The six weeks from mid-April to June are perhaps the most beautiful time to live in the west of Scotland. Throughout the winter months, the land is unmistakably an extension of the sea, subject to repeated battles between the squalls invading from off the coast and an oceanic climate which keeps snow and warmth equally at bay under a blanket of grey skies. Week-long Atlantic storms blast the senses and show no respect for shorelines, punctuating the quotidian stretches of rainy gloom which are appropriately described by the Scots word dreich.
But then in late April, the blossom trees awaken in the resurgent sun, their brilliant petals a thrilling antidote to the months of grey. Within days of their fading arrives the full vibrancy of the parks and countryside around Glasgow, a reminder that the trade-off for living somewhere so apparently inhospitable for so much of the year is an incomparably lush display of nature’s color and verve.
Spring this year has been no different outwardly and has been made no less evocative or restorative by the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. But the spring we’ve experienced inwardly, the one we will refer to for decades to come, has been warped utterly. Walks in those parks, that countryside, have been curtailed. The climax of some sporting seasons and the beginning of others has been aborted. And notably in the UK, holidays have changed.
Typically we enjoy a good run of public holidays around this time: Easter brings a long weekend, May Day follows shortly afterward and then there’s another long weekend at the end of the month. For the political devotees among us, there’s often an election to look forward to. Many will associate the arrival of cherry blossoms and daffodils with memories of walking with their parents to their primary school, temporarily refashioned as a polling place, and marveling at the strangeness of their everyday place used for a different purpose, full of grown-ups.
Last week marked the tenth anniversary of the end of Labour’s last term in office and those hectic few days when a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition was assembled in its place. It allowed us to reminisce also about the Conservative’s shock victory at that next election, and the memories of springs since which flutter by like the blossoms of a dreadfully ill tree: the EU referendum campaign, the 2017 UK election campaign, Theresa May’s resignation, and the slide towards the Johnson administration. Now we arrive at the awareness that even a global pandemic can’t provoke meaningful international cooperation.
British politics has been through a peculiarly British period in the past ten years, subject to poorly understood forces of its own making, astutely summed up in a recent New Yorker article about the coronavirus disaster as “a curious mix of superiority and fatalism.” It’s easy to forget now, but the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition of 2010-2015 came about as much from revulsion at the prospect of untrammeled Tory rule as the need to remove a New Labour movement made stale by its thirteen years in power. By the time of the election, David Cameron had spent five years building a case for himself and his party as a new kind of conservative, caring about the environment and compassionate about parts of the citizenry they had spent generations attacking.
The 2010 vote, coming two years after what we perhaps optimistically referred to as the Global Financial Crisis, was supposed to be a slam dunk by Cameron in a crushing victory over the New Labour’s feeble Gordon Brown. Instead, Cameron had to settle for a coalition with Nick Clegg, whose party also fared more poorly than predicted and promptly liquidated virtually its entire “progressive” policy agenda into the right-wing slurry of austerity. Clegg’s party members told themselves that they were a moderating influence on the Tories, but in reality, their presence was the only thing that opened the door for the right-wing.
The coalition ushered in a decade of rampant austerity widely understood to have cost the UK economic growth while viciously assaulting its citizens, condemning hundreds of thousands of children to poverty, and reducing essential services to a shadow of their former selves. The 2015 election saw the Liberal Democrats take a monumental beating at the polls from which they have yet to recover, with the stench of austerity hanging around the party to this day. The political outcome of the coalition was no better: the Tories swept to a surprise election win in 2015 by promising that they would hold a referendum on EU membership if they won a parliamentary majority.
One of the great fallacies in modern British political analysis is that the outcome of that referendum was a surprise. In practice, surprise at a referendum result typically only signifies the distance between those surprised and reality. For a while, the EU referendum campaign seemed to be endorsed by the Tories’ shattered opponents as an opportunity to highlight Cameron’s status as an imposter, and to rebuke his party’s extremists. But many in the electorate found it easier to endorse a future of restored sovereignty than the equally imaginary appeals to the benefits of globalization coming from the pro-EU campaigns.
In retrospect, the result of the referendum should not have surprised anyone, since it was not a measure of the country’s feelings about Europe but rather the country’s perception of itself and its place in the world.
At the risk of overstating Scotland’s political significance to the United Kingdom, it’s worth considering the role of the 2014 referendum on Scottish Independence had in all this. In the final months of campaigning, support for independence more than doubled in polls, from under 25% to over 50%, and there were moments of genuine panic among the London political establishment that Cameron may have unwittingly set up the UK to disband.
In the end, that obviously proved not to be the case, but there was sufficient concern to trot out a chorus line of Great British Political Figures, including the Queen and Gordon Brown (in his first outing as an elder statesman), to urge Scots to “think very carefully of the future.” These British politicians instead issued a vague series of promises to one day think about altering some aspects of parts of the devolution settlement.
