With mandate fatigue paralysing the body politic, it’s little wonder that many are approaching the coming election with reluctance, dread, and a real sense that something irrevocable is on the horizon.
The country must, it seems, be made to swallow a fairy nasty Brexit-brew. The injunction to gulp it down is creating a moment that strains at the parameters of tolerable cynicism and mainstream political discourse.
Theresa May is correct in her central assertion about the contest she’s inflicting on a confused and divided public: this will be the most important General Election we’ve seen in a generation.
While elements of the coming vote have been experienced in UK politics before, no ballot has been loaded with so much angst and tension.
Thus May’s gambit is a kind of greatest hits mash-up of the contests that many thought the UK had left in the past, when the current generation of politicians had yet to emerge onto the scene.
Echoes of the ‘who governs’ gambit of 1974 are there, as is the nationalistic triumphalism and anti-left hysteria of 1983. Just like in 1979, turkeys wilfully sealed their own fate, while basic questions about how the union itself functions loom unresolved.
The right crisis
This election is likely to mark an awful new phase in the long decline of the British left. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. So how does the right, in increasingly unequal western societies (where it has already dragged most social democratic settlements through the mud) renew itself, when the dragon of statist socialism has already been slain?
The answer is deceptively simple. It must create a crisis that the left, by definition, can never tackle head on. Brexit is a crisis of the right, by the right, for the right. Indulging in this destructive exercise broadens the right’s appeal by widening the gulf between working people and politics: by presenting a depoliticised version of the workplace as a site of patriotic economic duty, by further wrecking what is left of British manufacturing, and by pointing the finger at external forces.
At a certain point in this process – which further erodes the basis for effective political action by a left-opposition –the right, with its closely guarded base relatively unscathed, is seen to emerge as the only force muscular enough to carry out work of rebuilding what it has destroyed.
Whereas political identity became framed, in the wake of the industrial revolution, by work (and participation in a community structured around that work) in a post-industrial world, political identities are fluid, but nation, culture and ethnicity remain potent.
This creates a dangerous political situation in which a party in full control of the state can simultaneously present itself as insurgent: as Theresa May put it in her halting, haunted, announcement of the election on the steps of Downing Street: “the country is united, but Westminster is not”.
Ultimately, the direction of travel is clear. There is only one legitimate form of government – the patriotic front, the wartime coalition. The excluded, though great in number, cannot form an alliance because doing so is presented as a direct challenge to the national interest. There can only be a singular voice.
Apathy and authority
Thus we have an election held in order to allow the silent and biddable to cause a ruckus then slink back off to retreat into their own sealed off, apolitical, lives. Apathy is being marshalled to defend Britain. For every howl that condemns the rape clause, so the calculus goes, there are several quiet nods of approval. For every gesture of commitment there is an indifferent shrug.
The concept of a ‘global Britain,’ of these islands as one large drafty entrepôt, is often looked at purely as an economic proposition. But it does of course contain its own dark political logic. The success of say, Singapore, cannot be decoupled from its status as a de-facto one party state. At this election Britain is not forging ahead and building a new empire, it is coming dangerously close to being the first western democracy that makes the transition to the authoritarian growth model of the Asia-Pacific.
This is why we are seeing a picture emerge in which politics is reduced to a radical distance – so distant, in fact, that it strains at the parameters of liberal democratic norms.
An election framed in this way serves to diminish the possibility that agency will be transferred or that electoral politics might drive towards affording people a measure of tangible control over their lives.
Instead politics becomes an entirely symbolic process of conflicting abstractions. It becomes reduced to the sending of messages.
The question of power and who holds it has already been decided. The only question is what message the people pass on up the food chain. Will that be an expedient message, resulting in, say, a thumping endorsement of unfettered executive action? Or a negative, confused one, perhaps resulting in a hung parliament?
In the Brexit farce, the people have been cast as either enablers of the national interest, or fifth columnists. A government endorsed on the former terms will act with a kind of millenarian zeal.
The hard Brexit to come will be a disaster for a great many people. But it will also be an opportunity. What is left of British manufacturing, the welfare state and pesky liberal institutions such as the universities will have their status demoted. The Brexit-state will be incapable of swallowing all of the tasks that Brexit demands of it and so will simply discard them. A slew of deregulation will Make The City Great Again.
Which side are you on?
These radical choices will be presented as necessities. They will be seen to represent a skilled and statesperson-like decoding, which only a strong and stable government can conduct, of the messages passed on by the electorate. This is the only means to express the singular will of the one people to whom the Prime Minister is so scrupulously loyal.
This explains the most puzzling element of May’s Trotskyist ploy in holding this election: that it is entirely uncalled for. On one level it is all theatre: though not the democratic theatre of standard electioneering and debate, all of which is conspicuous through its absence. No campaign to lead the UK has ever been so hermetically sealed.
But that closed off character is necessary for whole scheme to be effective. This election is a performance of acute national crisis, brinkmanship and deep cynicism. But then again, the logic goes, aren’t those adept at cynical calculation just the kind of characters you’d want fighting your corner in a wholly desperate negotiation?
Theresa May called an election because she could, because such power, brokered by a factional coup, has to be exercised, or wither.
So the only question facing the electorate in six weeks’ time is whether to submit to that power or to challenge it, in the most expedient way possible.
This is not an election about party politics. As the Prime Minister rightly tells us, it is far more important than that. The election asks us: “which side are you on” – the side of the new Brexit-state, or the saboteurs?