Pod Save the UK’s intro music is a bit like Proust’s madeleines, if Proust hated madeleines. It’s a vaguely disco-y, pop-rock number that summons unwanted memories of the coalition-era comedy panel shows that giggled away as Britain sunk further into the sea.
Hosted by the comedian Nish Kumar and the journalist Coco Khan, the podcast is a spinoff of Pod Save America, which began in 2017 as part of the flowering of anti-Donald Trump “resistance” media. Pod Save the UK, which started this month, takes a similar approach to the Tories. “So, Nish, what does the UK need saving from this week?” Khan asks in the opening spiel. Minutes later, she says: “What do I want from politics? I just want a system I can forget about.”
These two things do not fit together. You cannot take on the moral glamour of rescuing a country from right-wing bastards if you don’t want to, as the Yankee liberals say, “do the work”. This posturing, frequently twinned with a matey, sometimes excruciating banter, embodies the sense of cringe that’s currently inescapable on the British centre left.
There’s the LBC host James O’Brien, who wrote a book modestly called How to Be Right. There’s the Twitter personality and crowdfunded author Russ Jones, who recently remarked of a poll that predicted the Tory MP Lee Anderson losing his seat at the next election that if it was a powder “I would rub it on my gums”.
And then there’s Jo Maugham. Clubbing a fox to death on Boxing Day while wearing a satin kimono was, animal rights quibbles aside, quite a cool way for the people’s KC to enter public consciousness. Since then, he’s assumed a kind of saviour complex summed up in the first line of his recent memoir: “The life I have is hard, but I got to choose it, and the road that brought me here I did not.”
The political fringes are usually not earnest enough to be cringe. Online, the hard right obscures very unpleasant views with Greek statue avatars and layers of irony, and the hard left leavens Marxism with nihilistic wit. The centre right is cringe – cast your mind back to May 2020, when George Osborne posed on the cover of the Times in a shirt, sensible jeans and New Balance trainers. “I have a girlfriend,” read the pull quote. “I’ve never been happier.” But this doesn’t really matter, because the centre right represents establishment stasis, and has no need to inspire anyone.
[See also: The New Statesman’s left power list]
Centre-left cringe comes with an obsession with the vibes and “values” of politics. The teeth-gnashing hatred of Boris Johnson centred on his deceit, unkemptness and disregard for the dignities of high office. Suited-and-booted Rishi Sunak generates noticeably less hostility, despite him being significantly to the right of Johnson on both economics and culture.
Unsurprisingly, the coronation – a highly symbolic event that, in economic terms, is relatively insignificant – was catnip. The barrister Charlotte Proudman posted a photo of crowds in London for the event alongside a rally in North Korea, with the caption: “Spot the difference.” And when, on the day, the official Twitter account of Paddington Bear asked everyone “to be kind and polite”, the author James Felton replied: “Read the room Paddington you marmalade c***.”
Felton has form here: his book about the UK’s historical misdeeds is entitled 52 Times Britain Was a Bellend. Not only is this very, very cringe, but it seems to equate the Irish potato famine and setting up concentration camps in Africa with someone spilling your pint. Equally, an inmate of one of Kim Jong-Un’s labour camps might focus on the discrepancy in human rights records between Britain and North Korea, rather than attendance at public events.
This stinks of an exceptionalist narcissism, which privileges Britain’s problems just as right-wing headbangers obsess over perceived strengths. A former civil servant, now living abroad, called in to LBC this month to say that he felt “an immense need to apologise on behalf of the politicians in the UK”. Neighbours in his new home of Lebanon, a country driven to the brink of ruin by its obscenely corrupt political class, must feel every sympathy for our having Suella Braverman as Home Secretary.
[See also: Labour’s future will be conservative]
With people like Proudman and Felton as political bedfellows, it’s unsurprising that many on the centre left have taken more or less the opposite posture: a data-driven wonkery that demonstrates Tory incompetence with cold, hard fact. A 2022 New York Magazine profile of the economic historian and online mini-celebrity Adam Tooze pointed out how many of his fans in the US had traded the trash-talking of the “dirtbag left” for GDP tables and commodities charts. There’s a similar frisson over here whenever the Financial Times’s John Burn-Murdoch publishes one of his data-driven pieces about Britain’s economic decline or the folly of right-wing culture war.
Another alternative to cringe is simply to be boring. This seems to be the tactic of the uptight, upright Keir Starmer. But, weirdly enough, he has a viable route to being, if not cool, then at least more recognisably human. His private persona – the Peroni-drinking, Stone Island-wearing football dad – is fundamentally more relatable and less cringe than Sunak’s, that of the cultureless finance bro who loves Emily in Paris and his Peloton. You only have to look at Andy Burnham – wearing a worker jacket to press conferences, spinning Hacienda classics during a charity DJ set – to see how a smidgen of cool can be used rather than abused by a politician.
But if Starmer remains flavourless, that’d be authentic too. The centre-left is, fundamentally, unexciting; it largely advocates a reshuffling of widely held principles. That’s why it jars so much when its acolytes take on the rhetoric of radicalism. Cringe was supercharged by the Brexit vote – witness the Remainiac obsessions of the philosopher AC Grayling – because it signalled a loss of power far more acute than when David Cameron entered Downing Street. And in the aftermath of the 2019 election, Russ Jones was one of many who turned his cringe on the left. “Fuck off, Jeremy Corbyn, you hopeless old tatterdemalion,” he wrote, presumably after thumbing through a thesaurus.
It makes you wonder what Jones and Maugham and O’Brien and the rest will do if and when a moderate Labour Party takes power. There’ll be no Tory government to rail against, and no radical-left Labour leader to tut about. Theirs is a politics of pure opposition, of angry reactions and retweets all the way down. But given the existential stakes, there’ll surely be something out there they can take a brave stand against. Cringe finds a way.
[See also: The Tory crack-up]