It’s the all-singing, all-dancing play about British politics in 1974 (well, there’s a little bit of singing and dancing but not much). The Labour government can barely keep it together and the Tories are about to turn to that infamous Iron Lady. Behind the scenes at Westminster the Whips are doing their best to keep their parties in shape and to keep their MPs voting for the right side. It’s harder than it sounds given that some MPs think it more important to fake their own deaths, to actually die, to stand by their principles and/to to defect to the other side. What ensues is simultaneously funny, tragic and farcical as history plays itself out and the Labour Party, the last bastion of the working classes, crumbles from within and without. It’s also far too close to home what with faffing over an EU referendum, Scottish devolution and austerity. I laughed but I also cried. Now, I could go on to write a review of the play but I basically wouldn’t be saying anything the guardian hasn’t already said, it really is great.
Instead, I want to briefly reference an interview with the writer of the play, James Graham. He says that “theatre is a democratic space. You still have to bring people together collectively into a room, you lock the doors, you turn the lights down and you thrash it out live, there and then.” I think this is a wonderfully idealistic view of what theatre can do but I think the irony is that if the theatre is a democratic space it’s got more in common with the sort of farcical democracy we witness in This House rather than any ideal version where we actually have equality. Firstly, you have to pay to get into the theatre, which immediately prioritises the space for the rich. Much like Britain with its private education, increasingly private healthcare and astronomical public transport fares. Not to mention the wealthy politicians who can afford houses and flats in London making it much easier to access the Houses of Parliament. The poor barely scrape by and settle for limited view seating if they’re lucky enough to get in. And, yes, our democracy is like being locked in a room as any vain attempt to escape – say by voting for the Lib Dems or Greens – is met by the Yale lock of the two-party system. And just like at the theatre we are forced to silently watch as those on stage, the politicians, play their own games at the expense of the nation. We’re the ones who get thrashed. Meanwhile, the script is off-limits to the audience apart from once in every five years when we’re tricked into believing we can edit it. And our rounds of applause are reserved for two specific moments, the interval and the end – not much wiggle room there.
I think Graham has a laudable view of the theatre as a genuine tool for change-making within society. But, in our time of relentless consumerism, I fear that theatre is gobbled up as greedily as television and cinema. We’re often going in to escape, not to deeply engage with our inner values, and will come out with much the same view of the world with which we went in. However, I do believe theatre can contribute to culture change but as the phrase suggests it is going to take more than one very good play to change the culture. It’s going to take lots of plays asides many other forms of cultural interaction. As Graham says “we should be getting together like we used to and talking about things.” I couldn’t agree more but I’m not sure that is necessarily going to happen in the imposed silence of a theatre’s auditorium.
If you’d turn to page 342 we will briefly examine that calamitous time in history at the start of the 21st century. It was a time of economic instability, ecological collapse, war and the end of the Great British Bake Off. It was a difficult time and it’s a minor miracle that we made it into 2116 at all. Nevertheless, what I want to focus on is the period known as the Rise and Fall of the Middle Classes.
So, who were the middle classes? Well, after the Second World War of 1939 – 1945 the largely flooded landmass formerly known as the United States of America realised that the machines they’d use to mass produce weapons and vehicles for fighting in battles could also be used to mass produce household items and other more peaceful commodities. Twin this with the continual ascent of money and we have what was called consumer capitalism: people got paid to make stuff and then the same people paid to buy stuff. All sorts of stuff: fast food, cars, trips to the Amazon, inflatable sex dolls, the works. But the religion of money was never a fair one and some people started off with lots and lots and others started with none. Usually things stayed like that and those who had got given more whilst those who did not have, lost. But in between the rich and the poor a new group emerged, the middle classes. These were the sorts of people who got paid a bit more for the work they did so they could buy more stuff but they didn’t get paid so much more that they could take on the role of the idle rich.
Now, the middle classes were fed a very important lie and it is because they believed this lie that Western Civilisation ultimately fell apart. They were told that if they worked very hard and got lots of money they would achieve stability, status and happiness. Thus, as they were distracted in the pursuit of money and the consumption of things so they forgot that what really tied people together was being nice to one another and trying to do good. Meanwhile, the superrich carried on waving the carrot of success at the middle classes and hitting the poor with the stick of failure, whilst rigging the system to ensure nothing was fairly distributed. But the middle classes were not content with believing just one lie they also chose to believe in another: the lie of progress. Namely, that by sending their kids to school and getting university degrees and buying houses the world would become a nicer place. It didn’t occur to them that the cost of their land of milk and honey was poverty and struggle for so many others. They were far too nice to think on such horrible things.
Unfortunately, to make matters worse the duped middle classes committed another vital mistake: they made a culture. Within this culture there were an awful lot of films about aristocrats and Queens and hardly any on miners’ strikes and civil rights. There were many television shows about buying houses and fashion but also lots about ugly and stupid poor people. There were many articles in newspapers that ridiculed, mocked and tokenised the poor, and transformed any one who spoke on their behalf into some sort of monstrous, loony party pooper. This culture used fancy words learned during fancy degrees at fancy institutions that took themselves a little too seriously. Middle class culture became a kind of club that many were excluded from. Now, I know, it was hard for the middle classes, they just wanted to get by, they just wanted a house, they just wanted security for their kids but in the end wanting a nice life for themselves made fuck all difference.
The catalyst that toppled this world of milk and honey (built on an empire of blood and suffering) happened in a very little country, what we know as England but back then was called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In that country there was an important vote to be held about whether England would stay in the European Union…sorry…yes, um, to be honest I’m not entirely sure what the European Union was but it had something to do with keeping bananas straight and trains filled entirely with gravy. Anyway, all those nice middle class people, full on milk and honey, were very surprised when the poor people, who didn’t have any milk and honey, voted to leave. They were also surprised when all those very rich people they had aspired to be like also voted to leave. They couldn’t believe it. They couldn’t believe that the poor people hated them and the rich people didn’t care about them. And so those nice middle classes got squeezed and whilst they tried to keep their nice lives together it seemed the pillars of what made their nice lives possible kept tumbling down. Soon the poor of the former United States of America revolted but accidentally voted for a superrich person who cared about them even less than the middle classes. Then the French did the same. And it was like a row of dominoes tumbling down. With everything the middle classes held dear vanishing it wasn’t long before the world was just divided between the rich and the poor, and sadly the former had all the weapons. For a while things had been good and for a while the middle classes believed things could only get better. But soon all those dreams of mortgages, salaries and nice suburban lives far from nasty poor people but closer to those brilliant rich people became just that: dreams. As for those middle classes? Well, they wished they’d woken up earlier. Now, if you look at the holo-screen you’ll see the recordings of a wise sage Queen of that era who recorded all these things in a catchy song. Enjoy.
While some might be reeling at Theresa May’s choice of cabinet maybe, just maybe, our new Prime Minister actually has a very cunning plan up her sleeve. And I reckon the long and short of it will be the UK remaining in the EU. May was/is a Remainer after all and maybe all that “Brexit is Brexit” is just a cunning smokescreen to distract us from the real politics at work.
So, what am I talking about? Well, she hasn’t let the Brexiteers get away with it. She’s put Andrea Leadsom in charge of some tokenistic environmental department and within days she’s managed to offend all male nannies by calling them would-be paedophiles. Leadsom hasn’t even met the farmers yet and they aren’t supposed to do very well out of Brexit. Meanwhile, Borish Johnson as Foreign Secretary is already the laughing-stock of the world as German news reporters suppress laughter and the French wish us ‘bon chance’. The other Brexiteers in the cabinet (inc. David Davis and Liam Fox) all have differing views on what Brexit should look like – some want open borders and remaining in the free market (aka, being in the EU), some want to remain in the free market without open borders (aka, having your cake and eating it) and some want a land of milk, honey and Queen Victoria’s resurrection. This cabinet is a recipe for disaster (and satire). Oh, and Michael Gove didn’t get a look in because he’s a traitor.
