Fintan O’Toole: Corbyn’s nostalgia less of a fantasy than May’s

Both parties offer versions of an imagined past but Labour’s at least yearns for something real

Jeremy Corbyn is much less of a fantasist than the supposedly hard-headed Theresa May. Photograph: Neil Hall Reuters

Jeremy Corbyn is much less of a fantasist than the supposedly hard-headed Theresa May. Photograph: Neil Hall Reuters

 

The British election – or at least the English election – is saturated with nostalgia. Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are appealing to notions of how things used to be. Corbyn has had a better election than May because his version of the past has more reality, and more nobility, than hers.

It was always foolish for the Conservatives to try to create a cult of personality around a woman who doesn’t have one

The centrality of nostalgia is not hard to understand. General elections are usually about the short- to medium-term future: here’s what we say we will do in the next four or five years. But between Britain now and Britain in 2022, there lie the uncharted shoals and reefs of Brexit, and no one is even plotting a course. The medium term is a great unknown.

And for different reasons, the Tories and Labour don’t really want to talk about it. The Tories, whose reckless private games created the whole mess, still don’t have a clue about what Brexit will really look like. Labour is terrified of losing its traditional voters in the north of England who defied the party’s advice and backed Brexit. Hence the weirdness of the election: never mind that iceberg, let’s argue about what we should do when the Titanic docks in New York.

In a sense, of course, this makes the election itself nostalgic. It is the last of its kind, a valediction to the brief era of a European-centred British democracy. We shall not see its likes again – unless Brexit falls apart very quickly, the next election will take place in a very different Britain. It is even conceivable – though unlikely – that this could be the last general election ever to take place in the current United Kingdom. It has the bittersweet quality of a last late autumn day when you can convince yourself that winter is not coming.

Wistful soundtrack

It is perhaps inevitable that an election with such a nostalgic form should acquire nostalgic content too. It is striking nonetheless that on both sides the soundtrack is so wistful. Corbyn’s Labour has been characterised by the overwhelmingly Tory press as a throwback to the early 1970s and there is some truth in the accusation. In fact May is much more deeply involved in a yearning for an imagined past. Strip away the ruthless opportunism that is her only real political skill, and what you find is a devotion to a static fantasy of Englishness that harks back, not to the 1970s, but to the 1950s.

Theresa May has a devotion to a static fantasy of Englishness that harks back, not to the 1970s, but to the 1950s. Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
Theresa May has a devotion to a static fantasy of Englishness that harks back, not to the 1970s, but to the 1950s. Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

It was always foolish for the Conservatives to try to create a cult of personality around a woman who doesn’t have one. They are selling, not just May, but her childhood. She does this herself on a literal level, constantly reminding voters that her values are entirely rooted in her upbringing: “values that I learned in my own childhood, growing up in a vicarage.” A vicarage in Oxfordshire is as valid a place to grow up as anywhere else, but in May’s world view it is another Eden, a centre from which high church Toryism radiated benevolence and decency and everyone was enfolded in its paternalistic embrace. All was right with England – and therefore with the world. And it will be so again, when England reasserts its greatness outside the EU, immigrants are kept away and grammar schools return.

It is striking, though, that for all her harping on values, only 30 per cent of voters tell pollsters they believe that May shares theirs. They sense the essential phoniness at the heart of her vision of the past.

Imagined past

And yes, Corbyn’s Labour is nostalgic too. But it at least has a yen for something more real and less romantic. Its manifesto yearns for tangible things that were once possible for tens of millions of British people: access to public housing; a safe national health system; unionised jobs where workers had some bargaining power; free education up to and including third level; a rational expectation that your kids would have a better life than you do.

This imagined past matters. It shapes a nation’s sense of what is possible – if these things were done before in much worse circumstances, they can be done again. And if ordinary people do not believe in concrete possibilities for a better life, their hopes sour into resentments. We know what this looks like and what it means for democracy.

Corbyn is a highly problematic leader, not least in his inability to think about how to create a majority in England for this radical social democratic vision. But he is much less of a fantasist than the supposedly hard-headed May. Every objective analysis shows that a hard Brexit will be followed by greater poverty, rising inequality and at best stagnant earnings for most ordinary workers.

May’s air of regal authority vanished because she has nothing much to say about these realities. It became very clear that she does not even believe her own rhetoric of a liberated and united country striding confidently forward to its golden future.

The most unrealistic proposition in contemporary politics is that “strong and stable” democracies can co-exist with inequality, insecurity and hopelessness. Corbyn will not win the election, but he has won the campaign by showing that he understands this far better than May does.

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