View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Comment
14 February 2024

The prime minister for victims

Britain is a nation beset by trauma, and Keir Starmer’s role will be to assuage it.

By Will Lloyd

The Abuse of Power is perhaps the strangest book ever written by a former prime minister. Theresa May’s memoir is in fact a police procedural. Here is May examining the Grenfell Tower fire, the Hillsborough stadium disaster, the Primodos pregnancy test scandal, child abuse in Rotherham, schools and churches… the word May uses to describe the state of the nation, over and over again, is “shocking”.

But it’s not a shock, is it? Britain – and I don’t mean this pejoratively – is a nation of victims. The stories the country tells itself, whether they are real or fictional, are trauma plots. The agonising slow-motion televised decline and death of Kate Garraway’s husband Derek Draper, the former Labour insider, from Long Covid. The endlessly repeated story of Diana, Princess of Wales. Since 2020, Diana has been the subject of (at least) two plays, two series of television drama, two films, and an off-Broadway musical. “Leave the poor Princess alone”, was the begging headline in the New York Times in January – but I doubt we will. She is too perfect a victim: shredded by a classic British institution; unable to speak any longer. Prince Harry speaks in her place. And the language he uses to do so – ADD, PTSD, anxiety, depression – may have its origins in American psychiatric practice, but has gone on to colonise Britain.

What would you expect to read about in Danny Cipriani’s autobiography? The former England rugby star always seemed laddish, funny – reliable cheeky tabloid bait. His memoir, published in 2023, turned out to be a tale of struggle, addiction and, yes, trauma. Two critically adored television dramas of recent times, Top Boy and Happy Valley, feature protagonists tortured, respectively, by their mother’s incarceration in a mental hospital and the suicide of their daughter. Edward St Aubyn’s scathing Patrick Melrose novels may be the best published in Britain this century. They are about a boy who was raped by his father.

In Britain today, sinister forces cannot be contained or concealed; deep damage is revealed, and the nation is lost in something like a colossal Operation Yewtree. Britain’s post-imperial moral authority has drained away in the world, so we have elevated victimhood in its place. You cannot understand contemporary culture without realising this. Other than being drunk during sporting events, the British have one remaining intact ritual: something fatal – a murder, a car crash – happens. And then, at the site of trauma, a rash of flowers in cellophane and cards and tiny teddy bears appear. The trauma is marked so that it might be processed.

Who speaks for that country, where the adults are on record numbers of SSRIs and 300,000 children reportedly have PTSD? Who can marshall (and manipulate) its pain and help it recover from its grief? The oddest thing about prime ministers is how they both feed from and instigate the cultural moment. It is impossible to imagine James Callaghan still prime-ministering when the British were watching Dallas and Neighbours in the Eighties. But it was viscerally appropriate that David Cameron ruled while they enjoyed Downton Abbey.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

Leaders must suit their times. Otherwise they are Harold Macmillan or Alec Douglas-Home during the early Sixties satire boom, as unsettlingly wrong as finding an iron girder in a house of cards.

Which brings us to Keir Starmer. Do not fall for the smokescreen trap of believing that he is boring. Aesthetically, the Labour leader presents as a television detective who’s just done a few knackering, horrific rounds of London mortuaries. Dark shirts, dark blazers, dark shoes. He looks like he’s seen bad things in the night. He even sounds, in a recent Vogue profile, like he is auditioning to be a hard-boiled police officer. But he is not so hard-boiled on TV.

Watch Starmer closely whenever he is asked about his family, and his father in particular. The eyes water. The voice cracks. The pain radiates from him like static. This supposedly careful, reticent and clam-like man can barely hide the turbulent emotions within. When Rishi Sunak talks about his family he sounds like he is selling a heavily discounted air fryer.

“Shame!” That was the ringing word Starmer used to admonish Sunak when they clashed at PMQs on 7 February. Sunak had made a joke about Starmer’s shifting attempts to define what a woman is. In the public gallery that afternoon was Esther Ghey, mother of Brianna Ghey, the murdered trans teenager. Starmer met Esther Ghey after the session ended. He is good – appropriately grave and solicitous – at empathy for victims. You have to wonder what losses Starmer has suffered to make him so decently sincere.

Victims are a speciality for Starmer. Towards the end of his time as director of public prosecutions he began to realise how badly the criminal justice system was failing them. His early career in parliament was a quest to have victims’ rights enshrined in law; they belonged, he said in 2016, “at the heart of our criminal justice system”. The traumas that gnaw at contemporary Britain will ensure that they are the heart of what he does as prime minister too.

Starmer has no grand vision other than this: the tabulation and redress of people’s pain. We have seen what happens when that pain goes unaddressed. Grief can quickly become grievance. If he fails you will see much of the latter in the 2020s. But if he succeeds, and Britain’s traumas recede, then something worse will confront him. There will be nothing left to mourn, and Keir Starmer will have made himself irrelevant.

[See also: Charles III is the King of suffering]

Content from our partners
Unlocking the potential of a national asset, St Pancras International
Time for Labour to turn the tide on children’s health
How can we deliver better rail journeys for customers?

Topics in this article : ,

This article appears in the 14 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble in Toryland

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU