The twilight of anti-coalition opposition

After the raging days of resistance, the left has become quiet, resigned and accepting.

The heady, raging days of resistance to the coalition government are over. In its place, a sense of weary resignation has begun to pervade the British left. The protests of 2010 now look to be a distant memory, whilst the crowds drawn by the March for the Alternative and the student movement have returned to the business of getting on with their lives.

Overcome by the unrelenting nationalist marketing surrounding the triple-whammy Wedding-Jubi-Lympics, we have shrugged, accepted it. If the whipping up of patriotic spirit has finished, for now, it is a tribute to conservatism that the rebirth of British pride can be heralded whilst the things to be proud of are systematically cut. The best that can be said of more cynical quarters is that our jaded eyes are turned to the new series of Downton. Resistance is dead, long live resignation.

So it should be lucky that there is a designated, official party in opposition. But Labour under Ed Miliband feels like a resounding disappointment. Locked in political stasis, the party lacks the bravery and the unity needed for an honest return to the left. Ostensible disagreement with the worst excesses of austerity masks an underlying agreement with the essence ofcCoalition ideology: cuts, economic deregulation, the maintenance of the status quo. Labour should be a rallying point for organised anti-coalition resistance. This current opposition appears to have lost the will for it.

At the same time, well-meaning unions and other leftist groups are straitjacketed, not just by sectarianism, but by the sheer volume of coalition attacks against the causes they stand for. With social justice, basic welfare and other naive ideas relegated to the box in the political attic labeled “Modern Compassionate Conservatism (contains Big Society)”, there is simply too much work to be done. We all know that TUC muttering about a general strike is likely remain just that: muttering. Any implementation of the lazy, occasional threat to outlaw strikes without a 50% union member turnout - ironic coming from a Conservative party without an electoral mandate - would simply formalise the existing situation.

This is frightening. David Cameron no longer needs to hide the return of the nasty party. The recent cabinet reshuffle was confirmation, if more were needed, that this government will continue to implement the most regressive, destructive set of “reforms” to much-needed British institutions since Thatcher. For sure, Liberal Democrat-flavoured policies do occasionally make it. Just as any reversal of the in-party marginalisation of leftist liberals by the Orange Bookers looks unlikely, however, so too has the party lost its leftist following. Despite Nick Clegg’s reference to a “turbo-charged right wing agenda” at his party conference this week, this concession to the social democratic end of the party is far too little, far too late.

The government’s targets are widely recognised: the poor, the young, women and the disabled, society’s most disenfranchised groups. Less noticed is the strategy behind it; for these attacks to provoke public resistance on any effective scale depends upon the ongoing empathy of more powerful groups. Amongst other factors, a lack of jobs across the board maintains the massive protests in Greece and in Spain. In contrast, our coalition’s toxic stew of cuts and privatization is cleverly directed towards the already disadvantaged. With widespread rhetoric stigmatizing these groups as blameworthy anyway, and in the context of a largely ineffective political opposition, there is only so long that the average person will be motivated to protest for others.

A twilight has descended upon anti-coalition opposition. For now it is mostly quiet, resigned and accepting. What protests it musters rarely make headlines, and in all this talk of politics there are still (for those lucky enough to have one) jobs to go to, children to raise, social engagements to be kept. For those who can afford it, there are lives to be led. In any case, resistance appears not to make much difference. Radicalism isn’t cool anymore. But whilst the left may have put its gloves on and gone home, we can be sure that the government is just getting started.

The crowds drawn by the student movement have "returned to the business of getting on with their lives". Photograph: Getty Images.

Ray Filar is a freelance journalist and an editor at openDemocracy. Her website is here.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt