustained Johnson’s regime is odd. He recounts two of the most watched broadcasts in British history, both of which took place during his time in office. The first was Johnson’s address to the nation on March 23, 2020, declaring a national lockdown. The second was the Euro 2020 final, in which England stood a realistic chance of winning against Italy, on July 11, 2021.

Seymour writes: “Both broadcasts, watched by tens of millions of people, briefly synthesized a moment of national unity. Both portended the suspension of normality in the name of a national struggle, vaguely linked to folk memories of World War II. The eerie quiet of lockdown — with its empty streets, visitations from wildlife and ritual clapping for essential workers — was matched by the flag-bedraggled, drunk and delirious mania of crowds roaming empty commercial streets and fervently chanting, “It’s coming home!” These were distinctly nationalist moments, but they were not identical. One nationalism was top down, the other grass roots. One was “British,” establishment nationalism, the other “English,” with more proletarian accents. Yet together they briefly manufactured a sense of nationhood.”

This strange deluded anglo-centrism is not confined to the emboldened mainstreamed far-right but exists in the imaginaries of some of England’s most respected left-wing commentators.

The idea that ‘a sense of nationhood’ was forged by Johnson’s broadcasts or by English football mania is a stunningly parochial and isolated take to offer up. As this blur of head-trauma recollection of this year and the years that led to it come together it’s worth recalling that social breakdown is mirrored by constitutional damage that’s not miraculously going away.

A Floor Not a Ceiling

As Ciaran Martin explained in a speech in Cardiff last month the descent of Britain into the current state has happened very quickly, over only a period of ten years. He spoke saying: “Although a referendum in Scotland had been conceded and agreed following the SNP landslide of 2011, support for independence was so low — hovering between 25 and 33 per cent — that few seriously thought the UK was going to break up.

Indeed, the agreement to the referendum was seen as a confident and respectful acknowledgement of Scotland’s participation in a voluntary union.”

“Ten years on, the only unchanged feature from that landscape is that Whitehall and English localities are still wrangling over pitiful amounts of money and the devolution of weak powers. Whitehall still has more than one hundred central ‘pots’ or funds, including, and I am not making this up, one for removing chewing gum in local areas, and another for improving public toilets.

But other than that, everything else has changed.

What the whole of the UK now has in common with the situation in England is that the constitution is stuck.

And, particularly in Scotland and Northern Ireland, it is stuck in a tense and polarising way.

In Scotland, the 45 per cent vote for independence has turned into a floor, not a ceiling, for independence.

Now, independence is the all-consuming issue.”

The feeling of decline and decay is matched by the reality of stagnancy and corruption.

Martin outlines the new political landscape as being very different from 2012 (only ten years ago) when Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics marked “the emotional and cultural high point” of “progressive unionism”, what Martin describes as: “confident, respectful, inclusively multinational.”

Now there are (crudely) three competing visions for the future of the UK.

  1. To bring it to an end through Scottish independence and Irish Unification
  2. The second is the vision of an increasingly devolved UK: the one proposed in Gordon Brown’s proposals
  3. The third vision — according to Martin — “has been driving much of the constitutional redesign of the UK since the 2016 vote to leave the EU. This is sometimes called muscular unionism, or — incorrectly — English nationalism.”

We’ve been banging on about this for a while now but Martin’s contribution gives the analysis more heft than a lowly blogger. The fact is we’re off the map now and the dynamic and terrain have changed radically since 2012. He identifies four characteristics of ‘Anglocentric British nationalism’:

  • First, it considers that there is really only one nation and it is a British one. Westminster sovereignty is all; hence the hostility to the EU. It’s majoritarian: for example, it doesn’t matter if whole chunks of the UK don’t buy into its form of Brexit, because it has the numbers to face down inconvenient dissent. That those numbers are drawn largely from England makes it Anglocentric;
  • Second, for the Anglocentric British nationalist, devolution is, in Boris Johnson’s word, a “disaster”. There shouldn’t be real alternative centres of real power to Westminster. Sporting and cultural national identities are fine, but not real power. For as long as devolution cannot be reversed, it must be contained. However, in the words of Lord Frost, devolution can “evolve back”, as the Johnson Government showed with the UK Internal Market Act;
  • Third, Anglocentric British nationalism pushes back on the idea of the UK as a voluntary union. It talks of the UK as a unitary state — correct in legal terms but politically highly contested, including here in Wales. That is why Anglocentric British nationalism refuses not just the present demands for another referendum in Scotland, but to engage in any discussion as to how and when another one might be held;
  • Finally, there is an inherently transactional nature to it. It is happy to remind the rest of the United Kingdom not of the joys of partnership, but of the costs of leaving. For that reason, I sometimes call it ‘know-your-place unionism’.

This is such a different place from Danny Boyle’s twirling nurses celebrating the history of the NHS in 2012. Now they’re on strike for the first time and being shut down and intimidated. Back then while Scotland was love-bombed and wooed to ‘remain’ now we are watching as devolution itself is under constant attack.

This site has been accused of being ‘declinist’ — ie obsessed with Britain’s decline. We are. But it’s an objective reality not a nationalist fantasy, as laid out by commentary across the political spectrum, and more importantly, as experienced across society …

If 2022 is a blur of social crisis and elite failure a few figures facts and images stand out. Here’s Elizabeth Davies, victim of the collapse of the NHS (Welcome to Dickensian Britain) …

None of this would have been possible (politically) without the pliant and wholly deferential 24 news media and their tabloid colleagues. None are so expert (and well rewarded) than Andrew Neil, who wrote in the Daily Mail: “The death of the Queen has been a timely opportunity to take stock of our nation, to re-examine what kind of place we’ve become. Contrary to the miserabilist musings of much of the establishment commentariat and its social media echo chambers, whose default position is always to run Britain down, the condition of the country is actually rather good.”

‘Establishment commentariat’ is doing a lot of heavy-lifting here, especially from one who personifies the description.

But Neil’s jaunty upbeat analysis came on the same day as the FT’s John Burn-Murdoch explains: “Income inequality in US & UK is so wide that while the richest are very well off, the poorest have a worse standard of living than the poorest in countries like Slovenia Essentially, US & UK are poor societies with some very rich people.”

Burn-Murdoch’s analysis shows that now “the poorest Irish have a standard of living almost 63% higher than the poorest in the UK.”

The year ends with the arrest of Andrew Tate and his brother, figures mis-categorised as ‘influencers’ or tik-tok phenomena but should be seen as part of the rise of the extreme right and the normalisation of reactionary social values and incendiary misogynism. They are not important individuals but part of the radical right’s ascendancy in Britain, in the USA, in Russia, in Sweden, with Giorgia Meloni in Italy, with Viktor Orbán in Hungary and with Mateusz Morawiecki in Poland. They should be seen not as mavericks, personalities or icons but as part of the festering mass of proto fascism. They are the pus from the pores of toxic masculinity. Greta Thunberg’s takedown of Tate may have been the sweetest end to 2022 but it doesn’t make the phenomena of which Tate is a tiny part go away.

What can we look forward to in 2023? King Charles has his coronation. Despite earlier ideas about a ‘cut back’ event more appropriate for the times, Charles has opted to go for ‘full spectacle’. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak described the plans for a bigger coronation as a “unique moment for the country”. It was added that all involved, from the relevant government departments to the King himself, were in “lockstep in their determination to deliver” a spectacle to remember.

The blur continues.



Venture Communism | Degrowth | Twilight Sci-fi | Generalism

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