But where’s the cunning plan, I hear you ask in increasingly despairing voices. Well, I think it’s this: May, being a Remainer at heart, doesn’t want Brexit to happen. She’s effectively put a whole load of muppets in power to prove to her party (because they’re the ones that need convincing) that Brexit was always a bad idea – it would provide years of uncertainty for the British economy followed by years of negotiations we do not have the bureaucratic expertise nor personpower for (more on this here). Once Johnson, Fox et al have proven to us all that the only thing they’re capable of is making a fuss about something rather than actually sorting things out even the most staunch of Brexiteers will relent. May needs to buy time and allow Lord Sprigley-Bottom and Viscount Twitface to quietly change their minds. A few years later they’ll profess to the EU being a brilliant idea (heaven forfend a Tory actually apologise or lose face) and it will be like the whole thing never happened. Fingers crossed.
“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
The Red Queen, Alice In Wonderland
If we can put people on the moon, if we can build a world-wide web, if we can invent the Hoover, then we might as well try to keep Britain in the EU. We are caught in a unique period of time and history: the leading parties have no plan for the future and faith in our country and economy is wavering yet the catalyst at the heart of it – the Brexit vote – has not been rendered fact. It is still just a story. It’s a powerful one that many people have accepted and has already had adverse social, political and economic impact but it’s still a story that can be challenged. It’s time for Operation Breentry.
What’s Breentry? It is a movement to stop Britain leaving the EU. It involves emailing MPs asking them to reject the result of the referendum. There’s another initiative to call for a second Referendum and the Parliamentary Petition for that has over 4 million signatures. Meanwhile, people are demonstrating in the street to Remain in the EU and other European leaders like Angela Merkel are advising us to think twice. Unfortunately, many people are already resigned to letting Brexit happen and/or think Breentry could/should never happen. I want to challenge these beliefs.
It’s anti-democratic: To annul a referendum certainly appears anti-democratic but that surely requires living in a functioning democracy. But we don’t. The Leave campaign was anti-democratic – it lied with regards spending on the NHS, it lied with regards limiting immigration (the deals we might do with the EU would involve maintaining freedom of movement anyway) and it was only campaigning against something, it had no plans for after winning. However, even taking the Leave-Remain decision at face value is wrong because the calling for the Referendum itself was anti-democratic. David Cameron, who had entered into Parliament with a slim majority, called it to appease his right-wing back benchers so he could become PM. That is power politics at its worst especially when so many of the electorate did not even vote him in. Remember, our head of state isn’t elected, our House of Lords isn’t elected, our mainstream media is privatised and has a clear agenda and we only vote once very five years. So, yes, Britain is an aspiring democracy but it hasn’t got there yet. All is still to be striven for.
It’s too late: No it’s not. Article 50 has not been signed. We can still petition all MPs and leaders of all parties (the Tories included) to not make one of the worst decisions in recent British history. Furthermore, even if Article 50 were signed we could still challenge it. Or perhaps this isn’t about being late or early at all, if we were on time we would have trialled all war criminals, transcended growth-based consumer capitalism, ended all wars and avoided climate change. Let’s just be pragmatic and do what we can in the time we’ve got.
It would lead to violence and civil war: Breentry would certainly anger voters who wanted to Leave but their actual vote to Leave has acted as a rallying call to violent racists and xenophobes. Police have registered a fivefold increase in race-hate complaints since Brexit. Immigrants have been verbally abused, attacked and fire bombed in the past few days. This proves again how misled and misguided many Leave voters were, that they actually believed Britain might become some free-standing, all-white nation surrounded by high walls. That was never what the Leave vote was offering even if the likes of Nigel Farage might have encouraged it. If people do threaten violence in response to Breentry and we don’t act as a consequence then we are negotiating with terrorists, kowtowing to criminals and appeasing racists. We categorically cannot let the bullies win. As for civil war, well, currently the Tory and Labour parties seem to be hellbent on ripping themselves apart as the vote has unleashed a whole wave of vitriol and back stabbing from the parties. Meanwhile, the Referendum has split families and friends, as people fall out with each other in bitter arguments. And every economic forecast looks bleak. Perhaps we’ve always been at war in Britain, certainly a class war, and the Referendum just proves what has always been true. Hence why we must do all we can on all fronts to heal the many deep wounds in our country rather than stick the knives in further.