In the aftermath of the referendum, Cameron was applauded for having fended off the Scottish National Party challenge and saved the Union, confining the issue to this “once in a generation” vote. But in reality, we know that one of the few things Scots can agree on politically is the loathsomeness of the Conservative Party, particularly the old-Etonian patricians of this current generation of Tory leaders. It wasn’t personal connections that saved the Union in 2014.
Instead, it’s probably more accurate to attribute the Union’s continuity to a majority of Scots’ self-interested and fearful concerns about what a more equal and independent Scotland might personally cost them, in financial terms. But that’s a less politically useful account to all involved: acknowledging that more than half of the country would rather see mass suffering under austerity than risk a personal decline in privilege isn’t useful to the architects of the pro-independence movement or the austerity regime. It’s more pleasant to believe that this was another win for the Hegelian dialectic and that the Scottish electorate naturally acknowledged the time-honored goodness of British persistence through history.
This spring, the UK government laid claim to the country’s history in strange new ways. Some public holidays were reshuffled slightly this year, with the seventy-fifth anniversary of VE Day moving from a Monday to a Friday. Among the front pages of British newspapers, festooned with images of bunting, two dissenting media voices stood out. Financial Times continued to march to the funereal beat of its own drum, splashing on its front page the predictions of the Bank of England, which warned of the worst recession since the great frost of 1709, illustrated with an oil painting of the same period. Meanwhile, The Telegraph made space alongside a photo of a centenarian military veteran to feature the thoughts of the new leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer, former chief prosecutor for England and Wales and Queens’ Council at the English Bar.
The Telegraph, a right-leaning paper which has earned the nickname “Torygraph,” was paying Boris Johnson $300,000 per year for his weekly columns until he was elected as prime minister last summer. Now the newspaper has become a forum for Starmer to continue his lawyerly demolition of Johnson’s own hubris.
Starmer’s opinion piece conjured the lesson of V-E Day for the Tory faithful, that “despite the scale of the challenge, a better future is possible.” He recalled the international cooperation which ended the war, and the ensuing period of social transformation out of which emerged the NHS, that most vulnerable of social institutions. Starmer ended by reframing the current crisis as an opportunity to inaugurate a new period of social transformation.
If the article’s venue and prominence were a surprise, its content and form could not have been. In his first weeks as Labour leader, Starmer moved to mend relationships between his party and prominent Jewish organizations, and he has appointed a cadre of shadow ministers unblemished by previous exposure but apparently primed to analyze the government’s decisions in forensic detail. At his first session of Prime Minister’s Questions, Starmer punctured the PM’s narcissistic fog in a witheringly effective performance.
By claiming the PM’s most loyal print media outlet as a billboard for his own political messaging, Starmer confirmed the arrival of the first organized opposition any UK government has faced in a decade. With the pandemic crisis providing a seemingly endless slew of atrocious headlines for the government, and with British exceptionalism being measured in terms of coronavirus death rates and departures from scientific advice, the Labour Party has more breathing room than at any time since the halcyon days of Tony Blair.
Starmer’s brief time in office has raised eyebrows in all political corners, as a potential challenge to Conservative rule. Tories are concerned that their divisive prime minister will be exposed as a charlatan by an opposition now notable for its principles, analytic capacity, and even temper. Starmer’s lengthy experience as a human rights barrister and his legacy of reform at the Crown Prosecution Service has forced the overtly leftist Labour groups to fall into line or risk appearing childish in criticizing a man obviously effective in public service.
At the same time, Starmer’s preferred policies are manna to the party’s centrist and right wings, whose primary goal is ending Conservative rule. Liberal figures who abandoned the Liberal Democrats, or gave up on politics entirely, will be more inclined to take seriously the words of someone whose progressivism has strong historical roots.
For the first time in a long time, British politics has a familiar archetype at the center of its stage: a lawyer of obvious principle whose oratorical tendency towards dullness can be readily recast as a thrilling return to normalcy. For people of all political stripes, wearied by a decade of obscene Tory navel-gazing amid economic (and now pandemic) destruction, Starmer could stand as a reassuring symbol of former British stability.
Starmer’s position as Labour leader may augur a transformation of the party’s fortunes. After the defeat of New Labour and the political exile under Corbyn, the party may find a new role: as a unifier, reconciling the British people’s deep conservatism with its sporadic impulses towards social change.
After the storms of a long winter, we may be witnessing a spring for the Labour Party, fresh with vitality but inevitably rooted in Britain’s past.
Simon Jones is a reporter based in Glasgow; he writes for Politico, Al Jazeera, Le Monde Diplomatique, and other outlets.