First published on October 21, 2019, on Medium
It’s one of the great ironies of our time that the political actors who claim the mantle of popular revolt are the ones most openly at the service of power. This is perhaps to be expected of the populist Tory press. Here’s The Sun on October 18th, in a page one editorial: “Boris Johnson, against all odds and in defiance of his sneering critics…” etc. The Telegraph in particular seems to have given up its front page to being a press release for the government and its struggle against the Remainer “elites”. This delightful mutation is also, presumably, the will of the people, (if not of the people who used to read the Telegraph).
More interesting (and less remarked upon) was an October 16th interview with Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn by the left-wing website Novara Media. Host Ash Sarkar is a TV regular and self-described “communist” who touts her street cred as an anti-establishment rebel. Why then does her chummy sit-down with the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition so resemble a CBeebies interview with, as it might be, Sir Ian McKellen?
Here’s a representative question: “Do you think that there is a risk, when you walk into Number 10, of being co-opted by the very establishment that you’ve spent your whole political life fighting against?” I suppose that is an alternative to the sort of question you get on the BBC. But is this not rather odd behaviour for a radical journalist given the chance to grill a would-be Prime Minister? To take an obvious example, might Ms Sarkar (an outspoken anti-racist) not have asked a better question of a man whose party is being investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission for racism against Jews?
Novara is at least fairly open about its purpose. As its website notes: “Our journalism is always politically committed”. And Novara’s clownish editor Aaron Bastani is as party-line on Twitter as the editors of the Telegraph are in print. But the cuddly Corbyn interview is a sign of our dishonest times, where ambitious mediocrities dress their conformity up in rebel clothes.
A similar process is at work when previous gadflies and fire-breathers — from The Guardian’s Seumas Milne to Matthew Elliot of the Taxpayers Alliance — jump at the first whiff of real power. (One suspects the media partisans who remain in a satellite orbit are secretly hoping for the call, and are auditioning for a job when they should be working for their readers.)
The only revolution here is the revolving door between Fleet Street and Westminster. But wasn’t that cosy relationship, along with “spin” and triangulation, supposed to be a thing of the past, swept away by the will of the people and a new breed of politician?
In truth, Brexit and Corbynism, the ruling passions of our political moment, were cooked up by cynical politicians, (partly by accident), and embraced by people desperate for excitement and hope, however implausible. Both seem to offer a return to a golden past and at the same time a leap towards a glorious future. Since both promise the impossible, the picture of what these goals would look like is kept deliberately fuzzy, so that the struggle can go on forever, and the inevitable failures blamed on wreckers and saboteurs, (or as earlier faiths had it, “the evil one”).
The famous expression “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” is not correct: It’s not that things stay the same because change is exponential. It’s more true to say that what stays the same is greater than what changes. Populism in Britain has involved a successful rebranding of the same political soap suds in a shiny new box, and with a free toy inside (or so they say). The new politics is filled with the faults of the old, though our new politicians have added some extra faults, just for us. (Apologies to Philip Larkin.) What’s different is that now those in power have a bodyguard of “popular will” rhetoric and some devoted congregants. This makes independent criticism even more important.
In practice, “taking back control” and being “for the many not the few” means handing authority to a few chancer politicians who justify their power grab by claiming to act for a popular majority. As partisan hacks so eagerly prove, there are always people ready to fall at the feet of power and volunteer to do its bidding. For those of us who feel differently, and who don’t believe in either fantasy, there are few if any political options. But the very least we can do is reject the cultural assault on our intelligence which insists that professional courtiers and would-be commissars are the true voices of dissent.