The Tories will negotiate a good deal outside the EU: No they won’t. The Tory party is swift revealing it’s inability to steer a post-Brexit course. Gove stabbed Johnson in the back and does not have a plan for a Brexit future despite co-leading the Leave campaign. Theresa May is notoriously anti-immigration and yet might have to be the one negotiating a deal with the EU that involves keeping freedom of movement – that’s like asking a racist to argue for multiculturalism. Meanwhile, Liam Fox is anti-EU (and anti-gay marriage, he said it’s ‘absurd’ and ‘social engineering’). Angela Leadsom loves Europe apparently but says, “What I hate is the EU and the way it is destroying such a fabulous continent” – good luck negotiating with the likes of Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker then (she also abstained from voting on gay marriage, she believed it didn’t have a mandate). The irony is that the one pro-Remain candidate, Stephen Crabb, will lose support because of that stance, although he only adopted it out of loyalty to David Cameron even though he’s largely anti-EU. He also opposed gay marriage but apparently is OK with it now, phew. None of these people have the country’s best interests at heart or the intelligence to guide this country into recovery. They’re also all pro-austerity, an economic decision that will grind this country down even further and exacerbate the unrest we’re witnessing. I thought the Tories were supposed to oppose Labour but turns out they oppose themselves as well.
Labour could negotiate a deal instead: No it couldn’t. There’s almost more infighting there than in the Tory party. Corbyn is being relentlessly stabbed in the back by Blairite MPs even though he has a huge amount of grassroots support. He was also anti-EU and decidedly quiet on calling for Remain. If he miraculously became PM (which would be no bad thing as he’d challenge austerity and enrich the welfare state) would he really have the best interests of the UK at heart when dealing with EU bureaucrats? Perhaps he’ll wake up to the Breentry call and take us back, although he’ll have a vicious, untrustworthy party behind him that is just waiting for his political demise. I thought Labour was supposed to oppose the Tories but turns out they oppose themselves as well.
The UK is strong, we’ll get what we want in the end, we’ll “take back control”: No we won’t. Nicola Sturgeon is calling for a second Scottish referendum. Leanne Woods, leader of Plaid Cymru, is calling for Welsh independence, “redesigning the current UK is the only option.” There are calls to unite Ireland and even for London to go independent. Turns out it’s not just political parties that don’t get on, countries don’t either. Add to this deepening austerity, companies threatening to leave/leaving the UK, the loss of our triple A credit rating, a rise in racist violence and I’m struggling to see how the UK stays united. That selfish little world of capitalist consumerism and middle-England-ism is imploding and is trying to take its neighbours down with it. This isn’t new – this has been an ongoing problem for decades, Brexit has just exposed it more starkly. Breentry would just be the first step in trying to patch back together the social fabric of the UK.
But migrants are a problem, we need less of them: No. That is taking Tory and Leave propaganda at face value, as well as various Labour views. Stirring up racial hatred and anti-immigration sentiments are a timeless tactic used to distract attention from underlying economic issues which include rising inequality (how come so many people can’t afford their rent whilst so many others have multiple houses around the world) and austerity (we keep forgetting that it was the 2008 financial crash that brought the global economy to its knees not a “bunch of migrants” nor over-generous Labour government spending on the economy, remember, Osborne’s deficit has been so much higher than that of Brown’s). If we scapegoat and abuse migrants and people whose skin isn’t white enough we will set this country back decades and fall into the same bigoted trap of history. We are better than this and we can learn our lesson.
What if we’d voted Remain and the Leave campaign wanted to challenge it: Then they’d have every right to and could use the same arguments that I have. Except many of the Leave camp voted out of protest on the proviso that Britain would take back sovereignty and control, but that was a lie. They voted to get more money spent on the NHS, that was a lie. They voted for less migrants, that was a lie (plus, I don’t negotiate with racists). But even if this scenario were true the state of our country would still be to play for. We’d still be realising, all too late, that whilst political statements seem like irrefutable truths they are in fact stories and agendas that can be challenged, whoever’s side your on. The game is afoot (and always has been but for too long we’ve let others, including elitist, old-Etonians, play it for us).
The EU won’t get any better: I agree that the EU is a problematic institution. The economic bullying of countries like Germany and France against Greece is outrageous. I know my grandparents didn’t risk their lives against the Nazis just so economic powerhouses could drive other countries into recession. However, I do know they risked their lives to stop war on the continent and that worked, for now. With the rise of the extreme right and this includes the neo-Nazis we risk undoing their good work and whilst we might not have a war with trenches and obvious beginning/end points we will witness the rise of extremist terrorism in Europe directed at groups including Muslims, Jews, the Romani, queers and any other convenient scapegoats. The EU, problematic as it is, is a supra-national organisation built to enhance unity and promote peace but this won’t happen by magic and we must challenge and change it from within to ensure peace reigns. My grandparents fought the Nazis, I think I can fight corrupt EU politics. And the latter is itself a victim of globalised, growth-obsessed, consumer capitalism (that’s the real fight, see rest of blog for thoughts on that).
There is another way and it’s called Breentry.Email your MP and ask them to vote out the Referendum, sign the petition to call for another one, wear a safety-pin to show support with the immigrant population, challenge hate crime, hug your friends, let yourself cry, howl in anger at the moon, smile at strangers and talk, talk, talk. We must dare to be political and we must dare to call for change. A positive post on Breenty and a possible future will come next but this one is getting far too long. Please do challenge me, this is just my opinion, but please let’s keep talking about this. May the force of Lady Gaga be with you – she’s right, we are on the edge but we don’t have to fall.
We British are renowned for our politeness. We doff our caps to strangers, we wait for others to get on the tube before we get off and we drink endless cups of tea, sometimes with our little fingers raised. We may grumble through hard times but only very quietly. We complain but never loudly or crassly. We are a proud folk for in the face of a crisis we always keep calm and carry on. We have the stiffest of upper lips and save our tears for the Queen’s birthday. We don’t like public displays of emotion but we will smile at strangers, although we’ll never grin or laugh out loud in front of them. We are essentially a polite race. But something happened last Friday, Britain changed and that facade of politeness fell as our feelings were unleashed.
And it turns out that British people do have emotions after all. People have been in tears and in despair over the call for Brexit (still not a reality – it’s not legally binding and Parliament have made no decisions, time for Breentry): many are sad about the future they see being dismantled, many are sad about the past they see being ignored and many are sad about the volatile present that we’re living through. Others are in fear and pain as they experience the fists, insults and petrol bombs of racial abuse and violence. Many are angry for many different reasons: because they think the majority of people are idiots, because they think it’s time immigrants went home, because they think they’ve been lied to by the press and the establishment. Even the people of power are expressing emotions: David Cameron shed a tear which may even have been genuine (maybe he realised the enormity of the mistake he made) whilst Boris Johnson has gone quiet, which is most unlike him.
So, yes, British people do have emotions after all – some inspiring and some scary – and over the past few days we’ve been expressing them over and over again. This has been a long time coming – keeping calm and carrying on, grumbling under our breath and being oh so polite are just ways of suppressing our feelings without ever having to address them. But you can’t hide emotions forever. Yet there are ways to vent anger and ways to direct frustration which don’t have to destroy and denigrate and there are ways to express sadness and grief that don’t have to lead to despair, yet we are a vastly emotionally unintelligent country because we’ve never been given the education for it. We have a lot to learn in a very short space of time but perhaps what is happening now is a sharp wake up call: our feelings are powerful, dangerous and transformative. We must acquaint ourselves with them and use them as a force for good.