In Bri­tain, fer­vor in the air

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - ap­ple­baum­let­ters@wash­post.com

“They have a hor­ror of ab­stract thought, they feel no need for any phi­los­o­phy or sys­tem­atic ‘world-view.’ ” That was Ge­orge Or­well, speak­ing of his coun­try­men in a fa­mous 1941 es­say, “Eng­land Your Eng­land.” Writ­ing dur­ing the Blitz, as “highly civ­i­lized hu­man be­ings are fly­ing over­head, try­ing to kill me,” Or­well listed the qual­i­ties that made the English English: their love of pri­vacy, their al­most re­li­gious re­spect for the law, their dis­like of uni­formed men bark­ing or­ders. “All the boast­ing and flag-wag­ging, the ‘Rule Bri­tan­nia’ stuff, is done by small mi­nori­ties,” he wrote: “The most stir­ring bat­tle-poem in English is about a brigade of cav­alry which charged in the wrong di­rec­tion.”

I thought of that es­say lis­ten­ing to the rhetoric com­ing out of the Bri­tish party con­fer­ences, Labour and Con­ser­va­tive, over the past two weeks, much of which didn’t sound very English, in Or­well’s def­i­ni­tion, at all. Cer­tainly the Tories’ trans­for­ma­tion, over the past year and a half, is noth­ing short of re­mark­able. His­tor­i­cally, they were de­rided as “the stupid party,” a de­scrip­tion they ac­cepted as a back­handed com­pli­ment: They were solid, salt of the earth; they were prac­ti­cal rather than the­o­ret­i­cal; they es­chewed pro­gres­sive fan­tasy (what Or­well called “ab­stract thought”) in fa­vor of sen­si­ble poli­cies.

In the wake of the Brexit ref­er­en­dum, the Bri­tish Con­ser­va­tive Party changed. Some of the cab­i­net, in­clud­ing, it seems, the hap­less (and, dur­ing her con­fer­ence speech, briefly voice­less) prime min­is­ter, have qui­etly con­cluded that Bri­tain should tran­si­tion out of the Euro­pean Union slowly and stay inside the Euro­pean cus­toms union for as long as pos­si­ble, to avoid tar­iffs, cus­toms bu­reau­cracy and the hor­ror of a new “hard” bor­der across Ire­land. But un­moored from their old Burkean sus­pi­cion of rad­i­cal­ism, many Tories dis­like this idea of grad­ual change. Some are still imag­in­ing sweet­heart deals with the E.U. that will never hap­pen: This is what Boris John­son, the Bri­tish for­eign sec­re­tary, at first called “hav­ing our cake and eat­ing it,” and now calls “glo­ri­ous Brexit.”

Still oth­ers sketch out a vague vi­sion of a buc­ca­neer­ing, low-tax, dereg­u­lated trad­ing na­tion, the Sin­ga­pore of the North — a no­tion based on a mis­re­mem­ber­ing of 19th-cen­tury his­tory, when Bri­tain was a free-trad­ing na­tion but also an em­pire. Once upon a time, if the Bri­tish didn’t like the trade agree­ments on of­fer, they could block­ade the har­bor or bomb the port. Alas, that’s no longer true — on the con­trary, the most im­por­tant re­sult of the con­fer­ence was that it per­suaded the Fed­er­a­tion of Ger­man In­dus­try to pre­pare for a ma­jor dis­rup­tion in trade, be­cause “the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment is lack­ing a clear con­cept de­spite talk­ing a lot.”

If the Tories could be re­placed by re­al­ists, it might not mat­ter. But Brexit has re­leased the Labour Party from its pre­vi­ous com­mit­ments to prag­ma­tism, too. As one Guardian colum­nist wrote, “The Tories have nor­malised all forms of rad­i­cal­ism” — but the ben­e­fi­ciary may not be the im­pe­rial nos­tal­gists of the right but the now far-left, and now more pop­u­lar, Labour Party. Only a few years ago, it would have seemed re­mark­able for a Labour politi­cian to de­clare his in­ten­tion to re-na­tion­al­ize any­thing. But at its con­fer­ence the week be­fore, John McDon­nell, the Labour shadow chan­cel­lor of the ex­che­quer — the man who, if the party wins the next elec­tion, will con­trol the Bri­tish trea­sury — was ap­plauded when he called for “util­i­ties and key ser­vices” to be brought back un­der state con­trol. He men­tioned rail­ways and en­ergy com­pa­nies — but some have hinted at na­tion­al­iz­ing banks, as well.

There may be more to come. Jeremy Cor­byn, the Labour leader — who was wel­comed at the con­fer­ence by a very un-Bri­tish three-minute ova­tion — has made it clear that he ap­proves of the Brexit vote be­cause he, like oth­ers on the far left, be­lieves that the E.U. pre­vents its mem­bers from car­ry­ing out radical eco­nomic changes. But what kind of rad­i­cal­ism does he have in mind? E.U. pol­icy does not pre­vent any coun­try from hav­ing na­tion­al­ized health care, state-owned com­pa­nies or re­dis­tribu­tive taxes, so we must be talk­ing about poli­cies even more ex­treme than that. What­ever those may be, it’s safe to guess that they won’t make Bri­tain look like a Sin­ga­pore of the North. Bet­ter to think Venezuela of the North, or per­haps East Ger­many Re­dis­cov­ered.

Maybe all of the fer­vor in the air is un­sur­pris­ing: Bri­tain didn’t have an 18th-cen­tury rev­o­lu­tion like France, or a 19th-cen­tury rev­o­lu­tion like Ger­many. As Or­well ob­served, it was un­moved by the var­i­ous 20th-cen­tury rev­o­lu­tions, too. Now, in the 21st cen­tury, it could just be Bri­tain’s turn to over­throw its sys­tem. Which would be less un­nerv­ing if the revo­lu­tion­ary fu­tures on of­fer weren’t so starkly con­tra­dic­tory.

The rhetoric com­ing out of the Bri­tish party con­fer­ences, Labour and Con­ser­va­tive, over the past two weeks didn’t sound very English.

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