Lost in the eye of the hurricane

Crisis is the pinwheel of modern democratic politics

This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I know the quarters
of the weather, where it comes from,
where it goes. But the stem of me,
this I took from their welcome,
or their rejection, of me
And my arrogance
was neither diminished
nor increased,
by the communication
It is undone business
I speak of, this morning,
with the sea
stretching out
from my feet

— Charles Olson, “Maximus, to Himself” (1963)

Yet again, it feels like a time of waves, and it’s hard to tell the ebb from the flow. The neologism of the time was “clusterfuck”, a word the English language managed to do without for a thousand years until George Osborne got his mitts on the exchequer. Looking at these books spread across the desk, it’s hard to resist the thought that the verb is more pregnant than the noun: that some people are cosmically clusterfucked; that there really is a tide in the affairs of men, and sometimes it’s hurricane season.

The Conservative Party After Brexit: Turmoil and Transformation, Tim Bale (Polity, £25)

Charles Olson wrote that poem in Massachusetts in 1963, when here across the Atlantic another Tory government (also caught up in some kind of epochal ennui) faced electoral reckoning after 13 years in power. They too had failed to outshine the shadow of a revolutionary Labour predecessor, ceding economic wisdom and social mores to the Left.

They watched idly as the horsemen of a latter-day apocalypse — nationalised industry, Keynesian fiscal policy, union militancy, social dislocation — rode on unchecked, inviting a sharper reckoning decades later. They too performed an epoch-defining transformation of Britain’s place in the world: Suez 1956, like Brexit 2016, dismal, tragic, painful — but probably necessary.

Who shoulders the blame for clusterfucking? The presiding Geist of our days (poltergeist or zeitgeist, adjust to taste) read about Bismarck and concluded wave-riding was a better bet than tide-turning. In June 2023 this brought him to an alarming thought: proactivity might really be a waste of time. Dominic Cummings poses a serious question:

Is it possible to win elections whilst really trying to reverse long-term trends on productivity, Whitehall failure, R&D, education corruption, procurement disasters etc (me), or is it an illusion to think that a radically different approach is possible and the only future for British party politics is ever-more regulation and tax (branded “fiscal responsibility”, “to save the planet” etc) plus the old economic model (rely on the City, horrific housing market, HMT pushing infrastructure to south-east etc) plus Number 10 as media entertainment service plus elections pretending to be about significant differences between elites which are actually trivial (e.g. 2010, 2015)?

Perhaps real wisdom is on the side of those Roman senators who, Dominic Cummings-cum-Cicero tells us, retired to their fish ponds instead of trying to salvage their doomed republic.

Johnson at 10: The Inside Story, Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell (Atlantic, £25)

The alternative timeline with which Tim Bale opens his book on the Tory party since Brexit has Prime Minister George Osborne, fresh from an electoral victory in 2019, laying the clusterfuck on his vanquished rivals Labour, May and Johnson. Bale means to remind us that events since June 2016 were “far from a foregone conclusion”, a point impressed by Cummings’s reflections. Politics is, indeed, like a game of chess — once we recognise that chess is a game of almost infinite variations.

The result for Bale is an explicitly Cummingsian narrative following “individuals, and therefore parties as a whole … as much tactical and reactive as they are strategic and proactive — actors, in other words, with incredibly short time horizons”. These actors are described less charitably by Cummings himself as “hollow men”, a caste of open-collared overlords, strutting impotently for the cameras.

The god-halfway-outside-the-machine is opinion polling, which appears spasmodically to guide Bale’s narrative through the slalom-run of the recent past. Beyond that, as an Oxford don-turned-playwright once put it, history is just one (cluster?) fucking thing after another.

Working with these assumptions, Bale delivers a dependable, scholarly and broadly objective account of high politics since 2016. Whether an account based on these premises could prove his stated purpose of showing how the Conservative Party morphed into a force of the populist right is another matter. For one thing, populist movements tend to be intensely idealistic; the decision-making processes of their leaders and their frames of reference are usually antithetical to those of Cummings’s hollow men.

Rather, Bale’s book is ultimately a subtle reversion to the most tired cliché in British politics: that the Tories are a kind of apolitical cartel that only exists to win elections. If this has led them into populism, the explanation for that shift would have to be found outside the frame of his book.

At the opposite extreme is Seldon and Newell’s latest instalment in the At 10 series — which began during Tony Blair’s reign and has since charted the careers of four or five other would-be messiahs. To be sure, theirs is a pretty uninspiring form of messianism, reminiscent of Hungarian sociologist Iván Szelényi’s “teleological elites”: ruling cadres determined to imprint their own peculiar visions on the body politic and society.

Yet there it is, lurking in the bushes of Seldon and Newell’s definition of the “greatness” to which Boris Johnson is supposed to have aspired: the ability of leaders to stamp their personality upon their age.

Shades of the same conceit play out to a darker but victorious end in Samuel Earle’s sub-Gramscian drivel Tory Nation (another old cliché barely worth the ink: the Eternal Tory has taken over the press and the economy and made everyone racist and so on and Brexit).

Johnson At 10 is not without good qualities: the authors have interviewed a lot of “insiders” and collected plenty of fresh information that would otherwise be lost. The result is a record that will be useful to later historians but which struggles to move beyond high journalism.

Tory Nation: How One Party Took Over, Samuel Earle (Simon & Schuster, £16.99)

The whole thing has a slight whiff of pre-2016 political innocence to it. Worse, it falls foul of the major problem that greatness is relative and comes with pretty perverse incentives. The authors recognise that greatness is easier to achieve in times of turmoil, but pass over the fact that politicians seeking it have every reason to see chaos come to its zenith, so that everyone is watching when they arrive on their white horses. No captain was ever praised for avoiding the iceberg.

Crisis is the pinwheel of modern democratic politics. Walking up Notting Hill with a former cabinet minister in July 2017 — sun in sky, pram in tow and Grenfell towering over us — I was told: “The problem is that developed Western countries are now basically ungovernable.” This thought has been echoed repeatedly, most recently in Dominic Raab’s preposterous resignation. It stalks the pages of these books, too.

How far, then, were Johnson and Co. victims of circumstance? If they were “cosmically clusterfucked”, how far down the chain of power does circumstantial victimhood extend? Is it just the blight of the last five prime ministers, or is it a pox on the entire machinery of government?

None of these books has much to say about this vital question. For the most part, the authors are content to let contestable assumptions about political activities go largely uncontested. Bale gives us very little idea of the cognitive processes of hollow men. Where does their ethos of leadership come from? What kind of political system nourishes it?

Cummings often fixates on how circular logic builds self-deluding “SW1 myths”. So what follows from short-termist decisions inspired by opinion polls and media cycles? Since short-term tactics seemed to work better in containing the SNP, is short-termism necessarily bad? What are we to do with politicians and others who do have long-term aspirations? If greatness and heroism are yet again on the tapis, what about the millennia-old tapestries of thought on which they sat?

Instead, we get varying shades of vainglorious and banal egotism. This is not wholly misplaced: many European politicians have gone down that path since the end of the Cold War, finding it a shield from that ultimate bugbear: uncertainty.

There is more to politics than this. The “inside”, as the events of 2016 demonstrated very clearly, is a lot less sealed-off and masterful than it might once have imagined. In the business of wave-riding, it is more bathtub than submarine. Those who live political lives will have to come to terms with this. So, too will those who study them — and mature historical perspective will be a vital part of any successful reckoning. There is not much evidence that this process has really begun.

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